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The Johannine Letters in Sum

This will be the final post in my thread on the Gospel and Letters of John. Here I will reflect further on what we can about the epistles and the context out of which they emerged.

If you want to read more, check out my chapter in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction….   In that chapter I explain how views similar to those found in these Johannine writings eventually contributed to what we now call Gnosticism.  (That, of course, is a whole *other* story.)  As always, at the end of the chapter in my book, I give suggestions for further reading.

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At this stage you may have recognized one of the difficulties of this kind of contextual analysis [i.e. that I explained in the previous chapter] It is very hard for the historian to know for a fact that the Johannine secessionists actually taught that it was unimportant to love one another and to keep God’s commandments. The problem is that the only source we have for the secessionists’ views is the author of the Johannine epistles, and he was their enemy.

As we know from other kinds of literature, ancient and modern, it is a very tricky business to learn what people say and do on the basis of what their enemies say about them. Imagine trying to reconstruct the beliefs and practices of a modern politician on the basis of what the opposing campaign says! Sometimes enemies misunderstand their opponents’ views, or distort them, or misrepresent them, or draw implications from them that the other party does not.

What, then, do we actually know about the Johannine secessionists? Do we know for a fact that they were docetists who taught others to disobey the commandments and live in sin? No, what we know is that this is how the author of 1 John portrays them. Some scholars are inclined to accept this portrayal as accurate; others are more cautious and say that we only know how the author himself perceived the secessionists. Others are still more cautious and say that we do not even know how the author perceived them, only how he described them. The issue is not easily resolved, and it is one you need to be alert to as you yourself engage in contextual studies of the New Testament writings.

With these caveats in mind, let me …

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WAS there a Community behind the Gospel and Letters of John? Guest Post by Hugo Mendez
What Are The Epistles of John?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    kiloberg  May 1, 2020

    Maybe your guest writer will propose this idea, 2 John is written by Diotrephes. I think I heard this in Dale Martin’s lectures. But have not come across it in any writing. I have read only one commentary Martin Hengel’s Johannine Question. Any other book recommendations on the subject would be interesting. MacDonald’s The Legend and the Apostle was very enlightening.

    2 John :10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.

    3 John 9 I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      It’s certainly an interesting speculation. I don’t know if Hugo will comment on it or not. (He worked with Dale Martin during his post-doc at Yale)

  2. Robert
    Robert  May 1, 2020

    For me, the fundamental question is not whether or not there was a ‘Johannine’ community or collection of small loosely affiliated communities with eventual infighting and schism, but whether or not the implicit and explicit claim of the fourth gospel, that its source(s) of information were couched in the testimony of an especially beloved disciple, at least part of it written by him (ὁ γράψας ταῦτα), an acquaintance of the high priest, and a group of early disciples of John the Baptist. Do you agree that this is a false pretense of the actual author(s) of the fourth gospel??

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      Yes, I think it’s not right. The author doesn’t claim the entire account is based on the witness of that disciple and is not saying that he wrote the Gospel or any part of it, but a writign the author used; and whoever it was he could not have been an acquaintance of the Jewish high priest. The Gospel never indicates he was a disciple of the baptist, does it?

      • Robert
        Robert  May 3, 2020

        Bart: “The author … is not saying that he wrote the Gospel or any part of it, but a writign the author used; and whoever it was he could not have been an acquaintance of the Jewish high priest. The Gospel never indicates he was a disciple of the baptist, does it?”

        Again, at the end of the gospel the author of Jn 21,24 does say that the beloved disciple wrote at least part of the gospel: Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ μαθητὴς … ὁ γράψας ταῦτα

        The author also implies that one of the ultimate sources of his material was indeed known to the high priest (Jn 18,15); I am not saying this is necessarily implied to be the beloved disciple, ‘though some have made this case (eg, Raymond Brown was convinced by Neirynck on this point [Comm of the BD, p 82 n 155]).

        The author also implies that he was among the disciples of Jesus, perhaps even from the very beginning (1,14): ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ.

        Again, this is not necessarily referring to the beloved disciple, but all of this is part of a false pretense of the actual author(s) of the fourth gospel. Agree?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 4, 2020

          We’ve already had this discussion and as you know, I do not agree!

          • Robert
            Robert  May 5, 2020

            Bart: “We’ve already had this discussion and as you know, I do not agree!”

            Yes, indeed, I certainly do know that you disagree, but I’m still hoping for a fuller explanation of why you disagree. I’ve read your treatment on the Johannine literature in your NT Intro and, of course, your posts here. Perhaps this will be covered in a response to Hugo Mendez’ posts?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 6, 2020

            I’ve done my best to explain, e.g., that the fact the author says that the Beloved Disciple “wrote these things” has no bearing on whether the writing that person produced has become a part of the Gospel; it simply shows the author of the Gospel knows that this other one had written something.

          • Robert
            Robert  May 6, 2020

            Bart: “I’ve explained as clearly as I can that the fact taht the author says that the Beloved Disciple “wrote these things” it has no bearing on whether the writing he produced has become a part of the Gospel, but that the author knows that he had written about it.”

            Yes, I certainly understand that this is your interpretation of this particular verse. But I do not understand why you prefer your interpretation of this verse and reject interpretations by other scholars. And that’s OK, you certainly do not need to justify your preferences if you do not want to so.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 8, 2020

            Because it doesn’t say what the interpretation you’re propounding says it says. It says this person wrote something down. It does not say that he wrote down anything that is now in the Gospel. There needs to be a *reason* to think that’s true. If I explain the theory of relativity and then say, Einstein wrote about that — it doesn’t mean that Einstein wrote the explanation I have just given.

          • Robert
            Robert  May 8, 2020

            Bart: “Because it doesn’t say what the interpretation you’re propounding says it says. It says this person wrote something down. It does not say that he wrote down anything that is now in the Gospel. There needs to be a *reason* to think that’s true. If I explain the theory of relativity and then say, Einstein wrote about that — it doesn’t mean that Einstein wrote the explanation I have just given.”

            “These things” at the very least refers to some version of the story just recounted in the immediately preceding section of John 21. I think we agree on that. I don’t think a beloved disciple of Jesus actually wrote these things. Do you?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 10, 2020

            No, I don’t.

          • Robert
            Robert  May 10, 2020

            Robert: “’These things’ [Jn 21,25] at the very least refers to some version of the story just recounted in the immediately preceding section of John 21. I think we agree on that. I don’t think a beloved disciple of Jesus actually wrote these things. Do you?”

            Bart “No, I don’t.”

            So if we agree that “these things” in Jn 21,25 at the very least refers to some version of the story just recounted in the immediately preceding section of John 21, and if “these things” were not in fact written by an actual disciple of Jesus, who wrote them and who created the false impression that they were written by an actual disciple of Jesus? And why don’t you consider this to be a literary deceit? Was the final redactor just making a good faith guess as to the author? Does that really seem likely?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 11, 2020

            I don’t think the statement implies the false impression. It only started to do that once interpreters read it that way, but I don’t see any reason to think the author meant it that way.

  3. Avatar
    AbdulRahman  May 1, 2020

    Dear Professor Ehrman,
    Can you please make a course on YouTube outlining the history of Christianity, and how the doctrines have developed immensely? It will be very beneficial and much appreciated. The near future would be good for those stuck at home 🙂
    Thank you

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 1, 2020

    I look forward to the posts of Dr. Mendez. Once again, I really appreciate your ability to write about such subjects in a clear way that I can understand. A lot of stuff out there is just not written this way.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  May 1, 2020

    Paul does not describe an authoritarian church hierarchy, but rather seems to claim authority in his congregations because he was the “father” of those congregations, or also perhaps because he felt chosen by God to be an apostle. Do you think a similar situation with the John epistles? Or had a hierarchy already developed, with individuals claiming authority over an area or group of churches? (Not that he specifically claims authority, but he writes as if he expects them to do as he says.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      It’s a great question, and I’m afraid we don’t know the answer. The author in this case was well known to the community, and so it is hard to know what authority he claimed for himself or the ground for it. Wish we did know!

  6. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  May 1, 2020

    Just to be clear you believe that 1, 2 and 3 John were written by the same person but, not the same person who wrote the Gospel of John? What stands out to me is that 1 John never describes himself as the Elder unlike 2 and 3 John. Could it be that 2 and 3 John were written later by a different author?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      Yes that’s my view; and yes that’s possible. But I wouldn’t expect the author of 1 John to identify himself since it is not a letter, and normally an author names himself only when writing personal correspondence.

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  May 6, 2020

        In your opinion, why do you think that the letters of 2 and 3 John are in our Canon? It’s a bit strange, that these letters and Paul’s personal letter to Philemon, are in our New Testament. Because they are personal letters to individuals and not to a large congregation with general problems. The author of 2 and 3 John does not really get into the issues in the letter but, would rather see the individual in person to discuss about them. So we really don’t know most of the issues that were of concerned in 2 and 3 John. So why, would Christians re-copy these letters, put them in circulation, and then be chosen to be placed in our Canon list?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 8, 2020

          In the end, I think they were included because Christians were reading them on occasion, and they came to be thought to have been written by apostles. So they made it in.

  7. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  May 1, 2020

    Interesting post !

  8. Avatar
    Poohbear  May 1, 2020

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diotrephes
    It’s probable that Diotrephes (and never Peter) became a Monarchical Bishop. His name suggests Diotrephes was born into an important pagan family (“nourished by Jupiter.”) This suggests he became a convert. Clearly he was a man too important for such a lowly church. Unlike John he probably stayed in his city and built a church around himself – cutting his followers off from the Apostolic Church. He would have claimed “Apostolic Succession” like Papias, Polycarp and other early Catholics did. The rest is straight forward as other epistles attest – these dissidents would have a “developed” interpretation complete with Holy Days, merchandise, symbolic worship etc that the Apostles and Jesus rejected. The Diotrephes and Polycarps of a distant generation would rule Rome itself, and hunt down and kill people who lived like John.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      I suppose less important pagans could name their child “nourished by Zeus,” no?

  9. Avatar
    Lms728  May 1, 2020

    Polycarp was supposedly a disciple of John, and the argument in his letter to the Philippians is similar to that found in 1 John. In fact, if I’m not mistaken he quotes 1 John. Is there any evidence to suggest that Polycarp was a member of the same community as the author of 1 John? Is much known about Polycarp’s life before Smyrna?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna; we don’t know where 1 John came from, but if a place is attached it is almost always Ephesus. Polycarp’s letter does appear to reflect 1 John 3:8; 4:2f, but it reflects lots more other “NT” writings more; that wouldn’t place him in the communities of all those writings. I’m not sure that his overall theology is particularly Johannine — do you have something else in mind?

  10. Avatar
    JLoSLo  May 1, 2020

    How many Christian documents in the hundred or so years after Jesus died, on the level of the gospels and the letters in the NT, do you think existed? And what percentage of those made it through the onslaught of time as well as the church’s purge of them?

    It’s interesting that a significant part of Christianity has an almost legal sensibility to it. Many preachers are like attorneys, splitting hairs over words and meanings.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      We just don’t now. We have about 40 that survive, and references to others. My guess is that it’s a small fragment of what was in circulation, especially in the form of personal correspondence.

  11. Avatar
    forthfading  May 2, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I am intrigued by how scholars can have such different opinions and conclusions from one another. Do scholars ever worry or fear that another scholar will teach “wrong” or “unpopular ” theories to students at the college level? For example, would you be worried about how another scholar may teach the Epistles of John to a class of undergraduate or graduate students fearing they will mislead the students or not provide a standard of teaching you feel is necessary?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      Well, a lot of conservative evangelical scholars are *certainly* fearful of what I myself teach undergraduates! I’m not too worried about what they teach their’s about the epistles of John. I’m more concerned about what they teach about what hte Bible says about important social and political issues and policies, often based on ideological bias rather than the historical understanding of the bible itself.

  12. Avatar
    Brennan  May 2, 2020

    I am not sure if this has been brought up before but what evidence is there for 1 John 5:7 being not in the original and a verse later added? Also what are your thoughts on 1 John 5:13 that says you can KNOW you have eternal life and simply not believe it. Paul’s conversion was so profound that he told Timothy he KNOWS in who he had believed but I’m sure you question if Paul wrote to Timothy but you must be willing to admit that even if Paul simply had a vision which he believed was Jesus that it must have been quite the experience.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      1 John 5:7 is so clear cut that there is really no debate about it. When Greek printers began producing Greek copies of the NT in print (instead of in manuscript form) in the early 16th century (so — over 1400 years after manuscripts were in circulation) there was not a single Greek manuscript known to have the passage. It has since been found in one ms of the 14th century. It came into the Bible through the Latin tradition, so the only ones who think it was original are fundamentalists who hold to the inspiration of the King James Bible. It talk about it in my book Misquoting Jesus if you want a fuller discussion.

  13. Avatar
    delirious  May 2, 2020

    Hello Dr. Ehrman. I have a question for you. This is off-topic but I would love to hear your input on this. According to my understanding most scholars today think Paul only wrote 7 books of the NT. I believe Philippians and 1 Thessalonians are two of those seven. Here is the issue I see with attributing both of those books to Paul:

    In Philippians 1:19-26 Paul thinks that when he dies he will immediately be with the Lord but in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 he says that Christians sleep. Paul also talks about Christians sleeping in 1 Cor 15:18 and in 2 Tim 4:8&18 he implies strongly, at least to me, that he would be sleeping. I know scholars don’t think he wrothe 2 Tim but they do 1 Cor.

    My question to you is: Why do scholars think Paul wrote both Philippians and 1 Thessalonians when they seem to have a different view of the afterlife in Phil 1:21-23 and 1 Thess 4:13? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      I deal with this in my book Heaven adn Hell. It appears that in the late 40s (time of 1 Thess) Paul was convinced Jesus cwould return in his lifetime; years later, when he wrote Philippians, he realized he might well die first, and that led him to rethink his understanding of eschatology and what was soon to happen.

  14. Avatar
    Kavsor  May 2, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman
    Do we know where this Johannine community was geografically located? It seems that the author(s) of the letters is deliberately vague and tries not to give away any clues as to their whereabouts. Do scholars know anything about the Johannine community other than their shared theology and christology ?
    As the author of the fourth gospel invents a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus around the double meaning of “anothen” in order to make a point and there are many more such examples in the gospels, is it possible that the author of Johannine letters invented a group with different values and different christology to make a point?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      No, we don’t. I don’t think he was trying to be intentionally vague: he was writing to a particular community and both they and he knew exactly where they were located. Our only knowledge of this community comes from the Johannine writings.

  15. Avatar
    brenmcg  May 2, 2020

    Out of the hundreds of thousands of letters sent in ancient Rome its remarkable that 2nd and 3rd John re among the few that survived.

    Mustn’t it be true that these were highly valued right from the beginning and must have been written by someone special?

    Why would a letter addressed to someone named Gauis be copied so widely and passed around all the christian churches?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      It means *someone* valued them, yes. It doesnt mean lots of them did, and they were definitely not copied a lot. They aer not recognized as canonical for a long time. Most early canon lists either exclude them or say they are “disputed”

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  May 3, 2020

        But even getting on the disputed list is unlikely.

        How does an ordinary letter to someone called Gaius get to be mistaken for a letter by john son of zebedee by all the major christian churches.

        Is it first copied widely and only later has the name John associated to it or is is first mistaken as a letter by John and then copied widely?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 4, 2020

          No, it wasn’t copied widely. That’s my point.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  May 5, 2020

            Well not as widely as pauls but still wide enough to appear on the disputed list and eventually canon.

            For an ordinary letter like 3 john, addressed to some specific person, to achieve that might be an extremely unlikely event.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 8, 2020

            Yup.

  16. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  May 2, 2020

    Thank you for a marvellous account of the Johannine community and its literary works. Based on no evidence whatsoever I was wondering whether the Christians encountered by the Younger Pliny could have been the Johannine community or at least a part of it. I think Walter Bauer wondered whether the Pliny Christian’s could have been a mixed group (ie. some proto-orthodox and heretics) in other words like the Johannine community at the time of the secession. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next blog which considers the absence of such a community.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      It’s theoretically possible, but I’d say the chances are quite remote.

  17. Avatar
    mguess1  May 3, 2020

    *ANY* I have a question unrelated to the post: Matthew 27:52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. What happened to those resurrected: were they bodily resurrected (as Paul suggests), is there any notion of a length of time they lived, or did they “ascend” when Jesus leaves the earth? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2020

      It’s one of the weirdest passages in the New Testament; they obviously are people raised in body. But we are given no indication what happened to them. (Paul, of course, doesn’t know about this particular tradition, so far as we can tell)

  18. Avatar
    Osuaggiefan  May 12, 2020

    What in 1 John 5 is a sin unto death or mortal sin? I assume it is a sin not repented of when a person dies?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2020

      You’ll need to give a verse number so readers can look it up.

      • Avatar
        Osuaggiefan  May 13, 2020

        And whilst we’re in the interpreting mood, how about this nugget from our lovely 2 Thessalonians

        “Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”
        ‭‭2 Thessalonians‬ ‭2:3-4‬ ‭NRSV‬‬

        Who did this writer have in mind? (Authorship is immaterial. It’s canon, so I gotta deal with it). I’m gonna assume some faximilie of emperor worship?

        Dr. Ehrman thank you so much. For years I’ve wanted an audience with you, and I’m gonna try to use your insights to settle 45 years of biblical questions lol

        • Bart
          Bart  May 15, 2020

          Yes, he appears to be referring to a kind of Antichrist figure (doesn’t call him that) who will lead people astray before Christ returns. Important verse for lots of reasons. Maybe I’ll post on it. Among other things, in a weird indirect way, it is in part what led to the move to relocate teh US embassy to Jerusalem! I’ll have to explain that one — maybe on a post!

  19. Avatar
    Osuaggiefan  May 13, 2020

    1 John 5:16-17 my bad

    “If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.”
    ‭‭1 John‬ ‭5:16-17‬ ‭NRSV‬‬

  20. Avatar
    Phillipos98  May 24, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, is 1 John (and/or the other epistles attributed to John) a forgery in your opinion?
    1 John 1:1-4, caught my eye and it made me wonder if the epistle is considered to be a forgery.
    I’m wondering if the author is quoting a poem or some kind of saying in the community, or if he is really claiming to have seen and touched Jesus himself.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 25, 2020

      Yes, in my book Forgery and Counterforgery I claim it is a false authorial claim, and try to show why.

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