Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This study continues our series examining how conflicts within the early Christianity shaped the theology and religious worldview of the New Testament. The initial set of studies has focused on the Letters of John (see the prior studies on 2 John 4-11 and 1 John 2:18-27, as well as the previous study exploring the central section of 1 John). We will be looking at 1 John 4:1-6, focusing on several important Johannine themes, which the author has adapted, as a way of confronting and addressing the conflict involving the “antichrist” opponents. In so doing, we will also consider briefly some of the themes and points emphasized in the central section (2:28-3:24).

1 John 4:1-6

This passage must be considered in the context of the entire central bloc of material spanning 2:18-4:6. In 2:18-27 and 4:1-6, the author deals directly with the conflict involving a group of ‘opponents’ whom he refers to as antíchristoi, people “against [antí] the Anointed [Christós]” (i.e., against Christ)—2:18, 22; 4:3 (see also 2 John 7). These two “antichrist” sections flank the central division of the treatise (2:28-3:24), which expounds the author’s central theme: the contrast between the true and false believer.

By all accounts, the opponents, no less that the author and his adherents, were Johannine Christians who were rooted in the Johannine Tradition. Both groups likely knew (and used) some version of the Gospel of John, and would have shared a common religious tradition, theological vocabulary, and mode of expression. For this reason, in order to combat what the author regards as the false teaching (and example) of the opponents, it was necessary for the author to develop, adapt, and apply certain aspects of the Johannine Tradition. I wish to examine several of these here.

1. “The Spirit of Truth”

In both the Gospel and 1 John there is a strong emphasis on truth. The noun al¢¡theia occurs quite frequently in the Johannine writings (45 out of 109 NT occurrences); it occurs 25 times in the Johannine Gospel, compared with just 7 in the Synoptic Gospels. Also the related adjectives al¢th¢¡s and al¢thinós occur with some frequency—17 out of 26 for al¢th¢¡s, and 13 out of 28 for al¢thinós (23 out of 28 if one includes the book of Revelation as Johannine). Truth, of course, is a fundamental attribute and characteristic of God, and naturally applies to the Son (Jesus) and his teaching, etc, as well. However, in the Johannine writings, there is also a distinctive association with the Spirit. The expression “the Spirit of truth” (to pneúma t¢¡s al¢theías) occurs three times in the Gospel (in the Paraclete-sayings of the Last Discourse), 14:17; 15:26; 16:13, and also here in 1 John 4:6 (see below). A close association between the Spirit and truth, as a fundamental Divine attribute, is expressed famously in Jn 4:23-24, and the author of 1 John goes so far as to identify the Spirit with truth itself (5:6; compare a similar identification of the Son [Jesus] with truth in Jn 14:6).

According to the Johannine theology, which is rooted in the broader early Christian tradition, believers in Christ receive the Spirit of God (Jn 4:10ff/7:37-39; 6:63; 20:22; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13), and are also born of God’s Spirit (Jn 3:3-8). It is through the Spirit that believers, as God’s offspring, are united with both the Son of God (Jesus) and God the Father. That is to say, our abiding union as believers, in the Son and in the Father, is realized through the Spirit. As a theological point, this is not stated explicitly in the Johannine writings, but it may be plainly inferred from a number of passages. First, since God is Spirit (Jn 4:24), any union with Him must take place in a spiritual manner, at the level of the Spirit. Secondly, there are the statements regarding the Spirit-Paraclete by Jesus in the Last Discourse (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:8-15) where it is clear that, even after his departure back to the Father, the Son (Jesus) will continue to be present in and among believers through the Spirit. The context of these statements, in the Last Discourse, and also the Discourse-Prayer of chapter 17, well establishes the principle that the abiding union of believers with the Son and the Father is realized through the Spirit. This theology is confirmed by the author’s words in 3:24 and 4:13 as well.

Through the Spirit, Jesus continues to be present within believers—all believers—and continues to teach them the truth of God. In light of this role of the Spirit, as it is described in the Paraclete-sayings, there would seem to have been a notable spiritualistic emphasis, or tendency, within the Johannine congregations. The teaching that comes through the internal witness of the Spirit takes priority over the external teaching (by other human beings), since this witness of the Spirit is that of God Himself (and His Son, Jesus).

Such an emphasis on the teaching of the Spirit was a basic component of early Christian identity, rooted in Old Testament prophetic and eschatological tradition. The early Christians viewed their experience (of receiving the Spirit) as the fulfillment of a number of key prophecies (Joel 2:28-32; Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:26-27; 39:29, etc) regarding the restoration of God’s people in the New Age. God will ‘pour out’ His Spirit upon His people in a new way, with the result that the Instruction (Torah) of God will be written within, on their hearts (cp. 2 Corinthians 3:6-18). Of particular importance is the “new covenant” prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which indicates that, in the New Age, God’s people will no longer need to be taught the Torah, because it will be written in their hearts.

This prophecy had enormous influence on early Christians, but it seems to have been taken particularly seriously by the Johannine Community. There is an allusion to Jer 31:33-34 (by way of Isa 54:13) in Jn 6:45, and I believe that it informs the Paraclete-sayings as well (see above on the teaching role of the Spirit). The priority of the internal witness of the Spirit is also expressed in 1 John, featuring prominently in all three sections—2:18-27, 4:1-6, and 5:4b-12—that deal most directly with the “antichrist” opponents. Particularly in 2:21ff and 27, the author emphasizes that believers are taught by the Spirit; I take the references to “the anointing” as referring to the Spirit, though not all commentators agree on this point. The witness of the Spirit is sufficient; believers do not need any other human being to teach them regarding the truth—specifically the truth of who Jesus is (Messiah and Son of God), and what was accomplished through his earthly ministry.

But this creates a problem. If all believers are taught the truth by the Spirit, how can Christians such as the opponents espouse a false view of Jesus? Indeed, from the author’s standpoint, these opponents have a false belief in Jesus, and thus cannot be true believers at all; rather, they are false believers, and also false prophets. This is how the author characterizes them in 4:1: “…many false prophets [pseudoproph¢¡tai] have gone out into the world”. The noun proph¢¡t¢s means “foreteller”, but this does not always mean telling the future (i.e., beforehand); rather, the corresponding Hebrew term n¹»î° properly means a “speaker” (spokesperson), one who speaks as God’s representative, communicating His word and will to others. According to the early Christian ideal, all believers function as prophets in this way, and the Johannine churches seem particularly to have emphasized an egalitarian approach to prophecy.

If the opponents (as “false prophets”) are speaking a false word regarding Jesus, then they cannot be inspired by the Spirit of God (the Spirit of truth); instead, they must be speaking from a different spirit. Throughout 4:1-6, the author contrasts this ‘spirit’ with the Spirit of God, beginning here in verse 1:

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit; but (instead) examine the spirits, (to see) if it is of God.”

There is, of course, only one Spirit that is from God; however, the plural here refers to the idea that each person, who would speak about God, as a prophet, speaks under the influence of a spirit. If they are not inspired by God’s Spirit, then they speak by a different spirit that is not from God. The author puts forward a test, by which believers may examine the prophetic word, and this test is Christological (vv. 2-3). More to the point, the Christological significance is related to the controversy surrounding the opponents (and their understanding of the person of Christ). Unfortunately, from our standpoint, the defining phrase “having come in (the) flesh” does not tell us as much about the opponents’ Christology as we might like to know. Did they deny the reality of the incarnation, holding to an early docetic view of Christ? Or did they, in some way, deny or minimize the importance of the life and ministry of Jesus? The parallel confessional statement in 5:6 suggests that it was the death of Jesus, and/or its significance, that was particularly at issue. For further discussion on the opponents’ view of Jesus Christ, see my earlier notes and articles on the subject, especially the sets of notes on 2:22 and 4:2-3.

Two Johannine themes are thus brought together here in 4:1-6, in an attempt to combat the views of the opponents: (1) the Johannine principle of the internal witness of the Spirit (in teaching the truth), and (2) the eschatological aspect of prophecy (and false prophecy). The opponents are false prophets of the end-time; their view of Jesus, which they speak and teach, being false, does not come from the Spirit of God, but from a different spirit—a false and deceiving spirit. It is a spirit that is opposed to God, and is “against Christ” (antichrist). Indeed, the spirit that does not confess the truth of Jesus Christ “having come in the flesh” (v. 2), is a “spirit of antichrist” (v. 3), a deceiving spirit of false prophecy that is at work in the world. It is a spirit that belongs to “the world” (in the thoroughly negative Johannine sense of the term kósmos); those who speak from this spirit (i.e., the opponents) belong to the world, and only others who belong to the world (i.e., false believers) will listen to and accept what they say (v. 5).

The true believer, however, belongs to God (as His offspring), and not to the world. The Spirit of God dwells within every true believer, and this Spirit is far greater than the false/deceiving spirit of “antichrist” that is in the world (v. 4). Because the Son (Jesus) was victorious over the world (Jn 16:33), believers, who are united with him, share this same victory (2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5). In this immediate context, “victory” (vb nikáœ) refers specifically to rejecting the false teaching of the opponents and resisting their influence. The true believer should not—and will not—let himself/herself be led astray by the false teaching and example of the opponents. Here again, the author draws upon early Christian eschatological tradition, regarding the ‘false prophets’ of the end-time who lead people astray (vb planáœ)—see Mark 13:6, 22 par; 2 Tim 3:13; 2 Pet 2:15; Rev 2:20; 12:9; 13:14, etc).

The author offers an exhortation (and warning) to his readers not to be led astray by these particular “false prophets” (2:26; cf. also 1:8; 3:7). At the close of this section (v. 6), the author establishes a stark contrast, between “the Spirit of truth” and “the spirit of going/leading astray [plán¢]”. The noun plán¢ is derived from the verb planáœ, and carries the same eschatological significance—see 2 Thess 2:11; 2 Pet 2:18; 3:17; Jude 11. True believers possess the Spirit of truth, are guided and taught by it, and speak from it; false believers, by contrast, are guided by a false spirit, being led astray by it, and also leading others astray. Just as the true believer will not listen to the false spirit, so the false believer cannot (and will not) hear the Spirit of truth. Note the way that the author frames this in terms of “us” (i.e., true believers) vs. “them” (false believers, viz. the opponents):

“We are of God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) who is not of God does not hear us. Out of this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of going/leading astray.” (v. 6)

Next week, we shall examine several other Johannine themes, which the author employs in his effort to deal with the conflict surrounding the opponents.

Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: 1 Jn 4:1-6

1 John 4:1-6

This is the second of the two “antichrist” sections in 1 John (cf. the prior study on the first, 2:18-27); in between the two sections is the major unit of 2:28-3:24 (cf. the previous study), the central section of the work. In the “antichrist” sections, the focus is on the false believers (i.e. the opponents), while the central section deals primarily with the nature and characteristics of true believers (i.e., the author and those who agree with his position). This distinction between the true and false believer is a principal theme of 1 John.

While the role of the Spirit was emphasized in the first “antichrist” section, this spiritual (and spiritualistic) aspect of the author’s teaching is made more explicit in the second section—the actual word “spirit” (pneu=ma) occurring for the first time at the climax of the central section (3:24; cf. the discussion in the previous study).

Because of the author’s understanding, regarding the role of the Spirit, in 2:18-27—viz., that believers are taught (directly) by the indwelling Spirit (referred to as the “anointing,” xri=sma, vv. 20-21, 27)—it is of particular importance the way he begins the section here:

“Loved (ones), you must not trust every spirit, but consider the spirits, (to see) if (the spirit) is out of [i.e. from] God, (for it is) that many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (v. 1)

The author’s use of the plural pneu/mata (“spirits”), along with the expression “every spirit” (pa=n pneu=ma), suggests that he has in mind the existence (and activity) of many different spirit-beings—both good and bad—such as we find attested in a number of the Qumran texts. However, while the author presumably did accept the reality of multiple evil spirits, such a belief is almost certainly not his emphasis here. Rather, as becomes clear in vv. 2-6, there are really only two “spirits,” which are opposed to each other, and only one of them comes from God (being His holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth,” 4:6; 5:6).

Every person is influenced and inspired by one or the other of these two spirits, being dominated by it, much as we see, for example, in the “Treatise of the Two Spirits” portion (3:13-4:26) of the Community Rule text (1QS) from Qumran. That text essentially juxtaposes the same two “spirits” as our author does here in 1 Jn 4:6: “the Spirit of truth [a)lh/qeia]” vs. “the Spirit of going astray [pla/nh]”. The noun pla/nh here (as elsewhere in the New Testament) is used primarily in a causative sense, i.e., leading people astray, and connotes the idea of deception. Cf. the author’s use of the related verb plana/w in 2:26 (also 1:8; 3:7). In the Qumran “Two Spirits” treatise (1QS 3:18-19), the corresponding Hebrew expressions are tm#a$h^ j^Wr (“the spirit of truth”) and lw#u*h^ j^Wr (“the spirit of injustice”).

God’s holy Spirit leads believers into truth (cf. Jn 16:13), while the evil spirit (of injustice) leads other people into falsehood and error. This role of the Spirit within believers is emphasized by the author in 2:20-21, 27, echoing, it seems, the Paraclete-saying of Jesus in Jn 16:13 (cf. the earlier study and note on this saying). The point applies, of course, only to true believers; the false believer is not taught by God’s Spirit, but, rather, is influenced by the evil spirit that leads people astray (pla/nh, vb plana/w).

In verse 1, the author specifically refers to the opponents as “false prophets” (yeudoprofh=tai), drawing rather clearly upon the eschatological tradition that deceiving false prophets will be increasingly active (and prevalent) during the end-time period of distress. This is expressed, for example, in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mk 13:6, 22; par Matt 24:11, 24); cf. also Matt 7:15; 2 Pet 2:1; Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10. The noun pla/nh and verb plana/w are used in similar eschatological contexts in Mark 13:5-6 par; 2 Thess 2:11; 2 Tim 3:13; 2 Pet 2:15; 3:17; Jude 11; Rev 2:20; 12:9; 13:14; 18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10.

Some commentators have thought that the author has a special prophetic gifting in mind, such as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 1114; cf. also Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10; Eph 4:11. However, I do not think that this is the case. While it is possible that the opponents (or at least some of their leaders/teachers) may have claimed special inspiration (cp. Rev 2:20), I feel the author has something more basic in mind, which is very much related, as I see it, to the spiritualistic tendencies within the Johannine Community.

The implicit logic of the author goes something like this: All (true) believers are taught and led by the indwelling Spirit, which is the Spirit of truth, and which thus cannot teach anything that is false. Thus if any supposed believer speaks something that is false, and claims (or takes for granted) that it was derived from the Spirit’s teaching, such a person is, in fact, a false believer. He/she speaks, not from God’s holy Spirit, but from an evil and deceiving spirit. Every true believer, possessing the Spirit, functions as a prophet (cf. Joel 2:28-29 in Acts 2:17-18; cp. 1 Jn 2:27, in light of Jer 31:34, cf. also Jn 6:45 [Isa 54:13]), which means the false believer is, by definition, a false prophet. The opponents are false prophets because they are taught and speak by a false/deceiving spirit, rather than by the Spirit of God.

Yet how can one discern between the true believer, speaking from the Holy Spirit (2:20-21, 27), and the false believer speaking from another spirit? The author provides at least one clear test in verse 2:

“In this you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one [o(mologei=] (of) Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in (the) flesh is out of [i.e. from] God…”

Evidence of the false/lying spirit, by contrast, is given in v. 3:

“…and every spirit that does not give account as one (of) Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God”

The test is Christological, regarding a one’s public confession regarding the person of Jesus Christ (“Yeshua [the] Anointed”). I have discussed verses 2-3 at length in a recent set of exegetical notes, which are supplemental to this article; for a detailed study of the many critical and exegetical issues in these verses, you should consult those notes. The verb o(mologe/w, which literally means “give account as one”, here refers to being in agreement with (and publicly affirming/confessing) a particular statement—viz., that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (“Yeshua [the] Anointed having come in [the] flesh”). According to the author, the opponents denied or refused to affirm this statement (v. 3).

The precise Christology of the opponents has been much debated over the years, and there is as yet no consensus among commentators; a particular problem complicating the interpretation is how the confessional statement in 4:2f relates to the earlier one in 2:22f. I have discussed the matter at length in recent supplemental notes on each passage—i.e., on the opponents’ view as expressed in 2:22f (Pts 1, 2 & 3) and 4:2f (Pts 1, 2 & 3), respectively.

The main point for our study here is that the opponents’ false view of Jesus is a sign that they do not possess the Spirit of truth, but speak from a false/deceiving spirit, and are thus false believers. In verse 3b, the author again refers to them by the term a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos), which literally means “against [a)nti/] the Anointed [Xristo/$]”. This term, used earlier in 2:18, 22 (cf. also 2 Jn 7), draws upon the eschatological tradition of false Messiahs who will appear at the end-time (Mk 13:6, 21-22 par; cf.  2 Thess 2:1-12); on the tradition of end-time false prophets, cf. above. For a detailed study on the significance and background of the term a)nti/xristo$, cf. my earlier article “The Antichrist Tradition” (Pt 1, 2, 3). Here, as in 2:18-27, the description “against the Anointed” is particularly appropriate, since the false view of Jesus by the opponents, according to the author, truly is “against Christ”. Moreover, it is inspired by the spirit of Antichrist:

“…and this is the (spirit) of (the one) against the Anointed, (of) which you (have) heard that it comes, and now is already in the world.” (v. 3b)

This echoes what the author said earlier in 2:18, and indicates that, from the author’s standpoint, the presence and activity of these false believers is a particular sign that the end is near (“it is [the] last hour”). The word “spirit” (pneu=ma) is not actually used here in v. 3b, but the neuter noun is implied by the neuter article to/, and can be glossed in translation (i.e., “the [spirit] of…”).

Verses 4ff emphasize the opposition (indicated by the prefix a)nti-, “against”) between the true and false believers. It is reflected specifically by the conflict and crisis involving these ‘opponents’ who have separated, according to the author, from the Community (of true believers). This conflict is very much part of the end-time period of distress which believers face (cf. Mk 13:9-13 par, etc); in particular, there is the real danger that even believers may be led astray by these “false prophets” (2:26; cf. Matt 24:24). In spite of this danger, the author assures his readers that the Spirit within them (believers) is greater than the false/lying spirit(s) at work in the world:

“You are of [e)k] God, (my) dear offspring, and have been victorious (over) them, (in) that [i.e. because] greater is the (One) in you than the (one) in the world.” (v. 4)

In the Johannine writings, the pronouns and verbal subjects are often ambiguous or unspecified, as is the case here. We may thus ask to whom precisely does the first relative pronoun o% (“the [one] who”) refer? The context of our passage, which contrasts the Spirit of God with the spirit of Antichrist strongly suggests that God (the Father) is the principal reference. However, from the Johannine theological standpoint, God the Father is present in believers through the Son (Jesus), and the Son, in turn, is present through the Spirit. Thus God, who is Spirit (Jn 4:24), is present in believers (“in you” [e)n u(mi=n]) through the Spirit (cf. 3:24). By contrast, the one “in the world” is Antichrist, and, specifically, the false/lying spirit of Antichrist (“that is now already in the world,” v. 3). That the false believers have gone out “into the world” (v. 1) is an indication of the evil spirit at work “in the world”.

The “world” (o( ko/smo$), in the Johannine writings, fundamentally represents the domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. Jesus was sent “into” the world, but does not belong to (i.e. is not “of”) the world; the same is true of believers; on this important theme, see especially the chapter 17 Prayer-Discourse in the Gospel (vv. 6, 9-11, 13-16, 18, 20-21, 23-25), also 15:18-19; 18:36-37. The Johannine writings regularly use the pronoun e)k (“out of”) with a special dual-significance: (a) origin, i.e., born out of [i.e. from]; and (b) belonging, i.e. being of someone/something. Thus, when the author here says that his readers (as true believers) are “out of [e)k] God” it means that they belong to God, and have come to be born (vb genna/w) from Him, as His offspring (te/kna); on the latter, cf. Jn 1:13; 3:3-8; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18. They belong to God, not to the world; it also means they belong to the truth (Jn 18:37; 1 Jn 3:19), since they have been born of the Spirit (Jn 3:5-6, 8; cf. 4:24) who is the truth (1 Jn 5:6).

By saying that the opponents have gone out “into the world”, the author means this in a double-sense. First, as “false prophets,” they are engaged in a missionary effort, which is a false and antithetical version of the mission of believers (and of Jesus himself), cf. above. Based on the information in 2 Jn 7-11, we can say that the conflict between the opponents and the author’s circle reflects, in an early Christian milieu, the missionary work (of visits and letters) involved in sustaining a unified network of congregations over a geographical region. Second, by leaving the Community (of true believers), the opponents have truly gone into the world, in the decidedly negative (Johannine) meaning of the term ko/smo$ (cf. above). The departure of Judas in the Gospel narrative (13:21-30, see esp. verse 30) may be said to symbolize false believers such as the opponents. As false believers, they belong to the world, not to God; cf. how the author explains this in 2:19.

Because true believers belong to God, and abide in Him through the Spirit, being children of God, in union with Jesus the Son, they are victorious over the world, and need not be led astray by those who belong to the world (i.e., the opponents). The verb nika/w (“be victorious [over someone/something”) is practically a Johannine keyword; of the 28 NT occurrences, all but 4 are in the traditional Johannine writings—once in the Gospel (16:33), 6 in 1 John, and 17 in the book of Revelation. The use of the perfect tense here (nenikh/kate, “you have been victorious [over]”) reflects the earlier use in 2:13-14: “you have been victorious (over) the evil”. The object to\n ponhro/n, as a substantive (“the evil”), is understood by most commentators in a personal sense—the evil one, i.e., the Satan/Devil, referred to elsewhere in the Gospel as “the chief/ruler of this world” (o( a&rxwn tou= ko/smou tou/tou), 12:31; 14:30; 16:11. If this reading is correct, then in 2:13-14, the author is effectively saying that the (true) believers have been victorious over the world and its “chief” (i.e., the Devil). This reflects precisely the wording of Jesus at the climactic moment of the Last Discourse (16:33):

“In the world you have distress, but take courage—I have been victorious (over) the world [e)gw\ neni/khka to\n ko/smon]!”

The perfect tense typically refers to a past action (or condition), the effect of which continues into the present. In this context, the past action is the mission of Jesus (spec. his sacrificial death) and believers’ trust in it. Through his death and exaltation, the power of the “chief of this world” was overcome and destroyed (Jn 12:31; 16:11; 1 Jn 3:8); the effect of this continues in the present because of believers’ union with Jesus through the Spirit. The life-giving power and efficacy of Jesus’ death is communicated to us spiritually, through the Spirit (cf. 1:7; and the context of Jn 6:51-58, 63; 19:30, 34). However, this victory is realized only for true believers, who have a true and genuine trust in Jesus Christ. This emphasis, with regard to the occurrence of the verb nika/w, in 5:4-5, will be discussed in the next article in this series.

Here, in verse 5, the author makes clear again that the opponents (as false believers) do not belong to God, but to the world:

“(But) they are of [e)k] the world, (and) through this [i.e. for this reason] they speak out of [e)k, i.e. from] the world, and the world hears them.”

This wording very much resembles Jesus’ statement to Pilate in Jn 18:37, where he summarizes his mission, which is also essentially the mission of believers:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born), and unto this I have come into the world: that I should give witness to the truth; every (one) being [i.e. who is] of [e)k] the truth hears my voice.”

Cf. also the theological propositions in Jn 3:31, 34:

“…The (one) being of [e)k] the earth is out of [e)k, i.e. belongs to] the earth and speaks out of [e)k, i.e. from] the earth.”
“For the (one) whom God sent forth speaks the words of God.”

The same kind of language features prominently in the Sukkot Discourse (chaps. 78); cf. especially 8:47:

“The (one) being of [e)k] God hears the words of God; (and) through this [i.e. for this reason] you do not hear, (in) that [i.e. because] you are not of [e)k] God.”

True believers both hear and speak the truth, which comes from God and His Spirit (which is the truth, 5:6); the false believers who belong to the world (and not to God) do not hear/speak the truth, but only the false/deceiving word, which is opposed to the truth and comes from the world. According to the author’s reasoning, the true believer will accept the truth as spoken by other true believers, which comes from the teaching of the Spirit. The author, in his rhetorical strategy, has positioned both himself and his audience as true believers, with the implicit assumption that they, as true believers, will agree with his view (of Jesus Christ), rather than that of the opponents:

We are of [e)k] God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) that is not of [e)k] God does not hear us. Out of [i.e. from] this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of going/leading astray [pla/nh].” (v. 6)

The author’s view of Jesus, as he presents it, corresponds with the earliest Gospel tradition, going back to the first disciples and the time of Jesus himself (cf. the prologue, 1:1-4). An important principle in his line of argument is that the inner teaching of the Spirit will, and must, correspond with the truth of this historical tradition (as preserved in the Gospel). If we read between the lines, we can see that, in the author’s view, the opponents have departed from this established tradition—regarding the reality, and the significance, of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Their Christological understanding thus cannot be true, and cannot represent the teaching of the Spirit.

In the next article, on 5:5-12, we will develop this interpretation further, considering in more detail how Christology and pneumatology are related for the author of 1 John. It is my contention that, for the author, the opponents not only have an erroneous Christology, but have distorted the Johannine spiritualism as well.

June 16: 1 John 4:2-3 (4)

1 John 4:2-3, continued

The confessional statement in verse 2 involves public affirmation of one’s trust in Jesus Christ. As discussed in the previous note, this is the fundamental religious context of the verb o(mologe/w as it is used by early Christians in much of the New Testament. For the author of 1 John, the prefixed element o(mou= (“as one”) alludes to the unity of believers in Christ. In particular, the author aligns himself (and his adherents) with the Community of true believers. I have translated o(mologei= here, quite literally, as “gives account as one”; but, from the author’s standpoint, we might fill this out as “gives account as one with us”.

Since the author’s view is meant to correspond with the Gospel tradition and the inspired belief/teaching of the Community of true believers, the reader, if he/she is also a true believer, will agree with the author’s position. This is made more or less explicit in verse 6. In other words, the true believer’s belief (and confession) regarding “Yeshua the Anointed” (Jesus Christ) will agree with the author’s Christology and view of Jesus.

In an earlier 3-part note (on 2:22; 1, 2, 3), I discussed the use of the title xristo/$ (“anointed [one]”) in the Johannine writings. In the Gospel, in the majority of instances (17 of 19), the noun occurs with the definite article, o( Xristo/$ (“the Anointed [One]”), or has a comparable definiteness (1:41; 9:22). In all of these cases, the title clearly refers to the Messiah (Heb j^yv!m*), according to the expectation(s) of Jews in the first century B.C./A.D.; this is made explicit by the Gospel writer in 1:41; 4:45. In 7:41-42 the Davidic/royal Messiah is in view; however, more likely it is a Messianic prophet figure-type that is intended in 1:20, 25 (also 4:25, 29). In any event, Jesus was identified by early Christians with all of the Messianic figure-types; first-century Jews were also capable of combining the figure-types (such as prophet and king, cf. Jn 6:15), reflecting a certain fluidity in their Messianic thought

In Jn 11:27 and 20:31, in what are to be regarded as fundamental Johannine confessional statements, the title o( xristo/$ (“the Anointed [One]”) is joined together with “the Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=). Jesus is to be identified by both titles. One cannot confess one without also confessing the other. Based on 1 Jn 2:22, it would seem that the opponents denied the title “Anointed (One)” (o( xristo/$), while (apparently) affirming/accepting the title “Son of God”. From the author’s standpoint, however, denying Jesus as the “Anointed (One),” also means denying him as God’s Son (2:22b-23).

On two occasions in the Gospel, xristo/$ is used in the double-name Ihsou=$ Xristo/$ (“Yeshua [the] Anointed,” Jesus Christ). In the Prologue (1:17), the double-name refers, in context, to the pre-existent Logos/Son of God, incarnate in the person of Jesus. This same Divine identity of the man Jesus (as God’s Son) is emphasized in the theological declaration in 17:3.

In the majority of instances (8 of 11) in the Letters, xristo/$ also occurs in the double-name, where it is fair to assume that Jesus’ identity as the Son of God the Father is likewise being emphasized. This is certainly the case in the prologue (1:3), and again in the definitive (and climactic) statement in 3:23, and (similarly) at the close of the work (5:20). From the author’s standpoint, anyone who would deny (or fail/refuse to confess) the Christological statements in 2:22 and 4:2, is a false believer, who does not truly have faith in Jesus (as God’s Son).

A further point must be made, in this regard, on the prophetic aspect of the believer’s confession of Jesus Christ. This aspect is emphasized by the author in v. 1, when he speaks of “spirits” (pneu/mata, “every spirit” [pa=n pneu=ma]), and refers to the opponents as “false prophets” (yeudoprofh=tai). Some commentators would understand this passage in light of 1 Corinthians (11:2-5ff; chaps. 12, 14), and Paul’s discussion of prophecy as a special gifting for certain individuals (cf. also Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10; Eph 4:13). It is possible that the opponents (or some of their leaders/teachers) claimed special prophetic inspiration; but, if so, then they take a position which, in my view, runs counter to the spiritualistic tendencies of the Johannine Community. Indeed, I think that the author has a spiritualistic, rather than charismatic, focus in mind.

Every true believer possesses the Spirit of God, is taught by the Spirit, and speaks from the Spirit. In this regard, all believers function as prophets, just as the ideal expressed by the citation of Joel 2:28-29 in Acts 2:17-18 presents it, as a sign of the presence and activity of the Spirit among God’s people, in the New Age (of the New Covenant). This is the fundamental spiritual principle which the author affirms in 2:20, 27 [cp. Jer 31:34]; and cf. also in the Gospel, 6:45; 14:26; 16:13ff.

However, only the true believer is taught and speaks by the Spirit of God. The false believer speaks from a different spirit; in particular, the opponents, who the author regards as false believers, are inspired by the evil “spirit of Antichrist”, and thus hold to a false view of Jesus. Since all believers are prophets (cf. above), the false believers are false prophets. It was part of the eschatological worldview, of Jews and early Christians in the first-century, that, in the end-time period of distress, false prophets would increasingly appear, deceiving people everywhere and leading them astray. This is the significance of the author’s use of the verb plana/w (“go astray,” in the active/causative sense of “lead astray”), as well as the expression “the spirit of going/leading astray” (to\ pneu=ma th=$ pla/nh$, v. 6). There is a real danger that even believers might be led astray by these “false prophets” (2:26; cf. Matt 24:24).

Up to this point, it has not been made clear the precise point of contention, between the author and the opponents, with regard to their confession of Jesus. The remaining elements of the statement in v. 2 will elucidate the matter; though there are still difficulties of interpretation that need to be addressed. We will begin this process in the next daily note.

June 14: 1 John 4:2-3 (2)

1 John 4:2

“In this [i.e. by this] you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit [pa=n pneu=ma] that gives account as one [o(mologei=] (of) Yeshua (the) Anointed [Ihsou=n Xristo/nhaving come [e)lhlu/qonta] in (the) flesh [e)n sarki/] is out of [i.e. from] God [e)k tou= Qeou=]”

As discussed in the previous note, the confessional statement in verse 2 is fundamental for an understanding of the nature of the conflict/crisis within the Johannine Community, as the author sees it, posed by the opponents. This conflict is, at its heart, Christological; this can be seen by the statement here, focused as it is upon the person of Jesus Christ. The author established the Christological emphasis from the very beginning of his work, in the prologue (1:1-4, cf. the earlier notes on these verses).

I have highlighted the key components of this statement in bold (cf. above). Each of the components will be discussed in turn.

every spirit
pa=n pneu=ma

The expression “every spirit” must be understood in light of the author’s opening words here in v. 1:

“Loved (one)s, do not trust every spirit, but give consideration to [i.e. examine] the spirits, (to see) if it is out of [i.e., from] God, (in) that [i.e. because] many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The expression “every spirit”, in connection with use of the plural “spirits” (pneu/mata), suggests that the author has a multitude of spirit-beings in mind, comparable to what we find, for example, in the Qumran texts. However, while the author may have recognized the existence (and activity) of such spirit-beings—especially with regard to the evil spirits that are under the control of the Evil One (i.e., the Satan/Devil)—I do not think this is at all his focus here. Rather, “spirits” refers primarily to the the two opposing spirits—the Spirit of God and the spirit of Antichrist—as they are manifest in individual human beings. In this regard, there are as many “spirits” as there are people; each person is either influenced by the holy Spirit of God or by the evil spirit of Antichrist.

This strong dualism, evidenced throughout the Johannine writings, is similar, in some respects, to the dualism in the Qumran texts. In a number of these writings, the contrast, between the righteous (i.e., the faithful ones of the Community) and all others in the world, is defined by the juxtaposition of two opposing spirits. The most notable example of this spiritual dualism is found in the so-called “Two Spirits” treatise (3:13-4:26) of the Community Rule document (1QS):

“He created man to rule the world and placed within him two spirits so that he would walk with them until the moment of his visitation: they are the spirits of truth [tm#a#] and of injustice [lw#u*]…” (3:17b-19a)
[Translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar, except for the final word which I render as “injustice” rather than “deceit”]

The contrast of these two spirits generally corresponds to the contrast in v. 6, which is parallel to the opening words here in v. 2:

“In [i.e. by] this you (can) know the Spirit of God…” (v. 2)
“…Out of [i.e. from] this we know the Spirit of Truth [a)lh/qeia] and the spirit of going astray [pla/nh]” (v. 6)

The expression “Spirit of Truth” is essentially synonymous with “Spirit of God” (4:6; 5:6; Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; cf. 4:23-24). The Spirit that abides in the true believer will speak the truth, and, certainly, anything the Spirit says regarding Jesus will be true. Every other spirit is false, and will not speak or teach what is true. In fact, there is really only one other spirit, to be identified with the “spirit of Antichrist”, called here in v. 6 the “spirit of going astray”. The noun pla/nh literally means “wandering, going astray” (vb plana/w); however, it can also be understood in the active (causative) sense of leading someone astray, and, as such, pla/nh can often connote “deceit” or “deception” —cf. above on this aspect of the corresponding Hebrew lw#u* in 1QS 3:18.

The opponents, as false believers, speak from this evil spirit of pla/nh, and not from the holy Spirit of Truth. Whether or not they intend it so, their (false) teaching leads people astray, and might even lead believers astray; the author warns of this danger at several points, most notably in 2:26: “I (have) written these (thing)s to you about the (one)s leading you astray” (cf. also 3:7). The verb plana/w is specifically used in an eschatological context, of the false prophets, etc, who would lead people astray in the end time—cf. Mark 13:5-6 par; Matt 24:11, 24; 2 Tim 3:13, and note particularly the repeated occurrences in the book of Revelation (2:20; 12:9; 13:14; 18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10). The noun pla/nh similarly occurs in 2 Thess 2:11, in a context very close to the Johannine idea of a “spirit of Antichrist”; cf. also the eschatological context of 2 Pet 2:18; 3:17; Jude 11.

All of this is in accord with the author’s belief that the opponents are a manifestation of the deceiving “false prophets” of the end-time, inspired by the spirit of Antichrist, rather than by the holy Spirit of God.

In the next daily note, we will look further at the author’s emphasis on Christological confession as prophecy, when we consider the next component of the statement in v. 2, with the use of the verb o(mologe/w.

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Zechariah 12:10

Zechariah 12:10

I have already posted an article in this series on Zechariah 9-14, but the interpretive difficulties surrounding 12:10 require a separate detailed treatment. The use of Zech 12:10 in three different lines of early Christian tradition clearly attest to its importance. It was applied specifically to the death of Jesus, but also related to his exaltation (to heaven) and future return. In this regard, it was similar to Daniel 7:13-14 (discussed in a previous article), and, indeed, the two Scriptures came to be associated quite closely in the early tradition.

For the background of the so-called Deutero-Zechariah (chaps. 9-14), consult the aforementioned article. Chapters 12-14 represent the second of two divisions (some commentators would include the book of Malachi as a third division). The eschatological aspect takes on greater prominence in these chapters, developing the Prophetic theme of the “day of YHWH”, as it came to be understood in the Prophets of the exilic and post-exilic periods—as the day when YHWH will judge all of the nations, collectively. The expression “on that day” (aWhh^ <oYB*), which occurs repeatedly in chaps. 12-14, refers to this eschatological “day of YHWH” theme.

In fact, the Judgment of the Nations is referenced and described in two oracles here—in chapter 12 (vv. 1-9) and again in chapter 14 (vv. 1-15). The basic scenario is the same in each case: the nations will assemble together for an attack against Judah (Jerusalem), though in actually it is YHWH who has gathered them, to bring down Judgment upon them, destroying them completely. The book of Revelation drew heavily upon these oracles (along with Ezek 38-39 and Joel 3) in its visions of the Last Judgment (14:14-20; 19:11-21; 20:7-10).

In the attack by the nations, YHWH will protect His people (Judah/Jerusalem), and will do battle on their behalf. The result will be salvation for Jerusalem and complete destruction for the nations, as is declared in verse 9:

“And it will be, in that day, (that) I will seek to destroy all the nations th(at are) coming upon [i.e. against] Yerushalaim.”

If verse 9 states what YHWH will do to the nations on “that day”, verse 10 explains what will happen to Judah/Jerusalem. There are two components to this declaration in v. 10, the first being rather easier to understand than the second:

“And I will pour out upon (the) house of David, and upon (the one)s sitting (in) Yerushalaim, a spirit of (showing) favor and of (request)s for favor” (10a)

The key phrase is <yn]Wnj&t^w+ /j@ j^Wr. The nouns /j@ and /Wnj&T^ are related, both derived from the root /nj (“show favor”). While /j@ (“favor”) is often used for the favor shown by YHWH, here it is better understood as the willingness by the people of YHWH to show favor themselves. A spirit (j^Wr) has come over them, a result of God’s own Spirit that is “poured out” on them at the beginning of the New Age (on this Prophetic theme, cf. Isa 32:15; 44:3; 59:21; Ezek 11:19; 18:31; 36:26-27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29). This new spirit in/on them changes their whole attitude and mindset, their way of thinking and acting. It is a spirit of peace and wholeness, after generations of wickedness and violence, that both show favor to others and makes sincere requests for favor to be shown in turn.

This bond of peace is part of the “new covenant” established between YHWH and His people in the New Age. And, in this Age of Peace, the “house of David” once again exercises rule over Jerusalem; this doubtless relates to the early Messianic expectation we find at various points in the exilic and post-exilic Prophets (cf. my earlier article and throughout the series “Yeshua the Anointed” [esp. Parts 6-8]). The coming King announced in 9:9-10 probably reflects this same expectation of a new ruler from the line of David. Some in the late-6th century held out hope that the Davidic line would be restored in the person of the governor Zerubbabel, but this was not to be. After his successor (Elnathan), the “house of David” no longer holds any ruling position over Judah (the Persian province of Yehud).

The second component of verse 10 is more problematic:

“And they will look to me [or, to him], (the one) whom they stabbed, and they will mourn over him like (one) mourning over his only (child), and they will have bitter (grief) over him, like (one griev)ing bitterly over (his) first-born.”

The question that has vexed commentators is: who is being mourned and who was “stabbed”? But before addressing that question, it is necessary to deal with a textual point regarding the suffix of the preposition la# (“to”). The Masoretic text reads yl^a@ (“to me” ), that is, to YHWH; but this seems to contradict the context of the following reference to “(the one) whom they pierced” (the phrase being marked by the direct-object particle –ta#). Many commentators would emend the text here to wyl*a@ (“to him” ); and, defective spelling (wla) would allow for the confusion between w and y (that is, yla instead of wla), cf. Meyers, p. 336.

These textual and syntactical questions relate directly to the interpretation of verse 10. There has been a tendency, among readers and commentators alike, to try and identify the ‘one who was stabbed’ with some contemporary or historical figure (or event). The text, as we have it, simply does not allow for such precision, nor does it seem to be warranted upon a careful reading of the passage. In such matters, one is best served by letting the text be one’s guide, deriving a plausible interpretation through a sound and careful exegesis.

Before proceeding, mention should be made of another interpretive difficulty in verse 11:

“In that day the mourning will be great in Yerushalaim, like (the) mourning of Hadad-Rimmon (in) the plain of Megiddo.”

The comparison with the “mourning of Hadad-Rimmon” is obscure, with the exact point of reference uncertain. Two possibilities have been suggested:

    • It is a reference to the Canaanite deity Baal Haddu (= Hadad), who was thought to control (and was manifest in) the storm and rain. In Canaanite myth, Baal Haddu ‘died’ with the end of the spring rains and the onset of the summer heat. He was mourned for a time, but he came back to life, returning with the rains. Ritual mourning for Baal was tied to this mythology, just as it was for Tammuz (= Sumerian Dumuzi, cf. Ezek 8:14). Worship of Baal Haddu, in some form or to some extent, was relatively common through much of Israel’s history, and it is certainly possible that a ritual mourning for Baal took place in the plain of Megiddo, though we have no direct evidence for this.
    • The reference is to the death of king Josiah at Megiddo in 609 B.C. (2 Kings 23:29-30). In the parallel account in 2 Chronicles (35:20-26), we read how Josiah’s burial was the occasion for great mourning, and the implication is that this came to be a regular (annual) rite that has continued “to this day” —that is, into the Chronicler’s own time, which could well be near to the time of Zech 9-14.

The second option seem more likely, given the clear association of mourning with the site of Megiddo attested by the contemporary account in 2 Chronicles.

With this in mind, I present here four different lines of interpretation (of verse 10) for which one can make a relatively strong (or at least reasonable) case.

1. Some commentators would identify YHWH as the one “whom they have stabbed”. This is based on a literal reading of the text, accepting the MT 1st person suffix (y-) on the preposition (la#), and then treating the following phrase (marked as a direct object) in apposition: “they will look to me, whom they stabbed”. In this case, the stabbing would be figurative, presumably signifying a betrayal of the covenant through idolatry and worship of other deities, etc. With the new spirit that comes over the people, they collectively repent of their sin with great mourning. This line of interpretation might be seen as further support for the view that  the “mourning of Hadad-Rimmon” referred to ritual worship of Baal-Haddu (cf. above). Now the significance of the mourning is reversed: the people mourn for their lack of loyalty to YHWH, which had been demonstrated through worship of deities other than YHWH (such as Baal-Haddu).

The following three interpretations assume that the person who was stabbed is different than YHWH. Emending the 1st person suffix (on the preposition la#) to the 3rd person would result in a clearer text: “they will look to him whom they stabbed”. If the 1st person suffix of the MT is retained, it creates a more difficult syntax: “they will look to me, (on account of the one) whom they stabbed”, or possibly “they will look to me, (along with the one) whom they stabbed”.

2. The verb rq^D* indicates that the person was “stabbed”, but not necessarily killed; that is, the emphasis is on his being wounded. If we follow this distinction, it is possible to read vv. 10-11ff as reflecting the new spirit possessed by the people in the New Age. The spirit of peace has so taken hold that one now mourns over someone who is wounded like one would the death of an only child or firstborn son. According to this interpretation, the person who was stabbed serves as a general figure, for anyone who is wounded. The reason why the person was wounded is less important than the fact of wounding, just as one would mourn the death of a child, regardless of how or why the child was killed.

3. Some commentators would prefer to view the stabbed figure as representative of a particular group. Along these lines, the prophets of YHWH are a likely candidate to have been ‘stabbed’ by the people (and/or their leaders). Hostility toward the (true) prophets is very much a theme in these chapters, illustrated most vividly in the ‘Shepherd narrative’ of 11:4-16 (on which, cf. my recent discussion). Several points may be cited as confirmation for this line of interpretation:

    • The other occurrence of the verb rq^D* (“stab”) in these chapters relates to the stabbing of a false prophet (13:3); if that was done rightly, then, by contrast, the stabbing of a true prophet was a great wrong that should be mourned.
    • Historically, hostility toward the prophets led, at times, to violence against them; this was well-established in Old Testament and Jewish tradition, with the death of Uriah (by the sword, i.e. stabbing) being a notable example (Jer 26:20-23).
    • Hostility toward the prophets of YHWH was often rooted in the messages of judgment that they brought against the people (and their leaders); such messages were naturally unpopular, but the scenario depicted in chapters 9-14 could easily have led to violence against one of God’s prophets. The breakdowns within society, coupled with the threat of attack from powerful foreign nations, created an unstable environment where violence would be increasingly common.

With the onset of the New Age, the people would feel a burden to repent of such an act (or acts) of violence, and a collective period of mourning would be altogether appropriate for the occasion.

4. Another possibility is that the person who is stabbed alludes to the false prophet who is to be stabbed (same verb, rq^D*), according to the directive of YHWH in 13:3. That latter reference reflects the situation in the New Age, when the land (and its people) will be purified of all forms of false religion, of which false prophecy is a prime example. However, it must be emphasized that the main point of reference is false religion and idolatry. While it is necessary, according the standards of holiness presented in these chapters, to stab (and presumably put to death) the false prophet, the very existence of such false religion in the midst of Israel is reason for the people to mourn. The reference in 12:10 implies that there are false prophets among the people, and, with the onset of the New Age, they will be stabbed (according to 13:3); thus, one may say of such a person, “the one whom they stabbed”. The mourning in vv. 11-14 is not on account of the stabbing, but for what the stabbed person represents: the presence of false religion and idolatry among the people.

Of these four possible lines of interpretation, I would tend to favor the third (#3). The fact that a prophet-figure is “stabbed” (using the same verb) in 13:3 increases the likelihood that a similar point of reference is in view in 12:10. Also, the nature of the mourning in vv. 11-14, and the way it is described, suggests that the cause of the mourning is the injury (and/or death) of a particular person, and one who should be cherished—comparable to the death of a beloved child, or of a virtuous king like Josiah (cf. above).

Zech 12:10 in the New Testament

The early Christian interpretation (and application) of Zech 12:10 is closest to approaches 1 and 3 above. In approach 1, God (YHWH) is the one who is stabbed; while, in approach 3, it is a true prophet of YHWH. However, given the focus in the Passion narrative on Jesus as the royal/Davidic Messiah, it is possible that early Christians (including the New Testament authors) assumed that the stabbed figure of Zech 12:10 was the (Davidic) king–perhaps the same king mentioned in 9:9-10. This would certainly cohere with the basic line of Gospel Tradition, as well as the arc of the Passion narrative:

    • Jesus enters Jerusalem as the King (9:9-10)
    • He is struck (13:7) and stabbed (12:10)—i.e., his suffering and death (by crucifixion)
    • The promise of his resurrection/exaltation and future return (at the time of Judgment)—the eschatological context of chapters 12-14 (12:1-9; 14:1-15ff)

When it comes to the actual application of 12:10, there are three New Testament references, representing at least two separate lines of early Christian tradition. In all three, the verse was applied to the death (crucifixion) of Jesus. This naturally fit the idea of Jesus being “stabbed” (or “pierced”), i.e., his hands/wrists and feet pierced by nails on the stake. However, the Gospel of John quotes the Scripture specifically in reference to the piercing of Jesus’ side (19:34f, 37).

In the Gospel of Matthew, it occurs as part of the Eschatological Discourse. The climactic “Son of Man” saying (Mark 13:26 par) has apparently been modified to reflect Zech 12:10:

“And then the sign of the Son of Man will be made to shine (forth) in (the) heaven, and then all the offshoots [i.e. tribes] of the earth will beat (themselves), and they will look with (open) eyes (at) the Son of Man coming upon (the) clouds of heaven with great power and splendor.” (24:30-31)

The verb form ko/yontai (“they will beat [themselves],” i.e., in mourning) almost certainly is an allusion to the LXX of Zech 12:10. Interestingly, while the context of 12:10 clearly refers to the people of Judah/Jerusalem looking and mourning, Matthew’s application seems to assume that the prophecy (“they will look… they will mourn”) refers to all the nations. Since the Synoptic “Son of Man” saying here also alludes to Daniel 7:13-14 (cf. the prior article), we have a juxtaposition of two key Scriptures that tie the death of Jesus to his exaltation and future return (from heaven) at the end-time Judgment.

All of these features that we see in Matt 24:30-31 are brought out with greater clarity (and simplicity) in Revelation 1:7, where the eschatological context of the Scripture is even more prominent. Again, the author (and/or the visionary) has combined Dan 7:13 with Zech 12:10, in reference to Jesus’ end-time appearance:

“See, he comes with the clouds, and every eye will look at him, and even (those) who dug out of him, and all the offshoots [i.e. tribes] of the earth will beat (themselves) over him”

The verb e)kkente/w (“dig out”) is used for the ‘stabbing’ in Zech 12:10 (vb rq^D*)—i.e., digging out a hole in the flesh by piercing it with a sword or spear. This verb is relatively rare in the LXX, occurring just 9 times, but it is not used in Zech 12:10.

The curious verb used in the LXX, katorxe/omai, “dance over” (perhaps in the general sense of taunting, etc), may be the result of the Hebrew root rqd (“stab”) being accidentally reversed (and misread) as dqr (“skip about, dance”).

Moreover, the only occurrence of e)kkente/w in the New Testament happens to be the citation of Zech 12:10 in John 19:37 (cf. above), where it refers to the piercing of Jesus’ side with the spear (which, in the narrative, is described with the verb nu/ssw, “pierce, prick”). This would seem to be an example of the book of Revelation sharing in the wider Johannine tradition. In any case, the use of the verb here is almost certainly meant to echo the account of Jesus’ death in the Johannine Gospel.

May 6: 1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

The main occurrences of the word j^Wr in the book of Kings (1-2 Kings) are found in the Elijah narratives, and the usage of the word here is quite illuminating. It is related to the idea, discussed already in several prior notes, of prophetic inspiration—of the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH coming upon (or “rushing” to) a person, manifesting itself in a kind of dramatic (and ecstatic) prophetic experience. If Moses was the principal figure for the earliest mode of prophecy in Israel, Elijah serves much the same role in a later line of tradition during the Kingdom period. The main difference in the Elijah narratives, however, is that there is now a strong sense of conflict between the true prophet (Elijah, Micaiah) and the older tradition of spirit-enthused prophetic ecstasy.

1 Kings 18:12ff

The narrative in chapter 18 has, at its heart, the contest between Elijah and the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) of Ba’al and Asherah. This, of course, reflects the marked tendency of religious syncretism in Israel, whereby Canaanite religious traditions and practices where blended together with those devoted exclusively to El-Yahweh, to the point that Yahwism could become displaced in importance within the culture. Such tendencies had been present for centuries, practically from the first Israelite settlement of Canaan, but increased dramatically under the influence of certain royal houses and their administrations. This began with Solomon, but reached its pinnacle, it would seem, with the Northern court of Ahab and Jezebel, the principal setting of the Elijah narratives.

Almost in passing, within this narrative, there is an interesting notice at verse 12, involving the encounter between Elijah and the royal messenger Obadiah. Elijah instructs him to return to Ahab and announce “See! Elijah (is here)!” (v. 8). Obadiah is frightened at how Ahab may react to this. The king had been searching for Elijah, without success; and, if he is now told “Elijah is here”, and then comes and does not find the prophet, then the messenger giving this report will suffer for it. The rather superstitious and fearful mindset of Obadiah is reflected in the concern he expresses in verse 12:

“And it will be (that), (as) I go (away) from you, and (then the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH carries you upon [i.e. to] (a place) which I do not know, and I come to make (this known) before Ah’ab, and he does not find you, then he will slay me…”

Here the fundamental meaning of j^Wr as “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing) is clear. The idea is that, as a divinely-inspired prophet, around whom supernatural events and phenomena can occur, Elijah might suddenly (and/or miraculously) be taken away to another place by the “wind” of God. Indeed, this very thing was essentially described in the famous departure (or ‘ascension’) of Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11-12, though depicted more colorfully through the image of a ‘fiery chariot’ carried up by a powerful storm-wind (hr*u*s=). In this scene, the idea of the j^Wr of God is expressed through the imagery of Storm-theophany (i.e. God manifest in the storm), frequently applied to YHWH in the Old Testament. Such an identification is made in verse 16, when Elisha (now possessing the prophetic spirit that had been on Elijah) encounters the “sons of the prophets” (essentially a group of prophets-in-training) at Jericho. One of these young prophets, interested in searching for Elijah, suggests that the “spirit/wind [j^Wr] of YHWH” may have carried him off to another location (cp. Acts 8:39), echoing the earlier language of Obadiah.

Even though Elijah—and, after him, Elisha—clearly possesses the prophetic spirit (j^Wr) from YHWH (2:9, 15), these narratives tend to avoid the older manner of expression, in their referring to the spirit of YHWH coming/rushing upon the prophet. Instead, where this idea occurs in Kings, the preferred expression is “the hand of YHWH”. Like the spirit rushing upon the Judges (on this, cf. the earlier note), etc, the “hand” of YHWH brings special inspiration (3:15) or supernatural ability to the person. So it was for Elijah, in the episode following the contest with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18—the “hand” of God gives him special ability to run (v. 46), further proof of his status a true inspired prophet (in contrast to the false prophets of Baal).

1 Kings 22:10-28

A similar sort of prophetic contest/conflict is narrated in chapter 22. The situation is comparable, though instead of 450 / 400 prophets of Baal / Asherah, we now have 400 prophets of YHWH who belong to Ahab (i.e. attached to the royal court), vv. 6ff. We might be inclined to read this in light of the chap. 18 narrative, which recorded that the prophets of Baal/Asherah were put to death (v. 40); however, given the syncretistic tendencies at the royal court, there is no reason why the king might not employ prophets of YHWH in addition to those of Baal. Perhaps implicit in the chap. 22 narrative is the idea that there is little difference between these court-prophets—whether of Baal or YHWH—as they function the same way, and are generally branded by the author (and the underlying prophetic tradition) as false prophets.

On the surface, these 400 men function very much in the manner of prophets and diviners throughout the ancient Near East—including those in Israel. It was common practice for kings to consult such (apparently gifted) men, especially when they were about to make an important decision, such as going to war. It was important to ascertain the will of God (or the gods) in this regard—i.e., what the result would be, and whether one ought to take a particular action. There had been a longstanding tradition of priestly divination in Israel, especially involving the “urim and thummim”, stones used to obtain a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to questions. The prophets of Ahab in chapter 22 apparently utilize similar kinds of instrumental means for divination, in addition to oracular responses obtained during moments of prophetic ecstasy.

In verse 10, we read how the kings of Israel and Judah (Ahab and Jehoshaphat), together consult the group of prophets on the question of whether to engage in battle with the kingdom of Aram-Damascus at Ramoth-gilead. They meet at the threshing-floor (/r#G)) outside the city, the open area best suited for public gatherings. Here the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) are all “acting like a ayb!n`” . This denominative verb (ab*n`), in the reflexive hithpael stem, was discussed in the earlier notes (on Num 11:13-30 and 1 Sam 10:5-11; 18:10; 19:20-21ff). It seems to connote specifically an ecstatic manner of prophetic experience, brought about by the presence and activity of the divine spirit, and marked by unusual behavior. In the earlier lines of tradition (in Numbers and Samuel), this was an entirely valid expression of the prophetic gift, however strange and disturbing it may seem to us today.

In the book of Kings, by contrast—and especially here in the Elijah narratives—such ecstatic modes of prophecy are very much devalued, due in large part, I am sure, to the continued reliance upon them, in a superficial manner, among all these many prophets attached to the royal court (of Ahab, etc). Since such court-officials were expected to give the response that the king wanted to hear, all of the supposedly spirit-inspired phenomena had become largely a matter of show, lacking the substance of true prophecy. It is no coincidence that the verb ab*n` occurs in the books of Kings only in the narratives of chapter 18 (v. 29) and 22 (vv. 8, 10, 12, 18), referring essentially to the false prophets (of Baal and YHWH). While the true prophet of YHWH in chapter 18 was Elijah, here it is Micaiah, unique among the prophets because he typically does not tell the king what he wishes to hear (v. 8).

There is an important parallel involving the vision Micaiah narrates as part of his prophetic response to the king (vv. 19-23):

    • a heavenly being from YHWH’s court volunteers to be sent as a lying/deceitful spirit [j^Wr] from YHWH (vv. 21-23), to deceive Ahab and cause him to go out to battle (where he will be killed)
    • the 400 prophets who tell Ahab it is God’s will for him to go to battle, and that he will be victorious, similarly act as a ‘lying spirit’, speaking falsely (as prophets) on YHWH’s behalf (v. 24)

Zedekiah represents these 400 prophets, and confronts Micaiah regarding his contrary response, striking him as an insult, along with the following words:

“Where (did) this (happen), (that the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH crossed over from me to speak to you?” (v. 24)

The implication is, that if Zedekiah had spoken under inspiration by the spirit of God, and Micaiah gave a contrary response, then Micaiah could not possibly have been inspired by God as Zedekiah was—i.e., Micaiah is a false prophet. The narrative, of course, shows the situation to be exactly the opposite—Micaiah’s prophecy is true, while that of Zedekiah (and the other 400) is false, their apparent ecstatic manifestations of the spirit notwithstanding. The emphasis is on the substance and result of the prophecy, not the various phenomena that accompany it (vv. 25, 28)—a point fully in accord with the Deuteronomic principle for the testing/confirmation of true prophecy (Deut 18:21-22). The prophets of the 8th/7th centuries, whose oracles and activity received written form, attest a similar caution regarding prophecy apparently uttered under ecstatic inspiration from the divine spirit (Hos 9:7; Mic 2:11; cf. also Jer 5:13), and likewise tend to avoid use of the verb ab*n` (cf. above), though the verb does reappear with some frequency in the later prophets of the 6th/5th century (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah).

November 10: Revelation 16:12-16

Revelation 16:12-21

In the previous note, we examined the first five bowl-visions (vv. 1-11), all of which involve the symbolism of the Sea-creature from the visions in chapter 13. The matrix of images of Sea, creature from the Sea, and its kingdom, symbolizes the forces of darkness and evil as they are manifest in the earthly kingdoms and centers of power—that is, the nations, their governments and rulers. The Roman Empire of the late-first century is the most immediate point of reference, but the symbolism extends beyond this, as the next two visions in the cycle make clear. In fact, the cycle as a whole makes use of the three different sets of symbols to depict the same event: the great end-time Judgment of the nations:

    • The Sea and Sea-creature, incorporating traditional motifs of the Egyptian Plagues—Visions 1-5
    • The Nations gathering as armies for battle in a single location, traditional imagery deriving from the nation-oracles in the Prophets—Vision 6
    • Babylon and the “great city” as a symbol for the Nations—Vision 7

Today’s note will explore the sixth vision (vv. 12-16).

Revelation 16:12-16: Vision 6

“And the sixth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the great river Perat [i.e. Euphrates], and its water was dried out, (so) that the way might be made ready for the kings (coming) from the rising of the sun [i.e. from the east].” (v. 12)

The initial imagery of this vision, describing the effect of the “plague” poured out, brings together two Judgment motifs from the prior visions: (1) judgment upon the Sea and its waters, and (2) the burning heat of the Sun. The expression a)po\ a)natolh=$ h(li/ou (“from the rising up of the sun”) is often translated blandly as “from the east”; however, this obscures the symbolism by omitting the specific reference to the sun (h%lio$), which featured prominently in the prior vision (#5). The drying up of the river (potamo/$) reflects the imagery in vision #3, where the rivers and waters of the earth are turned into blood. In discussing that vision (cf. the previous note), I argued that the rivers and fountains symbolized the manifestation of the Sea (its waters) upon the earth—that is, a manifestation of the forces of evil and darkness in the earthly kingdoms (i.e. of the nations). The Euphrates (Heb. tr*P=, P®ra¾, Akkadian Purattu) was the greatest of the rivers in the Ancient Near East, in relation to the people of Israel and Palestine-Syria. Its title here as the “great river” reflects this, but also its parallel with Babylon as the “great city”. In neither instance should the place-name be taken as the specific geographical location where an actual event will take place; they are symbols, like almost every other visionary detail in the book of Revelation.

The drying out of the river is likely meant as an allusion to the parting of the Egyptian Reed-sea, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land (Exod 14:21-31; 15:19, etc); the immediate references to the Egyptian Plagues (in visions 1-5) makes this all the more likely. If so, it is a kind of reversal of the imagery—instead of the People of God, it is the wicked Nations that cross over the waters. However, in the Exodus narrative, the effected sea also serves to bring judgment upon Egypt (i.e. the Nations); here, too, the crossing ultimately results in the Nations experiencing the final Judgment. For earlier Old Testament references to a ‘parting’ of the Euphrates, cf. Isa 11:15-16; also Zech 10:10-11; 2/4 Esdras 13:43-47.

A bit more needs to be said about the direction of the “rising of the sun” (the east). The Euphrates formed the eastern boundary of the Promised Land, in its ideal or fullest extent. It also served as the eastern border of the Roman Empire (with Persia). At the time of the book of Revelation, in the late-first century A.D., the Parthians were the rival power for Rome across the eastern border. Some commentators have thought that these “kings of the East” cross the Euphrates to help bring about the fall of Babylon (i.e. Rome). While this is possible, based on the interpretation given in 17:15-17, it is unlikely to be what the vision here signifies. The “east” may indicate a foreign aspect to the nations, implying danger and the threat of invasion, but I believe here it more properly serves as a way of extending the symbolism to include all the nations (even those beyond the limits of the Roman Empire). For the people of Israel, the “Sea” denoted the west; so, too, for believers in Asia Minor, the great sea was the Mediterranean, to the west, and its waters were the effective domain of Rome. By contrast, the waters of the Euphrates denote the east, and the extension eastward allows the vision to encompass all the nations and peoples known at the time.

It may also be possible that the imagery here alludes to traditions associated with Nero and his return. After Nero’s death (apparent suicide) in 68 A.D., rumors and legends began circulating that he was still alive and would return. Many commentators feel that the motif of the Sea-creature’s head that was apparently slain and then restored to life largely derives from this same tradition (cf. the earlier note on 13:3); this will be discussed further in the notes on chapter 17. One version of the Nero legend envisioned him returning from the land of the Parthians, crossing the Euphrates with an army to regain control of the Empire (cf. Sibylline Oracles 4:119-124, 138-139; 5:361-365; Koester, pp. 658, 665).

“And I saw, out of the mouth of the Fabulous Creature, and out of the mouth of the wild animal and out of the mouth of the false-foreteller, three unclean spirits (appearing) as frogs—for they are spirits of little daimons, doing signs which travel out upon the kings of the whole inhabited (world) to bring them together into the battle of the great day of God the All-mighty.” (vv. 13-14)

It is fascinating how, which the the unfolding of the vision, the symbolism of the Dragon and Sea/Earth-creatures (of chapters 12-13) opens up, revealing something of its true significance. This opening up is depicted literally, in the vision, by the opening of the mouths of the three creatures, which also demonstrates the chain of relationship between the three:

    • “Fabulous Creature” (Dragon) =>
      • “Wild Animal” (Sea Creature) =>
        • “False Prophet” (Earth Creature)

Here the Earth-creature—that “wild animal” that comes up out of the Earth—is referred to as a false prophet (yeudoprofh/th$, “false foreteller”), effectively summarizing his Prophet-like working of miracles and wonders (13:13-15). His power comes from the Sea-creature who, in turn, receives his power from the Dragon (Satan). And, indeed, out of the Earth-creature’s mouth come three “unclean spirits”, also referred to as daimons (Greek dai/mwn), in the fully negative sense (from the Jewish/Christian standpoint) of evil spirit-beings opposed to God. The appearance of these spirits (pneu/mata) as frogs may be another allusion to the Egyptian Plagues (Exod 8:1-7); however, frogs often served as a negative or ambivalent image, sometimes specifically associated with deception (cf. Koester, p. 658).

Certainly, the spirits perform a deceiving role, so as to bring (or lure) all of the nations together. This is expressed here in the vision from two different vantage points. First, it would seem that the intent of the evil creatures is to gather all of the nations to make war against God. At the same time, however, God Himself makes us of this, allowing the deception to occur, so that all of the nations will be gathered together in one location, where He will be able to judge them all together. This is the significance of the compound expression “battle of the great day of God”, as an allusion to the Old Testament prophetic motif of the “Day of YHWH”, referring to the time when God (YHWH) will bring judgment/punishment upon a nation. The great oracle in Joel 3 depicts a judgment of the nations collectively, when God gathers them into the valley of Judgment (v. 2). That oracle also describes this in military terms, i.e. the judgment of the nations as a defeat in battle. The earlier Judgment-vision in 14:14-20 clearly alludes to Joel 3:13ff, and the same oracle is almost certainly in view here as well, perhaps along with similar nation-oracles elsewhere in the Prophets (cf. below).

“‘See! I come as (one) stealing [i.e. a thief]! Happy (is) the (one) staying awake and keeping watch over his garments, (so) that he should not walk about naked and (people) look at his shame!'” (v. 15)

The vision is interrupted suddenly, and abruptly, by a declaration from the exalted Jesus, echoing the one earlier in 3:3. Some commentators feel that it is out place here, but it effectively serves to increase the suspense in the narrative, as well as anticipating the vision of Jesus’ return in chapter 19. Why it would occur just at this point in the book, and here in the vision-cycle, is unclear. In terms of the visionary narrative, it occurs just prior to the final Judgment of the nations (vv. 17-21; chaps. 17-18; 19:1-3, 11-21); the following parallelism may be noted:

Expectation Fulfillment
  • Exhortation to believers to watch over their garments (i.e. for the wedding feast), 16:15
  • Anticipation of the great battle where God judges the Nations, 16:16
  • Vision of believers with their pure garments for the wedding feast in heaven, 19:1-10
  • The great battle when God, through His Anointed (the exalted Jesus) judges the Nations, 19:11-21

The language of this declaration is traditional, going back to the eschatological sayings and parables of Jesus (Mark 13:32-37 par; Matt 24:42-44; 1 Thess 5:2-4ff). On the eschatological use of wedding/marriage imagery, cf. especially Matthew 25:1-13).

“And he brought them together into the place being called, in Hebrew, Har-Megiddon.” (v. 16)

Although the gathering of the nations was done by the “False Prophet” in verse 15, here the subject is perhaps better understood as God, since ultimately it is He who brings them into the place of His Judgment. The Greek name for this place (to/po$) is, according to the best reading,  (Armagedw/n (Harmagedœ¡n). The wide number of variant readings suggests that the exact meaning of the word was not well understood by early readers and scribes. It is best viewed as a transliteration of the Hebrew [/]oDg]m=-rh^, “hill of Megiddo”. Some commentators suggest instead a transliteration of du@m)-rh^, which could be translated as “mountain of assembly”; this would certainly fit the scene of the gathering of the nations, however the reference to the city of Megiddo is much more likely. In this case, translating rh^ as “mountain” would be misleading, since Megiddo was not located on a natural hilltop, but on a wide plain. Most Near Eastern cities, however, even if not on a natural hill, were still elevated on a mound (tell) built up over successive levels of occupation, and ancient Megiddo would have been a such a fortified hill-site, overlooking the plain. Almost certainly, the immediate reference here is to Zechariah 12:11, where the plain of Megiddo (form of the name with the final n, /oDg]m=, M®giddôn) is mentioned in the context of a great battle in which the nations are judged and defeated (vv. 1-9).

Interestingly, there is here no description of the Judgment being carried out; rather, the stage is set for the fulfillment of this vision in chapter 19. This follows the pattern of the prior two seven-vision cycles, in which there was an interval between the sixth and seventh visions—a narrative device to build suspense, but also serving to connect the various visions, locking them together and allowing them to unfold in greater detail with different motifs and sets of images included. Here, between the sixth vision and its fulfillment, we have the intervening announcement of the fall of the “great city” Babylon (chapters 17-18). This announcement is an extension of the seventh vision (vv. 17-21), which will be discussed in the next daily note.

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Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6 (continued)

1 John 4:1-6, continued

Last week, we examined 1 John 4:1-6 in the context of the thematic and rhetorical structure of the letter, and also looked at the first three verses in detail. This section deals with the theme of trust in Jesus, just as the prior section (3:12-24) dealt with the theme of love. These two—love and trust in Jesus—are the two components of the great “commandment of God” (v. 23) which all true believers will uphold (and can never violate). Verses 1-3 of chapter 4 presents the author’s key teaching in the letter on trust in Jesus as the mark of the true believer. It builds upon the earlier instruction of 2:18-27 (discussed in a previous study). We have noted how 1 John is aimed at warning readers against certain people who have separated from the Community, and thus demonstrated themselves to be false believers (described as antíchristos, “against the Anointed”, 2:18, 22, and again here in 4:3). The author distinguishes them as ones who violate the first component of the great command—which is to say, they do not trust that Jesus is the Anointed One and Son of God (2:22-23). However, as Christians who previously had belonged to the Community, presumably they did, in fact, accept Jesus as both the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God, confessing and affirming both points of doctrine. Thus, it would seem that the author has something very specific in mind, a way of understanding just what an identification of Jesus by these titles means. We get a glimpse of what this is by the defining statement (of true belief) in verse 2 of our passage:

“every spirit which gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in the flesh is out of [i.e. from] God”

On the surface this would imply that the ‘false’ believers did not accept the incarnation of Jesus (as a human being); this would be the obvious sense of the phrase “having come in the flesh” (en sarkí el¢lythóta). Unfortunately, the situation is complicated by the fact that there are two important variant forms of the text in verse 3, where the opposing view of the ‘false’ believers (“false prophets”, v. 1) is stated. It is necessary first to discuss this.

The Text-critical question in 1 John 4:3

As I noted in the previous study, there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

The first reading (with the verb homologéœ), which rather blandly contradicts the true statement in v. 2 with a simple negative particle (), is by far the majority reading, attested in every Greek manuscript and nearly all the ancient versions as well. The second reading (with lýœ) is known from only a small number of witnesses, and almost all by way of Latin translation (lýei ton I¢soún [“looses Yeshua”] typically rendered in Latin as solvit Iesum). In spite of this, many commentators would accept this minority reading as original. Let us consider the evidence and reasons for this.

External Evidence

The only Greek manuscript which contains the reading with lýœ is the 10th century uncial MS 1739, and there only as a marginal note explaining that the reading was found in writings of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen—all Church Fathers who lived and wrote in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries A.D. It is to be found in Irenaeus’ book Against Heresies (III.16.8), a portion surviving only in Latin (with the verb form solvit, “dissolves”); it is also cited in Origen’s Commentary on Matthew, in a portion surviving in Latin (65), though there may be an allusion to it in Greek as well (16.8). In fact, Origin knew both readings, as did the Latin author Tertullian (Against Marcion 5.16.4; Prescription Against Heretics 23) writing at roughly the same time. The minority text (with solvit [in Latin]) is known by several other writers of the 4th and 5th century (e.g., Priscillian Tractate 1.31.3), and is the reading in a number of Old Latin manuscripts (ar c dem div p) in addition to the Latin Vulgate. The only other Greek evidence for the reading (with lýœ) comes from the 5th century historian Socrates (Church History 7.32), who cites it as an “ancient reading” (meaning it was not the one commonly known at the time), using it against the Christological views of the Nestorians (as those who “separated” the two natures of Jesus).

Internal Evidence and Transcriptional Probability

“Internal evidence” in textual criticism refers to things like the style and vocabulary of the New Testament author, which reading is more likely to be original on this basis, and which is more likely to have been changed or entered into the text through the copying by scribes. This latter aspect is often referred to as “transcriptional probability”. An important principle of textual criticism is difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is to be preferred), meaning that copyists are more likely to alter the text from a word or phrase that is more unusual or difficult to understand to one that is more common or easier to understand. And a good number of commentators consider the reading pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún (“every spirit that looses Jesus“) to be the more difficult. What exactly does this mean—to “loose” Jesus? According to this view, at some point one or more scribes (probably in the early 2nd century) changed the text from “looses” to the blander “does not give account as one [i.e. acknowledge/confess/agree]”, using the same verb as in verse 2. But is this feasible?

For one thing, as many commentators have noted, the use of the negative particle   with an indicative verb form is unusual, and is itself hard to explain as a scribal change. It is more appropriate before a participle, as in the parallel statement in 2 John 7 (see also John 3:18). In fact, the evidence from 2 John 7 cuts both ways: it can be taken as a sign that the reading with homologéœ is original, or that scribes harmonized the reading with lýœ, ‘correcting’ it in light of 2 Jn 7.

What about the use of the verb lýœ—does it fit with the author’s style and would he use it here in such a context? The verb occurs only once elsewhere in the Johannine letters, at 1 Jn 3:8, where it is stated that Jesus appeared on earth so that he might “loose” (lýs¢, i.e. “dissolve”) the works of the Devil. The verb lýœ literally means “loose[n]”, sometimes in the sense of dissolving or destroying, but also in the sense of releasing someone (or something) from bondage, etc. In the book of Revelation (often considered a Johannine writing), it is always used (6 times) in the sense of releasing a person; whereas, in the Gospel of John, it can be used either in the general sense of loosening straps, bonds, etc (1:27; 11:44), or in the negative sense (above) of dissolving something (2:19; 5:18; 7:23; 10:35), as in 1 Jn 3:8. The most relevant occurrence in the Gospel is at 2:19, where it is part of the Temple-saying of Jesus:

“Loose [lýsate] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (again).”

In the Synoptic version (in the Sanhedrin ‘trial’ scene), the reported saying (Mk 14:58 par) uses the compound verb katalýœ (“loose[n] down”), but the meaning is essentially the same—the Temple being dissolved, i.e. its stones broken down and destroyed (cf. Mark 13:1 par where the same verb is used). The verb lýœ typically is not used in the sense of “dissolve/destroy” when a person is the object; however, in Jn 2:19 the object of the Temple (a building) is applied to the person of Jesus by the Gospel writer (vv. 21-22), so it is conceivable that the author of 1 John could be doing something similar here.

Conclusion/Summary

I would say that, while an argument can be made for the originality of the reading with lýœ, and that its use in 4:3 would be, to some extent, compatible with Johannine style and theology, it is hard to ignore the absolutely overwhelming textual evidence of the manuscripts and versions. I find it difficult to explain how a scribal change could so effect every single known Greek manuscript, and, at the same time, all of the ancient versions (except for the Latin). It seems much more likely that the reading with the verb lýœ was introduced as a gloss or explanation of the majority reading, perhaps as a marginal note (such as in MS 1739) that made its way into the text. Indeed, if the majority reading (with m¢ homologeí) is original, it is not immediately clear just what contrast the author is making. In what way do the “false prophets” not confess/acknowledge Jesus Christ having “come in the flesh”? Is it a simple denial of the reality of the incarnation, or something else? For the writers of the 2nd-5th centuries, mentioned above, who attest the reading with lýœ, they seem to understand it in the sense of ‘heretics’ who separate the person of Jesus—i.e., dissolving the bond between the divine Christ (Son of God) and the human Jesus. This, however, would likely not have been the false Christology attacked by the author of 1 John (see below).

1 John 4:4-5

You are out of [ek] God, (my dear) offspring, and you have been victorious over them, (in) that the (one) in you is greater that the (one) in the world. They are out of [ek] the world—through this they speak out of [ek] the world, and the world hears them.”

At this point, in his exhortation to his readers, the author draws a sharp contrast with the “false prophets”, emphatically using the pronouns “you” (hymeís) and “they” (autoí). The rhetorical thrust of this is clear. He addresses his audience as true believers, contrasting them with the false believers who have separated from the Community and hold the erroneous view of Jesus. This aspect of religious identity is established by the familiar Johannine use of the prepositions ek (“out of”) and en (“in”). We have seen how the Johannine writings (both the Gospel and First Letter) play on the different uses of the preposition ek. Here it connotes coming from someone (or something), in the sense of being born out of them, as well as the idea of belonging to someone. True believers belong to God, being born of Him, while false believers belong to the World (the evil World-order, kósmos).

The use of the perfect tense (nenik¢¡kate, “you have been victorious [over]”) here is significant. I see two aspects of meaning at work. First, is the rhetorical purpose. The author wishes to persuade his readers not to be influenced or misled by the views of the “false prophets”; he does this by indicating to them that this has already happened—they have already been victorious over the false believers. It is a clever way of urging them to act and respond in a certain way. At the same time, the verb indicates the real situation for true believers—they have already been victorious over the world because Jesus was victorious through his life and work on earth, and believers now share in this power (through the presence of the Spirit in them, v. 4b). The verb nikᜠis a distinctly Johannine term. Of the 28 occurrences in the New Testament, 24 are in the Gospel of John (1), the First Letter (6), and the Book of Revelation (17). In the Gospel and Letter, it is always used in relation to “the world” (ho kósmos)” or “the evil (one)” (ho pon¢rós). In Jn 16:33 Jesus declares that “I have been victorious over the world”, that is, over the evil and darkness that governs the current world-order. It also means that he has been victorious over the Ruler of the world—the Evil Spirit of the world, the “Evil One” (i.e. the Satan/Devil), 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 1 Jn 3:8. The language here in vv. 4-6 very much echoes that of the Gospel Discourses of Jesus, especially in the Last Discourse (14:17; 15:19; 17:6-25).

1 John 4:6

“We are out of [ek] God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) who is not out [ek] God does not hear us. Out of [ek] this we know the Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of straying [plán¢].”

The statement “we are out of God” parallels the “you are out of God” in v. 4. This might indicate that it is the authorial “we”, referring to the author himself, perhaps along with other leading ministers. Paul makes frequent use of the authorial “we” in his letters. According to this view, the statement here in v. 6a is meant to persuade readers to listen to what he (the author) is saying. However, I do not believe this is the force of the statement here; rather, “we/us” is being used to identify the Community of true believers, in contrast to the ‘false’ believers who have separated. Since it is the Community of true believers, all genuine believers will hear what is said, since the message is spoken and taught under the guidance of the Spirit. By contrast, those who belong to the world, speak under the influence of the evil Spirit of the world.

This is a clear and marked example of Johannine dualism, with its stark contrast between the domain of God/Christ/Believers and the Devil/World/Non-believers. The closing words bear this out. The “Spirit of Truth” is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God (and Christ) who dwells in and among believers (Jn 4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 5:6). This is what the author refers to with the phrase “the (one) in you” (v. 4b). The corresponding expression to pneúma t¢s plán¢s is a bit harder to translate. The noun plán¢ essentially refers to wandering or going astray; it is an abstract noun used here in opposition to al¢¡theia (“truth”). It characterizes the Evil Spirit (of the world) as one who leads people astray, i.e. misleading or deceiving them; a natural translation of the noun in English would be “deception” (Spirit of Deception). As it happens, this sort of language is known from other Jewish writings of the period, especially in the Community Rule (1QS) of the Qumran texts, in the so-called “Treatise of the Two Spirits”, where two similarly opposing Spirits (of truth and deceit) are described (1QS 3:17-25). This Evil Spirit is what the author is referring to by the phrase “the (one) in the world” (v. 4b); it also the spirit of antíchristos (“against the Anointed”, v. 3).

Summary

If we are to attempt a historical reconstruction of the views of the false believers (“false prophets”, antichrists) who separated from the Community, it is necessary to bring together, as we have done, the two sections dealing with the theme of trust in Jesus2:18-27 and 4:1-6. In the first passage we learn that the author defines these people as those who do not trust in Jesus—that is, they fail/refuse to acknowledge Jesus as the Anointed and Son of God (2:22-23), and thus violate the great command (3:23). In the second passage, we gain a clearer sense of what is involved: these false believers do not acknowledge (with the rest of the Community) Jesus the Anointed as having coming in flesh. This would seem to indicate a denial of the incarnation, a refusal to accept that Jesus appeared on earth as a real flesh-and-blood human being. In classic theological language, this Christological view is referred to as docetism, from the Greek (dokéœ), meaning that Jesus only seemed to be a real human being. It is associated with a number of so-called Gnostic groups and systems of thought in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early 2nd century, not long after the time when the Johannine letters are often thought to have been composed, attacks an early form of docetic Christology (Smyrn. 1:1-2; 3:1-2; 4:1-2; Trall. 9:1-2; 10:1, etc), and appears to cite 1 John 4:2 for this purpose (in Smyrn. 5:2). Ignatius writes to believers in Asia Minor (Ephesus, Smyrna, Tralles), which is usually considered to be (the most likely) provenance of the Johannine Writings as well.

However, I do not think that the view of the false believers in 1 John is docetic per se. The situation is a bit more complex than that. The answer, I feel, lies in the final section of the letter dealing with the theme of trust in Jesus (5:5-12), which we will soon examine in an upcoming study. But first we must turn to the next section of the letter, on the theme of love, beginning with 4:7. It is a rich and powerful exposition, perhaps the single most extensive treatment on Christian love in the entire New Testament. We will only be able to consider certain aspects of it in the space and time available to us, but it is a subject that will be well worth the study.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This week, in our series of studies on the Johannine Letters, we will be examining 1 John 4:1-6. The stated purpose of these Saturday Studies is to introduce readers to the principles and methods of a critical study of the Scriptures (i.e. Biblical Criticism), and how these may apply in practice. In looking at 1 John 4:1-6, we will be focusing primarily on historical criticism—that is, on establishing the historical background and context of the passage. However, on at least one point of interpretation, a major text-critical issue will have to be addressed. Also, in considering the place of 4:1-6 in the structure of the work, we will be touching on aspects of literary criticism as well.

1 John 4:1-6

When considering the structure of First John, from a conceptual standpoint, we may note the way that certain themes alternate throughout as a point of emphasis. The main thrust of the letter involves sin (hamartía) and the “commands” (entolaí) of God. This was the focus of 2:28-3:10, which we examined closely in the previous two studies (last week and the week prior). The entolaí of God are actually reduceable to a single two-fold command, defined in 3:23-24: (1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers according to Jesus’ own teaching and example. Each of these two components of the command for believers is given particular emphasis in different parts of the letter.

As far as the letter itself is concerned, we may fairly divide the body of it into two main divisions, each of which begins with the declaration “this is the message which (we heard)…” (haút¢ estin h¢ angelía h¢n…):

    • Part 1: “this is the message which have heard from (the beginning)” (1:5-3:10) – Main theme: Light vs. Darkness
    • Part 2: “this is the message which we heard from the beginning” (3:11-5:12) – Main theme: Love as the great Command

Part 1 is framed by a discussion of sin and the believer, sin in relation to the “commands” of God:

    • 1:6-2:2: Sin and the identity of the Believer: Jesus’ work cleanses us from sin
    • 2:3-11: The Believer’s identity in terms of the “commands” of God, with special emphasis on love
    • 2:12-17: “Children [teknía]…”: Exhortation for Believers to live/act according to their identity, and not like the world (which is in darkness)
    • 2:18-27: “Children [paidía]…”: Warning of “antichrist”- Identity of Believers is marked by true belief/trust in Jesus
    • 2:28-3:10: “Children [teknía]…”: Sin and the identity of the Believer – restated in a dual instruction.

Part 2 essentially functions as an exposition of the “commands”, i.e. the two-fold command:

    • 3:12-24: Love characterizes the believer (vs. those who “hate”)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 18-22
      • Declaration on the “commands”, vv. 23-24
    • 4:1-6: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer (vs. those who have false trust/belief)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 4-6
    • 4:7-5:4: Love characterizes the believer – restatement in a dual instruction
      • Exhortation & Declaration on the “commands”, 5:1-4
    • 5:5-12: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer – restatement in a two-part instruction

Thus the teaching in 4:1-6 ( on trust/belief in Jesus) runs parallel to that on love in 3:12-24, with a doctrinal/theological statement or argument (vv. 1-3) followed by an exhortation (vv. 4-6). We will examine the doctrinal argument first.

1 John 4:1

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit, but you must (instead) consider the spirits (closely)—if (one) is out of [i.e. from] God (or not)—(in) that [i.e. because] many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The first occurrence of the noun pneúma (“spirit”) was at the conclusion of the previous verse (3:24), making explicit what had otherwise been implied in the letter: that the abiding presence of Jesus (and God the Father) in and among believers is through the Spirit. Now the author contrasts the Spirit of God (and Christ) with other “spirits” (pl. pneúmata). This underscores an aspect of early Christian thought that is rather foreign to us today. It was believed that people (especially gifted persons and leaders, etc) spoke and acted more or less under the guidance and influence of a “spirit”. For Christian ministers, and believers in general, they were guided by the Holy Spirit; and, by the same token, if it was not the Holy Spirit at work, then it must be another (that is, an evil, false or deceiving) spirit. In this regard, the first-century Christian congregations were largely charismatic in orientation, with ministers, leaders, speakers operating under the direct inspiration of the Spirit. Paul’s letters (especially 1 Corinthians) offer a fairly detailed portrait of how such early congregations would have functioned.

An obvious question is exactly how one could determine and be sure that a minister or speaker was genuinely operating under the guidance of the Spirit. How was this to be tested? Here the author of 1 John provides instruction similar in some ways to that offered by Paul in 1 Cor 12:3. It has to do with a true confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

You may recall in an earlier study (on 2:18-27), we established that, in large part, the letter appears to have been written to warn the congregations against certain persons who had separated from the wider Community (“they went out of us”, v. 19a). These same persons are surely in view here as well, characterized as “false prophets” (pseudoproph¢¡tai). I normally translate the noun proph¢¡t¢s as “foreteller”, rather than using the English transliteration “prophet”. However, it is important to understand the term in its early Christian context, based on its fundamental meaning, as someone who “says/shows (something) before [pró]”, either in the sense of saying something beforehand (i.e. before it happens), or in front of (i.e. in the presence of) others. The latter meaning more properly corresponds to both the Hebrew word n¹»î°, and to the general Christian usage. The proph¢¡t¢s serves as God’s spokesperson, declaring and making known the word and will of God to others. As such it was one of the highest gifts that could be given (by the Spirit), available to all believers, but especially to chosen ministers (Acts 2:16-18; 1 Cor 12:28; 14:1ff; Rom 12:6; Eph 2:20). This may indicate that those who separated from the Community (some of them, at any rate) were ministers or other prominent figures who functioned as “prophets”. That they are “false” means that, according to the author, they do not speak under the guidance of the Spirit, but of another “spirit” —i.e., an evil spirit.

There are likely two levels of meaning to the statement that these “false prophets” have gone “out into the world”. First, “into the world” is essentially the same as “out of us” in 2:19, since the “world” (kósmos) in Johannine usage tends to signify the realm of evil and darkness that is opposed to the realm of light (God, Christ, and true believers). These persons have departed from the Community of true believers, showing themselves to be false and not genuine believers at all. Secondly, going out “into the world” could suggest that they are functioning as itinerant, traveling ministers. It is hard for readers today to appreciate how prevalent, and potentially problematic, this dynamic was for Christians in the first two centuries. In an age of slow communication, and without an established collection of authoritative Christian writings, authority in the 1st-century Church largely depended on two factors: (1) the personal pedigree of ministers, and (2) manifestation of Spirit-inspired gifts and abilities. Determining the reliability of traveling ministers could be difficult on both counts. We will discuss this point further when we come to the study of 2 and 3 John.

1 John 4:2

“In this you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in flesh is out of [i.e. from] God;”

Here the word “spirit” (pneúma) is used two different, but interconnected, ways: the spirit of the person speaking, and the Spirit which guides/inspires the speech. To say that there are many different “spirits” means that there are many distinct people who may speak and act. However, for the author, it is probably better to think of just two Spirits—the Spirit of Truth (which is the Holy Spirit of God) and the Spirit of Falsehood/Deceit. This is fully in accord with the dualism of the Johannine Writings (both Gospel and Letters), and the same sort of dualism is also found in other Jewish writings of the period (such as the Qumran texts, see especially the Community Rule [1QS 3:17-21, etc]). The Spirit of Falsehood is also that of the Evil One (or Satan) who is the effective Ruler of the dark realm of the “world”. What distinguishes the True from the False is ultimately centered on the truth of Jesus—who he is and what he has done. This Christological framework of of truth vs. falsehood, is, from the standpoint of the Johannine writings, also the same as the fundamental definition of sin (on this point, see the previous studies on 2:28-3:10).

In 2:18ff, the false view of Jesus was simply described as failing/refusing to affirm (vb arnéomai) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Christós), characterizing it fundamentally as antíchristos (“against the Anointed”), vv. 22-23. In the context of the Johannine congregations, this wording seems peculiar, since, presumably, all believers (and supposed believers) would have affirmed that Jesus was both the Anointed One and the Son of God. But what is precisely meant by such an affirmation? Here, in 4:2-3, we have clearer sense of what the issue was for the author of 1 John. It involves giving a “common account” (vb. homologéœ) of, i.e. acknowledging together with all other true believers, Jesus Christ having coming in the flesh (en sarkí el¢lýthota). Some commentators would identify this ‘false’ view of Jesus as docetic. Docetism (from Greek dokéœ) is a rather obscure term that refers to the idea that Jesus as the Son of God only appeared or seemed to be a flesh-and-blood human being. It is usually associated with certain so-called “Gnostic” groups and writings of the second and third centuries. Unfortunately, based on this statement alone, it is impossible to determine the exact nature of the Christology that is opposed by the author of 1 John. It requires a careful study of the remainder of the letter, which we are doing here inductively, assembling the available information piece by piece.

1 John 4:3

“and every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God—and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [antíchristos], of which you have heard that it comes, and is now already in the world.”

The declaration in v. 3b confirms that we are dealing with the same situation as earlier in 2:18-27. The false view of Jesus, held and proclaimed (apparently) by those who separated from the Community, is called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Both here and in 2:18, the author appears to be drawing upon an early version of the Antichrist tradition, derived from earlier Jewish sources (the book of Daniel, and other writings), but given a special significance within Christian eschatology. Even so, we do not know precisely what is in mind, other than that “antichrist” is something (or someone) who will appear in the last days prior to the end. Clearly the author believes he and his readers are living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18). This eschatological tradition is being re-interpreted and applied by the author to the specific situation facing the Johannine congregations at the time of his writing. These “false prophets” who separated from the Community are inspired by the Spirit of “Antichrist”, and are a functioning embodiment of that evil power. The presence of false prophets and false/deceiving spirits were thought to be a distinctive marker of the last days (1 Tim 4:1; Mark 13:5ff, 21-22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-11; Revelation 2:20; 13:11ff; 16:13-14; 19:20).

And what is it about their view of Jesus that marks these people as “antichrist”? Unfortunately, the matter is not so clear at this point, since there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”, i.e. “dissolve”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses [i.e. dissolves] Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

I would ask you to give consideration as to what the second version (with the verb lýœ) might mean here in the context of 1 John. In our next study, we will continue the discussion of this passage, looking at the text-critical question in v. 3 in more detail, as well as examining the remaining verses (vv. 4-6). In addition, we will explore briefly how the instruction in both 3:11-24 and 4:1-6 is expounded in the following sections of the letter (4:7-5:12).

The Beatitudes: On Prophets and False Prophets

In previous notes I discussed the Beatitude of Jesus in Matt 5:11-12 and Luke 6:22-23 (with the corresponding “woe” in Lk 6:26); there “Prophets” and “False Prophets” are mentioned in relation to the ethical instruction for believers to rejoice when experiencing persecution. It may be helpful to examine briefly the background and significance of these terms.

Prophets

The English word prophet is simply a transliteration of the Greek profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s), which is presumably derived from a root compound of a verb fh(mi) (“say, speak, tell”) and the particle pro (“fore[ward], before”), along with the related (or denominative) verb profhteu/w (proph¢teúœ). This can be understood in either (a) a spatial-relational sense (i.e., to speak/declare before someone, to speak forth), or (b) a temporal sense (to speak/declare beforehand). In earlier Greek (from the classical period) the former sense is dominant; by the time of the New Testament, the latter is more prominent. The verb profhteu/w (“to speak/tell before”) is roughly synonymous with similar verbs such as prole/gw (“gather/count/say before”), profwne/w (“give voice before”), and proagoreu/w (“say in public before”), and early on came to be used in the technical sense of delivering an oracle or message from the gods (cf. G. Friedrich in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT] VI:781ff for an extended discussion and many references).

The Hebrew noun ayb!n` (n¹»î°) is usually translated in English as “prophet”, though its precise etymology remains uncertain. The Arabic verb naba°a (“announce, inform, impart”) may ultimately derive from the same (early Semitic) root as ayb!n` (the verb ab*n` is denominative, itself deriving from the noun ayb!n`). In all likelihood the Hebrew noun relates to the Akkadian verb nabû (“call, proclaim,” etc), and may reflect a passive form (i.e. “[one who is] called”, “[one] appointed to proclaim”; cf. a comparable term dyg]n` n¹gîd, “[one] highly visible, in front” [leader/ruler]). In any event, ayb!n` refers more to a role than a specific activity (unlike the partially synonymous word hz#j) µœzeh, “seer”, one who receives visions, cf. 1 Sam 9:9)—namely, to serve as an intermediary or spokesperson between God and the people. The role of prophet/ayb!n` was hardly unique to Israel; it is attested throughout the ancient world (the prophetic/oracular letters from Mari provide perhaps the closest early examples). Our best information, understandably, comes from prophets attached in some way to the royal court, but there doubtless were persons who fulfilled a similar role and function at the smaller community level (of family, clan, or tribe). By use of various means and methods (vision, oracle, divination), prophets informed people of the will and intention of the gods. “Prophecy” in the popular mind is often associated primarily with predicting the future; however, this is a distortion of the prophet’s true function—to reveal the will of God (or the gods). In the dynamic-magical (one might say “proto-logical”) religious mindset of the ancient world, that which God (or the gods) willed would certainly come to pass. In a non-literate or pre-literate society especially—with no sacred writings—leaders depended upon such a spokesperson for accurate “revelation”. As such, the “false prophet” (see below)—one whose revelatory information was ‘incorrect’ or unreliable—could have a devastating effect on society.

Interestingly, the term ayb!n` occurs only rarely in the Pentateuch and early Historical Books (Joshua–Samuel); outside of Deuteronomy and 1-2 Samuel, it appears only in Gen 20:7 (said of Abraham); Exod 7:1 (of Aaron); Num 11:29; 12:6; Judg 6:8, along with the feminine form ha*yb!n+ (Exod 15:20; Judg 4:4, of Miriam and Deborah) and the denominative verb ab*n` in Num 11:25-27 (of inspired elders/leaders of Israel, cf. v. 29). Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22 provide instruction for how the people should regard prophets who appear or become known in the community, including tests for true and false prophecy (see below); the latter passage, in particular, refers to Moses as a prophet (also in Deut 34:10). Samuel was the first great Prophet, in the traditional sense (1 Sam 3:20); but there are also enigmatic references to groups of prophets (1 Sam 10:5-12; 19:20-24) as well as passing mention of “prophets” (1 Sam 9:9; 28:6, 15), the precise context of which is lost to us today. Other specific prophets begin to be mentioned in the later sections of 1-2 Samuel—Gad (1 Sam 22:5; 2 Sam 24:11) and Nathan (2 Sam 7:2; 12:25)—and many more figures appear in the books of Kings (with parallel accounts in 2 Chronicles), intertwined with the political history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The best known of these prophets are Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 172 Kings 8) and Isaiah (see esp. Isa 6:1-9:6; 36-39 and parallel passages in Kings-Chronicles). Contrary to the popular conception of Elijah (and, subsequently, John the Baptist) in tradition, most of the prophets were almost certainly educated and literate persons, especially those associated with the royal court. In all likelihood, there were ‘schools’ or ‘guilds’ of prophets—already in 1 Sam 10:5-12; 19:20-24 we see prophetic groups or communities, and Isaiah is described in a matter of fact way as having ‘disciples’ (Isa 8:16). This latter reference also suggests the task of recording and preserving prophecies (in written form)—a very slight indication of the sort of work which may ultimately have produced the core of the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) which have come down to us (similar collections of oracles [of the Sibyls] are known from the Greco-Roman world).

The early Old Testament references to prophets and prophecy seem to emphasize three primary aspects: (1) the general role of serving as spokesperson (i.e. for God), (2) declaring a specific oracle or message from God, and (3) delivering ecstatic (divinely-)inspired utterances. By the kingdom period, it is the second aspect which dominates, in two basic ways (for an extended discussion, cf. F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic Harvard:1973, pp. 223-229):

    1. Royal oracles—messages delivered to kings, and related to their rule
    2. Judgment oracles—messages delivered to both king and people, foretelling and/or threatening God’s coming judgment, sometimes with an exhortation to repent

In the Prophet books (Scriptures) which are principally pre-exilic and/or exilic in date, the message is largely one of judgment, focusing upon the condition and fate of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. However, gradually, this is extended to incorporate two additional themes:

    1. Judgment oracles against the surrounding nations
    2. The promise of restoration following judgment (for at least a “remnant” of Israel/Judah)

The theme of restoration becomes even more prominent in the later exilic and post-exilic writings (all the more so if one wishes to include some or all of Isaiah 40-66 in this category), and provides the background for a good deal of Messianic thought in Judaism and early Christianity.

Within Jewish tradition, “the Prophets” came to be virtually synonymous with the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) that are now part of the Old Testament. The extent to which these writings derive from the Prophets themselves (and reflect their exact words) continues to be debated by scholars. There can be no doubt, however, that in Jesus’ time “the Prophets” meant the books as least as much as the men associated with them. The expression “the Law and the Prophets” served as a locution for all of what we would call inspired or authoritative Scripture (cf. Matt 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Lk 16:16, 29-31; 24:27, 44; Jn 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; cf. Sirach 1:1), though the extent of the “canon” at the time remains an open question. The book of Psalms appears to have been included under the “Prophets” (with David as a prophet, cf. Acts 2:30), as well as the historical books Joshua–Samuel (associated with the prophet Samuel). Even the Law (Pentateuch) had a prophetic character, considered traditionally as the work of Moses (a prophet, cf. Deut 18:15ff; 34:10).

It is less clear to what extent the actual prophetic role and gift was believed to continue on in persons within Judaism up to the time of the New Testament. The evidence from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) is equivocal and ambiguous at best. The word ayb!n` (whether in the singular or plural) nearly always refers to the Prophets of old (or their Writings); in only a few instances is it possible that prophecy is thought to continue on into the present (e.g., in 1QS 1:3; 8:15-16; 1QpHab 7; 4Q265; 4Q375; 11Q5; 11Q19 54, 61; for these and other references cf. George J. Brooke, “Prophets and Prophecy in the Qumran Scrolls and the New Testament” in Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity Brill:2009, pp. 32-41). Within the Qumran Community, the positive sense of prophecy appears to have been limited to the (inspired) teaching and interpretation of Scripture (“the Law and Prophets”), such as is exemplified in the “Teacher of Righteousness” (Jesus fulfills a similar role as inspired interpreter in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. Matt 5:17-20ff). 1 Maccabees 9:27 seems to reflect a common sentiment that authoritative Prophets (in the ancient religious and Scriptural sense) had disappeared from Israel—a view which helped to fuel eschatological and apocalyptic expectation of a great Prophet-to-Come. There were two strands to this tradition: one, in terms of Moses (via Deut 18:15-19, cf. 1 Macc 4:46; 14:41; 1QS 9:11; 4Q158; 4Q174); the other, in terms of Elijah (prim. from Mal 3:1; 4:5-6, cf. Sir 48:10; 4Q558; also 4Q521). This (eschatological) Prophet is mentioned several times in the New Testament, in reference to Jesus (see Jn 6:14; 7:40, also Lk 7:16; Jn 1:21, 25 and note the imagery in Mark 9:4ff par); in Acts 3:22-23; 7:37, Jesus is explicitly identified with the “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff. As for the figure of Elijah, there is some evidence associating him with Jesus (see Mark 9:4ff par; Jn 1:21, 25; Lk 4:25-26 and 7:18-23 par, with similar language [from Isa 61] in Lk 4:18ff), though in the Synoptic tradition he is more commonly identified with John the Baptist (Mark 8:18; 9:11-13 par; Matt 11:14; Lk 1:17, 76; but see John’s explicit denial of the role in Jn 1:21). In the Gospels, Jesus himself is depicted as prophesying: regarding his own suffering and death (Mark 8:31; 9:31 par), the destruction of Jerusalem (Mark 13:1-2 par; Lk 19:43-44), and other end-time events (Mark 13 par [Matt 24; Lk 21], also Lk 17:20-37). And, of course, in traditional Christian theology, Prophet is one of the three main “offices” of Christ.

Within the early Christian community, prophecy was viewed as a manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit, marking the “new age” which inaugurates the end-time (see the quotation and adaptation of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s Pentecost speech, Acts 2:14ff, and cf. Acts 19:6). In the Pauline congregations, prophecy had its proper place as a “gift” and work of the Spirit (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 11:4-5; 12:10, 28-29; 13:2, 8-9; 14:1-6, 22ff; 1 Thess 5:20); and there are other references to prophets and prophecy in the Church as well (Matt 7:22; Acts 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10; Eph 4:11; 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14, etc), though the exact nature such activity and utterance is not entirely clear. The early Christian Didache (chaps. 11-13) deals with the issue of receiving prophets, including the question of how to judge whether they are true or false (see below). The expression “Apostles and Prophets” (Eph 2:20; 3:5; 4:14; Didache 11:3) almost serves as a locution for all leaders and teachers in the community. This may also relate back to the manner in which early believers (esp. the Apostles and first disciples) were, by the suffering and persecution which they would endure, identified with the Prophets of old—the theme of persecution of the Prophets is relatively common in the New Testament (Matt 23:29-37; Lk 11:47-50; 13:34; Acts 7:52; 1 Thess 2:15), serving as sympathetic and exhortative examples for believers (Heb 11:32-12:1) and signifying their ultimate heavenly reward (Matt 5:11-12; Lk 6:22-23; Rev 11:18; 16:6; 18:24).

Interestingly, there is relatively little direct evidence in the Old Testament itself regarding the persecution of the Prophets. We read of attempts to kill Jeremiah (Jer 26; 38:4-6ff, cf. also Jer 15:15; 17:18; 20:11), and Elijah (1 Kings 19:1ff); the latter episode occurring within the context of Ahab and Jezebel putting prophets to death (1 Kings 8:4, 13; 19:1, 10, 14), just as king Jehoiakim put to death Jeremiah’s contemporary, Uriah. Later tradition, as recorded by Josephus (Antiquities 10.38), attributes similar widespread slaughter of prophets by wicked king Manasseh, but there is no comparable detail in the Old Testament (Josephus may simply be elaborating upon 1 Kings 21:16). Amos encountered threatening opposition from the priest of Bethel (Amos 7:10-13), but no further action is recorded. The Jewish work known as The Lives of the Prophets (1st cent. A.D.?) summarizes the lives and careers of twenty-three prophets; of these, only six (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos, and Zechariah ben Jehoiada) were put to death, though a number of others suffered persecution in some form. Most famously, Isaiah is recorded as having been sawn in two during the reign of Manasseh (1:1), and this appears to be reasonably well-established tradition (cf. Martyrdom of Isaiah 5:1-5; j. Sanh 10:28c, 37; b. Yeb 49b, and the reference in Heb 11:37a). For Zechariah ben Jehoiada, see the note at the bottom of the page.

False Prophets

The term “False Prophet” translates the Greek yeudoprofh/th$ (pseudoproph¢¡t¢s), but actual references to “false prophets” in Scripture are quite rare. As indicated above, societies—especially those which did not rely on fixed authoritative Writings—depended on the veracity and reliability of their prophets (i.e. those who spoke for and interpreted the will of God [or the gods]). False or unreliable prophecy was, therefore, a religious problem of the highest magnitude. For ancient Israelite religion, the question of false prophets is addressed in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22. The first passage is connected with idolatry: the prophet who advocates following after “other gods”, even if associated prophetic ‘signs’ have come true, can be judged to be acting falsely (implied) and should be put to death. The second passage frames the true Israelite prophet as being like Moses (see the discussion above), and offers a simple test in 18:20-22: if the prophecy does not come true, then it is not a message spoken by God (cf. also Jer 28:9). This latter test is reasonable enough on the surface, but who makes this determination? Moreover, it may take generations to determine whether a prophecy has ultimately come to pass; indeed, numerous oracles in the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) have not clearly come to pass or require questionable methods of interpretation to demonstrate that they have taken place. By comparison, the early Christian Didache, in its discussion on receiving prophets (chaps 11-13), uses their moral conduct and ethical behavior (along with ‘orthodoxy’ in teaching) as the principal test (11:8-12). Jesus himself offers a test regarding false prophets (Matt 7:15ff), whom he apparently identifies with those followers who have not done “the will of my Father” (vv. 21ff); in the context of the Sermon on Mount, this no doubt refers to those who fail or refuse to follow Jesus’ own teaching and interpretation of the Law.

Who exactly are these “false prophets”? Are there any examples in Scripture? The prophets of pagan religions and deities (such as those of Canaanite Baal-Haddu, 1 Kings 19:20-40 etc), according to the nature of Israelite monotheism, have to be considered false. Other “false” prophets are, perhaps, to be associated with the use of questionable means (forms of visions, dreams and divination, etc, cf. Jer 23:25ff; Ezek 13:7ff; Isa 8:19, etc); however, the emphasis in Jer 23:9-40 and Ezek 13:1-23 has more to do with relying on “false” visions which come from the prophet’s own mind. 1 Kings 22:5-28 records an historical instance of “false prophets” (contrasted with a “true” prophet, Micaiah vv. 8ff)—here at least the name of one “false” prophet is mentioned (Zedekiah, v. 24). In 1 Kings 22 and Ezek 13, the false prophets declare peace, security and military success (which, of course, is just what the people and the ruler would like to hear), rather than judgment, destruction, and military defeat. This, indeed, would seem to be the primary characteristic of “false prophets”—they declare what appeals to their audience, rather than the (often harsh) message which may come from God (Isa 30:10-11; Jer 5:31; 6:14; 8:11; 14:3; Mic 2:11; 3:5; for a similar thought, cf. also 2 Tim 4:3). In Jeremiah 28, Hananiah is a (false) prophet who, in a similar fashion, predicts the defeat of Babylon (see esp. Jeremiah’s response and rebuke in vv. 6-9). At the time of the New Testament, the famous and ancient figure of Balaam would no doubt have been considered a false prophet, of sorts (cf. 2 Pet 2:5; Rev 2:14); however, in at least one strand of Old Testament tradition, Balaam appears as a positive figure, who utters (inspired) oracles regarding Israel (Numbers 23-24).

Within the New Testament and early Christian tradition, along with the revival of Spirit-guided prophecy (see above), the problem of false prophets surface anew. Already Jesus had warned of false prophets (Matt 7:15; 24:11, 24) to come. The Jewish magos Elymas (bar-Jesus) is called a false prophet in Acts 13:6; and the danger of (pseudo-)Christian false prophets is mentioned in early writings as well (1 Pet 2:1; 1 Jn 4:1; Didache 11-13). In Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Mark 13 par) “false prophets” are connected with “false Christs”—that is, false Messiahs—(Mk 13:22 and par Matt 24:11, 24); and elsewhere there is an association with those who claim to have done wonders in Jesus’ name (Matt 7:21-23). More prominent is the connection with “false teaching” in the Church (see esp. 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 3:1-9; 4:3f; 2 Pet 2:1-3; 1 Jn 4:1ff; 2 Jn 9-10; Rev 2:14-15, 20, 24; Did 11:3ff, and Paul’s reference to “false brothers” and “false apostles” in 2 Cor 11:13, 26; Gal 2:2, cf. also Rev 2:2). 1 John provides perhaps the most detailed description of false teaching, related to a specific Christological view, which is difficult to determine precisely (see esp. 1 Jn 2:18-25; 4:1-6). This aberrant view of Christ is connected both with “false prophets” (4:1) and “antichrist” (2:18) which have resulted in divisions within the community (2:10). 1 Jn 4:1ff provides another test to determine false prophets, whether the spirit which speaks through the Christian messenger is truly from God. Mention should also be made of the personification of false prophecy depicted in the book of Revelation (see on the “False Prophet” in Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10); whether this should be understood as a real flesh-and-blood figure, or symbolic and representative, quite depends on one’s mode of interpreting the book (but cf. 2 Thess 2:9-11).

In referring to “false prophets” in the ‘Woe’ of Luke 6:26, Jesus is drawing upon the Old Testament image of prophets who declare things which the people want to hear (peace, prosperity, material security, et al), rather than the message of God. This explains why people speak well of them, and they may have considerable currency and popularity in their lifetime; but the ultimate (heavenly) reward belongs to those who confront society with a message of righteousness (justice) and holiness, according to the example of God in Christ.

The reference to Zechariah in Matt 23:35 presents a notorious historical-critical difficulty. Here he is named as “Zechariah son of Berechiah” (the designation of the Old Testament exilic prophet of the book that bears his name), but the historical event described almost certainly relates to “Zechariah son of Jehoiada” (2 Chron 24:20-22), an earlier figure. The Lives of the Prophets correctly distinguishes the two characters, but regards them both as prophets (chs. 15, 23 [2 Chron 24:2 describes Zechariah ben Jehoiada as a priest]). That there was some confusion in the tradition is clear from the so-called Proto-Gospel (Protevangelium) of James (mid-2nd cent. A.D.), which further identifies the Zechariah slain in the Sanctuary with Zechariah the father of John the Baptist (§23-24).