Lectionary Year B
May 14, 2000
I John 3:16-24

Step IV: Broader Context

(LE) Step IV: Broader Context

A. Primitive Christianity

B. Old Testament and Judaism

C. Hellenistic World

(SA) - Step IV. Early Christianity:

I John is usually dated at the end of the first century. Although authorship is dealt with in a different section, I need to say that the sources I consulted generally agree that the author was the same as that of the Gospel of John and that the gospel pre-dates the letters. This is in contrast to the Pauline letters, which are felt to pre-date the gospels.

Patristic attestations seem to abound. Strecker finds an indirect reference to I John in a letter from Polycarp (died 156) to the Phillipians, and possible connection in 1 Clement, the Didache, Ignatius of Antioch, and the Shepherd of Hermas. He finds strong evidence of use of I John in the writing of Justin by the middle of the second century. Eusibius reports that the witness of Papias refers to I John as well as I Peter. Later attestations are found in the Murtanian Canon, Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria. Strecker, incidentally does not identify the author of these as the "beloved disciple" and says that particular identification originates from the time of Origen.

The Johannine Writings were late in being included in the Canon, especially John 2 and 3, although they were in use by the second century. Strecker says that "Undoubtedly, I John was the most widely accepted." and "...there can be no doubt that all these documents, as well as the Gospel of John, enjoyed great esteem in the region of their origin, even though their acknowledgment as canonical was accomplished only through a process lasting several centuries."

The Johannine Writings are thought to originate in Asia Minor, and Polycarp's witness places it there. Ephesus is thought the be the "seat of the Johannine School." (Strecker). Smalley refers to "John's church" by which he says he means "...a community or congregation committed to the Christian faith interpreted in Johannine terms..." [SA: in reading material on the Johannine material and church, the impression that I got is that although the place of origin is an area which also figured in the ministry and witness of Paul, there seemed to be no strong evidence of cross-talk between Pauline and Johannine Christians.] John seemed to be writing (according to Smalley) to two groups of believers within the Johannine community. One of these were Jewish Christians, who he thinks had difficulty accepted the messiahship of Jesus and tended towards Jewish Law. The other group were more Hellenistic and were perhaps the forerunners of Gnostic thought, found it difficult to accept Jesus humanity, and whose views were "...close the position which was later defined as docetism."

John's theology in the gospel was notable in his balanced understanding of the nature of Christ. He was therefore writing to both groups, trying to reconcile their "too low" and "too high" Christologies. Smalley feels that the letters were written perhaps 10 years after the gospel, and by then the situation had become polarized. He defines the audience thus:

a. Johannine Christians who were committed to the apostolic gospel of Jesus as they had received it. (John's)
b. heretically inclined members from a Jewish background
c. heterodox followers from a Hellenistic (and/or pagan) background.
d. secessionists - those whose disagreements with the community were so severe that they began to withdraw. The writings were not aimed at these, since they were beyond their reach.

I John was written to group a to strengthen their faith and to groups b. and c. to counter distortions of the teachings in the Gospel of John in order to provide a balanced Christology and "refute ethical error." (The Jewish groups was inclined to an ethics of Law, the Hellenists towards an attitude of "righteousness is unimportant.")


Smalley, Stephen S., Word Bible Commentary, Vol. 51, 1,2,3 John. Word Books, Waco, 1984.
Strecker, Georg. The Johannine Letters. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1996.

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