Wednesday, February 03, 2016

An Internal Argument for the Comma Johanneum

I re-read today the Trinitarian Bible Society article by G. W. Anderson and D. E. Anderson titled "Why 1 John 5:7-8 Is In The Bible?" (You can read it here).  The article reviews the comments of three interpreters from three different eras who defended the authenticity of the so-called Comma Johanneum or "Three Heavenly Witnesses" passage: Matthew Henry (1700s), Robert Lewis Dabney (1800s); and Edward F. Hills (1900s).

The external evidence for the CJ is admittedly weak, but Dabney and Hills both point out what, I believe, is one of the strongest arguments from internal evidence in favor of the CJ based, in particular, on gender agreement.

If the CJ is omitted the passage would read:

5:7a  For there are three which bear witness [hoti treis eisin hoi martyrountes]

5:8b  The Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are one [to pneuma kai to hudor kai to haima, kai hoi treis eis to hen eisen].

The problem would be that the three neuter singular nouns in v. 8b would be preceded by the masculine adjective number three [treis] and the masculine plural article and participle [hoi martyrountes] and followed by the masculine plural article and masculine adjective number three [hoi treis]. 

If, however, the CJ were original, v. 7a would be followed instead by "in the heaven, the Father, and the Word, and the Holy Spirit [en to ourano, ho pater, ho logos, kai to hagion pneuma]," which, with two masculine singular nouns [ho pater, ho logos] and one neuter singular adjective and noun [to hagion pneuma], would appear to fit better grammatically in the context.

This point is made by Dabney and cited in the article:

First, if it be made, the masculine article, numeral, and particle…are made to agree directly with three neuters—an insuperable and very bald grammatical difficulty. But if the disputed words are allowed to stand, they agree directly with two masculines and one neuter noun…where, according to a well known rule of syntax, the masculines among the group control the gender over a neuter connected with them....

The same point is made by Hills and cited in the article:

In the third place, the omission of the Johannine comma involves a grammatical difficulty. The words spirit, water, and blood are neuter in gender, but in 1 John 5:8 they are treated as masculine. If the Johannine comma is rejected, it is hard to explain this irregularity. It is usually said that in 1 John 5.8 the spirit, the water, and the blood are personalized and that this is the reason for the adoption of the masculine gender. But it is hard to see how such personalization would involve the change from the neuter to the masculine. For in verse 6 the word Spirit plainly refers to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. Surely in this verse the word Spirit is “personalized,” and yet the neuter gender is used. Therefore, since personalization did not bring about a change of gender in verse 6, it cannot fairly be pleaded as the reason for such a change in verse 8. If, however, the Johannine comma is retained, a reason for placing the neuter nouns spirit, water, and blood in the masculine gender becomes readily apparent. It was due to the influence of the nouns Father and Word, which are masculine. Thus the hypothesis that the Johannine comma is an interpolation is full of difficulties.

This does indeed appear to represent a substantial internal argument in favor of the originality and authenticity of the CJ.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for your defense of the Traditional Text. Interested in what you make of the contra argument regarding the grammar at (see under Internal Argument and in comment section) I would like to see a blog post replying to Nolan and Dabney detractors....

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for the comment and pointing out this article and comments. Very interesting. I'll try to take a closer look at it. Preliminary thoughts: (1) It would be worthwhile to test the assertion that an apposition must agree in case but need not agree in number and gender by comparison to the LXX, the NT, and patristic Greek; (2) Hills had credentials in NT and text criticism and saw the argument as valid; (3) I hardly see the last quote from Dabney in comment as evidence of his reversing his position. Rather, I think his point is that you could not (and need not) make your case for the Trinity on the CJ alone.


Steven Avery said...

The comments by "Jim" are based on numerous conceptual errors and even blunders and quirky grammatical theories. If you track down the threads on CARM where he plied these unusual grammar theories, you can learn about them. Since CARM is not permanent, I would prefer to go over them on the Facebook PureBible or Heavenly Witnesses forum, or a forum I have called PureBibleForum if they actually puzzle anybody. I'll even go over the history of his blundering accusations. (Which changed when he the Eugenius Bulgaris info was pointed out to Jim.)

Denver McDaniel said...

1. The Comma doesn’t solve the supposed difficulty. The 3 neuter earthly witnesses are treated as masculine both in the adjective and verb at the beginning of verse 8 which is within the Comma, and the end of verse 8 is masculine when referring back to the earthly witnesses. The supposed “problem” happens twice in the Comma, only once without the Comma.

2. There isn’t an additional grammar problem by omitting the Comma for 2 reasons:
a) in the NT, when an adjective modifies multiple nouns, the normal practice is for it to take the neuter REGARDLESS of the gender of the nouns, whether the nouns agree in gender or not (e.g. 1 Cor 13:13 where you have three feminine nouns modified by a neuter adjective), so in that case this is a departure from the norm even if you accept the Comma.
b) “Three” is functioning substantivally in verse 7 and 8, with or without the Comma, for “the witnessing ones”. There are a few other times in scripture where “three” is substantival and in every case it is masculine, either because it stands alone and it is normal for the number three to be regarded as masculine, or as may be the case here, the noun which is implied is “witnesses” which is of course masculine. Either way, it is not outside the normal pattern of scripture for “three” to be masculine here.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Denver, thanks for the comment.


1. If the point, however, is that the masculines in v. 8b refers back to the two masculine nouns in the CJ, this would mean 0 problems with the comma.

2.a. You note that it is the "normal" practice for a numerical adjective modifying multiple nouns to take the neuter and cite one example (1 Cor 13:13 with the neuter ta tria tauta, in reference to three feminine nouns). If so, then 1 John 5:7-8 is clearly an exception, with or without the CJ. Would it not make more sense for this "exception" to take place if the masculine number was in reference to two masculine nouns? That is the point indeed. You offer no other examples from the NT, the LXX, the apocrypha, or Patristic evidence. I admit that I have not done a detailed study on this. So, I am going to reserve making any sweeping assertions about what the "normal" practice is. It simply seems to make sense grammatically for a numerical adjective to tend toward agreement with the nouns it modifies, and which are in near proximity to it, in gender, case, and number.

2.b. I'm not sure this is as clear as you make it out. How do you know for certain the the "three" here is substantival? I admit it is possible, but this conclusion is a suggestion, an interpretation, that may or may not be right. Can you definitively cite the other times in the NT where the adjective three (or another numerical adjective) is used in the manner? What about in the LXX, apocrphya, and Patristic writings? Again, I have not done a detailed study of this so would be hesitant to make a sweeping assertion on this, especially given the historical and theological importance of this passage. Come it think of it, isn't the verse you cited above (1 Cor 13:13) a possible exception to the dictum you present? It could be taken substantivally and it is in the neuter. According to your dictum it should be masculine, since this supposedly happens "in every case." Perhaps things aren't as cut and dried as we might think.


Denver McDaniel said...

Pastor Riddle, I plan on responding in more detail shortly. But I do want to say thank you for your ministry work in this area. I have enjoyed your WM podcasts. I am sympathetic to the TR position, but hold to more of a Byzantine priority (Maurice Robinson) position. I would say I stand on the Byzantine line but ” look toward” the TR. I don’t think the two positions are very far apart. I think you could still consistently affirm the LBC/WCF and hold to either, but the CT would require you to say there was a “gap” in the preservation until the 19th century where it was restored.

I am also KJV preferred personally, but we read the NKJV as a family.

Anyway, thank you, and more to come.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Denver, thanks for your comment and look forward to the detailed response. Glad to hear you've profited from the WMs. I'm still a student of these things. I noted some of what I perceive to be problems with the Majority Text position from a confessional perspective in the review of Pickering's Greek NT in WM 86. Namely, this text has produced no ecclesiastically viable vernacular translations. I'd be curious to know what you make of that objection. My family uses the KJV in our devotions and I find my younger ones grasp the meaning well. Our church governing documents say we will make use of Bible translations in public worship based on the traditional original language text of Scripture. I and my fellow elder use the KJV, but our deacon often reads from the NKJV. We'd also allow the Geneva Bible. So, we do not approach this from a staunch KJV-only perspective.

Denver McDaniel said...

Ok, so I took some notes shortly after I wrote my last comment, but I don't have a working computer readily accessible, hence the delay.

In short, I think a stronger internal defense for the comma lies in the exegetical context, not in the grammar.

With respect to the grammar (plural noun + adjective/pronoun gender agreement), giving some examples that you asked for:

1 Cor 6:9-11 has a long string of masculine nouns modified by a neuter pronoun
John 6:9 has a neuter pronoun modifying masculine + neuter nouns
Matt 23:23 has neuter adjective and pronoun modifying feminine + masculine nouns
Gal 5:19 has a long string of mixed-gender nouns modified by neuter pronoun
Col 3:5 same as Gal 5:19 above
1 Cor 13:13 is perhaps the strongest example, where three feminine nouns are modified by a singular neuter pronoun+adjective "these three"

As far as I can tell, only Rev 9:18 is similar to 1 Jn 5:7 in having a masculine "these three" modify a group of mixed-gender nouns that include a masculine member.

As to Dabney's argument, I fail to see how a single masculine noun in one group of three requires a "carrying over" effect to a DIFFERENT group of three such that an adjective modifying only group 2 takes the gender of a noun in group 1. If the adjective were modifying the entire collection of 6 nouns, then MAYBE you would do that, as in Rev 9:18, but even then, from my examples above, it should be clear that that wasn't normal practice for the NT.

The reason I think "three that bear witness" is acting substantivally for an assumed noun "witness" (which is masculine in greek) is twofold: 1) there is not an immediately proximate noun group for "three" in the text. It is distal, being separated by six words. Normally (but not always) an adjective is immediately proximate to the noun it is modifying. This ties in to 2) "bear witness" is in the article+present participle construction, behaving like a noun in the sentence. So this becomes the adjacent "noun" modified by the adjective "three".

Now, all of this is NOT an argument against the Comma. The more I study the issue, the more convinced I am of its authenticity. I just don't think the grammatical argument is a good one.

As I said above, the best internal argument is exegetical. There have to be two or three witnesses to agree to a matter, so John has to verify his "Spirit is truth" statement that gives credence to the witness of the water and blood. He proves the Spirit is truth, as he does in his gospel, by the agreement of the Father and the Word/Son. It ties it all up so nicely especially considering the abundance of time in his gospel showing the 3 heavenly witnesses agreeing to Jesus's work on earth. Furthermore, the God in verse 9 in the broader context of John and particularly earlier in chapter 5 surely refers to the Father, who becomes absent without the Comma.

What's so odd about the opponents of the Comma is their fixation on the use of "Word" and not "son" in juxtaposition with the Father. Somehow this is proof of a forgery for being "too Johannine" and yet they reject the PA and the ending of Mark for not being Johannine or Markan enough!

Hope this helps, and please correct my understanding if you see where I have erred in handling the Greek.

Thanks and blessings.


Denver McDaniel said...

BTW, I have drifted closer to a TR position. Mainly due to additional reading from 17th and 18th century. Modern scholars wax elephant (as one of my pastors likes to say) about "modern discoveries" in manuscripts, but the truth is I don't know of any text-critical issue that has arisen from these discoveries that wasn't already known to the old dead guys. And it seems clear from Stephanus and others that they had access to texts that have since been lost to us, so I think it is an error of historicism that says we must have better knowledge of the issues than they.

I sure would like to have the KJV translators' notes and minutes (if they kept them, presumably lost in the Great London Fire) on Rev 16:5. Why were they convinced of Beza's conjectural emendation? Contra James White, I don't think they blindly followed Beza. Why here, when they didn't elsewhere? And ESPECIALLY here, when they supposedly had every reason from the manuscripts not too? Maybe they found manuscripts to back Beza up that have since perished?

Steven Avery said...

Hi Jeff and Denver,

Many of the 17th and 18th century books are fantastic. e.g. Charles Forster on the heavenly witnesses and the Received Text.

1 John 5:7-8
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.

Please read Eugenius Bulgaris (1716-1806) carefully, and you will see that the solecism issue is where the grammar is masculine and the substantives are neuter.

Verses and phrases involving mixed nouns and feminine nouns are irrelevant to this discussion.

Bringing in such verses is a common contra blunder, and I think you picked up those examples above from one of the sources that commonly makes this error.

Afaik, there are no analogous verses where masculine nouns are part of neuter grammar.

In fact the dip or hole in the grammar (masculine, neuter, masculine) is even that much more grating, as a native Greek named Ilias pointed out in Facebook.

And I plan more on this later, but I just wanted to get the basics out first.



Bill Brown said...

It is worth noting to everyone else here that Steven Avery does not know anything about Greek and has zero business discussing a language he’s never studied. For reasons known only to him, he chose to hide that information from everyone just as he failed to disclose his rejection of both Refirnation theology and the Trinity.

I would have let it pass but as he has taken to boasting about how easily he answered posts here, I will set the record straight.

Paul said...

I’m a native Greek-speaker (not Koine but Modern). Regarding 1 Cor 13:13
Νυνὶ δὲ μένει πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη, τὰ τρία ταῦτα· μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη.

I do not expect αἱ τρεῖς αὗται even though πίστις, ἐλπίς and ἀγάπη are all feminine. However, I do expect τὰ τρία ταῦτα because in my mind I’m thinking, “these three things” / τὰ τρία πράγματα / τὰ τρία ῥήματα i.e. the aforementioned abstract nouns: πίστις, ἐλπίς and ἀγάπη.

A Modern Greek translation published in 1638 renders it in this way:
Καὶ τώρα μένει τά τρία ἐτοῦτα, πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη· καὶ τὸ μεγαλύτερον απὸ τοῦτα εἶναι ἡ ἀγάπη.

And now there remains these three things: faith, hope, love: and the greatest of these [things] is love.

There is no grammatical anomaly for native Greek-speakers.

The feminine form of the neuter τὰ τρία ταῦτα is αἱ τρεῖς αὗται and is found in LXX Proverbs 30:15

τῇ βδέλλῃ τρεῖς θυγατέρες ἦσαν ἀγαπήσει ἀγαπώμεναι καὶ αἱ τρεῖς αὗται οὐκ ἐνεπίμπλασαν αὐτήν καὶ ἡ τετάρτη οὐκ ἠρκέσθη εἰπεῖν ἱκανόν.

The horse-leech had three dearly-beloved daughters: and these three did not satisfy her; and the fourth was not contented so as to say, Enough.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Thanks for rhe comment Paul. This post mentions a modern Greek linguist who reaches a different conclusion:

Timothy Decker said...

I want to be sure I am correctly understanding the grammatical argument put forth by Dabney and Hills. Particularly what Hills meant when he wrote “Surely in this verse [v. 6] the word Spirit is ‘personalized’, and yet the neuter gender is used [of “witness”; τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ μαρτυροῦν]. Therefore, since personalization did not bring about a change of gender in verse 6, it cannot fairly be pleaded as the reason for such a change in verse 8 [οἱ μαρτυροῦντες]. If, however, the Johannine comma is retained, a reason for placing the neuter nouns spirit, water, and blood in the masculine gender becomes readily apparent. It was due to the influence of the nouns Father and Word, which are masculine. Thus the hypothesis that the Johannine comma is an interpolation is full of difficulties.”

Is he saying that the CJ better explains why the participle describing the Spirit went from neuter in v. 6 to masculine in v. 8, among other things? And that "personalization" is not a consistent reason for the masculine in v. 8 when it remained neuter in v. 6?

Certainly you see the copulative clause τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες as self contained, and that the subject "three" being masculine plural governs what the adjoining predicate adjective will be? This is the case for both v. 6 (τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ μαρτυροῦν) and v. 8 (τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες), where the subject of the copulative in v. 6 is neuter singular and thus the predicate adjective must be neuter singular. If so, there is no grammatical difficulty without the CJ. The masculine plural participle μαρτυροῦντες of v. 8 takes it grammatical form b/c it is a participle (verbal adjective) describing a masculine plural. It could not be anything else but masculine plural, with or without the CJ.

This seems so obvious, I wonder if I am misunderstanding the argument. Perhaps you can correct me.

Timothy Decker said...

Disregard my previous question. I figured out my mistake. I got my subject and predicate adjectives reversed. The arguments make more sense now.