The Greek term πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) could be translated as “elder” or “presbyter” in 2 John 1:1 and 3 John 1:1. If one adopts the second meaning, it raises the further question of whether the author was part of a collective presbyterate in the geographical area where the epistles originally circulated. Whatever the case, I do not think the anonymous presbyteros in the Johannine epistles can be confidently identified with the presbyteros John known to Papias of Hierapolis (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.3) on the basis of this single term. For my argument against this view, see my book The Beloved Apostle? or my article for the website Bible and Interpretation.
Much of this series on 1 John has concentrated on the polemic in the epistle against false teaching, sin, and antinomianism. It seems fitting to turn to the theme of love in the epistle. The strongest statement is 1 John 4:8 and 16 that “God is love.” In Greek, it is clear that God is the subject and love is the predicate, so God’s nature and activity is characterized by love yet 1 John would not have endorsed the reverse statement that “Love is God.” The implications for the community are spelled out in chapter 4.
- God initiated the loving relationship with the newly begotten children and provided a concrete example in sending the Son as a sacrifice for sins. Note there is a clear Johannine distinction between Jesus as the divine Son (huios) and the community as children (teknia, paidia).
- Christ followers are thus obligated to love one another, obeying the love commandment (cf. John 13:34-35; cf. Leviticus 19:18).
- God’s love is perfected or completed, reaching its intended goal in the community that loves each other, thus incarnating the love of God in the midst of the world.
- On the other side of the coin, it is a contradiction to claim to love God who is invisible while hating one’s brother or sister who is visible. This may be either a general statement or a polemic against the opponents who revealed their “hate” by splitting from the community.
- This divine love gives the Christ-follower assurance on the day of judgement, for love cancels out the fear which has to do with judgement.
The letter of 1 John seems to close on an odd note. The final exhortation to be guard against idols does not seem to fit any of the major themes within the body of the epistle, unlike an epistle like 1 Corinthians that has an extended discussion about whether it is acceptable for Christ-followers to eat sacrificial meat that had been offered to other deities. Some scholars have even viewed this verse as suggesting that something has gone missing from the conclusion of the letter that might have clarified this imperative, while the study by Terry Griffith entitled Keep Yourselves from Idols: A New Look at 1 John (JSNTSupp 233; London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002) views the verse as central to the meaning of the epistle as a whole. Griffith offers an outline of his study in this article for the Tyndale Bulletin. For another recent survey, see Benjamin L. Merkle, “What is the Meaning of ‘Idols’ in 1 John 5:21” Bibliotheca Sacra 169 (2012): 329-340. The charge of idolatry was a standard accusation that Jews leveled against non-Jewish religious practices and some Christian polemicists painted Jewish practices with the same brush (e.g., capitalizing on the biblical tradition of Israel’s worship of the golden calf or arguing that the temple cult became an idol). It seems to me most likely that idolatry is a charge against the opponents of the letter, for their false understanding and image of Jesus constitutes an idol.
Continuing on the theme of sin in 1 John, 5:16-17 speaks about a sin leading to death. There are different interpretative options about what this could refer to:
- A particular action that causes literal, physical death.
- A distinction between mortal and venial sins.
- A distinction between unintentional and intentional transgressions of the law.
- The unforgiveable sin against the Holy Spirit (cf. Mark 3:28-30 and parallels).
- The sin of apostasy (cf. Hebrews 6:4-6).
- The unrepentant sin of those outside the community in the world.
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).
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.
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).
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, Eccl. Hist. 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, Eccl. Hist. 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.
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:
- Judith M. Lieu, “Authority to Become Children of God: A Study of 1 John” Novum Testamentum 23.3 (1981): 210-228; “Us or You? Persuasion and Identity in 1 John” Journal of Biblical Literature 127 (2008): 805-19.
- Terry Griffith, “A Non-Polemical Reading of 1 John: Christology and the Limits of Johannine Christology” Tyndale Bulletin 49.2 (1998): 253-273.
- Hansjörg Schmid, “How to Read the First Epistle of John Non-Polemically” Biblica 85.1 (2004): 24-41.
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.