An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 3 - Section 20


§ 20. The Shorter Epistles of John

[Cf. works mentioned in $19; also A. Harnack, ʽÜber den 3ten Johannesbrief,ʼ in the ʽTexte und Unters. zur altchr. Lit.ʼ xv. 3, 1897.]

1. These two Epistles, which resemble one another very closely in outward form, return to a more distinct epistolary style; they possess both address and final greeting, and in both the writer calls himself the ʽPresbyter,ʼ although in 2. the addressee is ʽthe elect Κυρία and her children,ʼ and in 3. ʽGaius the beloved.ʼ This parallel in 3. 1 might at first sight lead us to suppose that the addressee of 2. was also an individual Christian, who was perhaps named Kyria, or else whose name was left unmentioned, in which case the word must be translated ʽlady. But nowadays it is almost universal to take the word ʽladyʼ as referring figuratively to a community of the Lord (a single Christian community according to verse 13), in which again the whole of Christendom might be symbolised. For the writer could scarcely have called a Christian lady of his time ʽbeloved by all them that know the truth,ʼ even allowing for the greatest extravagance of style. According to verse 4, her children must have been unusually numerous, and this verse can only be made to agree with verse 1, by assuming that there the word ʽchildrenʼ is used in a narrower sense than here. The use of both singular and plural in addressing this ʽladyʼ1 also favours such an interpretation, and moreover the chief contents of the Epistle are by no means private in character. But precisely because the matter of the Epistle is suited to the whole Church, and not merely to a single community, and since the author would scarcely have wished it seriously to be restricted to a single community, he might just as well have intended to address an individual Christian matron under the name of Kyria as an individual Christian brother under that of Gaius, and the difficulties might be explained by supposing that the addresses are fictitious. The epistolary form led him to write to individuals, but he intended that these writings should have a ʽcatholicʼ circulation.

Besides the address and ending, 2. John consists only of a plea to its recipients to walk according to the commandments of God, especially in the matter of mutual love, and, in defiance of all Antichrists who denied the incarnate Christ, to stand fast in the teaching of Christ.2 The false teacher was not to be received into their houses, nor even to be given a greeting.3 This last piece of advice is the only part peculiar to the Epistle, and we may conclude that the writerʼs object was to establish it as a principle with regard to the treatment of heretics.

The Third Epistle has, after its address, an introduction4 which reminds us of the Pauline prefaces—an expression of the writerʼs joy, that, as others had borne witness, Gaius ʽwalked in the truth.ʼ Following on this he praises him for having received passing brethren in a friendly manner, thereby rendering a service to the truth they represented.5 Unhappily, this was not the case with Diotrephes, who, from a desire for personal supremacy, had received neither the brethren nor a letter written by the author,6 and had expelled from the church others who were willing to do so. It was to be hoped that Gaius would not follow his example.7 Verse 12 gives a glowing testimony to Demetrius, from which, however, we do not learn whether the writer means to recommend him to the hospitality of Gaius, or as a trustworthy ally in the church. The letter ends with the same formula as the Second Epistle.

The Gaius of the Third Epistle can be identified as little as the Diotrephes or the Demetrius, for, considering the frequency of the name, it would be almost childish to suppose that he was the same as the Gaius mentioned by Paul in 1. Corinthians8 and Romans9; but when we consider that: this was a time of which we know practically nothing, it would indeed be a marvel if he could be identified. Taking the Second Epistle into account, however, we seem justified in assuming that all three were imaginary persons (verse 11, for instance, does not fit the description of Gaius in vv. 2-6, in the least, and the tenses of 3, 5 fol. betray the hollowness of the assumed situation); thus the only object of the Epistle would appear to have been to urge as a sacred duty the cordial reception and entertainment of brethren travelling in the service of the Gospel, and to unmask the lust of power which, at the expense of truth, and solely in order to shut out all external influences from its neighbourhood, did not fulfil this duty and spurned even the highest of all authorities.

2. We can only dispute the view that both Epistles spring from the same writer, if we consider the one to be the slavish imitation of the other, and in that case the decision as to whether 2. or 3. were the earlier could only be purely arbitrary. I hold it probable that they were written contemporaneously, for none but a Chancery clerk could have clung so closely to his epistolary formula as to give to two Epistles written at different periods an appearance so similar as that possessed by 2. and 38. John (with the exception of the verses dealing with the special subjects in each). They show the Johannine type in phrases like ʽto know the truth,ʼ10 ʽto be of God,ʼ11 ʽto have God,ʼ ʽto have both the Father and the Son,ʼ12 and also in such unimportant expressions as ʽthat your joy may be fulfilled.13 The words of 3. 12, ʽthou knowest that our witness is true,ʼ remind us particularly of the Gospel,14 but both Epistles, and particularly the Second, are still more closely related to the First Epistle, for vv. 2. 4-9 are in reality nothing but a short extract from that Epistle, while the letter mentioned in 3.,15 written either to the whole Church or to a community, and which Diotrephes would not receive, would also seem to refer with great probability to the First Epistle. But it might just as easily be taken as referring to the Second, and in this case the fiction becomes unmistakable, for no one in real life would write an Epistle like 2. John to a community the ruler of which—as the writer himself knew and mentioned in a simultaneous letter to a personal friend in that community—would not receive his Epistle, but had actually put himself in a position of impious antagonism to him.

The indications as to the date of the Epistles are but scanty, though what we have said with regard to the First Epistle holds good of the Second; a somewhat later stage in the development of ecclesiastical orthodoxy is implied by the emphasis given to the injunction to ʽabide in the teaching,ʼ and the absolute condemnation of those who ʽgo onward.ʼ As to the Third Epistle it is not necessary to follow Harnack in considering it as an important document dating from the period of the struggle of the old patriarchal mission-organization with the individual communities and their tendency towards consolidation; but we may probably take Diotrephes as a representative of the monarchical aspirations in the communities, and of the mistrust of the wandering teachers which soon prevailed in the whole Church; we can therefore scarcely date our Epistles before the years 100-125.

The tradition tells us that the writer of 2. and 8. John was identical with the writer of 1. John and the Gospel of John. Many objections, however, have been raised against this. The two former, after all, stand much closer to one another than to the longer writings, and their resemblance to these latter may be explained by their mental dependence on them, and by the fact that their author may have spent a considerable period in the Johannine atmosphere. The shorter Epistles possess much that does not occur in 1, John and the Gospel: not merely the words φιλοπρωτεύειν and μέλαν, to which no one has the right to expect any parallels, but phrases like ἐχάρην λίαν,16 βλέπετε έαυτούς,17 ἀπολαμβάνειν μισθὸν πλήρη,17 συνεργοὶ γινώμεθά τινι,18 all of which remind us of the Synoptics or of Paul. Even in the extract from the First Epistle in 2. 4-9 there are some remarkable differences, such as the words πλάνος and πλάνοι in verse 7: the fact that the Antichrist is only spoken of in the singular19; the mention of the danger of losing ʽthe things which have been wrought,ʼ20 the reference to the ʽfull reward,ʼ and the excommunication of the man who ʽgoeth onward,ʼ or who ʽtaketh the leadʼ (προάγων). Finally, when we consider the great difference between the epistolary garb of the First Epistle and that of the other two, and the fact that the latter found their way into the Canon later than the First Epistle and separately from it, we can at any rate understand that doubts might be entertained of the tradition which sought to ascribe all four writings to the same hand. On the other hand, the differences between the two shorter Epistles and the longer are not more considerable than between the latter and the Gospel. I see no reason left for ascribing the three Epistles of John to more than one author; if we may assume that he wrote the last two as a supplement a few years after the First Epistle—first, in the Second Epistle, to point out more particularly the duty of separation from the false teachers; then, in the Third, to give a forcible recommendation to a form of the practice of brotherly love which was specially important, though often entirely ignored or its necessity contested.

One question only remains: why the unknown writer, who was apparently well content to remain partially anonymous in the First Epistle, now reveals himself in the Second and Third; and, if so, why he does not come forward simply under his own name, but adopts a title which might mean anything, and therefore tells us next to nothing—the title of Presbyter. The first became necessary when instead of the sermon in epistolary form he chose the form of the occasional letter. But how can the vague title ʽPresbyterʼ be coupled in the nominative with the dative ʽto Gaiusʼ? This would only be possible if the person intended was known to everyone in the Christian world as the Presbyter κατ̓ ἐξοχήν, and perhaps better known by this title than by his own name. It is said that there was such an ʽElderʼ of the name of John in the second century. Hither this man is the writer of our Epistles, or some unknown person has appropriated his name in order to secure an adequate authority for his disciplinary instructions. Perhaps he had heard that some had placed his first epistle ad acta, and therefore determined to announce more definitely whose voice it was that had demanded a hearing. He attained his object. A hundred years later the shorter Epistles were always quoted as the Epistles of John wherever they were known.

For further particulars of this Presbyter see below, § 31.



1) Singular in vv. 4, 5 and 13; plural in Vv. 6, 8, 10 and 12.

2) Vv. 4-9.

3) Vv. 10 fol.

4) Vv. 2-4,

5) Vv. 5-8.

6) Vv. 9 and 10.

7) Ver. 11.

8) i. 14.

9) xvi. 23.

10) 2nd Epist. 1; cf. Gosp. viii. 32.

11) 3rd Epist. 11.

12) 2nd Epist. 9.

13) 2nd Epist. 12; cf. 1st Epist. i. 4.

14) v. 31 fol., viii. 13 fol., xix. 35, and esp. xxi. 25.

15) Ver. 9

16) 2nd Ep. 4 and 3rd Ep. 3.

17) 2nd Ep. 8.

18) 3rd Ep. 8.

19) Verse 7.

20) Verse 8.