Whether or not you sign up to the doctrine of the Trinity (understanding is not really an option), it’s reasonable to assume that somewhere in the Bible there will be a verse that spells out exactly what it is that is to be believed. And indeed there is, in I John 5:7–8. In Misquoting Jesus, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman (2005:81) describes this passage as a favourite among Christian theologians, “since it is the only passage in the entire Bible that explicitly delineates the doctrine of the Trinity, that there are three persons in the godhead, but that the three all constitute just one God.”
So, that’s all right then? It would seem so, certainly to most Christians who have no reason to suspect that anything’s amiss when reading these verses in, say, the King James Version. After all, what could be wrong with the actual (and English!) Word of God?
Well, nothing, by definition, if that’s what the Bible is, but for those of us who think the Bible is a human creation rather than the Word of God then here is where it gets interesting, since we’re about to see just how creative that human process was.
In 1515, the Dutch scholar Erasmus began work on the first published edition of the Greek New Testament (the so-called editio princeps). When he came to I John 5:7–8, the crucial phrase — “Father, the Word, and the Spirit” — was nowhere to be found in any of his source manuscripts, so he left it out.
Theologians were outraged. They “accused Erasmus of tampering with the text in an attempt to eliminate the doctrine of the Trinity and to devalue its corollary, the doctrine of the full divinity of Christ.” They had grown familiar with this key passage of scripture from the Latin Vulgate, perhaps forgetting that Latin was not the language in which the gospels had been written (nor was Greek the language spoken by most of the inhabitants of first-century Palestine, but that’s another matter).
Anyway, Erasmus agreed to put back the missing verse so long as someone produced a Greek manuscript with the verse in place (82):
And so a Greek manuscript was produced. In fact, it was produced for the occasion. It appears that someone copied out the Greek text of the Epistles, and when he came to the passage in question, he translated the Latin text into Greek, giving the Johannine Comma in its familiar, theologically useful form. The manuscript provided to Erasmus, in other words, was a sixteenth-century production, made to order.
The significance of this deception for readers of English Bibles is that the editio princeps of Erasmus provided “the inferior textual form of the Textus Receptus that stood at the base of the earliest English translations, including the King James Bible, and other editions until near the end of the nineteenth century” (83).
For any other document, this kind of revision would be of marginal academic interest. Discovering that such and such a phrase in Hamlet was not actually authentic Shakespeare would make not the slightest difference to most people’s enjoyment of and admiration for the play.
However, Christians make very different kinds of claim for their Bible, and these are surely undermined by the discovery that such key doctrines as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ “entered into the English stream of consciousness merely by a chance of history” (82).