Special Note on Imminent Eschatology in the Gospels

As part of the recent article on “imminent eschatology” in the New Testament, I pointed out four key passages in the Gospels—four distinct Gospel traditions—which are particularly notable in this regard:

The first three are sayings of Jesus, while the fourth is an historical tradition (containing a saying of Jesus) specific to the Gospel of John. All four are distinctive in that they go beyond the general idea that the end of the current Age (and with it the coming Judgment and coming of the Kingdom) would soon occur. Each of these traditions may be taken to indicate that the coming of the Son of Man (the return of Jesus) would take place within the lifetime of the first disciples. For many commentators, and Christians in general, this proves highly problematic, as it might suggest, at the very least, that the Gospel writers (and Jesus himself!) were mistaken about the time of the end. Due to the controversial nature of these passages, it is necessary to examine each of them closely, looking at them from several aspects: (1) if they all truly mean what they appear to mean, (2) how early Christian may have understood or adapted them in context, and (3) attempts by commentators to explain and/or harmonize them with other New Testament references and theological/christological concerns.

1. Mark 9:1 (par Matt 16:28; Luke 9:27)

This saying of Jesus is part of the Synoptic (triple) Tradition, occurring in all three Gospels, though with significant variation. In this regard, it is highly instructive as a case study on the development of the Gospel Tradition. It occurs at the same point in all three Gospels—part of a block of sayings/teaching (Mk 8:34-9:1) set between Peter’s confession (8:27-30ff) and the Transfiguration scene (9:2-8). The sayings deal with faithfulness in following Jesus (i.e. discipleship) and may be separate traditions which were joined together (at a very early point) based on that theme. The last two sayings are eschatological in orientation:

    • The motif of judgment at the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man (8:38)
    • The saying in 9:1 on the coming of the Kingdom of God

Here is Mark’s version of the latter saying:

“Amen, I say/relate to you that there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who shall not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power!”

Luke’s version (9:27) is quite close to the Markan:

“But I say/relate (this) to you truly: there will be some of the (one)s having stood (in) this (place) who shall not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God.”

The main difference is the absence of the qualifying phrase “in power”. Matthew’s version (16:28) is actually identical with the Markan, except for the closing words (in italics):

(Matt) “…until they should see the Son of Man having come in his kingdom”
(Mark) “…until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power

How should this saying be interpreted? Clearly Jesus, speaking to his (close) disciples, is declaring that at least some of them will not die (“taste death”) until they see the Kingdom. This would seem to imply something which will take place during their lifetime. There are three primary ways to interpret this:

    • It refers to the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8 par), witnessed by three disciples, in which Jesus appears in glorified manner
    • It refers to Jesus’ exaltation (resurrection, ascension, heavenly appearance [at God’s right hand]), witnessed variously by the disciples
    • It is a reference to the end-time coming of the Kingdom of God and/or appearance of the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus’ future return, in early Christian terms)

The literary context of the Gospel narrative makes the first option attractive—i.e., the saying is meant as a foreshadowing of the Transfiguration experience. However, it must be said that this is really only plausible in Luke’s version (with its simple reference to “the kingdom of God”); the Markan and Matthean versions do not allow for this. It is conceivable that the Lukan omission of “in power” was meant to soften the eschatological implications of the saying, making it a better fit to the disciples’ experience during Jesus’ ministry, and in their subsequent experience after his resurrection.

This leaves the second option as the best choice if we wish to isolate something which definitely took place during the disciples’ lifetime. Certainly, there are other sayings in the Gospels where Jesus appears to identify the Kingdom of God with his own person and activity. There also can be no doubt that, in early Christian belief, Jesus’ identity as Anointed One (Messianic ruler, etc) and Son of God, was associated primarily with his resurrection and ascension (cf. the early preaching in Acts, Rom 1:4, Phil 2:9-11, etc). At least one early believer/disciple (Stephen, Acts 7:55-56) had a vision of Jesus (identified as the Son of Man) standing at God’s right hand in heaven; and, of course, a number of disciples witnessed Jesus after his resurrection (1 Cor 15:5-7, etc), along with his ascension (Acts 1:9-11), which may be said to involve Jesus’ coming in(to) his Kingdom. There is an interesting variant in the words of the “good thief” on the cross in Luke 23:42. The reading of some of the oldest/best manuscripts is “…when you come into [ei)$] your kingdom”, whereas the majority text reads “…when you come in [e)n] your kingdom”, which could be taken to mean his future coming in glory, something made specific in the reading of Codex Bezae [D] (“…in the day of your coming”).

In spite of this ambivalence of interpretation, an original reference by Jesus to his resurrection/exaltation seems unlikely here. If we take the Markan and Matthean versions together, it comes very close to the eschatological saying in Mk 13:26 par:

    • “some of the ones standing here…should see
      • the Kingdom of God coming in power” (Mk)
      • the Son Man coming in his Kingdom” (Matt)
    • “they will see the Son of Man coming…with great power” (Mk 13:26)

This eschatological interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the prior reference to the Judgment and the coming of the Son of Man with the Angels in Mk 8:38 par. It is hard to avoid the implication that Jesus is referring to the end-time coming of the Son of Man, and that this, apparently, is to take place within the lifetime of his disciples.

[For the interesting parallel of the saying in John 1:51, which also involves the promise of seeing the Son of Man appear in glory, along with the presence of Angels, cf. my earlier study on that verse.]

2. Mark 13:30 (par Matt 24:34; Luke 21:32)

Another saying from the Synoptic (triple) Tradition, this declaration by Jesus is part of the “Eschatological Discourse” (for a survey and outline, cf. the recent study). Here there can be no doubt whatsoever about the eschatological context of the saying, at least as it has been preserved in the Gospel Tradition. Also, by comparison with the variation we saw for Mk 9:1 par (cf. above), this saying is essentially fixed in the tradition. Here is Mark’s version (13:30):

“Amen, I say/relate to you that this genea/ shall (surely) not pass along until the (time at) which all these (thing)s should come to be.”

Matthew’s version (24:34) is a bit simpler in its syntax (“…until all these [thing]s…”), but otherwise identical. Luke here (21:32) is identical to Matthew, except for reading “all (thing)s” instead of “all these (thing)s”.

It is interesting to consider the syntactical similarity with Mark 9:1 par (above):

    • Both sayings begin a)mh\n le/gw u(mi=n (“Amen, I say/relate to you…”)
    • Both sayings have the same structure utilizing a double negative particle (ou) mh\) for emphasis (i.e. “not at all, surely/certainly not”), along with aorist subjunctive verb forms
    • This structure sets a clear conditional statement or assertion, framed the same way by the two subjunctive verb forms—i.e., “…{it/this} shall surely not happen…until {this} should occur”
    • The condition is temporal, or time-factored, governed by the particle e%w$ (“until”)—except for Mk 13:30 which expresses this a bit differently (me/xri$ ou!, “until the [time at] which”)
    • In both sayings, the time-condition seems to relate to the death of people who are currently alive

Let us now consider the saying in Mark 13:30 par in context. It comes after (1) the discussion of the signs/events which are to occur before the end (vv. 5-23), and (2) the description of the end itself, i.e. the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27). This provides the contextual reference for “[all] these (thing)s” (tau=ta pa/nta) in v. 30—all of the things Jesus has been describing in vv. 5-27, including the appearance of the Son of Man. It is stated that “this genea/” will not pass away (i.e. disappear, die off) until all of this takes place. The interpretive crux involve the much-disputed meaning of “this genea/“.

The noun genea/ is related to the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), and fundamentally refers to someone/something which comes to be (born). Often it signifies a group of people who share the same line of birth (i.e. family, tribe, race), or a particular time/period when people are born and live. It is usually translated in English as “generation”, a word actually related to the Greek. As with genea/ itself, the English word “generation” has a similarly elastic meaning. In conventional idiom, when referring to a distinct period of time, a “generation” typically refers to a period of about 30-40 years, reflecting the principal lifetime of a parent in relation to their child—for example, a family with children, parents, and grandparents would be said to involve three different generations. Sometimes, however, it can denote a more extensive period of time.

If we examine the 40+ occurrences of genea/ in the New Testament, we note that all but 10 are found in the Gospels, and there primarily in sayings by Jesus. The Gospel evidence can be rather easily summarized:

    • In the Matthean genealogy (4 times in 1:17), genea/ appears to be used in the conventional sense outlined above, indicating a person’s lifetime up to the point when his/her child comes of age—i.e. a period of ~30-40 years. The same basic usage is found, more generally, in Luke 1:48, 50, as also in Acts 13:36
    • The majority of the occurrences in the sayings involve the expression “this genea/“, “this generation, as here in Mk 13:30 par—cf. Mk 8:12, 38; Matt 11:16; 12:41ff; Lk 11:29-32, 50-51, etc. In all these instances, Jesus would seem to be referring to the people whom he is addressing, i.e. the people alive currently, at the time of his ministry. Cf. also the similar usage in Mk 9:19 par; Matt 12:39; 16:4; Lk 16:8, as well as in Acts 2:40. It is worth noting the negative sense of the expression “this generation”; on this, cf. below.

Paul seems to have used the word in reference to the people of the past, taken as a whole, or speaking generally (cf. Col 1:26; Eph 3:5; Acts 14:16, as also [by James] in Acts 15:21). On one occasion (Phil 2:15) he refers to the current generation (i.e. people currently alive) in a manner similar to Jesus. Three other New Testament occurrences are worthy of note. In Acts 8:33 (citing Isa 53:8), the word is used in a more general sense of a person’s life (coming to be born and lifetime); in Heb 3:10 it is used in reference to a specific past generation (“that generation”); in Eph 3:21 it refers to periods of time (i.e. past Ages).

There would seem to be little reason to understand the usage in Mk 13:30 par any other way than as a reference to the current generation to whom Jesus was speaking—i.e. the people currently alive at that time. All other occurrences of the expression “this generation” in Jesus’ sayings have this meaning, as do the similar instances in Acts 2:40; Phil 2:15. This renders highly problematic other attempts to work around the historical problem, such as that it refers to:

    • The Age (or dispensation) lasting from Jesus’ time, i.e. to the present
    • Humankind or the Israelite/Jewish people in general
    • A specific generation living at some time in the (distant) future

Though the first two of these allow for relatively smooth harmonizing of the historical difficulties, it introduces meaning and distinctions which are foreign to Jesus’ use of the word genea/ and the expression “this generation”. A number of Christians today prefer the last of these options; in its favor is the fact that it preserves the concrete sense of future events that will be fulfilled in a specific (and relatively brief) period of time, as well as retaining the typical meaning of the word genea/. However, it labors under two serious problems:

    • It requires a significant gap in time (as much as 2,000+ years) between Jesus’ original audience and the fulfillment of the predicted events, something for which there is little or no evidence in the text itself; this point will be discussed in Part 4 of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, and when we come to the eschatology in the book of Acts.
    • It is contrary to Jesus’ use of the expression “this generation”, which otherwise always refers to the people whom he is currently addressing (this present generation, i.e. those alive at the time). I find no immediate examples where the expression “this generation” (genea/ au%th) refers to a specific future generation.

One must also keep in mind the fact that Jesus tends to use the expression “this generation” in the context of the Judgment which is about to come upon the people living at the time. The expression is almost always used in this negative sense. Especially noteworthy is Matthew 23:36, where Jesus speaks of the judgment which the (Israelite/Jewish) people, especially those in Judea/Jerusalem and the religious leaders centered there, will face for the death and persecution of the Prophets throughout the years (vv. 29-35), and states bluntly in verse 36 that “…all these (thing)s will come upon this (present) generation”. The language is virtually identical with that of Mk 13:30 par. Central to the Eschatological Discourse is the framework of Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction (vv. 1-2) and his description of the great distress which will come upon Judea (vv. 14ff). The Lukan version (21:20-24, cf. also 19:43-44) presents this in terms of a military siege of Jerusalem, such as came to pass in 70 A.D. Viewed in these terms, Jesus’ eschatological prophecies were largely fulfilled (fairly accurately) in the 1st century A.D., other than the fact that the final Judgment (with the coming of the Son of Man) did not take place. For more on this important topic, cf. the concluding part (upcoming) of the study on the Eschatological Discourse.

3. Matthew 10:22-23

Our focus here will be on the saying in verse 23 (found only in Matthew); however, in order to set in its proper context, it needs to be examined in connection with verse 22:

“And you will be (one)s being [i.e. who are] hated under [i.e. by] all (people) through [i.e. because of] my name—but the (one) remaining under unto (the) completion [te/lo$], this (one) will be saved. (v. 22)
But when they pursue you in this city, flee into the other (one); for, amen, I say/relate to you (that) you shall (certainly) not complete the cities of Yisrael until the Son of Man should come!” (v. 23)

You will note immediately, the similar syntax of the saying in verse 23, comparing it with those in Mk 9:1 and 13:30 par (cf. above). All three sayings share a common structure, tone and meaning. If the first two are eschatological, it is extremely likely that this one (in its original context) is as well. As I discussed above, this is problematic for traditional-conservative commentators, and other devout readers, since it implies, again, that the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man will take place in the lifetime of the disciples. It is important to consider just what is expected to take place prior to the Son of Man’s appearance; two aspects are indicated: (1) a preaching ministry of the disciples (such as the immediate context of chap. 10), which takes them throughout Israelite territory; and (2) the persecution they will experience, forcing them to flee from one city to the next (cf. the mission narratives in Acts). The eschatological orientation here (cp. in the Eschatological Discourse, Matt 24:9-14 par) seems out of place in the context of chapter 10. Most likely verses 17-23 originated in a separate context and where joined with vv. 1-15f based on a common theme. As the verses stand now, they would imply that the disciples would not complete their mission in vv. 5ff before the coming of the Son of Man—an anachronism and historical implausibity!

Indeed, the persecution described here must be taken as a prophecy of future events which will occur after the resurrection—a period of mission work which will take place prior to the end-time appearance of the Son of Man. In this regard, the instruction here is similar in tone and setting to that in the Eschatological discourse (24:9-13 par), only that, in the latter passage, a more extensive mission is described, one which reaches out in the Gentile world (i.e. of the Roman Empire). Mark’s account makes relatively little of this, but it is emphasized more prominently in Luke, as well as in Matthew’s version of the Discourse. The statement in Matt 24:14 goes beyond that in Mk 13:10, apparently referring to this mission work on a much grander scale:

“And this good message of the Kingdom will be proclaimed in the whole inhabited (world), unto a witness for all the nations, and then the completion [te/lo$] will come/arrive.”

Many commentators feel that there is incompatibility between 10:16-23 and 24:9-14, and, at the very least, there does appear to be some tension, especially if we accept the historicity of the Gospel narrative and assume that Jesus is addressing essentially the same group of disciples. One passage assumes a mission field limited to the land of Israel/Palestine, the other a worldwide mission (within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, at the very least). However, as I will be discussing in the final portion (Part 4) of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, this does not necessarily require a radically different understanding of the period of time involved before the coming of the end.

4. John 21:22-23

Our final passage comes from that last chapter (the so-called appendix) of the Gospel of John, and derives from an entirely different (Johannine) line of tradition than the Synoptic material. It relates to the person in the Gospel known as “the disciple whom (Jesus) loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20ff). The disciple is unnamed (though almost certainly known to the original audience), and identified, according to Christian tradition, as John the apostle, son of Zebedee. Chapter 21, which most critical commentators consider to be a secondary addition to the Gospel, to judge by the narrative context, may effectively be narrowing the identification to the disciples mentioned in verse 2. Be that as it may, the “Beloved Disciple” was clearly a prominent figure in the congregations which first read/produced/transmitted the Fourth Gospel. According to 19:35 and 21:24, he is recognized as a principal source for the information and traditions recorded in the Gospel; it is less likely that he is the actual author, in spite of the apparent wording in 21:24.

Verses 20-23 record an important historical tradition, set in the period after the resurrection (vv. 1, 14), while Jesus was still present with his disciples. Actually, there would seem to be two distinct lines of tradition in vv. 15-23—one involving Peter and the death he would face (vv. 15-19), and the other involving the Beloved Disciple and the idea that he would (or might) not die before Jesus’ return. Critical commentators view these as separate traditions, joined by verse 20[f] in the narrative. At any rate, it is Peter’s question (“And what of this [one], Lord?”) which brings forth the statement by Jesus:

“If I wish him to remain until I come, what (is that) to you? You must follow me.” (v. 22)

The implication of this saying, that the Beloved Disciple would remain alive until Jesus’ future return, is certain, at least from the standpoint of the Gospel writer who makes this clear in v. 23:

“(So) then this account [i.e. word/saying] went out into the brothers, that that learner [i.e. disciple] is not (going to) die away; but Yeshua did not say of him that he is not (going to) die away, but ‘If I wish him to remain until I come…'”

According to tradition, John the Apostle was among the very last of the original disciples to die, effectively living to the end of the 1st century. A number of commentators feel that the Beloved Disciple had recently died, or was approaching death, at the time that chap. 21 was written; this would explain why it was important to include this detail, since his death might have been seen as contradicting the words of Jesus. If the Beloved Disciple was, indeed, one of the last of the initial disciples to die off, his death would have marked a significant turning point in early Christian eschatology. Verse 23 offers objective confirmation of the belief, expressed or implied elsewhere in the Gospel (cf. above), that the end-time return of Jesus would take place in the lifetime of the first disciples. Once the first generation of believers had “passed away”, this belief would have to be re-examined, and Jesus’ sayings reconsidered. It is possible that we see signs of this already in the Synoptic Tradition, especially in the more developed form represented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (often thought to date from c. 70-80 A.D.). Luke, in particular, was aware of an extended period of missionary work in the Gentile world (the Roman Empire), spanning at least until the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Of all the Gospels, his version of the Eschatological Discourse gives the most precise presentation of this particular historical framework.

Special article on the Letters of John

Special Article on the Letters of John

As I have dealt at length with the Letters of John (1 John, in particular) in the recent notes of this series (“…Spirit and Life”), touching upon many aspects of their life-setting (and church-setting), I felt it would be worthwhile to supplement this study with a brief survey of the background of the letters, insofar as it is possible to determine. This will not be a thorough or exhaustive introduction (for that, you may consult any reputable critical Commentary); rather, I will outline some of the key points which are especially helpful for analyzing and interpreting the letters.

Authorship, Timeframe, and Geographical Setting

Tradition ascribes authorship of both the Gospel and Letters to John the Apostle. This was established by at least the middle of the 2nd century, as indicated by texts from the latter half of the century, such as the Muratorian fragment and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (I.16.3, III.1.1), as well as the “Anti-Marcionite” prologue to John, and Clement of Alexandria (in Eusebius’ Church History VI.14.7). While this tradition is fairly strong, the writings themselves are actually anonymous, with no specific identification of authorship. Support for the apostle as the author of 1 John, as well as the authenticity (and canonical status) of the letter, is somewhat stronger than that of 2-3 John (cf. Eusebius’ Church History III.24.17, 25.2; VI.25.10; VII.25.7-8, but note also his view in the Demonstration of the Gospel 3.5.88). There are strong indicators in the Letters to suggest that they were not written by a leading Apostle such as John.

With regard to the authorship/origins of the Gospel, the main figure is the close disciple of Jesus referred to as “the disciple whom he loved” (Jn 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), often rendered as “the Beloved Disciple”. Most often, this person is identified with John son of Zebedee, according to tradition, but commentators have suggested other possibilities as well, such as John Mark or Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:5, 36; 12:1-2). All we can say for certain, is that the “Beloved Disciple” was one of Jesus’ close followers, and that he was not Simon Peter (13:23-24; 20:2-8; 21:7, 20ff). The responsible commentator really ought not to presume more than this. It is noteworthy that the “Beloved Disciple” only features in the Passion Narrative spanning the second half of the book (chaps. 13-21), and, it would seem, was regarded by the Gospel writer as a key source of information for this section. It has been suggested that he was the unnamed disciple accompanying Peter in 18:15ff, as well as the witness cited in 19:35-36. The last point is quite likely, especially considering how the ‘appendix’ to the Gospel (chap. 21) identifies the “Beloved Disciple” specifically as a prime witness for the events being narrated in the Gospel (v. 24). This statement is worth quoting:

“This (person) is the learner [i.e. disciple] giving witness to these things and having written them, and we have seen [i.e. known] that his witness is true.”

The reference to “having written” is sometimes assumed, by traditional-conservative commentators especially, to mean that the “Beloved Disciple” is the Gospel writer; but this interpretation is scarcely required by the text. All the statement really means is that the “Beloved Disciple” committed his testimony to writing in some form. It could just as easily indicate that his written testimony was a source used by the Gospel writer, who was a different person; indeed, this seems most likely. Critical commentators generally regard the authorship of the Gospel along the following lines:

    • The “Beloved Disciple” was a leading figure (if not the leading figure) among the Community (i.e. congregations) which produced and first circulated the Gospel. As a close disciple of Jesus, he was a key source for the traditions (including eyewitness testimony and memories) preserved in the Gospel. These would have been transmitted orally, and also in writing; indeed, he may have composed a core Gospel account which the writer incorporated within the main text.
    • The Gospel writer—a different person from the “Beloved Disciple”, though almost certainly coming from the same line of tradition (or “school”, cf. below); he may have been a close follower himself of the “Beloved Disciple”, committed to preserving his Apostolic witness (much like the relationship tradition ascribes to John Mark and Peter in the composition of the Gospel of Mark).
    • The final editing/redaction of the Gospel. This may have been done, at a later point, by the Gospel writer himself, or by a second author/editor. Commentators are divided on this point, though in general agreement that chapter 21 is a secondary (later) addition to the main Gospel, which concluded at 20:31.

On the whole, this a very plausible general reconstruction, which seems to fit the available evidence.

With regard to the Letters, scholars are divided as to authorship, in terms of the relation of the Letters to the Gospel. Clearly, they share the same thought-world and theology (including Christology), as well as having considerable similarity in vocabulary, language, and style. If one takes into account the normal differences, between the Gospel and First Letter, due to the adaptation of earlier historical/traditional material in the Gospel, the two works appear to be very close indeed, and could have been written by the same person. Depending on the relative roles given to the Gospel writer and a (possible) subsequent editor/redactor, commentators have identified the author of the letters (or at least the First Letter) with either the writer or editor/redactor of the Gospel, respectively. There are a range of valid possibilities, but none can be determined with certainty.

There are also differences of opinion regarding the relationship between 1 John and the second & third Letters, which are almost certainly written by the same person. The author of 1 John is not identified in any way, but 2 and 3 John both were written by a man calling himself “the Elder”. While the designation o( presbu/tero$ (“the elder”) could conceivably be used for an Apostle (such as John), this is rather unlikely, especially the context of the initial address of a letter. For example, in 1 Peter, the author (who identifies himself as Peter) calls himself sumpresbu/teros (“elder [along] with [you]”), but only in the immediate context of addressing other elders; in the initial address he clearly refers to himself as a)po/stolo$ (“[one] sent forth”, apostle), even as Paul does in many of his letters. Moreover, the author of 2-3 John does not appear to write as one possessing apostolic authority. Indeed, the entire milieu of the Letters suggests a time after the first generation of apostolic witnesses has passed from the scene. According to tradition, John the Apostle would have been one of the last to pass away. The (recent) death of the “Beloved Disciple” is suggested by the context of Jn 21:22-23ff.

Even so, many commentators would attribute all three Letters to the same person—i.e., “the Elder” in 2-3 John. The close similarity of language, style and content between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this. The best explanation as to why this author did not address himself the same way in First Letter, is that 1 John, in fact, is not a letter or epistle, but a (theological) tract or exposition which achieved circulation among the various congregations. Thus, it would not have been formulated the same way as an actual letter, and, indeed, is lacking most of the common characteristics of the epistolary format. Who is “the Elder” who produced the Letters? There are several ways to understand this:

    • He is simply one of the (leading) Elders of the Johannine churches
    • He is the chief (overseeing, i.e. e)pi/skopo$) Elder for the (Johannine) churches of the region
    • He is a leading figure with the special title “the Elder”, due to his close connection with the founding apostle of the churches (the “Beloved Disciple”, whether John or another apostle)
    • He is, in fact, the “Beloved Disciple” (John or another apostle) who calls himself by the title “Elder”

In my view, only the second and third options are likely to be correct. As an interesting side note, which might confirm option #3, there is an early Christian tradition which distinguishes the apostle John from another elder John. Eusebius (Church History 3.39.4) records a statement by Papias (c. 130 A.D.) which identifies two such distinct figures named John (cf. also Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 9; and the Apostolic Constitutions 7:46). A relatively simple, more general explanation would be to distinguish a group of leading “Elders”, installed by the Apostles and other early/leading missionaries, in the various churches, all of whom represent the second generation of Christian leaders. The apostolic witness was passed on to them, and they, in turn, faithfully preserve and transmit it for subsequent generations. This is very much the situation expressed in the Pastoral letters, and is attested elsewhere in early tradition (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17). Irenaeus confirms such a distinction between “apostle” and “elder” (Against Heresies III.3.4; IV.27.1; V.33.3), and this would seem to be in accord with the general setting of the Johannine Letters.

Geographic Setting—Where were the Gospel and Letters first composed and circulated? Two regions are usually cited as the most likely possibilities: (1) Syria, the area around Antioch, and (2) Asia Minor, spec. the area around Ephesus. In favor of Syria, we might cite as evidence:

    • The Palestinian background of the Gospel, including the Jerusalem setting for many of the episodes, an abundance of local detail not found in the other Gospels, and the occurrence of numerous Semitisms. However, this may reflect the underlying historical traditions, rather than the place of composition.
    • The primacy and importance of Antioch as one of the earliest (and most influential) centers of Christianity.
    • Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, and his letters (c. 110-115 A.D.) reflect Johannine thought and expression at various points, though there are no certain quotations.
    • There are also considerable points of similarity between the Johannine writings (esp. the Gospel) and the so-called Odes of Solomon, a collection of early Christian hymns (late-1st/early-2nd century) which are assumed to have a Syrian provenance.

In favor of Ephesus:

    • Early Christian tradition associates John the apostle (and the Johannine writings) with Ephesus. This is part of the Johannine tradition established by the middle of the 2nd century—cf. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; the Acts of John; Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.1.1, etc; and the testimony of Polycrates bishop of Ephesus (in Eusebius’ Church History V.24.3). On the other hand, Ignatius, in writing to the Christians of Ephesus, mentions Paul’s work, but says nothing of John having been there.
    • As mentioned above, Ignatius’ letters (c. 110-115 A.D.), many of which are addressed to congregations in Asia Minor, show many similarities with Johannine thought. The same is true of the letter of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who is said to have been a disciple of John the apostle. In writing to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles, Ignatius attacks Christological views similar to those denounced in 1 John (on this, cf. below).
    • The book of Revelation, written by a “John”, and traditionally identified with John the Apostle, is addressed primarily to churches in Asia Minor (chaps. 2-3), the first of which is Ephesus. The warnings in those letters are similar in certain respects to those given in 1 and 2 John.
    • The island of Patmos, where “John” writes the book of Revelation, and where John the Apostle was exiled (according to tradition), is not too far from Ephesus.
    • John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel of John, and it is often thought that the Gospel was written, in part, against those would might identify the Baptist (rather than Jesus) as the Messiah. According to Acts 18:25ff; 19:2-6, there appear to have been disciples of the Baptist in the vicinity of Ephesus.

Timeframe—When were the Gospel and Letters written? Most scholars would place them at the end of the 1st century A.D., making them among the latest of the New Testament writings. This would be possible, even for those who identify the author as John, since, according to tradition, John the Apostle died an advanced age, toward the end of the century. Moreover, the danger expressed in the Gospel, of early Christians being expelled from the Synagogues, and in the way this is formulated by the author, has been thought to reflect a time around 80-90 A.D. There are other aspects of the treatment and adaptation of traditional material in the Gospel which suggests a similar time frame. I have discussed this at some length in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

The Relationship between the Johannine Letters and the Gospel

The similarities in thought, language, and expression, indicate that the Gospel and Letters of John both derive from a common church-setting or environment (usually referred to as the Johannine Community), and also date from around the same time. The Gospel probably was composed earlier than the Letters (though this is not absolutely certain); a date of around 90 A.D. is often posited for the Gospel, with c. 100 A.D. for the Letters, and this likely is not too far off the mark. It would seem that the First Letter was written after the pattern of the Gospel (in the notes we examined the similarities between the opening and closing of both works), and functions as a kind of authoritative exposition of the theology (and Christology) expressed in the Gospel. In particular, it draws heavily upon the discourses of Jesus, especially the Last Discourse (chaps. 14-17); or, at the very least, is working from the same basic Tradition. The main theological concerns of First Letter are echoed in the Second, which is addressed to a particular congregation (a “sister church”) some distance removed from the author. The subject matter of the Third Letter differs, but helps provide a glimpse of the overall church setting of the Letters (cf. below).

It is sometimes held that the separatist Christians who are the opponents (“antichrists”) in 1 and 2 John reflect a split in the Johannine Community centered on different approaches to the Christology of the Tradition (i.e. in the Fourth Gospel). I have discussed this in the recent notes, and address it again down below.

The Relationship between 1 John and 2-3 John

As stated above, I tend to regard the author of 1 John as the same as “the Elder” who wrote the Second and Third Letters. The similarities in thought and emphasis between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this; at any rate, it is the simplest explanation. There is some question as to the order in which the Letters were composed. The traditional arrangement tells us nothing, since it simply reflects length (longest to shortest). There is really no way to determine the chronology. However, from our standpoint, the traditional order is helpful, since the theological exposition of 1 John helps to elucidate the church situation of 2 and 3 John (which are actual letters). 1 John 2:18-27 is a warning against the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations (“they went out of us…”) and would deceive others in the churches (v. 26). This is precisely the situation the author describes in 2 John 7-11, and it is clear that these “false” believers are considered (by the author) to hold and proclaim the “false” view of Jesus indicated in 1 John 4:1-3. The author warns his “sister church” not to treat such persons as fellow believers in Christ (2 Jn 10-11). This could mean that the situation has grown more serious by the time 2 John was written, though this is not certain. It is also possible that the conflict with Diotrephes in 3 John (vv. 9-10ff) is related in some way to this same situation involving the Johannine separatists. Missionaries and representatives from both “sides” would have sought to visit the various congregations in the region. Just as the author of 2 John urges his audience to refuse hospitality to the other side, so Diotrephes may be doing the same (but in the opposite direction) in 3 John.

The Church Setting and Opponents in the Letters

If either region proposed for the Johannine Churches (and Writings) is correct—i.e. Antioch or Ephesus—then it is possible to reconstruct, to some extent, the church setting of the Letters. This would involve the congregations of a major city or town (such as Ephesus), which had authority or influence over congregations in the surrounding region; quite likely, these outlying churches would have been founded by missionaries working from the main city. All of these congregations would have been fairly small—house churches (typically the house of a relatively wealthy individual), large enough to support perhaps several dozen people, though many congregations were likely much smaller than that. The earliest church centers were founded by apostles—men (and possibly women) who represented the first-generation of believers, who had either been close companions of Jesus, or who witnessed the resurrection and the beginning of Christianity (in Judea). The “Beloved Disciple”, whether or not he is to be identified with John son of Zebedee, was certainly one of these apostles, and, according to the Gospel, he was the source of reliable early tradition and teaching; presumably he was the leading figure (and founder) of the Johannine congregations. Such apostles would have set in place leaders (“elders”) in every congregation, and where appropriate, special elders assigned to be overseers of a particular area. In the setting assumed by the Pastoral letters, Timothy and Titus functioned as this sort of regional overseer, under Paul’s (apostolic) authority; it is possible that “the Elder” of the Johannine Letters had a similar role (and/or relationship to the “Beloved Disciple”).

As I discussed above, only 2 and 3 John are true letters, addressed to a specific group or individual. Second John is addressed to a “sister church” (vv. 1, 13), presumably one with a very close relationship to the author’s own congregation(s). At any rate, he is writing to believers whom he assumes will be, and should be, in agreement with him. Third John is written to an individual (Gaius) who is a member of a particular congregation. This may (or may not) be the same congregation currently being led by Diotrephes (vv. 9-10); probably it is a separate congregation. The author is asking Gaius for support in the missionary work of certain “brothers”. In ancient times, relations between groups (such as churches), and leadership networks, had to be maintained through personal visits and messengers delivering authoritative letters. Travelling missionaries (both “apostles” and “prophets”) were common in the early church, and it could be difficult at times to determine the legitimacy and authority of such persons. Both those aligned with the author, and those on the other side (the “antichrists”), would have visited various congregations seeking to gain support and influence. In 2 John 10-11 the author urges the congregation to refuse hospitality to any missionary or representative who holds the aberrant view of Jesus described in vv. 7-9. Similarly, in 3 John 9-10, Diotrephes apparently is doing much the same thing—urging people to refuse hospitality to representatives aligned with the author. Demetrius (v. 12) would seem to be one of these representatives, or missionaries, and that the author is asking for Gaius to provide support for him.

Clearly, Diotrephes is presented as an opponent in 3 John; however, we do not really know the basis or origin of the apparent conflict that has resulted in the situation described in vv. 9-10. It is a different matter in 2 John, where the opponents are characterized by particular Christological views (vv. 7-9). The language used to describe them is quite close to that in 1 John 2:18ff and 4:1-3. Some commentators have questioned whether one or more opposing groups are being referenced in 1 John; in my view, there would seem to be one main group in focus—a group which separated from the Johannine congregations, holding and proclaiming a distinctive view of Jesus that differed markedly from the traditional (Johannine) portrait presented in the Gospel. These “false” believers (“antichrists”), according to the author, are violating both aspects of the two-fold ‘commandment’ which defines our identity as (true) believers in Christ—(1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example.

There have been many attempts to identify these separatist opponents with various heretical or heterodox groups in the early Church, such as the Nicolaitans, mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15, but of whom we know very little. More common is an association with Cerinthus, who, according to Irenaeus (Against Heresies I.26.1-2; III.3.4., 11.1), was both an early “Gnostic” and adversary of the apostle John (in Ephesus). Unfortunately, much of the information provided by the Church Fathers regarding Cerinthus is contradictory and far from reliable. He appears to have held a quasi-Gnostic “separationist” view of Jesus, which does not quite square with the data in 1 and 2 John. Much closer to the Johannine opponents are the Christological views attacked by Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110-115 A.D.), in his letters to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles. This is echoed closely by Polycarp in his letter to the Christians of Philippi (7:1 is virtually a quotation of 1 Jn 4:2-3 and 2 Jn 7). It would seem to confirm that there were Christians in Asia Minor in the period 110-130 A.D. (within a generation[?] of the Johannine letters) holding views similar to those described (and condemned) in 1 and 2 John.

The Johannine “School”

Many critical commentators have referred to a Johannine “School”, though this term can be quite misleading. The basic idea it expresses is of a chain of common tradition, stemming from the apostolic testimony of “the Beloved Disciple” and the first generation of believers associated with him, down to the end of the 1st century A.D., and the leaders of the congregations he helped to found. These leaders are the ones who preserved and safeguarded the traditions—the Gospel message, teaching of Jesus, and the theology/Christology expressed in the Gospel of John—and represent the group(s) which originally composed and circulated the Gospel (and First Letter). The author of the Letters (“the Elder”) was a leading figure (perhaps the leading figure) for these Johannine congregations. The language, ideas, and theology in the Gospel and Letters is distinctive—”Johannine”, as compared with that of the Pauline letters and churches, etc. The Book of Revelation has also been considered a “Johannine” work, with certain characteristics in common with the Gospel and Letters, though written in a very different language and style. According to tradition, all five writings are attributed to John the apostle (hence, “Johannine”), but few commentators today would accept this traditional identification without further ado.

Christology appears to be at the root of the conflict in 1 and 2 John—between the author (representing the ‘mainstream’ Johannine congregations) and the separatists who “went out” from them. Many commentators feel that this split reflects a fundamental difference of interpretation regarding the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The viewpoint of these separatists, by all accounts, was an early “docetic” Christology, one which denied the reality of Jesus’ human life (and death), or, at least, minimized or relativized its importance. It is easy enough to see how such a view might develop out the uniquely “high” Christology of the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, the Gospel of John proved to be popular among certain heretical/heterodox Christians, including so-called Gnostics, many of whom evinced “docetic” or “separationist” tendencies which challenged and clashed with the (proto-)orthodox view of Christ as the incarnate Son of God. Heracleon, for example, wrote perhaps the earliest commentary on the Gospel of John, which spurred Origen to compose his own massive (and unfinished) Commentary.

This question of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” plunges us into a difficult and sensitive issue which ought to be addressed, in closing. How far should Christians today go in following the example of 1 John 5:16-17 and 2 John 10-11, essentially refusing to regard or treat as fellow believers those with differing Christological views? Remember that the author of 3 John decries the fact that Diotrephes is apparently doing much the same thing (vv. 9-10), only on the other side of the fence! Surely this is not merely a question of lining up to a precise Christological formulation or creed. The author of 1 John spends five chapters expounding the theological (and ethical) aspects of what we might call the “fundamentals” of Christian identity—of our identity as (true) believers in Christ. It is tied to such powerful notions as what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, the affect of his death, the meaning and significance of sin, and the presence of the Spirit in and among believers. For centuries, supposed Christians have accused one another of not being true believers, not holding the correct belief, and this has often resulted in many tragic episodes (often based on unfortunate misunderstandings), including angry words, insults, excommunication, hostility of all sorts, not infrequently leading to persecution and violence. In the name of Christ, many have exhibited the very sort of hatred which violates the command to love other Christians, according to Christ’s own example. Before proceeding to the drastic step of refusing to acknowledge Christians as fellow believers, let us take the author’s own advice and “test the spirits”—including the manner in which we are acting and reacting. Is it in accordance with the Holy Spirit of God and Christ?

Sadly, many Christians today are no longer faced with the kind of Christological questions with which the Johannine congregations sought to grapple. Christology has almost disappeared entirely from the Church. We must return to it anew, and I can think of no better place to start than with the Gospel and Letters of John. I hope and trust that this series has been stimulating and inspiring, perhaps encouraging you to further study of these marvelous works.