Three letters from the Johannine circle, though probably not from John the Apostle himself: it is unlikely that an apostle would identify himself simply as ‘the elder’ or ‘the presbyter’ as does the writer of 2 and 3 John; and 1 John is anonymous. The connection with the fourth gospel is, however, close; many of the characteristic terms of the gospel reappear in the epistles—‘light’, ‘love’, ‘world’, ‘truth’, for example. The letters are written in the light of problems: some members, and former members (1 John 2: 19) are hating rather than loving, even though they claim to be without sin (1 John 1: 8), and this seems to be associated with their heretical Christology; they deny the total humanity of Jesus (1 John 4: 2), who was baptized and crucified (1 John 5: 6). Thus the epistle is evidence of the existence of an early schismatic element in the Church. Whereas the Gospel of John confronts Judaism, the epistles are silent about the Jews, and the conflict is an internal controversy about understanding Christ.

The third epistle rebukes a certain Diotrephes, who appears to be usurping the elder’s leadership role. He has been inhospitable (3 John 5 ff.) in defiance of Christian custom (Rom. 12: 13; 1 Pet. 4: 9), though 2 John 10 comes very near to the discourtesy of the upstart Diotrephes by urging its readers (‘the children’ loved in the truth, 2 John 1) to exclude any who deviate from strict orthodoxy. But another reading of 3 John would see Diotrephes more favourably, as the president of a local church and an orthodox teacher who repulses the intrusion of a charismatic splinter group intent on planting a rival sect in Diotrephes’ territory.

At any rate the three epistles give a picture, if somewhat unclear, of Church life in the Johannine circle, and as Eusebius mentions an ‘elder, John’ at Ephesus; and according to Irenaeus (c. 190 CE) John the Apostle was also there, Ephesus may well have been the place where the epistles were written. It was a centre where Judaism and Hellenism met, both of which may have attracted some members of the Church.