The letter of 2 John

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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, Revelation and for 1 & 3 John. If the same author wrote all these, 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

External evidence

The early testimony for 2 John isn’t as strong as it’s predecessor 1 John, it is quoted less and this it to be expected. 2 & 3 John are both shorter than 1 John and contains less material. 2 & 3 John don’t contain huge edifying quotations so you could foresee it being quoted less in such a way. The fact is these two letters would be preserved on a single sheet of Papyrus, for them to survive at all in any fragmentary format is incredible in itself. 

On the side of common authorship among all three letters as well as apostolic authorship, we may cite the following authorities. Irenaeus, who alludes to 2 John, assumes apostolic authorship. The Muratorian Fragment mentions two letters by John, the second of which could have either been 2 John or 2-3 John (the two forming one letter). Also we have Clement of Alexandria recognising more than one letter by John. Origen acknowledged both 2 and 3 John, though he admitted that their genuineness was disputed by some. Dionysius of Alexandria likewise mentions John’s second and third letters, acknowledging that there were some who dispute their authenticity. Finally, Polycarp is sometimes alleged to refer to 2 John 7, but his wording is closer to that of 1 John 4.2-3, which 2 John 7 emulates (Philippians 7.1). Even if Polycarp’s reference is spurious, it’s a possibility. Eusebius saw 2 and 3 John as disputed books. Jerome and Ambrose also expressed doubts about their authenticity. 

But some conclusions we can draw from this external evidence

  1. The earlier authors are less hesitant about including the letter than latter ones. If it was rejected early on and then accepted later, we would have greater reason to be suspicious
  2. It is possible that another John, the “Elder John” wrote these two letters, an associate of the apostles, likely John. This is perfectly compatible as well as a backup option. 
  3. Rather than due to confusion, some of those who disputed apostolic authorship may have had ulterior motives. Eusebius, for example, who has preserved for us the statement by Papias, “had a special interest in distinguishing two Johns, since he did not appreciate the chiliasm of the Apocalypse.”[F. F. Bruce, Peter, Stephen, James and John, 136.] Therefore, since in Eusebius’ interpretation of Papias’ statement, “John the elder” did not refer to the apostle, and since 2-3 John are authored by the ‘elder,’ Eusebius may have felt compelled to conclude that 2-3 John were not authored by the apostle (in order to maintain his disavowal of chiliasm). 

And in addition to these factors

  1.  The documents contain a lack of quotable material
  2. They aren’t particularly long

With so much going against it, that this letter (and 3 John) ever made it into the canon is strong testimony to its apostolic authorship.

Internal Evidence

The only discussion really between 1, 2 and 3 John is the designation “The Elder” since the styles are so paralleled. Two questions remain: Why does John not identify himself as the apostle? and (2) Why did he not use this self-designation in 1 John?

Firstly, several scholars have pointed out, “the elder” could simply be an affectionate term meaning “the old man” As opposed to a title. [Bruce, Peter, Stephen, James and John, 143; Guthrie, 883.] This would make sense if he was the last surviving Apostle as history tells us. Paul also does not always give himself the apostolic title, sometimes he is more casual or personal if the audience knows who he is. John also being one of the original twelve, unlike Paul, would less likely have to defend his authority as he is an original eyewitness. We could also say the Papias’ quotation suggests John was both an apostle and a church elder in terms of position.

Why did John not call himself “the elder” in 1 John? This could be for a range of reasons. 

  1. 1 John is more of a homily than a letter—and it is not insignificant that there is no self-designation in it
  2. 1 John looks like it was written after 2 John and so no self-designation would be needed
  3. There may well have been a self-designation for 1 John, written on the reverse side of the papyrus which was common practice, which subsequently became lost

Regardless of this, since the style, verbiage, outlook, etc. are so similar among all three letters, there is little doubt that the same man authored all three, regardless of peculiar quirks which each one has.

In conclusion then, there is no firm reason to deny common authorship of the three letters ascribed to John. And if, on other grounds (especially the linking of the Gospel to the letters) John the apostle emerges as the author, that is still the most preferable view, certainly a view the Textual Scholar Daniel Wallace holds to.

Manuscript evidence for 2 John, Codex Sinaiticus 

Codex Sinaiticus, generally dated around 350AD, is the oldest currently held manuscript we know of containing 2 John and a complete version at that along with 1 & 3 John. To have something of 2 John from just the ancient manuscript tradition is excellent for history and it is complete with John’s other works. Separate to this, in loose Papyri, it appears in Papyrus 74 in 6-700AD and a range of other later collections and Codex’s.

http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/codex/

Audience & purpose

There are actually five different ways ἐκλεκτῇ κυρίᾳ can be taken: “the elect lady,” (sorry, I’ll avoid using any Greek words from here on in).

  1. “an elect lady,” 
  2. “Electa the Lady,” 
  3. “the elect Kyria,”
  4. “Electa Kyria.” 

The last three can be eliminated almost immediately for there is no evidence of any kind that “Electa” was ever used as a personal name, and “Kyria” was only rarely used in this manner. Also later on v13 speaks of this lady’s “elect sister,” which presupposes most likely a common meaning for “elect lady” in verse 1. 

Of the other two possible options, “the elect lady” is preferable to “an elect lady” since a specific addressee is obviously in mind.

Ok, that’s the lady issue out the way, but is it addressed to a lady or a church in general? (Personal or collective address?)

For the Lady view

  1. It would be more natural to take this as an individual unless there are compelling arguments against such a view. 
  2. If 3 John were written at the same time, since that was written to an individual, this probably is too.
  3. No where else in the NT is a church, as a collective whole, called “elect.” Not only this, but only some of her children were “walking in the truth” (v. 4): Can an entire church be called elect if some of its members are not believers?

For the Church View

  1. Verse 1 is an unqualified statement that “all who have come to know the truth” love this lady. Individuals would hardly be as well known as churches; hence, this is much more intelligible if it refers to a church. 
  2. Since the word for church is feminine in the original Greek, and since elsewhere feminine imagery is used of the church, it should hardly surprise us to see such a usage here. 
    1. Further, John is quite fond of figurative speech, double meanings, puns, etc.
  3. If 1 Peter 5.13 refers to a church, as it is almost universally understood, then an entire church can be called “elect”.
  4. This letter lacks a parallel with 3 John in that no personal name is mentioned—either for the lady herself, or for her children, or for her sister or nephews and nieces. 
  5. The second person plural is used throughout the letter.

The church view holds strongest, the initial glance may say lady, but in the wider context, Church seems more fitting. This is why the majority of scholars today hold to the “church” view. The location of this church was likely Asia Minor being John’s area of residence. Considering he was in Ephesus, he unlikely wrote a letter to where he was. It was also probably not Colossae, since the heretics John deals with are quite similar to those dealt with by Paul in Colossians (some five or six years earlier)—yet John writes to an audience which seems to be a bit naïve about them. This would hardly be true if they had Paul’s letter to the Colossians in front of them. Indeed, some distance from Colossae is presupposed, since that letter was intended to be circulated (Col 4.16). 1 John 12 tells us to suggest that it is difficult for John to get away and make a visit to the church, implying that this is not nearby.

The purpose of this letter is John proclaiming his love for “the chosen lady and her children,” (The Church) a love he shared with those who know the truth (2 John 1:1). From the reports he had received, he understood that these believers were following the teachings of Christ. He summed up this kind of lifestyle in the exhortation to “love one another” (1:5), a clear reference to the great commandments of Jesus—to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36–40; John 13:34).

In other words, those who walk in the truth should be people who love others. But they should be cautious whom they love. Deceivers and false teachers had infiltrated the church—people who taught falsehoods about the person of Jesus, teaching that He was not truly a man but only appeared to be one. This early heresy, called Docetism, required the strongest possible response from John. So the apostle warned the true believers away from these false teachers. John’s encouragement, then, was not simply to love but to love others within the limits that truth allows.

Date

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 “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.

Canonical status

What was the acceptance rate of 2 John as canonical by those early and later witnesses of the text? Well we Have to wait till Irenaeus to give us a mention in the third century, unlike 1 & 3 John that get early quotations from Polycarp. We mention a handful of others following Irenaeus like Clement of Alexandria who allude and quote from 2 John. It is a very short book in the Bible without much quotable material. It is included however in the large manuscript of Codex Sinaiticus.

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’ resurrection

Acts 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:

  1. Apostolicity. Was it written by an Apostle or one of their colleagues?
  2. Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? Consistent with Old Testament and the Christian worldview?
  3. Catholicity. Not the Catholic Church (that doesn’t exist for a few hundred years yet!)… This meaning widely agreed upon
  4. 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)
  5. Inspiration. Did it have the ring of truth, the life changing power within?

Apostolicity

If it is John the Apostle then yes it is certainly written by an Apostle. If it is John the Elder, an associate with John the Apostle as Papias remarks, then he is a colleague, but the latter appears far more unlikely.

Orthodoxy

The letter is consistent with Jesus’ teachings such as to love one another, love God and your neighbour appearing in both Matthew and John. It, like many other New Testament letters, warns against false teaching as Jesus and Paul do.

John began his second epistle proclaiming his love for “the chosen lady and her children,” a love he shared with those who know the truth (2 John 1:1). From the reports he had received, he understood that these believers were following the teachings of Christ. He summed up this kind of lifestyle in the exhortation to “love one another” (1:5), a clear reference to the great commandments of Jesus—to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36–40; John 13:34).

In other words, those who walk in the truth should be people who love others. But they should be cautious whom they love. Deceivers and false teachers had infiltrated the church—people who taught falsehoods about the person of Jesus, teaching that He was not truly a man but only appeared to be one. This early heresy, called Docetism, required the strongest possible response from John. So the apostle warned the true believers away from these false teachers. John’s encouragement, then, was not simply to love but to love others within the limits that truth allows.

Catholicity

It is certainly not detached from the Canon in terms of content as it defends common values found in the Gospels and Paul’s letters and addresses the heresy Of Doceitism. However, early mentioned of the letter are few and far between with recognition in a few sources between 180ish – 300AD. The Muratorian Fragment potentially gives us its use in a canonical list, though that could be 3 John instead. It is in our first complete Codex’s like Sinaiticus and confidently affirmed by Church Father’s Like Athanasius. So even though it’s acceptance levels arn’t as high as some of the other New Testament books, considering it’s size and the sources we do have, it is substantial compared to other historical traditions.

Relevance

The timing of John’s writings were highly relevant for the rise of false teachings was on the rise and specifically here in the forms of Docetism. The commands to love thy neighbour and others and warning against false teachers are not foreign today, just ask any pastor.

Inspiration

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. If it were John the elder, a separate John who is an associate of the apostles, this would fit the bill of being connected to the apostles, but this view just seems far less likely considering the internal evidence, style and early knowledge of the Apostle John writing multiple letters.


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