The letter of 3 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 & 2 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

“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 states
B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (rev. ed.; London: Macmillan, 1930), 460

External evidence

It should not be surprising that 3 John has little external attestation in light of its brevity and lack of quotable material. There are few sources for it can be cited before the third century based on our current sources. Despite this, since the author identifies himself as “the elder” and since its opening, closing, style, and outlook are so similar to 2 John, there can be little doubt that the same author wrote both letters. If this same author wrote 1 John and the Gospel of John, as we have argued in the articles for 1 & 2 John, then there is a strong probability that it is John the Apostle, the author of all three. 

It should be noted in the letter to the Philippians, Polycarp uses quotations from 3 John along with a significant amount of other New and Old Testament books, with his letter being almost a mosaic of both half’s. This would likely be our earliest external source for 3 John. The Muratorian Fragment also mentioned two letters, since Polycarp references 1 & 3 John, they could perhaps be the two letters mentioned skipping 2 John. Either way, there is at least a single external source for an early 3 John. 

Some additional points can also be made.

  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. So if Polycarp is using it but a Church Father in the 4th-5th century is more suspicious, Polycarp would likely trump them in this scenario with the distance of time in this particular case. 
  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 2 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. Though there may well have been a self-designation for 1 John, written on the reverse side of the papyrus, this has been subsequently 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 3 John, Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus, generally dated around 350AD, is the oldest currently held manuscript we know of containing 3 John and a complete version at that along with 1 & 2 John. To have something of 3 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 also in 6-700AD and a range of other later and earlier collections and Codex’s.

Audience & purpose

The letter is addressed to a man named Gaius. The Greek name—as well as the Greek names of Diotrephes and Demetrius mentioned in the letter—suggest that this letter was addressed to a Gentile Christian. He would have been a member in one of the churches of Asia Minor which John had adopted as his own after the death of Paul.

Gaius had shown hospitality to travelling preachers of the gospel, even though such men were strangers to him (vv. 5-7). Diotrephes had apparently stopped the brothers from showing hospitality to these preachers and in fact had booted them out of the church (vv. 9-10). John had written to the church about Diotrephes, but he either did not allow the letter to get read publicly or repudiated John’s authority. John is therefore sending Demetrius to the church (v. 12). He is apparently to stay with Gaius. 3 John functions as a cover letter for him.

In understanding this occasion, two negative statements must be made: (1) The occasion for 3 John does not at all seem to be an issue of heresy, but one of pride. There is no real evidence that Diotrephes was a heretic. (2) Although some have suggested that Gaius belonged to another church, the simple statement in v. 9, “I wrote to the church,” seems to indicate that the same church is in view. 


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.

Canonical status

What was the acceptance rate of 3 John as canonical by those early and later witnesses of the text? Well right from the off we have Polycarp standing out of course with his letter to the Philippians then we have a time-leap to Origen and Eusebius who are unsure. We then get firm affirmation from Codex Sinaiticus and the fathers on from that affirming 3 John. 

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 

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?


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.


Jesus speaks of sending out the 72 and the hope to be welcomed in, this view is possibly in practice here and also the standing up to people who cause division on 3 John is also apparent in the Gospels. In essence, Nothing in 3 John is in opposition to the Gospel or Christian Canonical writings, aligning doctrinally with the practice of travelling teachers as part of the wider family and addressing division in the church. 


If it is used by Polycarp, then we have a level of early usage, but it is hard to now of wide acceptance early on for such a small document as it is quoted so infrequently and used less often till the 3rd-4th century according to current documents we have. There appears to be strong acceptance of this letter going into the 300’s and use early on around 100AD (give or take) with not much going on in between that we know of.


It is relevant to deal with people causing problems in the early church as it is today. If there are people espousing beliefs that can harm the church then they should be addressed. Relevant for them and for us, as it the relevance of travelling preachers, a concept not foreign to us today. 


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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