The Johannine Community: Sinners or Sinless?

One of the most confusing aspects of reading through 1 John is its seemingly conflicting statements about sin. 1:8-10 reminds the audience that claiming to be sinless is to engage in an act of self-deception and to accuse God of being a liar. 2:1-2 goes on to encourage the reader to not sin, but to reassure him or her that Jesus is the heavenly advocate whose death removes sins. Yet 3:4-10 insists that Jesus came to remove sin and the one who abides in Him or has been born of His does not sin. Then, 5:16 encourages the believer to pray for a brother or sister who commits a non-mortal sin, but then returns to the theme that the one born of God does not sin in verse 18. Further, there are a number of statements about the incompatibility of living in the light and in the darkness or about how obedience to the commandments marks the one who abides in God. It is difficult to resolve these tensions, whether 1 John insists that a Christ follower may commit individual sinful acts but should not be characterized by ongoing habitual sin or whether some points he is countering opponents claims to have perfect fellowship with God or to be sinless while other instances trying to instill a high ethical standard in the audience. I would be interested in checking out Rikard Roitto, “Identity in 1 John: Sinless Sinners who Remain in Him” in T&T Clark Handbook to Social Identity in the New Testament (ed. J. Brian Tucker and Coleman A. Baker; London: Bloomsbury, 2013).


The Johannine Comma

In the last post, we looked at the meaning of water and blood in 1 John 5:6. The author then enlists a third witness, the Spirit, to establish the testimony about Jesus on the basis of three witnesses (cf. Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). If you are reading a King James Bible, you will find a passage about how there are three witnesses in heaven too, namely the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit. However, this was a much later interpolation into the text and the late, eminent text-critic Bruce M. Metzger’s review of the data is reproduced here. Although some believers in the Trinity may be disappointed to lose a useful proof-text, the reality that it took centuries for Christians to develop the language and categories to precisely articulate this doctrine has no bearing on its theological truth for the confessional community. Theologians may speak of “progressive revelation” as Christians gradually came to a better understanding of the Father who sent the Son and the Spirit who came to indwell within them.

Blood and Water

Why does 1 John 5:6 emphasize that Jesus came by water and blood? And is this a polemical statement against the letter’s opposition or a positive statement of the central beliefs on the community? Here are some interpretations of this enigmatic passage:

  • It was written in response to docetists who denied that Jesus chose to become incarnate in the womb of his mother and had a natural birth (e.g., the claim of Valentinus that Jesus passed “through the Virgin Mary as water through a pipe” without inheriting anything from her).
  • It was written against a separationist Christology that emphasized the baptism as the moment when the divine Christ united with Jesus, but that union was severed when the Christ departed from Jesus before his crucifixion.
  • It was written against pneumatic Christians who emphasized baptism as the moment when one receives the Spirit, or alternatively viewed water as a metaphor for the indwelling Spirit, but rejected the significance of Jesus’s sacrificial blood.
  • Both the “water” and the “blood” are in reference to the “blood and water” that poured out of Jesus’s side on the cross, a polemic against those who denied the saving significance of Jesus’s death.
  • This is a non-polemical statement that emphasizes the positive identity-markers of the community, either their sacraments (e.g., baptism and the Lord’s Supper) or their beliefs (water representing the anointing Spirit and blood Jesus’s atoning death).

Reconstructing the Opponents of 1 John

There are two texts that I will highlight that give some clues about what the opponents of the letter writer were teaching. In 1 John 2:22, the mark of a “liar” and “anti-Christ” is the denial that Jesus is the Christ, which is to both deny the Son and the Father who sent him. In 1 John 4:2-3, “false prophets” who partake in the spirit of the anti-Christ do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Who were the opponents of the letter-writer?

  • Docetists, from the Greek dokein (“to seem/appear”), who denied that the Saviour had a corporeal body or experienced genuine physical suffering (Ignatius of Antioch, Smyrn. 2.1; Trall. 10.1; Eusebius, EcclHist. 6.12.6).
  • The followers of Cerinthus, a teacher who allegedly taught that the cosmos was created by an ignorant “power” and the “Christ” was a divine aeon that possessed the human Jesus at his baptism and departed from him before the crucifixion and resurrection (Irenaeus, Haer. 1.26.1). Yet the other major image of Cerinthus is as a this-worldly chiliast (cf. Eusebius, EcclHist. 3.28.2, 4-5; 7.25.3).
  • Pneumatic Christians who underplayed Jesus’s full humanity in favour of the image of him as a revealer and dispenser of the Spirit and viewed his death as a “lifting up” or exaltation rather than an atoning sacrifice expiating sins.
  • Apostates who denied the foretold messianic deliverer had come in the person of Jesus and returned to the synagogue (cf. John 9:22; 12:42).
  • A rhetorical construct as the author warns that “you” could become “them” outside the community and in the “world” if you deny basic Christian confessions.

Non-Polemical Readings of 1 John?

My inclination has always been to read 1 and 2 John as responses to a crisis situation. The attacks against the “anti-Christs” and “false prophets” who deny key Christological confessions, the concerns about abiding or remaining in God, the accusations of hypocrisy of those who claim to love God yet hate their brothers and sisters, and the charges of antinomianism all seemed to me to point to a real internal threat to the author. While I would differ with his specific reconstruction on many details, I have been influenced by Raymond Brown’s general approach.

Thus, I am going to provide some online sources for an alternative, non-polemical approach to the text. The scholars listed below do not seem to deny that the vague, dualistic language of “us” versus “them” is present in some passages of 1 John, though they resist reading this conflict in other passages (e.g., assuming an opposition group that claims to be “sinless” behind 1 John 1:8-10), but seem to suggest that this rhetoric about doctrinal and ethical fidelity is more about group identity formation and boundary maintenance. That is, hold fast to the tradition that you have been taught lest you are lead astray to leave the community and rejoin the world in these last days. Thus, the letter would seem to have more of a pastoral than a polemic purpose. Here is a short bibliography:

Reconstructions of the Johannine Community

Mirror-reading the Gospel and Letters of John to discern the origins and evolution of a particular Johannine “community” has been a popular approach. For instance, there is the two-level reading of the Gospel where the text is both a window into the lifetime of Jesus and a mirror into a later Christ-believing community that no longer found itself welcome in the local synagogues due to its Christological confession, which older scholarship often connected to the birkat ha-minim or a liturgical malediction cursing heretics that was allegedly introduced at the Council of Jamnia in the late first century CE. The major proponent of the influential two-level reading is J. Louis Martyn’s History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. The epistles, then, are viewed as the next stage in the development of the community when it was undergoing an internal schism, for some members had such a high view of Jesus that they either denied that Jesus had a literal corporeal body capable of physical suffering or Jesus’s body was a temporary vessel for a divine entity. At the very least, Jesus’s human ministry and suffering was minimized. Conflicting interpretations of the Johannine legacy continue into the second century and beyond among so-called “proto-Orthodox” and “Gnostic” exegetes. Here is a brief bibliography:

  • Brown, Raymond E. The Epistles of John. AB 30. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982; The Community of the Beloved Disciple. New York: Paulist, 1979.
  • Hengel, Martin. The Johannine Question. Translated by John Bowden. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1989.
  • Wahlde, Urban C. Von. A Commentary on the Gospel and Letters of John. 3 Volumes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010; Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century: The Search for the Wider Context of the Johannine Literature and the Johannine School and Why It Matters. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.
  • Anderson, Paul N. “the Community that Raymond Brown Left Behind: Reflections on the Johannine Dialectical Situation” in Communities in Dispute: Current Scholarship on the Johannine Epistles. Edited by R. Alan Culpepper and Paul N. Anderson. ECL 13; Atlanta: SBL, 2014, 47-93. The pre-publication version is available at the website Bible and Interpretation.


The “We” in 1 John 1:1-4

It seems to be a misnomer to describe 1 John as an epistle since it does not start with a sender, addresses, greetings, or thanksgiving. Instead it begins with a prologue that is reminiscent of the magisterial prologue in the Gospel of John, though scholars continue to debate whether there was literary contact (and what was the direction of influence) or whether the Gospel and Epistle shared common traditions. For instance, is the “word of life” a reference to the pre-existent Logos that became incarnate in the person of Jesus or to the message or proclamation of salvation? In this post, I want to focus on the “we” that appears in this passage and throughout Johannine literature (1:1-4, 5-10; 2:1-3, 5, 18-19, 25, 28; 3:1-3, 11, 14, 16, 18-24; 4:6, 7, 9-14, 16-17, 19, 21; 5:2-4, 9, 11, 14-15, 18-20; cf. 3 John 1:12; John 1:14; 3:2, 11; 20:2; 21:24). While Richard Bauckham’s view is that this is the “we” of authoritative testimony or the royal we, meaning that readers should substitute the first-person singular pronoun “I”, my leaning is that this is a genuine plural that sometimes associates the author with an authoritative group that is distinct from the “you” and other times links the author with the readers. Who is this “we” who claims that their authority is based on what was seen, heard, and touched?

  • John, the son of Zebedee, who was a member of the collective apostles.
  • An older eyewitness who identified with the other original eyewitnesses.
  • An author who claims to be in continuity with the original eyewitnesses, whether in seeing him/herself as the successor of eyewitnesses or preserving the communal tradition stemming from eyewitnesses (apostles, the beloved disciple, or other eyewitnesses), or had a prophetic self-consciousness to speak on behalf of the original eyewitnesses.
  • The imagery of autopsy and law-court testimony is metaphorical for true spiritual insight into Jesus’s true nature as the incarnate one. Thus, the “we” could be part of an authoritative group that was recognized by the “you.”

Continuing through the Catholic Epistles (1 John)

As I have just written a number of posts on 1 Peter, I am going to move on to 1 John since I will be spending a lot of time with this text this semester. I have made some revisions on my introductory post on the Johannine Epistles. Stay tuned for further posts…

Silvanus and Mark in 1 Peter

In 1 Peter 5:12-13, greetings are sent from Silvanus and Mark. The idiomatic expression dia Silouanou… egrapsa (“through Silvanus . . . I wrote”) may signal that Silvanus hand-delivered the letter (cf. Ignatius, Smyrn. 12.1; Phld. 11.1; Magn. 15.1; Rom. 10.1), while the reference to “my son” Mark indicates that he had a close bond with Peter. What is striking is that both Mark (Philemon 1:23; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37-39) and Silas/Silvanus (2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; Acts 15:40; 16:19, 25, 29; 17:4, 10, 14, 15; 18:5) are generally associated with Paul rather than Peter in the New Testament. I wanted to test out the following hypothesis in my first book The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century.

  1. In the earliest textual evidence, Mark and Silvanus were among Paul’s co-workers, even though Mark (and Barnabas) may have had a temporary falling out with Paul over the terms of his Gentile mission.
  2. 1 Peter aims to promote a united Christian front in the face of external societal pressure and draws on both Jewish and Pauline traditions. Thus, the function of including the names of two of Paul’s co-workers in a letter attributed to Peter was to demonstrate Christian unity.
  3. The circulation of 1 Peter throughout Asia Minor lead to traditions developing the relationship between Mark and Peter that we find in Papias of Hierapolis’ Exegesis of the Logia of the Lord (in Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15) and Acts (12:5). Both Papias and Luke-Acts seem to take a somewhat critical stance towards the rhetorical arrangement of Mark’s Gospel (cf. Luke 1:1-4), despite its indirect apostolic authorship, which perhaps might explain the ambivalent portrayal of (John) Mark in Acts.

However, there are major differences between Papias, Luke-Acts, and 1 Peter that must be accounted for. Both 1 Peter and Acts encourages the “elders” to shepherd the flock in their care (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28), but Acts seems to differentiate the “elders” from the apostles/James and does not narrate Peter’s ministry in Rome (cf. Acts 12:17). While 1 Peter presents Peter as the writer of an epistle, Acts 4:13 has the religious authorities dismiss Peter as illiterate (agrammatos) and Papias envisions Peter needing Mark’s assistance as an “interpreter” or translator who transcribed his preaching. Moreover, while both 1 Peter and Acts have Silas/Silvanus involved in handling a circular letter stamped with apostolic authority (cf. Acts 15:22, 27), Acts does not closely attach him to Peter and includes him as merely one of four individuals delivering the letter with the apostolic decree. Thus, if I were to revise my proposal, I still think the earliest evidence presents Mark and Silvanus as Jewish missionaries who were primarily associated with Paul, though they may have also acted as a bridge between the Jerusalem Pillars and Paul in the same way that Barnabas did. If Mark was someone who did act as an intermediary between the Jerusalem Church and Paul, perhaps that is the reason why Mark is increasingly associated with the leading Apostle Peter at a secondary stage. 1 Peter, Acts, and Papias each further develop this tradition for their own theological ends listed in points 2 and 3 above.

Peter’s Death in “Babylon” in 1 Peter

In a previous series on Peter’s ministry in Rome, I looked at the meaning behind the cipher “Babylon” here. Many scholars interpret the note in 1 Peter 5:13 to indicate either that Peter or the latter pseudonymous author mailed the letter from Rome or that the reference to “Babylon” is part of the pseudonymous framing of the letter, presupposing the social memory that Peter’s life ended in Rome and thus offering no clue about the actual origins of the letter. There is another point to highlight in the last chapter. The epistle depicts Peter as “fellow elder” (sympresbyteros), addressing the other “elders” (presbyteroi) in the Christ-congregations to look after the flock in their care and the “younger ones” (neoteroi) to be subject to their elders. As an elder, Peter has been a “witness” (martys) to the suffering of Christ and a “sharer “(koinōnos) in the glory about “to be revealed” (apokalyptesthai). Yet if we turn to the pages of the Gospels, Peter denied Jesus three times and was not present at the crucifixion scene. Does 1 Peter 5:1, then, mean that Peter testified to the saving significance of Jesus’s death? Or was Peter ultimately a witness to the sufferings of Christ by experiencing them himself, by following Jesus on the path to martyrdom, and does the letter assume that Peter has already gone on to his place of glory? If that is the case, 1 Peter could be our earliest textual evidence for both the ministry and the death of Peter in Rome.