Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Comma Johanneum and Greek Grammar

A typical Greek manuscript of First John,
without the Comma Johanneum.
            Today we welcome a special guest, Dr. Barry Hofstetter, to share a post that pertains to an aspect of the textual question about First John 5:7.


My name is Barry Hofstetter.  I currently teach Latin at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA. I have a B.A. in ancient studies, Greek and Latin emphasis from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (1981); an M.A. in Classics from the Ohio State University (1986); a M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, 1989, and the Th.M. in New Testament from Westminster, 1991. I did further graduate work at Westminster Theological Seminary, and have taught the languages (Greek and Latin) at various institutions since 1989.
Recently I took another look at First John 5:7-8 to consider the grammatical issues regarding that text, and particularly whether or not the text could stand as it does in the critical text, without the Johannine Comma. I have concluded that it certainly can, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and with more than one grammatical explanation.

First, let’s consider the claim of Eugenius Bulgaris regarding the agreement of nouns, adjectives and participles:
“It is very well known, since all have experience with it, and it is clearly a peculiar genius of our language, that masculine and feminine nouns may be construed with nouns, adjectives and pronouns in the neuter, with regard to the actual sense (τὰ πράγματα, ta pragmata). On the other hand no one has ever claimed that neuter noun substantives are indicated by masculine or feminine adjectives or pronouns.”

This claim is so extraordinary that I once again checked the Latin to ensure that I had read it right. I’m particularly focusing on the second sentence, and there is no easy way to say it – it’s just simply wrong. In fact it’s a regular feature of the language that “neuter noun substantives” may be modified by adjectives or participles reflecting the “natural” gender of the word (i.e., the actual gender of the referent, that to which the noun actually refers). I will also note here that Eugenius does not specifically mention participles, but appears to group them under “adjectives,” since he is specifically in context talking about a participial construction. Here is Smyth:

1013. Construction according to the Sense (926 a). — The real, not the grammatical, gender often determines the agreement: ὦ φίλτατ᾽, ὦ περισσὰ τιμηθεὶς τέκνον O dearest, O greatly honoured child E. Tro. 735 (this use of the attributive adjective is poetical), ““τὰ μειράκια πρὸς ἀλλήλουςδιαλεγόμενοι” the youths conversing with one another” P. Lach. 180e, ““ταῦτ᾽ ἔλεγεν ἡ ἀναιδὴς αὕτη κεφαλή, ἐξεληλυθώς” this shameless fellow spoke thus when he came out” D. 21.117. (A Greek Grammar for Colleges, 1920).

Smyth is a standard reference, and I cite him in particular in order to show that masculine modifiers with neuter substantives are a regular feature of the language.
The first example that Smyth gives shows a neuter noun, τέκνον, teknon, modified by a masculine participle, τιμηθεὶς, timetheis. The second example has a neuter plural substantive, μειράκια, meirakia, modified by a masculine plural participle, διαλεγόμενοι, dialegomenoi, and further referred to by a masculine plural pronoun, ἀλλήλους, allelous. The third example has a feminine noun, κεφαλή, kephale, modified by the masculine participle ἐξεληλυθώς, exeleluthos. This is widespread enough that it is mentioned in the grammar with no need to list more examples, and notice Smyth’s use of the word “often.”

So the next question is whether or not there are any New Testament examples, and actually, they are fairly numerous. 

Matthew 25:32 (all texts are taken from the TR, all translations from the KJV):  και συναχθησεται εμπροσθεν αυτου παντα τα εθνη και αφοριει αυτους απ αλληλων… – 
“And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another.”

            Here, ἔθνη (ethne, nations) is neuter plural, but the pronoun referring to them, αύτούς (autous, them) is masculine. The neuter substantive is referred to by a masculine pronoun.

Luke 19:37 …ηρξαντο απαν το πληθος των μαθητων χαιροντες αινειν τον θεον φωνη μεγαλη περι πασων ων ειδον δυναμεων… – “the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen…”
            Here πλῆθος (plethos) is neuter singular and is referred to by χαίροντες (chairontes, rejoicing) a masculine plural participle, so once again a neuter substantive is referenced by a masculine (plural) participle.  (This is one example which helpfully illustrates the point – one among many that could be given.  I didn't mention τῶν μαθητῶν (of the disciples) for the same reason that I didn't mention τὸν θεόν (God):  it doesn't affect the grammatical point.)

“Of the disciples” is in the genitive case dependent on “the crowd.” It functions essentially as an adjective here, determining the consistency of the crowd, i.e., that it consists of disciples. For the word to modify disciples, it also would have to be in the genitive case, χαιρόντων. Now, Luke could have so had the participle modify the word disciples, and no one would have batted an eye. It would have been good Greek, and the sense would have been the same. But Luke, writing good idiomatic Greek, instead writes the word in the nominative case, and so shows that he is thinking of the word πλῆθος, crowd. He puts it in the masculine plural because the crowd does indeed consist of disciples, grammatically masculine, and it's also good Greek to indicate mixed groups in the masculine. That’s where the ad sensum comes in. He could just as easily have omitted the genitive, written his nominative masculine plural participle, and it would have been just as good, idiomatic Greek. Of course there are plenty of examples where just such a thing occurs. Here's another example also using the word “crowd” and a qualifying genitive:

            Acts 5:16 συνηρχετο δε και το πληθος των περιξ πολεων εις ιερουσαλημ φεροντες ασθενεις... – “There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks.”
            Here crowd is modified by the masculine plural participle φέροντες, bringing. The qualifying genitive phrase “out of the cities round about Jerusalem,” is actually feminine, since “cities,” πόλεων, is a grammatically feminine word.

Here’s a slightly different type of example to show that it’s not peculiar to having a crowd and a genitive plural:
            Rom 2:14 οταν γαρ εθνη τα μη νομον εχοντα φυσει τα του νομου ποιη ουτοι νομον μη εχοντες εαυτοις εισιν νομος – “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.”
            In this case “Gentiles” is neuter plural, and the pronoun referring back to them, “these” is masculine plural. There is no qualifying genitive to offer any confusion.

Now let’s consider what Eugenius said:  “On the other hand no one has ever claimed that neuter noun substantives are indicated by masculine or feminine adjectives or pronouns.” His claim does not appear to be borne out by the facts of the language. More examples may be culled from the New Testament text, but these will suffice.
So now that we have determined that neuter substantives may be modified by masculine modifiers as the sense indicates to the author of the text, we have removed one of the major objections to the text of First John 5:7-8 as it stands in the critical text. If, as many have argued, the writer of First John was thinking of the witnesses as personified, it would be perfectly acceptable for him to use a masculine modifier to refer to the three witnesses, even though technically grammatically neuter.

            Eugenius is apparently the source of much of the grammatical speculation [spread by writers such as Robert Dabney and Thomas Holland  JSJ] about First John 5:7-8 that has circulated.  In what follows, I shall suggest that there is a fairly simple alternative. As before, Greek quotations from New Testament texts are taken from the Textus Receptus to forestall the objection that there is some sort of text-critical difficulty that, in the mind of the King-James-Onlyist, will invalidate the argument; likewise English quotations from the New Testament will be taken from the KJV.  After that, I will present a more detailed response to Eugenius’ argument.
            Have a look at First John 5:8:

και τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τη γη το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν. – “And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”

Now, a bit of a grammar lesson, to help folks better understand the argument. “That bear witness” in English is actually a relative clause, but in Greek it’s a participle. A part of what? A participle. Participle comes from the Latin “to have a share in” and what participles do is share in the qualities of both an adjective and a verb – they are verbal adjectives. Another thing that adjectives get to do from time to time is to pretend to be nouns. We do this with proverbial statements in English, “The good die young” or “The poor shall always be with you.” The latter example shows that Greek does it too, since it’s a quotation from the New Testament. In Greek (and Latin) it’s done much more frequently, and not just with proverbial statements. 
Greek does this most often by planting a definite article in front of the adjective or participle. That’s the syntax of “there are three that bear witness.” It is a substantive participle, standing in where one might expect a noun instead. Had the author written οἱ μαρτύρες, “witnesses,” it would mean essentially the same thing, the difference being that the participle describes the referent in terms of the action inherent in the verb. Greek does this all the time, such as at John 3:16, “everyone who believes” is actually a substantive phrase parallel to “three who bear witness.”
Now, why is this important? It means that the substantive functions more like a noun than like an adjective. That means it does not modify another noun (or nouns) in the sentence, but gets its number and gender from its understood antecedent, and its case from how it is used in the sentence. There is therefore no need for it to agree with anything in the sentence. Here, the author is clearly thinking of “witnesses, those who give witness.” 
Notice also that “the spirit, and the water, and the blood” all have the definite article. This not only suggests that they are discrete elements, but that they are to be associated with the subject and with each other without being the same as each other. They are three different types of witnesses. Instead of the participle modifying them, they stand in apposition with the substantive participle. They are the particular examples of the witnesses. Since the substantive is acting as a noun, there is no need for “grammatical concord” between the substantive participle and the nouns which stand in apposition to it. It does not matter that “those who give witness” is masculine and that the three nouns are neuter.
Are there other examples of this? Actually there are many throughout Greek literature, but two stand out in the New Testament:

Matthew 23:23:  τα βαρυτερα του νομου την κρισιν και τον ελεον και την πιστιν – the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.”

            Here, we have an adjectival substantive which is in Greek neuter plural, “the weightier matters,” which is then particularized by three nouns in apposition, law, which is masculine, mercy, which is feminine, and faith, also feminine.

● First John 2:16:  οτι παν το εν τω κοσμω η επιθυμια της σαρκος και η επιθυμια των οφθαλμων και η αλαζονεια του βιου – “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”
“All that is in the world” is a neuter substantive phrase that is then particularized by three nouns in the feminine, lust (twice) and pride.
            Why didn’t Eugenius, whose Greek was supposed to be so good, come up with this? I believe that he was so strongly theologically motivated to keep the “received text” here that he either did not see any other grammatical options, or that he deliberately ignored them. This then set the tone for the 19th-century apologists who similarly desired to protect the text. 
            In conclusion:  the fact ought to be accepted that masculine adjectives/pronouns/participles can and do modify neuter substantives, in plain contradiction to Eugenius' claim.



            I have demonstrated that neuter substantives can indeed by modified by masculine modifiers, contrary to Eugenius’ claim. I have also suggested that “the three bearing witness” is treated as a substantive, and thus there is no need for it to modify the three neuter nouns, since they stand in apposition. Here I hope to show that Eugenius’ argument is really the claim that the three neuter nouns are personalized through their association with the Trinity, and thus the masculine participle is repeated. This is really the argument that many modern commentators use – the difference being that they see no need for added text. For Eugenius, the added text is what forces the spirit, the water and the blood to be taken as earthly representatives of the heavenly witnesses. 
            From my translation of the Latin excerpt from Eugenius:
           What reason can therefore be given for this failure to comply with the rule? It can only be the expression of the preceding 7th verse, which through the immediately following 8th verse is set forth symbolically and obviously restated, an allusion made to that which precedes. Therefore the three who give witness in heaven are first placed in the 7th verse, τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τω ουρανω ο πατηρ ο λογος και το αγιον πνευμα και ουτοι οι τρεις εν εισιν. Then immediately the very same three witnesses are brought in, to confirm on earth the same witness, through these three symbols, in vs. 8: και τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τη γη το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν. And so our Evangelist might say “They are the same as those giving witness in heaven.” This is sufficiently indicated through the particle καί, the force of which here is not simply connective but plainly identifying. [At this point, Eugenius shifts to Greek]
Concerning what was said in the text [perhaps = manuscript] above, clearly the Father, the Word and the Spirit. These are the ones giving witness also on the earth, and they are made manifest to us through symbols. These symbols are the spirit, through which the Father is revealed, the blood, through which the Son is revealed, and the water, through which the Holy Spirit is revealed. But these three, who above by way of revelation through the divine names themselves are presented as giving witness in heaven, are the same on earth through remembrance in the divine plan presented repeatedly by way of symbols.

Eugenius refers to the three earthly witnesses as “symbols,” a word which develops quite a technical sense in the centuries following the writing of the NT as “that which represents divine truth in another format” (so the word is used of creeds and confessions). Here, however, Eugenius seems to use it not in that technical sense but much the way we use the word in English, as that which represents something else. Tantalizingly, he does not tell us what he thinks these symbols actually are, although his Greek Orthodox provenance might indicate a Eucharistic interpretation. 
The important point here, however, is that Eugenius sees these earthly witnesses as essentially the same as the heavenly witnesses. The question here is whether the heavenly witnesses need to be there in the text. I would suggest not. John simply needs to be thinking of the witnesses as those who actively give witness, οἱ μαρτύρες, “the witnesses.”
Did John in fact intend a Trinitarian allusion? Given the way he expresses himself both in this epistle and in his gospel concerning the Father, Son and Holy Spirit I personally think it’s quite likely, although impossible to prove definitively. Eugenius in principle then simply uses a variety of the personification argument, that the assumed natural gender of “witnesses” would be masculine. Note, however, that the argument is one which is heavily theological, and not really grammatical.
Now, several 19th-century apologists for the added text have taken Eugenius’ argument to be primarily grammatical, and seen it under the category of grammatical attraction, that the second expression is overwhelmed, as it were, by the previous and so naturally becomes masculine rather than the expected neuter. Although there is grammatical attraction in Greek, it usually works with pronouns, and especially in relative clauses. It would be highly unusual to see such an attraction between two parallel clauses. In this analysis of attraction in grammatical concords, there is nothing at all related to any kind of grammatical attraction between parallel clauses, and rightly so, since there are no such examples in the language.  The argument that this is a special, one of kind case is simply special pleading. Languages just don’t work that way.

            In addition, consider the following comment from Meyer:

τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες] The masculine is used because the three that are mentioned are regarded as concrete witnesses (Lücke, etc.), but not because they are “types of men representing these three” (Bengel),[313] or symbols of the Trinity (as they are interpreted in the Scholion of Matthaei, p. 138, mentioned in the critical notes). It is uncertain whether John brings out this triplicity of witnesses with reference to the well-known legal rule, Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16, etc., as several commentators suppose. It is not to be deduced from the present that ὕδωρ and αἷμα are things still at present existing, and hence the sacraments, for by means of the witness of the Spirit the whole redemptive life of Christ is permanently present, so that the baptism and death of Jesus – although belonging to the past – prove Him constantly to be the Messiah who makes atonement for the world (so also Braune). The participle οἱ μαρτυροῦντες, instead of the substantive οἱ μάρτυρες, emphasizes more strongly the activity of the witnessing.


Daniel Buck said...

I'm no whiz at Greek, but I'm aware enough to spot two errors in this statement: "Here, we have an adjectival substantive which is in Greek neuter plural, “the weightier matters,” which is then particularized by three nouns in apposition, law, which is masculine, mercy, which is feminine, and faith, also feminine."
So, I will at least try my hand at retranslating Luke 19:37b:
"All(N) the multitude(N) of the rejoicing(M) disciples(M) began to praise God"
I may be wrong, but I suspect that the way it is usually expressed in English led to the false conclusion that it demonstrates ad sensum Greek. I didn't find any such problems with the other examples, though, so the thesis, weakened as it is by such errors, still stands.

Matt13weedhacker said...

Hi James.

I would like to share some new research on the Comma Johanneum. See link below:

James Snapp Jr said...

Thanks. Very impressive research!

Steven Avery said...

Thanks for this paper, James. Let's start with one major element, and look it over, iron sharpeneth!

Matthew 23:23 and 1 John 2:16 are given as supposed analogies to the gender discordance in the short earthly witnesses text.

Matthew 23:23 (AV)
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin,
and have omitted ** the weightier matters of the law,
judgment, mercy, and faith: **
these ought ye to have done,
and not to leave the other undone.

1 John 2:16 (AV)
*** For all that is in the world,
the lust of the flesh,
and the lust of the eyes,
and the pride of life, ***
is not of the Father,
but is of the world.

The problem is that these two verses are fully proper with neuter grammar. And afawk not one scholar has ever claimed a discordance. And they do not need exceptional grammar attempts, claiming a substantive participle acting as a noun. This is special pleading on the part of Barry, to try to give a handle on his attempt to shore up the lonely earthly witnesses.

And all this has ZERO to do with the problem in the earthly witnesses text.

Remember, Eugenius very clearly said:

"masculine and feminine nouns may be construed with nouns, adjectives and pronouns in the neuter" - Barry Hofstetter translation

And that is exactly the case in the two verses above!

hmmm.. oops .. Analogy Irrelevant


It should be noted that this totally eliminates the errant, tawdry attack on the world-class scholar, Eugenius Bulgaris, beginning with:

"Why didn’t Eugenius, whose Greek was supposed to be so good, come up with this? ..."

Clearly Eugenius was not going to include verses that he had already shown to be irrelevant.


btw, James you showed that this was a faux analogy back in 2013. The verses had been taken from the 1990s Gary Hudson article (likely the Barry Hostetter source, directly or indirectly) and you astutely pointed out that the analogy was flawed, as we see in the Waterrock (James Snapp) post.

The Confession of the African Bishops in Carthage


Your feedback welcome!
These are amazing and helpful studies.

Steven Avery
Dutchess County, NY, USA