The Johannine Comma: 1John 5:7

It is not uncommon to come across strong adherents to certain translations, who hold such translations as inspired. I used to have Jehovah’s Witnesses who would come to my door and try to persuade me that the KJV is the best and only inspired translation to use. In the same way, we find quite a few Christians who have somehow been taught this and fell for it, line, hook, and sinker, without actually having understood the underlying facts of the matter. Usually, the views are so deeply entrenched, and they are so deeply invested in it (having perhaps espoused the view for a long time publicly), that they would rather not deal with the possibility that they have been long misled. This post isn’t intended to argue a case for or against the KJV but to show that it, like any other translation, is fraught with translational errors – that are certainly not “inspired by the Holy Spirit”.
1John 5:7 is sometimes referred to as the Johannine Comma. When we look at the various English translations, we immediately see marked differences that should make us wonder what’s going on.
KJV – For there are three that bear record in heaven; the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one
NKJV – For there are three that bear witness in heaven; the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one
NASB – For there are three that testify
NIV – For there are three that testify
NET – For there are three that testify
NRSV – For there are three that testify
ESV – For there are three that testify
Now, even without reading – the sheer difference in the length of the verse alone must have gotten your attention, pointing to the fact that there are two different translations. They can’t both be correct, can they? So what is really happening here, and why do we have such different readings? In order to understand this, you’ll have to know something about how our bibles came about. Speaking mainly for the NT text – this was originally written in Koine-Greek. Epistles such as 1John would have been hand copied (of course) widely onto parchments and so on, by believers. We do not possess any of the original Greek texts, only copies. Not only that, sometimes we don’t even have complete texts but many parchments or fragments that are pieced together to give us a more complete text. In some cases, we have fairly complete texts, and in other cases fragmented ones.
Historically, there have been compilations of these texts that have been handed down through various historical traditions. Very broadly speaking (because it would be impossible to speak of all the manuscripts individually) there are two main traditions, known as the Alexandrian and the Byzantine texts. The Codex Sinaiticus (compilation of Greek texts of the NT) discovered in a monastery on Mt. Sinai was written in the 4th century AD and is an example of the Alexandrian text. Likewise the Codex Vaticanus (so called because it is being kept in the Vatican library) is another Alexandrian compilation of the NT dating back to the 4th century. The Byzantine text, on the other hand, is called the Majority Text because it has the largest number of surviving manuscripts. And there there were also translations of the Greek into Syriac, Coptic, Latin and other languages of the day.
Translators have to consider the different texts, especially where there are variations. When Erasmus, the humanist scholar in the 16th century, worked on the compilation of a standardised Greek NT, he had to do the same thing – based on what manuscripts he had access to, he had to choose which texts he considered most reliable. He produced five versions of this Greek text that eventually came to be called the Textus Receptus (TR).
In the first two versions of his work, he didn’t include the bit that said “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit …” (the Johannine Comma, or Comma for short) because it wasn’t there in any of the Greek manuscripts. So how did Erasmus end up including the Comma into the later versions? It turns out that he relied the Latin Vulgate translation of the Greek for that bit, presumably under pressure from the Catholic church. So, firstly, it wasn’t based on the Greek text but on a translation. Secondly, the Comma does not appear in ANY of the Greek manuscripts pre-dating the 16th century, regardless of tradition.
So basically – the TR, in this case, got the text wrong. It wasn’t the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that put it there. It was the the innovation of man. And, as you might have guessed, the KJV when it was first published, relied on the TR in this case and that’s how the Comma ended up in the KJV and the NKJV translation (of a translation).
Now, I am sure the KJV fans will protest that the KJV translation is still inspired by God, even when here is a clear example of it’s imperfection – clearly an adding to the best available Greek text with man’s ideas. If people want to ignore truth because of vested interests, that’s their choice. All I’m saying is that, the KJV is not somehow more special than the other modern translations. There is no biblical basis, obviously, for making such a claim – it is a claim made by man, not by God, but idolised by many.