- Biblical Criticism in Early Modern Europe: Erasmus, the Johannine Comma, and Trinitarian Debate by Grantley McDonald
"When the hour of death is at hand," the Bhajagovinda warns, "no grammatical paradigm will save you." Someone should have told early modern Christendom, for, as McDonald's new book reveals, several centuries of learned Christians thought that salvation might hinge on the textual authenticity of a single clause in the New Testament, the so-called Johannine comma. The King James Version of 1 John 5:7–8, reads (with the debated passage, which is called the "comma," italicized): "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." The italicized words ground Trinitarianism in explicit, scriptural proof, evidence otherwise lacking for the inconvenient reason that Scripture's authors had never heard of the Trinity. Thus, when Desiderius Erasmus checked the Greek manuscripts, the comma was missing. Although himself an orthodox Trinitarian, Erasmus bravely omitted the passage from his 1516 critical edition of the New Testament. Although he subsequently caved and restored the comma in later editions, Erasmus nevertheless sparked a massive intellectual war that raged across Europe and lasted centuries. McDonald dutifully chronicles the numerous battles, including early Reformation polemics, eighteenth-century battles between heretical anti-Trinitarians (like Isaac Newton) and the Established Church, and the development of scientific, nonsectarian textual scholarship. McDonald devotes perhaps too much time to biographical sketches and blow-by-blow summaries of philological and theological treatises, and the result is an encyclopedia, rather than an argument or narrative.
Still, minute philological wrangling has its pleasures. "Lower" textual criticism, as it is called, is often regarded as a pedantic prerequisite to "higher" historical-literary scholarship. Indeed, many believing Christian scholars choose New Testament textual criticism as their milieu just because it is blessedly boring and does not threaten their religious beliefs. But as the Johannine comma reminds us, it is the lower criticism, rather than its more glamorous younger sibling, that shows the biblical text to be contingent and thus subject to history. In other words, it is textual criticism that first humanized the word of God. [End Page 548]
Raphael Magarik is a PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley. His article "Milton's Phylacteries: Textual Idolatry and the Beginnings of Critical Exegesis" appeared recently in Milton Studies.