January 23: 1 John 4:3

1 John 4:3

As a supplement to the previous discussion on the Temple saying of Jesus in John 2:19ff, there is an interesting variant reading found in 1 John 4:3. In the vast majority of manuscripts, versions, and other witnesses (including virtually the entire Greek tradition), verse 3 begins:

“Every spirit which does not give account as one [mh\ o(mologei=, i.e. does not give consent/confess] Yeshua {Jesus}…”

However, some witnesses (primarily Latin) instead read:

“Every spirit which looses [lu/ei] Yeshua {Jesus}…”

The verse continues, stating that every such spirit “is not out of [i.e. from] God and (even) is of Antichrist—of which you have heard (that) it should come, and (even) now it is already in the world.”

By all accounts, the version with lu/ei is the more ‘difficult’ reading (at least to us today), and might be preferred as original, on the principle of lectio difficilior potior. In fact, a fair number of commentators and textual critics accept it as original, though at least as many still prefer the majority text.  Usually, when a reading so completely dominates the manuscript tradition (including every Greek uncial, and virtually every later MS as well), it is definitely to be preferred. Still, it is hard to explain the origin of the reading of lu/ei instead of mh\ o(mologei=—it is not the result of a scribal mistake; either it reflects an intentional change, or, more likely, represents an interpretive (marginal) gloss which somehow made its way into the text.

The important Greek MS 1739 has a marginal note indicating that the reading lu/ei was known to the late-second/early-third century Church Fathers Irenaeus, Clement and Origen. This would seem to be confirmed by the Latin versions of Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.16.5, 8) and Origen (§65 of his Commentary on Matthew [covering chapters 22-27, here on 25:14]). The variant reading is also cited by Origen’s contemporary Tertullian (Against Marcion V.16), in the fourth century (Ps-)Priscillian Tractates (I.31, 3), and then in the Vulgate and related Old Latin MSS.

What exactly does the Greek expression lu/ei to\n  )Ihsou=n (“looses Jesus”) mean? It was rendered in Latin by solvit Iesum (also dividere Iesum), and was specifically used by Irenaeus and Tertullian to combat heterodox/gnostic views (Valentinians, Marcion) which effectively separated or divided the man Jesus from the Divine Christ (or the person of Christ from God the Creator). This reflects how the reading would have been understood in the late second-century. It was also used in the early 6th-century by the Church historian Socrates in reference to the Christology of Nestorius (Church History VII.32)—he cites the variant with lu/ei as the original text, which was then altered by those (like Nestorius) who wished to separate the Divine and human natures.

Clearly the meaning of 1 Jn 4:3 must be determined from its context in the rest of the letter, especially 4:1ff, which warns believers to consider or discern [dokima/zete, i.e. prove/test] the “spirits”—that is, those in which other (supposed) Christians speak and act, whether they are from God (the Holy Spirit, Spirit of Christ) or are false. Particularly at issue is whether one ‘confesses’ (o(mologei=, i.e. says together with [true] believers) Yeshua Anointed (Jesus Christ) in flesh (e)n sarki/)—i.e., that Christ has truly come in the flesh. The negative side is emphasized in verse 3, which is an additional reason for accepting  mh\ o(mologei= as the original reading there (instead of lu/ei). The association of those who do not ‘confess’ Jesus (Christ in the flesh) with the spirit of Antichrist (a)nti/xristo$, lit. “against-the-Anointed”) is significant in this regard. The term is used earlier in 2:18, 22, referring to (false) believers who have separated from the Community; they are identified as those who deny that Jesus is the Anointed/Christ. It is possible to render this statement a bit differently, and more accurately—i.e., those who deny that the Christ is Jesus. This would be closer to the error reflected in 4:1-3, and might explain how mh\ o(mologei= could be glossed as lu/ei.

There are two Christological views which could possibly be involved here: (1) that the Heavenly/Divine Christ did not fully take on flesh (as the historical Jesus), but only seemed to be human; or (2) that the Heavenly/Divine Christ and the man Jesus were separate entities which were only temporarily joined. The former is called Docetic, the latter, Separationist. Irenaeus was combating a Separationist view against the Valentinians (see above) in the second-century; by all accounts, Docetism was much more prevalent in the early decades of the Church. Ignatius of Antioch (esp. throughout his letter to the Smyrneans, and in Trallians 9-10) and Polycarp (Philippians 7) write against this view, and, in all likelihood, 1 John witnesses an early Docetism as well. From a (proto-)Orthodox standpoint, both of these Christological ‘errors’ effectively destroyed the unity of the Person of Christ.

With regard to the verb lu/w (“loose[n]”), there are two primary senses: (a) to unloose [i.e. free] someone or something that is fastened/bound, or (b) to dissolve or break something apart. With a personal object, the verb is almost always used in the former sense; and yet the variant reading in 1 Jn 4:3 would seem to require the latter. It is here that one is drawn to the Johannine Temple saying of Jesus (Jn 2:19): “Loose [lu/sate] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (up again).” In terms of the historical Temple, the verb would mean “destroy, dissolve, break apart”; yet, the Gospel writer makes clear that Jesus was referring to his body, and this would seem to be just the issue surrounding the “docetic” error in 4:2-3—a denial (or refusal to confess) Jesus Christ in the flesh. In this sense, the heterodox/erroneous Christology could truly be said to “loose”—dissolve or destroy—the unity of Christ.

(For a good detailed discussion of the variant in 1 Jn 4:3, including a strong defense of the majority reading, cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Oxford:1993 pp. 125-135.)

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