There are a number of people that adhere to the view that the King James Version (KJV) bible is the most reliable, or best, translation of the Bible. There are a number of reasons why these individuals think this. One particular reason is that various newer editions of the Bible are missing some verses that are in the KJV, or that various verses have been changed in the newer versions that don’t reflect what the KJV says. Generally, their reasoning is that these changes indicate a modern corruption of the translations. And that, therefore, people should read the KJV only. Let’s examine one particular passage of scripture called the “Comma Johanneum” or “Johannine Comma” (CJ) that is indicative of this response.
First, from the KJV:
“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. (8) And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” — 1 John 5:7-8
These verses present a strong cased for the doctrine of the Trinity. To have this removed in later editions of the Bible would be problematic at best since this passage states the doctrine so clearly (there are plenty of other passages that support the doctrine of the Trinity, but this one is succinct). The ESV edition of the Bible, published in 2001, has a much different reading.
“For there are three that testify: (8) the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” — 1 John 5:7-8.
With this kind of change between the KJV and the ESV, for those that adhere to the KJV, eyebrows would certainly be raised!
So why have the ESV authors incorporated such a significantly different verse into their translations? The answer is simple. This verse is not in any Greek manuscript before the 14th century. But don’t take my word for it. You can hear it from the New Testament scholar Dan Wallace: Link.
Wallace, who has done a tremendous amount of work on New Testament documents (Link) reveals another interesting point to consider. When Erasmus (1466 – 1536) was working on his parallel translations of the Greek and Latin manuscripts that he had in the 16th century, he noticed that none of the 7 Greek manuscripts he had contained the Comma Johanneum (yes, the KJV is based on only 7 Greek manuscripts: Link). So he didn’t put CJ in his first edition, the Novum Instrumentum (1516). You can examine it in Latin for yourself here: Link. The portion in question is at the bottom of the first page.
Here is a snippet of it: screenshot. Yes, it is is Greek and Latin, but it’s not hard to look at a few words and see that the passage in question is missing. Let’s start at verse 6 to get a feel for the transition.
“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.” (KJV)
“This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. (ESV)
If you’ll look at the snippet, you’ll notice that I have underlined portions in color. These underlined colors correspond to the same words in Greek and Latin.
The first underlined Latin words (on the right) are “aquam & sanguinem Iesus Christus”. The first word, ‘aquam,’ is where we get our English word aqua (water). The second word ‘sanguinem’ is the Latin word blood (the letter than looks like an f is the the long S. It faded in usage after the 19th century). The next words are pretty obvious, Jesus Christ. Then we read from the Latin non’ meaning not. We see aquam again. And then ‘solum’ (only) and then aquam & sanguinem again. Moving on we can see spiritus (spirit) and testisicatur (testifies) and then ‘spiritus est veritas’ (the spirit is truth). This is the end of verse 6.
Now notice that the very next words are Quoniam (for) tres (three) sunt (there are) testimoniu (testify) and again spiritus (spirit), aqua (water), and sanguis (blood). This is a very short version verse 7 and then verse 8. The latter portion of verse 7 in the KJV is missing. There’s no mention of the father (pater), word (verbum), heaven (cælo), or earth (terra). We should see this in the Latin: “in cælo: Pater, Verbum, et Spiritus Sanctus” and “Et tres sunt, qui testimonium dant in terra”. These should be there if verse 7 in the KJV reflects the Greek manuscripts. But the words are not there in the Greek so Erasmus didn’t translate them to the Latin.
The last word, sanguis, is carried on to the next page (very common in older books) and then we see the end over verse 8. And of course, verse 9 continues. Hominum is the word for human, etc.
Erasums did a 2nd edition as well. Released in 1522, it’s called the September Testament. It’s not in Latin but in German. This is the translation that Martin Luther used. The CJ is not in this version either. I’ve attached a screen shot with the corresponding passages underlined in the September Testament: screenshot. If you want to, you can examine the link yourself. See page 374 (on Archive), the 2nd full paragraph on the page. My comparison starts on the third line. Notice also that the English includes the missing portions in verse 7.
So why does the passage show up in Tyndale’s English translation? Wallace suggests that Erasmus was shown a Greek manuscript that contained it. Apparently a Greek manuscript was created so that Erasmus would include the CJ: Link. It was in his third edition that Erasmus included the CJ.
But how did this passage get into the Latin manuscripts? Per Wallace, the CJ is a marginal note. Over time this margin note got added to the text. But it isn’t found in any Latin manuscripts before the 8th century (Link).
So to conclude. Is the KJV the best or most reliable translation? Based on this passage alone it doesn’t appear that this is the case. Today we have over 5,000 Greek manuscripts to work from. The KJV was based on 7. We are much better off today when it comes to assessing the reliability of the texts than we were in the 1500’s.
Let me share one more thing. The CJ is not found in the Codex Vaticanus either. But don’t take my word for it. Examine it for yourself: screenshot. I’ve marked the verses. A direct link to the Vaticanus is here: Link (document 1441). You don’t need to be able to read Greek to see how short verse 7 is.
Some modern Greek bibles, however, do include the passage. Here is a link to see that: Link. Notice the bracket after the word μαρτυροῦντες that closes at the end of the verse (this signals that it’s not part of the original manuscript). Also, It’s helpful to know that majuscule (all upper case letters) have a few differences in letters. The modern Greek ς (sigma) is a C in ancient Greek. And the υ (upsilon) is more like a Y. And to save on space, the words Jesus Christ were shortened to IC and XC with a bar over it. This is known as a Nomina Sacra.