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5. The Prologue to 1 John (1:1-4)

Grammar and Structure of the Prologue to 1 John

Introduction

Few today would question, regardless of their views on common authorship of the Gospel of John and 1 John, that the prologue of 1 John echoes the prologue of the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18). Many of the themes found in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel are related to themes that occur in the prologue to 1 John. The only other New Testament work to contain a prologue anything like these two is the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 1:1-4).

Like the prologue to the Gospel, the prologue to 1 John introduces the reader to important themes which will be more fully developed later in the body of the work. In the case of 1 John, three of these themes are: (a) the importance of the apostolic eyewitness testimony to who Jesus is (cf. 4:14, 5:6-12), (b) the importance of the earthly ministry of Jesus as a part of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ (cf. 4:2, 5:6), and (c) the eternal life available to believers in Jesus Christ (5:11-12, 5:20).

Like the rest of the letter, the prologue to 1 John does not contain any of the usual features associated with a letter in New Testament times.78 The Opening Formula79 or Praescriptio of a letter included: (a) the name of the author or sender of the letter, sometimes including his title or the name of a co-sender, (b) the name of the addressee or addressees to whom the letter is being sent, again often with further identification if needed, (c) a formal greeting or salutation, and (d) a health wish or expression of remembrance on the part of the author for the addressee(s). Most of these elements are present in both 2 and 3 John, so if the same author wrote all three, he knew very well what the standard epistolary formula was like, yet chose for reasons of his own not to employ the standard formula in the composition of 1 John. This difference between 1 John on the one hand and 2 and 3 John on the other has led some interpreters to doubt whether 2 and 3 John were written by the same author as 1 John.80 A different explanation is also possible, however: The author of 1 John did not consider the composition he was writing to be a letter in the formal sense, but something else. Over a century ago A. Plummer referred to 1 John as “a companion to the Gospel” and again, as “a comment on the Gospel.”81 If by this is meant not a detailed verse-by-verse commentary in the traditional sense, but rather the interpretive key by which the Fourth Gospel could be read in terms of apostolic christology, then Plummer’s remark is an instructive one. In light of the misuse of the Gospel of John and the christological witness it contains by the opponents of the author of 1 John, the first epistle shows how the Fourth Gospel should be read, in line with the apostolic christology of the author (whom I take to be the author of both works, the Apostle John himself).

A Phrase-by-phrase Structural Analysis of 1 John 1:1-4

Certainly the four opening verses of 1 John constitute the most difficult and complicated Greek of all the Johannine literature in the New Testament in terms of structure.82 This complexity is not always immediately obvious because the vocabulary of 1 John itself is rather straightforward and simple. Only when one tries to trace the flow of thought in the prologue do the structural difficulties become obvious.

Commentators have long agonized over the structure and grammar of these opening verses as well as their meaning. C. H. Dodd expressed an opinion echoed by virtually everyone who has attempted to translate the prologue into English: “The sentence is not good Greek, and it is only by paraphrase that it can be rendered into good English.”83 J. L. Houlden noted that the first few verses of 1 John “can only be described as, formally at least, bordering upon incoherence” and “lapse into grammatical impossibilities.”84 The complexities of the concepts the author is attempting to convey have contributed to this difficulty. As R. Schnackenburg observed, “It is not surprising that this battery of thoughts which the author tries to bring to light in the fundamental opening sentence makes the structure of this sentence unclear.” 85 In R. Brown’s words, “The initial four verses of I John have a good claim to being the most complicated Greek in the Johannine corpus.”86 Strecker adds, “one may…ask whether the choppiness of the style and the conscious avoidance of clear definitions allow the conclusion that the author is deliberately making a mystery of the subject being addressed.”87 Finally, as J. Painter remarked, “The first four verses of 1 John constitute a single sentence and provide the unsuspecting reader with fair warning of the difficulties to be faced in untangling the meaning of what follows.”88

In order to facilitate discussion of some of the grammatical and structural problems in these verses, we have divided them up and numbered the lines on a phrase-by-phrase basis to permit easy reference to the Greek text.89 Verbs are highlighted in boldface and their tense indicated in the right-hand column:

1a

}O h\n ajp= ajrch',

(imperfect)

1b

o} ajkhkovamen,

(perfect)

1c

o} eJwravkamen toi' ojfqalmoi' hJmw'n,

(perfect)

1d

o} ejqeasavmeqa

(aorist)

1e

kaiV aiJ cei're hJmw'n ejyhlavfhsan

(aorist)

1f

periV tou' lovgou th' zwh'

 

2a

kaiV hJ zwhV ejfanerwvqh,

(aorist)

2b

kaiV eJwravkamen kaiV marturou'men

(perfect, present)

2c

kaiV ajpaggevllomen uJmi'n

(present)

2d

thVn zwhVn thVn aijwvnion

 

2e

h{ti h\n proV toVn patevra

(imperfect)

2f

kaiV ejfanerwvqh hJmi'n

(aorist)

3a

o} eJwravkamen kaiV ajkhkovamen,

(perfect, perfect)

3b

ajpaggevllomen kaiV uJmi'n,

(present – main verb)

3c

i{na kaiV uJmei' koinwnivan e[chte meq= hJmw'n.

(present)

3d

kaiV hJ koinwniva deV hJ hJmetevra metaV tou' patroV

 

3e

kaiV metaV tou' uiJou' aujtou' =Ihsou' Cristou'.

 

4a

kaiV tau'ta gravfomen hJmei',

(present)

4b

i{na hJ caraV hJmw'n h\/ peplhrwmevnh.

(present, perfect)

Note: In spite of the fact that the editors of Nestle-Aland 27th ed. and UBS 4th ed. have punctuated these verses with a full stop (period) at the end of lines 3c and 3e, vv. 1-4 are considered by most commentators and grammarians to constitute one long sentence in the Greek text.

      Grammatical and Syntactical Difficulties with the Prologue

There are several major grammatical and syntactical difficulties presented by these verses:

(1) As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, vv. 1-4 of the prologue constitute a single sentence, even though the standard Greek critical texts do not punctuate it that way. It is made far more complicated by remarks that are apparently parenthetical (note the dashes supplied in both the Nestle-Aland and UBS texts) and that interrupt the logical sequence not once but three times!

The first interruption occurs with line 1f, where the prepositional phrase periV tou' lovgou th' zwh' (peri tou logou ths zwhs) introduces the theme of ‘the word of life’ as the topic of the eyewitness testimony discussed initially in 1a-1e and then resumed in 3a. Within this interruption a second interruption in the form of a parenthetical note occurs, consisting of all of v. 2 (2a-2f), which explains further the ‘word of life’ mentioned in the first interruption and specifies its relation to the eyewitness testimony introduced in 1a-1e and resumed in 3a-b. Thus there are three references to eyewitness testimony in the prologue: once at the outset in 1a-1e, once in the resumption in 3a-b, and once in the parenthetical interruption in 2b.

Therefore (from a syntactical standpoint) line 1e is followed by line 3b (line 3a is a summary/resumption of lines 1b-1e necessitated by the interruption). It may be said without exaggeration that even in Hellenistic Koiné that does not approach a literary level, this is logically and syntactically awkward, to say the least.

A third interruption occurs in lines 3d-3e, which is another parenthetical note explaining the fellowship mentioned in line 3c. The periods supplied by the editors of the Nestle-Aland and UBS texts at the ends of lines 3c and 3e are better replaced by parentheses, since the nature of the remarks in 3d-3e is clearly parenthetical and explanatory of line 3c.

(2) Although vv. 1-4 are a single sentence, the main verb does not occur until line 3b. This leaves the relative clauses of lines 1a-1e more or less dangling, since they are so widely separated from the main verb by the two interruptions of lines 1f and 2a-2f.90 This has led some commentators and translations91 to supply an equative verb between the clauses of v. 1, e.g., “What was from the beginning is what we have heard, etc.” but this makes the first relative clause a subject when in fact all four of them are objects. To produce a clear translation it is necessary to resort to a near-paraphrase and anticipate the main verb from line 3b in an introductory phrase absent from the Greek text: “This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, etc.” (cf. NET Bible).

(3) The alteration of tenses among the first person plural verbs, especially between the aorist and the perfect, is difficult to understand. It has been debated among the commentators whether this is purely a stylistic device of the author or whether it indicates subtle differences of meaning. C. C. Tarelli has argued, in my opinion correctly, that the diversity occurs not because of a subtle difference of meaning or because of “general” stylistic reasons such as the demonstrable Johannine love of variety of expression, but because of a stylistic preference for using certain verbs in certain tenses.92

    Development of Thought in the Prologue related to Structure

As far as the logical procession of thought in the prologue is concerned, one suggestion (made by D. N. Freedman and mentioned by R. Brown)93 is that a sort of resumptive/expansive arrangement is present in vv. 1-4. This could be represented symbolically by A/B/A'/B' where A (= 1a-1e) goes with A' (= 3a-3e) and B (= 1f + 2a-2f) goes with B' (= 4a-4b). In this arrangement the main verb of 3b is paired with the relative clauses of lines 1a-1e, while the verb in 4a (“we write”) is paired with the theme of “the word of life” introduced in the interruptions in lines 1f + 2a-2f.

Although this produces an interesting arrangement, there is no way to be certain that such an arrangement was not imposed by the mind of the interpreter rather than the mind of the author. While I agree that the main verb in line 3b should be connected grammatically to the relative clauses of lines 1a-1e, it seems a bit too artificial to limit the reference of the “we write” in 4a to the “word of life” theme of lines 1f + 2a-2f. It seems to me that the statement “we write” in line 4a applies not only to the theme of the “word of life” in lines 1f + 2a-2f but also to the eyewitness testimony mentioned in lines 1a-1e, which is the object of the proclamation in line 3b.

      Conclusions

The author of 1 John begins the prologue with an emphasis on the eyewitness nature of his testimony. He then transitions to a focus on the readers of the letter by emphasizing the proclamation of this eyewitness (apostolic) testimony to them. The purpose of this proclamation is so that the readers might share in fellowship with the author, a true fellowship which is with the Father and the Son as well. To guarantee this maintenance of fellowship the author is writing the letter itself (line 4a).

Thus, in spite of the convoluted structure of the prologue in which the author’s thought turns back upon itself several times, there is a discernable progression in his thought which ultimately expresses itself in the reason for the writing of the letter (later expressed again in slightly different form in the purpose statement of 5:13). This convoluted and somewhat circular progression of thought will be typical of the remainder of 1 John.

Exegesis of the Prologue

The detailed notes that follow are intended to discuss the major problems raised by the text.94 This includes a consideration of the major options involved and suggestions toward a solution which seems most in keeping with Johannine theology as reflected in both the Letters and the Gospel of John. Occasional comments of a more general nature will reflect on the flow and development of thought within 1 John, the relationship to the Gospel of John, and the semantics of Johannine words and phrases which have a significant impact upon the exegesis of the letters.

The translation supplied for each verse is that of the New English Translation (NET Bible).

Introduction. As we have already mentioned, the use of a prologue to begin a work is characteristic of two major Johannine works in the New Testament, the Gospel of John and 1 John. Both are used to introduce ideas which will be developed later at greater length in the body of the work, although the relationship between the prologue to the Gospel of John and the remainder of the Gospel appears closer and more tightly knit than the relationship between the prologue to 1 John and the remainder of the letter. Part of the reason for this may lie in the situation which occasioned 1 John, a situation which demanded an immediate response and did not allow for the time necessary to reflect upon the ideas in the body of the work and weave them carefully into a prologue.

    1:1 This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life –

    Summary

Verses 1-3 are very difficult to translate. Verse 1 begins with a series of four relative clauses (what…, what…, what…, what…) each beginning with the neuter singular relative pronoun o} (Jo, “what was from the beginning,” etc.) that might at first appear to be the subject of these verses.95 In fact, however, these clauses are all objects, not subjects. They are the objects of the main verb we proclaim…to you in v. 3. Therefore the translation supplies the phrase This is what we proclaim to you: at the beginning of v. 1 to make this clear. A fifth such clause occurs in v. 3, which is resumptive of two of the clauses in v. 1, the second and third in the series of four.

A further complication arises with the parenthetical comment by the author which begins at the end of verse 1 and extends all the way to the end of v. 2. This parenthetical comment explains to the readers that when the author says what…, what…, what…, what… in the four relative clauses he is referring to the word of life.

Another major problem in these verses is pinning down what the author means by the phrase the word of life. Because of similarities between 1 John 1:1 and John 1:1, many interpreters have found it impossible to resist identifying the word here in 1 John 1:1 as the Word, the Logos, who is mentioned in John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and what God was, the Word was”). In the very next verse, however, it is life rather than word which is picked up and expanded. This suggests that the author’s main focus is on the earthly life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The four relative clauses what…, what…, what…, what… in v. 1 would then refer to the apostolic eyewitness testimony about Jesus, the very thing which (we shall see later) is under attack by the secessionist opponents.

A further point concerns the phrase from the beginning in v. 1. Almost certainly it alludes to John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word,” etc. But does this mean that the beginning the author mentions here is in eternity past, as it is in John 1:1? If the controversy with the opponents is over the importance of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, and if the relative clauses what…, what…, what…, what… in v. 1 refer to the apostolic eyewitness testimony about Jesus, then it is much more likely that the phrase from the beginning in v. 1 refers to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry which marked the beginning of his self-revelation to his disciples. A similar use of the phrase is found in John 2:11.

It then follows that the first person plural verbs in 1 John 1:1-4 (…we have heard, …we have seen, …we have looked at, …our hands have touched, …we proclaim) do not just refer only to the author. Instead they refer to a group of people including the author but separate from the readers of the letter. The terms used suggest that the people in this group are eyewitnesses of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.96 Such a conclusion strongly supports apostolic or near-apostolic authorship for the letter, a conclusion many recent scholars reject.97

    Exegetical Details

The syntax of the relative clauses beginning with o} (Jo, “what was from the beginning,” etc.). As we have already discussed in the structural analysis of the prologue (see the preceding section), the main verb which governs all of these relative clauses is ajpaggevllomen (ajpangellomen, “we announce”) in v. 3. This is important for the proper understanding of the relative clauses in v. 1, because the main verb ajpaggevllomen (ajpangellomen) in v. 3 makes it clear that all of the relative clauses in vv. 1 and 3 are the objects of the author’s proclamation to the readers. Since we have already concluded that the author of the letter was the Apostle John, we are dealing here with the proclamation of apostolic testimony, which was thus also eyewitness testimony. This is further confirmed by the contents of the second, third, and fourth of the relative clauses in v. 1, which describe the sensory experiences of the author in the realms of hearing, seeing, and touching.

But we must still ask, To what does the relative pronoun o} (Jo) in each of the four clauses in v. 1 refer? A number of explanations have been proposed:

(1) In view of the obvious similarity between 1 John 1:1a and John 1:1, many interpreters have found it irresistable to refer o} (Jo) directly to the Lovgo (Logos, “the Word”) who in John 1:1 is said to exist ejn ajrch'/ (en arch, “in the beginning”). Further support for this is adduced from the prepositional phrase at the end of v. 1, periV tou' lovgou th' zwh' (“concerning the word of life”), which specifically mentions the term lovgo (logos, “word”). But there are two major problems with this view: (a) The gender of the relative pronoun is neuter, while the gender of lovgo is masculine. While it is not absolutely impossible for the gender of the relative pronoun to differ from that of its antecedent, in a construction like this it would be awkward to say the least. It would be much more normal to use a masculine relative pronoun if lovgo is meant as the antecedent. (b) As far as the prepositional phrase at the end of v. 1 is concerned, it would be almost impossibly awkward for its object to be at the same time the antecedent of the relative pronouns. This would result in a circular statement almost totally devoid of logic: “the lovgo which we have beheld (1:1d) and our hands have touched (1:1e) concerning the lovgo… (1:1f).”

(2) A second possibility would be to refer the relative pronouns to zwh' (zwhs, “life”) in the prepositional phrase at the end of v. 1. However, the same awkwardness in terms of gender still remains, since zwh' is a feminine noun, and the logical awkwardness is not much improved either: “the ‘life’ which we have beheld (1:1d) and our hands have touched (1:1e) concerning the word of ‘life’… (1:1f).”

(3) The best solution, in keeping with the emphasis later made clear in v. 3 with the introduction of the main verb, is to understand the antecedent of the relative pronouns in vv. 1 and 3 to be a comprehensive reference to Jesus, the incarnate Word, including the apostolic testimony or witness about the earthly career of Jesus. This is all the more natural since martuvrion (marturion, “witness, testimony”) is neuter in gender and would naturally agree with the neuter gender of the relative pronouns.

This is not to say, however, that the opening phrase of 1:1, JO h\n ajp= ajrch' (Jo hn ap archs, “what was from the beginning”) is devoid of any personal reference. It seems almost certainly to be a deliberate allusion to John 1:1, and as such, cannot be separated from the Person about whom the apostolic testimony is being given. But v. 1 does not refer solely to Jesus himself; it includes the apostolic testimony about the whole earthly career of Jesus. This is especially true because the significance of Jesus’ earthly career is precisely what is being disputed by the author’s opponents, the false teachers, and thus what the author is undertaking to defend.98

The meaning of ajrchv (arch, “beginning”) in 1:1a. We also need to consider briefly the meaning of the prepositional phrase ajp= ajrch' (ap archs, “from the beginning”) in 1:1a. It is almost impossible for the modern reader to encounter the phrase without immediately thinking of John 1:1. In the similar phrase ejn ajrch'/ (en arch, “in the beginning”) in John 1:1, ajrch'/ (arch) alludes to Gen. 1:1. However, in the Fourth Gospel the eternal and pre-existent Lovgo (Logos, “the Word”) already “was” before the creative act began, and in fact participated in the act of creation (1:3). The remainder of chapter 1 of John’s Gospel after the prologue (1:19-51) goes on to suggest that Jesus (who according to 1:14 is the Lovgo [the “Word”] become flesh) has now begun to engage in a new creative undertaking, the result of which will be the new creation. The meaning of John 1:1a might be stated like this: “In the beginning (i.e., at the creation) the Word already existed….”

In light of this we may reasonably ask (1) whether the use of ajp= ajrch' (ap archs, “from the beginning”) in 1 John 1:1a constitutes a deliberate reference back to John 1:1, and (2) if so, whether the meaning of ajrchv (arch) in both references is exactly the same. I would answer the first question ‘yes’ and the second ‘no’. It appears to me almost indisputable that the author of 1 John intends by his statement in 1:1a to recall the prologue of the Gospel of John with all that it implies about the career of the preincarnate Word. But to understand ajrchv (arch, “beginning”) in 1 John 1:1a as a reference to the creation as in the Gospel of John would be to break the parallelism with the three other relative clauses in v. 1 and the one relative clause in v. 3. These clauses all refer to the apostolic witness (or testimony) about the earthly career of Jesus. It would be far more consistent with the context to interpret the ajrchv (arch, “beginning”) of 1 John 1:1a as a reference to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, which marks the beginning of his self-revelation to his disciples. Although from the standpoint of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) there are various points at which this could be said to have occurred, as far as the Gospel of John is concerned the ministry of Jesus began at his baptism by John (note, for example, that John’s Gospel contains no infancy narrative). Thus ajrchv (arch) in 1 John 1:1 bears more similarity in meaning to the use of ajrchv (arch) in John 2:11 than to the use in John 1:1.

Further confirmation of this can be found in our understanding of the ongoing dispute with the opponents, who are apparently bent on denying the significance of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry in the plan of salvation.99 It is precisely this earthly ministry of Jesus to which the Apostle John and the other apostles were witnesses, and it is that eyewitness testimony to the earthly career of the Word become flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, which the author of 1 John puts forward in the prologue at the outset in his refutation of the opponents’ position. Yet he does so in language which inescapably recalls the prologue to the Gospel of John, upon which (whether tradition or written teaching) the opponents have based their own christological position. This last point, while a subtlety that is lost on almost all modern readers of the Johannine letters, would certainly not have been lost on both the opponents and the intended recipients of 1 John.

The significance of the first person plural verbs in the prologue. It is sometimes suggested that the repeated use of first person plural verbs in 1:1-4 is not a genuine plural, but is equivalent to a first person singular and refers only to the author (i.e., when the author says “we” what he really means is “I”). However, it is clear from later references in all three of the Johannine letters that the author is perfectly capable of using the first person singular when he wishes to refer to himself alone. For example, in the section 1 John 2:12-14 the author uses the first person singular no less than six times in reference to his writing of the letter.100

Others (e.g., C. H. Dodd) have suggested that the first person plurals in the prologue include eyewitnesses but also refer to the Church at large in solidarity with them.101 Houlden, while not excluding the possibility of eyewitnesses, thinks it more likely the author is simply putting on “the mantle of orthodoxy” in preparation for his argument against the opponents.102 However, in the charged atmosphere of the debate over orthodox christology with the secessionists, it is unlikely that anything less than a real reference to eyewitness testimony about Jesus would serve to refute the opponents; a mere “rhetorical” appeal would not be sufficient. While it is possible to see the first person plurals in the prologue as a combined reference to both the author and other apostolic eyewitnesses on the one hand and the recipients of the letter (or all Christians) on the other, it seems more likely that the author is invoking an exclusive authority here, one belonging only to the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.103

Thus it is preferable to understand the first person plural references in the prologue as referring not just to the author of 1 John alone, but to a group of people including the author who are to be distinguished from the readers to whom the 1 John is being written. These people are eyewitnesses of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, and it is their eyewitness testimony which is described in 1:1. It has already been concluded from the discussion regarding authorship that the author of 1 John is to be identified with John the Apostle, so this group of eyewitnesses would represent the Apostle John along with the other apostles, all of whom were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. Later on in 1 John it appears that the first person plural references do not continue to carry this “exclusive” signifance (the author plus others as opposed to the recipients of the letter), but become “inclusive” (the author plus the recipients as opposed to the opponents). In virtually every instance these first person plurals refer to (Christian) experience the author shares with his readers; the intent may be to demonstrate solidarity with them in their resistance to the false teaching of the opponents.104

The prepositional phrase periV tou' lovgou th' zwh' (peri tou logou ths zwhs, “concerning the word of life”) in 1:1f. From a structural standpoint I consider this phrase to be the first of three parenthetical interruptions in the grammatical sequence of the prologue (the second is the entirety of v. 2 and the third is the latter part of v. 3). This is because of the awkwardness of connecting the prepositional phrase with what precedes, an awkwardness not immediately obvious in most English translations: “what we beheld and our hands handled concerning the word of life….” It is obvious how someone might hear concerning the word of life, but it is harder to understand how one could see concerning the word of life, and virtually impossible to touch concerning the word of life.105 Rather than being the object of any of the verbs in v. 1, it seems more likely that the prepositional phrase in 1:1f is a parenthetical clarification intended to specify the subject of the eyewitness testimony which the verbs in v. 1 describe. A parallel for such parenthetical explanation may be found in the prologue to John 1:12 (toi' pisteuvousin eij toV o[noma aujtou' [tois pisteuousin eis to onoma autou, “to those who believe in his name”] which is set off by dashes in the NET Bible to indicate the parenthetical nature of the remark).

The meaning of tou' lovgou in 1:1f. Another problem which must be considered is the referent of tou' lovgou in 1:1f. There are two possibilities: (1) it is to be identified with the Lovgo (Logos, “Word”) of John 1:1ff., and refers to the personal, preincarnate second Person of the Trinity; or (2) it has an impersonal meaning in 1 John 1:1f and refers to the “message” or “report” about life, the gospel message of the apostolic testimony.

(1) Many interpreters have understood tou' lovgou (tou logou, “the word”) in 1 John 1:1f to refer to the Lovgo (Logos, “Word”) of John 1:1, and some English translations (kjv, jb, tev, niv) have capitalized the noun (“Word”) to indicate this (nasb, reflecting some degree of ambiguity, capitalizes both “Word” and “Life”). Certainly it is impossible to ignore the meaning of lovgo in John 1:1 in attempting to define its meaning here, but it is also significant that lovgo is used 5 more times in 1 John (1:10, 2:5, 2:7, 2:14, and 3:18), and none of these involve personification or a clear reference to the second Person of the Trinity. In fact (and this is a crucial point), if the prologue to the Gospel of John did not exist, no one would be inclined to understand lovgo in 1 John 1:1f as a personal reference.

(2) It seems far more likely that tou' lovgou (tou logou, “the word”) in 1 John 1:1f should be understood as “message” or “report” and refers to the apostolic testimony about the earthly career (the Person, words, and works) of Jesus, which is precisely the topic under discussion in 1 John 1:1-4. The context supports this, because in the phrase tou' lovgou th' zwh' (tou logou ths zwhs) it is the second concept, “life,” (zwh', zwhs) which is picked up for further discussion in v. 2, and which is also the object of the apostolic proclamation in vv. 2 and 3. And it is this proclamation of apostolic testimony which is also emphasized in the transition from the prologue to the remainder of the letter in 1:5, where the noun ajggeliva (angelia, “message”) and the verb ajnaggevllomen (anangellomen, both related to the verb ajpaggevllomen [apangellomen] in 1:3) stress the proclamation of the message.

But even though in my judgment the meaning of tou' lovgou (tou logou, “the word”) in 1 John 1:1 differs from that of lovgo (logos, “word”) in John 1:1, this does not mean that the two terms are totally unrelated. It appears more likely that the author of 1 John has made a (subtle) shift in emphasis in order to refute the opponents who have derived their faulty christology from an over-emphasis on the Logos doctrine of the prologue to the Gospel of John (or the tradition behind it).106 Although the author of John cannot and will not deny that the preexistent, preincarnate Logos became Jesus of Nazareth (an assertion that may in fact be a key point in the doctrine of his opponents), by his use of the term lovgo (logos, “word”) here in connection with the eyewitness testimony of the apostles, he has subtly shifted the emphasis to the earthly career of Jesus (his person, words, and works, including his work on the cross), which is precisely where the dispute with the opponents lies.107

The genitive th' zwh' (ths zwhs, “life”) in 1:1f. The meaning of the genitive th' zwh' in 1:1f is related to the previous discussion about the meaning of tou' lovgou (tou logou, “the word”). There are three possible ways of understanding the syntax of this phrase: (1) a genitive of apposition, meaning “the word which is life,” where the “word” is understood as life itself; (2) an attributive genitive, meaning “the living word” or “the life-giving word,” parallel to phrases in the Gospel of John like “the bread of life” (6:35) and “the light of life” (8:12); or (3) an objective genitive, meaning “the word about life,” where “life” is the object of the message, that which is spoken about or revealed.108

Option (3) seems most appropriate, because when lovgo (logos) is followed by an impersonal genitive, the genitive usually denotes the content of the message. The context of 1 John 1 bears this out, since in 1:2 “the eternal life” is the object of the apostolic proclamation. But perhaps we should not be too precise in our attempt to specify one of these options over the other, because the Apostle John, in both the Gospel of John and 1 John, has a tendency to use double entendres, that is, words with double meanings, or with multiple associations of meaning. Certainly the message, if understood and appropriated by the readers, was capable of producing life in them [option (2)]. And the word was also life itself [option (1)], so much so that the author can speak of “the eternal life which was with the Father and was revealed to us” in 1 John 1:2.

    1:2 and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us).

    Summary

Verse 2 gives more explanation about the word of life mentioned parenthetically by the author at the end of v. 1. The verb revealed in v. 2 is frequently used in the Gospel of John to refer to Jesus’ revelation of himself to his disciples (2:11, 21:1; 21:14). The author’s statement here that it was the eternal life that was with the Father echoes John 1:1 where it was the Word who was with the Father. Thus in 1 John 1:1-4 it is the term life rather than word which refers to Jesus as he revealed himself in his earthly career, including his person, words, works, death, and resurrection. This subtle shift in emphasis is precisely in keeping with the author’s stress on the importance of the earthly career of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Word in his dispute with the opponents.

Having introduced the “word of life” in 1:1 as the subject of the apostolic eyewitness testimony about which he is writing, the author of 1 John now picks up the theme of “life” (zwhv, zwh) and carries it further, explaining that it was this “life” which was with the Father and has now been revealed to the apostolic eyewitnesses, of which the author is one. As explained in the structural analysis of the prologue109 all of v. 2 is a parenthetical interruption in the structure of vv. 1-4 which further explains the “life” which was introduced in 1:1f and specifies its relation to the apostolic eyewitness testimony of vv. 1 and 3.

    Exegetical Details

The meaning of zwhv (zwh, “life”) in 1:2. In v. 2 we have a parenthetical explanation of the concluding phrase of the previous verse, which introduced “life” (zwhv, zwh) as the object of the apostolic eyewitness testimony which is emphasized in the prologue. Since we are not to understand tou' lovgou (tou logou) in 1:1f as a direct personal reference (see discussion above) it seems preferable to understand zwhv (zwh) as a personal reference instead.

In the prologue to the Gospel of John, zwhv (zwh) is not personal but is something that came into existence by the Lovgo (Logos, “Word”) and was communicated to human beings by the Logos (John 1:4). Yet the verb used here to describe the revelation of the “life” (ejfanerwvqh, efanerwqh) is frequently used in the Gospel of John to refer to Jesus’ revelation of himself to the disciples, especially after his resurrection (John 21:1, 21:14). This is also true in 1 John in 2:28, which speaks of Christ’s revelation at the parousia, along with the revelation of the Son of God in his earthly career in 3:5 to take away sins and in 3:8 to destroy the works of the devil. Further confirmation for a personified use of zwhv (zwh) to refer to the revelation of Jesus in his earthly career is found in the second occurrence of zwhv (zwh) in 1:2, which speaks about the “eternal life which was with the Father and was revealed to us.” This echoes and parallels John 1:1, where it was the preincarnate Logos who was with the Father and was revealed to humanity in 1:14.

Thus in 1 John it is zwhv (zwh, “life”) rather than lovgo (logos, “word”) which refers to Jesus as he revealed himself in his earthly career, including his person, words, and works. This subtle shift is precisely in keeping with the author’s emphasis, in his dispute with the opponents, on the importance of the earthly career of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Word.

    1:3 What we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you may have fellowship with us (and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ).

    Summary

The eyewitness testimony about the earthly career of Jesus, what the apostles and disciples themselves have seen and heard, they announce to the readers of the letter. The purpose for this proclamation is that the readers might have fellowship with the author and the other apostolic eyewitnesses. The word fellowship is difficult to define. Various suggestions for English translations have been “fellowship,” “partnership,” “communion,” or “community.” People who are in fellowship share some reality in common. This is especially important to the author of 1 John in the context of the ongoing dispute with the secessionist opponents about the importance and implications of the earthly career of Jesus.

As mentioned earlier, the first main verb of the prologue occurs in v. 3 (ajpaggevllomen, ajpangellomen, “we announce”). The apostolic eyewitness testimony about the “life” (the earthly career of Jesus, the incarnate Word) has been proclaimed to the readers, in order that they might have fellowship with the author and, by implication, with the other apostolic witnesses.110

    Exegetical Details

The meaning of koinwniva (koinwnia, NET Bible “fellowship”) in 1:3. This term, used four times in 1 John (1:3 [twice]; 1:6; 1:7) and not at all in 2 John, 3 John, or the Gospel of John, represents a concept difficult to translate into English: various possibilities are “association, communion, fellowship, close relationship.”111 Some of these terms (like “communion”) have liturgical connotations, while others (like “partnership”) suggest a business relationship to the modern English reader. In the Gospel of John the word koinwniva (koinwnia) is not used, but there are numerous references to oneness or unity, especially in the prayer of Jesus in the Farewell Discourse (17:11, 21, 22, 23). People who are in koinwnia share some reality in common, and this is particularly important to the author of 1 John in the context of the ongoing controversy with the opponents about the importance and implications of the earthly career of Jesus. The author and the recipients of the letter share in common the apostolic (eyewitness) testimony about who Jesus is, a reality not shared (in the opinion of the author of 1 John) with the opponents.

The introduction of the term at this point in 1 John has led to the suggestion that the term itself was not a favorite term of the author, but may indeed have been one used by the opponents, a term the author himself adopted in his rebuttal of the opponents’ claim to have “fellowship” with God without having “fellowship” with other believers (i.e., the author’s community).112

Pheme Perkins suggested that underlying the references to koinwnia in 1 John is its use as a technical term in the Pauline epistles referring to the Gentile mission (Gal 2:9; Phil 1:5; 3:10; Phlm 6).113 She argued that the Pauline concept of a mutual commitment to a common purpose was behind the use of the term in 1 John, so that the author of 1 John was to elicit his reader’s commitment to his own koinwnia rather than to the koinwnia of the secessionist opponents. Likewise, in 2 John 11 the author urges his readers not to give assistance to the rival koinwnia by providing hospitality to the representatives of the opponents.

While there are undoubtedly some parallels with the Pauline usage, particularly that in Philippians, nevertheless there are also significant differences. 1 John 1:7 indicates that the author does not think of “fellowship” as based on mutual commitment to a common purpose, but as a relationship created when believers walk in the light as God is in the light. As C. Kruse points out, once that fellowship is established it may then go on to find expression in a common purpose, but it would be wrong to characterize it simply as based upon mutual assent to a common purpose.114 In general the term koinwnia in 1 John 1:3, 6, and 7 is used to describe a personal relationship with the author or with God – a relationship the author does not believe the opponents genuinely have. In 1 John 1:3 the secondary nuance of commitment to a common task – the proclamation of the gospel message (“word”) of life – may be present as well.115

    1:4 Thus we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

    Summary

The author now states his purpose116 for writing these things (tau'ta, tauta): he does so in order that his joy might be fulfilled as the believers to whom he writes continue in fellowship with him and the other apostolic witnesses and with the Father and the Son (as opposed to breaking that fellowship by siding with the secessionist opponents). The phrase these things refers back to the apostolic eyewitness testimony about the earthly career of Jesus which has been the theme of the prologue up to this point. However, it also looks ahead to 1 John 5:13 where the same phrase is used, referring to what has preceded. In both cases (1:4 and 5:13) a purpose clause (so that…) refers to the author’s reason for writing the letter.

    Exegetical Details

The antecedent of tau'ta (tauta, “these things”) in 1:4. What are “these things” which the author says that he has written about? Verse 4a contains the second main verb of the prologue, gravfomen (grafomen, “we are writing”), which is connected to the preceding main verb (ajpaggevllomen [apangellomen] in v. 3) by the conjunction kaiv (kai) which begins v. 4. In Koiné Greek kaiv (kai) is generally a coordinating conjunction, but here it probably has more of a resultative force (similar to a Hebrew vav consecutive, so NET Bible “Thus”). The meaning is, “what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you…and (thus) we write….” Because of the use of the plural verb with the emphatic pronoun in v. 4, we might suspect that the author is indicating that “these things” refer to the apostolic eyewitness testimony about the earthly career of Jesus, which has been the theme of the prologue up to this point. Certainly his use of the plural here indicates that (although he alone is actually doing the writing) he speaks not only for himself but also for all the apostolic eyewitnesses, who are in concord concerning this testimony. Yet the use of the verb gravfw (grafw) points ahead as well, to the later (singular) uses in 1 John 2:1, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 21, 26, and ultimately 5:13. In effect the statement in 1:4a forms a bracket along with 5:13, where tau'ta (tauta, “these things”) is again used. Thus the use of tau'ta (tauta) in 1:4 ties the eyewitness testimony of the prologue to what follows, while the use in 5:13 looks back to what has preceded. Further confirmation of this may be found in the Jina-clauses of 1:4 and 5:13, both of which refer to the author’s purpose in writing the letter.


78 Cf. Strecker: “1 John lacks the essential external marks of a letter” (The Johannine Letters, 3). See also “Structure and Purpose of 1 John” above.

79 Some interpreters call this the “Address,” but not in the sense of a destination (the usual meaning of “address” in the modern sense).

80 Such a view is usually combined with the observation that the author of 2 and 3 John designates himself “the Elder,” while the author of 1 John chooses to remain anonymous. See, e.g., Georg Strecker, The Johannine Letters (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1996), 219; also “Die Anfänge der johanneischen Schule,” NTS 32 (1986): 31-47.

81 Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, xlv.

82 The Book of Revelation presents more difficulties of vocabulary, imagery, and grammatical concord, however.

83 C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 2.

84 J. L. Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles (Harper’s New Testament Commentaries; New York: Harper & Row, 1973) 45.

85 Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles, 49.

86 Brown, The Epistles of John, 152.

87 Strecker, The Johannine Letters, 8.

88 Painter, 1, 2, and 3 John, 61.

89 The Greek text followed is that of the Nestle-Aland 27th ed. (= UBS 4th ed).

90 As Brown notes, “The reader does not discover until v. 3 whether these clauses are the object or the subject of what the author wishes to say!” (The Epistles of John, 153).

91 Cf. cev, “The Word that gives life was from the beginning.”

92 C. C. Tarelli, “Johannine Synonyms,” Journal of Theological Studies 47 (1946): 176.

93 Brown, The Epistles of John, 153.

94 The number of significant problems raised by the text of the Johannine letters is unusual, especially in light of the apparent simplicity of the Greek text itself, but should not be surprising in light of the author’s tendency to write with a high level of ambiguity.

95 Not the subject grammatically, but the subject in the sense of what the author is writing about.

96 Cf. Schnackenburg: “It is a difficult question, sometimes taken too lightly, as to who is speaking in 1 John 1:1-4. Nor is it clear what the witness is that they desire to give to the readers of 1 John. Does it involve a claim to direct historic encounter with Jesus Christ? Or is it only an expression of faith elevated to ultimate certainty and equally available to subsequent generations of believers? It is important to decide this issue not only for the question of authorship of 1 John but also for the meaning of the message of salvation that is proclaimed to the recipients of the letter” (The Johannine Epistles, 51).

97 E.g., Brown, who states: “I argued that the epistolary author does not have the authority of the Beloved Disciple and was probably not an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. Therefore I do not accept the contention that the “we” of I John 1:1-4 designates a group of eyewitnesses” (The Epistles of John, 160).

98 See paragraph 13 of the section “The Opponents and Their Teaching in 1 John” above.

99 See paragraph 13 of the section “The Opponents and Their Teaching in 1 John” above.

100 First person singulars may be found in 1 John in 2:1, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 21, 26; 4:20; 5:13. All these refer to the author as the writer of the letter. The only exception, when a plural is used to refer to the author as writer of the letter, is 1:4.

101 Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 9-16.

102 Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 53.

103 Among those who see a reference to eyewitnesses here are John R. W. Stott, The Epistles of John: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), 61-63 and I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 106-107.

104 First person plurals in 1 John that speak of shared Christian experience with the readers may be found in 1:6, 7, 8, 9, 10; 2:1, 2, 3, 5, 28; 3:1, 2, 14, 16, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24; 4:9, 10, 11, 12, 13; 16, 17, 19; 5:2, 3, 14, 15, 18, 19, 20. Sometimes this is regarded as merely a rhetorical device used by the author, but it is also possible to view this as a deliberate attempt by the author to identify with the recipients of the letter.

105 This is an observation made by J. Bonsirven, Épîtres de Saint Jean (Paris: Beauchesne, 1954), 67.

106 Although the present commentary is written with the assumption that the Gospel of John was written before the Johannine Letters, such an assumption is not technically required – all that is needed is that the tradition expressed in the Fourth Gospel was available to both the opponents and the author’s followers prior to the composition of 1 John.

107 See para. (13) of the earlier section, “The Opponents and Their Teaching in 1 John.”

108 This last option is possible only if lovgou (logou) in the phrase is understood as “message” or “report,” as we already concluded above.

109 See para. (1) in the previous section, “Part 1: Grammar and Structure of the Prologue.”

110 The conjunction i{na (Jina), translated “in order that” (NET Bible, “so that”) indicates purpose here.

111 BDAG, 552 s.v. 1. Dodd suggests additional meanings like “shareholders in a common concern” or “joint ownership” (The Johannine Epistles, 6). For further information see J. Y. Campbell, “Koinonia and its Cognates in the New Testament,” JBL 51 (1932): 352-80.

112 The argument that koinwnia is a term used by the opponents and “borrowed” by the author of 1 John is made by John Painter, “The ‘Opponents’ in 1 John,” NTS 32 (1986): 48-71 (see esp. p. 54).

113 Pheme Perkins, “Koinwnia in 1 John 1:3-7: The Social Context of Division in the Johannine Letters,” CBQ 45 (1983): 631-41.

114 Colin Kruse, The Letters of John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 60.

115 See also the excursuses on koinwnia (“Fellowship with God”) in Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles, 63-69, and Strecker, The Johannine Letters, 20.

116 Again, the conjunction i{na (Jina), literally “in order that” (NET Bible, “so that”) indicates purpose here.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Inspiration, Revelation