E. F. Hills and the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7-8)

“This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood.  And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.  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” (1 Jn 5:6-8).

Edward Freer Hills was a graduate of Yale, Harvard, and Chicago Universities, and of Westminster and Columbia Theological Seminaries, and earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate in New Testament text criticism.  One of his books has become a standard text for the defence of the King James Version of the Bible and the Textus Receptus upon which the KJV is based.  His examination of the Johannine Comma is worth the time to consider.  The following quotes concerning the Johannine Comma have been taken from that book.

(b) The Early Existence of the Johannine Comma 

The first undisputed citations of the Johannine comma occur in the writing of two 4th-century Spanish bishops, Priscillian, who in 385 was beheaded by the Emperor Maximus on the charge of sorcery and heresy, and Idacius Clarus, Priscillian’s principal adversary and accuser.  In the 5th century the Johannine comma was quoted by several orthodox African writers to defend the doctrine of the Trinity against the gainsaying of the Vandals, who ruled North Africa from 439 to 534 and were fanatically attached to the Arian heresy.  And about the same time it was cited by Cassiodorus (480-570), in Italy.  The comma is also found in r an Old Latin manuscript of the 5th or 6th century, and in the Speculum, a treatise which contains an Old Latin text. 

(c) Is the Johannine Comma an Interpolation?

Thus on the basis of the external evidence it is at least possible that the Johannine comma is a reading that somehow dropped out of the Greek New Testament text but was preserved in the Latin text through the usage of the Latin-speaking Church, and this possibility grows more and more toward probability as we consider the internal evidence.

In the first place, how did the Johannine comma originate if it be not genuine, and how did it come to be interpolated into the Latin New Testament text?  To this question modern scholars have a ready answer.  It arose, they say, as a trinitarian interpretation of 1 John 5:8, which originally read as follows: For there are three that bear witness, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one……..

……..Thus, according to the critical theory, there grew up in the Latin-speaking regions of ancient Christendom a trinitarian interpretation of the spirit, the water, and the blood mentioned in 1 John 5:8, the spirit signifying the Father, the blood the Son, and the water the Holy Spirit.  And out of this trinitarian interpretation developed the Johannine comma, which contrasts the witness of the Holy Trinity in heaven with the witness of the spirit, the water, and the blood on earth.  

But just at this point the critical theory encounters a serious difficulty.  If the comma originated in a trinitarian interpretation of 1 John 5:8, why does it not contain the usual trinitarian formula , namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Why does it exhibit the singular combination, never met with elsewhere, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit?  According to some critics, this unusual phraseology was due to the efforts of the interpolator who first inserted the Johannine comma into the New Testament text.  In a mistaken attempt to imitate the style of the Apostle John, he changed the term Son to Word.  But this is to attribute to the interpolator a craftiness which thwarted his own purpose in making this interpolation, which was surely to uphold the doctrine of the Trinity, including the eternal generation of the Son.  With this as his main concern it is very unlikely that he would abandon the time-honored formula, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and devise an altogether new one, Father, Word, and Holy Spirit. 

In the second place, the omission of the Johannine comma seems to leave the passage incomplete…..

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.

(d) Reasons for the Possible Omission of the Johannine Comma

…….In the first place, it must be remembered that the comma could easily have been omitted accidentally through a common type of error which is called homoioteleuton (similar ending).  A scribe copying 1 John 5:7-8 under distracting conditions might have begun to write down these words of verse 7, there are three that bear witness, but have been forced to look up before his pen had completed this task.  When he resumed his work, his eye fell by mistake on the identical expression in verse 8.  This error would cause him to omit all of the Johannine comma except the words in earth, and these might easily have been dropped later in the copying of this faulty copy.  Such an accidental omission might even have occurred several times, and in this way there might have grown up a considerable number of Greek manuscripts which did not contain this reading.

In the second place, it must be remembered that during the 2nd and 3rd centuries (between 220 and 270, according to Harnack) the heresy which orthodox Christians were called upon to combat was not Arianism (since this error had not yet arisen) but Sabellianism (so named after Sabellius, one of its principal promoters), according to which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were one in the sense that they were identical.  Those that advocated this heretical view were called Patripassians (Father-sufferers), because they believed that God the Father, being identical with Christ, suffered and died upon the cross, and Monarchians, because they claimed to uphold the Monarchy (sole-government) of God.

It is possible, therefore, that the Sabellian heresy brought the Johannine comma into disfavour with orthodox Christians.  The statement, these three are one, no doubt seemed to them to teach the Sabellian view that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were identical.  And if during the course of the controversy manuscripts were discovered which had lost this reading in the accidental manner described above, it is easy to see how the orthodox party would consider these mutilated manuscripts to represent the true text and regard the Johannine comma as a heretical addition.  In the Greek-speaking East especially the comma would be unanimously rejected, for here the struggle against Sabellianism was particularly severe.

Thus it was not impossible that during the 3rd century amid the stress and strain of the Sabellian controversy, the Johannine comma lost its place in the Greek text but was preserved in the Latin texts of Africa and Spain, where the influence of Sabellianism was probably not so great.  In other words, it is not impossible that the Johannine comma was one of those few true readings of the Latin Vulgate not occurring in the Traditional Greek Text but incorporated into the Textus Receptus under the guiding providence of God.  In these rare instances God called upon the usage of the Latin-speaking Church to correct the usage of the Greek-speaking Church” (Hills, 1993, p 209-213).


Hills E. F. 1993, “The King James Version Defended”, copyright 1956, 1973 by Edward F. Hills; copyright 1984 by Marjorie J. Hills, publ. The Christian Research Press, Des Moines, Iowa