Tertullian and Cyprian on 1 John 5:7

The testimony of, Tertullian (died 225) who was from Carthage, and Cyprian (died. 258), who Bishop of Carthage, to the text of 1 John 5:7, is conclusive evidence, that at this very early time, the disputed words did form part of the Epistle of John.

οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τω ουρανω ο πατηρ ο λογος και το αγιον πνευμα και ουτοι οι τρεις εν εισιν

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one”

The quotation in Cyprian is found in his work, The Unity of The Church, written early in the 3rd century. In this work we find the following words:

Dicit Dominus, ego et Pater unum sumus, et iterum de Patre, et Filio et Spiritu Sancto, scriptum est, et tres unum sunt” (De Unitate Ecclesiae, Op.p.109)

The Lord said, I and the Father are one, and again of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, it is written: and these three are one”

The first quotation is from John 10:30, where our Lord is speaking of the essential unity of Himself and the Father. “I and the Father”, two Persons, which is further shown by the use of the masculine, plural “sumus” (lit. “We are”. It is then followed by the neuter “hen” (lit “one thing”; not the masculine “heis “ ”one person”).

Cyprian then goes on to say, “et iterum...scriptum est”, that is, “and again...it is written”. It must be mentioned here, that whenever Cyprian was referring to, or quoting from a Scripture passage. Where else, besides 1 John 5:7 in the entire Bible do words even similar to these appear?

Now, how can anyone get around these plain words of Cyprian, where he no doubt quotes from 1 John 5:7? We do have a few work a rounds for this passage. Some say that the words are a “gloss”, that it, they were originally written in the margin of a New Testament, and then eventually some zealous Trinitarian scribe decided to include the words into the main text of John’s first Epistle. This is nothing but conjecture, as not a single copy of Greek manuscript, or ancient version in any language has been found where these words are written anywhere but the text itself! Then, we have those who suppose, like Facundus (Pro. Defens, iii.1,3), the Bishop of Hermiane (6th century), that Cyprian had before him the reference to “the Spirit, the water and the blood” in verse eight, and supposed that John was speaking of the Holy Trinity! Plausible, but not probable. There is indeed a passage in Cyprian’s writings, where he does mention a reference that “symbolises” the Trinity in a passage dealing with the three men in Daniel, who spent the third, sixth and ninth hour in prayer. So the passage runs;

We find that the three children with Daniel, strong in faith and victorious in captivity, observed the third, sixth, and ninth hour, as it were, for a sacrament of the Trinity, which in the last times had to be manifested. For both the first hour in its progress to the third shows for the consummated number of the Trinity, and also the fourth proceeding to the sixth declares another Trinity; and when from the seventh the ninth is completed, the perfect Trinity is numbered every three hours (Dom. Orat. 34)”

Facundus, indeed (pro Defens 111.1,3), supposed that Cyprian had here in view only the words to pneuma kai to hudôr kai to haima hoi treis eis to hen eisin; having understood by pneuma the energy of the Holy Spirit in the Church, by the hudor the energy of the Father, and by the haima that of the Son. But, although it might be possible that Cyprian so understood the words (and though, further, the Vulgate has translated eis to hen eisin by unum sunt), yet between possibility and probability there is a difference, and Cyprian’s words may be explained by the fact that in manuscripts which he had (of an old Latin version) the interpolation was already to be found. Thus was Cyprian’s sentence viewed by Fulgentius Ruspensis (Responsio ad Arianos); and, what is more important, Fulgentius himself quotes the critically-questionable words as St John’s, and therefore must have read them in his New Testament. (Fulgentius died A.D. 533)” (Biblical Commentary on the Epistles of St John, pp-325-326).

F Scrivener had this to say on Cyprian's words, “it is surely safer and more candid to admit that Cyprian read ver. 7 in his copies, than to resort to the explanation of Facundus [vi], that the holy Bishop was merely putting on ver. 8 a spiritual meaning” (Plain Introduction, vol. II, p.405)

There can be no question that the words were known to Cyprian, and even did form part of His New Testament.

We shall now look at the testimony of Tertullain (160-220), who was also from Carthage in North Africa, where Cyprian had been Bishop, who used to refer to Tertullian as “his master”. The importance of Tertullian’s testimony here, especially in connection with Cyprian, will become clearer as we proceed.

Tertullian, in his work “Against Praxeas”, (who taught a Trinity where the Father actually suffered on the cross, where He identified the Father with the Son, and therefore failed to separate the Persons in the Godhead.) has a passage which says;

And so the connection of the Father, and the Son, and of the Paraclete makes three cohering Persons, one in the other, which three are one (qui tres unum sunt) [in substance ‘unum’, not ‘one’ in number, ‘unus’]; in the same manner which it was said, ‘I and the Father are one’, to denote the unity of substance, not the singularity of number” (Ad Prax. C.25).

Some observations need to be made here. Firstly, it is interesting that, like Cyprian, Tertullian also uses John 10:30 with 1 John 5:7, which are on the essential unity of the Persons in the Godhead. Secondly, where, if not from 1 John 5:7, does Tertullian get the phrase, “qui tres unum sunt”? Thirdly, what does Tertullian mean with the phrase, “quomodo dictum est” (in the same manner which it was said)? And then quote from John 10:30? Fourthly, though, like Cyprian, Tertullian was of the Latin Church, yet we know that he “wrote particularly in Latin, but also in Greek. He also sometimes used a Latin Bible, sometimes a Greek, probably oftener the former than the latter. It is improbable that his Greek Bible was very different in text from the Greek text underlying his Latin Bible” (A Souter; The Text and canon of the New Testament, p.79). Frederic Kenyon adds, that Tertullian “seems often to have made his own translations from the Greek” (The Text of the Greek Bible, p.136).

This leads us to the conclusion on this, that there can be no doubt that the Greek Bible was available, and used in North Africa as early as middle of the second century, even though the Church in North Africa spoke mainly Latin. It is foolish to assume with Dr Thomas Horne, who quotes Michaelis, the German theologian, who said;

On the other hand, admitting that the words Et tres unum sunt – And these three are one – were so quoted from the verse in question, Michaelis asks whether a passage found in no ancient Greek manuscript, quoted by no Greek father, and contained in no other ancient version but the Latin, is therefore to be pronounced genuine, merely because one single Latin father of the first three centuries, who was bishop of Carthage, where the Latin version only was used, and where Greek was unknown, has quoted it?” (An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, vol.IV, p.461)

The reference here is to Cyprian, who, it is wrongly assumed, had no knowledge of Greek, and therefore only used the Latin Bible. Such arguments in Textual Criticism clearly show that complete lack of knowledge of the facts, or the misuse of them to prove a point. This is not new, as most of those who reject this passage in 1 John, have done so mainly on the basis of other big names before them, and not because they have cared to examine the evidence for themselves. Cyprian, we are told, received “a good Greek education” (Elgin S Moyer; The Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church, p.108). Can anyone be said to have received a good Greek education, without learning Greek? Further evidence of Cyprian’s knowledge of Greek can be found in his correspondence with Bishop Firmilian. “Before the winter of 256 Cyprian’s messengers to Firmilian returned with his reply, the most enthusiastic letter of the series. We have it in Cyprian’s translation from the Greek” (H Wace and W Piercy, ibid, pp.228-229). Again I must ask, is it possible to translate from Greek, if one has know knowledge of the language? There can be no doubt to the honest mind, that the facts speak for themselves, and the evidence, not conjecture, is, that Cyprian, like Tertullian, fully knew the Greek language, would no doubt have had the entire Bible in Greek as well as Latin! Can anyone still doubt that, not only was the disputed passage know to both Tertullian and Cyprian, but that it would have been in both the Greek as well as the Latin Epistle of John! To argue that Cyprian did not know Greek, is, in my opinion, like arguing to the wind!