1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/John, The Epistles of

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21894931911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 15 — John, The Epistles ofJames Moffatt

JOHN, THE EPISTLES OF. The so-called epistles of John, in the Bible, are not epistles in the strict sense of the term, for the first is a homily, and encyclical or pastoral (as has been recognized since the days of Bretschneider and Michaelis), while the other two are brief notes or letters. Nor are they John’s, if John means the son of Zebedee. The latter conclusion depends upon the particular hypothesis adopted with regard to the general Johannine problem, yet even when it is held that John the apostle (q.v.) survived to old age in Ephesus, the second and third epistles may be fairly ascribed (with Erasmus, Grotius, Credner, Bretschneider, Reuss, &c.) to John the presbyter[1], as several circles in the early church held (“Opinio a plerisque tradita,” Jerome: De vir. ill. 18). An apostle indeed might call himself a presbyter (cf. 1 Pet. v. 1). But these notes imply no apostolic claim on the part of the author, and, although their author is anonymous, the likelihood is that their composition by the great Asiatic presbyter John led afterwards to their incorporation in the “instrumentum” of John the apostle’s writings, when the prestige of the latter had obscured the former. All hypotheses as to their pseudonymity or composition by different hands may be dismissed. They would never have floated down the stream of tradition except on the support of some primitive authority. If this was not connected with John the apostle the only feasible alternative is to think of John the presbyter, for Papias refers to the latter in precisely this fashion (Euseb. H. E. iii. 39, 15; καὶ τοῦτο ὁ π. ἔλεγε).

The period of all three lies somewhere within the last decade of the 1st century and the first decade of the 2nd. No evidence is available to determine in what precise order they were written, but it will be convenient to take the two smaller notes before the larger. The so-called Second Epistle of John is one of the excommunicating notes occasionally despatched by early Christian leaders to a community (cf. 2 Cor. v. 9). The presbyter or elder warns a Christian community, figuratively addressed as “the elect lady” (cf. 13 with 1 Pet. i. 1; v, 13; also the plural of 6, 8, 10 and 13), against some itinerant (cf. Didache xi. 1–2) teachers who were promulgating advanced Docetic views (7) upon the person of Christ. The note is merely designed to serve (12) until the writer arrives in person. He sends greetings to his correspondents from some community in which he is residing at present (13), and with which they had evidently some connexion.

The note was familiar to Irenaeus[2] who twice (i. 16, 3, iii. 16, 8) cites 10–11, once quoting it from the first epistle by mistake, but no tradition has preserved the name of the community in question, and all opinions on the matter are guess-work. The reference to “all who know the truth” (ver. 1) is, of course, to be taken relatively (cf. Rev. ii. 23); it does not necessarily imply a centre like Antioch or Rome (Chapman). Whiston thought of Philadelphia, and probably it must have been one of the Asiatic churches.

The so-called Third Epistle of John belongs to the ἐπίστολαι συστάτικαι (2 Cor. iii. 1) of the early church, like Rom. xvi. It is a private note addressed by the presbyter to a certain Gaius, a member of the same community or house-church (9) as that to which 2 John is written. A local errorist, Diotrephes (9–10) had repudiated the authority of the writer and his party, threatening even to excommunicate Gaius and others from the church (cf. Abbott’s Diatessarica, § 2258). With this opponent the writer promises (10) to deal sharply in person before very long. Meantime (14) he despatches the present note, in hearty appreciation of his correspondent’s attitude and character.

The allusion in 9 (ἔγραψα) refers in all likelihood to the “second” epistle (so Ewald, Wolf, Salmon, &c.). In order to avoid the suggestion that it implied a lost epistle, ἂν was inserted at an early stage in the textual history of the note. If ἐκκλήσιας could be read in 12, Demetrius would be a presbyter; in any case, he is not to be identified with Demas (Chapman), nor is there any reason to suppose (with Harnack)[3] that the note of 9 was written to, and suppressed by, him. What the presbyter is afraid of is not so much that his note would not be read (Ewald, Harnack), as that it would not be acted upon.

These notes, written originally on small sheets of papyrus, reveal the anonymous presbyter travelling (so Clem. Alex. Quis dives salv. xlii.) in his circuit or diocese of churches, and writing occasional pastoral letters, in which he speaks not only in his own name but in that of a coterie of like-minded Christians.[4] It is otherwise with the brochure or manifesto known as the “first epistle.” This was written neither at the request of its readers nor to meet any definite local emergency, but on the initiative of its author (i. 4) who was evidently concerned about the effect produced upon the Church in general by certain contemporary phases of semi-gnostic teaching. The polemic is directed against a dualism which developed theoretically into docetic views of Christ’s person (ii. 22, iv. 2, &c.), and practically into libertinism (ii. 4, &c.).[5] It is natural to think, primarily, of the churches in Asia Minor as the circle addressed, but all indications of date or place are absent, except those which may be inferred from its inner connexion with the Fourth Gospel.

The plan of the brochure is unstudied and unpremeditated, resembling a series of variations upon one or two favourite themes rather than a carefully constructed melody. Fellowship (κοινωνία) with God and man is its dominant note. After defining the essence of Christian κοινονία (i. 1–3),[6] the writer passes on to its conditions (i. 5–ii. 17), under the antithesis of light and darkness. These conditions are twofold: (a) a sense of sin, which leads Christians to a sense of forgiveness[7] through Jesus Christ, (b) and obedience to the supreme law of brotherly love (cf. Ignat. Ad Smyrn. 6). If these conditions are unfulfilled, moral darkness is the issue, a darkness which spells ruin to the soul. This prompts the writer to explain the dangers of κοινωνία (ii. 18–29), under the antithesis of truth and falsehood, the immediate peril being a novel heretical view of the person of

Christ. The characteristics of the fellowship are then developed (iii. 1–12), as sinlessness and brotherly love, under the antithesis of children of God (cf. ii. 29, “born of Him”) and children of the devil. This brotherly love bulks so largely in the writer’s mind that he proceeds to enlarge upon its main elements of confidence towards God (iii. 13–24), moral discernment (iv. 1–6), and assurance of union with God (iv. 7–21), all these being bound up with a true faith in Jesus as the Christ (v. 1–12).[8] A brief epilogue gives what is for the most part a summary (v. 13–21) of the leading ideas of the homily.[9]

Disjointed as the cause of the argument may seem, a close scrutiny of the context often reveals a subtle connexion between paragraphs which at first sight appear unlinked. Thus the idea of the κόσμος passing away (ii. 17) suggests the following sentences upon the nearness of the παρούσια (ii. 18 seq.), whose signs are carefully noted in order to reassure believers, and whose moral demands are underlined (ii. 28, iii. 3). Within this paragraph[10] even the abrupt mention of the χρίσμα has its genetical place (ii. 20). The heretical ἀντίχριστοι, it is implied, have no χρίσμα from God; Christians have (note the emphasis on ὑμεῖς), owing to their union with the true Χρίστος. Again, the genetic relation of iii. 4 seq. to what precedes becomes evident when we consider that the norm of Christian purity (iii. 3) is the keeping of the divine commandments, or conduct resembling Christ’s on earth (iii. 3–ii. 4–6), so that the Gnostic[11] breach of this law not only puts a man out of touch with Christ (iii. 6 seq.), but defeats the very end of Christ’s work, i.e. the abolition of sin (iii. 8). Thus iii. 7–10 resumes and completes the idea of ii. 29; the Gnostic is shown to be out of touch with the righteous God, partly because he will not share the brotherly love which is the expression of the righteousness, and partly because his claims to sinlessness render God’s righteous forgiveness (i. 9) superfluous. Similarly the mention of the Spirit (iii. 24) opens naturally into a discussion of the decisive test for the false claims of the heretics or gnostic illuminati to spiritual powers and gifts (iv. 1 seq.); and, as this test of the genuine Spirit of God is the confession of Jesus Christ as really human and incarnate, the writer, on returning (in iv. 17 seq.) to his cardinal idea of brotherly love, expresses it in view of the incarnate Son (iv. 9), whose mission furnishes the proof of God’s love as well as the example and the energy of man’s (iv. 10 seq.). The same conception of the real humanity of Jesus Christ as essential to faith’s being and well-being is worked out in the following paragraph (v. 1–12), while the allusion to eternal life (v. 11–12) leads to the closing recapitulation (v. 13–21) of the homily’s leading ideas under this special category.

The curious idea, mentioned by Augustine (Quaest. evang. ii. 39), that the writing was addressed ad Parthos, has been literally taken by several Latin fathers and later writers (e.g. Grotius, Paulus, Hammond), but this title probably was a corruption of ad sparsos (Wetstein, Wegschneider) or of πρὸς παρθένους (Whiston: the Christians addressed as virgin, i.e. free from heresy), if not of παρθένος, as applied in early tradition to John the apostle. The circle for which the homily was meant was probably, in the first instance, that of the Fourth Gospel, but it is impossible to determine whether the epistle preceded or followed the larger treatise. The division of opinion on this point (cf. J. Moffatt, Historical New Testament, 1901, p. 534) is serious, but the evidence for either position is purely subjective. There are sufficient peculiarities of style and conception[12] to justify provisionally some hesitation on the matter of the authorship. The epistle may have been written by a different author, or, from a more popular standpoint, by the author of the gospel, possibly (as some critics hold) by the author of John xxi. But res lubrica, opinio incerta.

It is unsafe to lay much stress upon the apparent reminiscence of iv. 2–3 (or of 2 John 7) in Polycarp, ad Phil. 7 reading ἐληλυθότα instead of ἑληλυθέναι), though, if a literary filiation is assumed, the probability is that Polycarp is quoting from the epistle, not vice versa (as Volkmar contends, in his Ursprung d. unseren Evglien 47 seq.). But Papias is said by Eusebius (H. E. iii. 39) to have used ἡ Ἰωάννου προτέρα (= ἡ Ἰωάννου πρώτη, v. 8?), i.e. the anonymous tract, which, by the time of Eusebius, had come to be known as 1 John, and we have no reason to suspect or reject this statement, particularly as Justin Martyr, another Asiatic writer, furnishes clear echoes of the epistle (Dial. 123). The tract must have been in circulation throughout Asia Minor at any rate before the end of the first quarter of the 2nd century.[13] The terminus a quo is approximately the period of the Fourth Gospel’s composition, but there is no valid evidence to indicate the priority of either, even upon the hypothesis that both came from the same pen. The aim of each is too special to warrant the conclusion that the epistle was intended to accompany or to introduce the gospel.

Literature.—The most adequate modern editions of the three epistles are by Westcott (3rd ed., 1892), H. J. Holtzmann (Hand-Commentar zum N. T., 3rd ed., 1908), B. Weiss (in Meyer, 6th ed., 1900), Baljon (1904) and J. E. Belser (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1906). Briefer English notes are furnished by W. Alexander (Speaker’s Commentary, 1881), W. H. Bennett (Century Bible, 1901) and H. P. Forbes (Internat. Handbooks to New Testament, vol. iv. 1907), while Plummer has a concise edition of the Greek text (in The Cambridge Greek Testament, 1886). Huther’s edition (in Meyer, 1880) has been translated into English (Edinburgh, 1882), like Rothe’s (1878) invaluable commentary on the first epistle (cf. Expository Times, vols. iii. v.). Otto Baumgarten’s popular edition in Die Schriften des N. T. (1907) is, like that of Forbes, written from practically the same standpoint as Holtzmann’s. The earlier commentaries of Alford (2nd ed., 1862), C. A. Wolf (2nd ed., 1885), Ewald (Die Joh. Briefe übersetzt und erklaert, Göttingen, 1861–1862), and Lücke (3rd ed., revised by Bertheau, 1856) still repay the reader, and among previous editions those of W. Whiston (Comm. on St John’s Three Catholic Epistles, 1719) and de Wette (1837, &c.) contain material of real exegetical interest. Special editions of the first epistle have been published by John Cotton (London, 1655), Neander (1851; Eng. trans. New York, 1853), E. Haupt (1869; Eng. trans. 1879), Lias (1887) and C. Watson (1891, expository) among others. Special studies by F. H. Kern (De epistolae Joh. consilio, Tübingen, 1830), Erdmann (Primae Joh. epistolae argumentum, nexus et consilium, Berlin, 1855), C. E. Luthardt (De primae Joannis epistolae compositione, 1860), J. Stockmeyer (Die Structur des ersten Joh. Briefes, Basel, 1873) and, most elaborately, by H. J. Holtzmann (Jahrb. für protest. Theologie, 1881, pp. 690 seq.; 1882, pp. 128 seq., 316 seq., 460 seq.). To the monographs already noted in the course of this article may be added the essays by Wiesinger (Studien und Kritiken, 1899, pp. 575 seq.) and Wohlenberg (“Glossen zum ersten Johannisbrief,” Neue Kirchliche Zeitschrift, 1902, pp. 233 seq., 632 seq.). On 2 John there are special commentaries and studies by Ritmeier (De electa domina, 1706), C. A. Kriegele (De κυρία Johannis, 1758), Carpzov (Theolog. exegetica, pp. 105–208), H. G. B. Müller (Comment. in secundam epistolam Joannis, 1783), C. Klug (De authentia, &c., 1823), J. Rendel Harris (Expositor, 6th series, 1901, pp. 194 seq.), W. M. Ramsay (ibid., pp. 354 seq.) and Gibbins (ibid., 1902, pp. 228–236), while, in addition to Hermann’s Comment, in Joan. ep. III. (1778), P. L. Gachon (Authenticité de la deuxième et troisième épîtres de Jean, 1851), Poggel (Der zweite und dritte Briefe d. Apostel Johannis, 1896), and Chapman (Journal of Theological Studies, 1904, “The Historical Setting of the Second and the Third Epistles of St John”), have discussed both of the minor epistles together. General studies of all three are furnished by H. J. Holtzmann in Schenkel’s Bibel-Lexicon, iii. 342–352, Sabatier (Encyclop. des sciences religieuses, vii. 177 seq.), S. Cox (The Private Letters of St Paul and St John, 1867), Farrar (Early Days of Christianity, chs. xxxi., xxxiv. seq.), Gloag (Introduction to Catholic Epistles, 1887, pp. 256–350), S. D. F. Salmond in Hasting’s Dict. Bible (vol. ii), G. H. Gilbert (The First Interpreters of Jesus, 1901, pp. 301–332), and V. Bartlet (The Apostolic Age, 1900, pp. 418 seq.; from a more advanced critical position by Cone (The Gospel and its Earliest Interpretations, 1893, pp. 320–327), P. W. Schmiedel (Ency. Bib., 2556–2562, also in a pamphlet, Evangelium, Briefe, und Offenbarung des Johannes, 1906; Eng. trans. 1908), J. Réville (Le Quatrième Evangile, 1901, pp. 49 seq.) and Pfleiderer (Das Urchristentum, 2nd ed., 1902, pp. 390 seq.). The problem of the epistles is discussed incidentally by many writers on the Fourth Gospel, as well as by writers on New Testament introduction like Zahn, Jacquier, Barth and Belser, on the Conservative side, and Hilgenfeld, Jülicher and von Soden on the Liberal. On the older Syriac version of 2 and 3 John, see Gwynn’s article in Hermathena (1890), pp. 281 seq. On the general reception of the three epistles in the early Church, Zahn’s paragraphs (in his Geschichte d. N. T. Kanons, i. 209 seq., 374 seq., 905 seq.; ii. 48 seq., 88 seq.) are the most adequate.  (J. Mt.) 

  1. So Selwyn, Christian Prophets (pp. 133–145), Harnack, Heinrici (Das Urchristenthum, 1902, pp. 129 seq.), and von Soden (History of Early Christian Literature, pp. 445–446), after Renan (L’Église chrétienne, pp. 78 seq.). Von Dobschütz (Christian Life in the Primitive Church, pp. 218 seq.) and R. Knopf (Das nachapost. Zeitalter, 1905, pp. 32 seq., &c.) are among the most recent critics who ascribe all three epistles to the presbyter.
  2. On the early allusions to these brief notes, cf. Gregory: The Canon and Text of the New Testament (1907), pp. 131, 190 seq., Westcott’s Canon of the New Testament, pp. 218 seq., 355, 357, 366, &c., and Leipoldt’s Geschichte d. neut. Kanons (1907), i. pp. 66 seq., 78 seq., 99 seq., 151 seq., 192 seq., 232 seq.
  3. In his ingenious study (Texte und Untersuchungen, xv. 3), whose main contention is adopted by von Dobschütz and Knopf. On this view (for criticism see Belser in the Tübing. Quartalschrift, 1897, pp. 150 seq., Krüger in Zeitschrift für die wiss. Theologie, 1898, pp. 307–311, and Hilgenfeld: ibid. 316–320), Diotrephes was voicing a successful protest of the local monarchical bishops against the older itinerant authorities (cf. Schmiedel, Ency. Bib., 3146–3147). As Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (Hermes, 1898, pp. 529 seq.) points out, there is a close connexion between ver. 11 and ver. 10. The same writer argues that, as the substitution of ἀγαπήτος for φίλτατος (ver. 1) “ist Schönrednerei und nicht vom besten Geschmacke,” the writer adds ὅν ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ.
  4. This is the force of the ἡμεῖς in 3 John 9–10 (cf. 1 John iv. 6, 14) “The truth” (3 John 3–5) seems to mean a life answering to the apostolic standard thus enforced and exemplified.
  5. Several of these traits were reproduced in the teaching of Cerinthus, others may have been directly Jewish or Jewish Christian. The opposition to the Messianic rôle of Jesus had varied adherents. The denial of the Virgin-birth, which also formed part of the system of Cerinthus, was met by anticipation in the stories of Matthew and Luke, which pushed back the reception of the spirit from the baptism to the birth, but the Johannine school evidently preferred to answer this heresy by developing the theory of the Logos, with its implicate of pre-existence.
  6. On the vexed question whether the language of this paragraph is purely spiritual or includes a realistic reference, cf. G. E. Findlay (Expositor, 1893, pp. 97 seq.), and Dr E. A. Abbott’s recent study in Diatessarica, §§ 1615–1620. The writer is controverting the Docetic heresy, and at the same time keeping up the line of communications with the apostolic base.
  7. The universal range (ii. 2) ascribed to the redeeming work of Christ is directed against Gnostic dualism and the Ebionitic narrowing of salvation to Israel; only ἡμεῖς here denotes Christians in general, not Jewish Christians. On the answer to the Gnostic pride of perfectionism (i. 8), cf. Epict. iv. 12, 19. The emphasis on “you all” (ii. 20) hints at the Gnostic aristocratic system of degrees among believers, which naturally tended to break up brotherly love (cf. 1 Cor. viii. 1 seq.). The Gnostics also held that a spiritual seed (cf. iii. 9) was implanted in man, as the germ of his higher development into the divine life; for the Valentinian idea cf. Iren. Adv. Haer. i. 64, and Tertull. De anima, 11 [haeretici] “nescio quod spiritale semen infulciunt animae”. Cf. the general discussions by Häring in Theologische Abhandlungen C. von Weizsäcker gewidmet (1892), pp. 188 seq., and Zahn in Wanderungen durch Schrift u. Geschichte (1892), pp. 3–74.
  8. Cf. Denney, The Death of Christ (1902), pp. 269–281. The polemical reference to Cerinthus is specially clear at this point. The death of Jesus was not that of a phantom, nor was his ministry from the baptism to the crucifixion that of a heavenly aeon which suffered nothing: such is the writer’s contention. “In every case the historical is asserted, but care is taken that it shall not be materialized: a primacy is given to the spiritual.... Except through the historical, there is no Christianity at all, but neither is there any Christianity till the historical has been spiritually comprehended.” The well-known interpolation of the three heavenly witnesses (v. 7) has now been proved by Karl Künstle (Das Comma Johanneum, 1905) to have originally come from the pen of the 4th century Spaniard, Priscillian, who himself denied all distinctions of person in the Godhead.
  9. On the “sin to death” (v. 16) cf. Jubilees xxi. 22, xxvi. 34 with Karl’s Johann. Studien (1898), i. 97 seq. and M. Goguel’s La Notion johannique de l’esprit (1902), pp. 147–153, for the general theology of the epistle. The conceptions of light and life are best handled by Grill in his Untersuchungen über die Entstehung des vierten Evgliums (1902), pp. 301 seq., 312 seq.
  10. In Preuschen’s Zeitschrift für die neutest. Wissenschaft (1907), pp. 1–8, von Dobschütz tries to show that the present text of ii. 28–iii. 12 indicates a revision or rearrangement of an earlier text. Cludius (Uransichten des Christentums, Altona, 1808) had already conjectured that a Gnostic editor must have worked over a Jewish Christian document.
  11. Dr Alois Wurm’s attempt (Die Irrlehrer im ersten Johannesbriefe, 1903) to read the references to errorists solely in the light of Jewish Christianity ignores or underrates several of the data. He is supported on the whole by Clemen, in Preuschen’s Zeitschrift (1905), pp. 271–281. There is certainly an anti-Jewish touch, e.g. in the claim of iii. 1 (note the emphatic ἡμῖν), when one recollects the saying of Aqiba (Aboth iii. 12) and Philo’s remark, καὶ γὰρ εἰ μήπω ἴκανοι θεοῦ παῖδες νομίζεσθαι γεγόναμεν, ἀλλά τοι τῆς ἀειδοῦς εἰκόνος αὐτοῦ, λόγου τοῦ ἱερωτ άτου θεοῦ γὰρ εἰκὼν λόγος ὁ πρεσβύτατος (De conf. ling. 28). But the antithesis of John and Cerinthus, unlike that of Paul and Cerinthus (Epiph. Haer. xxviii.), is too well based in the tradition of the early Church to be dismissed as a later dogmatic reflection, and the internal evidence of this manifesto corroborates it clearly.
  12. “The style is not flowing and articulated; the sentences come like minute-guns, as they would drop from a natural Hebrew. The writer moves, indeed, amidst that order of religious ideas which meets us in the Fourth Gospel, and which was that of the Greek world wherein he found himself. He moves amongst these new ideas, however, not with the practised felicity of the evangelist, but with something of helplessness, although the depth and serene beauty of his spirit give to all he says an infinite impressiveness and charm” (M. Arnold; God and the Bible, ch. vi.).
  13. By the end of the 2nd century it appears to have been fairly well-known, to judge from Origen, Irenaeus (iii. 16, 8), and Clement of Alexandria (Stran. ii. 15, 66). In the Muratorian canon, which mentions two epistles of John, it seems to be reckoned (cf. Kuhn, Das Murat. Fragment, pp. 58 f.) as an appendix or sequel to the Fourth Gospel. The apparent traces of its use in Ignatius (cf. Smyrn. vi. 2 = 1 John iii. 17; Smyrn. vii = 1 John iii. 14, and Eph. xviii. = 1 John v. 6) seem too insecure, of themselves, to warrant any hypothesis of filiation.