In addition to his Gospel and the book of Revelation, the apostle John reportedly contributed three epistles (or letters) to the New Testament canon. The documents known as 2 John and 3 John are the shortest books of the NT, while 1 John lacks the characteristics of a typical Greek letter and is more akin in form to Hebrews than to the other NT epistles.
In none of these epistles does the author explicitly identify himself. First John does not have the conventional opening address where the author’s name would normally appear, although the author does clearly write as an eyewitness (1:1-5; 4:14; 5:6-7) and the writing “contains an unmistakable air of authority” (D. Guthrie, NT Introduction 866-67). Note the frequent references to the readers as teknia (“little children”) (2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21), expectations to be obeyed (cf. 4:6), and the emphatic condemnation of error (cf. 2:18 ff.; 4:1 ff.).
In 2 John and 3 John the author simply identifies himself as ho presbuteros (“the elder”). First John shares a number of striking similarities in theme, vocabulary, and syntax with the Gospel of John, and the other two epistles are closely linked with 1 John in vocabulary and theme, suggesting common authorship of all four documents.1 The term menō (“abide”) occurs sixty-eight times in the Johannine writings, and a combined total of only fifty-one times in the rest of the NT.
No ancient source ever ascribes the three Johannine epistles to anyone other than the apostle John, son of Zebedee. Allusions to these letters are found in the writings of Clement of Rome (1 Clem. 49.5), the Didache (10.5-6), the Epistle of Barnabas (5.9-11; 12.10), and Polycarp (Phil. 7.1). Specific references to the epistles are found in Papias (see Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.17), Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3.16.18), Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 2.15.66), and Origen (see Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.25.10). The first epistle has greater attestation than the other two, simply because 2 and 3 John are substantially briefer and less theologically quotable.
Questioning Johannine Authorship
In the absence of any conclusive evidence to the contrary, the most reasonable conclusion is that the apostle John did in fact author these epistles. Nevertheless, many critical scholars are reluctant to accept this conclusion. Alternative suggestions for authorship include a Johannine School, a disciple of John, and an obscure figure simply known as the Elder John.
There are subtle differences between John’s Gospel and 1 John in vocabulary and teaching, including words and expressions in 1 John that are not found in the Fourth Gospel, and vice versa.2 The author of 2-3 John identifies himself as ho presbuteros (“the elder”), not as the apostle John.
Responses To These Objections
While the similarities far outweigh the differences and the respective genres of the documents reflect different purposes, D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo correctly respond: “We should speak of complementarity of vision and thought, of differentiation in application, not of mutual contradiction” (An Introduction to the NT 773).
John would have been so well known to the initial recipients of his writings that an explicit mention of his name was unnecessary. Moreover, John seems to have favored descriptive terms over personal names, e.g. “the beloved disciple,” and “the mother of Jesus.” The apostle Peter describes himself as sumpresbuteros (“fellow-elder”) in 1 Pet. 5:1, and according to Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.39.4), Papias referred to Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew as presbuteroi (“elders”).
Provenance, Date, Audience, and Destination
Because of their connection with the apostle John and their relationship with the Fourth Gospel, the most likely place of origin of these epistles is Ephesus (see Introducing John's Gospel). According to tradition, John moved to Ephesus during the Jewish War (66-70) and eventually died there at the end of the 1st century (see Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.31.3; 5.24.2; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).
Most scholars understand the Johannine epistles to have been written after the Gospel of John. The chief opponents in John’s Gospel are “the Jews,” whereas the main concern in 1-2 John involves deceivers who are antichristos (“antichrist” or “against Christ”). As the epistles seem to be confronting a form of proto-gnosticism, a reasonable date is sometime in the decade of the 90s, ca. 90-95. Among the more liberal scholars who reject Johannine authorship, these epistles are dated as late as 100-110 (S. L. Harris, Understanding the Bible [7th ed.] 513-14) or even into the 120s-130s (L. M. White, From Jesus to Christianity 316, 416).
Recipients of the three epistles
No addressee is mentioned in 1 John, therefore the document is legitimately regarded as a “general epistle.” Second John is addressed to “chosen lady and her children.” This may have been a Christian woman with believing children who was accustomed to showing hospitality to traveling evangelists. Some have suggested that the address is metaphorical, referring to a local congregation. In v. 13 greetings are sent either from the nephews and/or nieces of the “chosen lady” or from a sister congregation (in Ephesus?).
Third John is addressed to “Gaius the beloved, whom I love in truth.” Since “Gaius” was a fairly common name throughout the Roman Empire (cf. Acts 19:29; 20:4; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:14), no specific identification is possible here. It is notable that Gaius is described as “the beloved” by “the beloved disciple” himself.
Since John’s other writings appear to have originally been intended for the benefit of those living in the vicinity of Ephesus, i.e., Asia [Minor] (cf. Rev. 1:11), the same may be the case for his epistles.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See Introducing John's Gospel. See also R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John 755-59; An Introduction to the NT 383, 397-98, 401; D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT 671-75; D. Guthrie, NT Introduction 867; also A. E. Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles i-xix, 235-42; R. Law, The Tests of Life 341-63.
2 For examples, see R. E. Van Voorst, Reading the NT Today 516; R. E. Brown, An Introduction to the NT 389.
Related Posts: General Epistles: Introduction
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