This introduction will focus primarily on 1 John. Because 2 John and 3 John left a much smaller footprint in patristic annals, there is little to discuss by way of specific evidence for matters like their date, provenance, audience, and reception history until more than a century after their putative composition. What can be said is that the language and substance of 2 John and 3 John, like that of 1 John, relate them to the Gospel of John (demonstrated concisely long ago by Weiss 1887-88: 2.186-87, 198; see also Holtzmann 1908: 362). And as Hill (2004: 450) shows, knowledge of John’s Gospel and at least two of his letters is probably attested in half a dozen writers prior to Irenaeus, perhaps as early as the late first century. This would be within scant years of the epistles’ composition and not long after the Fourth Gospel’s first appearance. The Johannine tradition inscripturated in the extant canonical writings takes us back to within living memory of what the writer of John’s Letters seeks to describe and apply to his readers’ situation.
It would be frustrating, if not futile, to interpret ancient texts whose original wording is uncertain. The Johannine Epistles, in part or as a whole, have been preserved in about six hundred manuscripts, including two papyri (Klauck 1991: 4). They offer “relatively few text-critical problems,” and no proposed emendation has found wide assent (1991: 5, 8).
Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Metzger 1994: 639-51) discusses variants at some thirty-nine junctures:
The variants listed are significant, first, in the sense that the Editorial Committee of the United Bible Societies deemed them important for Bible translators to be aware of in their work of rendering the NT into vernacular languages around the world. These variants have also been at the center of discussion in establishing what remains today’s standard critical Greek text for scholarly research (NA27 = UBS4). As this commentary will demonstrate in detailed consideration of variants, no major doctrines or points of interpretation are seriously affected by manuscript deviation. The wealth of witnesses allows, if not definitive clarification, then at least well-informed conjecture, wherever ambiguities exist.
Work on the text of John’s Letters has not stood still since the labors of the UBS Editorial Committee several decades ago. The Institute for New Testament Textual Research at the University of Münster in Germany conducted its own investigations and published its impressive findings on 1 John (B. Aland et al. 2003a; 2003b) and 2-3 John (B. Aland et al. 2005a; 2005b). Their selection of significant manuscript witnesses stands at 143 (not all of the six hundred extant witnesses noted above are significant for text-critical purposes): 2 papyri (9 [third century, containing several verses of 1 John 4] and 74 [seventh century, containing much of 1-3 John]), 13 uncials, 117 minuscules, and 11 lectionaries (B. Aland et al. 2003b: B91). In addition, 37 other witnesses are excluded “because they are of minor importance for the history of the text” (2003b: B91), meaning that the selection of witnesses is actually about 180. There are said to be 761 “passages with variants in 1 John,” most of which are scribal miscues of no significance (B. Aland et al. 2003a: 28*), like spelling or word order or inadvertent errors. In the end, “due to the simple style of 1 John there are very few passages where difficulties lead to major variants.”
Like the UBS Editorial Committee, the Münster Institute scholars find that about forty 1 John passages require discussion. In a striking confirmation of the UBS committee’s earlier work, as well as of the stability of the textual witness, the Institute after years of work and thousands of hours of labor concluded that it would correct the current NA27/UBS4 Greek text at only three junctures in 1 John: (1) in 1:7 δέ (de, but) should be omitted; (2) in 5:10 ἐν ἑαυτῷ (en heautō, in himself) should be ἐν αὐτῷ (en autō, in him); and (3) in 5:18 αὐτόν (auton, him) should be ἑαυτόν (heauton, himself). In the world of scholarship, this counts as valuable corroboration of academic work old and new.
Our state of textual certainty for 1 John is very high. The numerous variants inherent in the manual copying process offer rich potential for reflection on lexical possibility and semantic nuance, but they offer no room for pessimism regarding whether we know almost exactly what the original text contained.
There are discussable variants in John’s second epistle at 2 John 1, 3, 5, 8 (2×), 9, 11, 12, and 13 (Metzger 1994: 652-54). All are interesting but none critical for interpretation. The same can be said of 3 John, for which Metzger (1994: 655) discusses variants at 3 John 4, 9, and 15. These variants, plus about thirty more in 2 John and some three dozen more in 3 John, will be listed and discussed in the commentary.
If the first concern of a commentary is the integrity of the text to be interpreted, the second is the identity of the writer, if this can be determined. The position taken in this commentary concurs with that expressed by Carson (2000: 132): “In line with the majority view among Christian students during the past two thousand years (though out of step with today’s majority), I think it highly probable that John the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel and the three letters that traditionally bear his name.”
Extended technical justifications for this position—that John’s Letters have the same author as John’s Gospel and that all were written by Jesus’s disciple John son of Zebedee—are accessible in NT introductions like that of Carson and Moo (2005: 229-54), in newer commentaries like those of Köstenberger (2004: 6-8) and Keener (2003: 81-114), and in monographs like Blomberg’s (2001: 22-41). The emerging work of Hill (2004) appears to be tending in this direction as well. Yarid (2003) makes a detailed comparison between 1 John and the Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17). Scholtissek (2004) writes of the close relationship between John’s Gospel and 1 John seen in recent German scholarship, though his view that 1 John is simply an ad hoc epistolary rewrite of elements taken from the Fourth Gospel is unconvincing. Each of these studies cites corroborating sources. Finally, Bauckham (2006: 358-411) argues convincingly for the eyewitness origin of John’s Gospel and John’s Letters, though he thinks John is the Beloved Disciple mentioned in the Gospel, who was in turn the Elder who wrote the epistles. Bauckham’s view concurs with that of this commentary that the Johannine corpus is not a literary contrivance or spiritual meditation but grows out of personal historical reminiscence of the life, teaching, and abiding will of Jesus.
It would be possible to leave the matter there. But as the series preface indicates, this commentary targets people who are “involved in the preaching and exposition of the Scriptures as the uniquely inspired Word of God.” Such readers typically want to know whether what the text says is true. Some may be reading and teaching John’s Letters in parts of the world where Christians face ostracism and even persecution for the faith they profess. No responsible teacher wants to be sending people into danger and perhaps death based on old writings that lack veracity. The opening verses of 1 John claim that the author was an eyewitness of Jesus’s life. If this was really the case, the credibility of the letter is considerably enhanced. And since 2 John and 3 John stand in close conceptual relation—to each other and to 1 John—the gravity of their admittedly sketchy content is maximized. The Jesus Christ presupposed and presented in John’s Letters takes the shape of a savior and master worthy of serious consideration and perhaps personal devotion. Luther (1967: 219) grasped this regarding 1 John: “This is an outstanding epistle. It can buoy up afflicted hearts. Furthermore, it has John’s style and manner of expression, so beautifully and gently does it picture Christ to us.”
D. F. Strauss (1808-74) is commonly credited with being among the first of an illustrious line of scholars who worked hard to destroy the status of the canonical Gospels as possible sources of firsthand information regarding the things they report. In the judgment of many, he largely succeeded, as the generations of Gospels criticism since then attest. Grant and Tracy (1984: 12) observe that “more than a century of modern critical study make[s] it impossible for us to employ the Gospel of John in interpreting the thought of Jesus himself.” But Strauss (1972: 69) also stated, “It would most unquestionably be an argument of decisive weight in favour of the credibility of the biblical history, could it indeed be shown that it was written by eye-witnesses, or even by persons nearly contemporaneous with the events narrated.” I believe it can be and has been shown on cogent grounds that John’s Gospel, and following from that John’s Letters, are rightly understood as authored by an eyewitness to Jesus’s ministry. The classic treatment, never really refuted, is Westcott (1881: v-xxxv; 1908: ix-lxvii), whose findings on this point are substantially confirmed and extended more recently by Blomberg (2001) as well as in commentaries and other works already cited above. Reim (2005: 101n15) states: “As far as I can see, in the Johannine Jesus-discourses there are virtually no words of serious substance not contained in the Synoptic words of Jesus and in Old Testament words of God or of the Messiah.” The distance between John’s writings and the Jesus of which they speak may be less vast and total than commonly supposed.
Nevertheless, it will not escape the notice of many conscientious preachers, students, and other thinking persons that a considerable mass of scholarly literature weighs heavily against the notion of the possibility of the Johannine tradition’s close proximity to Jesus and his actual times. And so I offer a short characterization of Johannine studies in recent decades to help explain why I do not view the current majority consensus as compelling. I want readers to see why the consensus rejecting Johannine and eyewitness authorship commands respect but not necessarily obeisance. This is in no way to detract from the hard empirical work (which I do not intend to recount or extend here) that scholars like Carson, Köstenberger, Keener, Blomberg, Hill, Bauckham, and others have done, from several important vantage points, to call the consensus into question and establish the plausibility of a more credible historical account. It is enough to provide a larger context for viewing some currently dominant opinions that leave no room for dissent and a different conclusion. The point is to provide soft justification (harder justification is found in the works of the scholars referred to above) for the starting point of this commentary’s reading of the texts before us.
From early times and through most of the history of the church, 1 John, like the Gospel of John, was generally thought to have been written by the disciple of Jesus who bore that name (so also Witherington 2006: 394, 396). (Due probably to their brevity and limited horizon, 2 John and 3 John were much slower to receive widespread circulation and approbation in the early Christian centuries. To this day, most churches could function a whole lifetime without 2 John or 3 John in their Bibles and never miss their absence.) Rensberger (2001: 2) notes that “early on, by the second century in fact, Christian tradition identified their author as John son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles.” In the first Christian centuries, until Eusebius, there is scant record of anyone but this John being associated with the five books of the NT with which he is traditionally associated. Witherington’s peculiar claim (2006: 395n5) that “from a very early date... there was doubt that the Fourth Gospel, at least in its final form, was written by the same person who wrote these Epistles” is unconvincing and seems to be based solely on a statement by Isho‘dad of Merv (ninth century). Similarly, Perkins (2004: 19) makes it sound like the identification of the Gospel writer with the author of one or more Johannine Letters was a post-fourth-century development. But the historical evidence runs in the exact opposite direction. Behind this encroachment of misinformation in some circles lies a fascinating story.
At the time of the Enlightenment (eighteenth century), a revolutionary approach to biblical study began to establish itself, particularly in Germany, where Lutheran and Reformed scholars excelled in scholarly attention to the Bible. “In nineteenth-century Germany the critical movement reached its peak” (Grant and Tracy 1984: 5). It was revolutionary foremost in the success it met, not in its genius, for doubt, skepticism, and hostility toward the message and person of Jesus as his followers understood him were virulent already in Jesus’s lifetime. The treasured hallmarks of (post)modern Western intellectual belief—doubt, skepticism, and in the end indifference if not hostility toward the message of the cross—can be reconstructed in considerable detail from the NT and extra-NT sources. Hill (2004: 204-93) shows how second-century gnostics reacted to John and responded to his ideas in either an adversarial or supersessionary way. Biting skepticism of Christian claims can be studied in fairly full dress in the form of Celsus’s powerful “intellectual” attacks on Christians (and Jews) around 180 (Hoffman 1987). So in a fundamental sense the Enlightenment in biblical studies marks a political victory as much as an intellectual one, as it did not really arrive at new objections to Christian faith so much as it set in motion dynamics that gradually enshrined repristinated versions of ancient disbelief of historic Christianity in European Protestant universities that trained pastors. For example, when Adolf Schlatter enrolled in theological college in Switzerland in 1871, taking classes to prepare him for parish ministry, his philosophy professor was Friedrich Nietzsche. Two generations earlier, D. F. Strauss was taught NT by a professor (F. C. Baur) who rejected the historic Christianity he had embraced as a youth in favor of the Hegelian panentheism eventually immortalized as a central plank in the platform of the Tübingen School (Harris 1975). Handing over theological education to people with waning or no appetite for creedal Christian belief had the trickle-down effect of schooling generations of parishioners in post-Christian convictions, even though broadly speaking the gradually spreading consensus offered few critical insights that were not at least latent in ancient objections to Christian truth claims.
To sum up, at the Enlightenment the theological synthesis of historic Christianity (see Oden 2003) was rejected by influential individuals who were often not very sympathetic to it in the first place. To justify this, and to extend alternate syntheses like Continental rationalism (growing out of English Deism), Hegelian philosophy of religion, Ritschlian liberalism, and the dogmatics, as it were, of the so-called history of religions school, the foundational historical bases of Christian doctrine were increasingly assaulted. Within a few generations leading universities and theological schools were increasingly teaching the Christian Scriptures from the basis of post-Christian construals of them. Today, while attempts are continually made to argue that the effects of historical criticism (a convenient term for the hermeneutical approach that the Enlightenment championed and that is still dominant among many biblical scholars) are or by rights should be irrelevant for faith (e.g., Culpepper 1998: 37; Schnelle 1998: 14; Ehrman 2004: 14), this could be true only of a faith foreign to biblical writers. For they predicated their confessional claims on a God who created the world, superintended history, and revealed himself definitively and knowably within that material-temporal nexus through divinely appointed spokespersons and ultimately writers who bequeathed the Scriptures to God’s people and thereby to the world (cf. Grant and Tracy 1984: 3-4). First John speaks much of just such faith. It is inconceivable that the author would assent to the proposition that the historical basis of 1 John 1:1-3 is irrelevant to his subsequent expressions of and calls for faith in the crucified and risen Jesus.
Today, after over two centuries of development of what has by now become a fairly predictable, traditional, and professionally obligatory outlook in many centers of learning, it has become customary for scholars to disconnect the author John from the apostle John son of Zebedee (Schnelle 1998: 456; Ehrman 2004: 174; Witherington 2006: 395). Moreover, “1 John was not composed by the evangelist” who wrote the Fourth Gospel (Perkins 2004: 21). Further, the Letters of John (which themselves may come from different hands, so Holladay 2005: 521) were produced by a community rather than an individual (Schnelle 1998: 436-38; Rensberger 2001: 3). For that matter, even the Fourth Gospel does not go back to a follower of Jesus; it was rather produced by “a theologian of the later period who, on the basis of comprehensive traditions, rethought the meaning of Jesus’ life, and interpreted and presented it in his own way” (Schnelle 1998: 474; cf. Lincoln 2002). This view tends to be presented as some daring and avant-garde find of cutting-edge scholarship, but a century ago Wrede (1907: 230) stated this outlook with admirable frankness:
If one views [John’s] chief intention as the transmission of actual history, many features of the narrative become practically grotesque and ridiculous. Historically speaking, the following features, and many others, are simply pure impossibilities: that Jesus interacted with the Jews regarding his execution or the Last Supper; that he discussed Johannine theology with the Roman procurator; that his simplest words met with the most massive misunderstanding; that in prayers to God he used dogmatic formulations or reflections on the working of prayer on those who listened to him. However, whoever recognizes that the author is led by intentions entirely different than historical ones, that it is his ideas and biases which reshape and idealize [beseelen] the received material [i.e., the oral tradition] and add numerous traditions to it—that person learns to understand why so much must strike us as strange and odd, so delusional and removed from reality.
As for the epistles, the verdict on 1 John is held as true for all three: “Unquestionably 1 John, like the Qumrân literature and even [the Gospel of John], is a community document” (Sloyan 1995: 44; cf. Callahan 2005: 1-5).
The upshot of this conviction is that between the earthly Jesus and the God he somehow embodied—whom the Johannine Letters call readers to trust, love, and heed—and the claims of the Johannine writings lies an impermeable barrier. We need to be “delivered” from supposing that the Johannine tradition (including John’s Gospel) tells us anything about Christianity (much less Jesus himself) in the first half of the first century (Callahan 2005: ix). Even though recent decades have witnessed a renewed quest for the historical Jesus, this has done little to rehabilitate the reputation of these writings as conveying the convictions of a personal acquaintance of Jesus and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20). All of “John’s” writings are viewed as late, reflective at best of historical conditions several generations after Jesus’s death.
It is even possible to represent John’s writings as originating in the mid- or late second century. In the interest of such a thesis, Strecker (1996: xli-xlii n79) casts doubt on our knowledge of the textual tradition. Along this same line, Schmithals (1992: 290-91) explains how, in the wake of Marcion and his canon, various Christian subgroups responded with their own canons. These subgroups favored three-document collections due to Philo’s influence, for whom three was the number of perfection. And so were born, it is theorized, various mini-proto-Bibles in the form of (1) Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon; (2) 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus; (3) the short recensions of Ignatius to the Ephesians and the Romans along with Polycarp’s epistle; and (4) the Johannine Letters. Klauck (1998: 261) extends this charge of a sort of Christian gematria: for a while the writings of 1 Peter, 1 John, and James were widely accepted on their own. Then 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude were added, and the result was “not accidentally the number seven.” Added to a fourteen-letter Pauline corpus (with Hebrews being regarded as Pauline), the mysterious plotters of the NT canon “arrived at 3 × 7 letters in the New Testament.” Having attributed this transparent contrivance to second-century Christians, Klauck then condemns them for it: “This only underscores the artificiality of the whole construction.”
Works advancing anonymous, pseudonymous, or community authorship of John’s Letters, or some variation thereof, dominate the discussion today (e.g., R. Brown 1982: 30n71 [four authors at work in composition, though his views fluctuated over the years]; Schnackenburg 1992: 41; Sloyan 1995: 3; Strecker 1996: xxxv-xliv; Culpepper 1998: 29-37; C. Black 2000: 386n3; Ehrman 2004: 164-65). Witherington (2006: 403) thinks that the author may have been the Beloved Disciple and possibly Lazarus. Or the authorship question may be largely skirted (Griffith 2002; T. Brown 2003). Reflecting a postmodern hermeneutic in its prime, Callahan states, “The ‘relationship among texts’ that we now call the Johannine Epistles... is not and cannot be a property of ‘Johannine authorship’” (2005: 2). There are only texts, and therefore at some point and in some manner writers. But there were no authors.
The doctrine of a nonapostolic, noneyewitness authorship of the Johannine writings and therefore letters may be regarded as firmly established. Ancient tradition and in fact Scripture itself (Rev. 1:9) says that John was banished from the mainland to the island of Patmos. Today he is banished from connection with all the writings that people once thought he composed.
His exile is of little concern if the gospel he upheld is not true and binding on today’s world and readers. If exegesis of 1-3 John is literally an academic exercise, then we can leave these authorless lines to whatever fate befalls them. Life goes on, however ir/religiously an interpreter cares to construe it. The paychecks, pensions, and (if one is lucky) royalties of tenured professors setting forth startling new ideas about discredited old traditions will continue.
Johannine studies has arrived at the place it is through the labors of generations of dedicated scholars. Even where the approach has been largely negative from the standpoint of John’s claims as I would understand them, there is typically much to learn from the exegesis of any trained and thoughtful reader of the NT text. For that reason, this commentary will interact freely with a full range of interpreters who have assayed to interpret the Johannine Letters. Having said that, I also feel it legitimate to invite John back off his island and welcome him into the apostolic circle, where historical sources place him.
It is likely that first-century Christians, taught by both Judaism and Jesus (Wenham 1994) to acknowledge in the Hebrew Scripture and its Greek counterpart (the LXX) “oracles of God” of priceless worth (cf. Rom. 3:1-2), quickly treasured the writings of their own spiritual leaders as God inspired (cf. Holladay 2005: 575). The magisterial tone of NT epistles assumes this; if we were to write thus to one another today, it would strike us as parody. The writers wrote and were evidently read as possessing a certain authority (challenged by many, as the writings make clear, as was the Jesus they served). Why would they not be so regarded when they cast out demons and healed the sick (John and other disciples in Mark 6:13), caused the lame to walk (John and Peter in Acts 3:1-10), and raised the dead (Peter in Acts 9:36-43)? There is formal indication of their authority from before the end of the first century (1 Tim. 5:18b [if Paul is citing a written source]; 2 Pet. 3:15-17; 1 Clem. 47.1-3; 53.1). The phenomenon of inspiration of both OT and NT writings is a primitive Christian belief (Westcott 1888: 417-56), rooted in Jewish belief preceding it: “Jewish exegetes believed that every word of Scripture had been spoken by God. There could be no question of its inspiration or authenticity” (Grant and Tracy 1984: 8). It would not be surprising if the writings of John son of Zebedee were regarded highly. And this is not merely the result of a theological conviction regarding inspired Scripture: it is also a historical conviction visible in the canonical Gospels, which “explicitly acknowledged their sources in the eyewitnesses and the authority of the eyewitnesses for their reliability” (Bauckham 2006: 292).
Moreover, Papias is said to have made use of 1 John (as well as 1 Peter; Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.17), and Papias can be regarded as active in the 95-110 era along with Ignatius and Polycarp (Yarbrough 1983). I am unaware of good reason to doubt the claim that Eusebius, as he perused Papias’s Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord, saw 1 John quoted or at least alluded to recognizably.
It is worth noting that no ancient manuscripts of John’s Epistles do not bear his name. True, it is commonly stated that early manuscripts circulated without indication of their author (R. Brown 1982: 5; Heckel 2004: 433), but in the absence of proof and perhaps even compelling evidence, this is a theory to be treated with caution regarding John’s Letters. (For a similar argument regarding the four Gospels, see Bauckham 2006: 111, 302-4.) If for some considerable period of time no one knew, really, who wrote these letters as they circulated, and John represents a later guess, how likely is it that the hundreds of copies, or at least the numerous lines of manuscript transmission that are reflected in extant copies, all guessed the same person for just these three particular documents? Here the work of the Institute for New Testament Textual Research again deserves notice (B. Aland et al. 2003a: 263, 368), which lists (in Greek without accents or breathing marks) about fifty different titles given for 1 John (whether at the beginning as superscriptions or at the end as subscriptions). The following selection (from uncials, whose titles are picked up by minuscules) gives the flavor of ancient scribal convention: