1 John itself contains no hint of the identity of the Christian community to which it was addressed, nor does it give any specific clue to the identification of the locale involved where these believers lived. The only thing that can be said for certain about the intended readers based on the content of the letter itself is that (1) they were Christians, (2) they appear to have been well-known to the author (and he to them), and (3) they were facing a threat from false teaching, a threat which was both serious and which appears to have arisen from within their Christian community(1 John 2:18-19).
Because of this lack of specific information in the letter itself, the attempt to understand something of the background and setting of the Johannine letters is related to two other areas which also require discussion: (1) authorship and (2) the identity of the adversaries (i.e., the false teachers against which the author of 1 John is writing). In other words, what we can say about the identity of the recipients of 1 John (and the other two Johannine letters as well) is inextricably linked to what we can say about the author of the letters and about his adversaries whom he was writing against.
We have already concluded in our discussion of authorship that there are no compelling reasons for rejecting the traditional ascription of authorship to the Apostle John. Before we go on to examine the internal evidence in the letters themselves for clues concerning the opponents and their views, we need to look briefly at the external evidence relating to the background and setting of the Johannine letters.
Most of the surviving firsthand evidence about the locale of the Johannine letters comes from the following sources:
Justin, who was at Ephesus himself ca. a.d. 135, speaks of John, one of the apostles of Christ, as having lived there previously.21 This evidence is important because (a) it is so early and (b) it also comes from the same city.
Irenaeus (writing ca. a.d. 180) says that after the writing of the other Gospels, John, the disciple of the Lord who reclined on his bosom (an allusion to John 13:23, 21:20), published his Gospel at Ephesus.22
Eusebius also records that John the Apostle lived at Ephesus.23
The apocryphal Acts of John, written by Leucius Charinus (supposedly a companion of John) ca. a.d. 150, tells of the ministry of the Apostle John at Ephesus. Two separate journeys of John to Ephesus are described, filled with various miraculous events such as the collapse of the Temple of Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world; the temple is mentioned in Acts 19:27).
Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, writing to Pope Victor of Rome about a.d. 190, claims that John the Apostle was buried at Ephesus. His statements are preserved by Eusebius.24
Excavations on Ayasoluk Hill at Selçuk, about 3.5 km (2 mi) from the archaeological site of ancient Ephesus (located in modern Turkey), beneath the basilica built later in honor of St. John, have shown the existence of a mausoleum dating from the third century. F.-M. Braun thinks this confirms the testimony of Polycrates (see above).25 In any case this is the traditional site of the grave of the Apostle John, still visited by tourists today, in the ruins of the magnificent basilica built by the Emperor Justinian that bears his name.
One further ancient work, the Syriac History of John, places the arrival of John at Ephesus quite early (adding that his banishment took place under Nero). He was supposedly still a youth when he came to Ephesus, and for a long interval, after the other gospels had been written, hesitated to write until he was prevailed upon by Peter and Paul, who visited him in Ephesus before going on to see James in Jerusalem. Although this account states that the Apostle John lived to the age of one hundred and twenty, it places the composition of the Fourth Gospel much earlier, before the deaths of Peter and Paul (the latter of whom, it agrees with other traditions, was martyred by Nero). Unfortunately, however, this work is of very dubious historical value since it dates to the fourth century and contains fanciful accounts of miracles worked by the Apostle John at Ephesus where he purportedly worked as an assistant attendant at the public baths.
Against all this it is sometimes pointed out that Ignatius of Antioch, whose own letters are dated to ca. a.d. 110-15, wrote a letter of his own to the Ephesian Christians, which alludes to the ministry of Paul among the Ephesians but says nothing of the Apostle John. Certainly Ignatius’ writings are closer in time to the composition of the Johannine letters than any of the other evidence, but any argument on the basis of his failure to mention the Apostle John at Ephesus is an argument from silence and must be balanced against the actual statements found in the other sources.
The only other suggestion for the locale to which the Johannine Epistles were addressed comes primarily from the Latin tradition with little Greek manuscript support. St. Augustine’s commentary on 1 John has the Latin title “On the Epistle of John to the Parthians” (ad Parthos). This commentary was written at the beginning of the fifth century a.d. Since “Parthia” referred to territory including Babylon in Mesopotamia, some have suggested that 1 John may originally have been written to Jewish Christians living in Babylon sometime toward the end of the first century.26
What are we to make of this? Evidence for such a destination for 1 John is very slim, and a reason for the author of the Johannine letters to address one or more of them to a region in Mesopotamia so far removed from Ephesus, where John the Apostle traditionally lived and ministered in the latter part of the first century a.d., is difficult to discern. The English theologian and historian Bede, writing in the early eighth century a.d., said in the prologue to his exposition of the catholic epistles that the Greek bishop Athanasius of Alexander believed 1 John to have been written to the Parthians. There appear to be only three medieval Greek manuscripts in existance that carry such a designation for one of the Johannine letters, and it is 2 John, not 1 John, that each of the three designate as “to the Parthians.”27
Although it has occasionally been suggested that there really was a Christian community in Babylon to which John wrote, it seems more likely that the Latin designation ad Parthos to which Augustine made reference probably resulted from a confused reading of something else. One suggestion (although it cannot be proven) is that 1 John was somewhere designated *Iwannou tou parqenou (Iwannou tou parqenou, “[The Epistle] of John the Virgin”) and this was misread or corrupted into *Iwannou tou Parqou (Iwannou tous Parqous, “[The Epistle] of John to the Parthians”).28
Wherever the designation “To the Parthians” came from, it is so late and based on such slim evidence that it appears to me highly unlikely that there is any historical basis behind it. It stands against the much earlier and far more widespread evidence connecting the Johannine letters with Ephesus and vicinity.
This brief survey of the primary sources concerning the locale in which the Johannine letters were written leads me to conclude that the best and earliest evidence points to Ephesus. The traditional site associated with the publication of the Fourth Gospel by the Apostle John appears as the most likely location from which the letters were written as well. (Whether they were composed before or after the Fourth Gospel is a complicated and difficult question that I will discuss at a later point.)
Even more important than the location of the congregation(s) addressed by 1, 2, and 3 John is the setting (often called by New Testament scholars the Sitz im Leben, a German term meaning “situation in life”) which gave rise to this correspondence. The interpretation of 1 John, in particular, has suffered considerably from its association with the so called “general” or “catholic” epistles. This designation probably resulted originally from the fact that no specific destination was given in any of the three Johannine letters (e.g., as in Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2, etc.). In the popular imagination, however, the effect has been to create the impression that 1, 2, and 3 John were written to the church at large rather than a specific congregation (or group of congregations) with specific issues and problems. This in turn has had a significant effect on the interpretation of the letters themselves. For example, the repeated exhortation to “love one another” gets reduced to a platitude which should be true of all Christians everywhere in every time (which is certainly true), but what gets lost in this “generalized” interpretation is the use by the author of 1 John of love for fellow members of the community as a diagnostic tool for determining who has held fast to the apostolic teaching about who Jesus is, versus who has departed and followed the teaching of the secessionist opponents (cf. 1 John 2:18-19). What we can say about the setting which produced these letters thus becomes vitally important for their accurate interpretation, but also for our understanding of how their teaching can be applied to situations in which we find ourselves today.
What can be said about the setting of 1 John and the two shorter Johannine Epistles must be gleaned from hints in the text itself. No explicit statements are made within the Epistles themselves concerning the life-situation to which these writings were addressed, but there are some important clues:
Since the author does not introduce himself to the readers in 1 John, we may assume that he was well known to them and needed no introduction. He obviously felt no need either to identify himself or invoke his position in the early church in order to strengthen his authority. In passing, it is worth noting that this reticence on the part of the author to mention his name or position is also a characteristic of the Gospel of John.
As I have already observed in the discussion of authorship, the author writes with an air of authority. He evidently expects his opinions to carry weight with the readers. It is likely that this comes from personal contact the author has had with the recipients, and it cannot be ruled out that he himself is in fact a member of the Christian community to which he is writing. The first person plural pronouns which characterize the prologue (1 John 1:1-4) have been understood by some scholars as nothing more than a literary device to identify the author with the original apostles. If taken at face value, however, they make a significant contribution to the authority with which the author speaks.
It soon becomes clear that false teachers are causing trouble in the community to which the author is writing (1 John 2:27; 4:1). These the author labels as “antichrists” (2:18) and “false prophets” (4:1). The strength of these labels for the author’s opponents indicates both the depth of his feeling about them and also the seriousness of their departure from the apostolic teaching about Jesus.
The controversy caused by the false teachers appears to be currently in progress, rather than something that has happened in the past, or something that might happen in the future. The purpose of 1 John would then involve an attempt on the author’s part to strengthen and encourage his followers (Christians who hold faithfully to the apostolic teaching about Jesus) against these false teachers. (I will have more to say about the purpose of 1 John later.) Thus 1 John alternates between pastoral encouragement and exhortation on the one hand, and polemic directed against the opponents on the other hand.29
1 John 2:19, if taken at face value, strongly suggests that the false teachers were originally members of the Christian community to which the author is writing. They appear to have “gone out” from among this community “into the world” (4:1). Thus the author is addressing a community which has undergone a schism or split in which a substantial part of the community – maybe even a numerical majority – has withdrawn from fellowship. This is a key point which affects the interpretation of almost every part of 1, 2, and 3 John.30
The root of this split or division appears to be a doctrinal controversy, although there are ethical issues involved too (i.e., attitude toward sin, love for the brethren). The prologue (1 John 1:1-4) reminds the readers of the apostolic testimony about who Jesus is, and lays down adherence to this testimony as a condition for “fellowship” (1:4). Presumably those who have departed from the apostolic teaching about Jesus (2:18-19) would not share this “fellowship.” (There will be more to say about the views of the opponents later.)
In writing 1 John the author adopts a “we–they” stance (cf. the pronoun switches [“you – they – we”] in 4:4-6), which implies that the people to whom he is writing have not yet embraced the teaching of the schismatics (who have withdrawn from the community but are still seeking to influence it from outside, perhaps to win adherents for their own views). However, some of the recipients of 1 John may be under pressure to side with the opponents, and one major reason for the letter would be to convince them not to do so.
2 John, at least, appears to be related to the controversy which has split the community to which the author of 1 John is writing. Just as in 1 John 2:18-19, reference is made in 2 John 7 to the schismatics who have withdrawn from the community and “gone out into the world.” At the center of the doctrinal controversy are “people who do not confess Jesus as Christ coming in the flesh” (2 John 7), a confession virtually identical with one found in 1 John 4:2 (“every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh”). This strongly suggests that the same situation produced both letters.
In 2 John 8-9 the Christians to whom the author is writing are warned against adopting the teaching of the opponents. Reference is made to losing “the things we have worked for” and to receiving “a full reward” (v. 8). It would be premature and naïve to associate these statements about rewards with other New Testament teaching on the subject without careful comparison of the individual contexts. Whether the loss of reward refers to the one who embraces the teaching of the opponents (as opposed to merely permitting their teaching to promulgate [v. 11]), the author of 2 John makes it clear that “everyone who goes on ahead and does not remain in the teaching about Christ does not have God” (v. 9). This is serious business indeed.
2 John 10-11 appears to indicate that the opponents have sent out traveling “missionaries,” or teachers, who are attempting to “convert” members of the recipients’ community. This the author wishes to prevent, so he warns the recipients against welcoming such false teachers into their homes or giving public greetings (which might be understood as tacit endorsements of the opponents’ views).
What we can discern about the setting of the Johannine Epistles from the letters themselves is limited and fragmentary, but it appears that 1 and 2 John, at least, are rooted in controversy.31 The author of 1 John appears to be writing to a community to which he himself is well-known (and to which he himself may belong). He attempts to reassure those to whom he writes, because their Christian community has undergone a serious split whereby a substantial part of the community has withdrawn from fellowship over doctrinal issues. The author of 1 John describes the group which has left as made up of ‘antichrists’ and ‘false prophets’ (strong language by any account).
This group (which has split off and withdrawn from fellowship with the community to which the author writes) is continuing to propagate its own beliefs. The secessionists are seeking to win converts for their own views, even from among the community to which they formerly belonged. In light of this threat, the author of 1 John is writing both to reassure and strengthen the faithful members of that community, and to warn them to continue to resist the proselytizing efforts of the false teachers who have gone out from among them. In 2 John the author is writing to a particular congregation to warn the believers there against giving aid or shelter to the false teachers in their ongoing missionary efforts.
Boismard, M.-E. “The First Epistle of John and the Writings of Qumran.” In John and Qumran , pp. 156-65. Edited by J. H. Charlesworth. London: Chapman, 1972.
Brown, Raymond E. “The Qumran Scrolls and the Johannine Gospel and Epistles.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 17 (1955): 403-19, 559-74.
Filson, Floyd V. “The Significance of the Early House Churches.” Journal of Biblical Literature 58 (1939): 105-12.
Griffith, Terry. “A Non-polemical Reading of 1 John: Sin, Christology and the Limits of Johannine Community.” Tyndale Bulletin 49 (1998): 253-76.
Hoffman, T. A. “I John and the Qumran Scrolls.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 8 (1978): 117-25.
Piper, O. A. “I John and the Didache of the Primitive Church.” Journal of Biblical Literature 66 (1947): 437-51.
Songer, H. S. “The Life Situation of the Johannine Epistles.” Review and Expositor 67 (1970): 399-409.
Streeter, B. H. “The Epistles of St. John.” In The Primitive Church, pp. 86-101. New York: Macmillan, 1929.
21 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 81.4.
22 Irenaeus, Adv. haer. 3.1.1.
23 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.18.6-8.
24 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 5.24.3.
25 F.-M. Braun, Jean le Théologien, vol. 1: Jean le Théologien et son Évangile dans l’Église ancienne (Paris: Gabalda, 1959) 374.
26 For further historical details see Brown, The Epistles of John, 772-74. On Augustine’s view see also W. Michaelis, Einleitung in das Neue Testament, 3rd ed. with Ergänzungsheft (Bern: Haller Verlag, 1961) 291-92.
27 Again see Brown, The Epistles of John, 773. The textual variant “To the Parthians” for the title of 2 John does not appear in the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland text. Brown states his indebtedness to both K. Aland and B. M. Metzger for their assistance with this information.
28 Brown discusses this suggestion along with a number of others (The Epistles of John, 773).
29 It is important to keep in mind that although 1 John contains a fair amount of polemic against the opponents, it is not directed at the opponents themselves, but is intended for the members of the Christian community to whom John is writing. Thus it is written against the opponents, but not directly to the opponents.
30 Not every NT scholar has unanimously agreed to the importance of the schism in understanding the Johannine Letters. For example, Judith Lieu has argued that while a schism occurred in the church(es) to which 1 John was addressed, the letter’s purpose was not to deal with the effects of the schism but to promote theological debate within the author’s own community (The Theology of the Johannine Epistles [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991], 16). Even further removed from the existence of a schism is T. Griffith, who argued that the setting of 1 John was the return of some Jewish Christians to Judaism, and the author’s purpose in writing was to safeguard the community against further such losses (“A Non-polemical Reading of 1 John: Sin, Christology and the Limits of Johannine Community,” TynBul 49 : 275). Nevertheless, most NT scholars seem prepared to acknowledge that 1 John 2:18-19, 4:1, and similar verses do suggest a polemical purpose for the letter.
31 3 John, because it is addressed to an individual, is less clear in this regard. In my opinion, however, the same situation described in 1 and 2 John lies behind 3 John as well.