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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on 2 John

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2 John

( 1–3, 12–13 ) Epistolary Framework

The brevity of the letter and its epistolary formulae are reminiscent of letters of the period surviving on papyrus. An opening third person greeting (‘A’ to ‘B’), an initial expression of joy (v. 4a ), hopes of a personal visit, more highly valued than written communication, and a closing exchange of greetings are all conventional. The opening greeting has been considerably expanded in characteristic Johannine language, with a heavy emphasis on ‘truth’, which is almost objectified, but also becomes a formulaic ‘in truth’: ‘truth’ is used eleven times in the two letters, possibly because it was under threat but perhaps because it had become a conventional normative term. ‘Love’, ‘truth’, ‘abides’ are all Johannine terms, as is ‘joy…be completed’ in v. 13 (Jn 15:11; 1 Jn 1:4 ). The greeting is not the conventional Greek one (Jas 1:1 ), but a development of the Pauline ‘grace and peace to you’; here ‘mercy’ is added (cf. 1 Tim 1:2 ), giving a more Judaic tone, and the implied wish of the Pauline form has become a confident assertion, ‘will be’. Unusually, neither the author nor the recipient are given personal names. The identity of ‘the elder’ has been debated since the early circulation of the letters: some early traditions refer to an ‘elder John’ at Ephesus, whether or not identical with the Apostle being disputed (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.4). As a technical epithet it is unlikely to refer to an elder in a local church since this was a collegiate office; evidence of ‘elders’ as a group with a wider-ranging authority based on links with early Jesus traditions or charisma is disputed. It may have been a significant term within the Johannine circle. (See further Lieu 1986: 52–64.) ‘The elect lady’ is now usually seen as a reference to a local church in the OT and NT tradition of referring to Jerusalem as a woman (Isa 54; Bar 4–5; Gal 4:21–7; Rev 21:1; cf. 1 Pet 5:13 ); in v. 13 her ‘elect sister’ will be another congregation, while ‘the children’ are members of the community. There is no evidence that secrecy because of persecution demanded such allusiveness, which is consistent with the more abstract tone of the whole letter. Although earlier views that individual women were intended have lost favour, that these churches were headed and met in the household (cf. ‘house’ in v. 10 ) of a woman leader is possible.

( 4–6 ) Obedience to the Tradition

An initial expression of joy is conventional in contemporary letters. By implication it introduces the theme of potential dissent which dominates the letters, although ‘some’ need not mean there were others less obedient. ‘Walking in [‘the’ is not expressed in 2 Jn 4; 3 Jn 2 ] truth’ is peculiar to the two minor letters (2 Jn 4, cf. 6; 3 Jn 3, 4 ): it differs from the metaphorical ‘walking in the light’ of 1 John ( 1 JN 1:6–7 ), and could mean ‘walking’ = ‘(behaving) sincerely’, but more probably belongs to the formulaic use of ‘truth’ in these letters ( 2 JN 1–3, 12–13 above).

The appeal to the command and its form of mutual love is a Johannine norm ( 1 JN 2:3; 3:11 ): the NRSV's ‘let us love’ may rather be a definition ‘that we love’. Here it explicitly originates from ‘the Father’, in contrast to the ambiguous 1 John ‘him’ (1 Jn 2:4; 3:23 ) and to John where Jesus gives the command ( 13:34; 15:12 ); whereas in John the command is new, and in 1 John both new and old (1 Jn 2:7–8 ), here it is not new but one had ‘from the beginning’. As in 1 John ( 1 JN 2:3 ) this refers to their original hearing of the message. There is certainly a tradition link and possibly a literary link between the three descriptions, but the sequence is debated; the priority of the gospel formulation is often assumed but need not be the case.

The almost tautologous identification of love and the command, so that the content of one is the other (cf. 1 Jn 5:2–3, 1 JN 5:1–2 ), leads to the ambiguity of v. 6 ; the closing ‘that you are to walk in it’ (the NRSV's ‘you must…’ is clever but grammatically unconvincing) could refer either to the command or to love.

( 7–11 ) Warnings

The appeal to tradition in formulaic Johannine language in vv. 4–6 is a foundation for the central section and its harsh directives. The language gives a sense of extreme urgency with a combination of warnings and sharp imperatives. A relationship with 1 John, especially 2:18–23; 4:1–6 is obvious, but the temporal sequence of the two letters is disputed: a minority see 2 John as an immediate response, while 1 John is more reflective, while others see the language of 2 John as derivative from 1 John, with its harsh measures as evidence of a hardening of attitudes.

The language of deceiver(s) and antichrist is shared with 1 John and sets the crisis in an eschatological framework (see 1 JN 2:18–27 ); 2 John does not call them ‘false prophets’. Although the formula echoes 1 Jn 4:1 , they are not said to have left the community (contrast 1 Jn 2:19 ) but ‘are abroad in the world’. In contrast to 1 Jn 4:2–3 only the negative confession is articulated, and it is directly attributed to the ‘deceiver and antichrist’. The confession is distinguished from the positive form in 1 Jn 4:2 by the position of ‘in flesh’ following and not preceding the verb, and more importantly because the verb is not in the past (perfect) but in the present: ‘Jesus Christ coming in flesh’ (contrast NRSV). Technically this could mean that a future coming in flesh by Jesus is being denied (so Strecker 1989 ); although there are parallels to this belief in early Christianity, it does not fit well in a Johannine context. A theological nuance of the abiding significance of Jesus' coming would not be expressed in this way. It would be wrong to dismiss the form as grammatical carelessness. A likely explanation is that the formulation, taken from 1 Jn 4:2 , has been modified by the gospel's description of Jesus as ‘the one coming [who is to come] into the world’ (Jn 6:14 ): the author is more interested in the negation of traditional Johannine teaching than in its precise articulation. Particular individuals or groups rejecting this confession therefore cannot be identified.

The admonition of v. 8 reinforces the eschatological framework being used to interpret the present situation. ‘Lose’ (cf. Jn 17:12 ) and ‘reward’ are not temporal but eternal possibilities. ‘We’, better than the alternative reading ‘you’ (χ; A; latt, etc.), probably does not include the readers but refers to the elder and others similar who have established the community. The definitive ‘having’ or ‘not having’ the Father and Son is shared with 1 Jn 2:23; 5:12 , although ‘having God’ comes only in 2 John; here the condition is not right or wrong confession but relationship with ‘the teaching’, a term not found in 1 John. ‘Of Christ’ might be ‘from Christ’ (e.g. the command) or ‘about Christ’ (i.e. v. 7 ): the latter is more likely and reflects a distinctive emphasis on objective, right belief. Although ‘(not) abiding’ is familiar from 1 John, with reference both to Jesus or God and to ‘what you have heard’ ( 1 JN 2:24 ), the contrasting ‘goes beyond’ of v. 9 emphasizes the conservative element; ‘goes beyond’ need not refer to those who claimed advanced enlightenment as has been suggested, but it may convey the idea of ‘leading forward’.

The prohibition in vv. 10–11 provides the focus of the letter; what precedes gives a context and is not intended to be overprecise. The warning is against any who presumably claim to be Christians but fail to conform to the Johannine norm. Appropriate treatment of visiting believers, particularly ‘missionaries’, was a significant concern for the early church where hospitality was a virtue (Heb 13:2 ), and the teaching and leadership they brought could be either vital or threatening for small, scattered communities (see Rev 2:2 ; Did. 11–13). 2 John's harsh refusal both of hospitality and of any acknowledgement has echoes in Ignatius' attitude towards those he views as heretics of the most poisonous kind (Ign. Eph. 7.1). Older and contemporary parallels to such avoidance are found in ‘sects’ who have a strong sense of their own election and of their separation from ‘the world’, which they seek to maintain. This mentality also explains the equation of one offering a greeting with those s/he greets. This prohibition was later appealed to in the early church not only for the correct response to ‘heretics’ but also in the debate over rebaptism of schismatics, a situation alien to its original one. In fact it remains a matter of dispute whether there was an original specific situation, similar and perhaps anticipatory to that which inspired 1 John (see 2 JN 4–6 ), or whether the letter is using Johannine language and traditions in a formulaic way in order to establish a clear self-identity, perhaps in a beleagured or minority situation.

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