Special Article on the Letters of John
As I have dealt at length with the Letters of John (1 John, in particular) in the recent notes of this series (“…Spirit and Life”), touching upon many aspects of their life-setting (and church-setting), I felt it would be worthwhile to supplement this study with a brief survey of the background of the letters, insofar as it is possible to determine. This will not be a thorough or exhaustive introduction (for that, you may consult any reputable critical Commentary); rather, I will outline some of the key points which are especially helpful for analyzing and interpreting the letters.
Authorship, Timeframe, and Geographical Setting
Tradition ascribes authorship of both the Gospel and Letters to John the Apostle. This was established by at least the middle of the 2nd century, as indicated by texts from the latter half of the century, such as the Muratorian fragment and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (I.16.3, III.1.1), as well as the “Anti-Marcionite” prologue to John, and Clement of Alexandria (in Eusebius’ Church History VI.14.7). While this tradition is fairly strong, the writings themselves are actually anonymous, with no specific identification of authorship. Support for the apostle as the author of 1 John, as well as the authenticity (and canonical status) of the letter, is somewhat stronger than that of 2-3 John (cf. Eusebius’ Church History III.24.17, 25.2; VI.25.10; VII.25.7-8, but note also his view in the Demonstration of the Gospel 3.5.88). There are strong indicators in the Letters to suggest that they were not written by a leading Apostle such as John.
With regard to the authorship/origins of the Gospel, the main figure is the close disciple of Jesus referred to as “the disciple whom he loved” (Jn 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), often rendered as “the Beloved Disciple”. Most often, this person is identified with John son of Zebedee, according to tradition, but commentators have suggested other possibilities as well, such as John Mark or Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:5, 36; 12:1-2). All we can say for certain, is that the “Beloved Disciple” was one of Jesus’ close followers, and that he was not Simon Peter (13:23-24; 20:2-8; 21:7, 20ff). The responsible commentator really ought not to presume more than this. It is noteworthy that the “Beloved Disciple” only features in the Passion Narrative spanning the second half of the book (chaps. 13-21), and, it would seem, was regarded by the Gospel writer as a key source of information for this section. It has been suggested that he was the unnamed disciple accompanying Peter in 18:15ff, as well as the witness cited in 19:35-36. The last point is quite likely, especially considering how the ‘appendix’ to the Gospel (chap. 21) identifies the “Beloved Disciple” specifically as a prime witness for the events being narrated in the Gospel (v. 24). This statement is worth quoting:
“This (person) is the learner [i.e. disciple] giving witness to these things and having written them, and we have seen [i.e. known] that his witness is true.”
The reference to “having written” is sometimes assumed, by traditional-conservative commentators especially, to mean that the “Beloved Disciple” is the Gospel writer; but this interpretation is scarcely required by the text. All the statement really means is that the “Beloved Disciple” committed his testimony to writing in some form. It could just as easily indicate that his written testimony was a source used by the Gospel writer, who was a different person; indeed, this seems most likely. Critical commentators generally regard the authorship of the Gospel along the following lines:
- The “Beloved Disciple” was a leading figure (if not the leading figure) among the Community (i.e. congregations) which produced and first circulated the Gospel. As a close disciple of Jesus, he was a key source for the traditions (including eyewitness testimony and memories) preserved in the Gospel. These would have been transmitted orally, and also in writing; indeed, he may have composed a core Gospel account which the writer incorporated within the main text.
- The Gospel writer—a different person from the “Beloved Disciple”, though almost certainly coming from the same line of tradition (or “school”, cf. below); he may have been a close follower himself of the “Beloved Disciple”, committed to preserving his Apostolic witness (much like the relationship tradition ascribes to John Mark and Peter in the composition of the Gospel of Mark).
- The final editing/redaction of the Gospel. This may have been done, at a later point, by the Gospel writer himself, or by a second author/editor. Commentators are divided on this point, though in general agreement that chapter 21 is a secondary (later) addition to the main Gospel, which concluded at 20:31.
On the whole, this a very plausible general reconstruction, which seems to fit the available evidence.
With regard to the Letters, scholars are divided as to authorship, in terms of the relation of the Letters to the Gospel. Clearly, they share the same thought-world and theology (including Christology), as well as having considerable similarity in vocabulary, language, and style. If one takes into account the normal differences, between the Gospel and First Letter, due to the adaptation of earlier historical/traditional material in the Gospel, the two works appear to be very close indeed, and could have been written by the same person. Depending on the relative roles given to the Gospel writer and a (possible) subsequent editor/redactor, commentators have identified the author of the letters (or at least the First Letter) with either the writer or editor/redactor of the Gospel, respectively. There are a range of valid possibilities, but none can be determined with certainty.
There are also differences of opinion regarding the relationship between 1 John and the second & third Letters, which are almost certainly written by the same person. The author of 1 John is not identified in any way, but 2 and 3 John both were written by a man calling himself “the Elder”. While the designation o( presbu/tero$ (“the elder”) could conceivably be used for an Apostle (such as John), this is rather unlikely, especially the context of the initial address of a letter. For example, in 1 Peter, the author (who identifies himself as Peter) calls himself sumpresbu/teros (“elder [along] with [you]”), but only in the immediate context of addressing other elders; in the initial address he clearly refers to himself as a)po/stolo$ (“[one] sent forth”, apostle), even as Paul does in many of his letters. Moreover, the author of 2-3 John does not appear to write as one possessing apostolic authority. Indeed, the entire milieu of the Letters suggests a time after the first generation of apostolic witnesses has passed from the scene. According to tradition, John the Apostle would have been one of the last to pass away. The (recent) death of the “Beloved Disciple” is suggested by the context of Jn 21:22-23ff.
Even so, many commentators would attribute all three Letters to the same person—i.e., “the Elder” in 2-3 John. The close similarity of language, style and content between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this. The best explanation as to why this author did not address himself the same way in First Letter, is that 1 John, in fact, is not a letter or epistle, but a (theological) tract or exposition which achieved circulation among the various congregations. Thus, it would not have been formulated the same way as an actual letter, and, indeed, is lacking most of the common characteristics of the epistolary format. Who is “the Elder” who produced the Letters? There are several ways to understand this:
- He is simply one of the (leading) Elders of the Johannine churches
- He is the chief (overseeing, i.e. e)pi/skopo$) Elder for the (Johannine) churches of the region
- He is a leading figure with the special title “the Elder”, due to his close connection with the founding apostle of the churches (the “Beloved Disciple”, whether John or another apostle)
- He is, in fact, the “Beloved Disciple” (John or another apostle) who calls himself by the title “Elder”
In my view, only the second and third options are likely to be correct. As an interesting side note, which might confirm option #3, there is an early Christian tradition which distinguishes the apostle John from another elder John. Eusebius (Church History 3.39.4) records a statement by Papias (c. 130 A.D.) which identifies two such distinct figures named John (cf. also Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 9; and the Apostolic Constitutions 7:46). A relatively simple, more general explanation would be to distinguish a group of leading “Elders”, installed by the Apostles and other early/leading missionaries, in the various churches, all of whom represent the second generation of Christian leaders. The apostolic witness was passed on to them, and they, in turn, faithfully preserve and transmit it for subsequent generations. This is very much the situation expressed in the Pastoral letters, and is attested elsewhere in early tradition (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17). Irenaeus confirms such a distinction between “apostle” and “elder” (Against Heresies III.3.4; IV.27.1; V.33.3), and this would seem to be in accord with the general setting of the Johannine Letters.
Geographic Setting—Where were the Gospel and Letters first composed and circulated? Two regions are usually cited as the most likely possibilities: (1) Syria, the area around Antioch, and (2) Asia Minor, spec. the area around Ephesus. In favor of Syria, we might cite as evidence:
- The Palestinian background of the Gospel, including the Jerusalem setting for many of the episodes, an abundance of local detail not found in the other Gospels, and the occurrence of numerous Semitisms. However, this may reflect the underlying historical traditions, rather than the place of composition.
- The primacy and importance of Antioch as one of the earliest (and most influential) centers of Christianity.
- Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, and his letters (c. 110-115 A.D.) reflect Johannine thought and expression at various points, though there are no certain quotations.
- There are also considerable points of similarity between the Johannine writings (esp. the Gospel) and the so-called Odes of Solomon, a collection of early Christian hymns (late-1st/early-2nd century) which are assumed to have a Syrian provenance.
In favor of Ephesus:
- Early Christian tradition associates John the apostle (and the Johannine writings) with Ephesus. This is part of the Johannine tradition established by the middle of the 2nd century—cf. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; the Acts of John; Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.1.1, etc; and the testimony of Polycrates bishop of Ephesus (in Eusebius’ Church History V.24.3). On the other hand, Ignatius, in writing to the Christians of Ephesus, mentions Paul’s work, but says nothing of John having been there.
- As mentioned above, Ignatius’ letters (c. 110-115 A.D.), many of which are addressed to congregations in Asia Minor, show many similarities with Johannine thought. The same is true of the letter of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who is said to have been a disciple of John the apostle. In writing to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles, Ignatius attacks Christological views similar to those denounced in 1 John (on this, cf. below).
- The book of Revelation, written by a “John”, and traditionally identified with John the Apostle, is addressed primarily to churches in Asia Minor (chaps. 2-3), the first of which is Ephesus. The warnings in those letters are similar in certain respects to those given in 1 and 2 John.
- The island of Patmos, where “John” writes the book of Revelation, and where John the Apostle was exiled (according to tradition), is not too far from Ephesus.
- John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel of John, and it is often thought that the Gospel was written, in part, against those would might identify the Baptist (rather than Jesus) as the Messiah. According to Acts 18:25ff; 19:2-6, there appear to have been disciples of the Baptist in the vicinity of Ephesus.
Timeframe—When were the Gospel and Letters written? Most scholars would place them at the end of the 1st century A.D., making them among the latest of the New Testament writings. This would be possible, even for those who identify the author as John, since, according to tradition, John the Apostle died an advanced age, toward the end of the century. Moreover, the danger expressed in the Gospel, of early Christians being expelled from the Synagogues, and in the way this is formulated by the author, has been thought to reflect a time around 80-90 A.D. There are other aspects of the treatment and adaptation of traditional material in the Gospel which suggests a similar time frame. I have discussed this at some length in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.
The Relationship between the Johannine Letters and the Gospel
The similarities in thought, language, and expression, indicate that the Gospel and Letters of John both derive from a common church-setting or environment (usually referred to as the Johannine Community), and also date from around the same time. The Gospel probably was composed earlier than the Letters (though this is not absolutely certain); a date of around 90 A.D. is often posited for the Gospel, with c. 100 A.D. for the Letters, and this likely is not too far off the mark. It would seem that the First Letter was written after the pattern of the Gospel (in the notes we examined the similarities between the opening and closing of both works), and functions as a kind of authoritative exposition of the theology (and Christology) expressed in the Gospel. In particular, it draws heavily upon the discourses of Jesus, especially the Last Discourse (chaps. 14-17); or, at the very least, is working from the same basic Tradition. The main theological concerns of First Letter are echoed in the Second, which is addressed to a particular congregation (a “sister church”) some distance removed from the author. The subject matter of the Third Letter differs, but helps provide a glimpse of the overall church setting of the Letters (cf. below).
It is sometimes held that the separatist Christians who are the opponents (“antichrists”) in 1 and 2 John reflect a split in the Johannine Community centered on different approaches to the Christology of the Tradition (i.e. in the Fourth Gospel). I have discussed this in the recent notes, and address it again down below.
The Relationship between 1 John and 2-3 John
As stated above, I tend to regard the author of 1 John as the same as “the Elder” who wrote the Second and Third Letters. The similarities in thought and emphasis between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this; at any rate, it is the simplest explanation. There is some question as to the order in which the Letters were composed. The traditional arrangement tells us nothing, since it simply reflects length (longest to shortest). There is really no way to determine the chronology. However, from our standpoint, the traditional order is helpful, since the theological exposition of 1 John helps to elucidate the church situation of 2 and 3 John (which are actual letters). 1 John 2:18-27 is a warning against the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations (“they went out of us…”) and would deceive others in the churches (v. 26). This is precisely the situation the author describes in 2 John 7-11, and it is clear that these “false” believers are considered (by the author) to hold and proclaim the “false” view of Jesus indicated in 1 John 4:1-3. The author warns his “sister church” not to treat such persons as fellow believers in Christ (2 Jn 10-11). This could mean that the situation has grown more serious by the time 2 John was written, though this is not certain. It is also possible that the conflict with Diotrephes in 3 John (vv. 9-10ff) is related in some way to this same situation involving the Johannine separatists. Missionaries and representatives from both “sides” would have sought to visit the various congregations in the region. Just as the author of 2 John urges his audience to refuse hospitality to the other side, so Diotrephes may be doing the same (but in the opposite direction) in 3 John.
The Church Setting and Opponents in the Letters
If either region proposed for the Johannine Churches (and Writings) is correct—i.e. Antioch or Ephesus—then it is possible to reconstruct, to some extent, the church setting of the Letters. This would involve the congregations of a major city or town (such as Ephesus), which had authority or influence over congregations in the surrounding region; quite likely, these outlying churches would have been founded by missionaries working from the main city. All of these congregations would have been fairly small—house churches (typically the house of a relatively wealthy individual), large enough to support perhaps several dozen people, though many congregations were likely much smaller than that. The earliest church centers were founded by apostles—men (and possibly women) who represented the first-generation of believers, who had either been close companions of Jesus, or who witnessed the resurrection and the beginning of Christianity (in Judea). The “Beloved Disciple”, whether or not he is to be identified with John son of Zebedee, was certainly one of these apostles, and, according to the Gospel, he was the source of reliable early tradition and teaching; presumably he was the leading figure (and founder) of the Johannine congregations. Such apostles would have set in place leaders (“elders”) in every congregation, and where appropriate, special elders assigned to be overseers of a particular area. In the setting assumed by the Pastoral letters, Timothy and Titus functioned as this sort of regional overseer, under Paul’s (apostolic) authority; it is possible that “the Elder” of the Johannine Letters had a similar role (and/or relationship to the “Beloved Disciple”).
As I discussed above, only 2 and 3 John are true letters, addressed to a specific group or individual. Second John is addressed to a “sister church” (vv. 1, 13), presumably one with a very close relationship to the author’s own congregation(s). At any rate, he is writing to believers whom he assumes will be, and should be, in agreement with him. Third John is written to an individual (Gaius) who is a member of a particular congregation. This may (or may not) be the same congregation currently being led by Diotrephes (vv. 9-10); probably it is a separate congregation. The author is asking Gaius for support in the missionary work of certain “brothers”. In ancient times, relations between groups (such as churches), and leadership networks, had to be maintained through personal visits and messengers delivering authoritative letters. Travelling missionaries (both “apostles” and “prophets”) were common in the early church, and it could be difficult at times to determine the legitimacy and authority of such persons. Both those aligned with the author, and those on the other side (the “antichrists”), would have visited various congregations seeking to gain support and influence. In 2 John 10-11 the author urges the congregation to refuse hospitality to any missionary or representative who holds the aberrant view of Jesus described in vv. 7-9. Similarly, in 3 John 9-10, Diotrephes apparently is doing much the same thing—urging people to refuse hospitality to representatives aligned with the author. Demetrius (v. 12) would seem to be one of these representatives, or missionaries, and that the author is asking for Gaius to provide support for him.
Clearly, Diotrephes is presented as an opponent in 3 John; however, we do not really know the basis or origin of the apparent conflict that has resulted in the situation described in vv. 9-10. It is a different matter in 2 John, where the opponents are characterized by particular Christological views (vv. 7-9). The language used to describe them is quite close to that in 1 John 2:18ff and 4:1-3. Some commentators have questioned whether one or more opposing groups are being referenced in 1 John; in my view, there would seem to be one main group in focus—a group which separated from the Johannine congregations, holding and proclaiming a distinctive view of Jesus that differed markedly from the traditional (Johannine) portrait presented in the Gospel. These “false” believers (“antichrists”), according to the author, are violating both aspects of the two-fold ‘commandment’ which defines our identity as (true) believers in Christ—(1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example.
There have been many attempts to identify these separatist opponents with various heretical or heterodox groups in the early Church, such as the Nicolaitans, mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15, but of whom we know very little. More common is an association with Cerinthus, who, according to Irenaeus (Against Heresies I.26.1-2; III.3.4., 11.1), was both an early “Gnostic” and adversary of the apostle John (in Ephesus). Unfortunately, much of the information provided by the Church Fathers regarding Cerinthus is contradictory and far from reliable. He appears to have held a quasi-Gnostic “separationist” view of Jesus, which does not quite square with the data in 1 and 2 John. Much closer to the Johannine opponents are the Christological views attacked by Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110-115 A.D.), in his letters to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles. This is echoed closely by Polycarp in his letter to the Christians of Philippi (7:1 is virtually a quotation of 1 Jn 4:2-3 and 2 Jn 7). It would seem to confirm that there were Christians in Asia Minor in the period 110-130 A.D. (within a generation[?] of the Johannine letters) holding views similar to those described (and condemned) in 1 and 2 John.
The Johannine “School”
Many critical commentators have referred to a Johannine “School”, though this term can be quite misleading. The basic idea it expresses is of a chain of common tradition, stemming from the apostolic testimony of “the Beloved Disciple” and the first generation of believers associated with him, down to the end of the 1st century A.D., and the leaders of the congregations he helped to found. These leaders are the ones who preserved and safeguarded the traditions—the Gospel message, teaching of Jesus, and the theology/Christology expressed in the Gospel of John—and represent the group(s) which originally composed and circulated the Gospel (and First Letter). The author of the Letters (“the Elder”) was a leading figure (perhaps the leading figure) for these Johannine congregations. The language, ideas, and theology in the Gospel and Letters is distinctive—”Johannine”, as compared with that of the Pauline letters and churches, etc. The Book of Revelation has also been considered a “Johannine” work, with certain characteristics in common with the Gospel and Letters, though written in a very different language and style. According to tradition, all five writings are attributed to John the apostle (hence, “Johannine”), but few commentators today would accept this traditional identification without further ado.
Christology appears to be at the root of the conflict in 1 and 2 John—between the author (representing the ‘mainstream’ Johannine congregations) and the separatists who “went out” from them. Many commentators feel that this split reflects a fundamental difference of interpretation regarding the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The viewpoint of these separatists, by all accounts, was an early “docetic” Christology, one which denied the reality of Jesus’ human life (and death), or, at least, minimized or relativized its importance. It is easy enough to see how such a view might develop out the uniquely “high” Christology of the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, the Gospel of John proved to be popular among certain heretical/heterodox Christians, including so-called Gnostics, many of whom evinced “docetic” or “separationist” tendencies which challenged and clashed with the (proto-)orthodox view of Christ as the incarnate Son of God. Heracleon, for example, wrote perhaps the earliest commentary on the Gospel of John, which spurred Origen to compose his own massive (and unfinished) Commentary.
This question of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” plunges us into a difficult and sensitive issue which ought to be addressed, in closing. How far should Christians today go in following the example of 1 John 5:16-17 and 2 John 10-11, essentially refusing to regard or treat as fellow believers those with differing Christological views? Remember that the author of 3 John decries the fact that Diotrephes is apparently doing much the same thing (vv. 9-10), only on the other side of the fence! Surely this is not merely a question of lining up to a precise Christological formulation or creed. The author of 1 John spends five chapters expounding the theological (and ethical) aspects of what we might call the “fundamentals” of Christian identity—of our identity as (true) believers in Christ. It is tied to such powerful notions as what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, the affect of his death, the meaning and significance of sin, and the presence of the Spirit in and among believers. For centuries, supposed Christians have accused one another of not being true believers, not holding the correct belief, and this has often resulted in many tragic episodes (often based on unfortunate misunderstandings), including angry words, insults, excommunication, hostility of all sorts, not infrequently leading to persecution and violence. In the name of Christ, many have exhibited the very sort of hatred which violates the command to love other Christians, according to Christ’s own example. Before proceeding to the drastic step of refusing to acknowledge Christians as fellow believers, let us take the author’s own advice and “test the spirits”—including the manner in which we are acting and reacting. Is it in accordance with the Holy Spirit of God and Christ?
Sadly, many Christians today are no longer faced with the kind of Christological questions with which the Johannine congregations sought to grapple. Christology has almost disappeared entirely from the Church. We must return to it anew, and I can think of no better place to start than with the Gospel and Letters of John. I hope and trust that this series has been stimulating and inspiring, perhaps encouraging you to further study of these marvelous works.