The author(s) of 1, 2, and 3 John are not named in these documents, but since the first direct reference to 1 and 2 John by Irenaeus (ca. 180 C.E.), they have been linked to John, the son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve, Jesus' inner circle, thus the Johannine Letters. Third John is mentioned from the middle of the third century (Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 6.25.10) and because of its affinities with 2 John (for instance, both were written by the “Elder”) 3 John was added to form the trilogy of Johannine Letters.

At least as far back as the Festal Letter of Athanasius (367 C.E.—see also Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica [Hist. Eccl.] 2.23.23–25) these three letters also formed part of the collection known as the “Catholic Epistles” or “General Epistles” (i.e., James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Jude). This influenced their being branded as letters until the nineteenth century, when the identification of 1 John as a letter was challenged. Second and Third John are indeed classic ancient letters (author, recipients, greetings at beginning and end), but 1 John does not formally fit the pattern of a letter. Scholars disagree regarding its genre, mainly focusing on the idea of a document (sermon, paper, instruction, etc.) that was circulated to consolidate and expound Johannine ideas in light of misinterpretations of the Gospel. A consensus is that, despite the lack of some of the formal characteristics of a letter, the personal friendly tone (for instance, 2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18), engagement in a particular situation (2:19; 4:1–3), and the effort to bridge spatial distance (1:3–5; 4:7) closely link it to what a letter actually should be, even if it was intended to be circulated among a wider audience.

In terms of canonization, the history of 1 John should be separated from the other two. First John (and perhaps Second John) had a place in the earliest authoritative lists, like the Canon of Muratori (about the end of the second or beginning of the third century) that mentions two letters (most probably 1 and 2 John) and quotes from John 1:1, 4 (lines 26–34). Church fathers like Origin, and Eusebius also gave authoritative status to 1 John, while 2, and even more, 3 John remained disputed up to the fourth century. In the fourth century, however, all three letters were generally accepted and associated with the fourth evangelist in the Western church, although the process was a bit slower in the East.

Dating and Sequence.

The three Letters are generally regarded as having been written in short succession within a span of ten years. Their dating thus depends in part on the dating of the Gospel of John. The majority of scholars think that the body of the Gospel or even the Gospel as a whole predates the letters, because of its long history of development. Some are of the opinion that the Letters predate the final redaction of the Gospel (Strecker 1996; Schnelle 2010), or that the first two Letters predate the Gospel but the composition of 3 John could have overlapped the Gospel's final redaction (Brown 1982).

Based on the dating of the Gospel, the majority opinion opts for a date around 100 C.E., more or less the time generally accepted for the final redaction of the Gospel. Irenaeus (Haer 3:1:1) mentions that John stayed in Ephesus until the reign of the emperor Trajan (98–117 C.E.). This also allows enough time for the inner developments within the Johannine group of which the Letters are witnesses. If the final redaction of the Gospel is seen as taking place at the same time or perhaps shortly after 1 and 2 John were written (Brown), then a date before 100 C.E., perhaps in the mid-90s, is possible. The suggestion by Robinson of a pre-70 date has not won much support, and there are also scholars supporting a date as late as up to the middle of the second century (with Baur even suggesting 170/180 C.E.). Such a late dating is a minority view, since there is external evidence that Polycarp and Justin most probably already used 1 John at the beginning of the second century. At 180 C.E. Ireneaus (Haer 3.16.5,8) mentions the letters explicitly.

Views on the sequence of the Letters themselves also differ depending on the criteria used for determining the sequence. For instance, some prefer the order of 3-2-1, based on the intensity of the conflict in the Letters: in the third Letter the elder believes he can still solve the conflict; in the second Letter social contact is broken and in the first Letter the schism already took place. Others suggest the order 1-2-3 based on the nature of the content moving from a more theoretical point of view to a specific practical problem. The issue about the order in which the Letters were written however remains unresolved.

Composition and Structure.

But how were these letters composed and structured? Although the structure is clear in the two shorter letters (2 and 3 John) scholars disagree regarding the structure of 1 John. In part this is due to the cyclical argumentation in the Letter and the seamless way in which the author moves through many parts of his argument. Numerous suggestions have been made, ranging from a division into two parts (Brown; Smalley 1984), three (Schnackenburg 1992; de la Potterie), seven (Lohmeyer 1928; Strecker) or multiple sections (Guthrie 1990; Bruce 1970); a chiastic structure has also been proposed (Menken 2010). Ultimately it must be acknowledged that 1 John eludes clear structural description.

In spite of this lack of clear structure in 1 John, the focus of the content is clear throughout the letters. Smaller themes can be distinguished, but the content is developed around two major axes, namely, Christology and moral behavior. The Christology centers on Jesus as Messiah who became flesh (1 John 2:22–23; 2 John 7–9) and whose blood serves as atonement for the sins of the world (1 John 1:7; 2:2; 4:10; 5:6). Behavior and identity are closely related: persons should behave according to their identity as children of God (1 John 1:6; 2:4; 3:9–10), guided by the example of Jesus (1 John 3:16–17); in other words a person should act according to the truth (2 and 3 John).

It is widely accepted that each of the Letters was a unified composition. Efforts during the previous century by Dobschütz and Bultmann to identify sources especially in 1 John have not gained wide acceptance. It is generally recognized, however, that there is a major addition to the text of 1 John: the Trinitarian material in 1 John 5:7–8 (often called the “Johannine comma”), found only in Latin textual witnesses, was included in the official Catholic edition of the Vulgate only at the end of the sixteenth century.

Purpose of Writing.

The statement of purpose in 1 John 5:13 (see also 1:4; 2:1, 26) echoes that of the Gospel in John 20:30–31. This similarity has been interpreted as indicating a close link between these documents, confirmed by the numerous similarities between the Gospel and Letters (see lists in Brown). It is therefore widely argued either that 1 John tries to correct a wrong interpretation of the adversaries/secessionists of the Christology of the Gospel, expanding the message somewhat, or alternatively that 1 John simply wants to explain how these relevant issues in the Gospel should be correctly understood in the light of the secessionist threat. The adversaries propagated a high Christology to the point of questioning the importance or necessity of the humanity of Jesus (2:22; 4:2). This apparently even implied a denial of the salvific effects of the death of Jesus (1:8—2:2; 4:10). The Letter was then written, in part, to maintain the balance between the divine and human as the correct way of understanding the Christology of the Gospel. According to 2:18–19 these people (normally seen as one group) separated themselves from 1 John's audience. The Letters also aim at reassuring and strengthening their recipients in order to stabilize the Johannine group on the inside and strengthen their borders to the outside (Klauck 1991).

Second John aims at encouraging the congregation (consisting of a house church or group of house churches), warning them against false teachers by underlining the correct message, and advising them how to behave when threatened by schismatic missionaries.

Third John is a personal letter to Gauis criticizing Diotrephes for refusing to receive missionaries, but praising those who walk in truth and are willing to receive them, and recommending Demetrius.

Historical Context.

All three letters were written within situations of conflict where opponents threaten the identity and basic values of the recipients and their communities. While a definite description of these opponents is lacking in the letters, we do find some direct remarks about the opponents, for instance, 1 John 2:18–27; 4:1–6; 2 John 7–9; and perhaps 3 John 9–10. The following becomes clear:

  • (1) The opponents had already moved away from the recipients of 1 and 2 John, due to differences in Christology, and contact with them was discouraged (1 John 2:19; 2 John 9–11).
  • (2) These christological issues seem to relate to three aspects: Jesus is not seen as the Messiah; Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh (1 John 2:22; 4:2; 2 John 7); and the opponents seemingly did not accept Jesus' actions of atonement (1 John 2:2. 4:10). The christological problem was not the rejection of Christ, but precisely the overemphasis on his divinity to the extent that high Christology excluded the humanity of Jesus. This impacted on the functionality of Jesus Christ, since his death and blood (1:8—2:2; 4:10) are interpreted as having atoning value. If he was not human, his death was of course not possible, and so neither were its atoning effects. In 1 and 2 John this christological balance is restored, emphasizing both the humanity and the divinity of the Messiah as well as their functionalities. The deviant christological view— earning the adversaries the name “antichrists”— also had an impact on their moral view since they disregarded the human side in favor of the spiritual, leading to insensitivity towards one another, not loving one another as one should on a concrete and practical level (1 John 1:6; 3:16–18.) Some scholars think that these moral remarks were not aimed at the adversaries specifically, but should rather be seen as general in scope. However, it seems more likely that within the context of 1 John these remarks addressed the concrete situation of conflict with the adversaries.
  • (3) The opponents are described as antichrists and false prophets guided by the spirit of error (1 John 2:18–19, 22; 4:3–6) although they claim to act under the guidance of the Spirit of God (1 John 4:1) They seem to have more success in the world than the Johannine group (1 John 4:5) and even misled members of the Johannine group (1 John 2:26).

There are also indirect remarks that are often—but not always—linked to the opponents. These are mainly found in hypothetical or contrasting statements, mostly relating to behavioral matters that belie their confessions of knowing God (1 John 1:6, 8, 10; 2:4, 6, 9; 4:20). Such indirect remarks include:

  • (1) The opponents claim to have fellowship with God and to be in the light, although they seemingly walk in darkness (1 John 1:6; 2:9).
  • (2) They claim to know, abide in, and love God, but they do not keep God's commandments and even hate their brothers (1 John 2:4, 6, 9; 4:20).
  • (3) Nevertheless, they claim to have no sin although they are liars and even make God a liar (1 John 1:6, 8, 10).

Other scholars view these contrasting statements as addressing only hypothetical situations that could develop in the congregation, and think that they should not be linked to any particular group, for instance the opponents. Still others think that they are intended for the recipients of 1 John themselves or that they are directed at lax Christians within the Johannine group, since the Letters are addressed to them and not to the secessionists (Lieu 2008). However, the position supported by most is that the opponents (identified through the direct statements) were also the subjects of the contrasting indirect statements (focusing on behavior).

This raises the question whether the direct (mainly christological) and indirect (mainly related to behavior) remarks about the opponents can be correlated? The opponents apparently did not experience any tension between their wrongful behavior and their confession of having fellowship, knowing, and being with God. This view denies the impact of the “concretely” human (both of Jesus and of humans) in contrast to the divine and spiritual. Their denial of Jesus' humanity and his atoning actions through his blood correspond with their denial of the importance of practical human actions and care for others.

The search for comparable perspectives in early Christianity usually leads to discussions on variations of three related views: docetic (denying that Christ was truly human), early Gnostic (regarding everything material in the world as bad and a deception, so that Jesus could not have been human, i.e. material), and the view of Cerinthus (who taught that the “spiritual” Christ descended on the “human” Jesus at his baptism and withdrew from Jesus at his death). Ignatius (Ign. Smyrn. 2:1; 5:2; 6:2), for instance, opposes (naïve) docetic views in the early second century that are reminiscent of the above Johannine profile. Irenaeus (Haer. 1:26:1; 3:11:1) mentions the contacts between John and Cerinthus who saw the human Jesus as the vehicle for the spiritual Christ. A strong advocate of the Gnostic nature of the Johannine letters was Bultmann. There is also a minority view that the opponents should be linked to (Gnostic) libertinists (who felt themselves at liberty to behave as they liked, since their material bodies were of no consequence).

Scholars also differ about the impact of the schism. Lieu, for instance, argues for a non-polemical framework, where the schism does not command the center of the author's attention. The ethical and other issues treated in the Letters were written to convince the readers to accept the position affirmed in the Letters rather than to critique the opponents. The more general trend, however, is to accept that the schism was still vivid in the minds and experience of the intended readers and that this is reflected in the Letters.

Another question is whether these opponents were Jews, but the conflict is clearly not between the Jews and the Johannine group, as is the case in the Gospel. Many therefore regard the community as predominantly non-Jewish (Painter 2002). It is, however, not unusual for scholars (for instance, Lieu) to link the Johannine letters to the Qumran group based on several factors, such as dualism and a sectarian mentality, leading to the conclusion that the Johannine community could have its roots in a similar type of schismatic Judaism. A step further is then to see the opponents as Jews who had actually moved back to their roots in Judaism in some way.

Audience and Authorship.

The Letters were written to people who, in the view of the author, share and accept his position and views, defending a more “orthodox” approach (Klauck). There is a long tradition, going back to Irenaeus (Haer. 3.11.1,2) that John and his group are from Ephesus (and its vicinity). This view is still widely accepted, although other locations, such as Jerusalem, Samaria, or near the upper Jordan, have also been suggested.

The three Letters do not have the same addressees, although they probably overlap. Third John is an individual letter written to a man named Gaius, while the recipients of 2 John are called “the elect lady and her children,” which is interpreted by some as referring to a local church and by others as referring to actual persons.

The recipients of 1 and 2 John seem to be the group who “remained behind” after the break and were shaken by the schism but nevertheless still accepted the authority and views of the author. Many identify some sectarian traits in this group— they act as group, turned against the world (1 John 2:15–17) and focusing on their own inner relations (1 John 2:10–11), clinging to their own views as the only truth (1 John 4:6). Judging from the information in 2 and 3 John this Johannine group consisted of several local (house) congregations which were socially ound together and supported each other also with regard to missionaries. In 3 John, Diotrephes and Gaius (who might or might not have been leaders of a house church—see Brown), the elder (who also belonged to such a house church), and the missionary Demetrius (who was apparently not the only one [see also 2 John 10–11] whose movement depended on support from fellow Christians [3 John 7]) are mentioned. The elder seems to be the leader, although the episode in 3 John illustrates that this leadership did not go unchallenged.

The authorship of the Letters is one of the hotly debated issues in Johannine scholarship. For many centuries the basic consensus followed Irenaeus in thinking that John, the son of Zebedee, was the author of the Gospel and at least 1 and 2 John (traditions linking this John to 3 John were not so strong during the first four centuries). Since the nineteenth century this view has been challenged, with suggestions ranging from a single author (who might or might not be John the apostle) to different unknown authors for all three letters (and the Gospel).

This debate about authorship is related to the way in which the evidence, both internal and external, is treated. Those who prefer to emphasize the similarities between the Letters and the Gospel (for instance, vocabulary, style, theological perspectives; for lists see Brown) tend to opt for one author for all three Letters as well as for the Gospel. From this perspective, John the son of Zebedee is the preferred choice, especially if 1 John 1:1–4 is seen as evidence for the author being an eyewitness. Differences between these documents are then usually explained on the basis of a changed situation (i.e., no longer an external Jewish conflict but an internal crisis) and genre (from Gospel to Letters) that required creative adaptation of the tradition.

If the differences between the Letters and the Gospel (for instance, regarding atonement, eschatology, the identity of the Paraclete, the functions of Son being taken over by the Father, and even the change of style and vocabulary) are thought more significant than the similarities, then it is normally concluded that separate authors were responsible for the different documents. This conclusion leads to suggestions of different combinations of authorship; for instance, each document was written by a separate author, or 2 and 3 John could have been written by the same person (or perhaps 1 and 2 John), or the author of the Letters should be distinguished from that of the Gospel. Assuming separate authors also leads to suggestions of plausible candidates. These range from the evangelist, the redactor of the Gospel, an unknown elder in the Johannine group, John the disciple, a presbyter John of Asia Minor, an unknown follower of the Beloved Disciple, etc. The hypothetical nature of this discussion yields multiple scenarios. The anonymity of 1 John is regarded by some as a move away from emphasis on the author to a focus on the tradition, behind which the author disappears (Lieu), although it seems as if the author of 1 John was known to the intended recipients.

At least some consensus exists that if the Letters were not written by the same author, the similarities in content and style should mean that the documents reflect a common tradition or originate in a group that shares a distinctive world view and understanding, rooted in an authoritative figure like the Beloved Disciple.

Reception and Influence.

Although the Johannine group itself seems to disappear in the second century (Hengel 1989), the influence of the Johannine letters continued. In the middle of the second century Polycarp (Phil. 7:1) and Justin (Dial. 123:9) already seem to allude to 1 John. Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3:39:17) mentions that Papias made use of 1 John in the early second century. The first explicit quote from 1 John occurs in Irenaeus (Haer. 3:16:5,8) in approximately 180 C.E.; he may also refer to 2 John (Haer 1:16:3; 3:16:8), and 2 and 3 John are mentioned in the third century (Eusebius Hist. eccl. 6.25.10), the first identifiable reference to 3 John was not until the fourth century.

The influence of these documents on Christianity is apparent on several levels, especially on Christology and ethics, often in tandem with the Gospel of John. The incarnational theology of the Logos (“Word”) who became flesh (John 1:14) profoundly influenced the formulation of Christology during the early centuries of the church, and continues to do so. The link between the divinity and humanity of Jesus in the Letters supported this development. The same is true for the “theology of love”. Augustine described 1 John as the Epistle that teaches much, and all of it about love. That God is love is a major emphasis with many echoes today, encouraging a theology of compassion and active participation. Negative use is made of the characterization of the opponents in 1 and 2 John—they are vilified, labelled, and contact with them is discouraged (1 John 2:18–22; 4:1–2; 2 John 7, 10–11). Such remarks were used, misused and abused by different groups throughout the centuries trying to establish an identity in opposition to groups differing from them. The positive emphasis on confessing and forgiveness of sin (1 John 1:8– 10) influenced many liturgies, while passages like 1 John 1:6, 3:9–10 where the requirement is set for believers not to sin encouraged a theology of holiness and even sinlessness (cf. the Wesleyan holiness tradition). These diverse influences warrant appreciation for the contribution the Letters made and still make to the formation of Christianity.



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Jan G. van der Watt