A Note in the Margin

Do you write notes in the margins of your Bible? I hope so! The Bible is the Word of God, and we need to be serious students of that Word. Those notes can be precious. I treasure my father’s old Dixon Bible. Some of my best memories are seeing him beside the fireplace with a cup of coffee in his old brown mug, preparing to teach a Bible class. He was a great teacher (and the only man I know who wore out a copy of Josephus). Now I have his Bible and his notes – precious!

On the other hand, writing notes in the margin of a Bible has led to some of the most interesting textual variants. Remember, until the invention of the printing press (Gutenberg, 1440), every Bible was a manuscript – a handwritten copy. If you accidentally left a word out, you could easily add it between the lines or in the margin. Now imagine you are making your own copy of that manuscript. Sometimes it could be difficult to tell whether the note in the margin was a correction or a comment! Such is the case with 1 John 5:7 – 8. Let’s look at the King James Version:

7 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.

Now compare the New International Version:

7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

What’s missing? The additional words “testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the.”

The footnote (you always read the footnotes, don’t you?) explains: “Late manuscripts of the Vulgate testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the (not found in any Greek manuscript before the sixteenth century).”

What is the rest of the story? Those additional words (scholars call them the Comma Johanneum) are included in the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, and only in eight of the more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts – and none of the eight copies dates before the sixteenth century! Apparently, an early North African Christian (perhaps Cyprian or one of his contemporaries) saw this passage as an explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity and put a note in the margin of his Bible. It found its way into the text of the later editions of the Vulgate and thus into the King James translation of the English Bible. There is much more to the story, but we’ll save that for another time.

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