Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Priscillian of Avila and the Johannine Comma

The Johannine Comma[i] is a clause found in 1 John 5:7-8 in many older Bibles but omitted from many newer ones. Detractors claim it is a late addition. Yet circa AD 250 in Treatise 1, On the Unity of the Church, Cyprian of Carthage seems to quote it, attaching the formula “it is written.”

The Johannine Comma is also attested in Priscillian’s Liber Apologeticus, written circa 380 in Latin:

sicut Iohannes ait: Tria sunt quae testimonium dicunt in terra  aqua caro et sanguis et haec tria in unum sunt, et tria sunt quae testimonium dicunt in coelo pater verbum et spiritus et haec tria unum sunt in Christo Iesu.[ii]

One English translation is:

As John says, “and there are three which give testimony on earth, the water, the flesh, the blood, and these three are in one, and there are three which give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one in Christ Jesus.”[iii]

Liber Apologeticus is usually ascribed to Priscillian of Avila, though sometimes to an unknown protégé of his. Some writers try to affix the origin of the Johannine Comma to Priscillian. However, it is clear that Priscillian attributes it to the apostle John. One may choose to reject the witness of Priscillian, but one should not deny that he wrote “sicut Iohannes ait,” or “As John says.”

Who was Priscillian? Little is known of his life.  The primary sources are Catholic, who opposed his faith and practice. Though considered a heretic by Catholics, historian Edmund Hamer Broadbent’s research – especially the writings of Priscillian discovered in 1885 – led him to conclude that Priscillian was an “evangelical reformer” rather than a “Manichaean heretic.”[iv]

The reading of these, Priscillian’s own writings, shows that the account handed down of him was wholly untrue, that he was a man of saintly character, sound in doctrine, and an energetic reformer, and that those associated with him were companies of men and women who were true and devoted followers of Christ. Not content with murdering these people, exiling them, confiscating their goods, the Church authorities have persistently calumniated their memory.[v]

Compared to our common version (King James), a translation from Priscillian’s Latin exhibits a few differences.

King James translation: 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.

Priscillian translation: And there are three which give testimony on earth, the water, the flesh, the blood, and these three are in one, and there are three which give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one in Christ Jesus.

  • Priscillian’s version reverses the order, placing the record in earth first, and the record in heaven afterward.
  • Priscillian’s version of the testimony on earth has flesh instead of Spirit.
  • Priscillian’s version adds “in Christ Jesus” after the end of the testimony in heaven.

From Priscillian’s writing, we may conclude that he was a Trinitarian who held the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may further understand that he possessed in writing (or had read) the first epistle of John, and that source with which he was familiar contained the much-disputed “Johannine Comma.” Perhaps he had a Latin translation, or translated it himself from the Greek, or quoted it as he remembered it. Nevertheless, he had some knowledge of the text, and believed it was written by John.

[i] Also called “The Comma Johanneum,” “The Heavenly Witnesses,” and “The Trinitarian Formula.”
[ii] Priscilliani, Tractate I, Liber Apologeticus (Book of Apology), Priscilliani Quae Supersunt. Maximam Partem Nuper Detexit Adiectisque Commentariis Criticis et Indicibus Primus Edidit Georgius Schepss. Priscillian (Bishop of Avila, ca. 350-385); Vindobonae: F. Tempsky, 1889, p. 6.
[iii] In his Study Notes on the Holy Scriptures, Gary H. Everett appears to cite this translation as F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1963, 210-211).
[iv] Another suggested reference on Priscillian is “Priscillian of Avila: Heretic or Early Reformer?”, Brian H . Wagner, Chafer Theological Seminary Journal 12, Fall 2006, pp. 87-97. “Yet for those who desire to trace a nonmagisterial, nonsacramental, free church testimony down through the ages since Pentecost, it appears the Priscillianists provided in themselves, or at least under the cover of their influence, such a testimony for at least two hundred years in Spain and southern France.” Wagner, p. 95.
[v] The Pilgrim Church, Edmund Hamer Broadbent, p. 38

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