George H. Guthrie

            George H. Guthrie


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The Fascinating Case of the Missing Manuscript!

The Fascinating Case of the Missing Manuscript!

If we look at 1 John 5:7-8 in the KJV, we find the following:

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.  

Compare this, for instance, to the ESV, which corresponds to all modern translations: 

“For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.”  

The question, “Why the difference?,” marked out in bold type in the first quotation, makes for a fascinating story and is perhaps the clearest example of why some words found in the KJV are not included in our modern translations.

The Backdrop

At the dawn of the 16th Century, a race was taking place to see who would be the first to publish a Greek New Testament. Jerome’s Latin “Vulgate” had been the translation of choice for a millennium, but with the Renaissance, new thinking was afoot, and old documents were being reconsidered.  In the first decade of the 1500s, a group of Catholic scholars in Spain began putting together what is known as the “Complutensian Polyglot” (the first word related to the city where it was produced and the second meaning, “multiple languages”), an impressive book that would have the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin texts of the Bible in parallel columns. Thus, as a part of this bigger project, the Greek New Testament was finished and printed in 1514. 

The next year Desiderius Erasmus, the greatest scholar of the Middle Ages, began rushing to get his own volume out the door, a two-columned book with the Greek text in one column and his own Latin translation in the other. He was in such a rush that the 1516 publication was a mess, riddled with lots of typographical errors, but he beat the Spanish to the publication punch. Although the Greek New Testament in the Polyglot was finished first, the team in Spain was waiting for the sanction of Pope Leo X, and their volume was not published until 1522. 

The Missing Manuscript

Erasmus had been studying both Greek and Latin manuscripts of the New Testament for years. As he worked on his Greek text, the documentary evidence was limited to a handful of manuscripts he had available to him at the time. Yet, when he came to 1 John 5:7-8 he noticed that none of the Greek manuscripts included a seemingly important part of the passage contained in the Latin Vulgate. That part, the reference to the “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost,” along with the locations “in heaven” and “in earth,” was missing. In fact, as Erasmus searched the documentary evidence further, he could find no Greek manuscripts at all that had this part of the verse. Moreover, none of the older Latin manuscripts of Scripture had that part of the verse either (we know today that no Latin Vulgate manuscript prior to about AD 800 has the words in question). It was a case of “the missing manuscript!” 

Erasmus was convinced that the words referring to the Trinity were not original to 1 John. So he left the words out of the first two editions of his Greek New Testament. Bruce Metzger, one of the leading scholars working with manuscript evidence, believed that the words may have come from a treatise written in fourth century, the words subsequently being added in the margin of a Latin manuscript as a reflection on the Trinity. A later scribe, perhaps, copied the words into a copy of the Latin Vulgate.

Backlash and a Moment of Poor Judgment

Yet, with the publication of his first two editions of the Greek text, the outcry against Erasmus’s omission of the trinitarian formula was loud and long, the scholar facing intense public pressure. Among other things, he was accused of not believing in the Trinity, and controversy could have hurt both Erasmus's reputation and sales of his text [see the note at the end of this post]. In hindsight, it was a poor decision, but because of heated public opinion, the “trinitarian confession” was included in edition 3 of Erasmus's Greek text. Nevertheless, in an extensive footnote, Erasmus offered all the reasons he thought the words should not be there!

Why are the Words in the King James and not in our Modern Translations?

As I noted in my last post, Erasmus’s Greek New Testament was behind the Greek text used by the translators of the King James Version. Since that Greek New Testament, earlier English translations, and the Latin Vulgate itself included the “the Father, the Word, and Holy Ghost,” along with the references to heaven and bearing witness in earth, these words made it into King James’s Authorized Version. Almost all modern versions have dropped the words since any evidence for the variant in the Greek manuscripts is extremely late, extremely rare, and thus extremely poor. This in no way calls into question the Church’s teaching on the Trinity; the Father, Son, and Spirit are referred to throughout the New Testament! Yet it does preserve the original form of 1 John.


So there you have “Case of the Missing Manuscript!” It is also, perhaps, our most striking example of why some words from the KJV have been left out of our modern translations!

[Note: In the first edition of this post, I included a story long passed down through books on the history of textual criticism, which has Erasmus making a vow that if even one Greek manuscript could be found with the "trinitarian formula," he would include them in his next edition. I got push-back on the story from a couple of readers, including my friend and Cambridge Ph.D. student (whose work is in textual criticism), Peter Gurry. Peter pointed me to research that rightly calls this story into question, so I have edited it out. It seems pressure on him was Erasmus's motivation. H. J. De Jonge, Erasmus and The Comma Johanneum, p. 383 states, "The real reason which induced Erasmus to include the Comma Johanneum was thus clearly his care for his good name and for the success of his Novum Testamentum." So it was not a vow but a scholar's reputation and his desire that his published work have a fighting chance that drove the decision! Thanks also to James Snapp, who pointed out a problem with my statement that "no Greek manuscripts prior to the sixteenth century" had the reading. If one reads Greg. 629 as latter sixteen century, with Riggenbach, that is true; but others consider that manuscript to be fourteenth century.]

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