The Johannine Writings/Part II, Chapter III
THE SECOND AND THIRD EPISTLES OF JOHN.
THE agreement which we have noticed in the mode of expression and the
thought of the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle, is much less
pronounced when we turn to the Second Epistle, and disappears even more
in the Third. On the other hand, these two Epistles supplement the
First from a new point of view.
1. PURPOSE OF THE TWO EPISTLES.
If we take note of what is most peculiar in them, we cannot help seeing
that their main purpose is to insist that with certain members of the
Christian Church communion must be ended. We read in 2 Jn. 10 f.: "If
any one cometh unto you, and bringeth not this (the right) teaching,
receive him not into your house and give him no greeting: for he that
giveth him greeting partaketh in his evil works." Here the Gnostics are
intended who are called in verse 9 people who "go onward."
In the Third Epistle the opposition to these is less perceptible; there
was less opportunity, for the occasion for this Epistle was provided by
disputes between the author and a certain Diotrephes as to the
authoritative influence in the community. "I wrote somewhat unto the
Church; but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them,
receiveth us not . . . neither doth he himself receive the brethren,
and them that would he forbiddeth, and casteth them out of the Church"
(3 Jn. 9 f.). These brethren are therefore travelling Christians, who
belong to the party of the author. The idea of the Epistle is to
request Gaius, to whom it is addressed, to receive them kindly. The
author claims to have an influence extending beyond his own
dwelling-place. The Demetrius who is mentioned at the end of the
Epistle, and of whom it is expressly stated that he "hath the witness
of all men," may well have conveyed it himself.
2. ADDRESS OP THE TWO EPISTLES.
The Third Epistle, then, is addressed to a particular person. At first
sight, this seems to be so with the Second Epistle as well, when we
read, "the elder unto the elect lady and her children." But who is the
lady? The last sentence of the Epistle runs: "The children of thine
elect sister salute thee." Does the author actually write from the
house of the sister of the recipient? And what does verse 4 mean? "I
rejoice greatly that I have found certain of thy children walking in
truth." Only certain? Was there not greater cause to express sorrow for
the others? In short, the "lady" is not a particular woman; she is a
community. We learn from Ephes. v. 31 f.; Rev. xix. 7, that the
community was thought of as the bride of Christ who had been exalted to
heaven, just as in the Old Testament the people of Israel is the bride
of God. Since Christ is called "the Lord," the community might be
called "the lady." It deserves to be called "elect" because it consists
of all the chosen. Its children are of course the members of the
We need not stop to think, as regards this matter, that a community had
been shown to be meant instead of what appeared at first sight to be
one woman. Where should we have to look for it? There is no clue to
anything of the kind. Any community, therefore, might suppose that it
was greeted by that other community in which the author was staying.
This means that the Epistle was meant for the whole church, and its
contents suit this idea quite well. For a secondary purpose of the
Epistle is found in the fact that the author wishes to warn people in
quite a general way against the Gnostics and to emphasise the correct
teaching about Jesus (2 Jn. 7-9). In this respect it falls into line
with the first Epistle.
3. AUTHOR OF THE TWO EPISTLES AND DATE OF COMPOSITION.
While the Second Epistle insists, not only on opposition to, but on the
expulsion of the Gnostics, it goes beyond the First, and so might with
the Third seem to be later. Unfortunately we have no definite points
from which to start in order to determine the date at which both were
written. Yet, on the other hand, there is another fact which leads us
to suppose that they preceded the Gospel and the First Epistle.
The author of both Epistles, that is to say, calls himself simply, "the
elder." How it could be thought that, in spite of this clear
description, he was the Apostle, is really difficult to explain. If we
cannot say for certain who is meant by "the elder," yet it is clear
that the Apostle would not have described himself in this way. When we
read in v. 1 of the First Epistle of Peter (which, besides, is not by
Peter, but was written at the beginning of the persecution of the
Christians in Asia Minor in the year 112; see iv. 12, 15 f.), that
Peter is addressing the elders of the community, and for this special
reason calls himself their fellow elder we have something quite
different. But, besides this, we know of one quite famous person who is
continually called "the elder"; this is John "the Elder," head of the
Church in Asia Minor. The use of his special name "the elder" may very
well have been so widespread that his real name John was omitted.
Was he the writer of the Epistles? If the Gnostics did not succeed in
gaining a following in the Christian communities until about the year
100 (p. 192), a considerable period of time must have elapsed before
people would take measures to exclude them so harshly from communion.
For many decades they regarded themselves as members of the Church,
and, though they were opposed by other teachers in it, they were
treated everywhere with toleration, A personal disciple of Jesus, such
as John the Elder was, cannot have lived to see the time when they were
excluded from communion.
Another person in his circle, who is not known to us, may have had the
same title, and in course of time have come to be known solely by this
name, "the Elder." But in view of the close relationship between, at
least, the Second Epistle on the one hand and the First and the Gospel
on the other, it is very likely that the author is supposed to be that
John the Elder whom Irenaeus and the other Christian writers had in
mind, even though they mentioned the Apostle as the writer of the
Gospel and the First Epistle. Only, in that case, the two small
Epistles would have been composed merely in the name of John the Elder,
just as the First Epistle and (perhaps) the Gospel are represented as
being works of John the Apostle.
And this would be the reason for supposing these two to be the earlier
of the four writings in question. On this assumption, we shall have to
think that in one particular place, Ephesus perhaps, there was a whole
number of persons of like mind who were filled with a feeling of
veneration for John the Elder, once head of this community, and at the
same time were anxious, by writing books, to make their ideas current
in the Church. Even if these ideas had ceased to be quite identical
with those of their former Master, it was most natural for them to
publish their first writings in his name. But perhaps they were made to
realise that his reputation had not extended beyond the immediate
circle in which he had once worked. In order, therefore, to make a
greater impression, when they thought of publishing new works, such as
the Gospel and the First Epistle, they felt obliged to choose a person
who ranked still higher and publish them in his name; this person was
John the Apostle. In this way the two small Epistles, in spite of the
fact that their range is restricted, would contribute not a little
towards giving us a very interesting and instructive glimpse of a whole
series of events and struggles, which the idea that arose later, that
their author was John the Apostle, to all intents and purposes served
to overcloud completely.