Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum

What was Erasmus’ involvement in the Comma Johanneum?

For those who may be unaware, the Comma Johanneum is the name for the comma (short phrase) found in First John 5:7-8. Notice the differences in the following translations:

“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one” (1 Jn. 5:7-8 KJV). And in the ESV, “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1 Jn. 5:7-8).

Likewise, notice the difference between the 2011-2013 edition of the SBL Greek New Testament and Stephen’s Textus Receptus (1550):

οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τω ουρανω ο πατηρ ο λογος και το αγιον πνευμα και ουτοι οι τρεις εν εισιν και τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τη γη το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν (STR)

ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες, τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα, καὶ οἱ τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν (SBL)

The differences in the two are blatant. While the King James famously includes that the Father, Word, and Holy Ghost bear witness in heaven, the ESV (NAS, etc.) includes that the Spirit, water, and blood agree. The difference has to do with the textual basis of both translations.

The King James Version has its textual basis in the Textus Receptus (TR), or received text. This New Testament Greek source was compiled by Erasmus in the 16th century. While the first two editions of the received text did not include the Comma Johanneum as it now appears in the KJV, the third edition did.

Conversely, the ESV and most modern translations (NAS, NIV, NRSV, even the ASV) use a Greek textual basis that is much older than the Greek and Latin manuscripts Erasmus had access to in the 16th century. These older Greek texts do not include the Johannian comma found in the received text. So, the question becomes, when and why did the Comma Johanneum as seen in the KJV enter the manuscripts Erasmus had available? And, why did Erasmus include it in his third edition, but not his first or second?

It’s a common sense principle that scribes are more likely to expand upon a text than take away from it. The longer reading of Comma Johanneum is found only in eight late manuscripts, in four of which (including the earliest one), the words are only in a marginal note, sometimes added at a later date. The common theory today to explain the Comma Johanneum is that it was a marginal note that worked its way into the text as a way to defend the doctrine of the trinity. In fact, there is no evidence of a Greek manuscript including the longer Comma Johanneum before the 15th century, and the phrase appears in no Greek witness of any kind until the 13th century. One common theory is that the reading stems from a 4th century Latin allegory which worked its way into the Vulgate, and then propagated by the Catholic Church.

The longer reading of the Comma Johanneum found itself in Erasmus’ third edition of the Greek manuscript because of pressure from the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus found himself needing to defend himself against Catholic accusation after the first two editions, and stated that he did not include the comma in his earlier editions because he did not find the phrase in any Greek manuscript. That was, until (very conveniently) a Greek manuscript including the clause was found in Codex 61, written in 1520. Erasmus then published his third edition of the text with the Comma Johanneum in 1522. Beyond that, Erasmus certainly did not want to ruin his reputation (his non-inclusion of the Comma was heterodoxy), or for his work to go unsold.

To argue that the comma is authentic is to be blind to history. Nonetheless, the KJV (and the TR) still has its perks, even though (thanks to Erasmus) parts of it are undoubtedly unoriginal.

Works Cited

Holmes, Michael W. The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition. Lexham Press; Society of Biblical Literature, 2011–2013. Print.

Stephen’s 1550 Textus Receptus: With Morphology. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2002. Print.


Wallace, Daniel B. The Textual Problem in 1 John 5:7-8. Accessed 14 October 2016.

Whitworth, Michael. Lost in Translation: Textual Criticism. Star2Finish. Accessed 14 October 2016.

Additional Reading

Metzger, Textual Commentary, 2nd ed., 647-49.