The Glossary of Terms

1 John, 2 John, & 3 John



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Three brief writings at the end of the nt before Jude and Revelation. 2 and 3 John are in epistolary form. The longest, 1 John, has neither salutation nor conclusion but is clearly a written communication to a group of Christians. The author of 2 and 3 John refers to himself in the salutation as ‘the Elder.’ The author of 1 John does not identify himself at all, although presumably he is an authoritative figure.


The First Letter of John

1 John has no clearly defined structure, but its essential content can be represented in the following way:

Traditionally, these Letters have been ascribed to the same John, the son of Zebedee, who is said to have written the Gospel of John and Revelation. Since 1 John, in its prologue and elsewhere, seems to presuppose the Gospel, the Letters were probably written later. As in the case of the Gospel, the area around Ephesus is the traditional place of origin. The documents themselves, however, give no clues to their geographical provenance or date. Only the relation to the Gospel of John enables us to assign them a probable date near the end of the first century or even a little later.

Consideration of language and style lends some support to the traditional view that the Gospel and Letters (not Revelation) are by the same author. Terms such as ‘life,’ ‘light,’ ‘love,’ ‘Son,’ ‘Spirit,’ ‘word,’ ‘world,’ and ‘truth’ play an important role in the Gospel and in 1 John particularly. The same can be said for a number of grammatical constructions. The New Commandment to love one another, which Jesus gives in the Gospel (13:34), is said to be both old and new in 1 John 2:7-8 (cf. 2 John 5-6), but the context reveals that it is still the same commandment of love.

The question of the identity of the author is not satisfactorily resolved by the tradition that identifies him with John, the son of Zebedee. If 2 and 3 John are his work, it is curious that he refers to himself only as an elder and not as an apostle. 1 John remains anonymous. Although considerations of language, style, and theology may favor common authorship of the Gospel and Letters, modern critics have observed some significant differences between the Gospel and 1 John. For example, the concept of Jesus’ death as expiation for sin is more important in 1 John than in the Gospel, and the expectation of Jesus’ return is very much alive in 1 John (2:18; 3:2) but is being revised or reinterpreted in the Gospel. While the close relationship of the Gospel and Letters is not in dispute, the same cannot be said of the identity of their author(s).

To a considerable extent, 1 and 2 John address a specific set of problems in the life of Christian communities. Some members, or former members (1 John 2:19), while claiming not to sin (cf. 1:8), fail to obey Jesus’ commandments (2:3) and hate rather than love their brothers and sisters (2:9-11). Presumably these same people claim to possess God’s Spirit but deny that Jesus was really human, i.e., ‘has come in the flesh’ (4:2). Thus, in his prologue, the author of 1 John emphasizes the visibility and tangibility of what he proclaims, namely, Jesus Christ, while he later insists that Jesus has come ‘not with the water only but with the water and the blood’ (5:6), an allusion to the historical baptism and death of Jesus. 2 John also emphasizes the importance of obeying the love commandment and confessing that Jesus has come in the flesh.

Given this emphasis on Jesus’ humanity, we can more easily understand why in 1 John ‘the beginning,’ which in the prologue of the Gospel means primordial time, means the beginning or source of the Christian tradition, namely, Jesus himself. The beginning and source of Christianity is Jesus, and a proper understanding of who he was and what he commanded is of prime importance in the first Johannine Letter.

The other two Johannine Letters, each no more than a page long, are similar to 1 John and to each other, but they also betray some striking differences. While 3 John names the recipient, Gaius, 2 John is addressed only to ‘the elect lady and her children.’ In the conclusion, the ‘children’ of her ‘elect sister’ are said to send greetings. Probably this is a symbolic reference to churches. While the issues in 2 John are similar to those in 1 John, 3 John deals with hospitality offered by churches to visiting emissaries of the Elder and upbraids the ambitious Diotrephes, possibly the head of a house-church, who has refused to extend such hospitality. Interestingly enough, 2 John instructs its readers not to extend hospitality to those who do not adhere to true doctrine.

2 John can be outlined as follows:

3 John can be outlined as follows:

In the earliest canonical lists, dating from the end of the second century, 1 John already appears. Indeed, 1 John is quoted as authoritative by Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna before the middle of the second century. The attestation of 2 John is almost as good. There is no second-century reference to 3 John, but that is not surprising, since it deals with a specific, local issue. Probably it was eventually included with 1 and 2 John because it was known to be the work of a notable authority in the church.

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