The letter of 1 John
Who is the Author?
The issue of authorship (as well as date) of this epistle cannot be settled in isolation. It is connected with the issue of authorship for the Fourth Gospel and for 2-3 John. If the same author wrote all four books, there is a strong presumption that they were written likely around the same time since the style of writing, themes, and outlook are very similar. In addition to this, there is the presumption that one author did write all four books for, as the scholar B. H. Streeter states,
“The three epistles and the Gospel of John are so closely allied in diction, style, and general outlook that the burden of proof lies with the person who would deny their common authorship.”B. H. Streeter
B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (rev. ed.; London: Macmillan, 1930), 460
There are possible allusions to 1 John in Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and pseudo-Clement (in his 2 Corinthians), but more probable are allusions in the Didache, Barnabas, Hermas, Justin Martyr, the Epistle to Diognetus, Polycarp, and Papias. Undeniable are allusions/references to 1 John by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysius, and the Muratorian canon.
This evidence is sufficient to show that from very early times the epistle was not only treated as Scripture but was assumed to be Johannine, in spite of the fact that no specific claim to this effect is made by the writer himself. This strong tradition cannot easily be set aside, especially as no alternative theory of authorship was suggested in the early church. Lets get into some specific examples.
The oldest Greek manuscripts contain all three letters.
1 John is included in the most ancient versions of the church of the East and the West, namely the Syriac and Latin, although the second and third letters are not found in the Syriac.”
Papias (early 2nd century) refers to 1 John already being in circulation.
The first to refer specifically to a John letter was Papias of Hierapolis in the middle of the second century, who, according to Eusebius (3:39. 17), ‘used testimonies drawn from the former Epistle of John’.
Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 130) quotes from the letters of John.
Polycarp of Smyrna appears to have been depending on 1 John when he asserted that whoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist. Polycarp likewise urges a return to the message handed down from the beginning [To the Philippians 7.1–2; cf. 1 John 2:24; 3:8; 4:2–3].”
The Muratorian Canon (AD 180) identifies John the apostle as the author.
The Muratorian Canon states, “
The fourth of the Gospels, that of John, [one] of the disciples. When his fellow disciple and bishops urged him, he said Fast with me from today for three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us relate to one another. In the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that whilst all were to go over [it], John in his own name should write everything down.… For so he confesses [himself] [in 1 John 1:1] not merely an eye and ear witness, but also a writer of all the marvels of the Lord in order.”Muratorian Fragment
Irenaeus (AD 180) held to John the apostle as the author of the gospel of John.
He wrote, “Afterward John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, himself published his gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia” (Contra Haereses 3.1.1). Later, Irenaeus attributes 1 John to the apostle (Contra Haereses 3.16.5, 8).
Parallels to John’s Gospel
The first connection of internal evidence would be parallels to the Gospel of John which have a handful of external sources and reasons internally to think of John as the author. Parallels below
- 1 John 1:1 & John 1:1; 1:14
- 1 John 1:4 & John 16:24
- 1 John 1:6-7 & John 3:19-21
- 1 John 2:7 & John 13:34-35
- 1 John 3:8 & John 8:44
- 1 John 3:14 & John 5:34
- 1 John 4:6 & John 8:47
- 1 John 4:9 & John 1:14, 18; 3:16
- 1 John 5:9 & John 5:32, 37
- 1 John 5:12 & John 3:36
Gospel of John & Revelation & the letters are similar with one another.
When letters disagree with one another, critics claim that this is inductive evidence against similar authorship. Yet when they’re too similar, they claim that this is too suspicious. For instance, C.H. Dodd holds that all three letters of John are too similar to have been written by the same author!  Similarity here is a good indicator of authenticity.
The author claims to be an eyewitness of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—2 and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—3 what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ”1 John. 1:1-3
So whoever they are, they’re claiming to be an early eyewitness source from the outset.
Manuscript evidence for 1 John, Papyrus 9
Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 402, Papyrus 9 (Gregory-Aland) Stored at Houghton Library, Havard, found inEgypt, Oxyrinchus, year: 200-300AD
The earlier manuscript fragments we have of this book come from the third century. This is a great manuscript to have considering the deterioration of papyrus should be generally a few hundred years at best, we can only be thankful for the dry, arid conditions of Egypt for its survival. The text is below is what the fragment is referring to (Below is our modern English)
the words 1 John 4:11-12; 14-17
11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.
Audience & purpose
John tells us that he wrote his letter so that true believers can have confidence in their trust in Christ: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:13). To support this central thesis, John gives a number of tests and ways to discern true spirituality from false.
While there is a handful of scholars who date these letters prior to AD 70, John probably wrote these three letters sometime between AD 85 to 95 edging towards the end of his life Scholars like G. W. Barker, T.F. Johnson, M. M. Thompson, and S.S. Smalley all hold to this later dating. Scholars come to this conclusion because there is reasonable evidence to believe that that John wrote these letters after his gospel, which dates to roughly AD 85 (See the article on John’s reliability). In these letters, John writes as an older man, calling the believers “little children” which certainly portrays an elder tone. While the dating isn’t certain, a date of AD 90 is probably close. The Church Fathers in the article of John I’ve written certainly suggest John was urged to write quite late on in his life.
J.A.T. Robinson, Z. Hodges
Barker, G. W. (1981). 1 John. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 301). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Johnson, T. F. (2011). 1, 2, and 3 John (p. 4). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Thompson, M. M. (1992). 1–3 John. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Smalley, S. S. (1989). 1, 2, 3 John (Vol. 51, p. xxxii). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
What was the acceptance rate of 1 John as canonical by those early and later witnesses of the text? Well we have signs early on of it’s use, Polycarp for example, a disciple of John himself used it which would make a lot of sense considering he was his disciple. Later heretics Like Valentinus used it for his own meddling and wasn’t a book you can avoid with it in use by Irenaeus and all church fathers that followed.
See this table for a list on who recognised each book as canonical (key(s) below)
It does not mention every Church Father who used the New Testament books, this is just a survey of some of the most known
- Ig = Ignatius
- Po = Polycarp
- M = Marcion
- Va = Valentinus
- JM = Justin Martyr
- IR = Irenaeus
- C = Clement of Alexandria
- T = Tertullian
- MC = Muratorian Canon
- O = Origen
- E = Eusebius
- CS = Codex Sinaiticus
- A = Athanasius
- D = Didymus the Blind
- P = Peshitta (Bible of the Syrian church)
- V = Latin vulgate
taken from ntcanon.org/table.shtml
Jesus, nor the apostles, nor Polycarp, Clement or Irenaeus left much for us to work with in terms of a formal “ok so here’s the rules of determination”. But what they did do is inform us that they had an informative way of knowing what was truth and what was not. And the truth had to have a connection to eyewitnesses.
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.2 Peter 1:16
2“So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrectionActs 1:21-22
One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe.)John 19:34-35
“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.Acts 2:32
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!Acts 3:15
We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.”Acts 5:32
“And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross,but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”Acts 10:39-43
[Paul] With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it.Romans 9:1
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.1 Corinthians 15:3-9
And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you:1 Peter 5:1
Caius the church father in 200AD writes how they knew of two fake letters circulating in Paul’s name.
“There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey”.Caius, Church leader
How did they work this out? How did they know what was the divinely inspired word of God? We can thank Eusebius for beginning to help us clear up this territory. In his Ecclesiastical History, he mentions his four categories of books with descriptions as to why some were accepted, disputed, rejected and seen as heretical from his survey of the church fathers history going back and into the apostolic age. This is the structure we will take when we assess the books of the New Testament and this includes investigating the books the church rejected.
So these summarised standards are these:
- Apostolicity. Was it written by an Apostle or one of their colleagues?
- Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? Consistent with Old Testament and the Christian worldview?
- Catholicity. Not the Catholic Church (that doesn’t exist for a few hundred years yet!)… This meaning widely agreed upon
- Relevance. Was it relevant to the church? Or does it seem completely detached from what we already have in the canon? (I.e. everything Gnostic)
- Inspiration. Did it have the ring of truth, the life changing power within?
There is an obvious apostolic connection in John the disciple being the author and an eyewitness to what was written. Whether, he, or a scribe, his style of content is similar across the board. We have investigated strong reasons internally and externally for the Apostle John’s authorship.
John’s teaching is foremost against false teaching and there are parallels in John’s gospel and Paul’s teaching against this. They compliment each other well.
The history of the church fathers indicates a widely held agreement from Polycarp through the church generations generally continuously that 1 John and it’s content was to be included. Having early manuscripts of this only increases the case for it’s early existence also.
The timing of John’s writings were highly relevant for the rise of false teachings was on the rise. In the forms of Docetism, and the precursors to Gnosticism, John’s teaching prepared the church for essential, primary Christian doctrines that needed to be defended and how they would be attacked. Gnostic ideas are becoming common today with progressive Christianity intermingling with other forms of liberal Christianity and so John’s words are important for piercing such clear lies to christian belief.
Apostles are sent by God, literally meaning God’s messengers. John was such a messenger and in Jesus’ inner circle. John fits the above criteria and would make sense to say his work is inspired and be considered scripture. He is known as the disciple Jesus loved and in the book of Revelation, John is the one who reveals Jesus’ direct message. So this Apostle was entrusted by God more frequently than some other figures.