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JOHN, THE EPISTLES OF, PART 4-9
IV. Canonicity and Authorship.
1. Traditional View:
As to the reception of the Epistle in the church, it is needless to cite any later witness than Eusebius (circa 325), who classes it among the books (homologoumena) whose canonical rank was undisputed. It is quoted by Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (247-265), by the Muratorian Canon, Cyprian, Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus. Papias (who is described by Irenaeus as a "hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp") is stated by Eusebius to have "used some testimonies from John's former epistle"; and Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians (circa 115) contains an almost verbal reproduction of 1 Jn 4:3. Reminiscences of it are traced in Athenagoras (circa 180), the Epistle to Diognetus, the Epistle of Barnabas, more distinctly in Justin (Dial. 123) and in the Didache; but it is possible that the earliest of these indicate the currency of Johannine expressions in certain Christian circles rather than acquaintance with the Epistle itself. The evidence, however, is indisputable that this Epistle, one of the latest of the New Testament books, took immediately and permanently an unchallenged position as a writing of inspired authority. It is no material qualification of this statement to add that, in common with the other Johannine writings, it was rejected, for dogmatic reasons, by Marcion and the so-called Alogi; and that, like all the catholic epistles, it was unknown to the Canon of the ancient Syrian church, and is stated to have been "abrogated" by Theodore (Bishop of Mopsuestia, 393-428 AD).
2. Critical Views:
The verdict of tradition is equally unanimous that the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle are both the legacy of the apostle John in his old age to the church. All the Fathers already mentioned as quoting the Epistle (excepting Polycarp, but including Irenaeus) quote it as the work of John; and, until the end of the 16th century, this opinion was held as unquestionable. The first of modern scholars to challenge it was Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), who rejected the entire trio of Johannine Epistles as unapostolic; and in later times a dual authorship of the Gospel and the First Epistle has been maintained by Baur, H.J. Holtzmann, Pfleiderer, von Soden, and others; although on this particular point other adherents of the critical school like Julicher, Wrede and Wernle, accept the traditional view.
3. Internal Evidence:
Thus two questions are raised: first, what light does the Epistle shed upon the personality of its own author? And second, whether or not, the Gospel and the Epistle are from the same hand. Now, while the Epistle furnishes no clue by which we can identify the writer, it enables us very distinctly to class him. His relation to his readers, as we have seen, is intimate. The absence of explicit reference to either writer or readers only shows how intimate it was. For the writer to declare his identity was superfluous. Thought, language, tone--all were too familiar to be mistaken. The Epistle bore its author's signature in every line. His position toward his readers was, moreover, authoritative. As has already been said, the natural interpretation of 1 Jn 1:2,3 is that the relation between them was that of teacher and taught. (By this fact we may account for the enigmatic brevity of such a passage as that on the "three witnesses." The writer intended only to recall fuller oral expositions formerly given of the same topics.) The writer is at any rate a person of so distinctive eminence and recognized authority that it is not necessary to remind the readers either who he is or by what circumstances he is compelled now to address them through the medium of writing; their knowledge of both facts is taken for granted. And all this agrees with the traditional account of John's relation to the churches of Asia Minor in the last decades of the 1st century.
Further, the writer claims to be one of the original witnesses of the facts of the incarnate life: "That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us" (1 Jn 1:1-3). To understand the "Word of life" here as the gospel (Westcott, Rothe, Haupt) seems to the present writer frankly impossible; and not less so theories by which the words "what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes," etc., are regarded as utterances of the "faith-mysticism" or the "collective testimony" of the early church. It is difficult to imagine words more studiously adapted to convey the impression that the writer is one of the original, first-hand witnesses of Christ's life and resurrection ("that what we beheld, and our hands handled"; compare Lk 24:39). At furthest, the use of such language is otherwise compatible with veracity only on the supposition that the writer was recognized by the church as so closely identified with the original witnesses that he could speak of their testimony as virtually his own. But, apart from the presumption that he cannot have been one of the actual disciples of Jesus, there is really nothing to be said for this supposition. So far as the internal evidence is concerned, the ancient and unbroken tradition which assigns it to the apostle John must be regarded as holding the field, unless, indeed, the traditional authorship is disproved by arguments of the most convincing kind. Whether the arguments brought against the apostolic authorship of the Johannine writings as a whole possess this character is too large a question to be investigated here. Yet the kernel of it lies in small compass. It is whether room can be found within the 1st century for so advanced a stage of theological development as is reached in the Johannine writings, and whether this development can be conceivably attributed to one of Our Lord's original disciples. To neither of these questions, as it appears to the present writer, is a dogmatically negative answer warranted. If within a period comparatively so brief, Christian thought had already passed through the earlier and later Pauline developments, and through such a development as we find in the Epistle to the Hebrews, there is no obvious reason why it may not have attained to the Johannine, within the lifetime of the last survivor of the apostles. Nor, when we consider the nature of the intellectual influences, within and without the church, by which the apostle John was surrounded, if, as tradition says, he lived on to a green old age in Ephesus, is there any obvious reason why he may not have been the chief instrument of that development.
V. Relationship to the Fourth Gospel.
1. Common Characteristics:
The further question remains as to the internal evidence the Epistle supplies regarding its relation to the Fourth Gospel. Prima facie, the case for identity of authorship is overwhelmingly strong. The two writings are equally saturated with that spiritual and theological atmosphere; they are equally characterized by that type of thought which we call Johannine and which presents an interpretation of Christianity not less original and distinctive than Paulinism. Both exhibit the same mental and moral habit of viewing every subject with an eye that stedfastly beholds radical antagonisms and is blind to approximations. There is in both the same strongly Hebrew style of composition; the same development of ideas by parallelism or antithesis; the same repetition of keywords like "begotten of God," "abiding," "keeping his commandments"; the same monotonous simplicity in the construction of sentences, with avoidance of relative clauses and singular parsimony in the use of connecting particles; the same apparently tautological habit of resuming consideration of a subject from a slightly different point of view; the same restricted range of vocabulary, which, moreover, is identical to an extent unparalleled in two independent writings.
2. Coincidences of Vocabulary:
The evidence for these statements cannot be presented here in full; but the following are some of the words and phrases characteristic of both and not found elsewhere in the New Testament--the Word, joy fulfilled, to see (or behold) and bear witness, to do the truth, to have sin, Paraclete, to keep the word (of God or Christ), to abide (in God or in Christ), the true light, new commandment, little children (teknia), children (paidia), to abide for ever, begotten of God, to purify one's self, to do sin, to take away sins, works of the devil, to pass from death into life, murderer, to lay down one's life, to be of the truth, to give commandment, to hear (= to hear approvingly), no man hath beheld God at any time, knowing and believing, Saviour of the world, water and blood, to overcome the world, to receive witness, to give eternal life, to have eternal life (in present sense), to believe in the name. The following are some of the terms common to both, which are found very rarely elsewhere in the New Testament: Beginning (= past eternity), to be manifested (9 times in each), to bear witness (6 times in the Epistle, 33 times in the Gospel, once only in Matthew, once in Luke, not at all in Mark), light (metaphorical), walk (metaphorical), to lead astray, to know (God, Christ, or Spirit, 8 times in the Epistle, 10 times in the Gospel), true (alethinos), to confess Jesus (elsewhere only in Rom 10:9), children of God, to destroy (lauein, elsewhere only in 2 Pet), the spirit of truth, to send (apostellein, of mission of Christ), only begotten son, to have the witness (elsewhere only in Apocrypha), to hear (= to answer prayer).
3. Divergences of Vocabulary:
On the other hand, the divergences of vocabulary are not more numerous than might be expected in two writings by the same author but of different literary form. The rather notable difference in the choice and use of particles is accounted for by the fact that dialogue and narrative, of which the Gospel is largely composed, are foreign to the Epistle. The discrepancy, when closely examined, sometimes turns out to be a point of real similarity. Thus the particle oun occurs nearly 200 times in the Gospel, not at all in the Epistle. But in the Gospel it is used only in narrative, no occurrence of it being found, e.g. in John 14 through 16.
Of the words and phrases contained in the Epistle, but not in the Gospel, the great majority are accounted for by the fact that they are used in connection with topics which are not dealt with in the Gospel. Apart from these, the following may be noted, the most important being italicized: Word of life, fellowship, to confess sins (nowhere else in the New Testament), to cleanse from sin, propitiation (hilasmos, nowhere else in the New Testament), perfected or perfect love, last hour, Antichrist, anointing, to give of the spirit, to have (Father, Son) boldness (Godward), Parousia, lawlessness, seed (of God), come in the flesh, God is love, Day, of Judgment, belief (pistis), to make God a liar, understanding. As regards style and diction, therefore, it seems impossible to conceive of two independent literary productions having a more intimate affinity. The relation between them in this respect is far closer than that between the Acts of the Apostles and the Third Gospel, or even any two of Paul's Epistles, except those to the Ephesians and the Colossians.
4. Arguments against Unity of Authorship:
Arguments for a dual authorship are based chiefly on certain theological emphasis and developments in the Epistle, which are absent from the Gospel; and invariably these arguments have been pressed with complete disregard of the fact that the one writing purports, at least, to be a Gospel, the other, an utterance of the writer in propria persona. If, for example, it is urged that the words "He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins" have a more Pauline ring than any utterance of the Fourth Gospel, or that the conceptions in the Epistle of propitiation, intercession, and cleansing, are presented in a more explicit and technical form than in the Gospel, it is a fair reply to ask, Why not? Is it to be accepted as a canon of criticism that the writer of that Gospel must necessarily have put all his own theological expressions into the mouth of Him whose teaching he proposed to report? Much is made of the assertion that in the matter of the last things the Epistle recedes from the idealism of the Gospel, placing itself more nearly in line with the traditional apocalyptic eschatology. Whereas the Gospel speaks of Christ's bodily departure as the necessary condition of His coming again in the Spirit to make His permanent abode with His disciples (Jn 16:7), the writer of the Epistle thinks of a visible Parousia as nigh at hand (1 Jn 2:28); and whereas the Gospel conceives of judgment as a present spiritual fact (Jn 3:18,19), the Epistle clings to the "popular" idea of a Judgment Day. But it ought to be noted that in the Epistle, as compared with the Gospel, the eschatological perspective is foreshortened. The author writes under the conviction that "the world is passing away" and that the "last hour" of its day has come (1 Jn 2:17,18). And it is an unwarrantable assumption that he must, if he wrote the Gospel, have been guilty of the manifest anachronism of importing this conviction into it also. Apart from this the fundamental similarities between the eschatology of the Epistle and that of the Gospel are far more striking than the differences. In both, eternal life is conceived of as a present and not merely a future possession. In both, Christ's presence is an abiding reality--"Our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn 1:3). If the Gospel speaks of the revelation of Christ as bringing present and inevitable "judgment" into the world, the Epistle is saturated with the same thought. If, on the other hand, the Epistle speaks of a visible future Parousia, this is plainly implied in Jn 5:28,29. If the Epistle makes a single reference to the Day of Judgment (1 Jn 4:17), the Gospel has 6 passages which speak of the "last day," and in these the "last day" is explicitly the day of resurrection (Jn 11:24) and of judgment (Jn 12:48). In the two writings different features of the eschatological picture may be made more or less conspicuous; but there is no such diversity as to warrant the hypothesis of a separate authorship. Again, it is urged that in the Epistle the conception of the Logos is modified in the direction of conformity to traditional doctrine. The conception of the personal, preexistent Logos, who "in the beginning was," and "was with God," and "was God" (Jn 1:1) was new, it is said, and, because of its Gnostic tinge, suspect; and was therefore avoided and becomes in the Epistle the depersonalized "Word of life" (1 Jn 1:1). But why should the "Word of life" necessarily signify anything less personal than the phraseology of the Gospel? The phraseology in both cases is exactly adapted to its purpose. In the Gospel, "in the beginning was the Word .... and the Word became flesh" is right, because it sums up the contents of the Gospel, announces its subject, the history of the Incarnate Logos. In the Epistle, the "Word of life" is right, because theme is to be the life, not as to its historical manifestation in Jesus, but as to its essential characteristics, whether in God or in man.
Other arguments of a similar kind which have been put forward need not be considered. On the whole, it seems clear that, while there are between the Gospel and the Epistle differences of emphasis, perspective and point of view, these cannot be held as at all counterbalancing, on the question of authorship, the unique similarity of the two writings in style and vocabulary and in the whole matter and manner of thought, together with the testimony of a tradition which is ancient, unanimous and unbroken.
6. Question of Priority:
Regarding the question of priority as between the two writings, the only certainty is that the Epistle presupposes its readers' acquaintance with the substance of the Gospel (otherwise such expressions as "Word of life," "new commandment" would have been unintelligible); but that does not imply its subsequentness to the composition of the Gospel in literary form. By Lightfoot and others it is supposed to have been written simultaneously with the Gospel, and dispatched along with it as a covering letter to its original readers. In view, however, of the independence and first-rate importance of the Epistle, it is difficult to think of it as having originated in this way; and by the majority of scholars it is regarded as later than the Gospel and separated from it by an appreciable interval. That it was written with a "mediating" purpose (Pfleiderer), to "popularize" the ideas of the Gospel (Weizsacker), or to correct and tone down what in it was obnoxious to the feeling of the church, and at the same time to add certain links of connection (such as propitiation, Paraclete, Parousia) with the traditional type of doctrine, or to emphasize these where they existed (Holtzmann), is a theory which rests on an extremely slender basis; theory that it was written as a protest against Gnostic appropriation of the Fourth Gospel itself (Julicher) has no tangible basis at all.
That there was an appreciable interval between the two writings is probable enough. Gnostic tendencies have meanwhile hardened into more definite form. Many, false prophets have gone out into the world. The "antichrists" have declared themselves. The time has come for the evangelist to focus the rays of his Gospel upon the malignant growth which is acutely endangering the life of the church.
Commentaries are numerous and excellent. The most important are those by Calvin, Lucke, Ebrard, Haupt (of fine insight but grievous verbosity), Huther (specially valuable for its conspectus of all earlier exegesis), Westcott (a magazine of materials for the student of the Epistle), Alexander (in the Speaker's Commentary), Rothe (original, beautiful, profound), B. Weiss, H.J. Holtzmann, Plummer (in Cambridge Greek New Testament--scholarly and very serviceable); Brooke (in International Critical Commentary, excellent). Among the numerous expositions of the Epistle are those by Neander, Candlish, Maurice, Alexander (Expositor's Bible), Watson, J.M. Gibbon (Eternal Life), Findlay (Fellowship in the Life Eternal), Law (The Tests of Life--combined exposition and commentary); among books on Introduction, those by Weiss, Bleek, Hilgenfeld, Holtzmann, Julicher, Zahn, Salmon, Gloag, Peake; and, among books of other kinds, the relevant sections in Beyschlag, New Testament Theology; Pfleiderer, Urchristenthum; Harhack, Geschichte clef altchristl. Litteratur; Farrar, Early Days of Christianity; McGiffert, History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age; Stevens, Johannine Theology and Theology of the New Testament; articles by Salmond in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes); by Schmiedel in Encyclopedia Biblica, and by Haring in Theologische Abhandlungen, Carl von Weizsacker .... gewidmet. In German, the fullest investigation of the relationship of the Epistle to the Fourth Gospel will be found in a series of articles by H.J. Holtzmann in the Jahrbucher fur protestantische Theologie (1882-83); in English, in Brooke's commentary in Law, Tests of Life, 339-63. See also Drummond, Character and Authorship of the Fourth Gospel, chapter iii.
THE SECOND AND THIRD EPISTLES
1. Canonicity and Authorship:
It is not surprising that these brief and fugitive Epistles are among the New Testament writings which have had the hardest struggle for canonical recognition. One is probably, the other certainly, a private letter; and neither the same reason nor the same opportunity for their circulation existed, as in the case of church letters. The 2nd Epistle contains little that is distinctive; the 3rd Epistle is occupied with a vexatious episode in the internal history of a single congregation. Both are written by a person who designates himself simply as "the Presbyter"; and the names of the person (or church) to which the one is addressed and of the church with whose affairs the other is concerned are alike unknown. The fact, therefore, that, in spite of such obstacles, these letters did become widely known and eventually attained to canonical rank is proof of a general conviction of the soundness of the tradition which assigned them to the apostle John.
Like all the catholic epistles, they were unknown to the early Syrian church; when 1 John, 1 Peter and James were received into its Canon, they were still excluded, nor are they found even in printed editions of the Syriac New Testament till 1630. They were not acknowledged by the school of Antioch. Jerome distinguishes their authorship from that of the 1st Epistle. They are classed among the disputed books by Eusebius, who indicates that it was questioned whether they belonged to the evangelist or "possibly to another of the same name as he." Origen remarks that "not all affirm them to be genuine"; and, as late as the middle of the 4th century, the effort to introduce them in the Latin church met with opposition in Africa (Zahn).
On the other hand, we find recognition of their Johannine authorship at an early date, in Gaul (Irenaeus); Rome (Muratorian Canon, where, however, the reading is corrupt, and it is doubtful whether their authorship is ascribed or denied to the apostle John); Alexandria (Clement, who is reputed by Eusebius to have commented upon them, and who in his extant works speaks of John's "larger epistle," implying the existence of one or more minor epistles); Africa (Cyprian reports that 2 John was appealed to at the Synod of Carthage, 256 AD). Dionysius, Origen's disciple and successor, speaks of John's calling himself in them "the Presbyter." Eusebius, though conscientiously placing them among the antilegomena, elsewhere writes in a way which indicates that he himself did not share the doubt of their authenticity.
The internal evidence confirms the ultimate decision of the early church regarding these letters. Quite evidently the 2nd Epistle must have been written by the author of the 1st, or was an arrant and apparently purposeless piece of plagiarism The 3rd Epistle is inevitably associated with the 2nd by the superscription, "'the Presbyter," and by other links of thought and phraseology.
2. The Presbyter:
The mention of this title opens up a wide question. The famous extract from Papias (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, III, 39) vouches for the existence, among those who were or had been his contemporaries, of a certain "Presbyter" John (see JOHN, GOSPEL OF, II, 5). Jerome, moreover, speaks of the two smaller Epistles as, in contrast with the 1st, ascribed to the Presbyter (De Vir. Illustr., ix); Eusebius inclines to ascribe to him the Book of Revelation; and modern critics, like Weizsacker and Harnack, have improved upon the hint by finding in this shadowy personage the author of the Fourth Gospel. Into this far-reaching controversy, we cannot here enter. It may be noted, however, that whether, in the confusedly written passage referred to, Papias really intends to distinguish between John the Apostle and John the Presbyter is a point still in debate; and that Eusebius (Evangelica Demonstratio, III, 5) does not regard the title "Presbyter" as inapplicable to John, but observes that in his Epistles he "either makes no mention of himself or calls himself presbyter, nowhere apostle or evangelist." Dionysius, too, remarks that "in the 2nd and 3rd Epistles ascribed to him, he writes anonymously, as the Presbyter." These Fathers, both exceptionally learned men and presumably well acquainted with primitive usage, saw nothing anomalous, although they did see something characteristic, in the fact, or supposed fact, that an apostle should designate himself by the lowlier and vaguer title. In the very sentence from Papias already referred to, the apostles are called "presbyters"; not to say that in the New Testament itself we have an instance of an apostle's so styling himself (1 Pet 5:1).
To sum up, it is evident that no one desiring falsely to secure apostolic prestige for his productions would have written under so indistinctive a title; also, that these brief and very occasional letters could never have won their way to general recognition and canonical rank unless through general conviction of their Johannine authorship--the very history of these Epistles proving that the early church did not arrive at a decision upon such matters without satisfying itself of the trustworthiness of the tradition upon which a claim to canonicity was rounded; finally, the internal evidence testifies to an authorship identical with that of the 1st Epistle, so that the evidence cited regarding this is available also for those. These letters, along with Paul's to Philemon, are the only extant remains of a private apostolic correspondence which must have included many such, and for this reason, apart from their intrinsic worth, possess an interest, material and biographical, peculiar to themselves. We proceed to consider the two Epistles separately, and since an interesting question arises as to whether the 2nd is that referred to in 3 Jn 1:9, it will be convenient to reverse the canonical order in dealing with them.
The Third Epistle.
This brief note gives a uniquely authentic and intimate glimpse of some aspects of church life as it existed in Asia Minor (this may be taken as certain) somewhere about the end of the 1st century. It concerns a certain episode in the history of one of the churches under the writer's supervision, and incidentally furnishes character-sketches of two of its members, the large-hearted and hospitable Gaius, to whom it is written (and whom it is merely fanciful to identify with any other Gaius mentioned in the New Testament), and the loquacious, overbearing Diotrephes; also of the faithful Demetrius, by whose hand probably the letter is sent. The story which may be gathered from the Epistle seems to be as follows. A band of itinerant teachers had been sent out, by the Presbyter's authority, no doubt, and furnished by him with letters of commendation to the various churches, and among others to that of which Gaius and Diotrephes were members. Diotrephes, however, whether through jealousy for the rights of the local community or for some personal reason, not only declined to receive the itinerant teachers, but exerted his authority to impose the same course of action upon the church as a whole, even to the
length of threatening with excommunication (3 Jn 1:10) those who took a different view of their duty. Gaius alone had not been intimidated, but had welcomed to his home the repulsed and disheartened teachers, who when they returned (to Ephesus, probably) had testified to the church of his courageous and large-hearted behavior (3 Jn 1:6). A 2nd time, apparently, the teachers are now sent forth (3 Jn 1:6), with Demetrius as their leader, who brings this letter to Gaius, commending his past conduct (3 Jn 1:5) and encouraging him to persevere in it (3 Jn 1:6). The Presbyter adds that he has dispatched a letter to the church also (3 Jn 1:9); but evidently he has little hope that it will be effectual in overcoming the headstrong opposition of Diotrephes; for he promises that he will speedily pay a personal visit to the church, when he will depose Diotrephes from his pride of place and bring him to account for his scornful "prating" and overbearing conduct (3 Jn 1:10). So far as appears, the cause of friction was purely personal or administrative. There is no hint of heretical tendency in Diotrephes and his party. Pride of place is his sin, an inflated sense of his own importance and a violent jealousy for what he regarded as his own prerogative, which no doubt he identified with the autonomy of the local congregation.
The Second Epistle.
The letter is addressed to "the elect lady" (better, to "the lady Electa"). Its tone throughout is peculiarly affectionate; there is a warmer rush of emotion, especially in the opening verses, than is characteristic of John's usual reserve. But in these verses the keynote of the Epistle is struck--truth. The writer testifies his love for his correspondent and her children "in truth"; this love is shared by all who "know the truth" (2 Jn 1:1), and it is "for the truth's sake which abideth in us, and it shall be with us for ever" (2 Jn 1:2). What follows (2 Jn 1:4-9) is in effect an epitome of the 1st Epistle. After declaring his joy at finding certain of her children "walking in truth," he proceeds to expound, quite in the style of the 1st Epistle, what "walking in truth" is. It is to love one another (2 Jn 1:5; compare 1 Jn 2:7-11); but this love is manifested in keeping God's commandments (2 Jn 1:6a; compare 1 Jn 5:2,3); and no less in stedfast adherence to the genuine doctrine of the Gospel (compare 1 Jn 3:23). "For many deceivers are gone forth into the world, even they that confess not that Jesus Christ cometh in the flesh" (2 Jn 1:7; compare 1 Jn 4:1-3). Then follows an exhortation to stedfastness (2 Jn 1:8), and a warning that whoever in the name of progress departs from this teaching "hath not God," while he who abides in it "hath both the Father and the Son" (2 Jn 1:9; compare 1 Jn 2:23,14). This leads up to the immediately practical point, a warning to extend no hospitality and show no friendliness to the false teachers (2 Jn 1:10,11); and the Epistle closes with the hope of a speedy and joyful meeting "face to face" of the writer and his correspondent, to whom he conveys greetings from the children of her "elect sister."
Whether the "elect lady," or "lady Electa" of his letter is a real person or the personification of a church is a point which has been debated from ancient times and is still unsolved. The solution has been found, it is true, if we can accept the hypothesis (put forward by Zahn and Schmiedel and adopted by Findlay) that this is the letter referred to in 3 Jn 1:9. It is urged on behalf of this supposition that the two Epistles are curiously identical in phraseology. In both the writer begins by describing his correspondent as one whom "I love in truth"; in both he uses a distinctive phrase (echaren lian), 2 Jn 1:4, "I rejoice greatly," not found elsewhere in the New Testament to declare his joy at finding "thy (my) children walking in the truth"; and in both he concludes by saying that he has "many things to write," but that, looking forward to an early interview "face to face," he will not commit these further thoughts to "paper and ink." It is argued that "none but a chancery clerk could have clung so closely to his epistolary formulas" in two private letters written at different periods. But the force of this argument largely vanishes when we look at the formulas in question. If a modern writer may conclude hundreds of friendly letters by subscribing himself "yours sincerely," or something equivalent, why may not the Presbyter have commenced these two and many similar letters by assuring his correspondents that he sincerely loved them? And again, one in his official position must often have had occasion to say that he hoped soon to pay a personal visit, in view of which, writing at greater length was unnecessary. Even if the likeness in phraseology makes it probable that the two letters were written simultaneously, this by no means proves that the one was written to Gaius, the other to the church of which Gaius and Diotrephes were members. Zahn calculates that 2 John would occupy 32 lines, and 3 John not quite 31 lines of ancient writing, and infers that the author used two pages of papyrus of the same size for both letters; but why we are to identify 2 John with the letter mentioned in 3 John because both happen to fill the same size of note paper is not quite clear.
On the other hand, the difficulties in the way of this attractive hypothesis are too substantial to be set aside. The two Epistles belong to entirely different situations. Both deal with the subject of hospitality; but the one forbids hospitality to the wrong kind of guests, and says nothing about the right kind, the other enjoins hospitality to the right kind and says nothing about the wrong kind. In the one the writer shows himself alarmed about the spread of heresy, in the other, about the insubordination of a self-important official. Is it conceivable that the Presbyter should send at the same time a letter to Gaius in which he promises that he will speedily come with a rod for Diotrephes (who had carried the church along with him), and another to the church in which that recalcitrant person was the leading spirit, in which he expresses the hope that when he comes and speaks face to face their "joy may be made full"--a letter, moreover, in which the real point at issue is not once touched upon? Such a procedure is scarcely imaginable.
We are still left, then, with the question What kind of entity, church or individual, is entitled "the lady Electa"? (See ELECT LADY, where reasons are given for preferring this translation.) The address of the letter is certainly much more suggestive of an individual than of a church. After all that has been so persuasively argued, notably by Dr. Findlay (Fellowship in the Life Eternal, chapter iii), from the symbolizing of the church as the Bride of Christ, it remains very hard for the present writer to suppose that, in the superscription of a letter and without any hint of symbolism, anyone could address a particular Christian community as "the elect lady" or the "lady elect." On the other hand, the difficulties urged against the personal interpretation are not so grave as sometimes represented. The statement, "I have found certain of thy children walking in truth," does not imply that others of them were not doing so, but emphasizes what had come under the writer's personal observation. Nor can we pronounce the elevated and didactic love of the letter more suitable to a church than to an individual without taking into account the character, position and mutual relations of the correspondents. The person (if it was a person) addressed was evidently a Christian matron of high social standing--one able in a special degree to dispense hospitality, and of wide influence, one beloved of "all them that know the truth," whose words would be listened to and whose example would be imitated. And, in view of the ominous spreading of the leaven of Antichrist, it is not difficult to suppose that the Presbyter should write to such a person in such a strain. Nor does there seem to be anything especially odd in the fact of the children of a private family sending their respects to their aunt through the apostle John (Findlay). If he was intimate with that family, and in their immediate vicinity at the time of writing, it appears a natural thing for them to have done. Possibly Dr. Harris' "exploded" prehistoric countess of Huntington" is not so far astray as a modern equivalent of the lady Electa.
On the 2nd and 3rd Epistles see Commentaries: Lucke, Huther, Ebrard, Holtzmann, Baumgarten, Westcott, Plummer, Bennett, Brooke; Expositions: Findlay, Fellowship in the Life Eternal; S. Cox, The Private Letters of Paul and John; J.M. Gibbon, The Eternal Life.
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'JOHN, THE EPISTLES OF, PART 4-9'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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