Saturday Series: 1 John 1:1-5

Over the next month or so, these Saturday studies will focus on the Johannine Letters (1-2-3 John). Key passages in the letters will be highlighted, using the methods and principles of critical analysis—textual, historical, and literary criticism—to elucidate the text.

Even a casual reading, in translation, of both the Gospel and Letters of John, would make rather apparent the many similarities in language, style, and thought between these writings. If not written by the same person, then, at the very least, they share a common religious and theological worldview, and manner of expression, suggesting that they were both produced and read among a specific group of first-century believers. New Testament scholars typically refer to this as a Johannine “Community” or “School”. Community is the better term, in the sense of referring to a number of congregations in a particular region which were unified, to some extent, in thought and organization. Tradition ascribes all four writings (Gospel and Letters) to John the apostle (son of Zebedee); this is certainly possible, but technically the works are anonymous, and attribution to John should not be treated as established fact. A disciple of Jesus known as the “Beloved Disciple” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) is referenced in the Gospel as an eyewitness source of information and tradition, and it is often assumed that he was a central (perhaps the central) apostolic figure of the Johannine Community. I will regularly use the standard term “Johannine” without necessarily affirming the traditional identification of John the apostle as either the “Beloved Disciple” or author of the Gospel and Letters.

The location of the Johannine Community is also unknown, though tradition would identify it as the region around Ephesus, and, here too, the tradition may well be correct. In favor of Ephesus and Asia Minor are the following objective details:

    • The letters of Ignatius of Antioch (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.
    • 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 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.

The emphasis on this idea of a Johannine Community relates to the importance of studying the Scriptures, first of all, in the historical-cultural context in which they were originally authored and distributed. Too often, there is a tendency for Christians to read Scripture out of context, as though the writings simply dropped down out of heaven fully formed. Any sound and reasonable view of the inspiration of Scripture must take full account of the natural processes by which the text took shape and was produced—this means a real life-setting of the work. Such a setting is easier to establish in the case of the Letters of Paul, where so much more detail is provided, but the critical analysis—under the heading of historical criticism— is just as necessary for the Letters of John. For a study on the background of the Letters, see my earlier article on the subject.

By way of introduction, we will begin with the first five verses of 1 John—the “prologue” (1:1-4) together with the initial declaration (in v. 5) of the work proper.

1 John 1:1-5

Every attentive reader will, I think, readily recognize the points of similarity between the “prologue” to 1 John (1:1-4) and the more famous Prologue of the Gospel (Jn 1:1-18). This is clear enough from the opening words:

1 John
Hó ¢¡n ap’ arch¢¡s
 ^O h@n a)p’ a)rxh=$
Th(at) which was from the beginning
Gospel
En arch¢¡ ¢¡n ho
 )En a)rxh=| h@n o(
In the beginning was the…

The form of the verb of being (eimi, here imperfect indicative ¢¡n, “was”) has profound theological (and Christological) significance in the Gospel of John, and is used most carefully in the Prologue as a mark of divine/eternal existence and life, contrasted with the contingent coming to be (vb gínomai) of creation. Also important is the noun arch¢¡ (“beginning, first, fore[most]”)—note the Gospel references in 1:1-2; 2:11; 6:64; 8:25, 44; 15:27; 16:4. There are nine other occurrences in the Letters, always in the expression “from the beginning” (ap’ arch¢¡s): 1 Jn 2:7, 13-14, 24 [twice]; 3:8, 11; 2 Jn 5, 6. One might also note the important occurrences of arch¢¡ in the book of Revelation (3:14; 21:6; 22:13).

The very way that 1 John starts, with the neuter relative pronoun (“[that] which”), could almost be read as a reference to the Gospel Prologue; indeed, many commentators feel that the author of the Letter is intentionally drawing on Jn 1:1-18, as a “deliberate reflection” upon its wording and theological message (Brown, p. 174). This seems most likely. However, while the (poetic) syntax of the Gospel Prologue is rather smooth and elegant, that of 1 Jn 1:1-4 is anything but, as most commentators and translators will acknowledge. The four verses make up one long (and rather awkward) sentence in the Greek; translations typically break this up and smooth things out considerably. Here I give my rendering of 1:1-4:

“Th(at) which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked at (closely) and our hands felt (by touching), about the word/account [lógos] of Life—and th(is) Life was made to shine forth, and we have seen (it), and we bear witness and give forth (as) a message to you, the Life of the Ages [i.e. Eternal Life] which was (facing) toward the Father and was made to shine forth to us—th(at) which we have seen and heard we also give forth as a message to you, that you also might hold common (bond) with us; and, indeed, our common (bond) (is) with the Father and with His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and we write these (thing)s (so) that our delight (in it) may be made full.”

I believe that a good deal of the grammatical awkwardness stems from the way that the thought/message of the Gospel Prologue is incorporated into the introductory message of the letter. It would seem that this took place two ways: (1) the initial (and repeated) use of the relative pronoun, and (2) the central proclamation (verse 2, highlighted in blue above) that interrupts the main statement. It is this proclamation that most clearly echoes the Gospel prologue:

    • “and th(is) Life was made to shine forth” (kai h¢ zœ¢¡ efanerœ¡q¢) [v. 2a]
      —Gospel: “and th(is) Life was the Light of men; and the Light shines…” (1:4)
    • “and we have seen (it)” (kai heœrákamen) [v. 2b]
      —Gospel: “and we looked at his splendor” (1:14, cf. also v. 18)
    • “and we bear witness [martyroúmen] and give forth (as) a message to you” [v. 2c]
      —Gospel: John the Baptist, in particular, bears witness to the Light/Life (1:6-8)
    • “the Life of the Ages which was [¢¡n] toward [prós] the Father” [v. 2d]
      —Gospel: “the Word [Logos] was [¢¡n] toward [prós] God…” (1:1) “this (one) was [¢¡n] in the beginning toward [prós] God” (1:2) “In him was [¢¡n] Life, and th(is) Life was [¢¡n]…” (1:4)
    • “and was made to shine forth to us” (kai efanerœ¡q¢ h¢mín) [v. 2e]
      —Gospel: 1:4f, 9ff, 14, 18 (see under v. 2a above)

The use of the relative pronoun adds to the complexity of 1:1-4 and requires some comment. It is a neuter pronoun, and, occurring as it does at the beginning of the sentence, is best understood in a general and comprehensive way. As I noted above, the allusions to the Gospel Prologue suggest that it is the unique message about Jesus, as presented in the Gospel of John, that is in view. I believe that this functions with three levels of meaning:

    1. Jesus as the eternal Word/Life/Light who came to earth as an incarnate (flesh and blood) human being
    2. The manifestation of this Life/Light on earth among other human beings—esp. his close disciples
    3. The message of Jesus—who he was and what he did—proclaimed by and among the first believers, down to the time of writing

The last of these is less prominent in the Gospel Prologue, but takes on special emphasis and importance in the Johannine Letters. The relative pronouns and points of reference in 1:1-4 shift subtly between these three levels of meaning, especially in vv. 1-3a—and it must be said that they are equally important (and interconnected) for the author. If the author is indeed making use of the (written) Gospel, then it is likely that 1 John was written somewhat later, after the Gospel (in some form) had already been in circulation in the Johannine churches. Probably he would have expected that his audience would understand and be familiar with his references to the Gospel Prologue, as well as the theology (and Christology) expressed by it. At any rate, the author’s own purpose in writing as he does is clear enough from the closing words in vv. 3-4:

“…th(at) which we have seen and heard we also give forth as a message to you, that you also might hold common (bond) [koinœnía] with us; and, indeed, our common (bond) [koinœnía] (is) with the Father and with His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and we write these (thing)s (so) that our delight (in it) may be made full.”

The specific wording here is significant and should be examined carefully. In particular, it is worth asking: if the author is writing to fellow believers, united in thought and purpose (as part of the Community), then why would he have any doubt that they “might also hold common (bond) with us”? The use of the subjunctive here (éch¢te, “might hold, would hold”) I believe is telling, as it relates to a certain conflict within the Community. We will examine this conflict in next week’s study; in preparation, I would ask that you read the letter carefully, from verse 4 through the end of chapter 2, paying special attention to the discussion in 2:18-27. What sort of conflict is described there, and what is the nature of the dispute? How would you relate it back to what the author expresses in the prologue of 1:1-4? In closing, it is worth noting the way the author re-states the Gospel message in verse 5:

“And this is the message which we have heard from him [i.e. Jesus] and deliver up (as a) message to you: ‘that God is Light, and there is not any darkness in Him’!”

This declaration again echoes the language of the Gospel prologue (1:5), as well as reflecting the dualism (i.e. Light vs. Darkness) that is especially characteristic of Johannine thought (3:19; 8:12; 12:35-36, 46, etc). This dualistic imagery will play an important role in how the author frames the conflict which is at the heart of the letter’s message. This we will explore…next Saturday.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982).

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