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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 3 John

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3 John

( 1–2, 13–15 ) Epistolary Framework

Like 2 John, 3 John uses some of the epistolary conventions of its age, particularly in the closing: this includes greetings to and from ‘friends’ ‘by name’ and means the epithet was not particularly ‘Johannine’, nor that they were few in number. The prayer for the health of the recipient is also conventional, and the initial ‘concerning all things’ (my tr.) is similar but not identical to the opening formulae used from the end of the first century CE. However, it lacks any form of greeting, an absence most typical of official letters, but has at the end a Semitic conventional ‘peace to you’. The links with 2 John, including the formula ‘whom I love in truth’, point to the elder's style, if they are not evidence of imitation by one or the other (so Bultmann 1973 ). While the author remains anonymous, ‘the elder’ (cf. 2 JN 1:1 ), the recipient is ‘Gaius’, a Roman and probably Gentile name; despite attempts in the early church to identify him with others of the same name, nothing is known of him except what is implied by the letter. The same is true of the other named figures, Diotrephes and Demetrius. However, these indicate a very specific occasion for the letter and have invited equally specific interpretations of the events now lost to us.

( 2–8 ) Encouragement

The initial expression of joy, similar to that of 2 John ( 2 JN 4–6 ), here rests not on personal encounter but on the testimony of ‘brothers’, not the same as ‘friends’ (NRSV) in v. 15 ; present participles suggest their witness was given on repeated visits (‘come and testify’, contrast NRSV). vv. 5–7 suggest that these were people, not known personally to Gaius, who relied on the hospitality of the fellow believers they visited; unlike the travelling Cynic philosophers of the day they refused to beg from the ‘non-believers’, literally ‘Gentiles’, which no longer just means non-Jews. Their travels were ‘for the sake of the name’; NRSV interprets ‘Christ’ but 3 John is using a conventional formula (Acts 5:41 ), and a reference to God is not impossible: although this could refer to flight from persecution, most probably they were preaching to those ‘unbelievers’. Although it is often assumed they were emissaries of the elder, who therefore headed a ‘missionary organization’, this is not stated. In v. 6 their testimony was given before ‘the church’ or perhaps ‘assembly’ (cf. vv. 9, 10 ), a word not otherwise found in the Johannine literature. Neither the elder's status in this ‘assembly’ nor its relation to that to which he wrote (v. 9 ) is stated.

The careful language of v. 5 , ‘you do faithfully whatever you do’ is probably an attempt to combine commendation for past support and encouragement for its future repetition. This is explicit in v. 6 where ‘you will do well’ is a common formula for ‘please’; to ‘send on’ usually implies provision of what would be necessary for the next stage of the journey. That support for such indicates participation, probably ‘[with them] in the truth’ (contrast NRSV), reverses the warning of 2 Jn 11 , although the vocabulary is different. The section combines Johannine and non-Johannine features. An explicit concern for missionary activity is not characteristic of the Johannine literature, and much of the related vocabulary in these verses is not otherwise found in it, including ‘church’, ‘Gentiles’, ‘send…on’, ‘strangers’, ‘worthily of God’, the latter not the normal measure of right action in John or 1 John. Johannine features include the emphasis on truth, which as in 2 John appears both to have independent identity (v. 8 ), and yet to be used in a formulaic way: ‘in/with (the) truth’ (i.e. dative), is used five times in vv. 1–8 ; ‘love’, used only once (v. 6 ) is a shorthand for Gaius' generosity; ‘testimony’ is also an important Johannine theme but here has a more conventional context.

( 9–12 ) Taking Sides

The letter has been inspired by the opposition the elder has received from Diotrephes. Although denounced by the elder for his ambitions, Diotrephes was clearly in a position to carry out his intentions; whether he held office in the church, opposed by the elder either in principle or only because of his tenure of it, has been the subject of much speculation. The elder's earlier letter, unlikely to be 2 John as sometimes suggested, is lost; it may be implied that Diotrephes had refused it a hearing. More specifically ‘he does not receive us’; NRSV gives one possible interpretation, ‘does not acknowledge our authority’, but this hides the fact that the same verb is reasonably translated in v. 10 ‘refuses to welcome’, and need not imply any question of authority. The plural ‘us’ does not indicate authority, but may evoke the Johannine plural ‘we’ (1 Jn 1:1–3 ) or include with the elder those like him. The elder's threat that he will expose Diotrephes' slanders does indicate he claimed the right to, and perhaps expected to be able to (‘if I come’), exercise some admonitory authority; it also suggests that Diotrephes' action had some grounds, dismissed by the elder as ‘false charges’. Inevitably this has prompted debate whether the conflict was personal, over models or styles of ministry, or, despite any explicit hint, doctrinal: if the latter, the elder's silence could only mean that Diotrephes was not under suspicion, but perhaps the elder was.

Diotrephes' refusal of welcome to the brethren, and exclusion of those who demurred, echoes the prohibition of 2 Jn 10–11 with its implicit extension to those who do offer a greeting, although the linguistic echoes are weaker than suggested by the NRSV's common use of ‘welcome’. If doctrine is there subordinate to the separate self-identity of the community, the same may have been true for Diotrephes. While the brevity of the letter makes all reconstruction tentative, there does seem to be a mutual hardening of attitudes and preference for uncompromising refusal of dialogue.

Demetrius, the subject of the next paragraph, is not otherwise identified but it is often suggested that he was the bearer of the letter and perhaps one of the brethren whom Gaius is urged to support: thus 3 John would be a letter of recommendation, a common genre in the ancient world where patronage and support were essential. However, the terminology is not the conventional language of recommendations, which usually go on to request a specific favour. Instead the language of universal testimony belongs to appeals to models of the past and to characters of established good reputation; it combines secular convention with the Johannine emphasis on witness. Witness by ‘the truth’ could also be read as ‘Johannine’ with ‘truth’ as almost objectified, or as a conventional affirmation, while the final confirmatory ‘we also…and you know’, is thoroughly Johannine (Jn 19:35; 21:24 ). Thus Demetrius is set up as a foil to Diotrephes; he is a model for imitation for Gaius, who also already has received some testimony, whereas Diotrephes is by implication the model of evil to be avoided. ‘Doing good/evil’ are not Johannine categories but familiar in Christian moral discussion; to be from God, however, is Johannine (cf. 1 JN 3:10 ). The contrasting ‘has not seen God’ is more ambiguous; Jn 1:18; 1 Jn 4:12 denies that as a possibility, although the claim ‘to have seen’ is important (1 Jn 1:1–3; 4:14 ), and that the object should be God fits this letter's surprising failure to mention Jesus, Christ, or the Son.

The combination of specific reference and allusiveness, of Johannine terminology and non-Johannine secular conventions, makes 3 John particularly intriguing, prompting its interpretation as a key to the development of the Johannine tradition or community. It has also been seen as significant evidence in the development of patterns of ministry in the early church, although with little agreement. Thus in historical and sociologial analysis it has acquired a prominence contrasting sharply with the lack of theological interest through much of the history of NT interpretation.

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