Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Putting to Rest an Old Canard about Erasmus

Among text critics, it’s fairly well known that no Greek manuscript was ever produced to order for Erasmus that included the long form of 1 John 5.7. But given that the story is still found in the standard textbook and that it works as such a great illustration, it continues to be perpetuated among students of the New Testament. Here is the text of Metzger-Ehrman (p. 146):
In an unguarded moment, Erasmus may have promised that he would insert the Comma Johanneum, as it is called, in future editions if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage. At length, such a copy was found—or was made to order! As it now appears, the Greek manuscript had probably been written in Oxford about 1520 by a Franciscan friar named Froy (or Roy), who took the disputed words from the Latin Vulgate. 
Thankfully, Metzger and Ehrman do cite the work of Henk J. de Jonge who found no such promise from Erasmus but did find a text that seems to have been misread as such. The story of the Comma from the time of the printing press is now told in a remarkably detailed account by one of de Jonge’s students. It’s worth thinking about why this particular canard appeals to us so much. Why are we so easily taken by it? In any case, here is a letter from de Jonge to Michael Maynard on the matter:
From Michael Maynard, A History of the Debate over 1 John 5,7–8: A Tracing of the Longevity of the Comma Johanneum, with Evalutations of Arguments Against Its Authenticity. Tempe, AZ: Comma Publications, 1995.


  1. I knew Michael Maynard personally, when I was a teenager. We both attended the same Church. I remember him talking about 1 John 5:7-8. We had his book on our shelf (which I did read).

    1. Fascinating. In Tempe or in Tuscon? Do you still have a copy? I only have it digitally.

  2. This clearly puts to rest the idea that Erasmus promised to include the Johanine Comma if a manuscript that contained it could be found. It doesn’t seem to tell us whether or not Froy produced a manuscript simply to add the comma. Is there further evidence you could cite regarding this point?

    1. It’s a good question, Will. Here is what Grantley McDonald says: “Given the incomplete evidence, it is impossible to know why the scribe of Montfortianus altered his Greek text in so many places to conform to the Latin Vulgate. At several points throughout the manuscript, this scribe added variant readings from Erasmus’ 1516 New Testament in the margins. These variant readings are written in a slightly different ink and with different pens from that used for the body text, which may suggest that they were added later, perhaps days, perhaps years. It is clear that the scribe had access to Erasmus’ 1516 edition before relinquishing possession of the manuscript. It is less certain whether he copied it in direct reaction to Erasmus’ work” (pp. 32–33). He does on to cite Tregelles who thinks Montfortianus was copied because of 1 John 5:7, but McDonald thinks this conclusion is too confident since we might expect more readings in it that support Lee’s criticisms of Erasmus’ edition. Copying an entire NT seems to me like an inordinate undertaking if your goal was merely to produce a manuscript with 1 John 5.7.

    2. "Tregelles... thinks Montfortianus was copied because of 1 John 5:7, but McDonald thinks this conclusion is too confident since we might expect more readings in it that support Lee’s criticisms of Erasmus’ edition. Copying an entire NT seems to me like an inordinate undertaking if your goal was merely to produce a manuscript with 1 John 5.7."

      That does seem like good evidence that Montfortianus/GA 61 was not copied just for Erasmus. But where did the Comma come from, and why was it included in the text? Could it be that the scribe was copying the epistles in 1519 or 1520, when Lee found out about the almost-finished manuscript and asked him to copy in the "long form" of the Comma once he got to 1 John 5? This would fit the fact that the scribe still had possession of the MS after Erasmus' first edition in 1516, but had released the MS to Lee and Erasmus by 1521, when Erasmus included the long form for the first time. This would explain why the scribe did not cater to the criticisms of Lee--he was likely not in contact with Lee until the codex was almost done--and yet also explain where he got the direction to include the long form of the Comma for the first time. (Or, at least, the first time with this particular wording.)
      Erasmus recognized that the codex was recent, and suspected that some of its readings came from the Latin Vulgate. (He must have recognized the readings from his own 1516 edition in the margin as well.) But if he suspected that the manuscript was copied just for him, he did not say so, perhaps for the same reasons that are given at the beginning.

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  4. I think the "Erasmian Wager" canard is a good case study in how we too readily accept "facts" from authorities and propagate them without confirmation. It's like if enough people say it, it must be true.

    Popular teachers still cite the "Erasmian Wager" though it has long been debunked. When truth comes down to talking points, we often lose it.

  5. Thanks for posting de Jonge's letter clarifying.

    Interesting to note that Metzger and Ehrman (4th ed, 2005) added the words "may have" [promised] compared to the wording in earlier Metzger editions. That downplays the certainty of such an event or interpretation of such events... but still perpetrates the canard. Is it better simply to word the situation: "While defending his omission of the Johannine Comma, Erasmus challenged his critics to produce a manuscript that he could have accessed with such wording. In short order, such a copy was produced... literally!"

    I was in Dublin 2 years ago looking at MSS at Trinity College, and I called for their ms. 30 (aka, Codex Montifortianus; GA 61). It's simple to find fol. 439 on which the Johannine Comma appears bc the page is so tanned compared to the rest of the volume from repeated access by intrigued scholars for centuries now. It's also interesting that this Codex is a complete copy of all 27 NT books (a rather rare phenomenon among Greek MSS), not simply a smaller item such as Acts and the Catholic Epistles.

  6. Will Perry,
    One might find more information (however inconclusive) in Grantley Robert McDonald's "Raising the Ghost of Arius" (2011).

  7. I think the real moral of this story is: you can never trust a scribe named Roy!

    I don't have my Metzger-Ehrman with me right now (out of the country), but if I recall, Metzger added a footnote in which he still defended his statement, though he was less certain than in his first three editions. Is this in the 4th or am I misremembering (something I'm sure I've never done before 😜!)?

    1. This link my be helpful:

    2. Dan, in a footnote in the fourth edition, Metzger-Ehrman add that “It should, however, be noted that Henk Jan de Jonge, a specialist in Erasmian studies, could find no explicit evidence that supports this frequently made assertion concerning a specific promise made by Erasmus.” It’s a bit of an odd admission given what they write in the main text. Metzger’s third edition is actually better where in a note on p. 291 it reads, “What is said on p. 101 above about Erasmus’ promise to include the Comma Johanneum if one Greek manuscript were found that contained it, and his subsequent suspicion that MS. 61 was written expressly to force him to do so, needs to be corrected in the light of the research of H. J. de Jonge…” Not sure what happened in the move from 3rd to 4th edition to keep them from just removing the claim altogether.

    3. McDonald argues that the scribe is not Roy (or Froy) but Froyke, and he wasn't the scribe but an early owner of the codex.

    4. Froyke as an orthographic variant of Frowyk.

  8. If there was no manuscript produced, how did the comma get there?

  9. Although I believe the story has been embellished (as storytelling often goes). It is by no means a stretch to take the quote of Erasmus as such;
    "Let Lee produce a Greek Ms. which contains what my edition does not contain and let him show that that manuscript was within my reach. Only then can he reproach me with negligence in sacred matters."

    Those words have bite!

    With the historical context in mind, what are we to take this as but a gentlemans challenge concerning, if nothing else, the comma. I would not be so quick to throw the baby out with the bath water. Horne, Tregelles, Scrivener, etc. see something more in these words. Furthermore, they are following an older interpretation of these historical events. Should the classic tale be checked with analysis? Yes of course. Should the extreme opposite stance be taken in contrast by labeling the story as a complete fraud or make believe? Hardly! -M.M.R.

    1. I agree. It's an implicit challenge, and Erasmus's adding the comma in response shows how it was understood.

    2. The problem is partly in the English word “produce.” We may easily read that as Erasmus challenging Lee to create a manuscript but in context it is clear that he is telling him to show him such a manuscript that already exists. Perhaps someone misread his challenge, but 61 does not appear to be a manuscript produced to answer it (see my comment above).

    3. Produce = present or bring forth as evidence.

      I certainly wasn't taking it as to literally "produce" (as in create from scratch for said purpose) a new manuscript. The immediate context actually forbids the notion, i.e. "and let him show that that manuscript was within my reach", proving that Erasmus had an existing, somewhat local manuscript in mind.

      That being said, this is technically a matter of Ecclesiastical History (Reformation period) and although the story has been polished, enlarged upon and adapted to suit certain scholars fancy. The core of the story is based upon historical evidence and is, literally, an interpretation of said evidence. Of course, the fact that every New Testament professor for the last hundred plus years has told this story to his first year students (from memory no less) and often added his or her slight touches has only added to the problem. Nonetheless there are historical facts both direct and circumstantial that are in need of interpretation. It's no surprise that modern data minded Text Critic's and scholar's would have a different take (more sterile) than the more classically trained scholar's and critic's of the past.

  10. While it seems certain that Erasmus did not bind himself with a promise to include the long form of 1 John 5:7-8, I think the introductory sentence should have ended by adding "because he promised to add it if Greek support was found." The first sentence as it stands now is, I think, incorrect: "Among text critics, it’s fairly well known that no Greek manuscript was ever produced to order for Erasmus that included the long form of 1 John 5.7." Just because the story about Erasmus' promise is false does not mean that the manuscript that was finally shown to him was not made to order.

    Below is an excerpt from what Henk de Jonge wrote elsewhere:

    Another misunderstanding deserves to be corrected. As we showed above,
    Erasmus received a Greek text of the Comma Johanneum at some time between
    May 1520 and June 1521. This text had been copied from a Codex Britannicus
    also named, after a later owner, Codex Montfortianus, and now at Trinity
    College, Dublin (A 421), and designated as minuscule Gregory 61. It is as
    good as certain, as J. R. Harris demonstrated, that this manuscript was produced
    to order.34 Many writers on this subject, for example Tregelles, Kenyon and
    Metzger, assert that Erasmus himself suspected at the time that the Codex
    Britannicus had been produced to oblige him to include the Comma Johanneum.
    This is again a version of events which does not seem to be based on any
    passage in Erasmus’ printed works or letters.
    It is true that Erasmus assumed that the Codex Britannicus was “recens”.35
    But so far as I am aware, his writings do not contain any expression from
    which it would appear that he suspected that the Codex Britannicus had been
    written especially to induce him to include the Comma Johanneum....
    Erasmus’ view, according to which Greek manuscripts had been adapted to
    Latin, was indeed applicable to the Codex Britannicus, the Comma Johanneum
    was no more than a retroversion of the Vulgate....

    (1) The current view that Erasmus promised to insert the Comma Johanneum
    if it could be shown to him in a single Greek manuscript, has no foundation
    in Erasmus’ works. Consequently it is highly improbable that he included the
    disputed passage because he considered himself bound by any such promise.
    (2) It cannot be shown from Erasmus’ works that he suspected the Codex
    Britannicus (min. 61) of being written with a view to force him to include the
    Comma Johanneum.

    1. If you’re talking about my first sentence, then your addendum is implied in the words “for Erasmus.” But as to the question of whether or not 61 was still made to order, see my response to Will above.

  11. Does anyone have a translation of the Latin marginal note found at 1 John 5:7-8 in the Complutensian Polyglot? Thanks.