Introduction. Authorship is an issue most introductions the Letters of John must treat, but usually the Gospel of John and the Letters are viewed as coming from the same person or persons, often a “community” living in Ephesus near the end of the first century. More critical commentaries will leave open the question of whether the author is the Apostle John (the traditional view) or a community formed around the teaching of the Apostle.
A second issue which commentaries must deal with in an introduction is the identity of the opponent in 1 John. Since John calls then “antichrists” because they deny that Jesus came in the flesh, they are frequently associated with Docetism, an early attempt by Jewish Christians to understand Jesus as fully divine, only appearing to be human. Brown surveys every suggested opponent and concludes that there are similarities to several groups, but we simply do not know enough about the target of John’s polemic to be certain they are “early Gnostics” or any other known teacher.
Since 1 John is usually the first book of the New Testament that most beginning Greek students read through, there are several handbooks for reading the letters. In general, these books move through the Greek text word by word with detailed comments on grammar aimed at helping the beginning Greek student learn how exegesis works. I will mention three of these here before moving on to commentaries proper.
Martin M. Cully, I, II, III John: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Waco: Baylor, 2004). This book is a running commentary on the syntax of the letters of John, identifying grammatical categories for virtually every word. The English paragraph is printed, followed by each verse in Greek, then each phrase in the verse with commentary. For some words or phrases Cully points out that “scholars differ,” providing the various options for the student to sort out. Only rarely does Cully cite a particular grammar, which has the advantage of allowing professors to use whatever intermediate grammar they choose. The book is certainly a handy size, making it an easy read along side the Greek New Testament.
Herbert Bateman, IV, A Workbook for Intermediate Greek: Grammar, Exegesis and Commentary on 1-3 John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel 2008). This is a workbook for the serious student of New Testament Greek. At over 600 pages, it would be difficult to finish the book in a single semester! The text of the letters of John is broken into 35 sections, beginning with 3 John, then 2 John. Each section features some syntactical category (the perfect tense, infinitives, etc.) Bateman has a twelve-step exegetical process (16) which he uses in each pericope of the Letters, although not every step appears in every chapter. Since this is a workbook, there are questions and space for answers. For syntax questions, Bateman provides pages in several major grammars to review elements of grammar. He asks syntactical, lexical / semantical, and theological questions. By the time a student worked through this book, they will have written their own commentary on the Letters of John!
Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John (New York: Doubleday, 1982). Along with his commentary on the Gospel of John and his Introduction to the Gospel of John (completed by Maloney after Brown’s death), this commentary is one of the most significant contributions to the study of the Johannine literature in the twentieth century. Brown introduced his views on the Johannine community in his commentary on the Gospel of John and develops it further in this commentary. I highly recommend the 130 page introduction to the commentary as required reading for anyone working seriously in John. While interest in his theory of the “Johannine Community” has waned, it is hard to read a commentary on John’s Gospel or Letters which do not engage Brown on nearly every page. At almost 800 pages, this commentary on the Epistles of John is the most detailed exegetical commentary available. The commentary proceeds through the text word-by-word, dealing with lexical and syntactical matters. Greek appears only in transliteration, all sources are cited in-text. After the detailed note section, Brown provides a “comment” in the overall theology of the pericope, often connecting it to his previous work on the Gospel of John. These comments all assume his Johannine community theory. Sections end with a bibliography pertinent to that section.
Ben Witherington, Letters and Homilies to Hellenized Christians, Volume 1 (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 2006). Witherington treats the letters of John in his socio-rhetorical commentary along with the Pastoral Epistles. The commentary argues that hte letters were written at the end of the first century to serve a “Johannine community” which had recently suffered a schism based on a view of Jesus which differed from the Beloved Disciple. In general, Witherington finds these letters to be amenable to his form of rhetorical study. Second and Third John are “deliberative discourse” while 1 John is epideictic, “a sermon” (409-10). The commentary is based on the English text, with transliterated Greek treated in the footnotes. Because of the style of the commentary, Witheringtom makes occasional grammatical comments in the footnotes, the main text is interested in the flow of the argument. Like other socio-rhetorical commentaries, Witherington provides sometimes lengthy “Closer Look” sections. Of particular interest is his section on “Avoiding Sin and Going On To Perfection” (501-5), a refreshingly non-Calvinist view of the issue, even if in the end I disagree with his conclusion.
Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John (PNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000). Cruse beings his commentary by suggesting a plausible scenario for the production of these letters. Assuming the Letters and the Gospel of John were produced by the apostle John (“the fairest way to read the evidence,” 14), Kruse argues that the letters were written after a first form of the Gospel was written in response to a successionist group which differed from John on the nature of Jesus. This group appears to have been aggressive in that they sought to bring others into their circle. First John is a circular letter to all of the congregations in and around Ephesus, 2 and 3 John are to specific house churches advising them directly what to do with traveling teachers “peddling their new and heretical teaching” (3). After the letters were written, John died, and the final form of the gospel as we have it today was published. What happened to the successionists is unknown, but they may develop into Gnosticism. The body of the commentary is based on the English text, with Greek details in the footnotes. The style is very readable, with occasional excursuses. For example, Kruse briefly comments on the use of chrisma in 1 John 2:20; in another place he has a useful summary of the New Testament teaching on antichrist.
Daniel Akin, 1, 2, 3 John (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001). Akin affirms the traditional view that John the Apostle wrote both the Gospel and Letters which bear his name in the New Testament. Like most, Akin understands that John was writing in response to an attack from a specific false teaching concerning Jesus, but also a defective morality and arrogant spirituality (31). In the introduction he has a brief overview of the theology of the letters, including a paragraph on the overlooked eschatology of the letters. The body of the commentary prints the English text followed by detailed comments with Greek in transliteration. This makes for a readble commentary which will be useful for preparing to preach these letters.
Conclusion. There are a new missing here, such as I. H. Marshall’s 1978 commentary in the NICNT series or F. F. Bruce’s brief 1970 commentary. I omitted Robert W. Yarbrough contribution in the Baker Exegetical series simply because I do not own a copy and have not used it yet. I also cheated a bit on my “five commentary” rule to get the exegetical guides in. What have you found useful for teaching the letters of John?
Index for the Top Five Commentary Series
Matthew Mark Luke John Acts
Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians Pastoral Epistles Philemon
Hebrews James 1 Peter 2 Peter & Jude
Letters of John Revelation