"Love of God" or "Love" in 1 John 3:16?

"Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." (1 John 3:16, KJV)

Some recent editions of the KJV have "of God" in italics (suggesting an addition in the process of translation) but the original 1611 edition does not have these words in italics. Most modern translations omit "of God". The reading "of God" comes from Beza's 1598 edition of the Textus Receptus. The reading is supported by the Complutensian Polyglot, the Clementine Vulgate, and manuscript 629 (14th century).1 Unfortunately the source manuscripts of the Complutensian Polyglot and the Clementine Vulgate for this reading do not exist today. As for Manuscript 629, it is also known for being the earliest Greek manuscript containing the Johannine Comma in the main text. While the extant witnesses for the KJV reading are few and late, there is some evidence of early tampering with this portion of the text. Manuscripts of the Sahidic, Bohairic and other Coptic dialects have "the love of the Son of God".2 Sahidic flourished in late 2nd century Upper Egypt so its witness of 1 John 3:16 could be of an ancient origin. It is possible that the reading of "love of God, because he laid down his life for us..." fell into ill favor among the early anti-Trinitarian heretics because of the implication that the one who died was God himself. The Coptic reading of "the love of the Son of God" and the majority reading of omitting "God" could be two ways in which the text was corrupted to downplay the divinity of Jesus - one by adding words to change the meaning of the text and the other by removing words. On the other hand, as with the Johannine Comma, orthodox Trinitarians of the 3rd century may have omitted "of God" suspecting it to be an addition to support Sabellianism or Patripassianism. Supposing an early corruption of the text is not unreasonable given that today the following eight are the only Greek manuscripts from before the 10th century containing this verse: 01 (IV century), 02 (V century), 03 (IV century), 04 (V century), 025 (IX century), 044 (IX/X century), 33 (IX century), 2464 (IX century).3 There was a long period of time for "of God" to fall out of transmission without leaving a trace.

Despite the weak manuscript evidence, "of God" should be retained in the text because it fits the context. The context in this portion of chapter 3 is about the love of God:

16 Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17 But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?

This text presents a contrastive parallelism. The "love of God" is perceived by an act of selfless sacrifice. Inversely, the "love of God" is absent in a person characterized by selfish apathy. This presents a more symmetrical contrastive parallelism than to say that "love", generically speaking, is exemplified by selfless sacrifice and that the absence of the "love of God", specifically speaking, is exemplified by selfish apathy. Furthermore, Beza found the words "of God" to be justified on the basis of Romans 5:8. The footnote to Beza's 1598 Textus Receptus edition says, "Sic Paulus Rom. v. 8" (as Paul in Romans 5:8). Romans 5:8 is a near exact parallel of 1 John 3:16a. Compare the two below:

Romans 5:8: "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

1 John 3:16a: "Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us:"

In Romans 5:8, the "love" is that of God and the evidence of that love comes from the one who died - Christ. The KJV reading of 1 John 3:16 is more fitting in the immediate context as well as in the larger context of the New Testament as a whole.

Some see the KJV reading as implying that it is God who laid down his life for us. Although Trinitarians should not have any problem with this, some Trinitarians argue that the KJV reading leads to a technical inaccuracy because it is Jesus Christ who laid down his life for us and "God" is used in 1 John to refer to the Father. This argument has no merit. The KJV reading is consistent with the style of 1 John. Consider 1 John 3:1-5:

1 Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. 2 Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. 3 And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. 4 Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. 5 And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.

1 John 3:1-5 introduces the reader to the love of "the Father" (as an aside, this again shows that the context of chapter 3 is about the "love of God"). Then twice we see "God" as the subject in reference to his fatherhood to believers. After explicitly identifying the subject as "Father" and "God", John continues the argument using pronouns such as "him" and "he". The identity of the referent of these pronouns is ambiguous from verse 2 to 4. But by verse 5 the subject has shifted completely to Jesus Christ, given that it was certainly he who "was manifested to take away our sins". The point of this analysis is that it is characteristic of John to refer to "the Father" or "God" and then suddenly use a pronoun to refer to Jesus Christ. That seems to be what is happening at 1 John 3:16. In accordance with Romans 5:8, 1 John 3:16 is saying that we perceive the love "of God" by the evidence that "he" (that is, Jesus Christ) laid down his life for us. The KJV reading, with its sudden shift in the identify of the subject, is more "difficult". Thus those who espouse the doctrine of lectio difficilior lectio potior (the more difficult reading is the stronger) should favor the KJV reading.

Lastly, some translations such as the NIV, NLT and NET replace the "he" in "he laid down his life for us" with "Jesus" without any manuscript support. "Jesus" is added based on context. The KJV reading of "of God" at least has some manuscript support and the context supports that this love is "of God". Even if the words "of God" are added, as suggested by italics in some KJV editions, it is nothing worth critiquing the KJV for, given what other modern translations have done here. The KJV reading is implied by the context and is therefore true in what it affirms.

Read more articles from: The King James Version is Demonstrably Inerrant


1 Novum Testamentum Graecum: Editio Critica Maior: IV Catholic Letters, Text, 2nd Ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2013), p. 313

2 Novum Testamentum Graecum: Editio Critica Maior: IV Catholic Letters, Supplementary Material, 2nd Ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2013), p. 130

3 Ibid, p. 4-7, and Novum Testamentum Graecum: Editio Critica Maior: IV Catholic Letters, Text, 2nd Ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2013), p. 313