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.)

Birth of the Son of God: John 3:3-8

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

The next several daily notes will explore the idea of believers as “sons of God”, which ultimately cannot be separated in Christian thought from the idea of Jesus himself as the “Son of God”. I have discussed this relationship already in a number of the prior Christmas season notes (on the theme of the “Birth of the Son of God”), but it is necessary to examine in more detail just how this is expressed in the New Testament. Today I will look specifically at the motif of believers in Christ being born. This involves use of the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), which is related to the more general verb gi/nomai (“come to be”), as I have noted on a number of occasions previously. It is used once of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of John (Jn 18:37), along with a parallel use of gi/nomai in context of the incarnation (Jn 1:14, and vv. 15, 30). For the birth of believers, genna/w occurs in John 1:13

“the (one)s who…came to be (born) [e)gennh/qhsan] out of God”

which is parallel to verse 12 (using gi/nomai):

“he gave them authority to come to be [gene/sqai] offspring [i.e. children] of God”

The spiritual birth of believers is described with more detail and involved imagery in the famous third chapter of John.

John 3:3-8

This is part of the great dialogue (3:1-21), that begins with the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus (3:1-10ff). Nicodemus starts with a polite and (semi-)reverent address (v. 2); Jesus’ response sparks the brief exchange that follows:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you (that) if one does not come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God” (v. 3)

The use of genna/w, along with a&nwqen (“from above”), which Nicodemus understands in the sense of “again”, is the cause of his confusion—thinking that Jesus is referring to a second physical/biological birth (v. 4). Jesus’ answer is almost precisely parallel to his statement in verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you (that) if one does not come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God” (v. 5)

In several respects, this is an example of synonymous (and/or synthetic) parallelism—first with regard to being born:

    • “from above” (a&nwqen)
    • “out of… (the) Spirit” (e)kpneu/mato$)

And, secondly, in terms of its result and effect:

    • “…(able) to see the kingdom of God”
    • “…(able) to come into [i.e. enter] the kingdom of God”

The inclusion of u%dato$ (“out of water and [the] Spirit”) is somewhat problematic (I have discussed various ways of interpreting the phrase in earlier notes); here it is sufficient to point out: (a) the traditional association between water and the Spirit (in the context of cleansing/holiness), and that (b) water and Spirit are connected in the New Testament primarily with the imagery surrounding baptism (Mark 1:8, 10 par; Jn 1:33; Acts 1:5; 8:39; 10:47). Originally, the water for ritual dipping/dunking (i.e. baptism) was associated with cleansing; but early in Christian application, especially related to the baptism of Jesus (cf. the Gospel accounts), water came to be symbolic of a new “birth”—i.e. entry into a new life and mode of being. In Pauline terms, one dies (symbolically, with Christ’s death) and is ‘reborn’ (with Christ’s resurrection); it is precisely in context of the resurrection that Jesus was understood to be ‘born’ as God’s Son in the earliest layers of Christian preaching and teaching (cf. the use of Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:32-33ff). The conjunction between water and the Spirit in 1 John 5:6 is more complex, and cannot be dealt with here. As far as the expression “from above” (a&nwqen) in John 3:3, this is part of the dualistic contrast in John between above and below (3:31; 8:23; 19:11), ascent and descent (Jn 1:51; 3:13; 6:62, etc), and so forth.

Within the context of the dialogue, this birth of believers is tied to the Son’s sacrificial death and exaltation (vv. 11-16), and to our trust/faith in Christ as the Son of God (vv. 17-21, cf. also 1 Jn 4:15; 5:10-13, etc). 1 John uses the same expression as in Jn 3:3, “come to be born out of God (or, out of Him)”, six (actually seven) times—always in connection with the adjectival particle pa=$ (“all, every”), to establish the condition or test for being “born of God”. This ‘birth’ has a two-fold aspect, in terms of: (a) ethical behavior (righteousness), and (b) faith/trust in Christ (as the Son of God):

  • 1 Jn 2:29—”every one doing right(eousness) has come to be born out of Him
  • 1 Jn 3:9—”every one having come to be born out of God does not do sin” (cf. also at the end of this verse)
  • 1 Jn 4:7—”every one loving has come to be born out of God
  • 1 Jn 5:1—”every one trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed has come to be born out of God
  • 1 Jn 5:4—”every (thing) having come to be born out of God is victorious (over) the world”—identified with faith/trust
  • 1 Jn 5:18—”every one having come to be born out of God does not sin” (cf. 3:9)

All six (or seven) occurrences of genna/w are perfect forms—that is, indicating a past action or condition that continues on through the present (and future). Three times (2:29; 4:7; 5:1) it is an indicative in the predicate position; the other three times (3:9; 5:4, 18) it is a participle substantively modifying pa=$ o( (“every one/thing th[at]…”).

Other New Testament Passages

Galatians 4:21-31

In Gal 4:21-31, Paul also refers to spiritual birth, in the context of the Abraham narratives in Genesis—specifically interpreting the promise to Abraham, which is inherited by believers through trust in Christ and through the Spirit (Gal 3:14-18, 29). The Hagar/Sarah allegory (cf. Gen 16-17) is used to symbolize slavery and freedom—the freedom in Christ vs. slavery under the Law (and sin). Verses 23 and 29 have parallel expressions:

“the one having come to be born [gege/nnhtai]…through the promise” (v. 23)
“the one coming to be born [gennhqei\$]…according to (the) Spirit” (v. 29)

1 Peter 1:3, 23

The expression “born from above” in Jn 3:3-8 is sometimes translated “born again”; while it can be understood this way (and it is part of Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words), “born again” more properly renders the verb a)nagenna/w (“come to be [born] again”), which is used only in 1 Peter 1:3 and 23.

  • v. 3our being born again, which is followed by a chain of result/purpose clauses beginning with ei)$ (“into/unto”), vv. 3-5:
    • into [ei)$] a living hope—through the resurrection of Jesus
      • into [ei)$] a lot [i.e. inheritance]…in heaven
        • into [ei)$] salvation, to be uncovered [i.e. revealed] in the last time
  • v. 23having been born again
    • through the living word/account [lo/go$] of God (parallel with the “living hope” of v. 3)—this is qualified two ways:
      —not out of decaying [i.e. corruptible, perishing] seed
      —remaining/abiding [me/nonto$] (into the Age, v. 25)

The imperishable seed (spo/ra, literally, “[thing] sown”) from which believers are born is also mentioned (using the different word spe/rma) in 1 John 3:9 (above)—here is the full reference:

“Every one having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, (in) that [i.e. because] His seed is in him and he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) out of God”

Note the precise chiasm in this verse:

    • Come to be born out of God
      • Does not sin
        • God’s seed is in him
      • Not able to sin
    • Come to be born out of God

Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul uses seed [spe/rma] to refer to believers under the image “seed of Abraham” (Rom 4:13, 16, 18; 9:7-8; Gal 3:16, 19, 29)—we come to be “children of the promise” through Christ (cf. above). Note also a similar expression in Heb 2:16.

The idea of spiritual ‘rebirth’ (or “regeneration”) is also expressed in Titus 3:5, using the nouns paliggenesi/a (“coming to be [i.e. born] back [again]”, cf. also Matt 19:28) and a)nakai/wsi$ (“being [made] new again, renewal”, cf. in Rom 12:2).