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An Introduction to the New Testament



Occasion. About the beginning of the second century there lived in the vicinity of Ephesus a Christian elder of such eminence and reputation that he could style himself simply "The Elder" in his letters. Tradition has called him John. He is spoken of by Papias of Hierapolis, ca. A.D. 130-40, and by Eusebius of Caesarea, A.D. 326. Papias speaks of John the Elder (or Presbyter) as one of the disciples of the Lord and, as Eusebius points out, [1] distinguishes him from the apostle of the same name.

A disagreement had arisen among the Christians of Asia about the reality of Jesus' life and death. How could a divine being, the Son of God, possessed of a nature so utterly removed from matter, have lived a life of human limitation and suffered an agonizing and shameful death?

It was a prevalent idea among the ancients that the material universe was, to say the least, unfavorable to the spiritual life, if not itself actually intrinsically evil. God himself, being wholly good, could only indirectly be brought into relation with this material universe. Since Jesus was believed to participate in God's nature, however, he must be relieved as far as

[1] Church History iii. 39. 4, 5.


possible from this defiling contact with matter. This was accomplished in the thinking of some by supposing that his divine nature or messiahship descended upon him at his baptism and left him just before his death upon the cross. They held that his sufferings were only seeming and not real, and hence were known as Docetists or "Seemists." Their views found expression some years later in the Gospel of Peter, A.D. 125-50, and in the Acts of John, ca. A.D. 160. In the Gospel of Peter, Jesus on the cross "held his peace, as though he felt no pain." His last cry was, "My power, my Power, you have forsaken me!" In the Acts of John, John says: "Sometimes when I would lay hold of him, I met with a material and solid body, and at other times again when I felt him, the substance was immaterial and as if it existed not at all." His feet left no footprints on the ground, chapter 93. He seemed sometimes tall, sometimes short. His breast was sometimes hard, sometimes tender, chapter 89. While he was apparently being crucified down in Jerusalem, John saw him and talked with him in a cave high above the city, and Jesus said to him, "John, unto the multitude down below in Jerusalem I am being crucified, and pierced with lances and reeds, and gall and vinegar are given to me to drink. But I am speaking to you, and listen to what I say," chapter 97. "Nothing therefore of the things they will say of me have I suffered," chapter 101.

It was one of the purposes of the Gospel of John as it was of the Letters of Ignatius to repel such views. Ignatius writes to the Trallians, A.D. 107-17, "But if,


as some affirm who are without God, that is, are unbelievers, his suffering was only a semblance (though it is they who are merely a semblance), why am I a prisoner?" Trallians, chapter 10.

The profession of these semiphilosophical views of Christ's life and death separated these people from ordinary Christians, and this separation was aggravated by their claims of higher enlightenment, mystic fellowship with God, clearer knowledge of truth, and freedom from sin. Expressions like "I have fellowship with God," "I know him," "I have no sin," "I am in the light" were often on their lips. These spiritual pretensions, combined with their fantastic views of Christ, made them an unwholesome element in the life of the churches of Asia, as people of similar pretensions had been at Colossae half a century before.

The Elder was deeply concerned over these views. He was sending out missionaries over Asia to preach the gospel to the Greek-speaking people, but so sharp was the issue of the hour that some Christians refused ordinary Christian hospitality to his emissaries and went so far as to threaten any who entertained them with exclusion from the church.

Contents. In this situation the Elder wrote three letters. One, known to us as III John, is addressed to a certain Gaius, to acknowledge the support he has given the missionary cause, to encourage him to continue it, and to warn him against the party of Diotrephes, who refuses to cooperate with the Elder. Demetrius is the missionary whom the Elder is indorsing and hopes Gaius will support. As the Elder's


missionaries accept nothing from the heathen for their preaching, it is essential to the mission that Christians give them the necessary entertainment wherever they appear. The picture is that of Matt. 10:8-11, 40: "Do not accept gold or silver or copper money. .... Whatever town or village you come to, inquire for some suitable person, and stay with him till you leave the place. .... Whoever welcomes you welcomes me."

At the same time the Elder writes another short letter, our II John, to the church to which Gaius belongs, "the chosen lady and her children"; compare I Pet. 5:13, "Your sister church in Babylon, chosen like you." He urges its members to love one another and live in harmony, and warns them against the deceivers who do not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in human form, that is, the Docetists. The Elder declares such people the agents of Antichrist himself—not, of course, in the old Jewish sense, but to express the intensity of his abhorrence of their views. The advocates of such views Gaius is to let severely alone, refusing them even the salutations of ordinary courtesy or common Christian hospitality. They are not to admit such people to their houses— that is, probably, when they are holding church in them.

There is little or nothing in these two brief notes to explain their preservation, not to mention their inclusion in the New Testament, except as covering letters for I John. A little reflection will show how improbable it is that either of them could have


survived by itself or in combination only with the other. They were written to accompany I John, and without it they could have had little or no meaning. For as Demetrius and his associates went about Asia, completing the evangelization of it, they carried with them and read to the churches they visited a longer message from the Elder's pen in which the same pressing matters were more fully dealt with. We have seen that the short letters were without his name;

the long letter—it is really a pastoral—does not bear even his title. It would hardly need it if it was to be carried by his messengers and read by them as a message from him to the assembled local church in each community.

This longer letter, which we know as I John, deals with the same matter as II John and puts it with the same confident authority. The only difference is that in III John the Docetists are trying to drive other Christians out of the church, verse 10, while in I John 2:19 they are themselves leaving the church. These are probably no more than two ways of stating the same thing. If the Docetists could not drive the non-Docetists out, they would probably be driven out themselves; compare II John, verse 11.

In language that recalls the opening words of the Gospel of John and out of the heart of his own experience, the writer brings one of the great ideas that characterize the Gospel—the Revelation of Life. God was historically manifested in the life of Christ, and the Christian experience of fellowship with God and Christ is sufficient for anyone's spiritual needs, 1:1-4.


That experience is one of Light and Truth, of Repentance and Forgiveness. The Docetic pretensions to peculiar spiritual privilege and attainment are false, 1:5-10. The claim of knowing Christ is meaningless apart from obedience to his commands, and sinners have in him an intercessor and an atoning sacrifice, 2:1-6. The old command of love is always new, for it is being newly experienced and realized, and living in the light means living in love, 2:7-11.

The Elder's reason for writing to his friends is that they have laid the foundation of a real Christian experience, and he wishes to warn them against sinking back into a life of worldliness and sin, 2:12-17. The Docetists have no place or part in the church; they are just so many Antichrists. It is right that they should leave the church as they are doing, 2:18-21. Christians must hold fast their faith in Jesus as the revealer of the Father and not be misled. Their experience of the Spirit in their hearts will protect them from being led astray, 2:22-29.

Through the love of God the Christian is God's child, with all the hopes and duties of such sonship. Sin can have no place in his life. The children of God can always be known from the fact that they love one another, 3:1-12.

Love is the law of their new life; hatred and selfishness mean death, 3:13-18. Prayer must be offered with a clear conscience in a spirit of obedience to God, of faith in Jesus as his Son, and of love for one another. Obedience keeps us in union with him, and his Spirit in our hearts shows his union with us, 3:19-24.


Some Docetists claim that the Spirit has indorsed their teaching, but it does not indorse it. Only inspired utterances that acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in human form are from God. Those that deny him are of the world and of Antichrist, which is already at work in the world, 4:1-3. The Elder declares that he is on God's side, and whoever belongs to God will listen to him and not to the Docetists, 4:4-6.

Love is the bond in their great spiritual fellowship. Love is of God, and God is love. Christ is the gift of his love. If God has loved us so, we ought to love one another. The way to union with him is through love and the recognition of Jesus as his Son. Love frees us from the fear of judgment. God's love awakens love in our hearts not only for him but for all our brothers, 4:7-21.

Loving God means loving his children too. Faith in Jesus as the Son of God makes us victorious over the world. Jesus' sonship is witnessed not only by his human life and death but by the Spirit in our hearts;

the three are at one in bearing witness that God has given us eternal life, and that this life is in his Son, 5:1-12. In words recalling the conclusion of the Gospel of John, the Elder declares his purpose in writing this letter to be that his readers who believe in the Son of God may know that they have eternal life. Christians must pray for one another, except in the matter of the "deadly sin," by which apostasy is probably meant, 5:13-17; compare Heb. 6:4-6, etc.

In a final paragraph of almost credal dignity the main positions of the letter are restated. Sonship to


God means renunciation of Sin. The Christian has an inward assurance that he belongs to God who is revealed in the historical Jesus, 5:1&-21.

Problems. A few touches mark this little work definitely as a pastoral—"I am writing to you, dear children, .... I am writing to you, fathers, . . . . I am writing to you, young men, .... I write to you, children, .... I write to you, fathers, .... I write to you, young men," 2:12-14, "I have written this," 5:13, but aside from them it might easily pass for a sermon or a homily, except that it is so entirely concerned with combating a particular error—the Docetic view of Christ. These traits all become intelligible and natural when it is perceived that it is a pastoral letter, carried about among the churches of Asia to save them from the Docetic views that were threatening the churches of Asia in the early years of the second century, as we know from Ignatius.

Efforts have been made to show that differences exist between the style of I John and the style of II and III John. But the singular style of the general letter and the gospel, of course, would be quite inappropriate to what were really simply the covering letters, almost business letters, that accompanied the former. These would never have survived unless buoyed up by the great religious value of the first letter. Yet II John is as necessary to I John as I John is to II John. In short, the three were written and organized, and must be approached, as a corpus if they are to be understood. An atomistic treatment is unsuited to the problem they present.


The fact that some early Church Fathers seem to mention only one letter of John, or only two, simply means that they regarded the three as forming a single letter, or two letters. Thus Irenaeus in his Refutation of Gnosticism, usually called Against Heresies, iii. 16. 7 quotes II John, verses 7, 8, and in the next sentence I John 4:1, 2, as from "the Letter of John," evidently having both and regarding them as one letter, just as we ordinarily treat the letter of introduction for Phoebe in Romans, chapter 16, as a part of Romans.

The ancients not improperly thought of I, II, and III John now as one letter (Irenaeus), now as two (the Muratorian writer at Rome about A.D. 200, and Clement of Alexandria about the same time), and now as three (the Clermont List, probably reflecting Christian practice in Egypt about A.D. 300). These varied testimonies are not to be understood as meaning that one writer had one letter and another two, but that all possessed the full corpus of three letters, one long and two very short, and designated them differently, as well they might, since in a very real sense they might be regarded as one letter with two covering notes, or two letters with a covering note (III John);

for I John, having no address or author's name, really needed II, or II and III, to complete it and make it intelligible as a letter. There is no valid reason for supposing that any one of them ever circulated without the others before the Peshitto Syriac canon of A.D. 411.

The great words of I John—life, light, love, freedom, witness—are also characteristic of the Gospel of John, as we have seen, and the strange style, so


simple and yet so almost hypnotic in its use of repetition, binds the two works together. [1] Certainly they come from the same circle, and in all probability from the same writer. Our only clue to his identity, since his works are all anonymous, is in his designation of himself as "the Elder" in II and III John, combined with the evidence from Papias and Eusebius (Church History iii. 39. 5) as to the existence of an elder named John in the Asian circle, early in the second century. It is reasonable to conclude that the tradition is right and/ that John the Elder was the author of gospel and letters. Papias, who knew him personally, speaks of him as John the Elder (Presbyter), the disciple of the Lord, and sometimes simply as "the Elder." It was from him that Papias gained his information about the origin of the Gospel of Mark. [2]

Later tradition loosely identified John the apostle, John the prophet, who wrote the Revelation, and John the Elder, locating them all at Ephesus. The last two certainly belonged there, but hardly the first. In our earliest gospel Jesus predicts the martyrdom of James and John, Mark 10:39, 40, and they become the objects of general indignation for their self-seeking and inconsiderate demand that they be given preference over all the other apostles. Luke reports that Herod had James beheaded. Acts 12:2; and John was pat to death by the Jews, according to Papias, whose

[1] Professor C. H. Dodd argues that the writer of I John is no such philosophical thinker or religious genius as the author of the gospel, but is a diligent student of his work, and forms his style upon its model, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, XXI (1937), pp. 21-56.

[2] Eusebius Church History, iii. 39. 5, 7, 14, 15.


words are quoted by Philip of Side, in the fifth century, and Georgius Hamartolus, in the ninth. [1] This twofold testimony leaves no doubt that Papias really made this statement in the second book of his famous work, Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord. Nor do the glimpses we have of John, the son of Zebedee, in the gospels especially favor the identification of him with the author of the Fourth Gospel; he does, indeed, with Peter and James form the inner circle of the Twelve, but he wishes to call down fire on the inhospitable Samaritan village, Luke 9:54, and when Jesus is full of foreboding about his approaching visit to Jerusalem, James and John are so blind to his anxieties that they thrust their personal claims to preferment upon him. Mark 10:32-35. Upon his arrest the apostles all left him and made their escape. Mark 14:50, James and John with the rest. Peter is the only one near enough during the trial even to deny him.

And of course the thoroughly Greek character of the Gospel of John, both in language—so steadily parallel to the idiom of the vernacular papyri—and in thought, shows that it cannot reasonably be considered the original work of a Galilean fishermen, whose language was Aramaic, or the translation of such a work, supposing any Palestinian Jew to have been capable of thinking in terms so characteristically Greek. [2]


Brooks, A. E. The Johannine Epistles (New York, 1912).

[1] The fragments of Papias can be consulted in Lightfoot's Apostolic Fathers, pp. 527-35.

[2] E. C. Colwell, The Greek of the Fourth Gospel (Chicago, 1931).

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