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What Are The Epistles of John?

I can now describe and explain the letters of 1, 2, and 3 John.  1 John has always been one of my favorite books of the New Testament, and only takes a few minutes to read; the final two are incredibly short, less than a page each.  Think about reading them!

The author never gives us his name.  But because the books aer so similar in theme and writing style to the Fourth Gospel – whose author from antiquity was thought to be Jesus’ disciple John — these letters were also assigned to him.  Critical scholars today almost entirely think that the author was not the *same* person as the author of the Gospel, and was almost certainly not John the Son of Zebedee.  he probably was, though, an author living in the same community, at a later time, with a similar point of view.

Here is how I explain what these letters are by situating them in a historical context in light of what was happening in the author’s community.  Again, this is taken from my New Testament: A Historical Introduction.  If you’re interested in this kind of information for all the books of the New Testament — that would be a good place to start (7th edition, Oxford University Press).

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I will be treating these letters as a group of works produced by the same author at roughly the same time. The first is an open letter or persuasive treatise written to a community (1 John), the second a personal letter to the same community (2 John), and the third a personal letter to an individual within it (3 John). There are clues within the letters themselves concerning the historical context that prompted the author to produce them. The first step in the contextual method of interpretation is to examine these clues and use them to reconstruct the situation.

The most important event in the recent history of this community is that …

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[privaet]The most important event in the recent history of this community is that it experienced a serious rift. The author of 1 John indicates that a faction from within the community split off from the rest of the group and left in a huff: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us” (1 John 2:19).

Why did this Christian community split, with some members leaving, presumably to start their own congregation? In the next few verses the author designates those who left as “liars” and “antichrists,” a word that literally means “those who are opposed to Christ.” He then contrasts them with those who have remained, who “know the truth.” What do these antichrists believe that makes them so heinous to this author? He indicates that they have “denied that Jesus is the Christ” (2:22). The author’s language may appear to suggest that those who have seceded from the community, a group that some scholars have labeled the “secessionists,” are Jews who failed to acknowledge that Jesus is the messiah. But they used to belong to the community, that is, they were Christians. In what sense, then, could they deny that Jesus is the Christ?

There are two other places where the author discusses these “antichrists.” In 1 John 4:2–3 the author claims that unlike those who belong to God, the antichrists refuse to confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” A similar statement occurs in 2 John 7, where the antichrists are called “deceivers who have gone out into the world” and are said to deny that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” These descriptions suggest the secessionists may have held a point of view that we know about from other sources from about the same period, such as the writings of Ignatius (which we will be discussing at greater length in Chapter 28). Ignatius opposed a group of Christians who, like Marcion a few years later (see Chapter 1), maintained that Jesus was not himself a flesh-and-blood human being but was completely and only divine. For these persons, God could not have a real bodily existence; God is God—invisible, immortal, all- knowing, all-powerful, and unchanging. If Jesus was God, he could not have experienced the limitations of human flesh. For these people, Jesus only seemed to experience these limitations. Jesus was not really a human; he merely appeared to be one.

These Christians came to be known by their opponents as “docetists,” a term that derives from the Greek verb for “appear” or “seem.” They were opposed by Christian leaders like Ignatius who took umbrage at the idea that Jesus and the things he did, including his death on the cross, were all a show. For Ignatius, Jesus was a real man, with a real body, who shed real blood and died a real death.

It may be that the secessionists from the Johannine community had developed a docetic kind of Christology. In the words of the author, they “denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh.” If they were, in fact, early docetists, then a number of other things that the author says in these letters makes considerable sense. Take, for instance, the opening words of 1 John. Readers who do not realize that the essay is being written because a group of docetic Christians have seceded from the community may not understand why the author begins his work the way he does, with a prologue that in many ways is reminiscent of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel (with which he was probably familiar):

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father, and was revealed to us. (1:1–2)

Once a reader knows the historical context of the epistle, however, this opening statement makes considerable sense. The author is opposing Christians who maintain that Jesus is a phantasmal being without flesh and blood by reminding his audience of their own traditions about this Word of God made manifest: he could be seen, touched, and handled, that is, he had a real human body, and he shed real blood. Thus, the author stresses the importance of Jesus’ blood for the forgiveness of sins (1:7) and of the (real) sacrifice for sins that he made (2:2; 4:10).

What led a group of Johannine Christians to split from the community because of their belief that Jesus was not a real flesh-and-blood human being? We have seen that after the community was excluded from the synagogue, it developed a kind of fortress mentality that had a profound effect on its Christology. Christ came to be seen less and less as a human rabbi or messiah and more and more as a divine being of equal standing with God, who came to reveal the truth of God to his people only to be rejected by those who dwelt in darkness. Those who believed in him claimed to understand his divine teachings and considered themselves to be children of God. By the time the Fourth Gospel was completed, some members of the Johannine community had come to believe that Jesus was on a par with God.

It appears that Christians in this community did not stop developing their understandings of Jesus with the completion of the writing of the Gospel. Some of them took their Christology a step further. Not only was Jesus equal with God, they came to believe, but he was God himself, totally and completely. Moreover, if he was God, he could not be flesh because God was not composed of flesh; Jesus therefore merely appeared to be a human.

This view proved to be too much for some of the other members of the community; battle lines were drawn, and a split resulted. The Johannine epistles were written by an author who thought that the secessionists had gone too far. For this author, Christ was indeed a flesh-and-blood human being; he was the Savior “come in the flesh,” whose blood brought about salvation from sin. Those who rejected this view, for the author of the epistles, had rejected the community’s confession that the man Jesus was the Christ and so were antichrists.

The charges that the author levels against the secessionists do not pertain exclusively to their ideas about Christ. He also makes moral accusations. He insinuates that his opponents do not practice the commandments of God (2:4), that they fail to love the brothers and sisters in the community (2:9–11; 4:20), and that they practice sin while claiming to have no contact with it (1:6–10). It is possible that, in the mind of the author at least, these moral charges related closely to the doctrinal one. If the secessionists undervalued the fleshly existence of Jesus, perhaps they undervalued the importance of their own fleshly existence as well. In other words, if what really mattered to them was the spirit rather than the flesh, then perhaps they were unconcerned not only about Jesus’ real body but also about their own. Thus, they may well have appeared totally uninterested in keeping the commandments that God had given and in manifesting love among the brothers and sisters of the community. This would explain why the author stresses in his letters the need to continue to practice God’s commandments and to love one another, unlike those who have left the community.[/private]


The Johannine Letters in Sum
Reading the New Testament Letters in CONTEXT

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Poohbear  April 29, 2020

    This “critical scholars” business sounds contrived.
    John’s letters were handed around and copied over generations – and they were called them “John’s letters.” Doesn’t say John the son of Zebedee, just John. If Fred wrote them they would be known to the wider community as “Fred’s letters.”
    Someone having a “similar point of view” is insufficient for genuine scholarship – there were nearly 200 men and women mentioned in the NT as itinerant preachers like John – all with “similar points of view.” They didn’t have a “developed” sense of Christianity – that was left to the wolves who assumed control later.
    John in these letters comes across as being the same person who wrote the Gospel of John. A man so gentle, so loving of his Christ, that he couldn’t bring himself to give authorship to his writings. When he wrote “the disciple whom Jesus loved” he couldn’t bring himself to say he was that young man. His so-called “Johannine community” was Christendom – his ministry would have taken him all over the known world just as it did for Paul, complete with a new partner every year or two. This is how these men and women lived.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2020

      What makes you think they were called “John’s letters” in the early generations of their circulation. Critical scholars (whom you appear to malign!) look for evidence. I’m not sure how much research you’ve done? But I recommend it!

      • Avatar
        Poohbear  May 1, 2020

        My issue isn’t with scholarship but its abuse.
        On Balance of Probabilities (style, history, early fathers etc.) John wrote the Gospel of John AND the epistles of John. No evidence suggests otherwise.
        Letters of John et al weren’t known by names like Papayri P52 for instance, nor would people have called them by titles such as “that anti-Christ letter.” No, they would have said “that letter from John.”
        In compiling the NT there could have been many letters – those from the Apostles carried special significance. Changing the name would be pointless, and besides, most Christians would have been familiar with these epistles and Gospels, if not some of the people who wrote them.
        And when people believed that a companion or secretary called Mark wrote Peter’s account, they would call it “that Gospel written by Mark” or just “Mark’s Gospel.”
        I withdraw comments I made about John possibly being written “as it happened. ” I read this today, “Afterward, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies
        🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  May 3, 2020

          I think to weigh probabilities you have to be intimately familiar with the evidence. That takes some research — even if you can’t spend years and years exploring it as NT scholars do, you can at least become familiar with the basics. If you really are interested in the evidence about John and his writings, there is plenty out there to look at — but only if you are really interested. Many people aren’t — they just prefer thinking and saying what they’ve always heard without exploring the evidence one way or the other). But if you want to see it, there is a lot of evidence (about whether John wrote these books; about how books received titles in the ancient world, about when the NT books got their titles and authorial inscriptions, etc.) I’d be happy to suggest thigns to read if you’re interested — not to change your mind, but to give you a broader sense of what the evidence and arguments are.

  2. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  April 29, 2020

    Are you aware of any indications that docetists were also “uninterested in keeping the commandments”? I realize you are making a limited comparison here but I’m just wondering how close these secessionists come to Docetism. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2020

      No, no evidence of that. But plenty of evidence that their opponents *claimed* they were!

  3. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  April 29, 2020

    Were those that denied that Jesus came in the flesh Gnostics or a precursor to the Gnostics?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2020

      Precursors. Gnostics aren’t attested till some decades later.

  4. Avatar
    Scott  April 29, 2020

    I usually take accusations of immorality and commandment breaking as generic attacks on an enemy. I liken it to accusations of baby-eating leveled against Christians by the Romans and. later, against Jews by the Christians

  5. Avatar
    delirious  April 29, 2020

    Hello Bart. Does the Greek in 1 John 3:6,9 and 5:18 allow for the idea of “practicing sin”? It seems like translations like the NIV try to soften the Greek by saying “practices sin” or “continues to sin” when (at least what i’ve been told because I am not a Greek expert) it really means does not sin AT ALL. Is that correct?

    How does this fit with 1 John 1:7-10 and 2:1? The author says Christians sin in this passage but then apparently seems to claim they don’t sin AT ALL in 1 John 3:6,9 and 5:18. Is this just a blatant contradiction? What are some of the possible explanations for this? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2020

      Yes, the Greek uses the present tense in 3:6, 9 and 5:18, and could mean something like “lives a life of sin” or “regularly sinning.” 1:7-10 and 2:1 acknowledge that people have and do sin, but I think the idea must be that everyone slips up sometimes, but they aren’t practicing a sinful life the entire time.

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 29, 2020

    Isn’t there a contradiction in 1 John? 1 John 2:1 states that “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.” but 1 John 3:9 says that “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.” So the people whom he writes to cannot be “born of God” or he wouldn’t have to write to them so that they would not sin. Right?

  7. Avatar
    rborges  April 29, 2020

    >It appears that Christians in this community did not stop developing their understandings of Jesus with the completion of the writing of the Gospel. Some of them took their Christology a step further. Not only was Jesus equal with God, they came to believe, but he was God himself, totally and completely. Moreover, if he was God, he could not be flesh because God was not composed of flesh; Jesus therefore merely appeared to be a human.

    However, it can be argued that docetic views were already being battled against in the Gospel of John, in the story of the Doubting Thomas (20:24-29). What’s your opinion?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2020

      Yes, maybe. Scholars have argued that John is highly docetic; other scholars that it is highly anti-docetic!

  8. Avatar
    fishician  April 29, 2020

    2 Peter 3 speaks of those who were questioning why Jesus hadn’t come back yet, as the 1st generation of Christians died off. Could the ones referred to in 1 John that questioned whether Jesus was the Messiah have been along the same line? If he’s the Messiah, where is he?! I realize that Christianity was not that big at the time, but do you think there was a bit of an exodus from the church as people grew tired or disillusioned waiting for his supposedly imminent return?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2020

      I’m not sure the opponents of 1 John dispute that he was the messiah; they dispute whether he was actually a flesh and blood human being. The *author* claims they don’t accept Jesus as the Messiah, but by that he means “the MAN Jesus,” since in his view, they don’t think he was a man.

  9. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  April 30, 2020

    An interesting post.

    If the 4 major jewish sects, at that time (all were sects before the Hillel Pharisee view later became orthodox) would write the story of Jesus, provided they were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, I would not be surprised if the message would have been very different in many ways. At the time the Joaninne community was alive and John’s letter is believed to have been written, amid the devastating rift between the Jewish synagogue and the Jewish Christians, I guess they all identified themselves as part of the larger Jewish family. This rift would also come at the top of the rift within the sects itself on issues such as “the Law”, the oral Law, the view of the Messiah, acopolytic ideas and other dogmas etc.

    I guess it must be a fair assumption to say that they (the Christian Jewish group) are likely to be influenced by the Jewish sect / group they came from (((if any)).

    When you read the Epistle of John in context, do you also consider which gropus they may have been affected by, and if so, which groups do you think influenced them theologically?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2020

      I think it’s not right to imagine “one” group of Jewish Christians at the time that formed a coherent community. There were different Christian communities in many different places and they had a lot of things in common but lots and lots of difference as well. Unfortunately the *only* information we have about any of these groups comes from the NT writings themselves, and almost always be inference.

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

        Would it be wrong of me to associate the Johaninne community with some mystical influence. In this connection, I think in particular of some similarities I have understood, between the Gospel of John (which some even believe is the most Jewish Gospel) and the Dead Sea scrolls that could link this community to the Essene community. In addition, both communities seem to have a certain contradiction to the mainstream community. By the way, I think the language has a reverberation in relation to Jewish mysticism plus Jewish / Christian mysticism such as Gnosism (Ode of Solomon which many believe has a direct connection to this community) which has a high degree of symbolism which I find recognizable.

        That I believe today that the Revelation of John is symbolic, and I think this script is trying to describe an inner process, where the symbols are an inner forces and an inner spiritual process. Not only are the symbols recognizable, but history also seems to resemble the story of Jewish mysticism, (also Jewish / Christian/Jødisk Gnosism),,, (((and really Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, so maybe a little outside this context))).

        Do you think the Johaninne community had any esoteric influence?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 3, 2020

          I don’t think John’s Gospel lines up well with the views of the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially on the question of whether history was soon to reach it’s climax with a decisive and destructive act of God (Scrolls: absolutely; John: no). John’s Gospel certainly later opened itself to mystical reflection, more than the others, but I’m not sure it came out of that kind of tradition.

  10. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  April 30, 2020

    Fascinating. I must admit I always like a rough date so I can relate what’s going on in the Johannine community to wider Roman history. The roughly contemporary writings of Ignatius I guess put the Johannine epistles at around 100-110 AD-ish?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2020

      They are usually dated to the late 90s or so, but it’s all (highly) educated guessing.

  11. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  April 30, 2020

    What caught my eye in 1 John was ch. 3:17-18. Outside of the matters of Christology, could this community also have issue with other Christian communities not supporting the ones in need? Could this be an early argument for the case of salvation that requires faith plus good deeds oppose to faith alone?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2020

      The author certainly *claims* that his opponents didn’t show love to other Christians. Whether that’s true or not is another question. Think about how politicians accuse their opponents of the most ridiculous things!

  12. Avatar
    RevBuzz79  May 1, 2020

    Why are there no writings, regarding someone to be so important as Jesus,. I find no type of books on him. I have several books written, about his brother, James. We have very little about his birth, both different. then at age twelve he is in the synagogue, then at age 30 he is Baptized, then around three years later crucified. Yet, someone so important as he is suppose to be, there is nothing but the Bible to support him?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      I’m not sure what you mean. There are hundreds and hundreds of books about Jesus. My main one is called Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

      • Avatar
        RevBuzz79  May 6, 2020

        Bart, the book you referenced , is written by you. I don’t you were here , during the years of Jesus. I am talking about historical writing, written during his time, about him. Like maybe , wel at age this, he did this , in other words. What was his life, not, well born, 12 read in the the synagogue, then age 30 was baptize. Where is all these years for someone, so important. I can’t find these hundreds and hundreds of books to say there are.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 8, 2020

          Oh, I didn’t understand what you meant. No, there are no books written about him that come from the time. But that’s not too strange really. It’s true of over 99.999% of the population at the time.

  13. Avatar
    RevBuzz79  May 1, 2020

    I do not understand, why there is no members section, where their question are, and the answer there of, where a member can go to his section to find his answers, and ask questions, without going to a blog.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      How could there be a members section of the blog that wouldn’t be on the blog? I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking.

      • Avatar
        RevBuzz79  May 5, 2020

        I’m regarding secular writings, from back during his life.
        How could he have a earthly geneoligy, if he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. I realize several people have wrote about, but nothing from back during his life, where we do have many writings of others .

        • Bart
          Bart  May 6, 2020

          The genealogies in Matthew and Luke trace Jesus’ line through the one human parent he had. But you’re right, it doesn’t really make any sense, since he is not genealogically related to that parent!!

  14. fefferdan
    fefferdan  May 1, 2020

    Thanks for getting us thinking Bart! Sorry if I’m asking too many questions but… The writer says the “antichrists” are those who deny that Jesus came in flesh. But should we believe him when he says this? What if he is unfairly characterizing them? What if these “antichrists” really believed that Jesus’ flesh was transformed into a “glorious body” while he still lived? Or what if it was really a matter of how the second coming would occur, in flesh or spirit. Should the translation be “Jesus came in flesh” or “Jesus is come in flesh” or [as with RSV] “the [possible future] coming of Jesus in flesh.” [2 Jo 1.7]

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      I agree — you always have to take a polemicist’s statements about the enemy with a pound of salt, especially when you don’t know the opponents’ response. In this case the question is whether they said that he did not *come* in the flesh; that would be very different from saying that he came in the flesh and was then transformed while still living into a non-fleshly being. The thing is, we do know of later Christians who said the former, but not the latter. So that might somehow tip the balance.

  15. Avatar
    Osuaggiefan  May 1, 2020

    Once more may I call on your unbiased opinion to refute a heresy? “Antichrist”, it means against Christ. Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else. There is no canonical basis for the “Left Behind” style portrayal of THE antichrist. Do you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      I don’t think it’s possible for an opinion to be unbiased (otherwise it’s a fact), but no, I don’t think the Left Behind series is biblically based.

  16. Avatar
    mtavares  May 4, 2020

    Great post. You do such a great job of illuminating the sociological aspects of NT texts. I guess there are other Gospel-centric priorities in preaching, but it’s kind of a shame this stuff typically isn’t explained in church settings.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 5, 2020

      HUGE shame….

      • Avatar
        Osuaggiefan  May 6, 2020

        One of the best statements you’ve ever made was in the intro to Jesus interrupted was along the lines of church goers are ignorant of what the Bible says and completely clueless about what is taught in the universities. When I read that I was so mad I threw the book across the room. A few minutes later I picked it up again realizing that truer words had never been spoken lol! You need to drop in on the church of Christ I attend. You are quoted in their bible studies about as often as JC himself! 😂

  17. Avatar
    madmargie  May 6, 2020

    I have a friend who is a retired Methodist Minister who says he tried to share what he learned in Seminary with his congregations and invariably his church moved him to another congregation.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2020

      Yup, it is largely about job security, in many, many instances.

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