The King James Version of 1 John 5:7-8 reads:
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.
Nowhere else in the Bible do we find such an explicit confirmation of the Trinity: in this brief passage orthodox trinitarianism is laid out in no uncertain terms. Unfortunately, this theological gem isn’t actually part of the original text of the Bible. In the words of renowned New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger: “that these words are spurious and have no right to stand in the New Testament is certain.”
The words “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth” are known as the Comma Johanneum (here “comma” refers not to the punctuation mark but rather to a short phrase).
The earliest record we have of this passage is from a 4th century Latin text. Since that time, it appears almost exclusively in Latin versions of the Bible. The Comma doesn’t appear as part of the Biblical text in any of our thousands of pre-12th century Greek manuscripts. We do have eight more recent Greek manuscripts that include it, but four leave that passage in the margin and all are clearly later translations from Latin into Greek.
How then did the Comma first appear in the Latin text and how did it come to be included in the KJV?
Most scholars think that this passage started out as a marginal commentary — that “the Spirit, and the water, and the blood” were understood as allegorical representations of the Trinity and that an industrious scribe made that connection explicit in a marginal note. Then at some point in the distant past, the note was actually included with the main text of 1 John and became part of the standard Latin reading.
In the mid-16th century, Erasmus compiled his Greek New Testament. He omitted the Comma from the first two editions of his GNT, but was pressured to include it in his 3rd edition. This pressure was so intense that it seems a Greek manuscript containing the Comma was actually forged in order to convince Erasmus that there was in fact Greek support for the text. The KJV relied heavily on Erasmus’ 3rd edition, and so the Comma appears to this day in both the KJV and NKJV.
What lessons can we learn from this (in)famous textual misstep?
For me, the question we must continually ask ourselves is this: what marginal readings, however theologically correct they may seem, have we allowed to become authoritative texts in our understanding of Christianity? By “marginal reading” I don’t simply mean a footnote in your Bible, I mean any commentary on the text: the explanatory sidebar in your study Bible, the commentaries written by reputable scholars, the sermon preached by your pastor on a Sunday morning, the blog that offers up theological reflections.
Have we let these well-meaning explications become part of the text itself? Have we made an interpretation into the interpretation?
In our zeal for understanding, we often define — or over-define — doctrines that go far beyond the text itself. There’s nothing wrong with seeking greater understanding, with attempting to define theological concepts such as the Trinity. But we must always be willing to acknowledge what the text does and doesn’t say and where we are imposing our own inferences, deductions and conclusions upon the words of the original authors. We must always be on guard against inserting our own Commas into our understanding of Christianity and instead hold our doctrinal conclusions with tentative humility.
Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman, 80-82
The Text of New Testament, by Bruce M. Metzger and Bart Ehrman, 88 and 146-148
A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament by Bruce M. Metzger, 647-649