An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 3 - Section 19


§ 19. The First Epistle of John

[Cf. H. A. W. Meyer, vol. xiv.: the Johannine Epistles by B. Weiss (1900, ed. 6); Hand-Commentar iy., the Gospel, Epistles and Revelation of John, by H. Holtzmann (1893). The most valuable of the monographs, in spite of its edifying tendency, is that of R. Rothe (1878); W. Karlʼs ʽJohanneische Studien,ʼ i., 1898 (1. John), is original, but, in my opinion, wrong on every point; otherwise cf. T. Haringʼs ʽGedankengang und Grundgedanke des 1sten Johannesbriefs,ʼ to be found in the Congratulatory Address to Carl von Weizsäcker, pp. 173-200 (1892). Wiesinger in the ʽTheologische Studien und Kritikenʼ for 1899, pp. 575-581, gives a simple analysis of the train of ideas in 1. John.]

1. The innumerable attempts to discover a well-considered arrangement in the First Epistle of John have had the merit of neutralising one another. Even T. Hiiringʼs interpretation, though sympathetic in itself, supposes the writer to have been filled with an almost exaggerated feeling for the very thing towards which he openly displays his absolute indifference—viz. a strictly logical and harmoniously ascending development of ideas. On the contrary, it is aphoristically and in the form of meditations that his groups of ideas, both large and small, are put together: not indeed in the manner of a later rearrangement of long-completed fragments, but as a continuous stream of ʽpenséesʼ upon various successive subjects. Thus the transitions from one section to another, as well as the unexpected returns to themes already fully discussed, only arise from the varying moods of the writer, and this partly explains the fact that at many points it is impossible to make out where the boundary between two reflections lies. And just as large sections of the Epistle might be taken away without leaving any visible gap, so before the end the writer might have continued the old threads for some time longer without altering the character of the Epistle, or in any way diminishing or increasing the impression created by the whole.

Verses i. 1-4 form the introduction, in which the writer asserts his fitness for the task before him. Next1 he makes it clear that fellowship with God, who is synonymous with light, was out of the question in the case of certain men—those who walked in darkness, who thought themselves, forsooth, free from sin, and yet did not fulfil the commandments. of Christ—who, above all, blindly and shamefully neglected his principal commandment, that of brotherly love. His readers, on the other hand, to whom he first offers the highest testimony,2 were not to allow themselves to be led away by any temptation from the love of the Father to the love of the world.3 The danger was not small, for the forerunners of the approaching End had now arisen in great numbers: the Antichrists who owned not Jesus as the Christ, and therefore denied both Father and Son.4 The faithful should attack such seducers with the strong self-confidence of those who had long possessed the unction of the Spirit,5 who were already children of God, and were only bound to prove it by doing justly and practising a brotherly love that rejoiced in all self-sacrifice. Nought but this distinguished the children of God from the Cainites, the children of the Devil.6 In iii. 2, 8 the writer sums up and defines the commandment of God, ʽthat we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another,ʼ and appears to be hastening to a close7; but in iii. 24 he introduces, with the remark ʽthereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us,ʼ a keen argument8 against the false spirits who denied that Jesus Christ was ʽcome in the flesh,ʼ and points out the connection between the commandment to love our brother and the belief in Jesus, the Son of God.9 This faith was our acknowledgment of the boundless love of God for us; it lifted us into the sphere of God (that is, of Love), and our continuance therein was impossible unless we became one with it and practised Love. The last verses10 give a final exhortation to joy in prayer, to a common battle against sin, and against the world which ʽlieth in the evil one.ʼ We possess the true God and eternal life in Jesus Christ; far be it, then, from us to worship idols!

2. It is evident that our Epistle, which, in spite of the words ʽI write unto you,ʼ ʽI have written unto you,ʼ and, as early as i. 4, ʽthese things we write,ʼ hardly bears the appearance of a letter, is a manifesto addressed to the whole of Christendom. The words ʽyou also,ʼ ʽye also,ʼ of i. 8, are not intended to distinguish certain definite readers from the great mass of believers, but rather to differentiate the Church founded by the Apostles from its founders, the eye-witnesses of revelation. The words in which the readers are addressed, ʽlittle children,ʼ ʽmy little children,ʼ ʽbrethren,ʼ ʽbelovedʼ (and at one point11 the ʽlittle childrenʼ are divided into ʽfathersʼ and ʽyoung menʼ), are as indefinite as possible in tone: no trace is to be found of a narrower circle of readers, and in v. 11-13 ʽyouʼ is exchanged for ʽwe.ʼ Zahnʼs penetration discovers in this Epistle, free as it is from all personal references, that the addressees12 represent only a part of Christendom, the Asiatic churches, which, according to v. 21, had grown up on heathen soil: thus, he interprets the words ʽye have overcome themʼ of iv. 4 in the sense of ʽthe Asiatic churches have overcome them.ʼ Unfortunately, however, it is not so easy to construe verse iv. 4b as ʽthe God that is in the Asiatic churches is greater than he that is in the world.ʼ It seems most natural to look for the object of this encyclical in the preservation of Christianity (to which of course the false spirits and the Antichrists no longer belonged13) in the true faith of Christ and the true brotherly love, without which there could be no union with God. But the author was surely urged to this enthusiasm for preservation only by painful experiences. Many Antichrists had arisen under the mask of Christianity,14 boasting that they possessed the Spirit, and disputing the identity of the human Jesus with Christ, the Son of God.15

Now this was a form of Docetism which is only attested and conceivable as having grown up within the Gnostic circle; the persons concerned had evidently boasted of their new and perfect knowledge16 of the true God,17 a knowledge which absolutely rejected the idea of an incarnation of the Divine; they had represented themselves as the true possessors of the Spirit (Pneumatists),18 had promised eternal life to their partisans alone,19 and had openly shown an indifference to the fate of their non-Pneumatist brethren described by our author as the hatred we, the children of light, were bound to expect from the world. They had disputed the possibility of sin for themselves (i.e. the full Christians, the Pneumatists)—for to distinguish the liars and seducers of ii. 4, iv. 20, i. 8 and iil. 7, from those of ii. 22 and 26 is quite unwarranted—and consequently had erased from the history of salvation as superfluous the atoning death of the Son of God, and had declared themselves, at least in theory, superior to all moral law and bound by no commandments. Both this Antinomianism and the above-mentioned denial of Jesus, had sprung, according to our Epistle, from one root; and we find in effect that such theory and practice was combined in Gnosticism. We may therefore conclude that 1. John was a polemical writing directed against an Antinomian form of Gnosticism, but defending the true Gnosis, which, in the first place, saw in the incarnate Son of God the true knowledge of God, with all that that involved—i.e. forgiveness of sins, justification, sanctification, eternal life—and, in the second, recognised the necessity of breaking with sin and practising love. As against the pride of the Pneumatists,20 again, it could not emphasise the fact too strongly that whatever qualities of religion and morality we possessed were the gifts of God alone, and that our presumed possession of them could only be shown to be actual (that is, really coming from God) by corresponding actions. Every sentence of our Epistle is written in the interests of such a defence, and it was because the author continually imagined that he had not brought forward arguments enough that he so often returned to what had gone before, and was sometimes not even afraid of contradicting himself.21 He draws upon his whole world of ideas to furnish weapons in the battle against moral and religious confusion, but urges nothing in support of those ideas themselves except where argument might be useful in strengthening the confidence of his readers in Anti-Gnostic Christianity.

3. It is impossible to name an exact date for the composition of the Epistle. The Gnostic pseudo-prophets seem at any rate to have appeared in large numbers22 and with full confidence of success, which is surely not probable before the second century. We do not recognise any definite Gnostic School in the few distinct indications given by the Epistle; Zahn only singled out the Cerinthians because he concluded from verse v. 6, that the false teachers had laid excessive stress on the baptism of Jesus, and had perhaps honoured the baptist John almost as highly as the man Jesus. But we cannot dissociate ordinary libertinism, as well as these peculiar Christological doctrines, from the outbreak of heresy combated in 1. John, and we have no evidence of such things in the teaching of Cerinthus.

It is indisputable, as far as concerns the writer himself, that the Pauline theology, with all its problems, had been left far behind, for the question of the validity of the Mosaic Law exists as little in the authorʼs mind as that of the recognition of national distinctions between the children of God. He himself is not free from Gnostic tendencies; his Dualism, which makes so sharp a contrast between God and the world, the children of God and the children of the Devil, that it leads him to declare that ʽwhosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin,ʼ23 borders closely on heresy, and the high value he sets on ʽknowledgeʼ points in the same direction. On the other hand, he shares with the anti-Gnostic majority the


practical trait of insistence upon righteousness, upon the fulfilment of the commandments and upon the practice of love, and both these characteristics together are the mark of Old Catholicism. His idea of Christ is not exactly that of oneness with the Father, for the passages which sound very much like an obliteration of the line of distinction between Father and Son—and sometimes it is impossible to tell which of the two the writer means—are to be explained by his desire to brand the denial of the Son24 as a denial of the Father, and so to fix upon the Antichrists the further sin of hostility to God, to mark them out as worshippers of idols. But the writer proves himself a member of the Catholic Church by the stress he lays upon holding fast to the ancient doctrine, the doctrine accessible to all25; the commandment heard ʽfrom the beginningʼ (ἀπ᾿ ἀρχῆς)26 represents the same idea to him, and with the same force, as does that of the tradition delivered ʽonce for allʼ (ἅπαξ), to Jude.27

The external evidence in support of this Epistle is relatively good, but nothing hinders us from assigning it to the period between 100 and 125; 1. Peter certainly gives us an impression of greater primitiveness.

4, The question of authorship is here inseparable from that of the relation of the Epistle to the Fourth Gospel, and from that of its authenticity: that is to say, of the credibility of that very ancient Church tradition according to which the Apostle John composed both the Gospel and the Epistle. The main question can only be decided, if at all, in dealing with the Gospel; as regards the Epistle, we must first observe that the author does not name himself, so that there can be no question of pseudonymity, and yet that he assumes Apostolic authority,28 although avoiding the Apostolic title. He does not impart a single saying from the Saviourʼs lips, however, or a single definite incident of his history—only abstract theories and speculations which are, to say the least of it, surprising as coming from an Apostle. His ignoring of the Old Testament is also remarkable, and in fact nothing but the evidence of the author himself would lead us to suppose that this document was the work of an Apostle. And since this evidence is limited to the introductory verses, we can only maintain that what he wished was to give his production the authority of eye and ear-witnesses, rather than to take the name of one particular Apostle; especially when we consider the many plurals in i. 1-5. (Later on the writer speaks of himself in the singular, and uses the plural, with or without ἡμεῖς, only when speaking in the name of believers collectively, or in the sense of ʽone.ʼ) But how indeed could he refute the pseudo-prophets except with the highest of all earthly authority, that of the collective witness of the disciples of Jesus, ever renewed through brotherly love and destined to endure until the return of Christ? If the writer himself were an Apostle of overwhelming authority, he acted with very little wisdom in concealing his name; it would certainly not have endangered the idea of the uniformity of all Apostolic preaching to have stated clearly to his readers,—the like-minded, the hostile, and above all the undecided—whose authority it was that was here fighting for the truth.

But for us the fact is all the more certain that the writer of the First Epistle of John is identical with the writer of the Fourth Gospel. The relationship between the two documents, with all their outward difference of form, is most striking.

In the Gospel, too, the writer conceals his name, but describes himself as an eye-witness in words which must remind us of the corresponding phrases in the Epistle.29 Innumerable parallels between the two documents have long since been observed, beginning with the opening sentence in each.30 Elsewhere we may compare, for instance, vv. iv. 12, 20 of the Epistle with verse i. 18 of the Gospel—ʽno man hath seen God at any timeʼ—or 1. John v. 12, ʽHe that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not the life,ʼ with iii. 86 of the Gospel, and 1. John i. 4, ʽthat our joy may be fulfilled,ʼ with John xv. 11, xvi. 24, xvii. 13. There is never any question of mere copying in these cases, still less does one document expressly quote the other; but just as repetitions are extremely common both within the Epistle31 and within the Gospel, though always with slight variations of expression, so these parallels are to be explained in the same way—and they alone almost compel us to recognise the identity of the two writers. Moreover, it is not only a question of occasional sentences, which might possibly have been incorrectly preserved in the memory of a later writer; in the whole vocabulary, in the mode of thought and in the peculiarities of the style—which are many—there exists between the two documents an absolute and complete agreement. Both have the same preference, for instance, for the words μαρτυρία and μαρτυρεῖν, while μάρτυς, μαρτύριον and μαρτύρεσθαι do not occur at all; both have the same Hebraistic manner of working out their ideas in simple sentences, connected by ʽandʼ or perhaps not connected at all—although it must be observed that the aversion to γάρ and οὖν is much stronger in the Epistle than in the Gospel—and in both we find the habit of giving double expression, both positive and negative, to their theses,32 and an extraordinary abundance of participles used as substantives. Such characteristic formule as ʽthe only-begotten Sonʼ for Christ, ʽto be of God,ʼ ʽto be begotten of God,ʼ ʽto be of the truth,ʼ ʽto do the truth,ʼ ʽto have the life,ʼ ʽto abide in love,ʼ ʽto walk in darkness,ʼ ʽto be out of the world,ʼ are only to be found in 1. John and the Gospel of John. Fundamental ideas, too, like that of the necessary connection between the love received from God, or from Christ, and the love we practise towards our brethren, of the sending of the Son into the world in order to save the world and to take away the sins of the world, of the hatred borne by the world against the brethren33 and of the victory over the world,34 all play the same part in both documents.

It is true that the Epistle has some peculiarities: it alone speaks of false prophets and Antichrists, of ʽdenialʼ in the distinctively religious sense, of the Parusia, of hope, of the ʽdoing of righteousnessʼ (but we find that the ʽdoing of truthʼ is mentioned in both35). Instead of the cosmological conception of the Logos to which John attaches his speculations on the nature of Christ in the prologue to the Gospel,36 the Epistle (i. 1) inserts the religious conception of ʽthe word of lifeʼ or ʽthe word of God,ʼ which is meant at any rate as a partial personification. The Paraclete whose advent is announced in the Gospel37 is not mentioned in the Epistle, and the word is even used in a different sense in ii. 1. Differences in vocabulary are also to be found, such as that the Epistle uses the phrase κοινωνία μετά τινος four times, and that, too, within five verses (i. 3-7); while in the Gospel there is no trace either of this word or of any other derived from κοινωνεῖν. But these differences can nearly all be explained by the peculiar objects of the Epistle— objects which concentrated the writerʼs attention on certain points which did not always coincide with the favourite themes of the Gospel. And certainly it would imply a preposterous idea of the relationship between the Epistle and the Gospel, to suppose that the former was tacked on to the latter as a sort of letter of recommendation. The Epistle is concerned with other objects than the Gospel, and moreover in so persistent and one-sided a manner that it is impossible to think of the Gospel and the Epistle as simultaneous productions. If they are separated in time, the last ground for doubting the identity of their writers disappears, for it would be more than foolish to expect an author to confine himself in a later work to exactly the same material as he had used perhaps five years before. The question as to whether the Epistle or the Gospel is the earlier work is not particularly important, when we have once recognised the fact that no skill in imitation and no mere school-connection could ever have produced a similarity so all-pervading as exists between the Gospel of John and this Epistle; but by far the more probable assumption is that the Epistle was a later work from the hand of the Evangelist. He produced it after the earlier and greater work, not because he wished to express the main idea of the latter in more popular, though at the same time dogmatic, form, and thus to fix it more firmly in his readersʼ memory, but because his Gospel and his conception of Christianity were now being seriously threatened by the Gnostics, who actually employed some of his formula in order to recommend themselves to the ignorant, and who in effect found many points of agreement between their views and his. For his ʽapologyʼ he chose the epistolary form which Paul had raised to honour, although without making any material changes in his style to suit it.



1) i. 5-ii. 11,

2) ii, 12-14,

3) ii, 15-17.

4) ii, 18-26.

5) ii, 26 fol.

6) ii, 28-iii, 18.

7) iii. 19 fol.

8) iv, 1-6.

9) iv. 7-v. 13.

10) 4. 21,

11) ii, 12-14.

12) ii, 19.

13) ii. 19.

14) ii. 18 fol.

15) ii, 22, iv. 2 fol., v. 1, 5, 6 fol. and 20.

16) ii. 3 fol.

17) E.g., v. 20 fol.

18) iv. 1-3, 6

19) ii, 25-28.

20) iii. 1, 24, iv. 13, v. 11, 20.

21) Cf. i. 8 fol. with iii. 9 and v. 18 fol.

22) ii. 18.

23) iii. 9.

24) ii, 22 fol.

25) ii. 20, 27.

26) ii. 7, 24, iii. 11.

27) Jude 3 and 5.

28) i. 1-3, 5.

29) Gosp. i. 14, xix. 35,

30) Gosp. ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν; Epist. ὃ ἦν ἀπ᾿ ἀρχς.

31) Epist. i. 6, 8 and ii. 4; ii. 18, 22 and iv. 3; ii. 3 and iii. 6b.

32) E.g., Epist. ii. 27, iv. 6, v. 12; Gosp. iii. 36, viii. 47.

33) Epist. iii. 13; Gosp. xv. 18 fol., xvii. 14.

34) Gosp. xvi. 33; Epist. v. 4 fol.

35) Gosp. iii. 21; Epist. i. 6.

36) i. 1 fol.

37) Chaps. xiv—xvi.