Bible Commentaries

Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible

2 John

Book Overview - 2 John

by Arthur Peake



To whom written?—Who was "the elect lady" addressed? By translating either "the lady Eclecte," or "the elect Kyria" some scholars have assigned to her a name, but with little plausibility, for nowhere else is Eclecte found as a proper name, and the order of the Gr. would have been different had the word rendered "lady" (kuria) been a name instead of a common noun. On the face of it, therefore, 2 Jn. appears to have been written to some unnamed lady of distinction (2 John 1:1), a first century Countess of Huntingdon, whose home was a centre of worship for the Christians of her neighbourhood. But closer examination points to a different conclusion. Though the letter begins with "thy" and "thee," it passes in 2 John 1:6; 2 John 1:8; 2 John 1:10; 2 John 1:12 to "ye," "yourselves," "your." This artless transition to the plural suggests that "the lady and her children" are a Christian community which, under that semi-poetic form of address (cf. 1 Peter 5:13 and the description of the Church as the Lamb's "bride" Revelation 21:9), the writer warns of its danger from certain false teachers. At the same time he sends greetings from the church ("the children of thine elect sister") to which he himself belonged. If the letter was written from Ephesus, it has been conjectured that it was sent to Pergamum. The peril to which it refers was akin to that dealt with in 1 Jn., a denial of the full reality of the Incarnation.

The writer, who here and in 3 Jn. simply styles himself "the elder," writes as one in authority over those whom he addresses. The style and ideas of 2 Jn. are strikingly akin to those of 1 Jn., though the conjecture that it accompanied 1 Jn. as a sort of covering letter is less probable than the view that 2 Jn. and 3 Jn. are closely related to each other. Some church—either Pergamum or one of the other Asian churches—having received 1 Jn., received also on some later occasion from the same writer the short Second Epistle, whilst Gaius, a leading Christian in the community, was the recipient of 3 Jn. 2 Jn. and 3 Jn. are absent from some early copies of the NT, e.g. the Syriac Version. They were probably saved from the oblivion which befell similar letters written by the same writer as part of his personal correspondence to other Asian churches, by the fact that they became in time attached to the copy of 1 Jn. which belonged to the church receiving them. In that way they ultimately passed into the NT. The writer's description of himself as "the elder" or "presbyter" has caused many to identify him with "John the Presbyter," who, on the strength of a passage in Eusebius, is regarded by many scholars as distinct from the apostle John. But this conclusion, while plausible, is not inevitable, for "elder" is the designation of an apostle in 1 Peter 5:1, and may thus here reasonably represent a self-description which the apostle John used when writing to his friends and children in Christ.

Literature.—See under 1 Jn.



THE exact significance of the epithet "catholic" or "general," as applied to the seven writings which bear the names of James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 Jn., and Jude, has been a matter of considerable debate. It has been surmised that they are so entitled because they are the work of the apostles generally as distinguished from the compact body of Pauline letters; or because they contain catholic in the sense of orthodox teaching, or general rather than particular instruction; or again because they were generally accepted in contrast to other writings which bore apostolic names but failed to make good their claim. A more likely reason than any of these is that they were addressed to Christians in general or to groups of churches instead of to individual communities like Corinth and Rome, to which Paul usually wrote. We say "usually," because Galatians was written to a group of churches, and there is reason to think that Ephesians was meant as a circular letter. Cf. also Colossians 4:16. Of the seven "catholic" epistles, two (2 and 3 Jn.) hardly satisfy our test, for they were written to a particular, though unnamed, church and to an individual respectively. Their inclusion in the group is thus a mere matter of convenience; they would naturally come to be associated with 1 Jn. Jas. is addressed to "the twelve tribes of the Dispersion," 1 P. to Christians in Asia Minor, 2 P. and Jude broadly to the writer's fellow-believers; 1 Jn. has no address, and is more like a homily than a letter.

The earliest record of the name appears to be about A.D). 197, in the anti-Montanist writer Apollonius (see Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 1 John 5:18), who declares that the heretic Themiso wrote a "catholic" epistle in imitation of that of the apostle (? John). Clement of Alexandria (c. 200) refers to the letter of Acts 15:23-29 and to Jude as "catholic." Origen (c. 230) applies the epithet to the epistle of Barnabas, as to 1 Jn., 1 P., and Jude. Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 260) uses it of 1 Jn. in opposition to 2 and 3 Jn. Such usage, and that of Eusebius of Cæsarea (c. 310), who uses the adjective of the whole seven (Hist. Eccl., ii. 23), is sufficient to disprove the opinion that "catholic" means "recognised by the whole church." As a matter of fact, most of the seven were hotly contested, and only gradually secured their place in the NT canon. 1 Jn., which was the first to be so styled, evidently won the epithet because of the encyclical nature of its appeal—it was an exhortation to the church at large rather than to a narrow circle, a single church, or even a group of churches, like the Pauline letters and 1 P., to say nothing of individual persons—and because its contents were official in a sense in which even Paul's epistles were not. Most akin in this respect were Jude and 2 P., and perhaps Jas., if the twelve tribes can be taken as representing the new Israel of Christendom. The recipients of 1 P., too, included well-nigh half the Christian world. 2 and 3 Jn. secured their footing because of their name. The little canon of Pauline letters was usually designated "the Apostle," and it would only be a question of time for the group of non-Pauline epistles to be entitled "catholic." When the name of the group became known in the Western Church, it was misinterpreted and taken in a dogmatic sense as equivalent to "canonic," i.e. apostolic or genuine. As "the canonic epistles" they became known in the West, and the original idea of contrast with the Pauline letters disappeared. Junilius Africanus (c. 550) understands "canonic" as "containing the rule of faith."

The influence of Augustine has been mentioned. In De Fide et Operibus (xiv. 21) he points out that Paul pressed his doctrine of justification by faith so far as to be in peril of being misunderstood. Paul lays the foundations, the Catholic Epistles raise the superstructure; he is careful for the genuineness of the root, they for the good fruit; he feels himself a minister of the Gospel, they speak in the name of the (nascent Catholic) Church.

It may be granted that there are certain points of relationship between the seven epistles, despite their varied authorship. They lack in general the personal note, and seek to meet more widespread need by general counsel. Jlicher ranks them as a class in which the epistle is merely a literary form whereby the unknown writer holds intercourse with an unknown public. The transition from the Pauline letters to the Catholic Epistles is by way of Ephesians, Hebrews, and the Pastorals (cf. p. 603). None of them is lengthy, none starts a far-reaching train of thought, or contributes much to pure theology. They are concerned mainly with practical advice and edifying exhortation. Their modest dimensions gave them an advantage over such longer works as the Epistles of Clement and Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. in circulation, and therefore in recognition; apart from the fact that these works, favourites in the Early-Church, bore no apostolic names.

The epistles, though modern scholarship cannot unhesitatingly accept their apostolic authorship, at least represent what the Early Church regarded as apostolic teaching, and subsequent generations have confirmed their practical value. Some may feel that because there is no certainty about their apostolic authorship they should not be included in the KT but the Early Church was often guided by the intrinsic merits of a book, and accepted it as. apostolic because of its worth. We have to remember, too, that the ancient conception of authorship was widely different from our own—a book would be called John's because its teaching agreed with that of John. A writer might go so far as to assume the name of a great teacher in order to gain a reading for his book; and if he succeeded in presenting what might fairly be regarded as the views of the man whose name he assumed, no one felt aggrieved. The practice was especially common in apocalyptic literature. We do not argue in this way now; and similar literary devices when they are practised are tolerated only because we know that they are devices, and generally know also the name of the real author.

The order in which we have the seven epistles has come to us from the fourth century, but there were many earlier variations. The position of the group in early MSS. and versions is also far from fixed. Most Gr. MSS. arrange thus: Gospels, Acts, Cath. Epp., Paul, Rev. The Syrian order is Gospels, Paul, Acts, Cath. Epp., Rev. In Egypt: Gospels, Paul, Cath. Epp., Acts, Rev. In the Muratorian Canon, representing the early West, we have apparently Gospels, Acts, Paul, Cath. Epp., Rev., which is the order followed in the Vulgate and in the English versions.

(See also Supplement)