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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Witnesses, the Three Heavenly
is a convenient designation of the famous controversy respecting the genuineness of the clause in the first epistle of John (John 5:7), "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one."
I. History of its Introduction into the Text. — In all the first printed Bibles, which were those of the Latin Vulgate, as amended by Jerome, the clause appeared substantially as at present (Ed. Princeps, 1462), being found in the great majority of manuscripts of the Vulgate. It may therefore be considered as the generally received form at that period. But when the first edition of the Greek Test. appeared, which was that of Erasmus, published at Basle in 1516, the clause in question ["in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one; and there are three which bear witness in earth"] was wanting. Erasmus was attacked by Stunica, one of the editors of the Complutensian Polyglot, of which the New Test. in Greek and Latin had been printed in 1514 (and consequently before the appearance of Erasmus's edition), although not published until 1522. Erasmus replied to Stunica by observing that he had faithfully followed the Greek manuscripts from which he had edited his text, but professed his readiness to insert the clause in another edition, provided but a single Greek manuscript was found to contain it. Such a manuscript was found in England, upon which Erasmus, although entertaining strong suspicions respecting this manuscript, yet, faithful to his word, inserted the clause in his third edition, which was published in 1522, as it now stands in the common Greek text.
Nevertheless, the absence of the definite article from the six nouns in the disputed passage in this pretended manuscript is of itself sufficient to excite suspicions of, if not completely to overthrow, its genuineness. What has become of the manuscript is not known, but it is generally believed to have been the same with that now possessed by the library of Trinity College, Dublin, called the Codex Monffortianus, or Dublinensis, in which the disputed clause appears, but without the conclusion, "and these three are one." Erasmus also speaks of a Codex Britannicus as containing the entire clause, with some minute variations (Annot. 4th ed. page 697). (See MONTFORT MANUSCRIPTS). The Dublin manuscript is generally ascribed to the 15th or 16th century, and cannot possibly be older than the 13th; it likewise varies from the received Greek text in several lesser particulars. The clause has been also found, although in a form still more corrupt, in a manuscript in the Vatican (Cod. Ottobon. 298), of the 15th century, first collated by Dr. Scholz, of Bonn.
The above is the amount of Greek manuscript authority for this celebrated clause, for although all the libraries in existence have been examined (containing above one hundred and eighty Greek MSS., written between the 5th and 15th centuries), no other copy has been found which contains a vestige of it. Nor has it been once cited by a single Greek father, although abundant opportunities presented themselves for introducing it, which they could not have failed to avail themselves of, had it existed in their copies; but they have invariably cited the passage as it has been preserved in all the ancient manuscripts. It found its way, however, into the received text of the Greek Test., having been copied from Erasmus's third, fourth, and fifth editions (1522, 1527; and 1535), with more or less of variation, into all Stephens's editions, from the third or folio edition of which it was adopted by Beza in all his editions, the first of which was published in 1565, and again by Elzevir, in his edition of 1624, to which his anonymous editor gave the name of Textuis undique receptus. The best critical editions since have left out the words as spurious. They are wanting in those of Aldus, Gerbelius, Cepheleeus, Colinseus, Mace, Harwood, Matthaei, Griesbach, Scholz, Lachmann, Tischendorf, and others. Bowyer enclosed them in brackets, and Knapp in double brackets, indicating their spuriousness. The clause appears in the principal printed editions of the New Test. before the time of Griesbach. These were the editions of Mill (1707), Bengel (1734), and Wetstein (1751), the two former of whom held it to be genuine.
Luther uniformly rejected this clause from all his translations. It is absent from his last edition (1546), published after his death, and was first inserted in the Frankfort edition of 1574, but again omitted in 1583, and in subsequent editions. Since the beginning of the 17th century, with the exception of the Wittenberg edition of 1607, its insertion has been general. This was, however, in opposition to Luther's injunction.
It is inserted in all the early English printed versions, commencing with Coverdale's in 1536, but is generally printed either in brackets or in smaller letters. It was, however, printed in the editions of 1536, 1552, and in the Geneva Bible (1557), without any marks of doubt. It found its way, perhaps, from Beza's Greek Test. into the then authorized English version.
II. External Evidence. — The earliest Greek form in which the disputed clause is found is contained in the Latin translation of the acts of the council of Lateran, held in 1215, and the first Greek writer who absolutely cites any part of it is Manuel Calecas, a Dominican monk of the 14th century, while in the next century it is cited by Joseph Bryennius, a Greek monk.
The clause of the three heavenly witnesses is also absent from all existing manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, written between the 8th and 10th centuries, anterior to which date there is no manuscript of this version now in existence, containing the Catholic epistles. Nor has any writer of the Western Church cited the passage before Cassiodorus, at the close of the 6th century, although even the fact of his having done so is doubted by Porson. There is, indeed, a preface to the canonical epistles, bearing the name of Jerome, in which the omission of this clause is ascribed to "false translators;" but this is a forgery. The clause is also wanting in all the manuscripts of the Syriac, Armenian, and other ancient versions.
From the circumstance, however, of the clause in question having been cited by two north-west African writers of the 5th century — Vigilius, bishop of Thapsus (the supposed author of the Athanasian Creed), and Victor Vitensis, the historian of the Vandal persecution it has been fairly presumed that it existed in their time in some of the African copies of the old Latin version, from whence, or from the citations of these writers,. it may have found its way into the later manuscripts of the Vulgate. It is cited by Victor, as contained in the Confession of Faith drawn up by Eugenius, bishop of Carthage. Vigilius, however, cites it in so many various ways, that little reliance can be placed on his authority. After this it is cited by Fulgentius, bishop of Rusopa, in the beginning of the 6th century, but is omitted in the same century by Faicuidus, bishop of Hermione, from which it is at least evident that the. copies in that age and country varied. But, at a much earlier period, the whole clause is cited by Augustine of Hippo. Tertullian and Cyprian have been supposed, indeed, to have referred to the clause, but the proof of this depends on the proof of the previous fact,. whether the clause existed or not in their copies.
III. Internal Evidence. — Various have been the opinions on this point for and against the genuineness of the passage. The advocates of the clause have generally maintained that the context requires its insertion,. while its adversaries maintain that the whole force of the argument is destroyed by it. Lucke, one of the ablest modern commentators on John's writings, maintains that internal evidence alone would be sufficient to reject the passage, inasmuch (besides other reasons) as John never uses ὁ πατήρ and ὁ λόγος as correlatives, but ordinarily, like Paul, and every other writer of the New Test., associates ὁ υἱός with ὁ πατήρ (2:22, 23; 4:14; 5;9, 11, 20, etc.), and always refers the λόγος in Christ to ὁ θεός, and not to ὁ πατήρ He unites with those critics who look upon the rejected passage as an allegorical gloss, which found its way into the Latin text, where it has, "ever since the 4th century, firmly maintained its place as a welcome and protective passage," etc. He adds, however, that exegetical conscience will, in our age, forbid the most orthodox to apply this passage, even if it were genuine, for such a purpose, as ἕν ειναι has quite a different sense from that which is required by the doctrine of the trinity. Here Lucke fully coincides with the late bishop Middleton (Greek Article). Lucke's conclusion is a. strong one." Either these words are genuine, and the epistle, in this case, a production of the 3d or 4th century, or the epistle is a genuine work of John's, and then these words spurious."
Among the latest attempts to vindicate the genuineness of the passage is. that of M. Gaussen, of Geneva,in his Theopneustia (1839). But his reasonings are founded on a palpable error — the interpolation of the words ἐν τῇ γῇ (in the earth) in the eighth verse, which he absolutely cites upon the authority of Griesbach's text, where they do not exist! The corresponding words in terra are, indeed, found in the present text of some MSS. of the Vulgate, and of some ancient. writers, although wanting in the seventh verse.
IV. Literature. — The following are some of the principal controversies to which this famous clause has given rise, of which a more complete account will be found in Mr. Charles Butler's Horac Biblicce; and most fully in Orme's Memoir (1830) on the subject (under the pseudonym of "Criticus"), especially the American edition by Abbot (N.Y. 1866).
The earliest was the dispute between Erasmus and Lee, afterwards archbishop of York, and between Erasmus and Stunica, one of the Complutensian editors, Erasmus was the first to suspect the genuineness of the preface to the, canonical epistles above referred to, which ascribes the omission of the clause to false translators or transcribers. The genuineness of this preface, which led Sir Isaac Newton to charge Jerome with being the fabricator of the disputed clause (whereas it. is certain that that learned father was totally unacquainted with its existence) of the text, is now given up. It is considered in the Benedictine edition of Jerome's works to be a forgery of the 9th century (Bufigni, Vie d'Erasme, Paris, 1757, 1:372-381; 2:163-175; Crit. Sac. 7:1229).
It was afterwards attacked by Sandius the Arian (Nucleus Hist. Ecclesiast. Amsterdam, 1669; and Interpret. Paradox. in Johan.). It was defended by Selden (De Synedricis Ebraeor.) and ably attacked by the Roman Catholic father Simon (Hist. Critique du Texte, 1680, etc.). It was defended again by Martin (pastor of the Reformed Church in Utrecht, 1717), who was replied to by Thomas Emlyn, the celebrated and much-persecuted English Presbyterian (A Full Inquiry, etc., 1715-20), and by Caesar de Missy, French preacher in the Savoy. There are other able treatises on the same side by Dr. Benson, Sir Isaac Newton, and the learned printer, Mr. Bowyer; and in its favor by Smith. (1690), Kettner, Calamy (1722), as well as by Bossuet, and by Calmet (1720) in France, and Semler in Germany (1751). In Germany it was also attacked by Schmidt (Hist. Antiqua, 1774), and Michaelis, in his Introduction; but found an able defender in the excellent Bengel (Gnomon, 1773), who conceived that the passage contained a divine internal evidence, but at the same time maintained -that its genuineness depended on the transposition of the two verses so as to make the earthly witnesses precede the heavenly, according to the, citation (supra) of Vigilius of Thapsus. (See Christian Remembrancer, 4:43, note.)
The third and most important stage of the controversy may be said to commence with the time of Gibbon, and was attacked by archdeacon Travis in three letters (1784-86). This publication gave rise to the most celebrated work which had yet appeared on the subject, professor Porson's Letters (1788): "an eternal monument of his uncommon erudition, sagacity, and tact" (Horae Biblicae). Mr. Butler concludes his enumeration with the Observations of Dr. Adam Clarke on the text of the heavenly witnesses (1805). Griesbach's Diatribe, at the close of the second volume of his celebrated critical edition of the Greek Test. (1806), contains a complete and masterly view of the evidence on both sides; but as this eminent critic had completely rejected the passage from the text, he met with an indefatigable adversary in the late bishop Burgess (Vindication, 1821, and Introduction, 1833). The writings of this prelate drew down many learned replies, but his most able and successful opponent was Dr. Turton, regius professor at Cambridge (Vindication of the Literary Character of Professor Person from the Animadversions of the Right Reverend Thomas Burgess, D.D., etc., published under the name of Crito-Cantabrigiensis, 1827). A temperate vindication of the genuineness of the passage had been published by the late bishop Middleton (1808), in his work on the Greek article, which was also replied to by Dr. Turton (ut sup.). In the year 1834, Dr. Wiseman renewed the controversy in favor of the clause, in two letters in the Catholic Magazine, volumes 2 and 3, reprinted at Rome in 1835. Dr. Wiseman's principal arguments are founded on the citations in African writers. Wright's Appendix to his Translation of Seiler's Hermeneutics contains some account of the state of the controversy respecting this clause to the year 1835, also Horne's Introduction, 8th ed. 2:185, 4:448-471. Since the time of Griesbach it has been generally omitted in all critical editions, and its spuriousness was especially shown in that of the learned Roman Catholic professor Scholz, of Bonn (1836), who was replied to by bishop Burgess (eod.). The whole ground of the controversy has more lately been reviewed by Dr. Davidson (Lectures on Biblical Criticism, 1853, 2:403-426), who proves conclusively that the clause is indefensible' either on its external or internal evidence.
For the exposition of the passage as containing the words in question, see bishop Horsley's Sermons (1:193). For the same passage interpreted without the disputed words, see Sir Isaac Newton's Hist. of Two Texts (Works [Lond. 1779], 5:528).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Witnesses, the Three Heavenly'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/w/witnesses-the-three-heavenly.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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