The Letters of John


I tell people I’m bigger on the inside than I am on the outside. It is an oblique reference to a PBS series I followed for a time, called “Doctor Who,” whose time-and-space-travelling vessel looked like an old-fashioned phone booth to the unsuspecting eye, plain and innocuous, a lovely shade of blue. Inside, however, were spacious and well-appointed rooms, filled with luxuries, breathtaking technology, and an array of exotica.

Today, I’d like to invite you into my blue phonebooth as I prepare us to read the letters attributed to John.

The Tardis from “Doctor Who” | aussiegall from sydney, Australia, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

A Trip in the Tardis

Wispy clouds float in an azure sky, mist spreads along the horizon where azure meets lapis lazuli, and the soft undulations of wave upon wave, cresting in crisp white lace, move towards the pebbled shore far below. She watches from her hidden perch, hidden in the cleft of a cliff, leaning against the cool granite, shaded from the hot sun, the sea breeze lifting her hair. It is midday, a time of rest. Beside her are ropes and pitons, and from her belt hang a number of carabiners and a pulley. It feels good to sip water, and eat her figs and nuts.

Behind her is a dark crevice, she can feel the icy cool of it on her back. A pebble toss has told her it is deep, but her headlamp has revealed good walls for climbing. She is soon ready to gather her gear and begin.

The climb is slow but solid, each piton digging in well and true. She places first one foot, then the other in steady descent, tugging her rope at regular intervals. She finds the rhythmic movement and concentration soothing, though what might await below sends tendrils of thrill up through her legs and into her chest.

Soon, she is here. Her headlamp shows moist granite walls, powdery gray dust, and tumbled stones in the large space. The border of living rock is hidden in dark shadow. Cautiously, she slides her feet through the dust, so as not to crush what might lie beneath, and makes her way along the perimeter of the cave, then stops, gasping audibly.

For there before her is the unmistakable shape of an ancient, earthenware storage vessel, untouched for two thousand years. Beside rests another, and another, eight in all, each held up by the other.

She finds she is trembling, and she must lean against the wall of this sacred place.


It is unknown how long the team can keep their discovery under wraps, or hide their mounting excitement. Inside each vessel had been kept sheafs of papyrus, carefully rolled and tied by hands long since turned to dust.

The Greek is unmistakable, as though freshly inked by the scribes who had written them, and they know these texts are Christian, for the words

God – ΘΕΟΣ(Theos) [Θς, ΘΥ]

Lord – ΚΥΡΙΟΣ (Kyrios) [Κς, ΚΥ]

Christ – ΧΡΙΣΤΟς (Christos) [Χς, ΧΥ]

Jesus – ΙΗΣΟΥς (Iesous) [Ις, ΙΥ]

Codex Montfortianus (1520) page 434 recto with 1 John 5 Comma Johanneum. | By monk Le Froy – Codex Montfortianus, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65407909

are all written as nomina sacra, using abbreviation to denote a sacred name. Some also have a line placed over them, a further, peculiar mark of the early Christians.

Her heart races as she recognizes the voice of the Johannine community. It is as she thought! Years of researching the palimpsests tucked in the recesses of Chora’s monastery library, the alcoves caked in dust, the used and reused parchments scraped too many times to be written on again. Her painstaking micron by micron analysis under the infrared bars, to reveal the long-lost secret of a hidden cave, a cache of letters, a voice calling from the distant past.


In the hushed and pristine lab, she sits at her desk, reading the ancient words, sounding them out with her lips as her gloved finger hovers over the letters. There is no punctuation, no spaces to indicate when a word has completed and the next word begun. Instead, she must read as the orators of antiquity, deciding how she will phrase each group of words, where her breath marks will go, where the crescendo, where the diminuendo, where the rubato.

She reads long into the night, only faintly noting movement and conversation in the lab. All are gloved and masked, none are ready to leave for home. Here, in this otherwise unassuming room is the find of the century, and they cannot tear themselves away.

Author and Age

This is how I approached my tiny Greek Bible, the fall semester of Advanced Greek. Greek text in one hand, Culy’s commentary in the other, and about a half dozen open screens and books on my desk and monitors. I could hear the music of the spheres as my brain traveled through time and space, to the sea-swept shores of Patmos, where John is said to have been exiled.

It is generally thought John’s letters were written in Ephesus, sometime between 95 and 110 AD, possibly by John, possibly by John’s close friend and colleague John the Evangelist.

But!

Not everyone thinks that. Preeminent Johannine scholar Paul Anderson, in his book The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John, suggests these three letters were written between 85-95 AD and precede the final version of John’s gospel.

The first letter is strictly anonymous, identified only at the beginning by the one writing it, as coming from an eyewitness to Jesus’ glory. The second two letters are signed “elder.” So, church historians have had to do careful sleuth work to discern the letters’ author(s).

Here are the two best candidates:

  1. John to the apostle. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (c. 130 – c. 202 AD) quoted Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (who died in 156 AD.)  

According to one source,

Both Polycarp and Papias lived in the greater vicinity of Ephesus in western Asia Minor, the location to which the apostle John is said to have fled at about the time when the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem (AD 70), taking Mary the mother of Jesus with him. There he presumably lived for the rest of his long life, on into the reign of Trajan, the Roman emperor who ruled the empire from AD 98 to 117.

Irenaeus (AD 175–195), bishop of Lyon, was born in Asia Minor and as a child personally knew Polycarp, who is said to have been appointed bishop of Smyrna by eyewitnesses of the Lord Jesus. Irenaeus says that John, the disciple of the Lord who was with Jesus in the upper room, wrote the gospel of John while living in Ephesus (Haer. 3.1.2).

  1. John the Evangelist. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea Maritama (c. 260 – c. 339 AD) quoted Papias, Bishop of Hieropolis (c. 60 – c. 130 AD) as attributing 1-3 to John to the apostle.

Evidently, Papias interchanged the title “disciple of the Lord” and the title “elder” for the person “John.” Eusebius took this to mean Papias meant two different people. Ever since, scholars have debated largely between these two men as the author of all three letters.

Canonicity

Though the earliest existing copy of these letters is a full three hundred years later (found in the Codex Vaticanus, Circa 300-325 AD) there has never been any real doubt of their authenticity and veracity, According to the encyclopedia, the Muratorian fragment, from about 200 AD, quotes 1 and 2 John, as does Iranaeus, and other early church fathers.

Athanasius of Alexandria, the Synod of Hippo, and the Council of Carthage settled the question by the late fourth century. From then on all three branches of Christendom (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) have included these letters in the Bible.


[1 John 4:11-12, 14–17 in Papyrus 9 (P. Oxy. 402; 3rd century) | By Unknown author – Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 402, Papyrus 9 (Gregory-Aland), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14657348%5D

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