Calvin on 1 John 5:7-8

From: Carlton Meredith (
Date: Fri Oct 29 1999 - 04:11:10 EDT

On Wednesday, October 27, 1999, Rod Decker ( wrote:

>>In re. to the famous Johannine comma, someone pointed out to me recently
that "Calvin says it was in the best MSS in his day." (Implying, I suspect
[based on his follow up question], some sinister conspiracy that has
destroyed all those MSS since that time! :) So I checked Calvin's comm. on
the passage, and sure enough, he says: "as I see that it is found in the
best and most approved *copies,* I am inclined to receive it as the true
reading" (ad loc., my emphasis). Calvin's editor has a note that he
suspects Calvin to be referring to *printed editions,* not to Greek MSS
(1855 ed. by John Owen). That would certainly make sense given that it was
included in the 3d, 4th, & 5th editions of Erasmus and, so far as I know,
most (all?) the later editions based on Erasmus (Stephanus and Bezae at
least). So, my question: is the editor's suggestion a viable explanation?
Is there anything to be gained from checking the word that Calvin used in
his original (I presume, Latin? though it could have been French, I
suppose)? I.e., does the word the Owen translated as "copies" have a
technical reference? (This is, I suppose, best suited for the txt. crit.
list, but I'm not subscribed there, and it does relate to the Greek text.)

>>Thanks for any info,



Very interesting questions!

Calvinās French translation of 1 John 5:7-8 (conserving sixteenth-century
French orthography) and comments (in current modern-spelling French) on the
textual problem are as follows:

"7. Car il y en a trois qui donnent tesmoignage au ciel, le Pre, la
Parole, et le sainct Esprit: et ces trois sont un.
"8. Aussi y en a-il trois qui donnent tesmoignage en la terre, _asavoir_
lāEsprit, lāeau, et le sang: et ces trois sont un (ou, en un)."

"Tout ceci a ŽtŽ omis par quelques-uns, ce que S. JEROME pense avoir ŽtŽ
fait plus par malice que par ignorance ou mŽgarde, et seulement par les
latins. Mais dāautant que les livres grecs mme ne sāaccordent lāun avec
lāautre, ˆ grand-peine en osŽ-je rien affirmer. Toutefois, parce que le
fil du texte coule trs bien si cette phrase y est ajoutŽe, et que je vois
quāelle se trouve dans les meilleurs et les plus corrects exemplaires, pour
ma part je la reois volontiers. Or le sens sera que. . . ."

Calvin calls his sources here *the Greek books themselves* (*les livres
grecs mme*) and *copies* (*exemplaires*), and notes that they are not
agreed among themselves. (I suppose we can assume that the various
printings of the Greek text in Calvinās day all would have included the
Johannine Comma.) Judging from Calvinās language, it seems probable that
he had a number of actual Greek manuscripts (and doubtless also at least
his printed Latin text) available to him, and that he examined them and
noted their conflicting testimony in preparing his comments here.

Calvin decided in favor of the authenticity of the Johannine Comma, albeit
with difficulty (*ˆ grand-peine en osŽ-je rien affirmer*). He based his
decision on objective criteria (*les meilleurs et les plus corrects
exemplaires*), with an interesting reference to Jeromeās opinion on the
omission of the Comma (that its omission was probably due to malicious,
deliberate excision rather than to ignorance or inattention). (Note, in
passing, Calvinās respect for Jerome.)

It seems clear to me that Calvin is talking here about actual manuscripts,
and is not just referring to recently printed Latin and (Erasmusās) Greek
texts as giving conflicting testimony as to the inclusion of the Comma
(unless there was variation among the printed texts of Calvinās day, which
does not seem to me likely). Calvinās 1855 editor, John Owen, would not be
correct, then, in his suspicion that Calvin is merely referring to printed

It also seems clear that Calvin had given thought to criteria for
distinguishing between manuscripts whose testimony conflicted as to the
reading of the Greek text. He sides with the *better* and *more correct*

What would be interesting indeed would be to know exactly which manuscripts
Calvin would have been able to use.

It would also be interesting to know if (and where) Calvin explains how he
evaluated the quality of a manuscript. Calvin, of course, lived in a
pre-critical age, at the time of transition between manuscripts and printed
texts, some 150-200 years before the first hesitating efforts at
formulating a set of scientific canons for textual criticism.

As for a _sinister conspiracy that has destroyed all those MSS since that
time_ which you smilingly mention, I would doubt that there was any
deliberate destruction of whatever Greek manuscripts Calvin used. They
should still be around (many of them, at least, if not all).

Carlton Meredith
Biblical Seminary of Brussels

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