Priscillian, the Comma Johanneum, and Consistency

by Luke Wayne
Return to King James Onlyism

One of the most common passages to come up in King James Only discussions is 1 John 5:7-8, the "Comma Johanneum." Though the manuscript evidence is overwhelmingly against the authenticity of the verse, King James Onlyists must defend this text because it is included in the KJV. Now, other translations like the NKJV and MEV also contain the verse, so even if it were original, it would not prove King James Onlyism true, but if the verse is not a genuine part of Scripture, then King James Onlyism is proven false. Thus, not having the manuscripts to turn to, The King James Only advocate generally turn to alleged citations of the Comma in the Early Church Fathers. Of these, the most credible citation is that in Priscillian of Avila. Pricillian, an ascetic monk of the late fourth century, unambiguously attributes words very similar to 1 John 5:7-8 to John:

"John says there are three who testify on earth, the water, the flesh, and the blood, and these three are one, and there are three who testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one in Jesus Christ," (Priscillian of Avila, Tractate 1, Sections 46-48).1

To many King James Onlyists, these words from Priscillian, combined only with copies of the Latin Vulgate and a tiny number of very late medieval manuscripts (most if not all after from during or after the 16th century) are enough to overturn the entire Greek manuscript tradition along with all the Syriac, Coptic, and other ancient translations and even numerous citations from other Church fathers that plainly lack the comma. If this is a fair standard, however, we ought to be consistent in its application. Priscillian cited many other biblical passages. What if we applied the same standards to one of these?

A Test Case

In the third chapter of John's gospel, we read about the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. During this exchange, Jesus says:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," (John 3:5).

Priscillian, however, quotes this passages somewhat differently, saying:

"As it is written, 'nobody will ascend into the kingdoms of the heavens except for that who was born again of water and the Holy Spirit," (Priscillian of Avila, Tractate 2, Section 62-63).2

Priscillian's version differs in two key clauses:

  1. "unless one is born of water and the Spirit" is expanded to read "except for that who was born again of water and the Holy Spirit."
  2. "the kingdom of God" is replaced with "the kingdoms of the heavens."

If we follow the same line of thinking by which King James Onlyists argue for the comma, what will we do with these variants?

Born Again of the Holy Ghost

In the first case, the reading of "born again of water and of the Spirit" is in much the same position as the Comma of 1 John 5:7. It is utterly unknown in the Greek manuscript tradition and is also absent in most of the ancient translations. Like the Comma, however, it does have support in the Latin. It is the reading of the Clementine Vulgate recension, and is also found in Roman Catholic English translations from before the time of the KJV:

"Jesus answered: Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," (John 3:5, Douay Rheims).

Earlier still, the 14th-Century English John Wycliffe Bible (also translated from the Latin manuscripts) reads:

"Truly, truly, I say to thee, but a man be born again of water, and of the Holy Ghost, he may not enter into the kingdom of God," (John 3:5, Wycliffe).

Thus, we can say confidently that at least the later Latin tradition favors this reading. But can we go back earlier? Indeed. While the oldest surviving Vulgate manuscripts do not contain this reading, we know that early Vulgate manuscripts once did because we find it in the 10th and 11th century "West Saxon Gospels," a translation from the Latin Vulgate into an early form of English. The text there reads:

"Se hælend hym andswerede & cwæð. Soð ic þe segge buton hwa beo ge-edkenned of watere & of halegen gaste ne maig he in-faren on godes riche," (John 3:5, West Saxon Gospels).

While this form of English is so old as to be unintelligible to modern readers, even today we can make out the key phrase "of watere & of halegen gaste" or "of water and of Holy Ghost." Thus, we have manuscript evidence that this was part of the Latin tradition at least as far back as the 900s AD. But there is still more. The fourth-century church father, Augustine, cites this verse once as "Except a man be born of water and of the Holy Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God," (Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichean, Book 24, Chapter 1) and he elsewhere writes of "those who are born of water and of the Holy Spirit," (Augustine, The Enchiridion, Chapter 39). Thus, we have the Latin tradition, at least in part, and we have some fourth-century church fathers (Priscillian and Augustine). In short, we have exactly the same kind of evidence for "but a man be born again of water, and of the Holy Ghost" as we do for the Comma Johanneum of 1 John 5:7. If the King James Onlyist will accept this for the latter, why not for the former?

The Kingdom of Heaven

We likewise noted that Priscillian replaces "Kingdom of God" in John 3:5 with "kingdoms of the heavens." Is there any other support for this reading? Surprisingly, yes. The original scribe of Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century) supports the reading "kingdom of heaven," as does Uncial 0141 (tenth century), and Minuscules 245 (late 12th century), 291, 472, and 1009 (all 13th century), and Lectionary 26 (also 13th century). This may not sound like a lot, and indeed it's not, but it is about as many as the Comma, and every one of them is much earlier than any manuscript to have the Comma added to it. The Latin also steps in to support "Kingdom of Heaven" through the fifth-century Old Latin Codex Palatinus (earlier than any Latin source to contain the comma). What's more, this reading is also quite well attested in very early church fathers. As early as the second century, Justin Martyr writes:

"Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven," (Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 61).

Later in the same century, Irenaeus is said to have written:

"Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven," (Irenaeus, Fragment 34).3

In the third century, we read:

"Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven," (Anonymous 3rd-Century Treatise on Re-Baptism, Section 3).4

And in the fourth century, John Chrysostom, preaching on this very text (so presumably with the passage open in front of him) said:

"'Except,' He saith, 'a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of heaven,'” (John Chrysostom, Homily on John 3:5).

The "Pseudo-Clementine" writings are a little harder to date, but most scholars place them somewhere between the third and fourth centuries. We find this form of the verse in both collections:

"Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven," (Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, Homily 11, Chapter 26).

"Verily I say to you, That unless a man is born again of water, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven " (The Recognitions of Pseudo-Clement, Book 6, Chapter 9).

Thus, in addition to the manuscript evidence, we have a treasure of very early patristic citations all supporting Priscillian's reading of "kingdom of heaven" rather than the traditional "kingdom of God." If the evidence we have for the Comma in 1 John 5:7-8 is sufficient to call that verse original, why shouldn't this be enough evidence to say that "kingdom of heaven" is the original reading here? The King James Onlyist cannot here point out that the earliest manuscripts say "kingdom of God," or that the vast majority of all manuscripts say "kingdom of God" or that other church fathers say "kingdom of God," because all of those arguments prove that 1 John 5:7-8 in the KJV is incorrect! No, the only reason that King James Onlyists accept the Comma Johanneum and reject "kingdom of heaven," is not because of the evidence or any consistent or rational argument. Their only basis for their conclusion is that the KJV has one and not the other. That is literally the only real reason. The fact of the matter is, there is no objective reason to think that John actually wrote the Comma Johanneum. It is a later addition to 1 John.

  • 1. Marco Conti, Priscillian of Avila: The Complete Works (Oxford University Press, 2010), 35
  • 2. ibid, 73
  • 3. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, page 574
  • 4. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 5, page 668