1 John and Dualism

One of the frustrations reading the letters of John is the the writer’s rather stark, black-and-white view of the world. He begins in 1 John 1:5 by stating that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness.” There is a “polarity between God and ‘the world’” (Jobes, Letters to the Church, 415). There rest of the letter is filled with similar contrasts – one either walks in the light or walks in the darkness. One either does not sin, or one continues in sin. The first chapter of the book can be read as saying there are two types of people in the world, those who have been enlightened (the Christians) and those who remain in the darkness (the non-Christian). That is true, of course, but for Christians who have read their Paul, it is hard to imagine “the one who does not sin.” Romans 6-7, for example, describes the struggle of the believer who was a slave to sin and is now a slave to righteousness. Even our own experience seems to make the sharp black/white dualism of John difficult to understand.

Use the Force

In the history of interpretation of the Letters, there are two possible sources for this dualism. In the nineteenth century the Letters were dated much later that the first century, so the light / darkness language was thought to be an allusion to Gnostic dualism. Gnosticism developed in the second century by blending Jewish and Christian theology with a Platonic Dualism. This meant that the world was sinful and evil, only the spirit was good. The goal of life was to separate from the life of this world and purify one’s spirit, perhaps leaving the sinful flesh to return someday to the spiritual realm.

The Gnostic view is far less popular since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Community Rule (1QS) describes the world in terms similar to 1 John. The Community represents the “sons of light” and those in the world are the “sons of darkness.” There is a spirit of truth and a spirit of deceit, humans choose between the two “spirits.” In 1 John 3:6 the writer says that the one who has the “spirit of truth” hears God and knows God, the one who has the “spirit of error” is a liar and will not follow God. The Community Rule has similar language:

1QS 3:18-19 [God] created man to rule the world and placed within him two spirits so that he would walk with them until the moment of his visitation: they are the spirits of truth and of deceit. From the spring of light stem the generations of truth, and from the source of darkness the generations of deceit. (Garciá-Martiínez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:75)

But as Andreas Köstenberger points out, the dualism in John is not at all like what is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, he thinks that it is not really “dualism” in the classic sense since there is both a vertical and horizontal aspect to the dualism. (The Theology Oof John’s Gospel and Letters, 277).  The Gnostics minimized the human relationships since all human flesh is sinful. The Qumran Community minimized the horizontal as well, declaring war on the Sons of Darkness.

I want to suggest here that John’s so-called dualism is drawn from the creation story. In Genesis 2-3, humans have an ideal relationship with God and with each other. They live in perfect fellowship with God and in perfect harmony with each other. After sin enters the world through Adam’s rebellion, the vertical relationship destroyed – perfect fellowship becomes terror of God’s voice and hiding from him in the bushes. Likewise, the relationship between Adam and his wife changes and there is anything but harmony over the next few chapters (Cain and Abel, Lamech’s revenge, the Flood, etc.)

For the one who is a disciple of Jesus, the relationship with God has been restored, implying that relationships with other humans ought to also be restored. The word was not evil when it was created, nor did our relationship with God cause terror and hiding. For John, the one who is a follower of Jesus has been restored to a pre-fall state in which we can “walk in the light” and quite literally “not sin.” As the writer says in 2:15-17, this world is passing away, we belong to another world which will endure forever.

Developing Doctrine in Second John

The short letter of Second John is address to the “elect lady and her children.” This is likely a reference to a church. Since the Greek word for church is feminine, calling a church a “chosen lady” is a natural metaphor. Jobes points out that neither “chosen” nor “lady” were used as proper names in the first century, nor are there any personal names in this letter (Letters to the Churches, 441). John refers to the members of a congregation as “children” in 1 John several times, so it seems fairly certain that this address is to a congregation of believers.

It may be a generic letter, however, circulated to several churches in a region. 1 John seems to be intended as a circular letter, so it is possible that this short note from “the elder” was passed around to several house churches. Since this letter is written on a single scrap of paper (verse 12), it may have been intended as a personal note from John, carried by a traveling preacher visiting congregations under John’s oversight. Obviously 1 and 2 John are related, but there is no way to know which letter came first or if they were addressed to different congregations.

The theological content of the letter is similar to that of 1 John. The writer warns the congregation about “deceivers” who have gone out into the world and deny that Jesus came in the flesh (v. 7). In verse 9 John implies that these deceivers have “gone ahead” rather than remained in the truth as it was first taught. Perhaps some teachers had tried to find a way to explain who Jesus was which “went beyond” what the apostles originally taught.

This is a problem for modern theology. The main issue in Second John is that the false teachers had developed doctrine in a way which was unacceptable. I think they had good intentions – they were genuinely trying to explain a very difficult concept (God became flesh) and they did so in a way which they thought was consistent with their Jewish world view. But from the perspective of John, they have gone too far and need to “remain” in the original teaching he delivered to them.

WWJDriveI think that it is necessary to develop doctrine “beyond the Bible,” since the Bible simply does not specifically address every situation which may arise in a modern context. Some years ago there was an attempt to encourage Christians to be environmentally  conscious when choosing a car; the media campaign used “What would Jesus drive?” as a slogan. I really do not think it is relevant to apply Jesus to choosing a gas-guzzling SUV or Prius. There may be good biblical reasons for choosing one over the other, but “what would Jesus drive” is not the way to develop theology.

I am frequently asked what the Bible has to say about birth control or in vitro fertilization. Since it is very hard to “quote a verse” as a proof-text either for or against these practices, Christians have to infer ethical practice from the general teaching of the Bible. The difficult part is knowing when we have “run ahead” and developed a doctrine beyond what the intent of the Bible was in the first place.

How do we guard against “going too far” when we try to apply the Bible to contemporary issues?

Dualism in First John

One of the frustrations reading the letters of John is the John’s rather stark, black-and-white view of the world. He begins in 1 John 1:5 by stating that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness.” There is a “polarity between God and ‘the world’” (Jobes, Letters to the Church, 415). There rest of the letter is filled with similar contrasts – one either walks in the light or walks in the darkness. One either does not sin, or one continues in sin.

The first chapter of the book can be read as saying there are two types of people in the world, those who have been enlightened (the Christians) and those who remain in the darkness (the non-Christian). That is true, of course, but for Christians who have read their Paul, it is hard to imagine “the one who does not sin.” Romans 6-7, for example, describes the struggle of the believer who was a slave to sin and is now a slave to righteousness. Even our own experience seems to make the sharp black/white dualism of John difficult to understand.

Use the Force

In the history of interpretation of the Letters, there are two possible sources for this dualism. In the nineteenth century the Letters were dated much later that the first century, so the light / darkness language was thought to be an allusion to Gnostic dualism. Gnosticism developed in the second century by blending Jewish and Christian theology with a Platonic Dualism. This meant that the world was sinful and evil, only the spirit was good. The goal of life was to separate from the life of this world and purify one’s spirit, perhaps leaving the sinful flesh to return someday to the spiritual realm.

The Gnostic view is far less popular since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Community Rule (1QS) describes the world in terms similar to 1 John. The Community represents the “sons of light” and those in the world are the “sons of darkness.” There is a spirit of truth and a spirit of deceit, humans choose between the two “spirits.” In 1 John 3:6 the writer says that the one who has the “spirit of truth” hears God and knows God, the one who has the “spirit of error” is a liar and will not follow God. The Community Rule has similar language:

1QS 3:18-19 [God] created man to rule the world and placed within him two spirits so that he would walk with them until the moment of his visitation: they are the spirits of truth and of deceit. From the spring of light stem the generations of truth, and from the source of darkness the generations of deceit. (Garciá-Martiínez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:75)

But as Andreas Köstenberger points out, the dualism in John is not at all like what is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, he thinks that it is not really “dualism” in the classic sense since there is both a vertical and horizontal aspect to the dualism. (The Theology Of John’s Gospel and Letters, 277).  The Gnostics minimized the human relationships since all human flesh is sinful. The Qumran Community minimized the horizontal as well, declaring war on the Sons of Darkness.

I want to suggest here that John’s so-called dualism is drawn from the creation story. In Genesis 2-3, humans have an ideal relationship with God and with each other. They live in perfect fellowship with God and in perfect harmony with each other. After sin enters the world through Adam’s rebellion, the vertical relationship destroyed – perfect fellowship becomes terror of God’s voice and hiding from him in the bushes. Likewise, the relationship between Adam and his wife changes and there is anything but harmony over the next few chapters (Cain and Abel, Lamech’s revenge, the Flood, etc.)

For the one who is a disciple of Jesus, the relationship with God has been restored, implying that relationships with other humans ought to also be restored. The word was not evil when it was created, nor did our relationship with God cause terror and hiding. For John, the one who is a follower of Jesus has been restored to a pre-fall state in which we can “walk in the light” and quite literally “not sin.” As the writer says in 2:15-17, this world is passing away, we belong to another world which will endure forever.

If this is on track, how would it help read 1 John? Does it help overcome some of the “black or white” ethical commands in the letter?

What is Docetism?

By the end of the first century, at least some Christians began to deny that Jesus had a physical body. This teaching is known as Docetism, and was motivated by a strong belief that Jesus was in fact God, but also that material things are inherently evil The logic of their teaching is based on the Gnostic (or proto-Gnostic) idea that matter is evil. Since matter is evil and Christ is good, he could not have had a physical body. If Christ really suffered, then he was not divine, since God cannot suffer, and if he was God he did not suffer (Burchard, 326.)

Frequently Docetism is seen as part of the larger theology of Gnosticism, and therefore more or less a “Greco-Roman Philosophy” or perhaps even an early Christian attempt to develop a rational non-Jewish theology which would appeal to the larger Roman world.  Since it was strange to imagine a god really becoming flesh and submitting to death on a cross, some Christians described Jesus as “appearing” to be human flesh. The name “docetic” comes from the Greek δοκέω (dokeo), meaning to “appear” or “seem.”

But it is possible that Docetism more Jewish than Gentile.  If 1 John was written from Ephesus in the late 80’s or early 90’s, it is at least  plausible to argue that John was reacting to a Jewish Christian attempt to explain who Jesus was. Rather than making Christianity more palatable to Romans, Docetism would have been appealing to Jews who might find the idea of “God made flesh” contradictory to their view of God as completely transcendent.

Docetism is sometimes associated with a group of Jewish Christians known as the Ebionites. This group was ascetic, living a live of voluntary poverty in the desert. This voluntary poverty may have been based on the early Jewish Christians in Acts 2 (selling possessions for needs of the group), or perhaps based on Jesus’ own voluntary poverty. While they rejected sacrifice, they thought that many of the Jewish traditions were still of value, especially circumcision. Bart Erhman describes the Ebionites as similar to Paul’s opponents in Galatia. Since they were a Jewish Christian group, they used only Matthew as scripture, but they also rejected Paul completely (Erhman, Lost Christianities, 99).

The real problem with this identification is that Docetism as a Jewish viewpoint would have developed in Palestine, not Ephesus. It is possible that John’s gospel was developed while he was still doing ministry in the Land, and that the fall of Jerusalem forced Jews out of the Land, many of whom ended up in places like Ephesus and Corinth.  But this objection does not take into account the large Jewish population in Ephesus in the late first-century.  John’s work in Ephesus may have been with Jewish Christian congregations in the city rather than with primarily Gentile, Pauline congregations.

What is there in the first Letter of John that indicates that he is in fact answering an inadequate view of who Jesus was?  The evidence is in the opening paragraph, but runs throughout the book.

Bibliography:  G. L. Burchard, “Docetism”, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.

Bart Erhman, Lost Christianities.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Top Five 1, 2, 3 John Commentaries

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.

Marvin Wilson and Chris Alex Vlashos, A Workbook for New Testament Greek: Grammar and Exegesis in First John (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998). This little book is broken up into assignments, with unusual vocabulary / parsing at the beginning of the assignment. The student is then given a series of questions which point them to the major Grammars (Zerwick, Moule, Turner, Winbery) as well as exegetical commentaries. There are a few “for further study” questions which require a bit more thought and discussion. The book has a handy “vocabulary of 1 John” as well as a parsing guide for the book. This book would be good for someone trying to work through John on their own, but it is best used in a classroom setting.

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

 

Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

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

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

Third John – Hospitality in the Early Church

Third John is a letter thanking Gaius for his hospitality in accepting several traveling teachers sent by John to Gaius’ church. 3 John calls these itinerant teachers “strangers” who ought to be given hospitality in “a manner worthy of God.” Like 2 John, this is more of a “note” than a letter, likely filling a single small sheet of papyri (v. 13). It is possible that this letter was delivered by Demetrius as a kind of “letter of introduction” indicating that he in fact has the blessing of John the Elder.

Didache 12 gives instructions on how a church ought to handle a traveling teacher. If a person visits the church and “comes in the name of the Lord,” he is to be welcomes. But, the writer warns, he ought to be examined to find out if he has true insight. If he “merely passing through,” the church ought to assist the teacher, but only if he stays no more than a day or two. If he is a genuine prophet, he is “worthy of his food,” the church ought to share with him and help him with his ministry (13:1-3)

One of these teachers was apparently refused by Diotrephes, another believer in the church. Diotrephes’ behavior is condemned by John as being “un-brotherly.” Gaius is praised for his kind treatment of another teacher, Demetrius, who probably was the deliverer of this letter. We have no idea why Diotrephes refused a teacher. Perhaps he examined him and judged him unworthy to teach. It is also possible that shabby treatment of Demetrius is a reflection on John’s authority – Diotrephes disrespects John as the elder / bishop and therefore refused to give hospitality to his representative. Jobes suggests that Diotrephes is “on the side of the antichrists,” although this cannot be proven conclusively (Letters to the Church, 445).

This letter gives us an insight into how the small house churches of the first century functioned, and to some extent the problems with a house church. An individual could see the church as very much their own and “run things” far too autocratically. Diotrephes is free to make decisions about who may speak to his congregation, trumping John’s authority in this case. There is no “committee of elders” in the church to discuss and decide the matter. The idea of a “church board” is very much a modern congregational church invention.

John the Elder clearly believes has authority over this church and authorized teachers to visit the churches from time to time. He expects his elders to accept the teachers and give them proper hospitality when they visit. Perhaps we can describe him as a “bishop,” but if the tradition of equating John the Disciple / Apostle with John the Elder is correct, this might be an example of apostolic authority.

This teaching on hospitality in Third John also is difficult to apply in a modern context.  I suppose it might be “applied” by being kind to traveling missionaries when they visit your church, but I think that is a rather limited application.  There is a rigorous “testing” of the visiting teacher implied by this letter – how does that work in a modern context?

Second John – Going Beyond the Bible

The short letter of Second John is address to the “elect lady and her children.” This is likely a reference to a church. Since the Greek word for church is feminine, calling a church a “chosen lady” is a natural metaphor. Jobes points out that neither “chosen” nor “lady” were used as proper names in the first century, nor are there any personal names in this letter (Letters to the Churches, 441). John refers to the members of a congregation as “children” in 1 John several times, so it seems fairly certain that this address is to a congregation of believers.

It may be a generic letter, however, circulated to several churches in a region. 1 John seems to be intended as a circular letter, so it is possible that this short note from “the elder” was passed around to several house churches. Since this letter is written on a single scrap of paper (verse 12), it may have been intended as a personal note from John, carried by a traveling preacher visiting congregations under John’s oversight. Obviously 1 and 2 John are related, but there is no way to know which letter came first or if they were addressed to different congregations.

The theological content of the letter is similar to that of 1 John. The writer warns the congregation about “deceivers” who have gone out into the world and deny that Jesus came in the flesh (v. 7). In verse 9 John implies that these deceivers have “gone ahead” rather than remained in the truth as it was first taught. Perhaps some teachers had tried to find a way to explain who Jesus was which “went beyond” what the apostles originally taught.

This is a problem for modern theology. The main issue in Second John is that the false teachers had developed doctrine in a way which was unacceptable. I think they had good intentions – they were genuinely trying to explain a very difficult concept (God became flesh) and they did so in a way which they thought was consistent with their Jewish world view. But from the perspective of John, they have gone too far and need to “remain” in the original teaching he delivered to them.

I think that it is necessary to develop doctrine “beyond the Bible,” since the Bible simply does not specifically address every situation which may arise in a modern context. I am frequently asked what the Bible has to say about birth control or in vitro fertilization. Since it is very hard to “quote a verse” as a proof-text either for or against these practices, Christians have to infer ethical practice from the general teaching of the Bible. The difficult part is knowing when we have “run ahead” and developed a doctrine beyond what the intent of the Bible was in the first place.