The Truth Behind Erasmus and 1 John 5:7

If you are one who pays any attention to the world of Text Criticism and the battle that seems to rage under the surface, then you will know that there is an Urban Legend floating around about Erasmus and his addition of 1 John 5:7 to his Greek New Testament. If you don't know, then it is possible that you may have heard something in passing. I want to familiarize you if you are unaware with the legend first before getting down to the truth of it.

First, in a link below I want to share with you a radio program from last year where Dr. Dan Wallace who is a leading New Testament scholar in the Evangelical world tells this urban legend about Erasmus's addition to the New Testament:

Dr. Wallace also told this story many years ago on John Ankerberg's program.

Dr. James White who wrote the famous work "The King James Only Controversy," also commented on this during an appearance on Todd Friel's program. 

Then we need to add to our list one of the protege's of Dr. Bruce Metzger, Dr. Bart Ehrman who is a leading atheist New Testament scholar. He is famous for attempting to topple traditional Christianity.

So now you see from the leading Evangelical and Atheist New Testament scholars the story has been passed around and accepted for quite some time now. I have two pieces of evidence that are of primary importance concerning this story about Erasmus and the alleged forgery. I did some digging and found the following. 

The name of the book referenced is "The Text of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th edition)" and on page 291 at the bottom, there is a shocking revelation at footnote #2. It says
"What is said on p. 101 above about Erasmus' promise to include the Comma Johanneum if one Greek manuscript were found that contained it, and his subsequent suspicion that MS. 61 was written expressly to force him to do so, needs to be corrected in light of the research of H. J. de Jonge, a specialist in Erasmian studies who finds no explicit evidence that supports this frequently made assertion; see his Erasmus and The Comma Johanneum', Epemerides Theologicae Lovanienses, lvi (1980), pp. 381-9."

Interesting that the late Dr. Bruce Metzger who was the mentor of the above mentioned Dr. Bart Ehrman produced this. However, this is a footnote, and was tucked away one hundred pages or so after the alleged story in the referenced work. The story itself was never taken out of the main text of Dr. Metzger's book, and the truth is that there are few who actually check the footnotes. There now is no support for this story, yet these leading scholars and popular teachers keep spreading it around. I am not sure why. Being meticulous researchers I figured they would have encountered this at one time or another. I want to share now with you the actual work that Metzger cited above by H.J. de Jonge. The link to the original is in the title and after the work. The references are not posted here, but in the original work by de Jonge. Also, some of the Latin isn't right due to the fact that this was copied from a facsimile. 


The history of thc study of the New Testament is far from being a subject of wide popular interest, even among New Testament scholars themselves. Yet there is one episode in this history which is surprisingly well known among both theologians and non-theologians I refer to the history of the Comma Johanneum (l John 5, 7b-8a) in the editions of the New Testament edited by Erasmus. It is generally known that Erasmus omitted this passage from his first edition of 1516 and his second of 1519, and only restored it in his third edition of 1522. The current version of the story is as follows. Erasmus is supposed to have replied to the criticism which was directed against him because of his omission, by proposing to include it if a single Greek manuscript could be brought forward as evidence. When such a manuscript was produced, he is said to have kept his word, even though from the outset he was suspicious that the manuscript had been written in order to oblige him to include the Comma Johanneum. We cite the version of the story given by Bruce M Metzger, since his work, thanks to its obvious qualities, has become an influential handbook and is in many respects representative of the knowledge of New Testament textual history among theologians. 

"In an unguarded moment Erasmus promised that he would insert the Comma Johanneum, as it is called, in future editions if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage. At length such a copy was found — or was made to order. As it now appears, the Greek manuscript had probably been written in Oxford about 1520 by a Franciscan friar named Froy (or Roy), who took the disputed words from the Latin Vulgate. Erasmus stood by his promise and inserted the passage in his third edition (1522), but he indicates in a lengthy footnote his suspicions that the manuscript had been prepared expressly in order to confute him" 

This version of events has been handed down and disseminated for more than a Century and a half by the most eminent critics and students of the text of the New Testament, for example S P Tregelles (1854) F J A Hort (188l) , F H A Scrivener (1883) , B F Westcott (1892) , A Bludau (1903)7, Eb Nestle (1903)  ,C H Turner (1924)" and F G Kenyon (1901, 1912/1926). The same tradition has also been disseminated in a number of works intended for a wider public interested in the textual transmission of the Bible or other ancient literature, for example in the works of W A Copinger (1897)", T H Darlow, and H F Moule (1903) , L D Reynolds and N G Wilson (1974) and J Finegan (1974/5). The story of the way Erasmus is said to have honored his promise is also handed down in the literature which refers specifically to the Humanist himself, for example by P S Allen (1910) is and by the authors of such excellent biographies as those by Preseived Smith (1923)1() and R H Bainton (1969). How often must Those who lecture in the New Testament or textual criticism at universities the world over have passed on the story of the good faith with which a deceived Erasmus kept his word, to the students in their lecture halls. The writer of these lines cannot plead innocence in this respect. 

Yet there are a number of difficulties in the story of Erasmus' promise and its consequences, which arouse a certain suspicion of its truthfulness. In the first place it is remarkable that there is no trace of this tradition in the works of the great experts in the history of the text of the New Testament in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We find not a word of it in Richard Simon's Histoe ctttique du teile du Nouveau Testament (1689) even though a special chapter of this work (ch xvm) is devoted to the Comma Johanneum. John Mills too is completely silent about Erasmus' promise, although in paragraph 1138 of the Prolegomena to his Novum Testamentum Graecum he refers specifically to the inclusion of the Comma Johanneum in the third edition of Erasmus' New Testament He even adds the interesting detail that Erasmus included the Comma Johanneum as early as June 1521, in a separate edition of his Latin translation published by Froben at Basle. This detail is important because it helps to determine the period of time within which Erasmus must have become aware of the Comma Johanneum in Greek. He was still unaware of it in May 1520 when he wrote his apologia Libei tertus against Edward Lee. Thus, he must have received evidence of the passage between May 1520 and June 1521 It is not known who brought it to his attention. 

Not only do Simon and Mills make no reference to Erasmus' promise, J Clericus does not mention it, either in his AI·, Cniita (1696, öften reprinted) or his commentary on l John 5,7 (17142 ) Nor do we find it in J J Wettstien (1751/2)1 8 , J le Long - C F Boiner — AG Masch (1788/90)19 , J D Michaelis (1788)20 , G W Meyer (1802/9)21 , J Townley (the author of Biblical Anecdotes",, 182l), or in T F Dibdin (1827)21 The earliest reference to Erasmus' promise of which I am aware is that öf T H Hörne in 1818. It remains unclear from which source Hörne derived his information. He was too scrupulous a critic to raise any suspicion that he was the inventor of the whole story. Moreover, Hörne himself published a list of more than fifty volumes, pamphlets critical notices on the Comma Johanneum which had appeared up to his time." He may thus very well have derived the details from a predecessor but it is scarcely feasible to go through all his material again. A second difficulty is that in the retelling of the story of Erasmus' supposed promise, there are striking variations. Some authors, such äs Horne, Darlow and Moule, Kenyon and Turner, relate that Erasmus made this promise in the controversy with his Spanish Opponent Jacobus Lopis Stunica. Others, among them Bludau and Bainton, say that the promise was given to his English assailant Edward Lee. Yet others write, without making a clear distinction, that Erasmus gave his promise in reaction to the criticisms of both Lee and Stunica, while others again leave it indeterminate, to whom the promise was directed. Now it is completely impossible that Erasmus could have given his pledge to Stunica, for he did not address himself to the Spaniard until his Apologia respondens, ad ea quae in Nouo Testamento taxauerat Jacobus Lopis Stunica, of September 152l. In this apologia he explains, in dealing with l John 5, that he had received a transcript of the Comma Johanneum, from a Codex Britannicus, and had inserted it into the text of l John, which was shortly to appear in a new Impression of his Novum Testamentum (1522) Therefore, Erasmus can hardly have given Stunica any promise containing the condition 'if a single Greek manuscript with the Comma Johanneum is found" Nor did Erasmus give such a promise to Lee at least not in any of the survivmg correspondence or apologias in which the Rotterdammer addressed Lee. 

A third problem is that the famous promise of Erasmus is not to be found anywhere else in his oeuvre. It is thus not surprising that, with one exception, none of the authors known to me who relate the story, refer to a specific passage in Erasmus or in other sixteenth-century literature, where such a pledge is to be found. The only exception is Bainton, who himself seems to have become suspicious and eventually includes a reference to a passage which is by no means a promise, äs will be clear from what follows. 

It is naturally exceptionally difficult, if not impossible in principle to furnish conclusive proof that someone did not say something. Yet in my opinion there is sufficient reason to assume that Erasmus, when he chose to insert the Comma Johanneum, did not feel himself constrained by any promise. He explained on several occasions what had led him to include this passage in his third edition. He did so 'so that no one would have occasion to criticize me out of malice", nt tut ut eauna calumniandt or äs he expressed it in his Annotationes on l John 5,7 ne cui sit causa calumniandi. It should be borne in mind that Lee had written that the omission of the Comma Johanneum brought with it the danger of a new revival of Arianism. This was of course a very serious insinuation. Erasmus had reason to fear that if he were suspected of heretical sympathies, his Novum Testamentum would miss its exalted goal. This Novum Testamentum was not in the first place intended äs an edition of the Greek New Testament, äs is incorrectly assumed. It was, in Erasmus' intention, in the first place a new, modern and readable translation of the New Testament into Latin. The function of the Greek text was secondary. It was to show that Erasmus' new Version rested on a firm foundation and that it was not just a reckless search for novelty. By his new translation Erasmus hoped to make the words of Christ and the apostles accessible to a wide circle in clear and easily understood prose. He wished to fill the world with the philosophia Christi, the simple pious, and practical Christianity which would best serve the world. To achieve this, äs many people äs possible had to read the New Testament But not the Vulgate which was full of all sorts of obscurities. A new, more readable and clearer translation was necessary, and that was Erasmus' Novum Instrumentum from 1519 entitled Novum Testamentum. The goal of Erasmus undertaking to imbue all Europe with a clear and simple gospel threatened to fall if Erasmus himself were tinged with any suspicion of unorthodoxy. For the sake of his ideal Erasmus chose to avoid any occasion for slander rather than persisting in philological accuracy and thus condemning himself to impotence. That was the reason why Erasmus included the Comma Johanneum even though he remained convinced that it did not belong to the original text of l John. 

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 Testamcntum. How then did the famous story arise of his promise and the way in which he honoured it? It is likely that it grew out of a misinterpretation of a passage in his Responsio ad Annotationes Eduardi Lei of May 1520. Lee was a truly quarrelsome individual a myopically conservative theologian later archbishop of York who troubled and pestered Erasmus for several years with his criticisms which were unusually mediocre of the Novum Instrumentum. Lee was one of several critics who had remarked on the absence of the Comma Johanneum in the first two editions. In 1520 Erasmus felt himself obliged to make a detailed reply to Lee. In his lengthy discussion of l John 5 7 Erasmus wrote äs follows: 

"Si mihi contigisset unum exemplar in quo fuisset quod nos legimus nimirum illinc adiecissem quod m caeteris aberat Id quia non contigit quod solum hcuit feci indicaui quid in Graecis codicibus minus esset. If a single manuscript had come into my hands in which stood what we read (say in the Latin Vulgate) then I would certainly have used it to fill in what was missing in the other manuscripts I had. Because that did not happen I have taken the only course which was permissible that is I have indicated (see in the Annotationes) what was missing from the Greek manuscripts." 

This is the passage which Bainton regarded as containing the promise which Erasmus is supposed to have redeemed later. It is to Bainton's credit that he at least tried to find the promise somewhere in Erasmus works no other author so far as I am aware took this trouble. Still no such promise can be read into the passage cited. It is a retrospective report of what Erasmus had done in 1516 and 1519. If he had had a Greek manuscript with the Comma Johanneum then he would have included the Comma. But he had not found a single such manuscript and consequently he omitted the Comma Johanneum. This is not a promise but a justification after the event of what had happened cast in the unfulfilled conditional. 

It is not impossible that another passage in Erasmus apologia against Lee played a part and gave reason for a misunderstanding. It was with particular reference to Erasmus omission of the Comma Johanneum that Lee had charged him with indolence ("supmitas"). According to Lee, Erasmus might very well have had, by some chance, a manuscript which gave an abbreviated text of l John 5,7-8, but he ought not to have published, on two occasions, the mutilated text of this manuscript, without consulting other manuscripts Lee here suggests that Erasmus, if he had looked at other Codices, would certainly have found a copy which contained the Comma Johanneum, but that he had been remiss in not doing so. In his answer to this Charge Erasmus explains that he consulted not just one but many manuscripts in England, Brabant and Basle, none of which contained the Comma Johanneum. He continues: 

"Quae est ista tanta supmitas (. ) si non consului Codices quorum mihi non potuit esse copia?'' Certe quot potui congessi Proferat Leus codicem Graecum, qui scnptum habeat, quod editio mea non habet, et doceat eius codicis mihi fuisse copiam, ac postea supinitatem mihi impingat " (Clencus, IX, 277A-B) "What sort of indolence is that, if I did not consult the manuscripts which I could not manage to have At least, I collected as many as I could. Let Lee produce a Greek manuscript in which is written the words lacking in my edition, and let him prove that I had access to this manuscript, and then let him accuse me of indolence" 

Nor can this passage be interpreted as a promise by Erasmus to include the Comma Johanneum if it is shown to him in a single Greek manuscript. Erasmus is here defending himself against the accusation of having deliberately neglected to search for Greek manuscripts in which the Comma Johanneum occurs. The accusation of Supinitas was thus, according to Erasmus, premature. Let Lee first prove that Erasmus neglected a manuscript containing the Comma Johanneum. If Lee can prove this negligence, with the evidence, then and only then will Erasmus accept Lee's accusation of Supinitas. Erasmus does not say that if Lee can prove this negligence, he will include the Comma Johanneum but only that in such a case, Lee may accuse him of Supinitas. Erasmus is not thinking of the possibility that he would have to insert the Comma Johanneum, for he regarded it as completely out of the question that the Comma should turn up in any Greek manuscript. The only point he is making is let Lee first prove my Supinitas, and then he can accuse me of it. The passage therefore does not contain any promise, but an exhortation to prove the truth of an accusation before making it.

Another misunderstanding deserves to be corrected As we showed above, Erasmus received a Greek text of the Comma Johanneum at some time between May 1520 and June 1521. This text had been copied from a Codex Britannicus also named, after a later owner, Codex Montfortianus, and now at Trinity College, Dublin (A 421), and designated as minuscule Gregory. It is as good as certain, as J R Harris demonstrated, that this manuscript was produced to order. Many writers on this subject, for example Tregelles, Kenyon and Metzger, assert that Erasmus himself suspected at the time that the Codex Britannicus had been produced to oblige him to include the Comma Johanneum. 

This is again a version of events which does not seem to be based on any passage in Erasmus' printed works or letters. It is true that Erasmus assumed that the Codex Britannicus was "recens." But so far as I am aware, his writings do not contain any expression from which it would appear that he suspected that the Codex Britannicus had been written especially to induce him to include the Comma Johanneum. The confusion presumably arose from a misunderstanding of a remark which Erasmus made in his first apologia against Stunica, and repeated in his Annotationes on l John 5. After declaring that now that the Comma Johanneum had been brought to his attention, in Greek, in a Codex Britannicus, he would include it on the basis of that manuscript, he wrote 

"Quamquam et hunc (sc codicem) suspicor ad Latmorum Codices fuisse castigatum" "Although I suspect this manuscript, too, to have been revised after the manuscripts of the Latin world" 

Erasmus docs not mean by this that the Codex Britannicus was interpolated to invalidate his own reading. He means that the Codex, like many other manuscripts, contained a text which had been revised after, and adapted to, the Vulgate. This was one of Erasmus' stock theories, to which he repeatedly referred in evaluating Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. He regarded manuscripts which deviated from the Byzantine text known to him, and showed parallel with the Vulgate, as having been influenced by the Vulgate. Erasmus believed that the Ecumenical Council of Ferrara and Florence (1438-45), whose chief object had been the reunion of the Latin and Greek churches, had decided in favour of adapting the Greek manuscripts to the Vulgate. In 1527 he commented on the adaptation of Greek manuscripts to the Latin as follows: 

"Hie obiter illud incidit admonendum, esse Graecorum quosdam Noui Testament! Codices ad Latmorum exemplana emendatos Id factum est, m foedere Graecorum cum Romana Ecclesia quod foedus testatur Bulla quae dicitur aurea Visum cst emm et hoc ad firmandam concordiam pertmere Et nos ohm in huiusmodi codicem mcidimus et tahs adhuc dicitur adservan in Bibhotheca Pontificia ( ) maiuscuhs descnptus literis." "It should be pointed out here in passing, that certain Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have been corrected in agreement with those of the Latin Christians. This was done at the time of the reunion of the Greeks and the Roman church. This union was confirmed in writing in the so-called Golden Bull. It was thought that this (see the adaptation of the Greek biblical manuscripts to the Latin) would contribute to the strengthening of unity. We too once came across a manuscript of this nature, and it is said that such a manuscript is still preserved in the papal library ( ) written in majuscule characters." 

The manuscript to which Erasmus refers at the end of this passage is the Codex Vaticanus par excellence, now Gr 1209, designated as B40 Erasmus regarded the text of this codex as influenced by the Vulgate and therefore inferior. For the same reasons he had earlier, in 1515/6, also excluded Gregory I as an inferior manuscript, from the constitution of the Greek text of his own Novum Instrumentum although this manuscript is now generally regarded as more reliable than the Codices which Erasmus preferred and made use of Erasmus passed the same verdict on the Codex Rhodiensis (minuscule Wettstein Paul 50 = Apostolos 52) from which Stunica cited readings in his polemic against Erasmus. 

Erasmus' view, according to which Greek manuscripts had been adapted to Latin, was indeed applicable to the Codex Britannicus the Comma Johanneum was no more than a retroversion of the Vulgate But for most other manuscripts, it was no more than an idee fixe. The Bulla aurea of the Council of Ferrara and Florence says nothing at all of any decision to revise Greek biblical manuscripts in accordance with the Vulgate. In 1534 Erasmus admitted that he had not read the bull himself, but only knew its content from hearsay. He maintained, however, that even if the bull did not say anything about the intended Latinisation of Greek manuscripts, this Latinisation had in fact been carried out in some cases. 

However erroneous Erasmus' theory of the Latinisation of Greek manuscripts may be in general, from an historical viewpoint it has played an important role. When J J Wettstein was working on his great edition of the New Testament which eventually appeared in 1751/2 he became increasingly convinced that the text of most of the old Greek Codices was influenced by the old Latin translation. He subscribed to Erasmus' evaluation of codex B and minuscule l, but he also extended the theory to the majority of the old Codices, among others, A, B, C, Dc , Dp , Fp, Kc , Lc , min I, 3 etc. He regarded all these manuscripts as unusable for the constitution of the text of the New Testament Wettstein's title to fame was formed by his excellent presentation of the copious text-critical material which he had collected, as well as by his commentary, but not by his insight into the history of the text. 

It is true that Erasmus repeatedly disqualified the Codex Vaticanus as a Latinising textual witness. Yet it should be pointed out nonetheless, that Erasmus was also the first scholar who appealed to the Codex Vaticanus for critical purposes. On 18 June 1521 Paul Bombasius, the secretary of the influential Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci at Rome, sent a letter to Erasmus containing a copy of l John 4, l-3 and 5,7-11 from the Codex Vaticanus. In his Annotationes on l John 5,7 Erasmus later stated that the Comma Johanneum was missing from the Codex Vaticanus, according to a transcript which Bombasius had made at his, Erasmus', request (meo rogatu). It appears from this that Erasmus himself had asked Bombasius to verify the passage in question in the Codex Vaticanus. It is with Erasmus that the Codex Vaticanus began to play a role in the textual criticism of the New Testament. Again, Erasmus also suspected the Codex Britannicus of having undergone the influence of the Vulgate. It cannot, however, be shown from Erasmus' writings, that he ever considered the Codex Britannicus as a product specially prepared to induce him to include the Comma Johanneum 


(1) The current view that Erasmus promised to insert the Comma Johanneum if it could be shown to him in a single Greek manuscript, has no foundation in Erasmus' works. Consequently it is highly improbable that he included the disputed passage because he considered himself bound by any such promise (2) It cannot be shown from Erasmus' works that he suspected the Codex Britannicus (min 61) of being written with a view to force him to include the Comma Johanneum. 

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For more on Henk Jan de Jonge see the following links:

While this research doesn't necessarily exonerate the Comma Johanneum from the eye of skeptics and text critics, it does prove to us that we sinful men are fallible regardless of our degree or position. One thing I found interesting is the length and time this legend has been passed along and encouraged throughout the years. This is why reading the actual sources are important and not just someone's opinion of them. We are all prone to exaggerate, to promote our preferred theory, and the experts aren't as thorough as one would think. I am a bit surprised at Dr. Wallace, because he isn't one to succumb to this kind of thing usually. However, Dr. White and Dr. Ehrman have been known to exaggerate the information that promotes their point of view to present a firm and assured position. One last thing. It is commonly believed that Erasmus didn't have access to Codex Vatacanus. I have heard Dr. White make this assertion from time to time. From de Jonge's research we can see that he did have access to the work, yet he didn't use it. We can only speculate if there is another reason why other than the fact that Erasmus thought the text had been Latinized. That being said, unless documentation is found proving any other reason, we just don't know beyond what is documented. Personally, I think this is important to point out and remember when hearing information that either allegedly proves or disproves a theory. Since men are so prone to deception and error, we need to remember not to fall into this trap ourselves. Also, we need to do our homework and strive to be humble and as objective as we possibly can. Nobody is totally objective. We all come to the table of ideas with presuppositions. It's just important that we differentiate between fact, opinion, speculation, and theory. If people did this more often, there wouldn't be as much confusion out there.

Some other links on this issue are below:

Erasmus Anecdotes, Puritan Reformed Journal Vol.

 Word Magazine # 54: The Comma Johanneum and the Papyri