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John, Epistles of


Three canonical works come under this rubric: 1 John, a general letter addressed as a warning to a particular area, but applicable to all Christians; 2 John, a letter addressed to the "elect lady, " which is probably a reference to a church, and it is also generally applicable; 3 John, a letter addressed to Gaius. In 2 and 3 John the author is identified as the "presbyter" or "elder." These two epistles are of about the same length, each probably written on one papyrus sheet.

This article discusses the questions of authorship, the relationship between the Epistles and the Fourth Gospel, and then gives attention to the literary form and the message of 13 John. It concludes with some suggestions concerning the historical situation in early Christian communities reflected in the Gospel of John and the Johannine Epistles.

The Authorship of the Epistles. Polycarp of Smyrna (Phil. 7), writing between a.d. 115 and 140, seems to cite 1 Jn 4.23; and Papias, c. 140, is said by Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica 3.39.17) to have cited 1 John. Therefore there has been no real doubt about the canonicity of 1 John. The muratorian canon, c. 200, mentions two Epistles of John; and Irenaeus cites both 1 and 2 John and ascribes them, along with the Gospel, to John the Apostle. Beginning with Clement of Alexandria and Origen references to three epistles are found. Both Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica 3.25.3) and Jerome (Vir. illus. 9.18) suggest that 2 and 3 John were written by one other than John the Apostle who wrote the Fourth Gospel and 1 John. By the end of the 4th century, 2 and 3 John found their way into canonical acceptance both in the West and the East, except at Antioch. They are not found in the Syriac peshitta.

The Council of Trent settled the canonicity of 1, 2, and 3 John; it did not settle the question of authorship, disputed even in antiquity. Since 2 and 3 John are so much alike and claim the same author, there is no real reason to doubt their common authorship. But did this "presbyter" also write 1 John? There are many parallels in thought between 2 John and 1 John, although the phrasing is not always the same. In 1 Jn 1.7 the phrase-"walk in light" occurs, while 2 John 4 has "walking in the truth." Both Epistles (1 Jn 2.78; 2 Jn 5) mention a new commandment that is also old because it existed from the beginning. The connection between love and keeping the commandments is similar in both (1 Jn 2.45; 2 Jn 6). Both (1 Jn 4.2; 2 Jn 7) stress the importance of confessing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Thus whether or not the same scribe is responsible for the writing, it seems clear that these Epistles belong to the same school of thought, and thus to the same author in the Biblical sense, i.e., the person responsible for the message.

The Epistles and the Fourth Gospel. The author of the Gospel looks back upon a period when those who confessed that Jesus was the Christ had been cast out of the Synagogue (see 9.22; 12.42; 16.2). After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in a.d. 70, the surviving Jews, who largely belonged to a group described in the Gospels as the Pharisees, worked hard to re-establish its religious practice which, for the Jews (then and now), is intimately associated with all aspects of everyday life. But Jewish-Christians had also survived. Gradually these two different forms of Judaism went their separate ways. The Fourth Gospel is one piece of evidence of this process that would have gradually taken place across the Mediterranean world. However, the final separation of the communities behind the Epistles of John from their Jewish roots was long since past. The problems with people "outside" the Johannine communities had been resolved, for better or for worse. The Epistles face an inevitable further stage in the story of the people for whom they were written: problems were emerging within the communities. There was a breakdown among members of different communities that looked to the Gospel of John for their story of Jesus. Thus, "Johannine" communities existed with differing interpretations of their founding tradition, the Gospel of John. The author of 1 John can write: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us" (1 Jn 2.19. See also 2 Jn 7).

As is evident from the language and theological solutions proposed to overcome early Christian crises, the Gospel and the Epistles come from the same theological background. But the Epistles reflect a situation where the original group is spreading (and dividing) into a number of communities. A Christian leader addresses his fellow Christians in an attempt to dissuade them from following the behavior and beliefs of others who, in his opinion, are in error and have "gone out" from the founding community. The presence of different communities is especially clear in 3 John where the author of the Epistle, an "Elder, " a senior figure in a Christian community, pleads with the leader of another community, Gaius, to disregard the thought and behavior of a third party, Diotrephes (3 Jn 910). At least three groups are involved.

Throughout 1 John the author writes negatively of the group who "went out" (see 1 Jn 2.19). The first part of the Epistle is dedicated to an attack upon some who do not share his ideas. He writes accusingly: "If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true" (1.6). The same spirit lies behind a series of further affirmations: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and truth is not in us" (1.8) ; "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us" (1.10). A similar form of attack is phrased differently: "The one who says 'I know him' but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in that person" (2.4) ; "The one who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked" (2:6). These examples, drawn from the first pages of the Epistle, are but a sample. The list could go on, as the writer continually attacks "whoever says" (2.4, 9, 11) or "everyone who" (2.23; 3.4, 8). Such angry polemic is directed against people who are divided from the author.

The Problem of a Principle of Love. A fundamental belief of the Christian tradition which has its origin in the Gospel of John is that God is love (see 1 Jn 4.8, 16). This belief comes from the Gospel's insistence that the presence of Jesus in the human story is the result of God's love: "God so loved the world that he gave his own only Son" (Jn 3.16). The mission of the Son was to make the Father known (see Jn 4.34; 5.36; 15.13; 17.34). This takes place in the loving self-gift of Jesus on the Cross. There the love of God can be seen as generations of believers gaze upon the one whom they have pierced (Jn 19.37). The mission of Jesus has consequences for those who regard themselves as his disciples. They are called to a unity of love (see Jn 13.3435; 15.12, 17; 17.11, 2023). A loving God has called disciples who are to love one another as he has loved them: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide" (Jn 15.16).

For the author of 1 John, this central feature of John's Gospel had not become a reality in the lives of the subsequent members of those communities who looked back to the story of Jesus as it had been passed down to them in the Gospel of John. The author seeks the fruits which should be visible (see Jn 15.5), but abiding fruits that should flow from the initiative of God in choosing his disciples are hard to find among some. But not all is anger and pain. The members of the communities are reminded of fundamental principles of the Gospel of John. The author faces the inevitable difficulty of looking to a document from the past as he tries to make it relevant to his present situation.

The Epistles of John are proof that this was already a problem within the short period of time that had elapsed between the production of the Gospel of John and the writing of the Epistles. The author of 1 John presupposes that the recipients of this letter are on his side, but he may have some doubts. They may have been wavering, and this could explain the harshness of his stance against all who had a different understanding of the Gospel. The author of the Epistle looks back to the Johannine tradition in the Christian Church. But the tone of the document indicates that one of the central elements in the Gospel's teaching on discipleship is not being lived. No doubt he writes in the hope of restoring the mutuality of love demanded by the teaching of Jesus. However, he risks the establishment of a community where like-minded people love one another, but have little affection or concern for those outside the boundaries of their community.

A Letter? Unlike 2 and 3 John, 1 John can only be called a "letter" in a general sense. As we shall see below, the two later Epistles (2 and 3 John) follow the stereotyped form of a letter in antiquity. From the many examples of letters still available from that time, scholars have been able to trace the common structure of a letter. Ancient letters began with a standard form of introduction, in which the writer was introduced, the addressee named and an initial greeting exchanged. This was generally followed by a word of thanksgiving to the gods, and then the body of the letter. At the beginning and end of this main section, were found stereotyped expressions of good will and indications of the purpose of the letter. It would close with a formula of farewell.

There are hints of these forms in 1 John (cf. 2.1, 5.21), and the author continually addresses himself to a very specific audience. But this is hardly enough to call it a stereotypical letter from antiquity. Indeed, its literary form is unique and, as we will see, the uniqueness comes from the loyalty of the author to the tradition that formed him: the Gospel of John. The majority of the so-called "epistles" in the Christian Scriptures are motivated by something other than everyday events, business matters, or personal greetings and family communications. They are what we might call theological tracts, even though they use the overall shape of a letter. Paul's Epistle to the Romans is an outstanding example of a letter which is only loosely associated with the letter-form, but which must be regarded as an authentic letter. Paul writes to persuade the Romans of the importance of God's allembracing offer of salvation, made through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is this effort to persuade which gives the Epistle its lasting value.

The letter-form has been transcended by the passion of early Christian authors to convince the recipients of the importance of what God had done in and through Jesus Christ. 1 John communicates between an author who has things he wishes to teach readers who might be losing confidence in their beliefs. A "rhetoric of persuasion" is at play across the document and generates the unique literary form of 1 John.

The Shape and Message of 1 John. The structure and argument of 1 John parallel the founding Gospel of John. This further indicates that the people to whom this letter was written were part of the tradition that produced the Gospel of John. The readers received a document restating in a letter-tract form the major theological arguments of the Gospel. The author has modeled the Epistle upon the structure of the Gospel, with a prologue (1.14. See Jn 1.118), the body of the Epistle in two parts ([a]1.53.10. See Jn 1.1912.50. [b] 3.115.12. See Jn 13.120.19) and a conclusion (5.1321. See Jn 20.3031).

The Prologue (1.14) recalls Jn 1.118. It too tells of the "beginnings" of the Christian story: Jesus who revealed the word of life. But it also looks back to another "beginning, " to the original community which lived in fellowship with the Father and the Son. In the first part of the Gospel's account of the ministry of Jesus (Jn 1.1912.50), Jesus lived and proclaimed his message within the context of hostile rejection. So also the first central section of the Epistle, which could be given the description, "God is light and we must walk in the light as Jesus walked" (1.53.10), is also at times hostile. It insists that Christians live as Jesus lived, and attacks the false ideas and way of life of some who have left the community. In the second central section, to which we could give the title, "We must love one another as God has loved us in Jesus Christ" (3.115.12), the hostility softens, but does not disappear. Recalling Jn 13.117.26, the author develops the theme of the centrality of true love and true faith as the basis for Christian confidence. The Epistle concludes (5.1321) with an assurance that true believers can pray with confidence, in the midst of difficulties and conflicts, and rest in God's unfailing protection.

As is obvious from this schematic presentation of the First Epistle of John, the pain and anger generated by division among Johannine Christians have not impoverished the power and comfort of the Christian message. The author's presentation of God, Jesus and the Christian response to the action of God in his Son, is not dissipated. The Christian tradition which first found expression in the story of Jesus in the Gospel of John remains strongly present in the First Epistle of John. The very way the author organized his Epistle, following the overall shape of the Gospel, is an indication of his loyalty to that tradition.

A Passionate Voice. Despite the polemical voice that rings through 1 John, our reading these pages should focus, not so much on the so-called errors of the opponents, but on the passion which generated the Epistle. For all his one-sidedness, the author has produced within this short document a remarkable synthesis of some of the essential elements of the Christian tradition:

Jesus' teaching about God as Father, and especially in his association of this teaching with the themes of love (1 Jn 3.1; 4.712, 14; 5.12).

Fellowship with God means fellowship with the Father and the Son (1.3; 2.2225).

The importance of the human Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Son of God (2.22; 3.23; 4.2; 5.6), and that his death on the cross atones for our inevitable sinfulness (2.2; 3.16; 4.10; 5.6).

The tension between the gifts of the "now" and the need to wait for a "not yet" (2.18, 28; 3.23). The experience of the Spirit (3.24; 4.4, 6, 13) grounded in some form of initiation rite, possibly baptism (2.20, 27; 3.9; 5.18).

The emphasis on the importance of faith for salvation, for knowledge of God through the acceptance of Jesus as the Christ (3.23; 4.16; 5.1, 45, 1012).

The ethical teaching of the love of God and the love of our neighbor (see 2.1517; 3.17; 4.20; 21;5.21).

A New Way of Stating Truths. These elements of the Christian tradition have been recast in a letter-form, using the language and imagery of the Gospel of John.

Developing the theme of "light" in the Gospel of John (see Jn 1.45, 79; 3.1921; 8.12; 9.5; 11.9;12.3536, 46), the author of the Epistle claims that God is light (1.5) and love (4.8, 16). The person born of God (2.29; 3.9; 4.7; 5.1, 4, 18) walks in the light (2.9). Those born of God are children of God (3.1), and derive their life from God (5.1113).

The realm opposed to God is one of darkness and death, characterized by hatred, falsehood, murder and unbelief. The dualism of the Fourth Gospel continues in 1 John.

Ways of speaking about Jesus found in the Gospel of John remain. Jesus is even called "the word" (1.1. See Jn 1.12). But especially significant is the use of the two titles "the Christ" and "the Son of God" which are so important for correct faith, according to the Gospel's conclusion (Jn 20.31). The close identification between God and Jesus (see Jn 1.12) is repeated as the Epistle comes to a close: "This is the true God and eternal life" (1 Jn 5.20).

To be saved is to have "eternal life" and to be a child of God (3.1; 5.1113, 20. See Jn 17.3, 12;5.1930), even though the believer must still wait for the coming of the end time (2.18; 3.2. See Jn 5.2729; 6.40, 44).

The Holy Spirit in the community is the gift of God (3.24; 4.13; see Jn 14.26).

The commandments of God and of Christ must be obeyed, especially the love command (3.11, 23). The Gospel commands that the disciples love one another as Jesus has loved them, so that the world might know that they are his disciples (see Jn 13.3435). This ideal command becomes more practical in 1 John. Mutual love, reflecting the love of God and obeying the command of the Son, is to be shown to our fellow believer (4.721), and should be seen in the way we walk as Jesus walked (2.6).

These indications demonstrate a robust understanding of both foundational Christian beliefs which have their roots in the life and teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the articulation of those beliefs in the Gospel of John.

2 and 3 John: True Letters. From Christianity's earliest years, believers and critics have wondered why such short (and somewhat fractious) documents as 23 John have become part of the Christian Scriptures. They were addressed to a local situation in an attempt to deal with conflicts in these communities, but they were quickly associated with the figure of John, the author of a Gospel. They were thus seen as part of a tradition deserving a place in "the Johannine Writings." 2 and 3 John correspond reasonably well with the widely attested form of a First Century Hellenistic letter. The following indicates how the three basic elements of these letters appear in 2 and 3 John.

2 John

Opening formula (vv. 13)

Senderaddressee greeting (vv. 13)

Body of the Letter (vv. 412)

Expression of joytransition to the body of the letter (v. 3)

Request concerning the commandment to love (vv. 56)

Warning against the Antichrists and their teaching (vv. 711)

Promise of a visit, closing the body of the letter (v. 12)

Concluding Formula (v. 13)

3 John

Opening formula (vv. 12)

Senderaddresseegreeting (vv. 12)

Body of the Letter (vv. 314)

Expression of joytransition to the body of the letter (vv. 34)

Request for hospitality and support (vv. 58)

The hostility of Diotrephes (vv. 910)

An appeal to do good and a recommendation for Demetrius (vv. 1112)

Promise of a visit, closing the body of the letter (vv. 1314)

Concluding formula (v. 15)

Message. We only hear one side of the argument, but these documents allow us to eavesdrop upon a conversation between a significant figure within the communities ("the Elder") and a community (2 Jn: the elect lady and her children) or the leader of one of the communities, another "Elder" (3 Jn: Gaius). 23 John are not theological tracts, but reflect the Elder's concern for the ongoing faith of early Christian communities. They thus afford us access to the sometimes difficult experiences of an emerging Christian Church.

In 2 John 7 the author of the Epistle, in a way reminiscent of 1 Jn 2.19, warns the community of those who have left them. Not only have they departed from a once unified community; they have also departed from the teachings the author would regard as true Christian belief. Such dangerous deceivers and antichrists must be shunned if they approach the community to which 2 John is written. For the moment that is all the author wishes to tell his fellow-believers. He will explain the situation when he comes to visit them in the near future. The situation in 3 John is more local, personal, and bitter, written to Gaius, a senior figure in a community (also an "Elder"), who deserves praise for the way he has made wandering fellow Christians welcome. His acceptance of itinerant believers, however, is to be contrasted with the attitude and arrogance of a certain Diotrephes who has refused to welcome the emissaries of the letter-writer, and has also refused to accept his authority. But all is not lost, as the author can recommend another Christian, Demetrius, who is true. Divisions are hardening, as some are "in" and others are "out." But this arrogance is not only to be laid at the door of Diotrephes, who rejects the letterwriter's emissaries and his authority (3 Jn). It was also the position advocated by the author of 2 John as he instructed his "beloved lady and her children" to avoid the dangerous influence of the deceivers and the antichrists: "If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting" (2 Jn 11).

The Story of the Gospel and Epistles of John. Many scholars believe that a single tradition, which can be called "the Johannine tradition, " lies behind the Gospel of John and 1, 2 and 3 John. There were those who believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God (Jn 20.31), but who found it difficult to love one another as Jesus had loved them (see Jn 13.3435; 15.12). The Gospel already reflects the tensions which existed in an early Christian community as it developed an understanding of Jesus which became steadily more distant from the community's origins within Judaism (see, for example 6.6066). A missionary activity, initially among the Samaritans (see 4.142), and a physical journey of a community which had its origins in Israel, but which seems to have finally settled in Asia Minor, led to the development of its tradition. The community could no longer locate Jesus within the strictly Jewish categories of other early Christian communities. They came to speak of Jesus as "the Christ, " "the Son of God, " "I AM, " "the Word, " and they told of Jesus' claims to be one with God, whom he called his Father (see, for example, 5.1930; 10.30, 38).

The community and the local Synagogue inevitably suffered a complete and final separation (see 9.22; 12.42;16.2). Once this took place, the tradition developed with a greater sense of independence. These early Christians no longer used only Jewish categories to understand Jesus, but moving into the broader Greco-Roman world of Asia Minor saw the need to tell the old story in a new way. The presentation of the person and role of Jesus Christ in the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel (1.118) and the final prayer of Jesus (17.126) are good examples (but not the only examples) of such writing. These well-known and much-loved passages have their roots in the Jewish story of Jesus and the earliest years of the tradition, but they re-tell the traditional story that it might make sense in a new world. This was not a simple process. The addition of John 21 indicates that there may have been some misunderstanding of the nature of the community. This is clarified by the account of the miraculous draft of many fish into the one boat (21.114). Its attention to Peter, the pastor and shepherd, and the Beloved Disciple who also follows Jesus (vv. 1524) shows that there were concerns over authority in the community.

The Epistles continue this story. Difficulties with the Synagogue long since past, the threat of opposition from outside the community seemed to have disappeared. The Elder focuses his attention upon internal difficulties. Already in 1 John the author of the Epistle presents an argument which is aimed at supporting his fragile community in the face of some ex-members of the community who have left them (see 1 Jn 2.19). They are regarded as the antichrists (2.18), purveyors of a false ethic (see 1.810;2.1517; 3.410; 5.2), rejecting the importance of mutual love within the community (see 2.911; 3.1418, 4.712, 2021). They do not regard the historical Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God (2.2223, 3.23; 4.23; 5.56), and they seem to have difficulty with the traditional understanding of the end of time (3.23; 4.17). Such teaching and practice are contrary to the tradition which the author insists communities had received "in the beginning" (1.1; 2.7, 1314, 24). As we have seen, the structure and argument in 1 John can be interpreted as a loose commentary upon the Fourth Gospel. It certainly presupposes a knowledge of that story of Jesus, and the Christian traditions which flow from it.

Toward the end of the first Christian Century, there were a several communities which looked back to the story of Jesus as it is told in the Gospel of John. There they found inspiration and guidance in their Christian lives. No specific audience is indicated in 1 John. It was probably written for the central community where a division had already taken place over different interpretations of the original tradition. These interpretations disturbed the remnant that remained faithful to the tradition defended by the author. The situation of 2 and 3 John, understood as brief letters from the same author as 1 John, now calling himself "the Elder, " are indications of his campaign to protect other communities from the teachings of missionaries coming from the breakaway group. 2 John warns a Church against admitting them; 3 John attempts to get help for the itinerant brethren who had the support of the Elder. They were probably missionaries sympathetic to the position of the Elder, moving about among the early Christian communities, spreading the warning and defending the tradition. Strong personalities emerged, especially the Elder and Diotrephes. Originally from the same tradition, but leaders of geographically separate communities, Diotrephes took seriously the warnings of 2 John 1011. He would not admit anyone into his community, not even the emissaries of the Elder, whose authority he refused to accept (3 Jn 910). Yet the Elder still has support from the community of elect lady (2 Jn 1.12, 13), Gaius (3 Jn 14, 15), and Demetrius (3 Jn 1112).

We can only speculate about the subsequent history of the emerging interpretations of the tradition that originated in the Gospel of John. A lack of teaching authority leads the author of 1 John to point to the need to test the spirits (1 John 4.16), a method of identifying truth which would hardly be effective in a faith community attempting to establish a body of doctrine. But the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of God who atones for our sins, becomes fundamental to the emerging Christian Church. The same could be said for the Elder's defense of a traditional understanding of the end of time. We have a very one-sided presentation of those who have left the original community. But their ethics, their idea of community, their understanding of the end-time and of Jesus Christ, as presented by the Elder, look very like an early stage of what eventually flowered in second-century gnosticism. This powerful religious tradition, which had many different representatives, understood Jesus as a revealing figure who imparted a saving "knowledge" (Greek: γν[symbol omitted]σις). His humanity and his death faded in importance. The Gnostics regarded some people as "illuminated" by knowledge, and considerable ambiguity surrounded their ethical behavior. Gnosticism faltered as the Christian Church gradually asserted itself, with the support of secular authority, as the dominant belief system. It could be suggested that neither the one-sided Christianity of the Elder nor the early Gnosticism of Diotrephes lived beyond the second century.

Bibliography: a. e. brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles (Edinburgh 1912). r. e. brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York 1979). c. h. dodd, The Johannine Epistles (New York 1946). d. rensberger, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries; Nashville 1997). r. schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles. A Commentary (New York 1992). s. s. smalley, 1, 2, 3 John (Word Biblical Commentary 51; Waco 1984). b. f. westcott, The Epistles of St John: The Greek Text with Notes (3d ed. 1892; repr. Abingdon 1966).

[f. j. moloney]

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