Before 1936 few English-speaking scholars doubted the traditional view that the author of the three letters ascribed to John were written by the same man who authored the Fourth Gospel. In that year, C. H. Dodd delivered a lecture in which he argued that 1 John was written by a disciple of John, not by the evangelist himself.2 The question of the authorship of 2 John, therefore, must be approached from two directions: (1) How does this little letter relate to 1 John? and (2) How do the Johannine letters relate to the Fourth Gospel?
Early testimony regarding the authorship of 2 John is not as strong as it is for 1 John, “yet the brevity of the letter and the lesser likelihood of its being quoted by Christian authors must be given full weight in assessing the evidence (the same applies to 3 John).”4 The situation would be roughly similar to imposing a requirement that every chapter in one of Paul’s letters be quoted before that book be admitted into the canon, for 2 John is no larger than a small chapter of another letter. Further, neither 2 John nor 3 John have much in the way of edifying quotations—even when compared to a single chapter from most other NT letters. In other words, the struggle for canonicity (which was always bound up with authorship) which 2-3 John faced would have been quite predictable. That these two letters—each of which could have been written on a single sheet of papyrus—were preserved at all is a subtle point in favor of the traditional ascription of their Johannine authorship.
On the side of common authorship among all three letters as well as apostolic authorship, we may cite the following authorities. Irenaeus, who alludes to 2 John, assumes apostolic authorship. The Muratorian Fragment mentions two letters by John, the second of which could have either been 2 John or 2-3 John (the two forming one letter).5 Clement of Alexandria recognized more than one letter by John. Origen recognized both 2 and 3 John, though he admitted that their genuineness was disputed by some. Dionysius of Alexandria likewise mentions John’s second and third letters, recognizing that some dispute their authenticity. Finally, Polycarp is sometimes alleged to refer to 2 John 7, but his wording is closer to that of 1 John 4.2-3, which 2 John 7 emulates (Philippians 7.1).
On the other side, Eusebius placed 2 and 3 John with the disputed books. Jerome and Ambrose also expressed doubts about their authenticity. The Syriac church apparently rejected these two letters until sometime after 411 CE (latest probable publication date of the Peshitta), and they were not fully accepted until the beginning of the sixth century.
Some implications about the external evidence are as follows. (1) “It is significant that the earlier writers appear to have less hesitation about apostolic authorship than the later, which is the reverse of what would be expected if the doubts were based on accurate tradition.”6 (2) Since the author is called only “the elder” in 2-3 John, perhaps confusion at a later date (due to Papias’ famous statement [which will be discussed shortly]) over the alleged two Johns might have caused some hesitation. On the other hand, it is just possible that the “elder” John (distinct from the apostle) wrote these two letters, and it is precisely for this reason that they struggled for canonicity. (3) Rather than due to confusion, some of those who disputed apostolic authorship may have had ulterior motives. Eusebius, for example, who has preserved for us the statement by Papias, “had a special interest in distinguishing two Johns, since he did not appreciate the chiliasm of the Apocalypse.”7 Therefore, since in Eusebius’ interpretation of Papias’ statement, “John the elder” did not refer to the apostle, and since 2-3 John are authored by the ‘elder,’ Eusebius may have felt compelled to conclude that 2-3 John were not authored by the apostle (in order to maintain his disavowal of chiliasm). For others, it is possible that the addressee, “the elect lady,” was taken literally, and hence, would seem inappropriate for an apostle to write such a letter.
To sum up external evidence: the reasons for the minimal attestation could be due to a number of factors: lack of quotable material (coupled with brevity of work), denial of apostolic authorship due to antichiliastic bias of some (who would connect “the elder” with the author of Revelation), or the potential impropriety of an apostle writing to an “elect lady.” With so much going against it, that this letter (and 3 John) ever made it into the canon is strong testimony to its apostolic authorship.
We will deal with the linking of this letter (and 3 John) to 1 John and the Gospel of John in our discussion of 1 John. The only real difficulty with seeing this letter as from the same pen as 1 John is the self-designation “the elder.” This creates a problem in two directions: (1) Why does John not identify himself as the apostle? and (2) Why did he not use this self-designation in 1 John?
(1) As several scholars have pointed out, “the elder” does not necessarily have to be a terminus technicus, but could simply be an affectionate term meaning “the old man.”8 This would especially be appropriate if he were the last surviving apostle. Further, when one compares this lack of apostolic self-designation with Paul’s letters, it is observed that two items are not parallel: (a) Since John was one of the original twelve, there would be no need for him to have to defend his apostleship; (b) it is only in Paul’s most polemical letters that he spends any amount of time defending his apostleship (though he does use the term as a title in all). We might add further that the Papias quotation may suggest that John was both an apostle and an elder.9
Concerning whether a certain “John the elder” wrote 2-3 John (a view held by Jerome, in light of the statement by Papias10), Guthrie correctly points out:
There are difficulties with this view. It is difficult, for instance, to see how or why such an attribution would be made unless the close similarity of these letters with I John and the gospel should be appealed to. But if so it must be supposed that the unknown elder had either consciously imitated John’s style to give the impression of Johannine authorship, which is highly improbable since in that case he would have chosen a different title from ‘the elder,’ or, if the similarities with the other Johannine writings were accidental, he must have been so close a student of John that subsequent Church Fathers were unable to distinguish his own writings from the master’s and this can hardly have happened accidentally. The case for considering ‘the elder’ as a simple description of the aged apostle seems much more intelligible than either of these alternatives.11
(2) Why did John not call himself “the elder” in 1 John? This may have been due to one of several reasons: (a) 1 John is more of a homily than a letter—and it is not insignificant that there is no self-designation in it; (b) 1 John seems to have been written somewhat later than 2 John (in our view) and no self-designation would have been needed (especially if the letter-bearer prefaced the public reading of the letter12); (c) there may well have been a self-designation for 1 John, written on the verso side of the papyrus,13 which subsequently became lost.14 In any event, since the style, verbiage, outlook, etc. are so similar among all three letters, there is little doubt that the same man authored all three, regardless of peculiar quirks which each one has.
In sum, there is no compelling reason to deny common authorship of the three letters ascribed to John. And if, on other grounds (especially the linking of the Gospel to the letters) John the apostle emerges as the author, that is still the most preferable view.
As we will argue for 1 John and have argued for the Gospel, the place of writing was probably Ephesus. Whether John was writing to “an elect lady”—i.e., a real person—or a church is a more difficult problem to assess. The vast bulk of NT scholars prefer the view that the author is writing to a church.
There are actually five different ways ejklekth'/ kuriva/ can be taken: “the elect lady,” “an elect lady,” “Electa the Lady,” “the elect Kyria,” or “Electa Kyria.” The last three can be eliminated almost immediately (even though older commentators favored them), for there is no shred of evidence that “Electa” was ever used as a personal name, and “Kyria” was only rarely used in this manner. Further, v 13 speaks of this lady’s “elect sister,” which presupposes most likely a common meaning for “elect lady” in v 1. Of the other two options, “the elect lady” is preferable to “an elect lady” since a specific addressee is obviously in mind.
Still, this does not solve the problem of whether an individual or a church is in view. On the side of an individual are the following arguments: (1) It would be more natural to take this as an individual unless there are compelling arguments against such a view. (2) If 3 John were written at the same time, since that was written to an individual, this probably is too. (3) No where else in the NT is a church, as a collective whole, called “elect.” Not only this, but only some of her children were “walking in the truth” (v. 4): Can an entire church be called elect if some of its members are not believers?
For the “church” view are the following arguments: (1) Verse 1 is an unqualified statement that “all who have come to know the truth” love this lady. Individuals would hardly be as well known as churches; hence, this is much more intelligible if it refers to a church. (2) Since the word for church is feminine (hJ ejkklhsiva), and since elsewhere feminine imagery is used of the church,15 it should hardly surprise us to see such a usage here. Further, John is quite fond of figurative speech, double meanings, puns, etc.16 (3) If 1 Peter 5.13 refers to a church, as it is almost universally understood, then an entire church can be called “elect” (suneklekthv). (4) This letter lacks a parallel with 3 John in that no personal name is mentioned—either for the lady herself, or for her children, or for her sister or nephews and nieces. (5) The second person plural is used throughout the letter.
On the whole, there is very little to commend the individual view, apart from first impression. The majority of scholars today therefore rightly prefer the church view.
Where this church was is any body’s guess. Most likely it was in Asia Minor, since John had taken up his residence there and his pastoral concern was presumably given to that region. It was not Ephesus, since that was his base of operations. It was also probably not Colossae, since the heretics John deals with are quite similar to those dealt with by Paul in Colossians (some five or six years earlier)—yet John writes to an audience which seems to be a bit nave about them. This would hardly be true if they had Paul’s letter to the Colossians in front of them. Indeed, some distance from Colossae is presupposed, since that letter was intended to be circulated (cf. Col 4.16)—at least within the immediate vicinity. Further, v 12 seems to suggest that it is difficult for John to get away and make a visit to the church, implying that this is not nearby.17
“There can be no doubt that the false teachers mentioned in verse 7 are the same as those referred to in 1 John…”18 However, in 1 John they seem to have separated from the Christian community altogether (2.19), while in 2 John they present themselves as true believers who must rely on the hospitality of Christians in order to accomplish their propaganda. They did not originate from the church addressed in 2 John, though they apparently did come from the church(es) addressed in 1 John. 2 John is written, therefore, to warn “the elect lady” not to show hospitality toward itinerant preachers who cannot confess that Christ has come in the flesh (vv 7-8).
As we will argue in our discussion of 1 John, this letter probably antedated that one by some short amount of time. Since the heretics do not apparently deny the second advent,19 and since they are still presenting themselves as part of the Christian community, we suggest a terminus a quo of 66 CE20 and a terminus ad quem of 68 CE.21 It must be stressed, once again, that the data are slim, and this date is only suggestive.
Believers are warned to exercise discernment and not to invest in the work of heretical propagandists by showing them hospitality. Put briefly, “Warning: Do not house false teachers.”
In greeting a well-known church in Asia Minor which is under his care, the “old man” (John the apostle) commends it for its commitment to the truth of the gospel (1-3).
John begins the body of this brief letter by commending and encouraging the church in their love for one another which is to be in accord with the truth of the gospel (4-6). He tactfully combines truth and love here in order to lay the groundwork for the believers’ attitude toward heresy. In these verses the old man gives the positive side of the coin: there can be no divine love apart from truth.
Then the apostle presents the negative side: we must not extend our love to those who reject the truth. He first warns believers that certain heretics who deny the incarnation are infiltrating the churches (7). These are deceivers and antichrists. Then John warns the church not to lose the reward for which they have faithfully worked (8). This loss of reward could either be due to doubt or, as vv 10-11 will make clear, to extending love beyond the bounds of truth. the author makes it clear that the deceivers not only have no reward; they also do not have salvation (9). But loss of salvation is not at stake for the “elect” (v 8 gives the only warning directly addressed to the “elect lady”; all else is in the third person). But because these heretics have abandoned the truth about Christ’s humanity, the church must not help them in their heretical propaganda. The church must not show them hospitality, the net effect of which would be to give them a platform for their error (10-11). By extending love beyond the bounds of truth in this way believers would be in jeopardy of losing the reward for their faithfulness.
The “old man” concludes his letter with an implicit recognition of the inadequacy of letters (as opposed to a personal visit). He apologizes for the brevity of the letter, noting that what he needs to add will be said in person (12). The letter is concluded with a greeting from another local church, perhaps the one at Ephesus (13).
I. Salutation (1-3)
II. Maintaining the Truth in Love (4-11)
A. Practicing the Truth (4-6)
B. Protecting the Truth (7-11)
1. Guarding against Doubt and Defeat (7-8)
2. Guarding against Defection and Defectors (9-11)
III. Final Greetings (12-13)
1 For a more general introduction, see the introduction to 1 John. Much of the discussion of this letter presupposes that material and will not, therefore, be repeated in great detail.
2 Published in BJRL 21 (1937) 129-56.
3 The title jIwavnnou b v (“the second [letter] of John”) is found in the earliest MSS ( A B 048). Later MSS add ejpistolhv (“epistle”) (Y 33 al), ejpistolhV kaqolikhv (“catholic epistle”) (K 614 al), or substitute tou' aujtou' ejpistolhV b v (“his second epistle”) (049), or have the elaborate title tou' aJgivou ajpostovlou jIwavnnou tou' qeolovgou ejpistolhV bV v (“the second epistle of the holy apostle, John the theologue”) (L al). Though almost certainly no title was used by the author himself, the MSS at least affirm universally that this is John’s letter, and that it is his second one, even though nothing internally declares either supposition.
More than likely, the place this letter holds among the letters traditionally ascribed to John is due to its length (thirty-two lines of text in Nestle-Aland26 as opposed to thirty-one for 3 John), on the analogy of the diminishing size of letters within the Pauline corpus.
The general neglect of titles as legitimate pieces of external evidence probably dates back to a time when few early documents were available (sometime before 1844). But with the new finds in the last 150 years, these ought to be given more recognition. In the least, what titles tell us is that there was a steady stream of acceptance of a document as authentic/apostolic. Surely scribes did not precede the theologians of the church in such acceptance. We would tentatively suggest therefore that when titles are used universally to indicate one author such titles represent a tradition which must precede it by at least a generation or two.
4 Guthrie, 880-81.
5 B. M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, has an illuminating discussion on the Muratorian Canon, suggesting among other things the possibility that it did indeed refer to all three letters.
6 Guthrie, 882.
7 F. F. Bruce, Peter, Stephen, James and John, 136.
8 See Bruce, Peter, Stephen, James and John, 143; Guthrie, 883.
9 See our discussion of this quotation in the introductory section to the Apocalypse. Cf. also the discussion in Bruce, Peter, Stephen, James and John, 130-38.
10 It may be significant that Papias spoke of “the elder John” (oJ presbuvtero" Iwavnnh") rather than “John the elder” (Iwavnnh" oJ presbuvtero"), the latter designation being a more natural way to distinguish this John from “John the apostle” (Iwavnnh" oJ ajpovstolo").
11 Guthrie, 885.
12 This contrasts with 2-3 John, for those letters would probably not have been read in public, but merely handed to the recipient.
13 Such was a common practice among many papyrus letters of the Hellenistic period. See, e.g., the first two volumes on the papyri by Grenfell and Hunt in the Loeb Classical Library.
14 This is probably what explains the lack of self-designation for Hebrews as well.
15 E.g., “the bride of Christ” (Eph 5.29 and Rev 19.7); and probably also “she who is in Babylon, chosen together with you” in 1 Peter 5.13. It is not insignificant that the recipients in all three books were Christians in Asia Minor.
17 Marshall suggests that it implies rather that John is by this time old and infirm (he connects v 12 with John’s self-designation as “the old man”). However, this is hardly the point of v. 12, for John does not deny his ability of visiting, but instead says “I hope to come to you.” Surely the distance and the present pastoral duties have kept him from making the visit. Incidentally, if 2 John is by the same man who authored Revelation—and if Revelation is to be dated in the 90s—this is again a subtle argument that 2-3 John are to be dated earlier, since there is no implication of John’s immobility at this time. Not much can be made of this, of course, since the Seer of Patmos does not speak of his immobility due to age either, but in the least we can say that Marshall’s reconstruction of v 12 seemed to miss the point about the significance of the term “elder” in v 1.
18 Guthrie, 889.
19 Though v. 7 could be read in this way.
20 Since during the Jewish War no false teacher could gain any credibility if he were to deny the second coming of Christ.
21 Since we have dated 1 John at c. 68-69.