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- 1 John
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
General Editor:-J. J. S. PEROWNE, D.D.,
Bishop of Worcester.
The Epistles of
With Notes, Introduction and Appendices
The Rev. A. Plummer, M.A. D.D.
master of university college, durham, formerly fellow and tutor of trinity college, oxford.
At the University Press.
[ All Rights reserved .]
By The General Editor
The General Editor of The Cambridge Bible for Schools thinks it right to say that he does not hold himself responsible either for the interpretation of particular passages which the Editors of the several Books have adopted, or for any opinion on points of doctrine that they may have expressed. In the New Testament more especially questions arise of the deepest theological import, on which the ablest and most conscientious interpreters have differed and always will differ. His aim has been in all such cases to leave each Contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment, only taking care that mere controversy should as far as possible be avoided. He has contented himself chiefly with a careful revision of the notes, with pointing out omissions, with suggesting occasionally a reconsideration of some question, or a fuller treatment of difficult passages, and the like.
Beyond this he has not attempted to interfere, feeling it better that each Commentary should have its own individual character, and being convinced that freshness and variety of treatment are more than a compensation for any lack of uniformity in the Series.
Chapter I . The Last Years of S. John
Chapter II . The First Epistle of S. John
Chapter III . The Second Epistle
Chapter IV . The Third Epistle
Chapter V . The Text of the Epistles
Chapter VI . The Literature of the Epistles
A . The Three Evil Tendencies in the World
B . Antichrist
C . The Sect of the Cainites
D . The Three Heavenly Witnesses
E . John the Presbyter or the Elder
* * * The Text adopted in this Edition is that of Dr Scrivener’s Cambridge Paragraph Bible . A few variations from the ordinary Text, chiefly in the spelling of certain words, and in the use of italics, will be noticed. For the principles adopted by Dr Scrivener as regards the printing of the Text see his Introduction to the Paragraph Bible , published by the Cambridge University Press.
The Last Years of S. John
A sketch of the life of S. John as a whole has been given in the Introduction to the Fourth Gospel. Here it will not be necessary to do more than retouch and somewhat enlarge what was there said respecting the closing years of his life, in which period, according to all probability, whether derived from direct or indirect evidence, our three Epistles were written. In order to understand the motive and tone of the Epistles, it is requisite to have some clear idea of the circumstances, local, moral, and intellectual, in the midst of which they were written.
(i) The Local Surroundings Ephesus
Unless the whole history of the century which followed upon the destruction of Jerusalem is to be abandoned as chimerical and untrustworthy, we must continue to believe the almost universally accepted statement that S. John spent the last portion of his life in Asia Minor, and chiefly at Ephesus. The sceptical spirit which insists upon the truism that well-attested facts have nevertheless not been demonstrated with all the certainty of a proposition in Euclid, and contends that it is therefore right to doubt them, and lawful to dispute them, renders history impossible. The evidence of S. John’s residence at Ephesus is too strong to be shaken by conjectures. It will be worth while to state the main elements of it.
(1) The opening chapters of the Book of Revelation are written in the character of the Metropolitan of the Churches of Asia Minor. Even if we admit that the Book is possibly not written by S. John, at least it is written by some one who knows that S. John held that position. Had S. John never lived in Asia Minor, the writer of the Apocalypse would at once have been detected as personating an Apostle of whose abode and position he was ignorant.
(2) Justin Martyr (c. a.d. 150) probably within fifty years of S. John’s death writes: “ Among us also a certain man named John, one of the Apostles of Christ, prophesied in a Revelation made to him, that the believers of our Christ shall spend a thousand years in Jerusalem.” These words occur in the Dialogue with Trypho (LXXXI.), which Eusebius tells us was held at Ephesus: so that ‘among us’ naturally means at or near Ephesus.
(3) Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of S. John, writes thus (c. a.d. 180) in the celebrated Epistle to Florinus, of which a portion has been preserved by Eusebius ( H.E. V. xx. 4, 5): “These doctrines those presbyters who preceded us, who also were conversant with the Apostles, did not hand down to thee. For when I was yet a boy I saw thee in lower Asia with Polycarp, distinguishing thyself in the royal court, and endeavouring to have his approbation. For I remember what happened then more clearly than recent occurrences. For the experiences of childhood, growing up along with the soul, become part and parcel of it: so that I can describe both the place in which the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse, and his goings out and his comings in, the character of his life and the appearance of his person, and the discourses which he used to deliver to the multitude; and how he recounted his close intercourse with John , and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord.” That Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna, where he spent most of his life and suffered martyrdom, is well known. And this again proves S. John’s residence in Asia Minor. Still more plainly Irenaeus says elsewhere ( Haer. III. i. 1): “Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned back on His breast, he too published a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
(4) Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, in his Epistle to Victor Bishop of Rome (a.d. 190 200) says: “And moreover John also that leaned back upon the Lord’s breast, who was a priest bearing the plate of gold, and a martyr and a teacher, he lies asleep at Ephesus .”
(5) Apollonius, sometimes said to have been Presbyter of Ephesus, wrote a treatise against Montanism (c. a.d. 200), which Tertullian answered; and Eusebius tells us that Apollonius related the raising of a dead man to life by S. John at Ephesus ( H.E. V. xviii. 14).
There is no need to multiply witnesses. That S. John ended his days in Asia Minor, ruling ‘the Churches of Asia’ from Ephesus as his usual abode, was the uniform belief of Christendom in the second and third centuries, and there is no sufficient reason for doubting its truth. We shall find that S. John’s residence there harmonizes admirably with the tone and contents of these Epistles.
Ephesus was situated on high ground in the midst of a fertile plain, not far from the mouth of the Cayster. As a centre of commerce its position was magnificent. Three rivers drain western Asia Minor, the Maeander, the Cayster, and the Hermes, and of these three the Cayster is the central one, and its valley is connected by passes with the valleys of the other two. The trade of the eastern Aegean was concentrated in its port. Through Ephesus flowed the chief of the trade between Asia Minor and the West. Strabo, the geographer, who was still living when S. John was a young man, had visited Ephesus, and as a native of Asia Minor must have known the city well from reputation. Writing of it in the time of Augustus he says: “Owing to its favourable situation, the city is in all other respects increasing daily, for it is the greatest place of trade of all the cities of Asia west of the Taurus.” The vermilion trade of Cappadocia, which used to find a port at Sinope, now passed through Ephesus. What Corinth was to Greece and the Adriatic, and Marseilles to Gaul and the western Mediterranean, that Ephesus was to Asia Minor and the Aegean. And its home products were considerable: corn in abundance grew in its plains, and wine and oil on its surrounding hills. Patmos, the scene of the Revelation, is only a day’s sail from Ephesus, and it has been reasonably conjectured that the gorgeous description of the merchandise of ‘Babylon,’ given in the Apocalypse (18:12, 13) is derived from S. John’s own experiences in Ephesus: ‘Merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stone, and pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet; and all thyine wood, and every vessel of ivory, and every vessel made of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble; and cinnamon, and spice, and incense, and ointment, and frankincense, and wine and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and cattle, and sheep; and merchandise of horses and chariots and slaves; and souls of men.’ The last two items give us in terrible simplicity the traffic in human beings which treated them as body and soul the property of their purchaser. Ephesus was the place at which Romans visiting the East commonly landed. Among all the cities of the Roman province of Asia it ranked as ‘first of all and greatest,’ and was called ‘the Metropolis of Asia.’ In his Natural History Pliny speaks of it as Asiae lumen . It is quite in harmony with this that it should after Jerusalem and Antioch become the third great home of Christianity, and after the death of S. Paul be chosen by S. John as the centre whence he would direct the Churches of Asia. It is the first Church addressed in the Apocalypse (1:11, 2:1). If we had been entirely without information respecting S. John’s life subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem, the conjecture that he had moved to Asia Minor and taken up his abode in Ephesus would have been one of the most reasonable that could have been formed. With the exception of Rome, and perhaps of Alexandria, no more important centre could have been found for the work of the last surviving Apostle. There is nothing either in his writings or in traditions respecting him to connect S. John with Alexandria; and not much, excepting the tradition about the martyrdom near the Porta Latina (see p. 22), to connect him with Rome. If S. John ever was in Rome, it was probably with S. Peter at the time of S. Peter’s death. Some have thought that Revelation 13:0 and 18 are influenced by recollections of the horrors of the persecution in which S. Peter suffered. It is not improbable that the death of his companion Apostle (Luke 22:8 ; John 20:2 ; Acts 3:1 , Acts 4:13 , Acts 8:14 ) may have been one of the circumstances which led to S. John’s settling in Asia Minor. The older friend, whose destiny it was to wander and to suffer, was dead; the younger friend, whose lot was ‘that he abide,’ was therefore free to choose the place where his abiding would be of most use to the Church.
The Church of Ephesus had been founded by S. Paul about a.d. 55, and some eight years later he had written the Epistle which now bears the name of the Ephesians, but which was apparently a circular letter addressed to other Churches as well as to that at Ephesus. Timothy was left there by S. Paul, when the latter went on to Macedonia (1 Timothy 1:3 ) to endeavour to keep in check the presumptuous and even heretical theories in which some members of the Ephesian Church had begun to indulge. Timothy was probably at Rome at the time of S. Paul’s death (2 Timothy 4:9 , 2 Timothy 4:21 ), and then returned to Ephesus, where, according to tradition, he suffered martyrdom during one of the great festivals in honour of ‘the great goddess Artemis,’ under Domitian or Nerva. It is not impossible that ‘the angel of the Church of Ephesus’ praised and blamed in Revelation 2:1-7 is Timothy, although Timothy is often supposed to have died before the Apocalypse was written. He was succeeded, according to Dorotheus of Tyre (c. a.d. 300), by Gaius (Romans 16:23 ; 1 Corinthians 1:14 ); but Origen mentions a tradition that this Gaius became Bishop of Thessalonica.
These particulars warrant us in believing that by the time that S. John settled in Ephesus there must have been a considerable number of Christians there. The labours of Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:19 ; 2 Timothy 4:19 ), of S. Paul for more than two years (Acts 19:8-10 ), of Trophimus (Acts 21:29 ), of the family of Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16-18 , 2 Timothy 4:9 ), and of Timothy for a considerable number of years, must have resulted in the conversion of many Jews and heathen. Besides which, after the destruction of Jerusalem not a few Christians would be likely to settle there from Palestine. A Church which was already organised under presbyters in S. Paul’s day, as his own speech to them and his letters to Timothy shew, must have been scandalously mismanaged and neglected, if in such a centre as Ephesus, it had not largely increased in the interval between S. Paul’s departure and S. John’s arrival.
(ii) The Moral Surroundings Idolatry
If there was one thing for which the Metropolis of Asia was more celebrated than another in the apostolic age, it was for the magnificence of its idolatrous worship. The temple of Artemis, its tutelary deity, which crowned the head of its harbour, was one of the wonders of the world. Its 127 columns, 60 feet high, were each one the gift of a people or a prince. In area it was considerably larger than Durham Cathedral and nearly as large as S. Paul’s; and its magnificence had become a proverb. ‘The gods had one house on earth, and that was at Ephesus.’ The architectural imagery of S. Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (3:9 17), which was written at Ephesus, and in the Epistles to the Ephesians (2:19 22), and to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:15 , 1 Timothy 3:6 :19; 2 Timothy 2:19 , 2 Timothy 2:20 ), may well have been suggested by it. The city was proud of the title ‘Temple-keeper of the great Artemis’ (Acts 19:35 ), and the wealthy vied with one another in lavishing gifts upon the shrine. The temple thus became a vast treasure-house of gold and silver vessels and works of art. It was served by a college of priestesses and of priests. “Besides these there was a vast throng of dependents, who lived by the temple and its services, theologi , who may have expounded sacred legends, hymnodi , who composed hymns in honour of the deity, and others, together with a great crowd of hierodulae , who performed more menial offices. The making of shrines and images of the goddess occupied many hands.… But perhaps the most important of all the privileges possessed by the goddess and her priests was that of asylum . Fugitives from justice or vengeance who reached her precincts were perfectly safe from all pursuit and arrest. The boundaries of the space possessing such virtue were from time to time enlarged. Mark Antony imprudently allowed them to take in part of the city, which part thus became free of all law, and a haunt of thieves and villains.… Besides being a place of worship, a museum, and a sanctuary, the Ephesian temple was a great bank. Nowhere in Asia could money be more safely bestowed than here” (P. Gardner). S. Paul’s advice to Timothy to ‘charge them that are rich’ not to amass, but to ‘distribute’ and ‘communicate’ their wealth, ‘laying up in store for themselves a good foundation,’ for ‘the life which is life indeed’ (1 Timothy 6:17-19 ), acquires fresh meaning when we remember this last fact. In short, what S. Peter’s and the Vatican have been to Rome, that the temple of Artemis was to Ephesus in S. John’s day.
It was in consequence of the scandals arising out of the abuse of sanctuary, that certain states were ordered to submit their charters to the Roman Senate (a.d. 22). As Tacitus remarks, no authority was strong enough to keep in check the turbulence of a people which protected the crimes of men as worship of the gods. The first to bring and defend their claims were the Ephesians. They represented “that Diana and Apollo were not born at Delos, as was commonly supposed; the Ephesians possessed the Cenchrean stream and the Ortygian grove where Latona, in the hour of travail, had reposed against an olive-tree, still in existence, and given birth to those deities; and it was by the gods’ command that the grove had been consecrated. It was there that Apollo himself, after slaying the Cyclops, had escaped the wrath of Jupiter: and again that father Bacchus in his victory had spared the suppliant Amazons who had occupied his shrine” (Tac. Ann. III. 61).
We have only to read the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (21 32), or the catalogue of vices in the Epistles to the Galatians (5:19 21) and Colossians (3:5 8) to know enough of the kind of morality which commonly accompanied Greek and Roman idolatry in the first century of the Christian era; especially when, as in Ephesus, it was mixed up with the wilder rites of Oriental polytheism, amid all the seductiveness of Ionian luxury, and in a climate which, while it enflamed the passions, unnerved the will. Was it not with the idolatry of Ephesus and all its attendant abominations in his mind that the Apostle of the Gentiles wrote Ephesians 5:1-21 ?
A few words must be said of one particular phase of superstition, closely connected with idolatry, for which Ephesus was famous; its magic. “It was preeminently the city of astrology, sorcery, incantations, amulets, exorcisms, and every form of magical imposture.” About the statue of the Ephesian Artemis were written unintelligible inscriptions to which mysterious efficacy was attributed. ‘Ephesian writings,’ or charms ( Ἐφέσια γράμματα ) were much sought after, and seem to have been about as senseless as Abracadabra. In the epistles of the pseudo-Heraclitus the unknown writer explains why Heraclitus of Ephesus was called “the weeping philosopher.” It was because of the monstrous idiotcy and vice of the Ephesian people. Who would not weep to see religion made the vehicle of brutal superstition and nameless abominations? There was not a man in Ephesus who did not deserve hanging. (See Farrar’s Life of S. Paul , Vol. II. p. 18.) Wicked folly of this kind had tainted the earliest Christian community at Ephesus. They had accepted the Gospel and still secretly held fast their magic. Hence the bonfire of costly books of charms and incantations which followed upon the defeat of the sons of Sceva when they attempted to use the name of Jesus as a magical form of exorcism (Acts 19:13-20 ).
Facts such as these place in a very vivid light S. John’s stern insistence upon the necessity of holding steadfastly the true faith in the Father and the incarnate Son, of keeping oneself pure, of avoiding the world and the things in the world, of being on one’s guard against lying spirits, and especially the sharp final admonition, ‘Guard yourselves from the idols.’
(iii) The Intellectual Surroundings Gnosticism
It is common to speak of the Gnostic heresy or the Gnostic heresies; but such language, though correct enough, is apt to be misleading. We commonly think of heresy as a corrupt growth out of Christian truth, or a deflection from it; as when we call Unitarianism, which so insists upon the Unity of God as to deny the Trinity, or Arianism, which so insists upon the Primacy of the Father as to deny the true Divinity of the Son, heretical systems or heresies. These and many other corruptions of the truth grew up inside the bosom of the Church. They are one-sided and exaggerated developments of Christian doctrines. But corruption may come from without as well as from within. It may be the result of impure elements imported into the system, contaminating and poisoning it. It was in this way that the Gnostic heresies found their way into the Church. The germs of Gnosticism in various stages of development were in the very air in which Christianity was born. They had influenced Judaism; they had influenced the religions of Greece and of the East: and the Christian Church had not advanced beyond its infancy when they began to shew their influence there also. While professing to have no hostility to the Gospel, Gnosticism proved one of the subtlest and most dangerous enemies which it has ever encountered. On the plea of interpreting Christian doctrines from a higher standpoint it really disintegrated and demolished them; in explaining them it explained them away. With a promise of giving to the Gospel a broader and more catholic basis, it cut away the very foundations on which it rested the reality of sin, and the reality of redemption.
It is not easy to define Gnosticism. Its name is Greek, and so were many of its elements; but there was much also that was Oriental in its composition; and before long, first Jewish, and then Christian elements were added to the compound. It has been called a ‘philosophy of religion.’ It would be more true perhaps to call it a philosophy of being or of existence; an attempt to explain the seen and the unseen universe. But this again would be misleading to the learner. Philosophy with us presupposes a patient investigation of facts: it is an attempt to rise from facts to explanations of their relations to one another, and their causes, efficient and final. In Gnosticism we look almost in vain for any appeal to facts. Imagination takes the place of investigation, and what may be conceived is made the test, and sometimes almost the only test, of what is. Gnosticism, though eminently philosophic in its aims and professions, was yet in its method more closely akin to poetry and fiction than to philosophy. While it professed to appeal to the intellect, and in modern language would have called itself rationalistic, yet it perpetually set intelligence at defiance, both in its premises and in its conclusions. We may describe it as a series of imaginative speculations respecting the origin of the universe and its relation to the Supreme Being.
Gnosticism had in the main two ground principles which run through all the bewildering varieties of Gnostic systems: A. The supremacy of the intellect, and the superiority of enlightenment to faith and conduct. This is the Greek element in Gnosticism. B. The absolutely evil character of matter and everything material. This is the Oriental element
A. In the N. T. knowledge or gnosis means the profound apprehension of Christian truth. Christianity is not the Gospel of stupidity. It offers the highest satisfaction to the intellectual powers in the study of revealed truth; and theology in all its branches is the fruit of such study. But this is a very different thing from saying that the intellectual appreciation of truth is the main thing. Theology exists for religion, and not religion for theology. The Gnostics made knowledge the main thing, indeed the only thing of real value. Moreover, as the knowledge was difficult of attainment, they completely reversed the principle of the Gospel and made ‘the Truth’ the possession of the privileged few, instead of being open to the simplest. The historical and moral character of the Gospel, which brings it within the reach of the humblest intellectual power, was set on one side as valueless, or fantastically explained away. Spiritual excellence was made to consist, not in a holy life, but in knowledge of an esoteric kind open only to the initiated, who “knew the depths” and could say “this is profound.” (Tert. Adv. Valent. I. 37.) In the fragment of a letter of Valentinus preserved by Epiphanius this Gnostic teacher says: “I come to speak to you of things ineffable, secret, higher than the heavens, which cannot be understood by principalities or powers, nor by anything beneath, nor by any creature, unless it be by those whose intelligence can know no change” (Epiph. Contra Haer. adv. Valent. I. 31). This doctrine contained three or four errors in one. (1) Knowledge was placed above virtue. (2) This knowledge treated the facts and morality of the Gospel as matter which the ordinary Christian might understand literally, but which the Gnostic knew to mean something very different. Besides which, there was a great deal of the highest value that was not contained in the Scriptures at all. (3) The true meaning of Scripture and this knowledge over and above Scripture being hard to attain, the benefits of Revelation were the exclusive property of a select band of philosophers. (4) To the poor, therefore, the Gospel (in its reality and fulness) could not be preached.
B. That the material universe is utterly evil and impure in character is a doctrine which has its source in Oriental Dualism, which teaches that there are two independent Principles of existence, one good and the other bad, which are respectively the origin of all the good and all the evil that exists. The material world, on account of the manifest imperfections and evils which it contains, is assumed to be evil and to be the product of an evil power. This doctrine runs through almost all Gnostic teaching. It involves the following consequences: (1) The world being evil, a limitless gulf lies between it and the Supreme God. He cannot have created it. Therefore (2) The God of the O. T., who created the world, is not the Supreme God, but an inferior, if not an evil power. (3) The Incarnation is incredible; for how could the Divine Word consent to be united with an impure material body? This last difficulty drove many Gnostics into what is called Docetism, i.e. the theory that Christ’s body was not a real one, but only appeared ( δοκεῖν ) to exist; in short, that it was a phantom. The gulf between the material world and the Supreme God was commonly filled by Gnostic speculators with a series of beings or aeons emanating from the Supreme God and generating one from another, in bewildering profusion and intricacy. It is this portion of the Gnostic theories which is so repugnant to the modern student. It seems more like a nightmare than sober speculation; and one feels that to call such things ‘fables and endless genealogies, the which minister questionings rather than a dispensation of God’ (1 Timothy 1:4 ) is very gentle condemnation. But we must remember (1) that these were not mere wanton flights of an unbridled imagination. They were attempts to bridge the chasm between the finite and the Infinite, between the evil world and the Supreme God, attempts to explain the origin of the universe and with it the origin of evil. We must remember (2) that in those days any hypothesis was admissible which might conceivably account for the facts. The scientific principles, that hypotheses must be capable of verification, that existences must not rashly be multiplied, that imaginary causes are unphilosophical, and the like, were utterly unknown. The unseen world might be peopled with any number of mysterious beings; and if their existence helped to explain the world of sense and thought, then their existence might be asserted. If the Supreme God generated an aeon inferior to Himself, and that aeon other inferior aeons, we might at last arrive at a being so far removed from the excellence of God, that his creation of this evil world would not be inconceivable. Thus the Gnostic cosmogony was evolution inverted: it was not an ascent from good to better, but a descent from best to bad. And the whole was expressed in a chaotic imagery, in which allegory, symbolism, mythology and astronomy were mixed up in a way that sets reason at defiance.
These two great Gnostic principles, the supremacy of knowledge, and the impurity of matter, produced opposite results in ethical teaching; asceticism, and antinomian profligacy. If knowledge is everything, and if the body is worthless, then the body must be beaten down and crushed, in order that the emancipated soul may rise to the knowledge of higher things: “the soul must live by ecstasy, as the cicada feeds on dew.” On the other hand, if knowledge is everything and the body worthless, the body may rightly be made to undergo every kind of experience, no matter how shameless and impure, in order that the soul may increase its store of knowledge. The body cannot be made more vile than it is, and the soul of the enlightened is incapable of pollution.
Speculations such as these were rife in Asia Minor, both among Jews and Christians. That S. John would offer the most uncompromising opposition to them is only what we should expect. While professing to be Christian and to be a sublime interpretation of the Gospel, they struck at the very root of all Christian doctrine and Christian morality. They contradicted the O. T., for they asserted that all things were made, not ‘very good,’ but very evil, and that the Maker of them was not God. They contradicted the N. T., for they denied the reality of the Incarnation and the sinfulness of sin. Morality was undermined when knowledge was made of far more importance than conduct: it was turned upside down when men were taught that crimes which enlarged experience were a duty.
The fantastic speculations of the Gnostics as to the origin of the universe have long since perished, and cannot be revived. Nor is their tenet as to the evil nature of everything material much in harmony with modern thought. With us the danger is the other way; of deifying matter, or materialising God. But the heresy of the supremacy of knowledge is as prevalent as ever. We still need an Apostle to teach us that mere knowledge will not raise the quality of men’s moral natures any more than light without food and warmth will raise the quality of their bodies. We still need a Bishop Butler to assure us that information is “really the least part” of education, and that religion “does not consist in the knowledge and belief even of fundamental truth,” but rather in our being brought “to a certain temper and behaviour.” The philosophic Apostle of the first century and the philosophic Bishop of the eighteenth alike contend, that light without love is moral darkness, and that not he that can ‘know all mysteries and all knowledge,’ but only ‘he who doeth righteousness is righteous.’ If the Sermons of the one have not become obsolete, still less have the Epistles of the other.
(iv) The Traditions respecting S. John
The century succeeding the persecution under Nero (a.d. 65 165) is a period that is exceedingly tantalizing to the ecclesiastical historian and exceedingly perplexing to the chronologer. The historian finds a very meagre supply of materials: facts are neither abundant nor, as a rule, very substantial. And when the historian has gleaned together every available fact, the chronologer finds his ingenuity taxed to the utmost to arrange these facts in a manner that is at once harmonious with itself and with the evidence of the principal witnesses.
The traditions respecting S. John share the general character of the period. They are very fragmentary and not always trustworthy; and they cannot with any certainty be put into chronological order. The following sketch is offered as a tentative arrangement, in the belief that a clear idea, even if wrong in details, is a great deal better than bewildering confusion. The roughest map gives unity and intelligibility to inadequate and piecemeal description.
S. John was present at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:0 ), which settled for the time the controversy between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He was at Jerusalem as one of the ‘pillars’ of the Church (Galatians 2:6 ), and in all probability Jerusalem had been his usual abode from the Ascension until this date (a.d. 50) and for some time longer. It is by no means improbable that he was with S. Peter during the last portion of his great friend’s life and was in Rome when he was martyred (a.d. 64). Here will come in the well-known story, which rests upon the early testimony of Tertullian ( Praescr. Haer. XXXVI.), and perhaps the still earlier testimony of Leucius, that S. John was thrown into boiling oil near the site of the Porta Latina and was preserved unhurt. Two churches in Rome and a festival in the Calendar (May 6th) perpetuate the tradition. The story, if untrue, may have grown out of the fact that S. John was in Rome during the Neronian persecution. The similar story, that he was offered poison and that the drink became harmless in his hands, may have had a similar origin. In paintings S. John is often represented with a cup from which poison in the form of a viper is departing.
It is too soon to take S. John to Ephesus immediately after S. Peter’s death. Let us suppose that he returned to Jerusalem (if he had ever left it) and remained there until a.d. 67, when large numbers of people left the city just before the siege. If the very questionable tradition be accepted, that after leaving Jerusalem he preached to the Parthians, we must place the departure from Judaea somewhat earlier. Somewhere in the next two years (a.d. 67 69) we may perhaps place the Revelation, written during the exile, enforced or voluntary, in Patmos. This exile over, S. John went, or more probably returned, to Ephesus, which henceforth becomes his chief place of abode until his death in or near the year a.d. 100.
Most of the traditions respecting him are connected with this last portion of his life and with his government of the Churches of Asia as Metropolitan Bishop. Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of S. John, says: “All the presbyters, who met John the disciple of the Lord in Asia, bear witness that John has handed on to them this tradition. For he continued with them until the times of Trajan” (a.d. 98 117). And again: “Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned back on His breast, he too published a gospel during his residence at Ephesus.” And again: “The Church in Ephesus founded by Paul, and having John continuing with them until the times of Trajan, is a truthful witness of the tradition of Apostles” ( Haer. II. xxii. 5; III. i. 1, iii. 4). Here, therefore, he remained “a priest,” as his successor Polycrates tells us, “wearing the plate of gold;” an expression which some people consider to be merely figurative. “John, the last survivor of the Apostolate, had left on the Church of Asia the impression of a pontiff from whose forehead shone the spiritual splendour of the holiness of Christ” (Godet). And here, according to the anti-Montanist writer Apollonius, he raised a dead man to life (Eus. H. E. V. xviii. 14).
It would be in connexion with his journeys through the Churches of Asia that the beautiful episode commonly known as ‘S. John and the Robber’ took place. The Apostle had commended a noble-looking lad to the local Bishop, who had instructed and baptized him. After a while the lad fell away and became a bandit-chief. S. John on his next visit astounded the Bishop by asking for his ‘deposit;’ for the Apostle had left no money in his care. “I demand the young man, the soul of a brother:” and then the sad tale had to be told. The Apostle called for a horse and rode away to the haunts of the banditti. The chief recognised him and fled. But S. John went after him, and by his loving entreaties induced him to return to his old home and a holy life (Clement of Alexandria in Eus. H. E. III. xxxiii.).
The incident of S. John’s rushing out of a public bath, at the sight of Cerinthus, crying, “Let us fly, lest even the bath fall on us, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within,” took place at Ephesus. Doubt has been thrown on the story because of the improbability of the Apostle visiting a public bath, and because Epiphanius, in his version of the matter, substitutes Ebion for Cerinthus. But Irenaeus gives us the story on the authority of those who had heard it from Polycarp : and it must be admitted that such evidence is somewhat strong. If Christians of the second century saw nothing incredible in an Apostle resorting to a public bath, we cannot safely dogmatize on the point. The incident may doubtless be taken as no more than “a strong metaphor by way of expressing marked disapproval.” But at any rate, when we remember the downright wickedness involved in the teaching of Cerinthus, we may with Dean Stanley regard the story “as a living exemplification of the possibility of uniting the deepest love and gentleness with the sternest denunciation of moral evil.” The charge given to the elect lady (2 John 1:10 , 2 John 1:11 ) is a strong corroboration of the story. Late versions of it end with the sensational addition that when the Apostle had gone out, the bath fell in ruins, and Cerinthus was killed.
Another and far less credible story comes to us through Irenaeus ( Haer. V. xxxiii. 3) on the authority of the uncritical and (if Eusebius is to be believed) not very intelligent Papias, the companion of Polycarp. The elders who had seen John, the disciple of the Lord, relate that they heard from him how the Lord used to teach about those times and say, “The days will come in which vines shall grow, each having 10,000 stems, and on each stem 10,000 branches, and on each branch 10,000 shoots, and on each shoot 10,000 clusters, and on each cluster 10,000 grapes, and each grape when pressed shall give 25 firkins of wine. And when any saint shall have seized one cluster, another shall cry, I am a better cluster, take me; through me bless the Lord.” In like manner that a grain of wheat would produce 10,000 ears, and each ear would have 10,000 grains, and each grain 5 double pounds of clear, pure flour: and all other fruit-trees, and seeds, and grass, in like proportion. And all animals feeding on the products of the earth would become peaceful and harmonious one with another, subject to man with all subjection. And he added these words: “These things are believable to believers.” And he says that when Judas the traitor did not believe and asked, “How then shall such production be accomplished by the Lord?” the Lord said, “They shall see who come to those [times].”
This extraordinary narrative is of great value as shewing the kind of discourse which pious Christians of the second century attributed to Christ, when they came to inventing such things. Can we believe that those who credited the Lord with millenarian utterances of this kind could have written a single chapter of the Gospels with nothing but their own imagination to draw upon? Even with the Gospels before them they can do no better than this. Possibly the whole is only a grotesque enlargement of Matthew 26:29 .
Of S. John’s manner of life nothing trustworthy has come down to us. That he never married may be mere conjecture; but it looks like history. S. Paul certainly implies that most, if not all, of the Apostles did ‘lead about a wife’ (1 Corinthians 9:5 ). But the tradition respecting S. John’s virginity is early and general. In a Leucian fragment (Zahn, Acta Johannis , p. 248) the Lord is represented as thrice interposing to prevent John from marrying. We find the tradition in Tertullian ( De Monog. XVII.), Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Epiphanius. It may well be true that (as Jerome expresses it) to a virgin Apostle the Virgin Mother was committed. Epiphanius (a.d. 375) is much too late to be good authority for S. John’s rigid asceticism. It is mentioned by no earlier writer, and would be likely enough to be assumed; especially as S. James, brother of the Lord and Bishop of Jerusalem, was known to have led a life of great rigour. The story of S. John’s entering a public bath for the purpose of bathing is against any extreme asceticism.
We may conclude with two stories of late authority, but possibly true. Internal evidence is strongly in favour of the second. Cassian (a.d. 420) tells us that S. John used sometimes to amuse himself with a tame partridge. A hunter expressed surprise at an occupation which seemed frivolous. The Apostle in reply reminded him that hunters do not keep their bows always bent, as his own weapon at that moment shewed. It is not improbable that Cassian obtained this story from the writings of Leucius, which he seems to have known. In this case the authority for the story becomes some 250 years earlier. In a Greek fragment it is an old priest who is scandalized at finding the Apostle gazing with interest on a partridge which is rolling in the dust before him (Zahn, p. 190).
The other story is told by Jerome ( In Galatians 6:10; Galatians 6:10 ). When the Apostle became so infirm that he could not preach he used to be carried to church and content himself with the exhortation, “Little children, love one another.” And when his hearers wearied of it and asked him, “Master, why dost thou always speak thus?” “Because it is the Lord’s command,” he said, “and if only this be done, it is enough.”
Of his death nothing is known; but the Leucian fragments contain a remarkable story respecting it. On the Lord’s Day, the last Sunday of the Apostle’s life, “after the celebration of the divine and awful mysteries and the breaking of the bread,” S. John told some of his disciples to take spades and follow him. Having led them out to a certain place he told them to dig a grave, in which, after prayer, he placed himself, and they buried him up to the neck. He then told them to place a cloth over his face and complete the burial. They wept much but obeyed him and returned home to tell the others what had taken place. Next day they all went out in prayer to translate the body to the great church. But when they had opened the grave they found nothing therein. And they called to mind the words of the Christ to Peter, ‘If I will that he abide till I come, what is that to thee?’ (Zahn, p. 191; comp. p. 162.) The still stranger story, which S. Augustine is disposed to believe 1 1 Viderint enim qui locum sciunt, utrum hoc ibi faciat vel patiatur terra quod dicitur, quia et re vera non a levibus hominibus id audivimus ( Tract. CXXIV. in Johann. XXI. 19). , that the earth over his grave moved with his breathing and shewed that he was not dead but sleeping, is another, and probably a later outgrowth, of the misunderstood saying of Christ respecting S. John. Such legends testify to the estimation in which the last man living who had seen the Lord was held. After he had passed away people refused to believe that no such person remained alive. The expectations respecting Antichrist helped to strengthen such ideas. If Nero was not dead, but had merely passed out of sight for a time, so also had the beloved Apostle. If the one was to return as Antichrist to vex the Church, so also would the other to defend her. (See Appendix B.)
One point in the above sketch requires a few words of explanation, the early date assigned to the Book of Revelation. This sets at defiance the express statement of Irenaeus, that the vision “was seen almost in our own days, at the end of the reign of Domitian” ( Haer. V. xxx. 1), who was killed a.d. 97. The discussion of this point belongs to the commentary on Revelation. Suffice to say that the present writer shares the opinion which seems to be gaining ground among students, that only on one hypothesis can one believe that the Fourth Gospel, First Epistle, and Apocalypse are all by the same author; viz., that the Apocalypse was written first, and that a good many years elapsed before the Gospel and Epistle were written. The writer of the Apocalypse has not yet learned to write Greek. The writer of the Gospel and Epistle writes Greek, not indeed elegantly, but with ease and correctness.
The First Epistle of S. John
The First Epistle of S. John has an interest which is unique. In all probability, as we shall hereafter find reason for believing, it contains the last exhortations of that Apostle to the Church of Christ. And as he long outlived all the rest of the Apostles, and as this Epistle was written near the end of his long life, we may regard it as the farewell of the Apostolic body to the whole company of believers who survived them or have been born since their time. The Second and Third Epistles may indeed have been written later, and probably were so, but they are addressed to individuals and not to the Church at large. An Introduction to this unique Epistle requires the discussion of a variety of questions, which can most conveniently be taken separately, each under a heading of its own. The first which confronts us is that of its genuineness. Is the Epistle the work of the Apostle whose name it bears?
(i) The Authorship of the Epistle
Eusebius ( H. E. III. xxv.) is fully justified in reckoning our Epistle among those canonical books of N. T. which had been universally received ( ὁμολογούμενα ) by the Churches. The obscure sect, whom Epiphanius with a scornful double entendre calls the Alogi (‘devoid of [the doctrine of] the Logos,’ or ‘devoid of reason’) probably rejected it, for the same reason as they rejected the Fourth Gospel; because they distrusted S. John’s teaching respecting the Word or Logos. And Marcion rejected it, as he rejected all the Gospels, excepting an expurgated S. Luke, and all the Epistles, excepting those of S. Paul; not because he believed the books which he discarded to be spurious, but because they contradicted his peculiar views. Neither of these rejections, therefore, need have any weight with us. The objectors did not contend that the Epistle was not written by an Apostle, but that some of its contents were doctrinally objectionable.
On the other hand, the evidence that the Epistle was received as Apostolic from the earliest times is abundant and satisfactory. It begins with those who knew S. John himself and goes on in an unbroken stream which soon becomes full and strong.
Polycarp, the disciple of S. John, in his Epistle to the Philippians writes in a way which needs only to be placed side by side with the similar passage in our Epistle to convince any unprejudiced mind that the two passages cannot have become so like one another accidentally, and that of the two writers it is Polycarp who borrows from S. John and not vice versâ .
1 John. Polycarp, Phil. vii. Every spirit which confesseth Jesus Christ as come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit which confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of Antichrist (4:2, 3).
He that doeth sin is of the devil (3:8). Every one that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is Antichrist: and whosoever confesseth not the witness of the Cross is of the devil. When we remember that the expression ‘Antichrist’ in N.T is peculiar to S. John’s Epistles, that it is not common in the literature of the sub-Apostolic age, and that ‘confess,’ ‘witness,’ and ‘to be of the devil’ are also expressions which are very characteristic of S. John, the supposition that Polycarp knew and accepted our Epistle seems to be placed beyond reasonable doubt. Therefore about fifty years after the date at which the Epistle, if genuine, was written we have a quotation of it by a man who was the friend and pupil of its reputed author. Could Polycarp have been ignorant of the authorship, and would he have made use of it if he had doubted its genuineness? Would he not have denounced it as an impudent forgery?
Eusebius tells us ( H. E. III. xxxix. 16) that Papias (c. a.d. 140) “made use of testimonies from the First Epistle of John.” Irenaeus tells us that Papias was “a disciple of John and a companion of Polycarp.” Thus we have a second Christian writer among the generation which knew S. John, making use of this Epistle. When we consider how little of the literature of that age has come down to us, and how short this Epistle is, we may well be surprised at having two such early witnesses.
Eusebius also states ( H. E. V. viii. 7) that Irenaeus (c. a.d. 140 202) “mentions the First Epistle of John, citing very many testimonies from it.” In the great work of Irenaeus on Heresies, which has come down to us, he quotes it twice. In III. xvi. 5 he quotes 1 John 2:18-22 , expressly stating that it comes from the Epistle of S. John. In III. xvi. 8 he quotes 2 John 1:7 , 2 John 1:8 , and by a slip of memory says that it comes from “the Epistle before mentioned” ( praedictâ epistolâ ). He then goes on to quote 1 John 4:1-3 . This evidence is strengthened by two facts. 1. Irenaeus, being the disciple of Polycarp, is in a direct line of tradition from S. John 2:0 . Irenaeus gives abundant testimony to the authenticity of the Fourth Gospel; and it is so generally admitted by critics of all schools that the Fourth Gospel and our Epistle are by the same hand, that evidence to the genuineness of the one may be used as evidence to the genuineness of the other.
Clement of Alexandria (fl. a.d. 185 210) makes repeated use of the Epistle and in several places mentions it as S. John’s.
Tertullian (fl. 195 215) quotes it 40 or 50 times, repeatedly stating that the words he quotes are S. John’s 1 1 The frequency with which Clement and Tertullian quote this Epistle is sufficient answer to the empty argument, that the Catholic Epistles are not often quoted by early writers, and that therefore the fact that 1 John 5:7 is never quoted is no proof of its spuriousness. .
The Muratorian Fragment is a portion of the earliest attempt known to us to catalogue those books of N.T. which were recognised by the Church. Its date is commonly given as c. a.d. 170 180; but some now prefer to say a.d. 200 215. It is written in barbarous and sometimes scarcely intelligible Latin, having been copied by an ignorant and very careless scribe. It says: “The Epistle of Jude however and two Epistles of the John who has been mentioned above are received in the Catholic (Church),” or “are reckoned among the Catholic (Epistles).” It is uncertain what ‘two Epistles’ means. But if, as is probably the case (see p. 52), the Second and Third are meant, we may be confident that the First was accepted also and included in the catalogue. The opening words of the Epistle are quoted in the Fragment in connexion with the Fourth Gospel. We know of no person or sect that accepted the Second and Third Epistles and yet rejected the First.
Origen (fl. a.d. 220 250) frequently cites the Epistle as S. John’s. Dionysius of Alexandria, his pupil (fl. a.d. 235 265), in his masterly discussion of the authenticity of the Apocalypse argues that, as the Fourth Gospel and First Epistle are by S. John, the Apocalypse (on account of its very different style) cannot be by him (Eus. H. E. VII. xxv). Cyprian, Athanasius, Epiphanius, Jerome, and in short all Fathers, Greek and Latin, accept the Epistle as S. John’s.
The Epistle is found in the Old Syriac Version, which omits the Second and Third as well as other Epistles.
In the face of such evidence as this, the suspicion that the Epistle may have been written by some careful imitator of the Fourth Gospel does not seem to need serious consideration. A guess, not supported by any evidence, has no claim to be admitted as a rival to a sober theory, which is supported by all the evidence that is available, that being both plentiful and trustworthy.
The student must, however, be on his guard against uncritical overstatements of the case in favour of the Epistle. Some commentators put forward an imposing array of references to Justin Martyr, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Ignatian Epistles. This is altogether misleading. All that such references prove is that early Christian writers to a large extent used similar language in speaking of spiritual truths, and that this language was influenced by the writers (not necessarily the writings ) of the N.T.
Where the resemblance to passages in the N.T. is very slight and indistinct (as will be found to be the case in these references), it is at least as possible that the language comes from the oral teaching of Apostles and Apostolic men as from the writings contained in N.T.
The author of the Epistle to Diognetus knew our Epistle; but the date of that perplexing treatise, though probably ante-Nicene, is uncertain.
That the internal evidence in favour of the Apostolic authorship of the Epistle is also very strong, will be seen when we consider in Sections iv. and v. its relation to the Gospel and its characteristics .
(ii) The Persons addressed
The Epistle is rightly called catholic or general , as being addressed to the Church at large. It was probably written with special reference to the Church of Ephesus and the other Churches of Asia, to which it would be sent as a circular letter. The fact of its containing no quotations from the O.T. and not many allusions to it, as also the warning against idolatry (5:21), would lead us to suppose that the writer had converts from heathenism specially in his mind.
S. Augustine in the heading 1 1 This heading is by some considered not to be original: it occurs in the Indiculus Operum S. Augustini of his pupil Possidius. to his ten homilies on the Epistle styles it ‘the Epistle of John to the Parthians’ ( ad Parthos ), and he elsewhere ( Quaest. Evang. II. xxxix.) gives it the same title. In this he has been followed by other writers in the Latin Church. The title occurs in some MSS. of the Vulgate. The Venerable Bede states that “Many ecclesiastical writers, and among them Athanasius, Bishop of the Church of Alexandria, witness that the First Epistle of S. John was written to the Parthians” (Cave Script. Eccles. Hist. Lit. ann. 701). But Athanasius and the Greek Church generally seem to be wholly ignorant of this superscription; although in a few modern Greek MSS. ‘to the Parthians’ occurs in the subscription of the second Epistle. Whether the tradition that S. John once preached in Parthia grew out of this Latin superscription, or the latter produced the tradition, is uncertain. More probably the title originated in a mistake and then gave birth to the tradition. Gieseler’s conjecture respecting the mistake seems to be reasonable, that it arose from a Latin writer finding the letter designated ‘the Epistle of John the Virgin ’ ( τοῦ παρθένου ) and supposing that this meant ‘the Epistle of John to the Parthians ( πρὸς πάρθους ). From very early times S. John was called ‘virgin’ from the belief that he never married. Johannes aliqui Christi spado , says Tertullian ( De Monogam. XVII). In the longer and probably interpolated form of the Ignatian Epistles ( Philad. IV.) we read “Virgins, have Christ alone before your eyes, and His Father in your prayers, being enlightened by the Spirit. May I have pleasure in your purity as that of Elijah … as of the beloved disciple , as of Timothy … who departed this life in chastity.” But there is reason for believing that Ad Virgines ( πρὸς παρθένους ) was an early superscription for the second Epistle. Some transcriber, thinking this very inappropriate for a letter addressed to a lady with children, may have transferred the heading to the first Epistle, and then the corruption from ‘virgins’ ( παρθένους ) to ‘Parthians’ ( πάρθους ) would be easy enough.
Other variations or conjectures are Ad Spartos, Ad Pathmios , and Ad sparsos . None are worth much consideration.
(iii) The Place and Date
Neither of these can be determined with any certainty, the Epistle itself containing no intimations on either point. Irenaeus tells us that the Fourth Gospel was written in Ephesus, and Jerome writes to the same effect. In all probability the Epistle was written at the same place. Excepting Alexandria, no place was so distinctly the home of that Gnosticism, which S. John opposes in both Gospel and Epistle, as Asia Minor, and in particular Ephesus. We know of no tradition connecting S. John with Alexandria, whereas tradition is unanimous in connecting him with Ephesus. In the next section we shall find reason for believing that Gospel and Epistle were written near about the same time; and this in itself is good reason for believing that they were written at the same place. Excepting occasional visits to the other Churches of Asia, S. John probably rarely moved from Ephesus.
As to the date also we cannot do more than attain to probability. (1) Reason has been given above why as long an interval as possible ought to be placed between the Apocalypse on the one hand and the Gospel and Epistle on the other. If then the Apocalypse was written about a.d. 68, and S. John died about a.d. 100, we may place Gospel and Epistle between a.d. 85 and 95. (2) Moreover, the later we place these two writings in S. John’s lifetime, the more intelligible does the uncompromising and explicit position, which characterizes both of them in reference to Gnosticism, become. (3) Again, the tone of the Epistles is that of an old man, writing to a younger generation. We can scarcely fancy an Apostle, still in the prime of life, writing thus to men of his own age. But those who see in this forcible and out-spoken letter, with its marvellous combination of love and sternness, signs of senility and failing powers, have read either without care or with prejudice. ‘The eye’ of the Eagle Apostle is ‘not dim, nor his natural force abated.’ (4) No inference can be drawn from ‘it is the last hour’ (2:18): these words cannot refer to the destruction of Jerusalem (see note in loco ). And perhaps it is not wise to dwell much on the fact that the introductory verses seem to imply that the seeing, hearing, and handling of the Word of Life took place in the remote past. This will not help us to determine whether S. John wrote the Epistle forty or sixty years after the Ascension.
(iv) The Object of the Epistle: its Relation to the Gospel
The Epistle appears to have been intended as a companion to the Gospel . No more definite word than ‘companion’ seems to be applicable, without going beyond the truth. We may call it “a preface and introduction to the Gospel,” or a “second part” and “supplement” to it; but this is only to a very limited extent true. The Gospel has its proper introduction in its first 18 verses, and its supplement in its last chapter. It is nearer the truth to speak of the Epistle as a comment on the Gospel, “a sermon with the Gospel for its text.” References to the Gospel are scattered thickly over the whole Epistle.
If this theory respecting its connexion with the Gospel be correct, we shall expect to find that the object of Gospel and Epistle is to a large extent one and the same. This is amply borne out by the facts. The object of the Gospel S. John tells us himself; ‘these have been written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye may have life in His name ’ (20:31). The object of the Epistle he tells us also; ‘These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God ’ (5:13). The Gospel is written to shew the way to eternal life through belief in the incarnate Son. The Epistle is written to confirm and enforce the Gospel; to assure those who believe in the incarnate Son that they have eternal life. The one is an historical, the other an ethical statement of the truth. The one sets forth the acts and words which prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; the other sets forth the acts and words which are obligatory upon those who believe this great truth. Of necessity both writings in stating the truth oppose error: but with this difference. In the Gospel S. John simply states the truth and leaves it: in the Epistle he commonly over against the truth places the error to which it is opposed. The Epistle is often directly polemical: the Gospel is never more than indirectly so.
S. John’s Gospel has been called a summary of Christian Theology , his first Epistle a summary of Christian Ethics , and his Apocalypse a summary of Christian Politics . There is much truth in this classification, especially as regards the first two members of it. It will help us to give definiteness to the statement that the Epistle was written to be a companion to the Gospel. They both supply us with the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. But in the Gospel these are given as the foundations of the Christian’s faith ; in the Epistle they are given as the foundation of the Christian’s life . The one answers the question, ‘What must I believe about God and Jesus Christ?’ The other answers the question, ‘What is my duty towards God and towards man?’ It is obvious that in the latter case the direct treatment of error is much more in place than in the former. If we know clearly what to believe, we may leave on one side the consideration of what not to believe. But inasmuch as the world contains many who assert what is false and do what is wrong, we cannot know our duty to God and man, without learning how we are to bear ourselves in reference to falsehood and wrong.
Again, it has been said that in his three works S. John has given us three pictures of the Divine life or life in God . In the Gospel he sets forth the Divine life as it is exhibited in the person of Christ . In his Epistle he sets forth that life as it is exhibited in the individual Christian . And in the Apocalypse he sets forth that life as it is exhibited in the Church . This again is true, especially as regards the Gospel and Epistle. It is between these two that the comparison and contrast are closest. The Church is the Body of Christ, and it is also the collective body of individual Christians. So far as it comes up to its ideal, it will present the life in God as it is exhibited in Christ Himself. So far as it falls short of it, it will present the Divine life as it is exhibited in the ordinary Christian. It is therefore in the field occupied by the Gospel and Epistle respectively that we find the largest amount both of similarity and difference. In the one we have the perfect life in God as it was realised in an historical Person. In the other we have the directions for reproducing that life as it might be realised by an earnest but necessarily imperfect Christian.
To sum up the relations of the Gospel to the Epistle, we may say that the Gospel is objective, the Epistle subjective; the one is historical, the other moral; the one gives us the theology of the Christ, the other the ethics of the Christian; the one is didactic, the other polemical; the one states the truth as a thesis, the other as an antithesis; the one starts from the human side, the other from the divine; the one proves that the Man Jesus is the Son of God, the other insists that the Son of God is come in the flesh. But the connexion between the two is intimate and organic throughout. The Gospel suggests principles of conduct which the Epistle lays down explicitly; the Epistle implies facts which the Gospel states as historically true.
It would perhaps be too much to say that the Epistle “was written designedly as the supplement to all extant New Testament Scripture, as, in fact, the final treatise of inspired revelation.” But it will be well to remember in studying it that as a matter of fact the letter is that final treatise. We can hardly venture to say that in penning it S. John was consciously putting the coping stone on the edifice of the New Testament and closing the Canon. But in it the leading doctrines of Christianity are stated in their final form. The teaching of S. Paul and that of S. James are restated, no longer in apparent opposition, but in intimate and inseparable harmony. They are but two sides of the same truth.
But though S. John’s hand was thus guided to gather up and consummate the whole body of evangelical truth, it seems evident that this was not his own intention in writing the Epistle. The letter, like most of the Epistles in N. T., is an occasional one. It is written for a special occasion; to meet a definite crisis in the Church. It is a solemn warning against the seductive assumptions and deductions of various forms of Gnostic error; an emphatic protest against anything like a compromise where Christian truth is in question. The nature of God, so far as it can be grasped by man; the nature of Christ; the relation of man to God, to the world, and to the evil one; are stated with a firm hand to meet the shifty theories of false teachers. “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts” (1 Kings 19:10 ) is the mental attitude of this polemical element in the Epistle. “We hear again the voice of the ‘son of thunder,’ still vehement against every insult to the majesty of his Lord.”
The connexion between Gospel and Epistle is recognised by the writer of the Muratorian Canon, who probably lived within a century of the writing of both. We have no means of verifying his narrative, but must take it or leave it as it stands. “Of the fourth of the Gospels, John one of the disciples [is the author]. When his fellow-disciples and bishops exhorted him [to write it], he said; ‘Fast with me for three days from to-day, and let us relate to each other whatever shall be revealed to each.’ On the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the Apostles, that, though all should revise, John should write down everything in his own name. And therefore, though various principles are taught in the separate books of the Gospels, yet it makes no difference to the faith of believers, seeing that by one supreme Spirit there are declared in all all things concerning the Birth, the Passion, the Resurrection, the life with His disciples, and His double Advent; the first in humility, despised, which is past; the second glorious in kingly power, which is to come. What wonder, therefore, is it, if John so constantly in his Epistles also puts forward particular [phrases], saying in his own person, what we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, these things have we written to you .”
The following table of parallels between the Gospel and the Epistle will go far to convince anyone; (1) that the two writings are by one and the same hand; (2) that the passages in the Gospel are the originals to which the parallels in the Epistle have been consciously or unconsciously adapted; (3) that in a number of cases the reference to the Gospel is conscious and intentional.
Gospel. Epistle. 1:1. In the beginning was the Word. 1:1. That which was from the beginning … concerning the Word of life. 1:14. We beheld His glory. That which we beheld. 20:27. Reach hither thy hand, and put it into My side. And our hands handled. 3:11. We speak that we do know, and bear witness of that we have seen. 1:2. We have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you. 19:35. He that hath seen hath borne witness. 1:1. The Word was with God. The eternal life, which was with the Father. 17:21. That they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us. 1:3. Our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. 16:24. That your joy may be fulfilled. 1:4. That our joy may be fulfilled. 1:19. And this is the witness of John. 1:5. And this is the message which we have heard from Him, God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. 1:5. The light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. 8:12. He that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have that light of life. 1:6. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness we lie, and do not the truth; but if we walk in light, as He is in the light … 3:21. He that doeth the truth, cometh to the light. 14:16. I will pray the Father and He shall give you another Advocate. 2:1. We have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 1:29. Behold, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. 2:1. And not for ours only, but also for the whole world. 4:24. The Saviour of the world. 14:15. If ye love Me, ye will keep my commandments. 2:3. Hereby know we that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. 14:21. He that hath My commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me. 2:5. Whoso keepeth His word, in Him verily hath the love of God been perfected. 15:5. He that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit. 2:6. He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also to walk even as He walked. 13:34. A new commandment I give unto you. 2:8. A new commandment write I unto you. 1:9. There was the true light. The true light already shineth. 5:17. Even until now. 2:9. Even until now. 11:9. If a man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. 2:10. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. 12:35. He that walketh in the darkness knoweth not whither he goeth. 2:11. He that hateth his brother is in the darkness, and walketh in the darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because the darkness hath blinded his eyes. 12:40. He hath blinded their eyes. 13:33. Little children ( τεκνία ). 2:1, 12, 28. Little children ( τεκνία ). 1:1. In the beginning was the Word. 2:13. Ye know Him which is from the beginning. 5:38. Ye have not His word abiding in you. 2:14. The word of God abideth in you. 21:5. Children ( παιδία ). 2:18. Little children ( παιδία ). 6:39. This is the will of Him that sent Me, that of all which He hath given Me I should lose nothing. 2:19. If they had been of us, they would have abided with us. 6:69. The Holy One of God (Christ). 2:20. The Holy One (Christ). 16:13. When He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He shall guide you into all truth. Ye have an anointing from the Holy One, and ye know all things. 15:23. He that hateth Me hateth My Father also. 2:23. Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father. He that confesseth the Son, hath the Father also. 14:9. He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father. 14:23. If a man love Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him, and make Our abode with him. 2:24. If that which ye heard from the beginning abide in you, ye also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father. 17:2. That whatsoever Thou hast given Him, to them He should give eternal life. 2:25. And this is the promise which He promised us, even eternal life. 16:13. When He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He shall guide you into all truth. 2:27. As His anointing teacheth you concerning all things. These are but gleanings out of a couple of chapters, but they are sufficient to shew the relation between the two writings. Some of them are mere reminiscences of particular modes of expressions. But in other cases the passage in the Epistle is a deduction from the passage in the Gospel, or an illustration of it, or a development in accordance with the Apostle’s experience in the half century which had elapsed since the Ascension. But the fact that the Epistle at every turn presupposes the Gospel, does not prove beyond all question that the Gospel was written first. S. John had delivered his Gospel orally over and over again before writing it: and it is possible, though hardly probable, that the Epistle was written before the Gospel.
In this abundance of parallels between the two writings, especially between the discourses of the Lord in the Gospel and the Apostle’s teaching in the Epistle, “it is most worthy of notice that no use is made in the Epistle of the language of the discourses in John 3:0 and 6.”
“Generally it will be found on a comparison of the closest parallels, that the Apostle’s own words are more formal in expression than the words of the Lord which he records. The Lord’s words have been moulded by the disciple into aphorisms in the Epistle.” Westcott.
(v) The Plan of the Epistle
That S. John had a plan, and a very carefully arranged plan, in writing his Gospel, those who have studied its structure will scarcely be able to doubt. It is far otherwise with the Epistle. Here we may reasonably doubt whether the Apostle had any systematic arrangement of his thoughts in his mind when he wrote the letter. Indeed some commentators have regarded it as the rambling prattle of an old man, “an unmethodised effusion of pious sentiments and reflections.” Others, without going quite these lengths, have concluded that the contemplative and undialectical temper of S. John has caused him to pour forth his thoughts in a series of aphorisms without much sequence or logical connexion.
Both these opinions are erroneous. It is quite true to say with Calvin that the Epistle is a compound of doctrine and exhortation: what Epistle in N. T. is not? But it is a mistake to suppose with him that the composition is confused. Again, it is quite true to say that the Apostle’s method is not dialectical. But it cannot follow from this that he has no method at all. He seldom argues; one who sees the truth, and believes that every sincere believer will see it also, has not much need to argue: he merely states the truth and leaves it to exercise its legitimate power over every truth-loving heart. But in thus simply affirming what is true and denying what is false he does not allow his thoughts to come out hap-hazard. Each one as it comes before us may be complete in itself; but it is linked on to what precedes and what follows. The links are often subtle, and sometimes we cannot be sure that we have detected them; but they are seldom entirely absent. This peculiarity brings with it the further characteristic, that the transitions from one section of the subject to another, and even from one main division of it to another, are for the most part very gradual. They are like the changes in dissolving views. We know that we have passed on to something new, but we hardly know how the change has come about.
A writing of this kind is exceedingly difficult to analyse. We feel that there are divisions; but we are by no means sure where to make them, or how to name them. We are conscious that the separate thoughts are intimately connected one with another; but we cannot satisfy ourselves that we have discovered the exact lines of connexion. At times we hardly know whether we are moving forwards or backwards, whether we are returning to an old subject or passing onwards to a new one, when in truth we are doing both and neither; for the old material is recast and made new, and the new material is shewn to have been involved in the old. Probably few commentators have satisfied themselves with their own analysis of this Epistle: still fewer have satisfied other people. Only those who have seriously attempted it know the real difficulties of the problem. It is like analysing the face of the sky or of the sea. There is contrast, and yet harmony; variety and yet order; fixedness, and yet ceaseless change; a monotony which soothes without wearying us, because the frequent repetitions come to us as things that are both new and old. But about one point most students of the Epistle will agree; that it is better to read it under the guidance of any scheme that will at all coincide with its contents, than with no guidance whatever. Jewels, it is true, remain jewels, even when piled confusedly into a heap: but they are then seen to the very least advantage. Any arrangement is better than that. So also with S. John’s utterances in this Epistle. They are robbed of more than half their power if they are regarded as a string of detached aphorisms, with no more organic unity than a collection of proverbs. It is in the conviction of the truth of this opinion that the following analysis is offered for consideration. It is, of course, to a considerable extent based upon previous attempts, and possibly it is no great improvement upon any of them. It has, however, been of service to the writer in studying the Epistle, and if it helps any other student to frame a better analysis for himself, it will have served its purpose.
One or two divisions may be asserted with confidence. Beyond all question the first four verses are introductory, and are analogous to the first eighteen verses of the Gospel. Equally beyond question the last four verses, and probably the last nine verses, form the summary and conclusion. This leaves the intermediate portion from 1:5 to 5:12 or 5:17 as the main body of the Epistle: and it is about the divisions and subdivisions of this portion that so much difference of opinion exists.
Again, nearly every commentator seems to have felt that a division must be made somewhere near the end of the second chapter. In the following analysis this generally recognised landmark has been adopted as central. Logically as well as locally it divides the main body of the Epistle into two fairly equal halves. And these two halves may be conveniently designated by the great statement which each contains respecting the Divine Nature ‘God is Light’ and ‘God is Love.’ These headings are not merely convenient; they correspond to a very considerable extent with the contents of each half. The first half, especially in its earlier portions, is dominated by the idea of ‘light’: the second half is still more clearly and thoroughly dominated by the idea of ‘love.’
As regards the subdivisions and the titles given to them, all that it would be safe to affirm is this; that, like trees in a well-wooded landscape, the Apostle’s thoughts evidently fall into groups, and that it conduces to clearness to distinguish the groups. But it may easily be the case that what to one eye is only one cluster, to another eye is two or three clusters, and that there may also be a difference of opinion as to where each cluster begins and ends. Moreover the description of a particular group which satisfies one mind will seem inaccurate to another. The following scheme will do excellent service if it provokes the student to challenge its correctness and to correct it, if necessary, throughout.
An Analysis of the Epistle
1:1 4. Introduction.
1. The Subject-matter of the Gospel employed in the Epistle (1:1 3).
2. The Purpose of the Epistle (1:4).
1:5 2:28. God is Light.
a . 1:5 2:11. What Walking in the Light involves: the Condition and Conduct of the Believer.
1. Fellowship with God and with the Brethren (1:5 7).
2. Consciousness and Confession of Sin (1:8 10).
3. Obedience to God by Imitation of Christ (2:1 6).
4. Love of the Brethren (2:7 11).
b . 2:12 28. What Walking in the Light excludes: the Things and Persons to be avoided.
1. Threefold Statement of Reasons for Writing (2:12 14).
2. The Things to be avoided; the World and its Ways (2:15 17).
3. The Persons to be avoided; Antichrists (2:18 26).
4. (Transitional) The Place of Safety; Christ (2:27, 28).
2:29 5:12. God is Love.
c . 2:29 3:24. The Evidence of Sonship; Deeds of righteousness before God.
1. The Children of God and the Children of the Devil (2:29 3:12).
2. Love and Hate; Life and Death (3:13 24).
d . 4:1 5:12. The Source of Sonship; Possession of the Spirit as shewn by Confession of the Incarnation.
1. The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error (4:1 6).
2. Love is the Mark of the Children of Him who is Love (4:7 21).
3. Faith is the Source of Love, the Victory over the World, and the Possession of Life (5:1 12).
5:13 21. Conclusion.
1. Intercessory Love the Fruit of Faith (5:13 17).
2. The Sum of the Christian’s Knowledge (5:18 20).
3. Final Injunction (5:21).
Perhaps our first impression on looking at the headings of the smaller sections would be that these subjects have not much connexion with one another, and that the order in which they come is more or less a matter of accident. This impression would be erroneous. Fellowship with God involves consciousness of sin , and its confession with a view to its removal. This implies obedience to God , which finds its highest expression in love . Love of God and of the brethren excludes love of the world , which is passing away, as is shewn by the appearance of antichrists . He who would not pass away must abide in Christ . With the idea of sonship , introduced by the expression ‘begotten of God,’ the Epistle takes a fresh start. This Divine sonship implies mutual love among God’s children and the indwelling of Christ to which the Spirit testifies. The mention of the Spirit leads on to the distinction between true and false spirits . By a rather subtle connexion (see on 4:7) this once more leads to the topic of mutual love , and to faith as the source of love , especially as shewn in intercessory prayer . The whole closes with a summary of the knowledge on which the moral principles inculcated in the Epistle are based, and with a warning against idols.
(vi) The Characteristics of the Epistle
“In reading John it is always with me as though I saw him before me, lying on the bosom of his Master at the Last Supper: as though his angel were holding the light for me, and in certain passages would fall upon my neck and whisper something in mine ear. I am far from understanding all I read, but it often seems to me as if what John meant were floating before me in the distance; and even when I look into a passage altogether dark, I have a foretaste of some great, glorious meaning, which I shall one day understand” (Claudius).
Dante expresses the same feeling still more strongly when he represents himself as blinded by the radiance of the beloved disciple ( Paradiso , xxv. 136 xxvi. 6).
“Ah, how much in my mind was I disturbed,
When I turned round to look on Beatrice,
That her I could not see, although I was
Close at her side and in the Happy World!
While I was doubting for my vision quenched,
Out of the flame refulgent that had quenched it
Issued a breathing, that attentive made me,
Saying ‘Whilst thou recoverest the sense
Of seeing which in me thou hast consumed,’
Tis well that speaking thou should’st compensate it.’ ”
(Longfellow’s Translation: see notes.)
Two characteristics of this Epistle will strike every serious reader; the almost oppressive majesty of the thoughts which are put before us, and the extreme simplicity of the language in which they are expressed. The most profound mysteries in the Divine scheme of Redemption, the spiritual and moral relations between God, the human soul, the world, and the evil one, and the fundamental principles of Christian Ethics, are all stated in words which any intelligent child can understand. They are the words of one who has ‘received the kingdom’ of heaven into his inmost soul, and received it ‘as a little child.’ They are the foolish things of the world putting to shame them that are wise. Their ease, and simplicity, and repose irresistibly attract us. Even the unwilling ear is arrested and listens. We are held as by a spell. And as we listen, and stop, and ponder, we find that the simple words, which at first seemed to convey a meaning as simple as themselves, are charged with truths which are not of this world, but have their roots in the Infinite and Eternal. S. John has been so long on the mount in communion with God that his very words, when the veil is taken off them, shine: and, as Dante intimates, to be brought suddenly face to face with his spirit is well-nigh too much for mortal eyes.
Another characteristic of the Epistle, less conspicuous perhaps, but indisputable, is its finality . As S. John’s Gospel, not merely in time, but in conception and form and point of view, is the last of the Gospels, so this is the last of the Epistles. It rises above and consummates all the rest. It is in a sphere in which the difficulties between Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian, and the apparent discords between S. Paul and S. James, are harmonized and cease to exist. It is indeed no handbook or summary of Christian doctrine; for it is written expressly for those who ‘know the truth’; and therefore much is left unstated, because it may be taken for granted. But in no other book in the Bible are so many cardinal doctrines touched, or with so firm a hand. And each point is laid before us with the awe-inspiring solemnity of one who writes under the profound conviction that ‘it is the last hour.’
Closely connected with this characteristic of finality is another which it shares with the Gospel; the tone of magisterial authority which pervades the whole. None but an Apostle, perhaps we may almost venture to say, none but the last surviving Apostle, could write like this. There is no passionate claim to authority, as of one who feels compelled to assert himself and ask, ‘Am I not an Apostle?’ There is no fierce denunciation of those who are opposed to him, no attempt at a compromise, no anxiety about the result. He will not argue the point; he states the truth and leaves it. Every sentence seems to tell of the conscious authority and resistless though unexerted strength of one who has ‘seen, and heard, and handled’ the Eternal Word, and who ‘knows that his witness is true.’
Once more, there is throughout the Epistle a love of moral and spiritual antitheses . Over against each thought there is constantly placed in sharp contrast its opposite. Thus light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate, life and death, love of the Father and love of the world, the children of God and the children of the devil, the spirit of truth and the spirit of error, sin unto death and sin not unto death, to do righteousness and to do sin, follow one another in impressive alternation. The movement of the Epistle largely consists of progress from one opposite to another. And it will nearly always be found that the antithesis is not exact, but an advance beyond the original statement or else an expansion of it. ‘He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in the darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth because the darkness hath blinded his eyes’ (2:10, 11). The antithetical structure and rythmical cadence of the sentences would do much to commend them “to the ear and to the memory of the hearers. To Greek readers, familiar with the lyrical arrangements of the Greek Drama, this mode of writing would have a peculiar charm; and Jewish readers would recognise in it a correspondence to the style and diction of their own Prophetical Books” (Wordsworth).
If we say we have no sin,
We deceive ourselves,
And the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins,
He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins,
And to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
If we say that we have not sinned,
We make Him a liar;
And His word is not in us.
In this instance it will be noticed that we pass from one opposite to another and back again: but that to which we return covers more ground than the original position and is a distinct advance upon it.
For other characteristics of S. John’s style which are common to both Gospel and Epistle see the Introduction to the Gospel, chapter 5. Many of these are pointed out in the notes on these Epistles: see in particular the notes on 1 John 1:2 , 1 John 1:4 , 1 John 1:5 , 1 John 1:8 , 1 John 1:2 :1, 1 John 1:3 , 1 John 1:8 , 24, 1 John 1:3 :9, 15, 17, 1 John 1:4 :9, 1 John 1:5 :9, 1 John 1:10 .
The following characteristic words and phrases are common to Gospel and Epistles;
abide, Advocate, be of God, be of the truth, be of the world, believe on, children of God, darkness, do sin, do the truth, eternal life, evil one, joy be fulfilled, have sin, keep His commandments, keep His word, lay down one’s life, life, light, love, manifest, murderer, new commandment, Only-begotten, pass over out of death into life, true, truth, walk in darkness, witness, Word, world .
The following expressions are found in the Epistles, but not in the Gospel;
anointing, Antichrist, deceiver, fellowship, lawlessness, lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, message, presence or coming (of the Second Advent), propitiation, sin unto death, walk in truth .
the second epistle
Short as this letter is, and having more than half of its contents common to either the First or the Second Epistle, our loss would have been great had it been refused a place in the Canon, and in consequence been allowed to perish. It gives us a new aspect of the Apostle: it shews him to us as the shepherd of individual souls. In the First Epistle he addresses the Church at large. In this Epistle, whether it be addressed to a local Church, or (as we shall find reason to believe) to a Christian lady, it is certain definite individuals that he has in his mind as he writes. It is for the sake of particular persons about whom he is greatly interested that he sends the letter, rather than for the sake of Christians in general. It is a less formal and less public utterance than the First Epistle. We see the Apostle at home rather than in the Church, and hear him speaking as a friend rather than as a Metropolitan. The Apostolic authority is there, but it is in the background. The letter beseeches and warns more than it commands.
i. The Authorship of the Epistle
Just as nearly all critics allow that the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle are by one hand, so it is generally admitted that the Second and Third Epistle are by one hand. The question is whether all four writings are by the same person; whether ‘the Elder’ of the two short Epistles is the beloved disciple of the Gospel, the author of the First Epistle. If this question is answered in the negative, then only two alternatives remain; either these twin Epistles were written by a person commonly known as ‘John the Elder’ or ‘the Presbyter John,’ a contemporary of the Apostle sometimes confused with him; or they were written by some Elder entirely unknown to us. In either case he is a person who has studiously and with very great success imitated the style of the Apostle.
The External Evidence
The voice of antiquity is strongly in favour of the first and simplest hypothesis; that all four writings are the work of the Apostle S. John. The evidence is not so full or so indisputably unanimous as for the Apostolicity of the First Epistle; but, when we take into account the brevity and comparative unimportance of these two letters, the amount is considerable.
Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of S. John, says; “ John, the disciple of the Lord , intensified their condemnation by desiring that not even a ‘God-speed’ should be bid to them by us; For , says he, he that biddeth him God speed, partaketh in his evil works ” ( Haer. I. xvi. 3). And again, after quoting 1 John 2:18 , he resumes a little further on; “These are they against whom the Lord warned us beforehand; and His disciple , in his Epistle already mentioned, commands us to avoid them, when he says; Many deceivers are gone forth into this world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the Antichrist. Look to them, that ye lose not that which ye have wrought ” (III. xvi. 8). In one or two respects, it will be observed, Irenaeus must have had a different text from ours: but these quotations shew that he was well acquainted with the Second Epistle and believed it to be by the beloved disciple. And though in the second passage he makes the slip of quoting the Second Epistle and calling it the First, yet this only shews all the more plainly how remote from his mind was the idea that the one Epistle might be by S. John and the other not.
Clement of Alexandria, and indeed the Alexandrian school generally (a.d. 200 300), testify to the belief that the second letter is by the Apostle. He quotes 1 John 5:16 with the introductory words, “John in his longer Epistle ( ἐν τῇ μείζονι ἐπιστολῇ ) seems to teach &c.” ( Strom. II. xv), which shews that he knows of at least one other and shorter Epistle by the same John. In a fragment of a Latin translation of one of his works we read, “The Second Epistle of John, which is written to virgins, is very simple: it is written indeed to a certain Babylonian lady, Electa by name; but it signifies the election of the holy Church.” Eusebius ( H. E. VI. xiv. 1) tells us that Clement in his Hypotyposes or Outlines commented on the ‘disputed’ books in N. T. viz. “the Epistle of Jude and the other Catholic Epistles.”
Dionysius of Alexandria in his famous criticism (Eus. H.E. VII. xxv.) so far from thinking ‘the Elder’ an unlikely title to be taken by S. John, thinks that his not naming himself is like the Apostle’s usual manner.
Thus we have witnesses from two very different centres, Irenaeus in Gaul, Clement and Dionysius in Alexandria.
Cyprian in his account of a Council at Carthage, a.d. 256, gives us what we may fairly consider to be evidence as to the belief of the North African Church. He says that Aurelius, Bishop of Chullabi, quoted 2 John 1:10 , 2 John 1:11 with the observation, “ John the Apostle laid it down in his Epistle.”
The evidence of the Muratorian Fragment is by no means clear. We have seen (p. 38) that the writer quotes the First Epistle in his account of the Fourth Gospel, and later on speaks of “two Epistles of the John who has been mentioned before.” This has been interpreted in various ways. (1) That these ‘two Epistles’ are the Second and Third, the First being omitted by the copyist (who evidently was a very inaccurate and incompetent person), or being counted as part of the Gospel. (2) That these two are the First and the Second, the Third being omitted. (3) That the First and the Second are taken together as one Epistle and the Third as a second. And it is remarkable that Eusebius twice speaks of the First Epistle as “the former Epistle of John” ( H. E. III. xxv. 2, xxxix. 16), as if in some arrangements there were only two Epistles. But in spite of this the first of these three explanations is to be preferred. The context in the Fragment decidedly favours it.
Origen knows of the two shorter letters, but says that “not all admit that these are genuine” (Eus. H. E. VI. xxv. 10). But he expresses no opinion of his own, and never quotes them. On the other hand he quotes the First Epistle “in such a manner as at least to shew that the other Epistles were not familiarly known” (Westcott).
Eusebius, who was possibly influenced by Origen, classes these two Epistles among the ‘disputed’ books of the Canon, and suggests (without giving his own view) that they may be the work of a namesake of the Evangelist. “Among the disputed ( ἀντιλεγόμενα ) books, which, however, are well known and recognised by most, we class the Epistle circulated under the name of James, and that of Jude, as well as the Second of Peter, and the so-called second and third of John, whether they belong to the Evangelist, or possibly to another of the same name as he” ( H. E. III. xxv. 3). Elsewhere he speaks in a way which leaves one less in doubt as to his own opinion ( Dem. Evan. III. iii. p. 120), which appears to be favourable to the Apostolic authorship; he speaks of them without qualification as S. John’s.
The School of Antioch seems to have rejected these two ‘disputed’ Epistles, together with Jude and 2 Peter.
Jerome ( Vir. Illust. ix.) says that, while the First Epistle is approved by all Churches and scholars, the two others are ascribed to John the Presbyter, whose tomb was still shewn at Ephesus as well as that of the Apostle.
The Middle Ages attributed all three to S. John.
From this summary of the external evidence it is apparent that precisely those witnesses who are nearest to S. John in time are favourable to the Apostolic authorship, and seem to know of no other view. Doubts are first indicated by Origen, although we need not suppose that they were first propounded by him. Probably the belief that there had been another John at Ephesus, and that he had been known as ‘John the Presbyter’ or ‘the Elder,’ first made people think that these two comparatively insignificant Epistles, written by someone who calls himself ‘the Elder,’ were not the work of the Apostle. But, as is shewn in Appendix E., it is doubtful, whether any such person as John the Elder, as distinct from the Apostle and Evangelist, ever existed . In all probability those writers who attribute the two shorter letters to John the Presbyter, whether they know it or not, are really attributing them to S. John.
The Internal Evidence
The internal is hardly less strong than the external evidence in favour of the Apostolic authorship of the Second, and therefore of the Third Epistle: for no one can reasonably doubt that the writer of the one is the writer of the other. We have seen in the preceding sections that Apostles were sometimes called Elders. This humbler title would not be likely to be assumed by one who wished to pass himself off as an Apostle; all the less so, because no Apostolic writing in N. T. begins with this appellation, except the Epistles in question. Therefore these Epistles are not like the work of a forger imitating S. John in order to be taken for S. John. On the other hand an ordinary Presbyter or Elder, writing in his own person without any wish to mislead, would hardly style himself ‘ The Elder.’ Assume, however, that S. John wrote the Epistles, and the title seems to be very appropriate. The oldest member of the Christian Church and the last surviving Apostle might well be called, and call himself, with simple dignity, ‘The Elder.’
The following table will help us to judge whether the similarities between the four writings are not most naturally and reasonably explained by accepting the primitive (though not universal) tradition, that all four proceeded from one and the same author.
Gospel and First Epistle. Second Epistle. Third Epistle. 1 John 3:18 . Let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and truth. 1. The Elder unto the elect lady … whom I love in truth: and not I only, but also all they that know the truth. 1. The Elder unto Gaius the beloved whom I love in truth. John 8:31 . If ye abide in My word … ye shall know the truth. 10:18. This commandment received I from My Father. 4. I rejoiced greatly that I have found of thy children walking in truth, even as we received commandment from the Father. 3. I rejoiced greatly when brethren came and bare witness unto thy truth, even as thou walkest in truth. 1 John 4:21 . This commandment have we from Him. 2:7. No new commandment write I unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. 5. And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote to thee a new commandment, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another. John 13:34 . A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another. 14:21. He that hath My commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me. 6. And this is love, that we should walk after His commandments. This is the commandment, even as ye heard from the beginning, that ye should walk in it. 1 John 5:0 . This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. 2:24. Let that abide in you which ye heard from the beginning. 4:1 3. Many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit which confessed that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit which confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the Antichrist. 7. For many deceivers are gone forth into the world, even they that confess not that Jesus Christ cometh in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the Antichrist. 2:23. Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: he that confesseth the Son hath the Father also. 9. Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the doctrine, the same hath both the Father and the Son. 2:29. Every one that doeth righteousness is begotten of Him. 11. He that doeth good is of God: he that doeth evil hath not seen God. 3:6. Whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither knoweth Him. John 21:24 . This is the disciple which beareth witness of these things: and we know that his witness is true. 12. Yea, we also bear witness; and thou knowest that our witness is true. 15:11. That your joy may be fulfilled.
1 John 1:4 . That our joy may be fulfilled. 12, 13. Having many things to write unto you, I would not write them with paper and ink: but I hope to come unto you, and to speak face to face that your joy may be fulfilled. The children of thine elect sister salute thee. 13, 14. I had many things to write unto thee, but I am unwilling to write them to thee with ink and pen: but I hope shortly to see thee, and we shall speak face to face. Peace be unto thee. The friends salute thee. Salute the friends by name. The brevity and comparative unimportance of the two letters is another point in favour of their Apostolicity. What motive could there be for attempting to pass such letters off as the work of an Apostle? Those were not days in which the excitement of duping the literary world would induce anyone to make the experiment. Some years ago the present writer was disposed to think the authorship of these two Epistles very doubtful. Further study has led him to believe that the balance of probability is very greatly in favour of their being the writings, and probably the last writings, of the Apostle S. John.
ii. The Person or Persons addressed
It seems to be impossible to determine with anything like certainty whether the Second Epistle is addressed to a community , i.e. a particular Church, or the Church at large, or to an individual , i. e. some lady personally known to the Apostle.
In favour of the former hypothesis it is argued as follows: “There is no individual reference to one person; on the contrary, the children ‘walk in truth’; mutual love is enjoined; there is an admonition, ‘look to yourselves’; and ‘the bringing of doctrine’ is mentioned. Besides, it is improbable that ‘the children of an elect sister’ would send a greeting by the writer to an ‘elect Kyria and her children.’ A sister church might naturally salute another” (Davidson).
A very great deal will depend upon the translation of the opening words ( ἐκλεκτῇ κυρίᾳ ), which may mean: (1) To the elect lady ; (2) To an elect lady ; (3) To the elect Kyria ; (4) To the lady Electa . The first two renderings leave the question respecting a community or an individual open: the last two close it in favour of an individual. But the fourth rendering, though supported by the Latin translation of some fragments of Clement of Alexandria (see p. 51), is untenable on account of ver. 13. It is incredible that there were two sisters each bearing the very unusual name of Electa. The third rendering is more admissible. The proper name Kyria occurs in ancient documents. Like Martha in Hebrew, it is the feminine of the common word for ‘Lord’; and some have conjectured that the letter is addressed to Martha of Bethany. But, had Kyria been a proper name, S. John would probably (though not necessarily) have written ‘to Kyria, the elect,’ like ‘to Gaius, the beloved.’ Moreover, to insist on this third rendering is to assume as certain two things which are uncertain: (1) That the letter is addressed to an individual; (2) that the individual’s name was Kyria. We therefore fall back upon one of the first two renderings; and of the two the first seems preferable. The omission of the Greek definite article is quite intelligible, and may be compared with ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩ ΘΕΩ in Acts 17:23 , which may quite correctly be rendered, ‘To the Unknown God,’ in spite of the absence of the article in the original.
That ‘the elect Lady’ may be a figurative name for a Church, or for the Church, must at once be admitted: and perhaps we may go further and say that such a figure would not be unlikely in the case of a writer so fond of symbolism as S. John. But is a sustained allegory of this kind likely in the case of so slight a letter? Is not the form of the First Epistle against it? Is there any parallel case in the literature of the first three centuries? No one doubts that the twin Epistle is addressed to an individual. In letters so similar it is scarcely probable that in the one case the person addressed is to be taken literally, while in the other the person addressed is to be taken as the allegorical representative of a Church. It seems more reasonable to suppose that in both Epistles, as in the Epistle to Philemon, we have precious specimens of the private correspondence of an Apostle. We are allowed to see how the beloved Disciple at the close of his life could write to a Christian lady and to a Christian gentleman respecting their personal conduct.
Adopting, therefore, the literal interpretation as not only tenable but probable, we must be content to remain in ignorance who ‘the elect lady’ is. That she is Mary the Mother of the Lord is not merely a gratuitous but an incredible conjecture. The Mother of the Lord, during S. John’s later years, would be from a hundred and twenty to a hundred and forty years old.
iii. Place, Date and Contents
We can do no more than frame probable hypotheses with regard to place and date. The Epistle itself gives us vague outlines; and these outlines are all that is certain. But it will give reality and life to the letter if we fill in these outlines with details which may be true, which are probably like the truth, and which though confessedly conjectural make the drift of the letter more intelligible.
The Apostle, towards the close of his life for the letter presupposes both Gospel and First Epistle has been engaged upon his usual work of supervision and direction among the Churches of Asia. In the course of it he has seen some children of the lady to whom the letter is addressed, and has found that they are living Christian lives, steadfast in the faith. But there are other members of her family of whom this cannot be said. And on his return to Ephesus the Apostle, in expressing his joy respecting the faithful children, conveys a warning respecting their less steadfast brothers. ‘Has their mother been as watchful as she might have been to keep them from pernicious influences? Her hospitality must be exercised with discretion; for her guests may contaminate her household. There is no real progress in advancing beyond the limits of Christian truth. There is no real charity in helping workers of evil to work successfully. On his next Apostolic journey he hopes to see her.’ Near the Apostle’s abode are some nephews of the lady addressed, but their mother, her sister, is dead, or is living elsewhere. These nephews send their greeting in his letter, and thus shew that they share his loving anxiety respecting the elect lady’s household. It was very possibly from them that he had heard that all was not well there.
The letter may be subdivided thus:
1 3. Address and Greeting.
4 11. Main Body of the Epistle.
1. Occasion of the Letter ( v. 4).
2. Exhortation to Love and Obedience (5, 6).
3. Warnings against False Doctrine (7 9).
4. Warnings against False Charity (10, 11).
12, 13. Conclusion.
the third epistle
In this we have another sample of the private correspondence of an Apostle. For beyond all question, whatever we may think of the Second Epistle, this letter is addressed to an individual. And it is not an official letter, like the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, but a private one, like that to Philemon. While the Second Epistle is mainly one of warning, the Third is one of encouragement. As in the former case, we are conscious of the writer’s authority in the tone of the letter; which, however, is friendly rather than official.
i. The Authorship of the Epistle
On this point very little need be added to what has been said respecting the authorship of the Second Epistle. The two Epistles are universally admitted to be by one and the same person. But it must be pointed out that, if the Second Epistle did not exist, the claims of the Third to be Apostolic would be more disputable. Neither the external nor the internal evidence is so strongly in its favour. It is neither quoted nor mentioned so early or so frequently as the Second. It is not nearly so closely akin to the First Epistle and the Gospel. It labours under the difficulty involved in the conduct of Diotrephes: for it must be admitted that “there is something astonishing in the notion that the prominent Christian Presbyter of an Asiatic Church should not only repudiate the authority of St John, and not only refuse to receive his travelling missionary, and prevent others from doing so, but should even excommunicate or try to excommunicate those who did so” (Farrar). Nevertheless, it is impossible to separate these two twin letters, and assign them to different authors. And, as has been seen already, the balance of evidence, both external and internal, strongly favours the Apostolicity of the Second; and this, notwithstanding the difficulty about Diotrephes, carries with it the Apostolicity of the Third.
ii. The Person Addressed
The name Gaius was so common throughout the Roman Empire that to identify any person of this name with any other of the same name requires specially clear evidence. In N.T. there are probably at least three Christians who are thus called. 1. Gaius of Corinth , in whose house S. Paul was staying when he wrote the Epistle to the Romans (Romans 16:23 ), who is probably the same as he whom S. Paul baptized (1 Corinthians 1:14 ). 2. Gaius of Macedonia , who was S. Paul’s travelling-companion at the time of the uproar at Ephesus, and was seized by the mob (Acts 19:29 ). 3. Gaius of Derbe , who with Timothy and others left Greece before S. Paul and waited for him at Troas (Acts 20:4 , Acts 20:5 ). But these three may be reduced to two, for 1 and 3 may possibly be the same person. It is possible, but nothing more, that the Gaius of our Epistle may be one of these. Origen says that the first of these three became Bishop of Thessalonica. The Apostolical Constitutions (vii. 46) mention a Gaius, Bishop of Pergamos, and the context implies that he was the first Bishop, or at least one of the earliest Bishops, of that city. Here again we can only say that he may be the Gaius of S. John. The Epistle leaves us in doubt whether Gaius is at this time a Presbyter or not. Apparently he is a well-to-do layman.
iii. Place, Date, and Contents
The place may with probability be supposed to be Ephesus: the letter has the tone of being written from head-quarters. Its strong resemblance, especially in its opening and conclusion, inclines us to believe that it was written about the same time as the Second Epistle, i.e. after the Gospel and First Epistle, and therefore towards the end of S. John’s life. The unwillingness to write a long letter which appears in both Epistles ( vv. 12, 13) would be natural in an old man to whom correspondence is a burden.
The contents speak for themselves. Gaius is commended for his hospitality, in which he resembles his namesake of Corinth (Romans 16:23 ); is warned against imitating the factious and intolerant Diotrephes; and in contrast to him is told of the excellence of Demetrius, who is perhaps the bearer of the letter. In his next Apostolic journey S. John hopes to visit him. Meanwhile he and ‘the friends’ with him send a salutation to Gaius and ‘the friends’ with him.
The Epistle may be thus analysed.
2 12. Main Body of the Epistle.
1. Personal Good Wishes and Sentiments (2 4).
2. Gaius commended for his Hospitality (5 8).
3. Diotrephes condemned for his Hostility (9, 10).
4. The Moral (11, 12).
13, 14. Conclusion.
“The Second and Third Epistles of S. John occupy their own place in the sacred Canon, and contribute their own peculiar element to the stock of Christian truth and practice. They lead us from the region of miracle and prophecy, out of an atmosphere charged with the supernatural, to the more average every-day life of Christendom, with its regular paths and unexciting air. There is no hint in these short notes of extraordinary charismata . The tone of their Christianity is deep, earnest, severe, devout, but has the quiet of the Christian Church and home very much as at present constituted. The religion which pervades them is simple, unexaggerated, and practical. The writer is grave and reserved. Evidently in the possession of the fulness of the Christian faith, he is content to rest upon it with a calm consciousness of strength.… By the conception of the Incarnate Lord, the Creator and Light of all men, and of the universality of Redemption, which the Gospel and the First Epistle did so much to bring home to all who received Christ, germs were deposited in the soil of Christianity which necessarily grew from an abstract idea into the great reality of the Catholic Church. In these two short occasional letters S. John provided two safeguards for that great institution. Heresy and schism are the dangers to which it is perpetually exposed. St John’s condemnation of the spirit of heresy is recorded in the Second Epistle; his condemnation of the spirit of schism is written in the Third Epistle. Every age of Christendom up to the present has rather exaggerated than dwarfed the significance of this condemnation” (Bishop Alexander).
the text of the epistles
i. The Greek Text
Our authorities for determining the Greek which S. John wrote are various and abundant. They consist of Greek MSS., Ancient Versions, and quotations from the Epistles in Christian writers of the second, third and fourth centuries. Quotations by writers later than the middle of the fourth century are of little or no value. By that time corruptions of the text had become widely diffused and permanent. The Diocletian persecution had swept away most of the ancient copies of N.T., and a composite text emanating mainly from Constantinople gradually became the text generally accepted.
It will be worth while to specify a few of the principal MSS. and Versions which contain these Epistles or portions of them.
Codex Sinaiticus ( א ). 4th century. Discovered by Tischendorf in 1859 at the monastery of S. Catherine on Mount Sinai, and now at Petersburg. All three Epistles.
Codex Alexandrinus (A). 5th century. Brought by Cyril Lucar, Patriarch of Constantinople, from Alexandria, and afterwards presented by him to Charles I. in 1628. In the British Museum. All three Epistles.
Codex Vaticanus (B). 4th century, but perhaps later than the Sinaiticus. In the Vatican Library. All three Epistles.
Codex Ephraemi (C). 5th century. A palimpsest: the original writing has been partially rubbed out and the works of Ephraem the Syrian have been written over it. In the National Library at Paris. Part of the First and Third Epistles; 1 John 1:1-2 ; 1 John 3:0 John 3 15. Of the whole N.T. the only Books entirely missing are 2 John and 2 Thess.
Codex Bezae (D). 6th or 7th century. Given by Beza to the University Library at Cambridge in 1581. The Greek text has a parallel Latin translation throughout. The Greek text of the Catholic Epistles is missing, and of the servile Latin translation only 3 John 11 15 remains.
Codex Mosquensis (K). 9th century. All three Epistles.
Vulgate Syriac (Peschito = ‘simple,’ meaning perhaps ‘faithful’). 3rd century. The First Epistle.
Philoxenian Syriac. “Probably the most servile version of Scripture ever made.” 6th century. All three Epistles.
Vulgate Latin (mainly a revision of the Old Latin by Jerome, a.d. 383 385). 4th century. All three Epistles.
Thebaic or Sahidic (Egyptian). 3rd century. All three Epistles.
Armenian. 5th century. All three Epistles.
Aethiopic. 5th century. All three Epistles.
ii. The English Versions
It is well known that Wiclif began his work of translating the Scriptures into the vulgar tongue with the Apocalypse; so that S. John was the first inspired writer made known to the English people. A version of the Gospels with a commentary was given next; and then the rest of the N.T. A complete N.T. in English was finished about 1380. This, therefore, we may take as the date at which our Epistle first appeared in the English language. The whole was revised by John Purvey, about 1388.
But these early English Versions, made from a late and corrupt text of the Latin Vulgate, exercised little or no influence on the later Versions of Tyndale and others, which were made from late and corrupt Greek texts. Tyndale translated direct from the Greek, checking himself by the Vulgate, the Latin of Erasmus, and the German of Luther. Dr Westcott in his most valuable work on the History of the English Bible , from which the material for this section has been mainly taken, often takes the First Epistle of S. John as an illustration of the variations between different versions and editions. The present writer gratefully borrows his statements. Tyndale published his first edition in 1525, his second in 1534, and his third in 1535; each time, especially in 1534, making many alterations and corrections. “Of the thirty-one changes which I have noticed in the later (1534) version of 1 John, about a third are closer approximations to the Greek: rather more are variations in connecting particles or the like designed to bring out the argument of the original more clearly; three new readings are adopted; and in one passage it appears that Luther’s rendering has been substituted for an awkward paraphrase. Yet it must be remarked that even in this revision the changes are far more frequently at variance with Luther’s renderings than in accordance with them” (p. 185). “In his Preface to the edition of 1534, Tyndale had expressed his readiness to revise his work and adopt any changes in it which might be shewn to be improvements. The edition of 1535, however enigmatic it may be in other respects, is a proof of his sincerity. The text of this exhibits a true revision and differs from that of 1534, though considerably less than the text of 1534 from that of 1525. In 1 John I have noted sixteen variations from the text of 1534 as against thirty-two (thirty-one?) in that of 1534 from the original text” (p. 190). But for the ordinary student the differences between the three editions of Tyndale are less interesting than the differences between Tyndale and the A.V. How much we owe to him appears from the fact that “about nine-tenths of the A. V. of the First Epistle of S. John are retained from Tyndale” (p. 211). Tyndale places the three Epistles of S. John between those of S. Peter and that to the Hebrews, S. James being placed between Hebrews and S. Jude. This is the order of Luther’s translation, of Coverdale’s Bible (1535), of Matthew’s Bible (1537), and also of Taverner’s (1539).
The Great Bible, which exists in three typical editions (Cromwell’s, April, 1539; Cranmer’s, April, 1540; Tunstall’s and Heath’s, Nov. 1540) is in the N. T. “based upon a careful use of the Vulgate and of Erasmus’ Latin Version. An analysis of the variations in the First Epistle of S. John may furnish a type of its general character. As nearly as I can reckon there are seventy-one differences between Tyndale’s text (1534) and that of the Great Bible: of these forty-three come directly from Coverdale’s earlier revision (and in a great measure indirectly from the Latin): seventeen from the Vulgate where Coverdale before had not followed it: the remaining eleven variations are from other sources. Some of the new readings from the Vulgate are important, as for example the additions in 1:4, ‘that ye may rejoice and that your joy may be full.’ 2:23, ‘ he that knowledgeth the Son hath the Father also. ’ 3:1, ‘that we should be called and be indeed the sons of God.’ 5:9, ‘this is the witness of God that is greater .’ All these additions (like 5:7) are marked distinctly as Latin readings: of the renderings adopted from Coverdale one is very important and holds its place in our present version, 3:24, ‘ Hereby we know that he abideth in us, even by the Spirit which he hath given us,’ for which Tyndale reads: ‘ thereby we know that there abideth in us of the Spirit which he gave us.’ One strange blunder also is corrected; ‘that old commandment which ye heard ’ (as it was in the earlier texts) is replaced by the true reading: ‘that old commandment which ye have had ’ (2:7). No one of the new renderings is of any moment” (pp. 257, 258).
The revision made by Taverner, though superficial as regards the O. T., has important alterations in the N. T. He shews an improved appreciation of the Greek article. “Two consecutive verses of the First Epistle of S. John furnish good examples of his endeavour to find English equivalents for the terms before him. All the other versions adopt the Latin ‘ advocate ’ in 1 John 2:1 , for which Taverner substitutes the Saxon ‘ spokesman .’ Tyndale, followed by Coverdale, the Great Bible, &c. strives after an adequate rendering of ἱλασμός (1 John 2:2 ) in the awkward periphrasis ‘he it is that obtaineth grace for our sins:’ Taverner boldly coins a word which if insufficient is yet worthy of notice: ‘he is a mercystock for our sins’ ” (p. 271).
The history of the Geneva N. T. “is little more than the record of the application of Beza’s translation and commentary to Tyndale’s Testament … An analysis of the changes in one short Epistle will render this plain. Thus according to as accurate a calculation as I can make more than two-thirds of the new renderings in 1 John introduced into the revision of 1560 are derived from Beza, and two-thirds of these then for the first time. The rest are due to the revisers themselves, and of these only two are found in the revision of 1557” (pp. 287, 288).
The Rhemish Bible, like Wiclif’s, is a translation of a translation, being based upon the Vulgate. It furnished the revisers of 1611 with a great many of the words of Latin origin which they employ. It is “simply the ordinary, and not pure, Latin text of Jerome in an English dress. Its merits, and they are considerable, lie in its vocabulary. The style, so far as it has a style, is unnatural, the phrasing is most unrythmical, but the language is enriched by the bold reduction of innumerable Latin words to English service” (p. 328). Dr Westcott gives no examples from these Epistles, but the following may serve as such.
In a few instances the Rhemish has given to the A. V. a word not previously used in English Versions. ‘And he is the propitiation for our sins’ (2:2). ‘And sent his son a propitiation for our sins’ (4:10). ‘But you have the unction from the Holy one’ (2:20). ‘These things have I written to you concerning them that seduce you’ (2:26).
In some cases the Rhemish is superior to the A. V. ‘ Every one that committeth sin, committeth also iniquity: and sin is iniquity ’ (3:4). The following also are worthy of notice. ‘We seduce ourselves’ (1:8). ‘Let no man seduce you’ (2:6). ‘Because many seducers are gone out into the world’ (2 John 1:7 ).
But we may be thankful that King James’s revisers did not adopt such renderings as these. ‘That you also may have society with us, and our society may be with the Father and with his Son’ (1:3). ‘And this is the annuntiation ’ (1:5, 3:11). ‘That he might dissolve the works of the devil’ (3:8). ‘ The generation of God preserveth him’ (5:18). ‘The Senior to the lady elect’ (2 John 1:0 ). ‘The Senior to Gaius the dearest ’ (3 John 1:0 ). ‘Greater thanke have I not of them’ (3 John 1:4 ). ‘That we may be coadjutors of the truth’ (3 John 1:8 ).
This is not the place to discuss the Revised Version of 1881. When it appeared the present writer had the satisfaction of finding that a very large proportion of the alterations which he had suggested in notes on S. John’s Gospel in this series in 1880 were sanctioned by alterations actually made by the revisers. In the notes on these Epistles it will be found that in a large number of cases he has followed the R. V., of the merits of which he has a high opinion. Those merits seem to consist not so much in skilful and happy treatment of very difficult passages as in careful correction of an enormous number of small errors and inaccuracies. The late Dr Routh, of Magdalen College, Oxford, when some one asked him what he considered to be the best commentary on the N. T., is said to have replied, ‘The Vulgate.’ If by that he meant that in the Vulgate we have a faithful translation made from a good Greek text, we may say in a similar spirit that the best commentary on the N. T. is now the Revised Version.
the literature of the epistles
Although not so voluminous as that of the Gospel of S. John, the literature of the Epistles is nevertheless very abundant. It would be simply confusing to give anything approaching to an exhaustive list of the numerous works on the subject. All that will be attempted here will be to give the more advanced student some information as to where he may look for greater help than can be given in a handbook for the use of schools.
Of ancient commentaries not a very great deal remains. In his Outlines ( Ὑποτυπώσεις ) Clement of Alexandria (c. a.d. 200) commented on detached verses of the First and Second Epistles, and of these comments a valuable fragment in a Latin translation is extant. Didymus, who was placed by S. Athanasius in the catechetical chair of Clement at Alexandria a century and a half later (c. a.d. 360), commented on all the Catholic Epistles; and his notes as translated by Epiphanius Scholasticus survive. “The chief features of his remarks on S. John’s three Epistles are (1) the earnestness against Docetism, Valentinianism, all speculations injurious to the Maker of the world, (2) the assertion that a true knowledge of God is possible without a knowledge of His essence, (3) care to urge the necessity of combining orthodoxy with right action” (W. Bright). The commentary of Diodorus of Tarsus (c. a.d. 380) on the First Epistle is lost. We have ten Homilies by S. Augustine on the First Epistle; but the series ends abruptly in the tenth Homily at 1 John 5:3 . They are translated in the Library of the Fathers , vol. 29, Oxford 1849. In our own country the earliest commentary is that of the Venerable Bede (c. a.d. 720), written in Latin. Like S. Augustine’s, it is doctrinal and hortatory: quotations from both will be found in the notes.
Of the reformers, Beza, Calvin, Erasmus, Luther, and Zwingli have all left commentaries on one or more of these Epistles. Besides these we have the frequently quoted works of Grotius (c. a.d. 1550), of his critic Calovius (c. a.d. 1650), and of Bengel (c. a.d. 1750). Bengel’s Gnomon N.T. has been translated into English; but those who can read Latin will prefer the epigrammatic terseness of the original.
The following foreign commentaries have been published in an English form by T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh: Braune, Ebrard, Haupt, Huther, Lücke. Of these that of Haupt on the First Epistle may be specially commended.
Among original English commentaries those of Bishop Alexander in The Speaker’s Commentary , Alford, Jelf, Sinclair, Westcott, and Bishop Wordsworth are well known.
Other works which give valuable assistance are Cox’s Private Letters of S. Paul and S. John , F. W. Farrar’s Early Days of Christianity , F. D. Maurice’s Epistles of S. John , and various articles in the Dictionary of Christian Biography edited by Smith and Wace.
The present writer desires to express his obligations, which in some cases are very great, to many of the works mentioned above, as well as to others. His debt to Dr Westcott would no doubt have been still greater had not the whole of this volume been in print before Dr Westcott’s invaluable commentary was published: but he has been able to make much use of it both in the way of correction and addition. Almost all that can be said with truth about S. John’s writings has already been said, and well said, by some one. The most that a new commentator can hope to do is to collect together what seems to him to be best in other writers, to think it out afresh, and recoin it for his own and others’ use. What might have remained unknown, or unintelligible, or unattractive to many, if left in the original author and language, may possibly become better known and more intelligible when reduced to a smaller compass and placed in a new light and in new surroundings. Be this as it may, the writer who undertakes, even with all the helps available, to interpret S. John to others, must know that he incurs serious responsibility. He will not be anxious to be original. He will not be eager to insist upon views which have found no favour among previous workers in the same field. He will not regret that his conclusions should be questioned and his mistakes exposed. He will be content that a dirge should be sung over the results of his own work, if only what is true may prevail.
αἴλινον αἴλινον εἰπὲ, τὸ δʼ εὖ νικάτω .