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Reading the New Testament Letters in CONTEXT

OK, we return now to some of the books in the New Testament attributed to “John.”  I have talked at some length about the Gospel of John and the community that appears to lie behind it.  I now move to the three epistles of John, found among the “catholic” or “general” epistles near the end of the New Testament.  (When I was at Princeton Seminary, one day I went into the men’s room and over the three urinals, in sequence, someone had written, as graffiti, 1 John; 2 John; 3 John.  I guess it was a seminary joke….).

All of this is in preparation for a series of blog posts being written for us by my colleague Hugo Mendez, in which he will argue *against* the idea of a Johannine community.   (!)

Before talking directly about these three letters, I need to explain one of the most common ways scholars analyze epistolary literature in the NT (i.e. the books that started out as actual *letters* — written by a Christian author to a community or another individual).  I have taken this from my book The New Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction,  edited slightly to make good sense here.




With the Johannine epistles we come to the first New Testament writings of our study that are not, strictly speaking, narratives. The Gospels each narrate accounts of Jesus’ words, deeds, and experiences. The epistles, on the other hand, are writings of Christian leaders to individuals or churches to address problems that have arisen in their communities. Indeed, it is safe to say that all of the New Testament epistles are written in response to situations that the authors felt a need to address. Given the “occasional” nature of these letters (meaning they were written for certain occasions), how should we go about studying them? The question, of course, relates not only to the Johannine epistles but to all the others as well, including those appearing under the name of the apostle Paul.

One method widely used by scholars to study such occasional literature can be called “contextual analysis.”   The method is particularly useful to historians who are interested in knowing not only what this literature says or teaches but also the specific historical circumstances that led to its production. As you will see, this approach is closely related to the socio-historical method described in Chapter 10 (that I described earlier on the blog in relation to the Gospel of John; see https://ehrmanblog.org/the-social-history-behind-the-fourth-gospel/). That method focuses on the social history of the community as it can be traced over a period of time, and the text is used to provide evidence for reconstructing that history. In the contextual method, the principal concern is the literary text itself; the social history of the community that is presupposed by the text is used to explain some of its important features.

The concern for understanding the socio-historical context within which an occasional writing was produced is rooted in a theoretical view of language shared by many scholars that knowing a document’s historical context is absolutely vital for its interpretation. According to this view, words convey meaning only within a context; thus, when you change the context of words, you change what they mean.

This is because, as we have seen, words and phrases do not have any inherent meaning but …

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What Are The Epistles of John?
What Is the New Testament? A Broad Overview



  1. Avatar
    delirious  April 28, 2020

    Hello Bart. Sorry for this question being off-topic but I would really like your input. Do you think the Romans invented the gospels? I saw a video that claimed there were a bunch of parallels between what Josephus records in his books and what the gospels record.

    The producer of the video claimed the Flavian dynasty invented Jesus and the parallels between what Josephus records and what happens in the gospels he called the “Flavian signature”. He talked about John Gischala being taken captive to Rome but Simon Ben Giora being killed and how this parallels Simon Peter being told he will die at the end of the gospel of John but that John would live to the second coming. The video had lots of parallels in time and substance like this.

    Do you think there is any merit to this or is this just a wild theory and it is basically dumb? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2020

      No, it’s completely bogus, a claim propounded by someone who has no clue what he’s talking about. (Though since it’s sensationalist, people with no understanding of ancient history are finding it fascinating. Scholars just laugh at it)

  2. Avatar
    brenmcg  April 28, 2020

    “Paraclete” is used 5 times in the NT, 4 in the gospel of John and once in 1 John.

    In 1 John it is Jesus who is the “paraclete” but the first time it is used in the gospel we are told we have another paraclete – the holy spirit.

    Do you think this indicates that 1 John was written before the gospel?

    Also I think the opening of 1 John reads like a first draft of the opening of the gospel of John.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2020

      1 John was almost certainly written later. It’s historical circumstances are a later development from the time of the Gospel.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  April 29, 2020

        Is that just because it is anti-docetist? The gospel is anti-docetist too.

        1 John 2 says “it is the last hour” – suggests it is early; no making excuses for delay in the coming.

        1 John says “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did … I am not writing you a new command but an old one”
        and 2 John says “I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.”
        This suggests they’re not used to hearing this from the gospel – “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

        • Bart
          Bart  April 30, 2020

          In part it is because the controversy is now no longer with Jews who reject Jesus but with a sectarian group who has taken the teachings about Christ in the Gospel to an extreme that the author disagrees with — presupposing the situation is later.

  3. Avatar
    Poohbear  April 28, 2020

    I suppose John was a young man when he met Jesus. His letters show him to be a gentle man, not given to studies of the law like Paul, or history like Luke. He was the “disciple whom Jesus loved” the most. The closer we are to this love the more we can receive of it – nothing else matters. Certainly John could be strong – we see him standing up to the fallen Diotrephes who “wanted the preeminence among them.” This Diotrephes came into the church from a prominent pagan background but found the little churches too small for him. In causing his own congregations to break away he could have become the first documented Catholic as there’s a Bishop Diotrephes about his time.
    Diotrephes would never have understood John, just as those who couldn’t understand why Paul wasn’t some grand, charismatic, eloquent and preeminent man. John doesn’t even use his name when he speaks of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” This gentle man of love did not want any preeminence.

    • sschullery
      sschullery  April 29, 2020

      Hey, I wasn’t aware of John being the beloved disciple. Is that generally believed to be the case?

      • Bart
        Bart  April 30, 2020

        It’s the traditional view, yes; I don’t think it’s a widely held view among critical scholars, but it’s probably what most people still think.

        • sschullery
          sschullery  May 2, 2020

          So, what do scholars think?

          It’s a question that’s really hard to ignore when reading John all the way through; it keeps being mentioned. Including telling him from the cross to take care of his mom.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 3, 2020

            About what?

          • sschullery
            sschullery  May 4, 2020

            Who do scholars think was the beloved disciple, and what do they make of the fact that he is only mentioned in John?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 5, 2020

            There are lots of opinions; the traditional one is that it was John himself (whose name is *not* mentioned in the Gospel). Another popular one today is that he is the unknown person who started the community behind teh Gospel; another is that he is a fictional character invented by the author for the sake of the intrigue of his narrative and to provide it a kind of fictional authority. I fluctuate between these latter two options, but do not at all think that John the son of Zebedee stands behind the Gospel.

  4. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  April 28, 2020

    In regards to reading the New Testament letters in context, how should one interpret James 1:1? The greek word for slave could also mean servant. So I would like to know if James is willing to serve God and Jesus or serve them out of drudgery?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2020

      The word actually means slave — one who was owned by another. Some translations use “servant” because they don’t want modern folk to think simply in terms of the kinds of slavery we knwo about from the American past.

  5. Avatar
    Steven.AAA  April 29, 2020

    Hi professor
    I want to ask you some questions
    Has the new testament distorted?
    The Muslims – As you know- claim that the bible distorted , and I think they are wrongly using the textual criticism for that .
    Does the textual criticism tell us that the new testament distorted ?
    And what the difference between distortion and corruption ?
    The final question is does the text we have
    Represent the original one and in any sense ?
    Thanks prof .

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2020

      Scribes of the New Testament did change it, mostly by accident, many times.

      • Avatar
        Steven.AAA  May 1, 2020

        They changed the manuscripts but what I know that by using textual criticism we have a clean version of new testament that match the original in 99% , I mean that today we have access to the very close form of autograph , the Muslims doctrine says that there is completely corruption ,do your scholarship agree that ? Another important question what the effects of scribes’ corruptions on our today Greek NT ? Does it textual or theological

        Very grateful for your respond .

        • Bart
          Bart  May 3, 2020

          I think we probably are pretty close to the originals most of the time, but there is not way to determine if we match the originals 99% of the time. The only way to know that would be if we actually *had* the originals and saw that the texts we have reconstructed differ from them in only one word out of a hundred. But the problem is precisely that we *don’t* have the originals to compare anything to. So it’s just guess work how close we aer — but it can be educated instead of wild guesswork.

          • Avatar
            Steven.AAA  May 3, 2020

            Well, but what do you refer to by “wild guesswork” ?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 4, 2020

            I mean uneducated guesswork by people who don’t know the data, the evidence, and the history of the arguments.

  6. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  April 29, 2020

    Would we use this sort of textual context method to understand the missing letter to the church in Corinth?

    Forgive me if this has been covered elsewhere.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2020

      Yes, but it’s very difficult, since we only have hints what was in it. But we have some (as wehn Paul mentions what they have asked him)

  7. Avatar
    clerrance2005  May 3, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,

    Very enlightening piece and analogy, Your opinion on this verse please – Matthew 19:4-6

    “4 Don’t you read the Scriptures?” he replied. “In them it is written that at the beginning God created man and woman, 5-6 and that a man should leave his father and mother, and be forever united to his wife. The two shall become one—no longer two, but one! And no man may divorce what God has joined together.”

    Party A held that the doctrine of monogamy is clearly spelt in there as it deals with a man (single) being united with a woman (single).

    However, Party B is of the opinion that if the text is placed in its rightful context, it is the issue of ‘Divorce’ being addressed by Jesus. Hence although one may infer monogamy from the words (if read out of the respective context), the text is however not addressing the issue of polygamy and as such wouldn’t be right to use it to discredit the concept of polygamy by Jesus.

    What is your reaction to this ?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2020

      I don’t think v. 4 is emphasizing monogamy. It is *assuming* it. Big difference. Very big difference.

  8. Avatar
    Brand3000  May 7, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Is the fact that Paul indicates in 1 Thess. that the church will have to wait for Jesus’ return to have the dead rise a good argument against those who say that Paul didn’t believe in a physical/bodily resurrection? Because if he believed that people only rose in some spiritual sense, it would’ve been much easier for Paul just to say your loved ones have already been resurrected, so why the concern? Do you agree with my reasoning here?

  9. Avatar
    Brand3000  May 22, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I’m having trouble understanding what’s going on in the later part of Romans. As per Romans do Jews need to accept Christ to be saved? There is a section where it seems to imply that they were saved before Christ. Does Paul prophesy that Jews will eventually come to accept Christ, and presumably prior to Christ’s return?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2020

      I’m not sure what section you’re referring to. But Romans 3, among other places, is pretty clear that Jews cannot be saved apart from Christ.

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  May 24, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman,

        I was speaking specifically about Rom. ch. 9 – 11. The NRSV even has a chapter heading “All Israel Will Be Saved.” Can you shed some light on what Paul is saying here? Thank you.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 25, 2020

          Ah, I wish I could in a comment. Two years ago I had a PhD student who wrote an entire 800 page disssertation on this one verse, “All Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). It is, as we say, a bit complicated. But maybe I’ll see if he’s willing to do a few guest posts on it.

  10. Avatar
    Brand3000  May 28, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    As per Paul, Jesus returns and restores THIS Earth (Rom. 8:23) This is where and when the dead are physically raised, is this all correct? However, someone wrote this about the return: “all of these spiritual bodies “go up” meaning to the zones above the moon. Star bodies are also made of pneuma/spirit: so everyone goes ad astra, to the stars.” ….This whole “we become star people” angle seems a bit off do you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2020

      Above the moon? ad astra? Not sure where he’s getting that from, but it ain’t Paul.

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  May 30, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman,

        So as Rom. 8:23 indicates Jesus’ return restores the people and environment of THIS Earth, is that correct? The only question then is what did Paul mean by 1 Thess. 4:17 “…caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Do they meet him in the air, then come back down to Earth?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 31, 2020

          Yes, that’s the normal interpretation. they go to meet him the way a city’s rulers go out to meet the visiting king in order to escort im back into the city.

          • Avatar
            Brand3000  June 1, 2020

            Dr. Ehrman,

            Thanks, that’s helpful. So then does Paul think that they are literally going to fly up into the air to meet Jesus, or does Paul use this as a metaphor to say that Jesus will be welcomed back like a King?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 2, 2020


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