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1 John

  Date: 60-90 AD

Similarities and points of contact of theology, topics, and most notably style and language between the Gospel and three letters of John have long been noted. Kümmel writes,
As Dionysius of Alexandria already saw (in Eus., EH VII, 25, 18 ff.), the relationship of I John with the Gospel of John is the most striking fact in connection with the historical criticism of I John. Dionysius concluded from the agreement in language and conceptual world that both writings have the same author. This view remained uncontested until the begining of the nineteenth century and today is shared by the majority of scholars, independent of the question about the person of the author.
Some have objected to the linguistic relationship between the epistle and the Gospel, but as Kümmel notes, the doubts are not such to make the supposition of different authors more plausible:
That I John and John are extraordinarily closely related in vocabulary and style is undisputed (cf. Brooke, 1 ff.; Chaine, 104 ff.), which seems to indicate the same author. In contrast to that, Dodd has pointed out that I John uses significantly fewer prepositions, particles, and verbal compounds than John, and that numerous expressions and words of John are missing in I John. Especially striking is the lack of ούν (194 times in John); δόξα (18); krinein (19); and gar is found sixty-three times in John, but only three times in I John. Howard and Wilson have questioned the probative force of these statements by pointing out that the frequency of use of particles, etc., and the presence of favorite particles corresponding to the length of the pieces of writing and the subject treated vary even in the same author, so that no conclusions can be drawn therefrom. Moreover, Salom has shown that both writings coincide remarkably in frequence of sequence of sentence parts and in individual stylistic peculiarities (e.g., en touto...oti or ean). On the other hand, Haenchen, taking up again Dodd's observations, stresses that a difference in use of prepositions (John has, e.g., para with the genitive 25 times; I John has for it apo) allows us to presume another author. Indeed, an observation like the latter one is notable (e.g., in connection with the verbs aitein and akouein), but against it stands the contrary observation that I Jn. 4;13 and Jn. 6:11 go together in the strange connection didonai or diadidonai ek tinos. Even if a certain linguistic difference between John and I John cannot be denied, it hardly goes further than is conceivable in the same writer at two different times sufficiently far apart.
And (seeing the section on dating below) we certainly can say that John was written closer to 70 than 90-100 around which time the Gospel was written. Some have noted, however, more than just differences in language, but in topics and themes. Brown lists them:

• The Prologue of I John does not emphasize the incarnation of the personified Word, as does the Prologue of John; rather it testifies to the word (message) of life which was seen, heard, and felt - the human career of Jesus.

• I John assigns to God features that the Gospel assigns to Jesus, e.g., in I John 1:5 God is light (cf. John 8:12; 9:5); in I John 4:21 and II John God gives the commandment to love one another (cf. John 13:34).

• There is less epistolary emphasis on the Spirit as a person, and the Gospel term "Paraclete" is never used of the Spirit (Christ is the paraclete or advocate in I John 2:1.) There is a warning that every spirit is not the Spirit of Truth or the Spirit of God, and so spirits must be tested (4:1, 6).

• Final eschatology is stronger in I John than in John, where realized eschatology dominates. There is more emphasis on the parousia as the moment of accountability for Christian life (I John 2:28-3:3).

• Specially as to vocabulary, the Dead Sea Scroll parallels are even closer in I John than in John.

Some of these differences give the Epistles the air of being more primitive than the Gospel, but they may reflect the author's claim to be presenting the gospel as it was "from the beginning" (I John 1:1; 3:11). Overall they suggest that the same person may not have written the Epistles and the Gospel.
But these differences quickly disappear. As Kümmel again notes,
Decisive, however, is the question whether I John differs basically from John in content. Also here no one denies that both writings largely advocate the same ideas. yet clear differences doubtless exist: In I John all OT citations are lacking; futuristic eschatology is emphasized (2:28, parousia; 3:2; 4:17); the false teachers are characterized as present antichristoi (2:18, 22; 4:3); parakletos designates Jesus Christ (2:1), not the Spirit, as in John; only in I John is the atoning character of Jesus' death presented (1:7, 9; 2:2; 4:10); John does not speak of rebirth through Christ (2:29). From these and other differences, Dodd has concluded that I John stands closer to common Christianity than John, Haenchen that I John is more strongly connected to primitive catholicism than the Pastorals, and Conzelmann that I John already refers back to John as tradition. On the other hand, we must say, in the first place, that some of these conceptions are certainly found also in John: futuristic eschatology (5:29; 12:48; 14:3); Christ indirectly as parakletos (14:16); and Jesus' atoning death (1:29; 3:14 ff.; 6:51b; 12:24). Secondly, we note that some differences are explained by the polemic against heretics in 1 John: false teachers as antichristoi; emphasis upon the connection between love of God and love of brother; or by the presumed chronological distance between the composition of both writings - rebirth through Christ. But above all it is not only unproved that I John refers back to John as tradition, but it is thoroughly questionable whether the comparison between John and I John justifies the conclusion that "the great sayings of the past...are worn from constant handling like long used coins" (Haenchen, 39), because the practical, paraenetic nature of I John, in contrast to the more strongly kerygmatically aligned Gospel, inevitably leads to formulations which are better suited to the concrete difficulties of the Christian life. Thus there hardly exists adequate reason to suppose another author for I John than for John.

The only thing I disagree with Kümmel on is that the Gospel of John doesn't have rebirth through Christ. In John 3:1-21 Jesus clearly describes that one must be born of God to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and implicitly this cannot be done without faith in Christ, so the theology is there no doubt. The points in Brown left unanswered will be dealt with here. Brown's first objection notes the difference of emphasis in the prologues of the epistle and Gospel, the first not emphasizing the Word become flesh like the latter. But it has to be wondered why the Prologue of 1 John has to, especially as the nature of the epistle doesn't have this motivation (and arguably has the motivation mentioned instead) in view of the heretics (who are not docetists, as shown in the section on date of composition below) or doesn't have an occasion to do so at all. The second point would seem to be developed theology, but these are conceptions that can certainly be attributed both to God and Jesus without necessarily a big theological leap, and in any case we see the same in Paul. The lack of emphasis on the Spirit as a person in 1 John can certainly be attributed to the nature and genre of the Gospel of John versus the situation occasioned in the epistle. Kümmel already notes above that the Paraclete is indirectly used of Jesus in the Gospel, and it cannot be known how the absense of warnings to test spirits that might not be of the Spirit of Truth in the Gospel argues against the same author of both the epistle and the Gospel of John, since testing false spirits is especially occasioned by the problems with the false "teachers" (leaders more accurately) addressed in 1 John. The final eschatology is also seen in John as Kümmel notes above, and the "parousia as the moment of accountability for Christian life" is again due to the occasion and problems of 1 John. Finally 1 John is too short to be determined as "much closer" to Semitic thought patterns (Dead Sea Scroll parallels) than John, and for all we know the subject in the epistle may have inclined it to be that way.

The second and more difficult question is that of whether John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, wrote or could have written the letter. The vocabulary (and other) parallels between the Dead Sea Scrolls and 1 John (as well as John) should be enough to point to a Jewish Christian. The repeated question of how a simple Galilean fisherman could write Greek is again answered by the fact that as a "pillar" of the Church (Gal 2:9), he most certainly would have learned to write Greek, especially in a Church with so many Greeks as to necessitate the Council of Jerusalem in 48. In any case, the epistle has none of the Hellenistic rhetorical devices, philosophies, or ideas/traditions (1 John 2:15-17 uses Hellenistic terminology, but in a different sense than the Gnostics and other later Hellenistic Christians and pseudo-Christians) and it is not even patterned according to the standard Greek letter form. As Brown writes,
I John has none of the features of the letter format.

Hardly the mark of a Hellenist!

There are two major objections that can be brought up against John the Apostle as author. One, the author wholly lacks references to his relationship with Jesus. Aside from the personalia a (beloved!) disciple would include of his former master, such details would have bolstered his case against his opponents instead of the proofs he gives (e.g. 4:1-6). This is also true for verses like 1:1-3 and 3:11, which talk about "things we have heard", as marks of authenticity of true teachings. Secondly, is it really likely that the schismatics could successfully turn members and override the Apostle's authority?

To the second question we can easily answer that, although under the guidance of an authoritative person, even one of the Twelve, congregations apparently had a mind of their own at times. In Galatians 2, Peter is influenced by Judaizers from Jerusalem who weren't apostles. Immediately, Paul, himself not one of the Twelve, rebukes him in front of everyone, presumably changing his stance, or at least winning the day (in the eyes of some), due to the subsequent silence on the subject (as well as Gal. 2:1-5). In 1 Cor 1:10-16, the Corinthians do something similar. Clearly reasoning frequently had more power than authority. The situation in 1 John does not seem to be a conscious rejection of the apostle as an authority, as in the case of 1 Corinthians 12, but merely false teachers who developed or adopted false ideas and the risk of the congregation being infected by these, as can be seen in the command to "test spirits" (4:1,5-6). Such ideas could have easily sprung up during the life of the apostle, especially when he was absent.

As far as the absense of personal references, the errors attacked are not those of doctrine (again the section on dating below), but of faulty theology which the author has little choice but to refute through reasoning. Although he appeals to the Spirit as a guide, leading one to suppose an eyewitness of Jesus' ministry would appeal to Jesus' teachings as well, the Spirit is clearly referring to the Christian's inner knowledge of righteous deeds, being confirmed by the Holy Spirit, and referring to historical teachings apparently could do little (the argument would be: Jesus taught not to sin, and the opponents would answer, "we're not sinning"). The question as to whether appealing to a catalogue of vices and virtues as per Jesus' teachings seems dulled by the fact that Paul also does not appeal to traditions of Jesus' teaching about such, but instead to the righteous and unrighteous work, as from or not from the Spirit (Gal 5:16-26). Even though Paul was not a witness, he had acess to traditions from such and so clearly it's possible for one not to appeal to them in moral versus immoral argumentation, and so the references to Jesus' life (2:6, etc) also do not really necessitate an appeal to having witnessed Jesus' life if the author were a witness of it (such an appeal would suggest the author had doubts about his congregation's belief that Jesus was pure and lived sinlessly, which is certainly unlikely). 1 John 4:6 may seem to contradict this, but seeing the contrast of 4:5, the stress is that the author and those who agree with him are following the truth, not that there is a hint that the author has to prove his being right to a congregation doubting his authority, and in any case this again runs aground the above mentioned points about the claims of being an eyewitness in 1:1-3, so clearly the emphasis was different enough so as to not necessitate the appealing to being a witness. In any case, as Ignatius deals with Docetists to an apparently much more acute decree in his epistle to the Trallians, he only mentions the appearance to others by the risen Christ twice (epistle to the Trallians 9), and does not do so as a proof, but mentions them in passing, in subordinate clauses, so clearly, contrasted with Paul in 1 Cor 15, the attitude of defending the Resurrection/Incarnation depended with the author.

Finally, the author clearly says that he was a witness of Jesus' teachings (1:1-3; the verses cannot be interpreted in any other symbolic way or else vv. 1:2-3 would not be there which clearly stress eyewitnesship; also far less conclusively 3:11. But verse 3:11 supports the claims of 1:1-3 and the author overall being an eyewitness, seeing how the author neglects to stress eyewitnesship for authority and for his arguments throughout the epistle, yet at the same time does not forget he is a witness. Certainly incredible!). The fact that throughout the letter he makes absolutely nothing of his eyewitnesship in both to bolster authority (not to mention the letter is anonymous) as well as the validity of his arguments has to be next to incredible. Since 1:1-3 raises these points, it remains better understood as by the apostle John (or an eyewitness at the very least) as opposed to an immitator/anyone else. In any case, the situation doesn't seem to be as acute as in 1 Cor 9, 2 Cor 10 where Paul's apostleship is questioned or its authority (since how can one deny John's apostleship? But in case they maintained he misunderstood Jesus, he would certainly answer with quotes from Christ's ministry), for the author to relate he is one of the Twelve.


Since Polycarp knows I John, a date after 120 is excluded. This is in any case confirmed by the absense of the advanced Gnostic systems of the 2nd century. In any case, it is inconceivable that statements of the world as evil, the fundamental Gnostic idea (but in a completely different sense) phrased like 2:15-17, 5:19 could have been written after 120.

The principal factor in deciding the date of composition for I John (and the other Johannine letters) is the type opponents attacked. They seem to be more developed than the sinful opponents who have misused Paul's doctrine of salvation by grace and not works. They seem to have different doctrines such as denying Christ as having come in the flesh (4:2-3). But it has to be recognized that these are certainly not the docetic systems of the turn of the 2nd century (Cerinthus etc) because hardly would an epistle written to combat the heresy have devoted a few verses (4:1-6) in combatting the heresy, and the proof being simply that the Spirit is in those who do not deny Jesus' humanity! If one answers that the whole of the epistle in its commands not to sin and to love God and neighbor is a counter-attack to the docetists, this is hardly a proof of the incarnation (which is not even mentioned except through indirect statement, i.e. 4:2 etc). Would not the author, forgerer or not, appeal to the countless eyewitnesses as Paul did in 1 Cor 15:1-11?! Brown's judgment is therefore probably more or less correct:
There is no reason to think that they were docetists who denied the reality of Jesus' humanity; rather the religious import of that humanity is at issue.

By this he means that the opponents in I John denied the salvific act of Jesus' incarnation and subsequent death on the cross and resurrection. I cannot really fully agree with that, but some type of false ideas of that sort must have been there instead of any docetism as per the above reasons. If there is any sign of docetism in 4:2-3, it does not belong to the period after 100, and the decade of 90-100 is probably too late as well. Nothing can be made of the seeming primitiveness of the false teachers claiming to be led by the Spirit (i.e. charismatically as in Paul's letters) since as late as 180 the Montanists and Cappadocians claimed pretty much the same (but this certainly can't be used to support a late date as well, seeing how the epistle apparently presupposes such, and does not post-date 120 by any scholar, conservative or liberal; if such charismatic leaders could exist in 100-120 as well as 170-190, in all probability certainly also in 60-90).

The rest (and major) of the faults of the opponents rest on their immorality:
They (presumably the same group) boast of being in communion with God and knowing God while walking in darkness and not keeping the commandments (1:6, 2:4); indeed, they will not recognize that they have sinned (1:8, 10; 3:4-6)...The author insists that the true child of God avoids sin (3:9-10; 5:18) by acting righteously and keeping the commandments, especially the commandment to love one's fellow Christian (3:11, 23; II John 5). The children of God must walk in purity and love just as did Jesus, God's Son (I John 2:6, 3:3, 7; 4:10-11).

That scholars place the epistles after the composition of the Gospel which is mostly dated to 90-100 is based upon the assumption that the Gospel in its canonical form was completed in 90-100, if we assume that the epistles have to be placed after it. This is in any case dealt with in the dating of the Gospel of John. If there's anything in the Gospel that requires us to acknowledge it as earlier than the letters, then by logic it would make the Gospel predate 90-100 as per the arguments above, not make 1-3 John after that period. Brown seems to believe the epistles betray an "essense" of more primitive theology than the Gospel, but it is per his divergences quoted above, which have been shown not to really be differences. If there is anything more primitive, it would of course imply the letters are earlier than the Gospel, but that doesn't really seem to require an earlier date even if this (slight) primitiveness can be successfully shown, since it could be just due to the occasion of 1 John.

The author does not appeal to the authority of the presbyters at all as does Ignatius (Ep. to the Trallians 7, 1 Clement), and so again confirms a date before 90. Anything more certain about 1 John's date is impossible. It could have been written as early as the 60's, as some such teaching could have come up. Hardly a date before 60 because the problems of the law and Judaizers and other such seem to be over. Early catholicism in 1 John, if present, is nothing that needs to post-date the 60's, but certainly can't predate them, thus 60-90.


  1. Kümmel, W.G., Introduction to the New Testament, pp.310-311
  2. Kümmel, ibid., p.311
  3. Brown, Raymond E., Introduction to the New Testament, p.389
  4. Kümmel, Op.cit., pp.311-312
  5. In any case, if 1 John 4:3 deals with docetists it is even more wonderous why the prologue doesn't have a mention of the Word incarnate, whether in the prologue or anywhere else, so the objection isn't bolstered by this, but instead weakened.
  6. Even though Paul was not one of the Twelve or an eyewitness, the situation in 1 Cor 1:10-16 presupposes the apostle still has his authority, but that the Corinthian church erred in making schisms, a decision that they apparently made themselves.
  7. The Corinthian church didn't split into schisms because the congregation rejected Paul as an apostle as per 1 Cor 9, since in 1 Cor 9 there are only doubts by some ("those who sit in judgment" 9:3) as to why Paul does not use money and food from the congregation, not a total rejection, and this is supported by 9:2, and the overall lack of focus on this as an issue (whereas see 2 Cor 11, yet even there it's not a total rejection of Paul as an apostle by the church).
  8. even if a proto-docetism/docetism is at work, would not one appeal to the traditions of the Apostles? Thus it is equally enigmatic as to the absense of a counter-argument regardless of the author being an eyewitness or not as we see in 1 Cor 15:1-11, not forgetting it probably stands to reason there is no docetism fought here.
  9. The appeal to the Spirit is therefore the reason why the argumentation in 4:1-6 and other similar verses would be such.
  10. Brown, Raymond E., Introduction to the New Testament, p.390, n.21
  11. or perhaps it is a Johannine phrase/expression, seeing the "denial of Jesus come in the flesh" is mention only in 4:2-3, the train of thought running through both verses (or 4:1/2-6) being the explanation for this expression appearing twice (or throughout 4:1/2-6).
  12. Brown, ibid., p.390
  13. or that portion of the Gospel if one assumes the "body and later redactor" hypothesis, which is dealt with in the section on the Gospel of John.
  14. That's exactly why I'm confused as to why Brown, who right after commenting that the epistles seem to have a somewhat slightly more primitive theology, notes that most scholars place the epistle after the composition of the Gospel, and goes and does the same, with the exception of placing their composition before the final redaction of the Gospel took place, which he dates c.90-100. How that primitiveness proves that and not that the letters pre-date the Gospel as a whole (as is necessitated) is beyond me. But the fact is that there is nothing really more primitive to suggest they predate the Gospel.