It is important to begin with a discussion of authorship, in light of the christological controversy which permeates the three Johannine letters. It makes a significant difference if the author (particularly of 1 John) was in fact an eyewitness to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ (as he appears to claim in 1 John 1:1-4) and if he stands along with other apostolic eyewitnesses against the innovative christology of the secessionist opponents mentioned in 1 John 2:18-19.
It should be noted that the problem of determining the author of 1 John is a somewhat different one from the determination of the authorship of 2 and 3 John, because in the case of 1 John the letter is anonymous – no author is specified within the work itself. The only other New Testament letter which makes no reference to the author’s name is the Epistle to the Hebrews. The second and third letters, however, designate the author as “the Elder,” and it has been long debated whether this individual is or is not to be identified with the author of the first letter and/or the Apostle John.
It is also important to remember that the exegesis of 1 John would not be greatly affected by our conclusions concerning who wrote it. Yet our understanding of its relationship to the other Johannine material in the New Testament would be greatly aided if we could arrive at some determination of who wrote it consistent with both the external (i.e., historical) evidence and internal evidence (contained in the letter itself). This is particularly true in terms of the relationship between 1 John and the Gospel of John, where many similarities of style and wording have long been noted.
Some scholars have suggested allusions to 1 John and/or 2 and 3 John in a number of non-canonical Christian works dating mostly from the second century a.d. These possible allusions have been grouped into categories according to the probability that they actually reflect some knowledge of the Johannine Epistles.
Unlikely allusions: These are works which some have suggested may contain allusions to the Johannine Epistles, but which probably show similarities only because they come from the same general background of early Christian thought. These works include the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (ca. a.d. 96), the Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians (ca. a.d. 110-115), and the Didache (now dated by most as late first century a.d.).
Possible allusions: These are works which may indeed contain allusions or indirect references to 1 John and/or 2 and 3 John. They include the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. a.d. 130), the Shepherd of Hermas (before a.d. 150), the Second Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (ca. a.d. 150), both the Apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho of Justin Martyr (ca. a.d. 150), and another early apologetic work of uncertain authorship, the Epistle to Diognetus (probably best dated in the late second century a.d., assuming the recipient referred to was Claudius Diogenes, procurator of Alexandria at the end of the second /beginning of the third century a.d. This identification of the recipient is not universally accepted, however).
Probable allusions: These are the earliest works which in the opinion of many New Testament scholars probably do reflect some degree of knowledge of one or more of the Johannine Epistles. The first of these is Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians (before a.d. 140), where Epist. to the Phil. 7 is compared to 1 John 4:2.3 The second probable allusion is found in the testimony of Papias (a contemporary of Polycarp), which survives only in quotation by Eusebius. According to Eusebius, Papias “uses testimonies from the first [or former] Epistle of John.”4 This statement should not be taken to mean that Papias knew of more than one of the Johannine letters, however, since it may only reflect Eusebius’ knowledge of other Johannine letters in his own time (fourth century a.d.). In general when ancient authors cited earlier works, it was common to “update” such references to then-current standards.
These works contain the first clear and generally undisputed direct quotations from the Johannine letters. They are:
(1) Irenaeus’ Adversus haereses (“Against Heresies,” ca. a.d. 180), which includes in three passages direct citations of 1 and 2 John. Adv. haer. 1.16.3 is a quotation of 2 John 11 in which Irenaeus adds that the Epistle was written by the Lord’s disciple John, who was also the author of the Fourth Gospel. Adv. haer. 3.16.5 is a quotation of 1 John 2:18-19 and 21-22, and 3.16.8 is quoted from 2 John 7-8 which also appears in 1 John 4:1-2 and 5:1. All of these are part of Irenaeus’ arguments against the Gnostics.
(2) The Muratorian Canon (sometimes referred to as the Muratorian Fragment, ca. a.d. 200, a fragment of an early Latin list of books which were considered canonical), thought to be associated with the church of Rome, is somewhat convoluted in its account of the Letters of John. The Muratorian Canon tells of John writing the Fourth Gospel and then refers to his “letters,” although the number of letters mentioned is disputed. Later the work adds, “Certainly the Epistle of Jude and two of the previously mentioned John are accepted in the catholic church,” although the meaning of this statement is disputed. R. Brown takes this as a reference to 1 and 2 John.5 It has also been argued that the Muratorian Canon would have placed 1 John with the Gospel and thus the two letters mentioned must refer not to 1 and 2 John, but to 2 and 3 John. P. Katz wanted to see a reference to all three letters by taking “catholic” to refer not to the church but to the “catholic epistle” of John, namely 1 John.6 My own suspicion (however difficult to prove) is somewhat different than either of these suggestions, namely, that 2 John may have been considered part of 1 John in the West. Irenaeus quotes 2 John 7-8 in Adv. haer. 3.16.8 as coming from the epistle he has already quoted, which has to be 1 John, quoted in 3.16.5. If so, the Muratorian Canon may well be referring to 1 and 2 John combined, plus 3 John as a separate letter. But this is far from certain, given the sparse evidence available.
(3) Tertullian (died a.d. 215) quotes 1 John numerous times, referring to it as the work of John the Apostle.7
(4) Clement of Alexandria (died ca. a.d. 220) not only quotes 1 John a number of times8 but attributes this to John the Apostle and speaks of it as “the greater epistle,”9 which indicates he knew at least one more of the Johannine letters (2 or 3 John) and considered them to come from the same author. It appears that the other Johannine letter Clement knew was 2 John, since his Hypotyposes apparently contained a commentary on 2 John.10
(5) Origen (died a.d. 253) quoted frequently from 1 John and referred to it as by John the Apostle. Eusebius claimed Origen knew of both 2 and 3 John, although he was aware that the latter two letters were not regarded as genuine by everyone.11 But Origen never actually quotes 2 or 3 John in any of his surviving works; the only firsthand evidence that he knew more than one Johannine letter rests on the use of a plural in the Latin translation (the Greek original is no longer extant) of his Homilies on Joshua (7.1) where he refers to the “epistles” of John. This is somewhat questionable because later in the same work (7.4) he speaks in the singular of “his epistle.”
(6) According to Eusebius, Dionysius of Alexandria (died a.d. 265), who studied under Origen, regarded 1 John to be written by the same author as the Fourth Gospel, although he distinguished both 1 John and the Fourth Gospel in style from Revelation, which he therefore attributed to a different author.12
It can be seen from the external (historical) evidence we have examined above that 1 John, at least, was being quoted without question as to its authenticity or authority well before the end of the second century in both the West and the East. It also appears that the author was accepted to be John the Apostle, who was understood to be the author of the Fourth Gospel as well.
Only 1 John and Hebrews among the letters of the New Testament mention no one by name as the author. This does not mean, however, that 1 John contains no information whatsoever about its author.
The introduction or prologue to the letter, 1 John 1:1-4, repeatedly emphasizes the eyewitness nature of the testimony the letter contains. 1 John 1:1, in particular, places special emphasis on what the writer himself has heard, seen, gazed upon, and touched. It is sometimes pointed out that the use of the first person plural in the introduction does not conclusively prove the author to be an eyewitness participant in the events to which he alludes, since first person plurals occur later in the letter with reference to the common experience of all Christians (e.g., 1 John 4:13). But if all the writer is doing in the prologue is alluding to general Christian experience (i.e., knowledge of the incarnation) it is hard to see how this could serve as any authentication of his message, which seems to be the point of the prologue. Another approach has been to claim that the statements in 1:1-4 which appear to claim eyewitness testimony are nothing more than a rhetorical device intended to boost the credibility of what follows in the letter. In response to this it is worth noting, however, that if the eyewitness claims are merely rhetorical, and yet are being put forward by the author of 1 John in the face of a serious christological schism brought on by the departure of the opponents (1 John 2:18-19), it would be obvious both to the recipients of the letter and to the opponents that the author’s claims to eyewitness testimony were merely rhetorical and those claims would carry no weight in the debate with the opponents for this reason.
It appears, rather, that the author intends by his statements in the prologue to indicate that he was one of the original eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus on earth, and that he intends to associate himself with the other original eyewitnesses.13 It should be noted that this is completely consistent with the traditional ascription of the letter to John the Apostle, as reflected in the external evidence we have already examined.
In addition to the specific eyewitness claim of the prologue to 1 John, the remainder of the letter appears to be written with an attitude of assumed authority. Obedience to what the author has written is clearly assumed (1 John 4:6). There is to be no compromise with the error of the adversaries, which is condemned outright (2:18-19, 4:1-3). The tone set by the epistle as a whole is certainly one of apostolic authority, and this would be consistent with the assignment of authorship to John the Apostle.
It is clear from the author’s repeated use of terms of endearment like tekniva (teknia, “little children”) to refer to his readers (2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21) that he is well known to them, and this may well explain the omission of the author’s name: he was so well known to the readers that no introduction was necessary.
The relationship between 1 John and the Fourth Gospel will be discussed at greater length elsewhere. Here it should simply be noted that there are significant similarities in style, vocabulary, theological emphases, and perhaps even structure between the two works. The point of introducing this into a discussion of authorship is to serve as a reminder that to some extent discussions of authorship of 1 John are inextricably linked to discussions of authorship of the Fourth Gospel.
Although the author’s name is not specifically mentioned in 1 John, the indications within the letter (eyewitness of the life of Jesus, apostolic authority, someone well-known to the readers, and similarities to the Fourth Gospel) are certainly consistent with the traditional ascription of authorship to John the Apostle.
As we have just seen, there is good evidence, both historical and internal, which supports the traditional ascription of authorship of 1 John to John the Apostle. This has not, of course, met with universal approval, and in light of the lack of specific mention of the author in the letter itself we should look at several of the more prominent alternatives proposed.
Clearly the most widespread alternative to authorship of 1 John by John the Apostle is authorship by a second person whose name is John, usually designated John the Elder (or Presbyter, from the Greek word). Support for this is found in 2 and 3 John, which both introduce their author as “the elder” although no name is mentioned in connection with either. Support is also claimed from a much-debated passage attributed to Papias and quoted in Eusebius which may possibly refer to a person distinct from the Apostle John.
Papias is quoted by Eusebius as saying:
And again, if anyone came who had been a follower of the elders, I used to enquire about the sayings of the elders – what Andrew, or Peter, or Philip, or Thomas, or James, or John, or Matthew, or any other of the Lord’s disciples said (eijpen, eipen [aorist]) and what Aristion and the elder John, the disciples of the Lord, say (legousin, legousin [present]). For I did not think that I could get so much profit from the contents of books as from the utterances of a living and abiding voice.14
The problem, quite simply stated, is the interpretation of Papias’ words. Who are the “elders”? Are they to be identified with the “disciples” also named, or are they a separate group? C. K. Barrett was convinced the “sayings of the elders” consisted of reports of what the named disciples (i.e. apostles) had already said, and Papias only heard these second hand. There would be no question of Papias being a hearer of the apostle John and companion of Polycarp. Thus Papias would be referring to three groups: the apostles (Disciples), their followers the elders, and the other disciples.15
If, however, Papias is describing the apostles as elders, then there are only two groups (apostles and disciples), and Papias used to enquire directly from the followers of the apostles what the apostles had said. His testimony is therefore closer to that of Irenaeus. But if Papias is describing the apostles as ‘elders,’ then it is possible that the “elder John” is also the Apostle John mentioned earlier. In this case, Papias is distinguishing between what John said in the past and what he was still saying at the time of Papias’ enquiry.
At the same time, the possibility that there may have been two men with the name John cannot be ruled out. It is supported by Eusebius’ interpretation of Papias’ words. (But since Eusebius wished to attribute the Book of Revelation to a different John than the author of the gospel, his interpretation may not have been impartial.)16
In any case, the only other evidence for the existance for an ‘elder’ John appears to be the introduction to 2 and 3 John, where the author calls himself by this title. But even if there was a second John, the ‘elder’, Papias gives no location and no hint of any writings. He merely happens to possess a name which is identical to the person to which the Fourth Gospel is traditionally ascribed, and this makes the ‘confusion’ theory possible.
But if the later Church mixed up apostles and elders in this way, might not Papias have done so himself? And after all, it is still possible that he was originally referring to only one person himself, and Papias’ words were confused by Eusebius. The ambiguity of Papias’ testimony as Eusebius records it makes it impossible to draw any firm conclusions based on that testimony.
Those who hold the view that a disciple of John the Apostle wrote the Johannine letters usually link it to their theory of authorship of the Fourth Gospel, because of the evidently close relationship between the Fourth Gospel and 1 John (mentioned briefly above). In moderately critical circles it is becoming common to ascribe authorship of the Gospel to a follower of the Apostle John (or the Beloved Disciple), which allows one to say that the witness behind the Fourth Gospel was apostolic or near-apostolic, while the actual author who recorded the testimony was not. Some would go on to see this individual as the same one who then wrote either 1 John or all three of the Johannine letters.17
Many today think the author of 1 John (and possibly 2 and 3 John as well) was a Christian leader who was neither a personal acquaintance of John the Apostle nor the author of the Fourth Gospel. This is currently the leading theory in Johannine scholarship, expressed (for example) by R. Brown and S. Smalley.18 It is based primarily on the assumptions that (1) after the essential composition of the Gospel, development has taken place in the situation to which the letters are addressed, and (2) there are sufficient differences in emphasis, theology, style, etc. to warrant the conclusion that the same individual was not the author of both the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine letters. Both Brown and Smalley hold, however, that the same author wrote 1, 2, and 3 John, although Smalley is less certain on common authorship for 1 John.
Another recent proposal by J. Kügler is that 1 John reflects both a real author and an implied author (as well as real readers and implied readers). Having made this distinction, he holds that the implied author of 1 John is an eyewitness, but the real author is not – in other words, the real author employs a fictional device (taking the stance of an eyewitness) to gain a hearing from the real readers who otherwise would not pay attention to him.19 While Kügler’s approach does not dismiss the force of the eyewitness language in the prologue to 1 John, it is still questionable whether such a literary technique was in use in the ancient world. Reluctance to accept pseudepigraphal writings as canonical by early Christians would seem to mitigate against a view like Kügler’s. In addition, since 1 John assumes throughout that the author is well known to the readers, it is difficult to see how the pretense of being an eyewitness (when the real readers knew very well that the real author was not an eyewitness) would carry any polemical or persuasive weight against the opponents, who apparently claimed the authority of the Spirit for their innovative revelation about who Jesus was.
In response to all of the above suggestions we may refer to the historical and internal evidence cited above which points to John the Apostle as the author of 1, 2, and 3 John (as well as the Fourth Gospel, although this is something of a separate issue). We refer to the statement regarding the three epistles and the Gospel of John by B. H. Streeter, with which we agree:
We are forced to conclude that all four documents are by the same hand. And few people, I would add, with any feeling for literary style or for the finer nuance of character and feeling, would hesitate to affirm this, but for the implications which seem to be involved.20
There is nothing in the evidence put forward by Brown or Smalley which demands authorship by a person other than the Apostle John. It is certainly possible to agree that development has taken place in the situation within the Johannine community between the composition of the Gospel and 1 John while still holding to apostolic authorship for both Gospel and letters. Such a conclusion appears to me to best explain all the available evidence.
Bauer, Walter. “Johannesevangelium und Johannesbriefe.” Theologische Rundschau n.s. 1 (1929): 135-60.
Brown, Raymond E. The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.
Dodd, C. H. “The First Epistle of John and the Fourth Gospel.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 21 (1937): 129-56.
Feuillet, A. “The Structure of First John: Comparison with the 4th Gospel.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 3 (1973): 194-216.
Holtzmann, H. J. “Das Problem des ersten johanneischen Briefes in seinem Verhältniss zum Evangelium.” Jahrbuch für protestantische Theologie 7 (1881): 690-712; 8 (1882): 128-52, 316-42, 460-85.
Howard, W. F. “The Common Authorship of the Johannine Gospel and Epistles.” Journal of Theological Studies 48 (1947): 12-25.
Katz, P. “The Johannine Epistles in the Muratorian Canon.” Journal of Theological Studies 8 (1957): 273-74.
Kügler, Joachim. “Die Belehrung der Unbelehrbaren: Zur Funktion des Traditionsarguments in 1 Joh.” BZ 32 (1988): 249-54.
Manson, T. W. “Additional Note: The Johannine Epistles and the Canon of the New Testament.” Attached to “Entry into the Membership of the Early Church.” Journal of Theological Studies 48 (1947): 32-33.
O’Neill, J. C. The Puzzle of 1 John: A New Examination of Origins. London: SPCK, 1966.
Soltau, Wilhelm. “Die Verwandtschaft zwischen Evangelium Johannis und dem 1. Johannesbrief.” Theologische Studien und Kritiken 89 (1916): 229-33.
Strecker, Georg. “Die Anfänge der johanneischen Schule.” New Testament Studies 32 (1986): 31-47.
Wilson, W. G. “An Examination of the Linguistic Evidence Adduced against the Unity of Authorship of the First Epistle of John and the Fourth Gospel.” Journal of Theological Studies 49 (1948): 147-56.
4 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.16-17. In recent translations of Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesia the Greek phrase ajpoV th' =Iwannou' protevra ejpistolh' is almost always translated as “the first epistle.”
5 Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (Anchor Bible 30; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982) 10. Brown’s view on the number and identification of the Johannine letters mentioned in the the Muratorian Canon is the most widely accepted one.
6 P. Katz, “The Johannine Epistles in the Muratorian Canon,” JTS 8 (1957): 273-74. Katz thought it unlikely that 2 John and 3 John would be thus separated, and so wanted to emend the Muratorian Canon to read “two in addition to the catholic [one],” with “catholic” being a reference to the “catholic epistle” of 1 John.
7 See especially Adversus Marcionem 5.16; Adversus Praxeam 15, 28; Adversus Gnosticos Scorpiace 12.
9 Stromata 2.15.66.
10 This work survives only in fragments. Part of the Hypotyposes (no longer extant in Greek) appears to be included in the Adumbrationes, a Latin version from sometime in the sixth century a.d.
11 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.10.
12 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 7.25.6–7.25.11. It is important to note, however, that Dionysius’ arguments about differing style were based on his own (third century a.d.) observations, not on earlier historical evidence.
14 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.4. The same fragment of Papias is quoted by Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 13, who like Eusebius felt that the appearance of the name “John” twice in Papias’ list indicated the existence of an “Elder John” who was distinct from John the Apostle. How much or to what extent Jerome depended on Eusebius for this opinion is uncertain.
15 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to John, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978) 106-109.
16 Eusebius, an anti-chiliast (i.e., anti-millennialist), wanted to attribute the book of Revelation to a non-apostolic author (since he did not approve of its teaching of a millennium in chap. 20). Thus he read Papias’ words in such a way as to find another individual named John who was not an apostle and not the author of the Fourth Gospel to be the author of Revelation. The point is, Eusebius can hardly be considered to be neutral when it comes to the interpretation of Papias’ testimony.
17 Schnackenburg, for example, suggests that the author of 1 John (if not an eyewitness himself) was a pupil of the fourth evangelist or a member of the close circle of believers gathered around him (The Johannine Epistles: Introduction and Commentary [trans. R. and I. Fuller; New York: Crossroad, 1992], 38, 41)
18 Brown, The Epistles of John, 69-71; Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, WBC 51 (Waco: Word, 1984) xxii.
19 Joachim Kügler, “Die Belehrung der Unbelehrbaren: Zur Funktion des Traditionsarguments in 1 Joh,” BZ 32 (1988): 249-54.
20 B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels, rev. ed. (London: Macmillan, 1930) 460 [italics his].