The Omission of the Three Heavenly Witnesses by Alfred Plummer (1 John 5:7)
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The outcry which has been made in some quarters against the Revisers for omitting the disputed words in 1 John v. 7, and without a hint in the margin that there is any authority for them, is not creditable to English scholarship. The veteran scholar Dollinger expressed his surprise at this outcry in a conversation with the present writer in July, 1882: and he expressed his amazement and amusement that anyone in these days should write a book in defence of the passage, in a conversation in September, 1883. The Revisers' action is a very tardy act of justice; and we may hope that, whether their work as a whole is authorised or not, leave will before long be granted to the clergy to omit these words in reading i John v. as a Lesson at Morning or Evening Prayer, or as the Epistle for the First Sunday after Easter. The insertion of the passage in the first instance was quite indefensible, and it is difficult to see upon what sound principles its retention can be defended. There would be no difficulty in treating this case by itself and leaving other disputed texts to be dealt with hereafter. The passage stands absolutely alone (a) in the completeness of the evidence against it, (b) in the momentous character of the insertion. A summary of the evidence at greater length than could conveniently be given in a note will convince any unprejudiced person that (as Dr Dollinger observed) nothing in textual criticism is more certain than that the disputed words are spurious.
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(i) The External Evidence.
1. Every Greek uncial MS. omits the passage.
2. Every Greek cursive MS. earlier than the fifteenth century omits the passage.
3. Out of about 250 known cursive MSS. only two (No. 162 of the 15th century and No. 34 of the 16th century) contain the passage, and in them it is a manifest translation from a late recension of the Latin Vulgate.
Erasmus hastily promised that if he could find the words in a single Greek MS. he would insert them in his text; and on the authority of No. 34 he inserted them in his third edition; Beza and Stephanus inserted them also: and hence their presence in all English Versions until the Revised Version of 1881.
4. Every Ancient Version of the first four centuries omits the passage.
5. Every Version earlier than the fourteenth century, except the Latin, omits the passage.
6. No Greek Father quotes the passage in any of the numerous discussions on the doctrine of the Trinity. Against Sabellianism and Arianism it would have been almost conclusive.
It has been urged that the orthodox Fathers did not quote v. 7 because in conjunction with v. 8 it might be used in the interests of Arianism. But in that case why did not the Arians quote v.7? Had they done so, the orthodox would have replied and shewn the true meaning of both verses. Evidently both parties were ignorant of its existence.
Again, it has been urged that the Greek Synopsis of Holy Scripture printed in some editions of the Greek Fathers, and also the so-called Disputation with Arius, "seem to betray an acquaintance with the disputed verse." Even if this 'seeming' could be shewn to be a reality, the fact would prove no more than that the interpolation existed in a Greek as well as a Latin form about the fifth century. Can we seriously defend a text which does not even 'seem' to be known to a single Greek Father until 350 years or more after S. John's death. Could we defend a passage as Chaucer's which was never quoted until the nineteenth century, and was in no edition of his works of earlier date than that?—And the 'seeming' can not be shewn to be a reality.
7. No Latin Father earlier than the fifth century quotes the passage.
It is sometimes stated that Tertullian possibly, and S. Cyprian certainly, knew the passage. Even if this were true, it would prove nothing for the genuineness of the words against the mass of testimony mentioned in the first six of these paragraphs. Such a fact would only prove that the insertion, which is obviously of Latin origin, was made at a very early date. But the statement is not true. "Tertullian and Cyprian use language which makes it morally certain that they would have quoted these words had they known them" (Westcott and Hort Vol. II. p. 104).
Tertullian's words are as follows:—'De meo sumet,' inquit, sicut ipse de Patris. Ita connexus Patris in Filio, et Filii in Paracleto, tres efficit cohaerentes alterum ex altero: qui tres unum sunt, non unus; quomodo dictum est, 'Ego et Pater unum sumus,' ad substantiae unitatem, non ad numeri singularitatem. "He saith, He shall take of Mine (John xvi. 14), even as He Himself of the Father. Thus the connexion of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Paraclete, maketh Three that cohere together one from the other: which Three are one Substance, not one Person; as it is said, I and My Father are one (John x. 30), in respect to unity of essence, not to singularity of number" (Adv. Praxean. xxv.).
S. Cyprian writes thus; Dicit Dominus, 'Ego et Pater unum sumus'; et iterum de Patre et Filio et Spiritu Sancto scriptum est, 'Et tres unum sunt.' "The Lord saith, I and the Father are one; and again it is written concerning the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, And three are one" (De Unit. Eccl. vi.).
It is very difficult to believe that Tertullian's words contain any allusion to the disputed passage. The passage in S. Cyprian seems at first sight to look like such an allusion; but in all probability he has in his mind the passage which follows the disputed words; 'the spirit, the water, and the blood: and the three agree in one'; the Latin Version of which runs, spiritus et aqua et sanguis; et hi tres unum sunt. For the Vulgate makes no difference between the conclusions of v. 7 and 8; in both cases the sentence ends with et hi tres unum sunt. That S. Cyprian should thus positively allude to 'the spirit, the water, and the blood' as 'the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit' will seem improbable to no one who is familiar with the extent to which the Fathers make any triplet found in Scripture, not merely suggest, but signify the Trinity. To take an example from Cyprian himself: "We find that the three children with Daniel, strong in faith and victorious in captivity, observed the third, sixth, and ninth hour, as it were, for a sacrament of the Trinity, which in the last times had to be manifested. For both the first hour in its progress to the third shews forth the consummated number of the Trinity, and also the fourth proceeding to the sixth declares another Trinity; and when from the seventh the ninth is completed, the perfect Trinity is numbered every three hours" (Dom. Orat, xxxiv).
But perhaps the most conclusive argument in favour of the view that Cyprian is alluding to 'the spirit, the water and the blood,' and not to 'the Three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit,' is S. Augustine's treatment of the passage in question. In all his voluminous writings there is no trace of the clause about the Three Heavenly Witnesses; but about 'the spirit, the water and the blood' he writes thus;—"Which three things if we look at as they are in themselves, they are in substance several and distinct, and not one. But if we will inquire into the things signified by these, there not unreasonably comes into our thoughts the Trinity itself, which is the one, only, true, supreme God, Father, and Son and Holy Spirit, of whom it could most truly be said, There are Three Witnesses, and the Three are One. So that by the term 'spirit' we should understand God the Father to be signified; as indeed it was concerning the worshipping of Him that the Lord was speaking, when He said, God is spirit. By the term 'blood,' the Son; because the Word was made flesh. And by the term 'water,' the Holy Spirit; as, when Jesus spake of the water which He would give to them that thirst, the Evangelist saith, But this said He of the Spirit, which they that believed on Him were to receive. Moreover, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are witnesses, who that believes the Gospel can doubt, when the Son saith, I am one that bear witness of Myself, and the Father that sent Me, He beareth witness of Me? Where, though the Holy Spirit is not mentioned, yet He is not to be thought separated from them" (Contra Maxim. II. xxii. 3). Is it credible that S. Augustine would go to S. John's Gospel to prove that the Father and the Son might be called witnesses if in the very passage which he is explaining they were called such? His explanation becomes fatuous if the disputed words are genuine. A minute point of some significance is worth remarking, that in these passages both S. Cyprian and S. Augustine invariably write 'the Son,' not 'the Word,' which is the expression used in the disputed passage.
Facundus of Hermiana in his Defense of the "Three Chapters" (c. A.d. 550) explains 1 John v. 5 in the same manner as S. Augustine, quoting the verse several times and evidently knowing nothing of v. 7. This shews that late in the sixth century the passage was not generally known even in North Africa. Moreover he quotes the passage of S. Cyprian as authority for this mystical interpretation of v. 8. This shews how (300 years after he wrote) S. Cyprian was still understood by a Bishop of his own Church, even after the interpolation had been made. Attempts have been made to weaken the evidence of Facundus by asserting that Fulgentius, who is a little earlier in date, understood Cyprian to be referring to v. 7, not to v. 8. It is by no means certain that this is the meaning of Fulgentius; and, even if it is, it proves no more than that in the sixth century, as in the nineteenth, there were some persons who believed that Cyprian alludes to 1 John v. 7. Even if such persons were right, it would only shew that this corruption, like many other corruptions of the text, was in existence in the third century.
This may suffice to shew that the passage in Cyprian probably refers to 1 John v. 8 and gives no support to v. 7. And this probability becomes something like a certainty when we consider the extreme unlikelihood of his knowing a text which was wholly unknown to S. Hilary, S. Ambrose, and S. Augustine; which is absent from the earliest MSS. of the Vulgate (and consequently was not known to Jerome); and which is not found in Leo 1.
The anonymous treatise On Rebaptism (which begins with a fierce attack on the view of S. Cyprian that heretics ought to be rebaptized, and was therefore probably written before the martyrdom of the bishop) twice quotes the passage (xv. and xix.), and in each case says nothing about the Three bearing witness in heaven, but mentions only the spirit, the water, and the blood. This confirms the belief that the words were not found in the Latin Version in use in north Africa at that time.
Lastly, the letter of Leo the Great to Flavianus in B.C. 449, shortly before the Council of Chalcedon, "supplies positive evidence to the same effect for the Roman text by quoting w. 4—8 without the inserted words" (Westcott and Hort Vol. II. p. 104).
Therefore the statement, that No Latin Father earlier than the fifth century quotes the passage, is strictly correct. The words in question first occur in some Latin controversial writings towards the end of the fifth century, but are not often quoted until the eleventh. The insertion appears to have originated in North Africa, which at the close of the fifth century was suffering from a cruel persecution under the Arian Vandals. The words are quoted in part in two of the works attributed to Vigilius of Thapsus, and a little later in one by Fulgentius of Ruspe. They are also quoted in a confession of faith drawn up by Eugenius, Bishop of Carthage, and presented to Hunneric c. A.d. 484. But it is worth noting that in these first appearances of the text the wording of it varies: the form has not yet become set. The Prologus Galeatus to the Catholic Epistles, falsely written in the name of Jerome, blames the Latin translators of the Epistle for omitting Patris et Filii et Spiritus testimonium. But not until some centuries later are the inserted words often cited even by Latin writers. Bede, the representative scholar of Western Christendom in the eighth century, omits all notice of them in his commentary, and probably did not know them; he comments on every other verse in the chapter.
The external evidence against them could not well be much stronger. If S. John had written the words, who would wish to expel such conclusive testimony to the doctrine of the Trinity from Scripture? If anyone had wished to do so, how could he have kept the words out of every MS. and every Version for four centuries? And had he succeeded in doing this, how could they have been recovered?
In short, we may use in this case the argument which Tertullian uses with such force in reference to the Christian faith. "Is it credible that so many and such important authorities should have strayed into giving unanimous testimony?" Ecquid verisimile est ut tot et tantae ecclesiae in unam fidem erraverint?
(ii) Internal Evidence.
But it is sometimes said, that, although the external evidence is no doubt exceedingly strong, yet it is not the whole of the case. The internal evidence also must be considered, and that tells very powerfully the other way. Let us admit for the sake of argument that the internal evidence is very strongly in favour of the genuineness of the disputed words. Let us assume that the passage, though making sense without the words (as is indisputably the case), makes far better sense with the words. Let us suppose that the sense of the passage when thus enlarged is so superior to the shorter form of it, that it would be incredible that anyone to whom the longer form had occurred would ever write the shorter one. Can all this prove, in the teeth of abundant evidence to the contrary, that the longer and vastly superior passage was written, and not the shorter and inferior one? If twenty reporters quite independently represent an orator as having uttered a very tame and clumsy sentence, which the insertion of a couple of short clauses would make smooth and far more telling, would this fact convince us that the orator must have spoken the two clauses, and that twenty reporters had all accidentally left just these two clauses out? The fact that in a few out of many editions of the orator's collected speeches, published many years after his death, these two clauses were found, but not always in exactly the same words, would hardly strengthen our belief that they were actually uttered at the time. No amount of internal probability, supplemented by subsequent evidence of this kind, ought to shake our confidence in the reports of the twenty writers who took down the speaker's words at the moment. Where the external evidence is ample, harmonious, and credible, considerations of internal evidence are out of place. If the authorities which omit the words in question had united in representing S. John as having written nonsense or blasphemy, then, in spite of their number and weight and unanimity, we should refuse to believe them. But here no such doubts are possible; and the abundance and coherence of the external evidence tell us that the internal evidence, whatever its testimony, cannot be allowed any weight.
And here it is very important to bear in mind an obvious but not always remembered truth. Although internal evidence by itself may be sufficient to decide what an author did not write, it can never by itself be sufficient to decide what he did write. Without any external evidence we may be certain that S. John did not write 'The Word cannot come in the flesh;' but without external evidence we cannot know what he did write. And if the external evidence amply testifies that he wrote 'The Word became flesh,' it is absurd to try and ascertain from the internal evidence what (in our judgment) he must have written. So also in the present case it is absurd to say that the internal evidence (even if altogether in favour of the disputed words) can prove that S. John wrote the words.
The case has been discussed on this basis for the sake of argument and to meet the extraordinary opinion that the internal evidence is in favour of the inserted words. But as a matter of fact internal considerations require us to expel the clauses in question almost as imperatively as does the testimony of MSS., Versions, and Fathers.
1. The inserted words break the sense. In v. 6 we have the water, the blood, and the spirit mentioned; and they are recapitulated in S. John's manner in v. 8. The spurious words in v. 7 make an awkward parenthesis, in order to avoid which, v. 7 is sometimes inserted after v. 8.
2. S. John nowhere speaks of 'the Father' and 'the Word' together. He either says' God' and 'the Word' (John i. 1, 2, 13, 14; Rev. xix. 13), or 'the Father' and 'the Son' (1 John ii. 22, 23, 24, &c. &c). John i. 14 is no exception; 'father' in that passage has no article in the Greek, and should not have a capital letter in English. S. John never uses PATHR for the Father without the article; and the meaning of the clause is 'the glory as of an only son on a mission from a father.' Contrast, as marking S. John's usage, John i. 1 with i. 18.
3. Neither in his Gospel, nor in the First Epistle, does S. John use the theological term 'the Word' in the body of the work: in both cases this expression, which is peculiar to himself in N.T., is confined to the Prologue or Introduction.
4. The inserted words are in the theological language of a later age. No Apostle or Evangelist writes in this sharp, clear cut style respecting the Persons in the Trinity. The passage is absolutely without anything approaching to a parallel in N.T. If they were original, they would throw the gravest doubt upon the Apostolic authorship of the Epistle. As Haupt observes, "No one can deny that in the whole compass of Holy Writ there is no passage even approaching the dogmatic precision with which, in a manner approximating to the later ecclesiastical definitions, this one asserts the immanent Trinity. Such a verse could not have been omitted by inadvertence; for even supposing such a thing possible in a text of such moment, the absence of the words EN TH GH of v. 8 would still be inexplicable. The omission must then have been intentional, and due to the hand of a heretic. But would such an act have remained uncondemned? And were all our MSS. produced by heretics or framed from heretical copies?"
5. The incarnate Son bears witness to man; and the Spirit given at Pentecost bears witness to man; and through the Son, and the Spirit, and His messengers in Old and New Testament, the Father bears witness to man;—respecting the Sonship and Divinity of Jesus Christ. But in what sense can the Three Divine Persons be said to bear witness in heaven? Is there not something almost irreverent in making Them the counterpart of the triple witness on earth? And for whose benefit is the witness in heaven given? Do the angels need it? And if they do, what has this to do with the context? Nor can we avoid this difficulty by saying that the Three are in heaven, but bear witness on earth. It is expressly stated that the Three bear witness in heaven, while three other witnesses do so on earth.
6. The addition 'and these Three are one,' though exactly what was required by the interpolators for controversial purposes, is exactly what is not required here by the context. What is required is, not that the Three Witnesses should in essence be only One, which would reduce the value of the testimony; but that the Three should agree, which would enhance the value of the testimony.
On this part of the evidence the words of F. D. Maurice respecting the passage are worth considering. "If it was genuine, we should be bound to consider seriously what it meant, however much its introduction in this place might puzzle us, however strange its phraseology might appear to us. Those who dwell with awe upon the Name into which they have been baptized; those who believe that all the books of the Bible, and St John's writings more than all the rest, reveal it to us; those who connect it with Christian Ethics, as I have done; might wonder that an Apostle should make a formal announcement of this Name in a parenthesis, and in connexion with such a phrase as bearing record, one admirably suited to describe the intercourse of God with us, but quite unsuitable, one would have thought, as an expression of His absolute and eternal being. Still, if it was really one of St John's utterances, we should listen to it in reverence, and only attribute these difficulties to our own blindness. As we have the best possible reasons for supposing it is not his, but merely the gloss of some commentator, which crept into the text, and was accepted by advocates eager to confute adversaries, less careful about the truth they were themselves fighting for,—we may thankfully dismiss it" (Epistles of St John pp. 276, 277).
We have, therefore, good grounds for saying that the internal evidence, no less than the external, requires us to banish these words from the text. They are evidence of the form which Trinitarian doctrine assumed in North Africa in the fifth century, and possibly at an earlier date. They are an old gloss on the words of S. John; valuable as a specimen of interpretation, but without the smallest claim to be considered original. Had they not found a place in the Textus Receptus, few people not bound (as Roman Catholics are) to accept the later editions of the Vulgate without question, would have dreamed of defending them. Had the translators of 1611 omitted them, no one (with the evidence, which we now possess, before him) would ever have dreamed of inserting them. In Greek texts the words were first printed in the Complutensian edition of A. D. 1514. Erasmus in his first two editions (1516 and 1518) omitted them; but having given his unhappy promise to insert them if they could be found in any Greek MS., he printed them in his third edition (1552), on the authority of the worthless Codex Britannicus (No. 34). Stephanus and Beza inserted them also: and thus they obtained a place in the universally used Textus Receptus. Luther never admitted them to his translation, and in the first edition of his commentary declared them to be spurious; but in the second edition he followed the third edition of Erasmus and admitted the words. They first appear in translations published in Switzerland without Luther's name, as in the Zurich edition of Froschover (1529). They were at first commonly printed either in different type or in brackets. The Basle edition of Bryllinger (1552) was one of the first to omit the brackets. Perhaps the last edition which omitted the words in the German Version is the quarto of Zach. Schurer (1620). Among English Versions the Revised of 1881 has the honour of being the first to omit them. Tyndale in his first edition (1525) printed them as genuine, in his second (1534) and third (1535) he placed them in brackets, in the second edition with a difference of type. Cranmer (1539) follows Tyndale's second edition. But in the Genevan (1557) the difference of type and the brackets disappear, and are not restored in the Authorised Version (1611).
The following by no means complete list of scholars who have pronounced against the passage will be of interest. After Richard Simon had led the way in this direction towards the close of the seventeenth century he was followed in the eighteenth by Bentley, Clarke, Emlyn, Gibbon, Hezel, Matthaei, Michaelis, Sir Isaac Newton, Porson, Semler, and Wetstein. In the nineteenth century we have, among others, Alexander, Alford, Davidson, Dollinger, Dusterdieck, F. W. Farrar, Field, Haddan, Hammond, Haupt, Hort, Huther, Lachmann, Lightfoot, Marsh, F. D. Maurice, McClellan, Meyrick, Renan, Sanday, Scrivener, Scholz, Tischendorf, Tregelles, Turton, Weiss, Weizsacker, Westcott, De Wette, Wordsworth, and the Revisers. Even the most conservative textual critics have abandoned the defence of this text.
Some will perhaps think that this writing here is wasted labour: that it is a needlessly elaborate slaying of the slain. But so long as any educated Englishman, above all, so long as any English clergyman, believes, and indeed publicly maintains, that the passage is genuine, or even possibly genuine, trouble to demonstrate its spuriousness will not be thrown away.