Situation.

The three letters in the New Testament that bear the name of John form a composite unit. Although each possesses individual features, all have common characteristics of style, language, and thought and appear to belong to the same situation.

1 John, in contrast to 2 and 3 John, does not at first look like a personal letter. But it was evidently addressed to a particular church situation, in which problems of belief and behavior were being encountered. Indeed, a crisis had arisen, precipitated by some members of the Johannine circle who were spreading false teaching and encouraging secession from the community. As a result, dissident groups had already been established (1 John 2.19). In the face of division, John (as we may for convenience call the writer[s] of these three epistles) composed a “letter” that was designed to correct the inadequate and erroneous views of his readers and to recall them to the fundamental elements in the apostolic gospel.

The nature of the false teaching propounded by John's opponents is indicated in various places in 1 John. The heterodox members of the church claimed to have a special relationship with God (1.6; 2.4) and to be without sin (1.8, 10). They did not believe that Jesus was the Christ or Son of God (2.22; 5.1, 5), and denied his being incarnate (4.2–3; 5.6; 2 John 7). The emphasis in 1 John on right behavior (renouncing sin, rejecting worldliness, and being obedient, especially to the love command) suggests that the opponents were leading others astray regarding ethical as well as theological issues.

If we try to relate these ideas to known systems of opinion in the first century CE, a number of possibilities present themselves. The most widely accepted view is that John was confronted by some early form of gnostic thinking. Such an outlook stemmed from a sharp, characteristically Greek, division between the spiritual, regarded as good, and the material, deemed to be evil. In such a system no place for a real incarnation of the Son of God could be found; the consequence was docetism, a system that acknowledged Jesus as Son of God but claimed that this was merely a seeming or phantom advent. Views of this nature were entertained in the first century CE by Cerinthus, and in the second century by those whom Ignatius of Antioch attacked, and by Basilides.

An alternative approach is to identify John's opponents, as in the Fourth Gospel, with Jewish denials that Jesus was Messiah and Son of God. Thus, the false teachers countered by the writer claimed to know the Father but denied the Christhood of Jesus (2.4, 22–23). Those who object to this interpretation do so on the grounds that non‐Christian Jews cannot have belonged to John's church (2.19) or have claimed to be guided by the Spirit (3.24; 4.1) and to be sinless (1.8, 10). But there is no problem involved if the Jewish opposition came from Jewish Christians. If so, we may combine these two solutions and say that some of John's opponents were Jewish and some were Hellenistic. In that case the situation addressed in 1 John closely approximates that in John's gospel.

Central to the theology of the fourth evangelist is his balanced understanding of the person of Christ: that he is both one with humankind and one with God (see John 16.28). Some Johannine Christians had remained orthodox in their belief. But others, from a Jewish background, needed to be reminded of the divinity of Christ; while a third group, of gentile origin, required assurance about his real humanity.

If this is an accurate description of the volatile setting out of which John's gospel came, it will throw light on the situation behind 1 John and account for the nature of the false teaching that this writer was trying to resist. For by the time that the Johannine letters were written (say, ten years after the gospel [see below]), friction between the two heterodox groups had developed, and a polarization had begun to emerge. Those with a low view of Jesus had moved further toward a Jewish position and denied that Jesus was the Christ (2.22). Those who espoused a high Christology had become more clearly gnostic and docetic by inclination and refused to acknowledge that the Christ was Jesus (4.2). On both sides, problems of behavior accompanied those of doctrine (2.7–8, the Law is wrongly regarded as indispensable; 3.10–11, right conduct is falsely deemed unimportant). As a result, secession from the community began to take place (2.18–19).

So the writer of 1 John recalls his followers to the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. Often appealing to the teaching of John's gospel, elements of which may have been distorted by his opponents in support of their theological position, he summarizes the claims of the heterodox, provides a balanced theology of Christ's person (divine, [2.13–14], and human, [3.16]), and refutes ethical error, not least by stressing the command to love (3.11; see John 13.34).

The plea for love and unity, however, evident in both the Fourth Gospel and 1 John, seems not to have been widely heeded. The divisions in the community, already apparent when 1 John was written, deepened; and from 2 John we learn that “many deceivers” had gone back into the world (v. 7). Perhaps these were predominantly docetic in outlook (see 2 John 9), although, again, there is nothing in the Johannine letters to suggest that docetism is the only tendency in view.

By the time 3 John appeared, the unity of the Johannine circle seems to have been threatened from an organizational, as well as doctrinal, point of view. Diotrephes was “putting himself first” and excluding orthodox members from the church (3 John 9–10), and the writer's concern that the influence of such leaders should not increase suggests that he feared the final dissolution of the Johannine community. What actually happened we can only guess. Some of the group presumably went further into gnosticism; the Jewish secessionists may have returned to Judaism, while the orthodox adherents no doubt became absorbed into the life of the great church. At that time John's gospel, with the discussion of its doctrine provided by 1 John (supplemented by 2 and 3 John), came into its own, and the teaching of John's circle was finally secured for the cause of orthodoxy.

Character.

2 and 3 John are the shortest letters in the New Testament. They each consist of one chapter only, are roughly equal in length, and correspond to the conventionally brief length of a private letter that, at the time, would have been written on a single papyrus sheet about 20 by 25 cm (8 by 10 in) in size. Both are personal missives, written by one who describes himself as the elder. But 2 John (addressed to a community) conforms closely to the pattern of other New Testament letters; whereas 3 John (addressed to Gaius, an individual) reflects a secular form of first‐century letter writing. Moreover, 2 John is closer than 3 John to 1 John in subject matter and style. None of these variations, however, compels us to infer that 2 and 3 John are ultimately unrelated (there are evident points of contact between them) or that 2 John was written as a first draft of 1 John. The history of the Johannine community sketched above may be traced entirely naturally from the Gospel to the letters in their present sequence, despite some attempts to assign to them a different order of composition.

The literary character of 1 John, on the other hand, is more difficult to determine. It is not epistolary in character, as are 2 and 3 John; and its style is general, even if personal. Possibly it is best described as a paper or brochure. It was written in light of John's gospel, as a comment on the fourth evangelist's teaching, for purposes of teaching and debate within a troubled and slowly disintegrating community.

Structure.

The ways of analyzing the structure of 1 John are numerous. One possibility is to subdivide the two main sections of the letter, which carry exhortations to live in the light as children of God, into four subsections, which set out the basic conditions for truly Christian living. These are stated in the first half of the letter and repeated in cyclical fashion (with one expansion, exemplifying the demand for obedience in terms of the command to love) during the second half. Together with 2 and 3 John this is their outline:

  • 1 JOHN
  •  I. Preface (1.1–4): The word of life
  •  II. Live in the light (1.5–2.29):
  •  A. God is light (1.5–7)
  •  B. First condition for living in the light: renounce sin (1.8–2.2)
  •  C. Second condition: be obedient (2.3–11)
  •  D. Third condition: reject worldliness (2.12–17)
  •  E. Fourth condition: keep the faith (2.18–29)
  • III. Live as children of God (3.1–5.13):
  •  A. God is Father (3.1–3)
  •  B. First condition for living as God's children: renounce sin (3.4–9)
  •  C. Second condition: be obedient (3.10–24)
  •  D. Third condition: reject worldliness (4.1–6)
  •  E. Fourth condition: be loving (4.7–5.4)
  •  F. Fifth condition: keep the faith (5.5–13)
  • IV. Conclusion (5.14–21): Christian confidence
  • 2 JOHN
  • Living in truth and love
  • 3 JOHN
  • A plea for help.

Composition of 1 John.

The difficulties involved in determining the literary character of 1 John and analyzing the structure of its material have resulted in a number of attempts to explain the present form of the letter. Two main proposals have been put forward by scholars.

According to one view, the original order has been rearranged. There is, however, no evidence for such transposition, which in the end introduces further dislocations in the text. According to others, various sources have been used and edited; theories under this heading vary considerably. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, has argued that two different styles of writing can be identified in 1 John and that one belongs to a source that may also be detected behind John's gospel while the other derives from the author himself. Wolfgang Nauck, who is critical of Bultmann's position, has proposed that 1 John stems from an earlier composition by the writer, which in due course he rewrote as a baptismal homily. But attempts of this kind to separate an underlying tradition from its edition are unsupported by firm evidence.

It is clear, therefore, that the history of this document cannot easily be explained in terms of rearrangement or written sources. The alternative view, that 1 John is a literary unity, is just as plausible; this suggestion is strongly supported by the theological coherence and balance of the letter and by its coherent structure (see above).

Authorship.

The identity of the author of the Johannine letters is a matter of considerable debate and raises the issue of the relationship between these documents and both the gospel and Revelation of John. The following scheme, which attempts to take account of all the relevant data, is only one solution to the problem.

The inspiration behind the tradition and distinctive theology of the Fourth Gospel came from John the apostle, the beloved disciple, himself. In 70 CE he wrote Revelation in order to encourage the members of his community to remain steadfast in the faith. Some of his followers later undertook the final publication of the gospel. A leading Johannine Christian (who may possibly have been involved in the composition of John's gospel) in due course wrote 1 John. An elder, close to the author of 1 John (or possibly the same person), was then responsible for 2 and 3 John.

All the Johannine documents in the New Testament are associated in some way, even if at times the links between them seem tenuous. That association is probably best accounted for by tracing their origin to a specific community, gathered in some way around John the apostle. Whatever answers are given to the question of authorship, therefore, the origin of the letters (as of the other parts of the Johannine literature) can well be assigned ultimately to an authoritative, apostolic tradition.

Date and Place of Origin.

There are conflicting opinions among scholars about when and where the Johannine letters appeared. Assuming that 1, 2, and 3 John followed the gospel of John, the letters of John may be dated to the last decade of the first century CE. This allows time for a sharpening of the heterodox opinions within John's circle and for the first moves on the part of the secessionists.

Although some scholars have suggested Syria as the place of publication, the view that 1, 2, and 3 John were addressed to Johannine communities in Asia Minor, with their center in Ephesus, is more probable. This is the traditional setting for the birth of John's gospel; it could easily have produced the controversy with Judaism and Hellenism that may be detected in both the Johannine gospel and the letters; and its religious syncretism would readily have nurtured the tendencies in the situation behind the letters.

Postscript.

The Johannine letters are often described as catholic documents. This does not mean that they were written for all in the early church but that they delivered to all believers in John's community a timeless message about the nature of Jesus in relation to God and humanity, about the importance of right behavior as well as right belief, and about the need for unity, however flexible, among all the churches. The tensions in John's community were probably not resolved by the appeal for love and unity built into his letters; but the truths that they preserve have proved indispensable for the life of the universal church ever since.

Stephen S. Smalley