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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.
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