Erasmus and the Johannine Comma (1 John 5.7-8) - Grantley McDonald

Steven Avery

United Bible Societies
The Bible Translator (2016)
Erasmus and the Johannine Comma (1 John 5.7-8)
Grantley McDonald

Erasmus’s 1516 Latin-Greek New Testament edition differed from the Latin Vulgate in several ways. A small number of textual variants with doctrinal implications involved Erasmus in considerable controversy. Medieval Western theologians had often relied on the “Johannine Comma” (the long reading of I John 5.7-8), established in the Latin Vulgate during the late Middle Ages, as an important scriptural foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity. However, when Erasmus showed that this variant was not present in the Greek manuscript tradition, he was accused of promoting Arianism. Erasmus’s debates with the cleric Edward Lee and the textual critic Jacobus Stunica exposed tensions between theologians, jealous of their authority in scriptural interpretation, and humanists, who claimed to understand the Bible better than theologians by virtue of their philological skills.This article concludes by exploring the Inquisition’s failed attempt to find a consensus on this issue in 1527.
As the analysis of Grantley in The Ghost of Arius revolves around Erasmus, and later writers being influenced by Erasmus, we should take a little journey to see exactly how Erasmus is represented in this paper published in a Critical Text house organ

The abstract is already a bit tinged, but properly read, and with our own follow-up, it should at least it should help shed light on the discussions with Lee and Stunica and Valladolid. Also the Annotations, perhaps Albert Pio, and other sources. Perhaps Cajetan and Catharinus are referenced.

There are a number of assertions in the next section that are questionable, including the claim that scholars in general no longer search for the authorial text. However, this is a bit afar afield from the basic topic here anyway.

Erasmus began to revise the Latin Vulgate version of the New Testament about 1511.1 Traditionally it was believed that Jerome had translated the entire Bible into Latin, in order to replace earlier piecemeal efforts. Modem scholarship has determined that Jerome translated only the Old Testament and the Gospels. The rest of the New Testament was a compilation of earlier translations. Although the Latin Vulgate was not formally authorized in the Western church until the Council of Trent, convened soon after Erasmus’s death, it had gained de facto canonical status by long usage. Consequently, Erasmus’s decision to revise the Latin Vulgate met with considerable resistance. Henk Jan de Jonge has shown that Erasmus’s original intention was to revise the Latin Vulgate New Testament. At some points he remained very close to the Vulgate, but at other points his interventions were more radical, especially where he saw that the Vulgate diverged from the Byzantine (or Majority) text, which he mistakenly believed to be the most accurate form of the Greek text. He realized that readers would appreciate—and perhaps even demand—a justification of his editorial decisions. Accordingly, he presented a parallel Greek text to justify his alterations to the Latin. This edition was not intended for all readers, merely for scholars. However, he hoped that it would bring about a renewal of piety and genuine interest in the Scripture. p. 43-44

The form of the Greek text he preferred, the so-called Byzantine or Majority text, does not always reflect the earliest form of the text that can be recovered. p. 44
Modern scholarship has made no determination about how much of the New Testament Jerome translated. There are claims and assertions, and nothing is demonstrated, and the actual words of Jerome are not given proper weight. This question is critically important in looking at the Vulgate Prologue, written as first-person from Jerome, and thus in looking at the heavenly witnesses.

See the far more reserved comment from Hugh Houghton:

Vuglate Prologue - super-evidence
today the supposed reason for non-authenticity is the idea that Jerome did not translate the Epistles

The issue is that Jerome is thought only to have revised the Gospels and not the rest of the Vulgate NT. The preface to the Catholic Epistles appears to have been composed by their Vulgate reviser, who was not Jerome but someone working soon after him.
”thought only to have”
”appears to have been”

Not only is the assertion from Hugh Houghton doubly quailfied, nothing tn there comes close to the words of Grantley:

"The rest of the New Testament was a compilation of earlier translations. "
And even Hugh avoids big problems with his “appears”. Jerome tells us he translated the full NT. And if he did not, you have to conjecture the Vulgate Prologue as a weird, skilled forgery. Ockham’s razor sees all this as hyper-conjectural nonsense theorizng, compared to the simplicity and consistency of Jerome’s authorship.

Here is a discussion with Peter Lorenz:

The Vulgate — Jerome’s idea?

<cite class="fn">Steven Avery</cite>
<time pubdate="" datetime="2017-12-22T19:33:38+00:00"> December 22, 2017 at 7:33 pm </time>
A related and very significant issue that I do not think has been addressed in your series is precisely how much of the New Testament was actually updated/translated by Jerome.

Traditionally, he had been thought to have done the whole New Testament. The modern “scholarship” tends to say only the Gospels. (And I believe the traditional view is correct.)

The question might fit well with your series. If we are talking about Jerome working on the Vulgate, are we discussing 4 books or 27?

Steven Avery

<cite class="fn">Peter Lorenz</cite>
<time pubdate="" datetime="2017-12-22T22:00:35+00:00"> December 22, 2017 </time>

Hi Steven,
Yes, it is true that I do not address the question of which NT books were revised as part of Jerome’s Vulgate project. In my posts on the subject, I take for granted that in the NT Jerome revised only the 4 gospels. However, our documentary evidence is sparse on Jerome’s revision of the NT generally and Jerome’s own citations do not consistently agree with the Vulgate even in the gospels, so it does not seem possible to reach a definitive conclusion. Since my own research lately has tended to focus on the gospels, I consider myself unprepared at the moment to comment on Jerome’s involvement in revising the rest of the NT, though I agree it would make for an interesting and relevant post.

Thank you for commenting!

We have a situation where just about every scholar gives a different theory (this is very similar to the early 1900s guessing game about who wrote the Vulgate Prologue.)

Bible Maker: Jerome: The Fascinating Story of the Author of the Latin Vulgate
By Edward J. Hahnenberg

It is known that Jerome never revised Acts, the Epistles, or Revelation. The translator of these works, it is now thought, was Rufinus the Syrian, who, however, knew Jerome.
In fact, Grantley does not give this idea of Jerome only having written the Gospels as an argument against the authenticity of the Vulgate Prologue in The Ghost of Arius.

Why? It might seem transparently circular.
Also, nobody historically made this argument, it is all very recent.


Similarly the arguments against the Byzantine text and variants are quite anachronisticic, and a reflection of modern textual politics. In the 1800s some scholars started to trumpet the Vaticanus-primacy critical texts as superior. While Reformation Bible traditionalists look at that as textual apostasy.

If Grantley wants to make assertions in that area, he is free to do so, but from a scholarship level he should not simply assume one side.

Some of Erasmus’s annotations touched on Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity. In his annotation on John 1.1, Erasmus observed that Jesus is rarely called God in the New Testament. The term “God” usually refers exclusively to the Father (de Jonge 1983, 124-30). In the preface to his edition of the works of Hilary, Erasmus extended this point, noting that neither Jesus nor the Spirit are generally called God in the New Testament. Hilary never called the Spirit God, and never said that the Spirit was worthy of worship.3

Erasmus’s most controversial contribution to discussions of the biblical basis of the doctrine of the Trinity concerned the so-called “Johannine Comma.” The word “comma” here does not refer to punctuation, but means “clause.” The clause in question is the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5.7-8.4 The manuscripts Erasmus used for his first two editions read,

“For there are three that bear record: the Spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one” (Grk.)

However, the Parisian edition of the Latin Vulgate, a text-form standardized in the late Middle Ages, gives the following reading of this passage:

“7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.8 And there are three that hear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one”

(7 Quoniam tres sunt qui testimonium dant in caelo: Pater, Verhum et Spiritus sanctus: et hi tres unum sunt. 8 Et tres sunt qui testimonium dant in terra'. Spiritus et aqua et sanguis: et hi tres unum sunt).

The Johannine Comma comprises the words “in heaven” in v. 7 to “in earth” in v. 8, indicated above in italics. Theologians of the Western Middle Ages regularly cited the Johannine Comma as the most explicit reference to the Trinity in the entire Bible. While some episodes in the New Testament, such as Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1.10-11, mention God, Jesus, and Spirit, these three persons are only described as “one” (an important element of the doctrine of the Trinity) in the Johannine Comma. When Erasmus failed to find the Comma in any of the three Greek manuscripts he had consulted at this point, he was evidently perplexed.5 In his annotations on this passage in the first and second editions of the New Testament, he laconically reported the shorter reading he found in his Greek manuscripts. More controversially, he stated that the phrase “are one” does not refer to a numerical unity, but a unity of purpose.6

How could Erasmus fail to find the Comma in his manuscripts? In fact, only one Greek manuscript copied before Erasmus’s birth is known to contain the Comma, a bilingual manuscript copied in the last third of the fourteenth century, in which the Greek text has been altered extensively to conform more closely to the parallel Latin text.7 The textual evidence suggests that the Comma developed within the Latin tradition as an allegorical gloss to the phrase “these three are one,” which occurs as a Trinitarian formula in several early Latin creeds and creed-like statements. The Comma is absent from the earliest Latin Bibles, but is found in almost all by the thirteenth century, probably under the influence of credal formulations and the perceived theological utility of the passage.
First, calling the verse the "Trinitarian phrase" is very questionable. Grantley is very aware that in the doctrinal controversies the heavenly witnesses verse has often been accused of being Sabellian, and at times even Arian. By pigeon-holing the heavenly witnesses as "Trinitarian" it is easy to deny the validity of the verse, if you consider Trinitarian doctrines to be later post-apostolic formulations.

This errant argumentation is used against the authenticity of the traditional reading of Matthew 28:19. A verse which proves that for the New Testament writers, using Father, Spirit, and Son or Word together is simply New Testament writing, however the Christology is understood.

"laconically reported" may have been some failure in English translation. Clearly, Erasmus did much more than "report" the shorter reading. He followed that reading in both Greek and Latin, and Latin mss generally had the heavenly witnesses text.

The last of Lee’s twenty-five annotations on Erasmus’s annotations on the New Testament dealt with the Johannine Comma. Lee relied heavily on a prologue to the Catholic Epistles, widely believed at the time to have been written by Jerome, but now generally regarded as an early forgery surreptitiously passed off as Jerome’s handiwork.9 This prologue stated that the Johannine Comma had been removed by “unfaithful translators.’’ On the basis of this claim, Lee suggested that the evidence provided by any given manuscript is doubtful. p. 47

Erasmus ... denied that the prologue to the Catholic Epistles proves that the Comma was originally part of the Greek text. (He did not question the traditional ascription to Jerome here, though his omission of the prologue from his edition of Jerome’s works is suggestive of his attitude.) In any case, Jerome’s judgement was not always reliable or consistent. Sometimes he approved parts of Scripture that he had earlier rejected. Since he rejected parts of the Scripture that were still read in church, such as the Old Testament Apocrypha, his opinions on the canon of Scripture evidently diverged from the opinion of the church at large. Moreover, Lee’s own interpretation of the prologue was problematic. Jerome claimed that variations between rival Latin translations of the Catholic Epistles caused confusion. In fact, Jerome himself was accused of changing the commonly accepted formulations of Scripture. It was clear then that Jerome’s Vulgate did not represent the text of the Bible as it was commonly read in the fourth century. p. 47-48
There is an irony that Lee is accused (Erasmus tried to deceive his readers) but the only real response to the incredible Vulgate Prologue evidence was that Jerome tried to deceive his readers!

:The next section on Valladolid is worth reading, although there are many places where names could be mentioned. The fact that Servetus was there could be mentioned. And most of all, the many verses discussed, other than the heavenly witnesses, could be referenced. As to the Vulgate Prologue. Once again, begging the question is the norm.

And the prologue to the Catholic Epistles raised more questions than it answered. If the Comma was missing from the Latin and Greek codices, from where did Jerome restore it? And who were the “unfaithful translators” who had omitted the Comma? If they were Arians, how could they corrupt all the codices of the orthodox?
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Steven Avery

John Chapman shreds the nouveau modernist theory that Jerome did not translate the full NT

the arguments adduced by Chapman in support of his view that Jerome was responsible for the revision of the entire New Testament 18. ... Brown then proceeds to offer counter-arguments to this hypothesis that Jerome revised the whole of the New Testament. He starts by mentioning Cavallera’s study of the question22. What follows has however come from Kelly. Here Brown says23:

18 J. Chapman, St. Jerome and the Vulgate New Testament, «JThS» XXIV (1922-1923) 33-51, 113-125, 282-299.

Dennis Brown's Jerome
Neil Adkin

§ ii. The Vulgate N.T. is the Work of a Single Author.
John Chapman


Steven Avery

summary and review of John Chapman showing that Jerome translated the fulll NT

§ ii. The Vulgate N.T. is the Work of a Single Author.
John Chapman

Jerome was wild and free in his own quoting.
Jerome was meticulous and careful in translation, and this shows in the full New Testament.

"in the epistles ... variants were neither numerous nor important. Far less alteration was necessary, and what alterations St Jerome actually made, he made with extreme caution and even timidity. I see no signs of haste or superficiality, only of reverence for a traditional text, of fear of malignant criticism, and (especially) of deference to the wishes of his deceased patron, Pope Damasus.

I am assuming already that St Jerome revised the whole New Testament. It is time to give the proofs. They are of overwhelming

1. The ‘Vulgate’ New Testament is a revision of the whole New Testament—Gospels, Acts, St Paul, Catholic Epistles, Apocalypse—
which has come down to us in an incomparably vast number of manu- scripts. It was, in all these five portions, a revision of versions which existed before it in considerable variety. Its own varieties are due mainly to the infiltration of older readings. It is as definite a text as the Vulgate Old Testament.

2. It is also homogeneous; for in every part it is a revision of the older text according to the Greek, and according to Greek manuscripts of a particular type, viz. the ‘ Neutral’
א B family.

3. It has come down to us in the same streams of traditions, the same great families of codices—only that the MSS of the Gospels are
enormously more numerous.

4. It is beyond question all of much the same date.
Only 2 requires some tweaking. First, the term neutral is just a Hortian fabrication. We now should involve Sinaiticus, since the evidence points to it being written in the 1800s. As for the actual Greek text, if a Vaticanus line was used to correct the Old Latin, it should be far more corrupt, with hundreds of more omissions, if the Greek text was followed.

Next, more on 5, is the emphasis on the homogeneous part.

Consequently, were it proved up to the hilt that Pelagius was all that he was not—a great textual scholar, a Hellenist, an explorer of manu- scripts, a student of readings, a critic of Latin renderings—that his commentary (published before 410) was upon a pure Vulgate text—that Prologues, certainly by him, were prefixed to all Vulgate MSS of St Paul—one would still hesitate before admitting that the revision of the Apostle was due to him. For the question would arise: Who revised Acts ? Who revised the Catholic Epistles ? It would be difficult enough to have accepted Pelagius and St Jerome as authors each of a part. But that three or more authors, working on the same lines, with the same methods, revising according to the same type of Greek MSS,1 should have produced three or more homogeneous revisions of three or more divisions of the New Testament, and that these three or more portions should have become the homogeneous whole which we know, and should have come down to us in Jone great tradition—this would be so improbable a priori, that one would have been inclined to put aside the most convincing proofs about Pelagius until something could be discovered as to the reviser of Acts and the rest, and some hypothesis (at least) could be suggested to account for the union of the parts in one dominant whole, which conquered and utterly destroyed all pre-existing versions.

But Pelagius is fortunately out of the question. There is no other claimant for St Paul; there is no claimant at all for the other portions, —except, of course, St Jerome.

It is admitted that the Gospels are by St Jerome. We are perfectly free to attribute the whole of the homogeneous revision to the same reviser. It is the obvious thing to do. I believe I have removed the only objections that could be raised.
In a sense, Chapman is puzzled that there is even a question.

5- Tradition is unanimous. Until the few rather hasty modern critics, not a voice was ever raised to suggest that St Jerome did not revise the whole New Testament. The victorious career of the Vulgate is entirely due to the fact that it was universally believed in early times to be a revision carried out by the most learned of Western Doctors at the bidding of Pope Damasus. It is true that the Old Latin did not immediately expire, and that St Gregory the Great at the very end of the sixth century declared that the Roman Church used the old version as well as the new.1 In theory, yes. But even from St Jerome’s time onwards, pure Old Latin is not often to be found for the N.T. We have Vulgate, impure Vulgate, and mixed Old Latin and Vulgate, but no longer a rival Old Latin. The Vulgate triumphs early, and eventually triumphs completely.

6. And behind this tradition we have absolutely definite and categorical statements by St Jerome himself, that he revised the whole New Testament.

Did he mean what he said ? Was he a boaster and a liar ? Yes, it is said : he claimed to have translated the Old Testament when he had
only completed three-quarters of it. I propose to shew that this notion is founded on a false reading in the MSS of De uiris illustribus.,,,
St Jerome is made to say, cap. 135: Nouum Testamentum Graecae fidei reddidi; Vetus iuxta Hebraicum transtuli. p. 285
There are pages of detail, leading to:.

§13. St Jerome is always accurate and sober in enumerating his own Writings. St Jerome’s works are very numerous. It is generally possible to
determine in what order he wrote them, and in what year, from his own statements. We can discover the dates of his translations of various books of the Old Testament. His letters have nearly all been arranged in the order of their composition.

p. 295 and 296 go into his accuracy and integrity in describing what he has actually translated. Lucinus in Spain knows of his recension of Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypse, writing in 398, Jerome's ep. 71.

Nouum Testamentum Graecae reddidi auctoritati.

The N. T. was ...not a new translation, but merely the last and best of many competing revisions, and it was partially or wholly adopted at an early date.
- n. p. 285

Steven Avery

Jerome Epistle 71 to Lucinus (398 AD)

. It is a false rumour which has reached you to the effect that I have translated the books of Josephus and the volumes of the holy men Papias and Polycarp. I have neither the leisure nor the ability to preserve the charm of these masterpieces in another tongue. Of Origen and Didymus I have translated a few things, to set before my countrymen some specimens of Greek teaching. The canon of the Hebrew verity — except the octoteuch which I have at present in hand — I have placed at the disposal of your slaves and copyists. Doubtless you already possess the version from the septuagint which many years ago I diligently revised for the use of students. The new testament I have restored to the authoritative form of the Greek original. For as the true text of the old testament can only be tested by a reference to the Hebrew, so the true text of the new requires for its decision an appeal to the Greek.
Chapman pegs the actual production as around 391 AD. If this is correct, his does lead to a question as to the timing of the Vulgate Prologue and whether he revised the Canonical Epistles in response to Eustochium. (Or whether he could omit Paula in the saluation before her passing in 404 AD.)

Aloys H. Dirksen

It is quite generally conceded today that St. Jerome revised the entire N. T. though some scholars still maintain that his work of emendation was limited to the text of the Gospels alone. It is true that in his letter to Damasus, Jerome speaks only of revising the Gospel text. It is equally true that in his N. T. commentaries he frequently does not follow and sometimes rejects Vulgate readings. However, he explicitly states that he revised the entire N. T., De Vir. III. 135, Ep. 71, 5 (to Lucinius) and Ep. 112, 20 (to Augustine). These statements cannot be set aside or dismissed as exaggerations on the part of St. Jerome. And so the entire Vulgate text of the N. T. is to be attributed to him.
Hence the work of restoring the primitive text of the Gospels cannot be accomplished on the basis of the Greek text almost exclusively as has been attempted so often in the past. The Vulgate cannot be overlooked. It represents the solid judgment of a competent and careful scholar, passed on textual materials older than those available to textual critics today. p. 64-65
Yes, that was done in the Reformation Bible! It is a bit humorous how the modern scholars do not realize the excellence of the Received Text.

Vogels 22 himself proceeds to determine what type of Greek text it was St. Jerome had before him. I shall state his conclusions
briefly. He rejects flatly the opinion of Wordsworth and White that Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Regius represent the type used by
St. Jerome. He rejects the conclusions of Von Soden also, that St. Jerome’s text was the prototype of Von Soden’s three so-called
recensions I, H and K. Vogels concludes that the type of text used by St. Jerome is to be found in what modern textual scholars
call the Koine type of text. It is best exemplified in Alexandrinus and hence the exaggerated veneration so often shown
Vaticanus and Sinaiticus should be held in check. 23
As today, trying to peg the Greek texts of Jerome is not easy.