|An iconic representation of|
Cyprian, bishop and martyr.
Few textual variants in the New Testament have received more attention than First John 5:7-8, where the Textus Receptus – the printed base-text of the New Testament in the King James Version – reads, 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, which is represented in English as, “There are three witnesses in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three witnesses in the earth: the spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree in one.” The base-text of most modern translations is significantly shorter and different: οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν, that is, in English, “There are three witnesses: the spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree in one.”
The longer reading – technically known as the Comma Johanneum – is well-known from the KJV. It is also in the text of the NKJV and Modern English Version (with a footnote). The English Standard Version, on the other hand, does not contain the Comma Johanneum and the
I am not going to review all the evidence about the Comma Johanneum here, but a few points should be covered to set the stage for what I am going to say about the testimony from the third-century writer Cyprian.
● The support for the Comma Johanneum in Greek manuscripts is staggeringly poor. Out of about 500 extant Greek copies of First John, four of them have the Comma Johanneum in the text: 629 (a manuscript in which the Greek and Latin texts appear side-by-side), 61 (Codex Montfortianus, which was brought to the attention of Erasmus when this passage was discussed in the early 1500’s after Erasmus had not included the passage in his first edition of the Greek New Testament), and 2473 and 2318 (both of which are extremely late – later than 1611). Six other manuscripts have the Comma Johanneum (“CJ” from here on) written in the margin, but these margin-notes appear to have been added much later than the production-date of the manuscript itself. (In the case of minuscule 177, made in the 1000’s, the CJ was added in the margin after 1550; the margin-note mentions the verse-number.)
● The Latin support for the inclusion of the Comma Johanneum is plentiful, and its earliest components are only slightly later than the earliest manuscript-evidence for non-inclusion. The author of a composition called Liber Apologeticus (either Priscillian, or one of his associates) used the CJ in the 380’s, in
sunt quae testimonium dicunt in terra:
aqua caro et sanguis et haec tria in unum sunt. Et tria sunt quae testimonium dicent in
caelo: Pater Verbum et Spiritus et haec
tria unum sunt in Christo Iesu.” It
should be noticed, however, that this varies considerably from the contents of
First John 5:7-8 as known from the TR and KJV.
Priscillian lists the earthly witnesses before the heavenly
witnesses. Priscillian’s list of earthly
witnesses is different: instead of
referring to “the spirit, the water, and the blood,” Priscillian refers to
“water, flesh, and blood.” He also adds
the phrase, “in Christ Jesus” at the end.
● A Latin writer in
● A composition called Contra Varimadum Arianum (conceivably written by Idacius Clarus in Spain in the late 300’s, but perhaps more probably by Vigilius Tapsensis in North Africa in the late 400’s) includes the following statement: “John the Evangelist, in his Epistle to the Parthians (i.e. his 1st Epistle), says there are three who afford testimony on earth: the water, the blood, and the flesh, and these three are in us; and there are three who afford testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one.
● Eucherius of Lyons, c. 440, in his composition Formulas of Spiritual Knowledge (Formulae Spiritualis Intelligentiae), in chapter 10 (On Numbers), stated that the number three represents the Trinity, “in the epistle of John: three are those who bear witness: water, blood, and spirit.”
● Cassiodorus, in the 500’s, utilized the CJ in his composition Complexiones in Epistolis Apostolorum, as follows: “Cui rei testificantur in terra tria mysteria: aqua sanguis et spiritus, quae in passione Domini leguntur impleta: in coelo autem Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus sanctus, et hi tres unus est Deus.” In English this yields: “And the three mysteries testify – on earth: water, blood and spirit. The fulfillment of which we read about in the passion of the Lord. And in heaven: Father and Son and Holy Spirit. And these three are one God.”
● In Codex Fuldensis, which was produced in 546, the CJ is mentioned in the Preface to the Canonical Epistles (by “Canonical Epistles” the General Epistles are meant). The author of this preface specifically mentioned the CJ, and stated that “much error has occurred at the hands of unfaithful translators contrary to the truth of faith, who have kept just the three words ‘water, blood and spirit’ in this edition, omitting mention of Father, Word and Spirit.” The text of First John in Codex Fuldensis does not contain the CJ; similarly, the order of the three witnesses in the text is different than the order cited in the Preface to the Canonical Epistles – in the text of First John, Codex Fuldensis refers to “spirit and water and blood” as the three who testify.
With all this in the background, we now come to today’s main subject: the testimony of Cyprian of Carthage. In his Treatise on the Unity of the Universal Church (1:6), Cyprian says: “Dicit Dominus, ‘Ego et Pater unum sumus,’ et iterum de Patre et Filio et Spiritu sancto scriptum est: ‘Et tres unum sunt.’” In English: “The Lord says, ‘I and the Father are one,” and again, it is written of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, ‘And these three are one.’”
The issue here is (as Dan Wallace has pointed out) whether Cyprian quoted (or slightly misquoted) the CJ when he refers to the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, or whether he merely quoted the words, “And these three are one.”
The idea that Cyprian possessed a copy of First John that contained the CJ is not as unlikely as some commentators have made it seem. Against the point that none of the early Greek manuscripts of First John contain the CJ, the counterpoint may be submitted that Hort, in 1881, argued for six readings in the General Epistles which are likewise supported by no ancient Greek manuscripts – and in 2013, the Nestle-Aland compilers adopted a reading into the text of Second Peter 3:10 that is found in no Greek manuscripts. Clearly, at least among some highly influential textual critics, the lack of early Greek manuscript support does not rule out the plausibility of a textual variant.
In addition, it is possible to explain the early loss of the CJ as a consequence of two simple scribal errors. If a copyist were to copy the longer reading in a narrow column, and transpose the words “εν τη γη” (“on the earth”) so as to appear before the word “τρεις” (three) in verse 8, the text would look like this:
|A page from a Latin commentary|
by an Irish author in the 600's.
εν τω ουρανω
ο πατηρ ο λογος και
το αγιον πνευμα
και ουτοι οι τρεις
εν εισιν και εν
τη γη τρεις εισιν
το πνευμα και το
υδωρ και το αιμα
και οι τρεις εις το
And if a subsequent copyist were to lose his line of sight and jump from the words οι μαρτυρουντες at the end of the second line to the identical words at the end of the ninth line, accidentally skipping the intervening words (in bold print), the resultant text would be:
οτι τρεις εισιν
το πνευμα και το
υδωρ και το αιμα
και οι τρεις εις το
which is the text found in almost all Greek manuscripts of First John.
So those who defend the CJ may have an answer to Dan Wallace’s charge that they are denying history. They are proposing that early scribal errors resulted in the corruption of all of the early Greek manuscripts, just as advocates of the Nestle-Aland compilation implicitly propose that early scribal errors have repeatedly resulted in the corruption of all the early Greek manuscripts except three, or two, or one, or (at Acts 16:12 and Second Peter 3:10) all of them.
But let’s not get distracted from that comment by Cyprian. When one considers the theory that Cyprian was merely applying the final phrase of First John 5:8 to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a question presents itself: what sort of interpretive alchemy starts with “the spirit and the water and the blood,” and manages to conjure from that a representation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Enter Scotti Anonymi – an anonymous Irishman who wrote a commentary on the General Epistles in the late 600’s. He does not comment on the CJ. He does, however, put a distinctly Trinitarian spin on the three witnesses – which he lists, not as “the spirit and the water and the blood,” but as “water, blood, and spirit.” This is a conformation to the order in which the water, blood, and spirit appear in First John 5:6. A change in the order of the witnesses in First John 5:8 was an easy change for an early copyist to make. And when we look at the early citations of First John, it becomes clear that early Latin copyists did indeed make this alteration in the text of First John.
That is why, in the commentary of Scotti Anonymi, the text of First John 5:8 elicited thoughts about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As researcher Shane Angland has observed, Scotti Anonymi used Jeremiah 2:13 – where God describes Himself as “the fountain of living waters” – as the basis on which to interpret “the water” as a proxy for the Father. Blood represents Christ. And of course the reference to the spirit was interpreted to represent the Holy Spirit. Even a fan of allegorical, or symbolic, interpretation, might not naturally or readily see a reference to the Trinity in the words, “the spirit and the water and the blood,” but when these nouns are rearranged as “the water and the blood and the spirit,” a symbolic interpretation becomes much more natural.
I propose that the arrangement of the witnesses in First John 5:8 was adjusted – not with any intent to model the Trinity, but simply to conform to the order in which the water, blood, and spirit are introduced in 5:6 – very early in an Old Latin transmission-stream. Let’s look again for indications of this in the patristic evidence:
● This was the text used by the author of the Preface to the Canonical Epistles in Codex Fuldensis; he mentioned “the three words ‘water, blood and spirit.’”
● This was the text used by Eucherius: “water, blood, and spirit.”
● This was the text used by Cassiodorus: “water, blood, and spirit.”
● Two-thirds of this reading is supported by Etherius of Osma in the 700’s in Adversus Elipandum (“the water and the blood and the flesh”), and by the author of Contra Varimadum (“the water, the blood, and the flesh”).
● Priscillian similarly put water first in the list of earthly witnesses (“water, flesh, and blood”).
From this evidence it may be deduced that in the North African Latin text of First John (or at least in one form of it), by the time Cyprian ever read the text, the order of the earthly witnesses in 5:6 had been transposed to “water, blood, and spirit.” Due to this transposition, Cyprian interpreted the passage as a reference to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. With the transposition in the equation, Cyprian’s interpretation of First John 5:8 as a model of the Trinity is not puzzling. There is thus no reason to assume that he was referring to the CJ in his Treatise on the Unity of the Universal Church.
[Readers are invited to check the data used in this post.]