Johannine Comma

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In 1 John 5.78 there appears a striking reference to the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. "For there are three who bear witness [in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth]: the Spirit, and the water, and the blood; and these three are one" (CCD translation). The bracketed phrases appear in the Clementine-Vulgate version of the Bible, the official version of the Sacred Scriptures for the Latin rite of the Church. Among scholars these phrases are commonly called the "Johannine Comma." On the basis of manuscript evidence scholars seriously question their authenticity.

The Comma is absent in all the ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament with the exception of four rather recent manuscripts that date from the 13th to 16th centuries. The Comma is lacking in such ancient Oriental versions as the Peshitta, Philoxenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Armenian. While the majority of the Latin manuscripts of 1 John do contain the Comma, the earlier and better manuscripts, both of the Old Latin and Vulgate versions, lack it. The earliest manuscript in which it appears dates from the 9th century.

The Fathers of the East do not quote or refer to the Johannine Comma in their Christological controversies. This omission indicates that the Comma was not part of the biblical text of their time, for they surely would have used it had it been in the text. Some 4th-century Latin writers, while referring to 1 John 5.8b and giving this a Trinitarian interpretation, failed to give any indication that they knew of the existence of the Comma as a scriptural passage.

The development of the Comma can be followed in the ecclesiastical writers of the late 4th and 5th centuries, especially in Spain and Africa. Apparently, it developed as a result of the Trinitarian interpretation of the triad: spirit-water-blood found in 1 John 5.8b. By way of a gloss on the sacred text it eventually found its way into the text itself. It is first mentioned as a scriptural quotation by Priscillian of Avila (d. 380), or perhaps his disciple Instantius, in the Liber Apologeticus. Since the 5th century it has been part of the material that the Church has used in its Trinitarian teaching and has appeared with increasing frequency in the Latin manuscripts of 1 John.

Due to the overcritical spirit that was prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Church considered it necessary in its decree of the Holy Office of January 13, 1897, to caution its scholars against rashly rejecting or doubting the authenticity of this passage. However, in a decree of June 2, 1927, the Holy Office clarified its earlier statement in declaring that scholars may be inclined to doubt or reject the authenticity of the Johannine Comma subject to any forthcoming judgment of the Church. No scholar any longer accepts its authenticity. But even though the Comma is not a biblical passage, it is a firm witness to the fact that the faith of the 5th-century Christian was fully Trinitarian.

Bibliography: r. e. brown, The Epistles of John (The Anchor Bible 30; New York 1982) 77587. i. h. marshall, The Epistles of John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids 1978) 23539. r. schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles. A Commentary, tr. r. and i. fuller (New York 1992) 23538. Further detailed bibliography can be traced in the references found in these commentaries, especially Brown's detailed bibliography (see The Epistles, 78687).

[c. draina/

f. j. moloney]