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This page is part of the Lectionary project.

The First Letter of John

The New Testament document known as "1John" is one of a set of three letters (1John, 2John and 3John) which shasre a relationship to one another and also to the Gospel of John.

Some of the material here is adapted from Gregory C. Jenks, The Origins and Early Development of the Antichrist Myth [1] (BZNW 59; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1991) pages 329-35. It is used here with permission of the author. For critical apparatus and bibliography, you may wish to consult that publication.

Genre, Structure and Sources

There is general recognition that 1John does not conform to the form of hellenistic letters, but should still be recognised as some kind of a pastoral communication from a church leader to specific persons or groups.

While 2John and 3John both conform very closely to the letter form, 1John is more of a general treatise motivated by pastoral concerns. The structure of 1John is seemingly impossible to define, as the author's thoughts move in cycles that are repetative or even contradictory. It is also widely recognised that concerns over christology and communal ethics run throughout the epistle, and were treated alternately by the author.

The matter of literary or oral sources behind 1John is more complex. Von Dobschutz (1907) identified a number of Grundsätze which he believed provided a basis for the author to build upon. His views were developed and modified by subsequent studies, but the more recent studies seem a little cautious of source theories. However, it is still maintained that some of the maxim-like statements in 1John may represent the views of the opponents. In addition, Ernst (1967:176) has suggested that an early eschatological source can be identified in chs 2-5 of 1John.


It is apparent that the Johannine epistles had some relationship with the large Johannine corpus, particularly the Fourth Gospel; but the exact nature of that relationship is unclear.

The traditional view was that the Apostle John wrote all three epistles and the gospel. This view is expressed quite clearly in the Muratorian Fragment,[2] which asserts apostolic authorship.

For a variety of reasons (not least the denial of apostolic authorship to the gospel) apostolic authorship of the epistles is rejected by virtually all modern scholars. The question of the authorship of the Johannine writings is now regarded as secondary. The composition of the gospel is commonly thought to have involved several stages, and the way(s) in which the epistles (individually and collectively) might relate to those processes is very much under debate.

While the precise relationship of the epistles to the gospel cannot be established beyond question, there is a general consensus that all four writings emerge from the Johannine churches and that the disputes addressed by the epistles relate in some way to the interpretation of the traditions found in the gospel. This will be considered further when the situation of the Johannine epistles is examined. The epistles are usually dated ca 100 CE, and located in Asia Minor.

Problems within the Johannine Community

It is impossible to attempt any interpretation of the Johannine epistles without giving some attention to the problems which they addressed.

It is clear that there had been, and was continuing to be, serious differences between members of the "Johannine community". These differences are only alluded to, for the most part, in the epistles but they have left their mark on them. In particular, feelings ran so high that the author of 1John and 2John had recourse to an eschatological tradition which spoke of the coming of "the Antichrist" at the last days, and he labelled his opponents as "many antichrists," thus providing the first occurrence of the term in extant literature.

All the commentaries on the Johannine epistles in the modern era have included some discussion of these matters, often with analysis of the kind of beliefs and/or practices which might be attributed to the opponents. In the more recent literature on the Johannine writings this has been one of the major points under discussion.

Raymond Brown's suggestion, is similar to the view of J.L. Houlden (173:1-20), but is set out in greater detail. Brown has now written extensively on this particular question, making it a focal point for his studies on the gospel and the epistles. His views may well set the agenda, if not the consensus, for the next stage of the debate as people respond to his proposals.

Brown argues that the epistles were written by a leading member of the Johannine churches in response to a crisis which had developed about a decade after the main body of the gospel had been written that is, ca 100 CE.

According to Brown, this crisis consisted of a division within the Johannine churches over the implications and application of Johannine theology, especially as given its classical expression in the gospel. Both the author of the Johannine epistles and his protagonists thus stood in a direct relationship to the gospel, and this accounts for the many similarities between the epistles and the gospel.

On the other hand, such a view provides an explanation of the differences which also exist. The writer of the epistles was no longer in the same Sitz im Leben as the evangelist; the needs of the moment were different, and his writings reflect that fact. Furthermore, the changes seen in the epistles are consistent with the requirements of the hypothetical new Sitz im Leben, as the writer sought to combat what he regarded as excessively "progressive" theology.

The differences in thought include a tendency to ascribe to God the attributes and actions ascribed to Jesus in the gospel. For example, Jesus is the (true) light in John 1:4,9; and 8:12; but 1John 1:5 states that "God is light". The christology of 1John seems to have been deliberately pitched at a "lower" level than in the gospel: more stress is put on Jesus' humanity, his coming ["in the flesh"]; and his divinity is not emphasised as it had been in the gospel. 1John gives more attention to the sacrificial atoning value of Jesus' death, and there is a notable decrease in references to the Spirit and the Paraclete. The eschatology of 1John is more in keeping with the rest of the NT, and it includes apocalyptic references to the parousia and to the Antichrist. Unlike the gospel, 1John never cited the OT and it gives no sign of a polemic against "the Jews."

All of these changes are consistent with a change in the life setting of the two writers. The writer seems to be battling with opponents within the church. Brown has suggested that the gospel also shows signs of a debate with several groups:

  • the Jews who do not accept Jesus as Messiah or Son of God;
  • the "crypto¬Christians" who believe but remain within the Jewish synagogues;
  • the followers of John the Baptist;
  • Jewish Christians who accept Jesus as Messiah but not as Son of God;
  • and also the Christians of the "Apostolic Churches" who followed the teaching and hierarchical structures of Peter and Paul.

However, Brown (19182:29) points out that none of these groups appear in the epistles.

What is important and, indeed startling, is that none of these outside groups is in view in the Epistles. The struggle is now with former insiders who have left the community (I John 2.19) - with secessionists ... If the adversary has changed, so has the point of the struggle. None of the opponents in GJohn seems to have had so high a christology (especially in terms of preexistence) as did the Johannine Community; and so, if the evangelist wrote to strengthen faith in Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of God", he was emphasising that the Father and the Son were one ... the struggle in 1 John is still for a proper faith in Jesus as "the Christ" and "the Son of God" (5.1,5); but now the stress is on the human career of God's Son ... The struggle is against those who "negate the importance of Jesus" the man (4.3), against those who are too "progressive" (II John 9).

The identity of these "secessionists", and the exact form of their beliefs and actions, remain matters under discussion. J. Bogart (1977:123-35) identified ten groups of people whose views were of concern to the author of 1John, although Bogart then eliminates several as merely members of the church with faulty beliefs (who were in need of correction or encouragement) and reduces the remainder to a single group of opponents labelled by the writer. The "real opponents", as Bogart calls them, were former Johannine Christians who held docetic views. Bogart describes them as ecstatic prophets who had gone out into the world, possibly as authorised missionaries of the church, but had developed and promoted beliefs about possession of a special charism and a unique relationship with the Father unrelated to the place of Jesus as the Anointed One. Bogart connects these opponents of the originator with the Cerinthian heresy.

For the purposes of a research project into the origins of the Antichrist myth, it is sufficient to note that the Johannine epistles which first use the term were documents composed in the context of internal church controversy over allegedly false teaching and, quite likely, related issues of power and leadership. Not only were such factors operative in the setting from which the Johannine epistles emerge, but they also provided the occasion for this first occurrence of "Antichrist" as a perjorative label. It is significant that the word first appears as a device to stigmatise fellow believers.