Sunday, April 7, 2013

Thomas Sunday, a missing "comma", and the Impact of Biblical Criticism on the Liturgy

I was struck today at Mass (EF) that the epistle was taken from 1 John-- and in particular the fifth chapter, verses 4-10.

Why is this so interesting, you may ask?

The key lies in verses 6-8, the only explicit reference to the unity of the Trinity in the whole of Scripture. In the Douay-Rheims, this verse is translated as

This is he that came by water and blood, Jesus Christ: not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit which testifieth, that Christ is the truth.  And there are three who give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost. And these three are one. And there are three that give testimony on earth: the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three are one.
Never heard of it? Not surprising. This line of Scripture is known as the Johannine Comma, and has been omitted from most modern Bibles.

For instance, here is the usually very reliable RSV, same verses:

This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree.
Where is our reference to the Trinity?! It's gone!

Now, it is not my intention to enter into a whole exegesis of the tradition and modern Scripture scholarship on this particular verse-- it is enough to presume that there are variants in the manuscripts. The question is at what point did these variants enter the manuscripts, and what is the constant tradition of the Church regarding this text? Rather than giving a full exegesis, I'll simply be a good faithful Catholic, and defer to the judgment of Holy Mother Church on this particular matter.

The decree of the Holy Office, dated 13 January 1897 deals with the question of whether or not one can call into question the authenticity of the so-called "comma". Here is the text:
To the question: 'Whether it can safely be denied, or at least called into doubt that the text of St. john in the first epistle, chapter 5, verse 7, is authentic, which read as follows: 'And there are three that give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost. And these three are one?" -- the response was given on January 13, 1897: In the negative. (Denzinger 2198) 
Now, with the state of the question of the Comma resolved (that Catholics should indeed uphold the integrity of the passage), how does this impact the liturgy?

As I said in the beginning of this post, this was the reading of the Epistle at Mass today. It is retained in the Novus Ordo Missae for this feast in the year B cycle only. However, it seems that the folks who put together the new Lectionary did not want to make reference to the Triune God-- The verses for the reading stop at verse 6, and so avoid any possible controversy that may ensue over the greater issue, which is in fact the question of the official Latin text of the Lectionary, the Nova Vulgata, promulgated in 1979 and the product of a good bit of modern Scripture scholarship.

How is the use of the Nova Vulgata problematic, you may ask? Perhaps we should look to it to see the whole of the passage in question from 1 John:
Hic est, qui venit per aquam et sanguinem, Iesus Christus; non in aqua solum sed in aqua et in sanguine. Et Spiritus est, qui testificatur, quoniam Spiritus est veritas. Quia tres sunt, qui testificantur: Spiritus et aqua et sanguis; et hi tres in unum sunt.
Where is our key passage?! Even in the Nova Vulgata, the official liturgical Latin text of the Church, the reference to the Trinity (which was upheld by the Holy Office as a faithful transmission of the text) is missing from the text!

In contrast, the 1962 Missal, which is based upon the Clementine Vulgate of St. Jerome, has the text in its entirety:
Hic est, qui venit per aquam et sanguinem, Jesus Christus : non in aqua solum, sed in aqua et sanguine. Et Spiritus est, qui testificatur quoniam Christus est veritas. Quoniam tres sunt, qui testimonium dant in cælo : Pater, Verbum, et Spiritus Sanctus: et hi tres unum suntEt tres sunt, qui testimonium dant in terra : spiritus, et aqua, et sanguis : et hi tres unum sunt.
Here, we finally see the full passage with the two sets of three who give testimony-- one in heaven, and one on earth, and which the Douay-Rheims sets out an accurate translation into English for us.

The title of this post makes the inference that the modern Biblical criticism has had an impact on the liturgy. In my studies, I can't help but observe a certain parallelism in the Historical-Critical movement and the Liturgical Movement in the 20th c., but here is the rub: if we believe in Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, then surely the texts of the Mass which we pray and the Scriptures which are proclaimed have an impact on what it is we profess and believe as Catholics.

And yet, where is our "Comma"? What a text! It was such an inspiration to hear and read the profession of the Trinity found in Scripture during the Mass today.

This verse used in the liturgy, or not, as it were, seems to highlight a number of difficulties which we need to reconcile in the faith and life of the Church today. In continuing to implement the Council, in particular the texts on the Word of God and on the Liturgy, we are utterly dependent upon those great traditions that were handed down to us, "whether by word of mouth or by letter", in order to ensure that what we are professing is in fact the Faith of the Church as constantly believed by the great Saints and Martyrs of our history. If we are to become Saints, then it is most beneficial for us to know and pray the same things which were believed and prayed by all of the other Saints, that by following their example, we too will be guided rightly in our lives of faith toward the heavenly liturgy.


  1. PS-- here is your disclaimer that I am not hating on the Nova Vulgata or the Novus Ordo Missae; I am merely trying to highlight some discrepancies which should be considered in continual reform and renewal. Any comments that aren't constructive toward this end will be censored at my discretion.


  2. So, Chris--you (aha) make me open my RSV Bible this morning. My version DOES have an asterisk and the following footnote: " This reads as follows in the Vulgate: "There are three who give testimony in heaven: The Father, The Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. ...." The "Three Heavenly Witnesses," as the first sentence is called, is first found in the Latin (fourth century) and does not appear in any Greek manuscript until the fifteenth century. It is probably a marginal gloss that a found its way into the text.

    What is a marginal gloss?

  3. A gloss is something inserted in the margin by a translator or transcriber... For instance, also, if you were to write in your own comment in your Bible because you had an interesting insight.

    This is one theory of how it may account for a manuscript variance; however, surely Jerome had greater access to extant manuscripts than those critics in the 15th century (or today), so there is no reason to doubt the veracity on those accounts. Further, the text is kept in the tradition of the Church with no quibbles until the Reformation era. There is a reference to it in the Council of Trent as being authentic, and obviously the Holy See in the late 19th century thought it important to re-affirm the veracity of the text.

    Your footnote editors got it wrong. ;)

  4. The New King James Version (1985 ©)
    v7 For there are three who bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.
    v8 And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.