Epistles of Saint John
Three canonical books of the New Testament written by the Apostle St. John.
The subject will be treated under the following heads:
V. Time and Place
VI. Destination and Purpose
A. External evidence
The very brevity of this letter (105 verses divided into five chapters) and
the lateness of its composition might lead us to suspect no traces thereof in
the Apostolic Fathers. Such traces there are, some unquestionable. St. Polycarp
(A.D. 110-117, according to Harnack, whose chronology we shall follow in this
article) wrote to the Philippians:
For whosoever confesseth not that Jesus
Christ is come in the Flesh is Antichrist (c. vi; Funk,
Patres Apostolici, I,
304). Here is an evident trace of I John, iv, 2-3; so evident that Harnack deems
this witness of Polycarp conclusive proof that the first Epistle and,
consequently, the Gospel of John were written toward the end of the reign of
Trajan, i.e. not later than A.D. 117 (cf. Chronologie der Altchristlichen
Litteratur, I, 658). It is true that Polycarp does not name John nor quote word
for word; the Apostolic Fathers cite from memory and are not wont to name the
inspired writer whom they cite. The argument from Polycarp's use of I John is
strengthened by the fact that he was, according to Irenæus, the disciple of St.
John. The distinctively Johannine phrase
come in the Flesh (en sarki
eleluthota) is also used by the Epistle of Barnabas (v, 10; Funk, op. cit., I,
53), which was written about A.D. 130. We have it on the authority of Eusebius
(Hist. eccl., V, xx) that this First Epistle of John was cited by Papias, a
disciple of John and fellow of Polycarp (A.D. 145-160). Irenæus (A.D. 181-189)
not only cites I John ii, 18, and v, 1 but attributes the citation to John the
Lord's disciple (
Adv. Hær. 3, 16; Eusebius,
Hist. eccl., V, viii). The
Muratorian Canon (A.D. 195-205) tells the story of the writing of John's Gospel
consequent upon a revelation made to the Apostle Andrew, and adds:
then, that John so often in his letters gives us details of his Gospel and says
of himself, etc. - here I John. i, 1, is quoted. St. Clement of Alexandria (A.D.
190-203) quotes v, 3, with his usual indubitable accuracy, and expressly assigns
the words to John (
Pædag., III, xi; Kirch. Comm., ed. I, p. 281). Tertullian
(A.D. 194-221, according to Sunday) tells us that John, in his Epistle, brands
as Antichrist those who deny that Christ is come in the flesh (De Præscrip. 33),
and clearly attributes to
John the author of the Apocalypse several passages
of the First Epistle (cf.
Adv. Marc., III, 8, and V, 16, in P. L., II, 359 and
Adv. Gnost., 12, in P. L., II, 169;
Adv. Prax., 15, in P. L., II, 196).
B. Internal evidence
So striking is the internal evidence in favour of common authorship of the
Gospel and First Epistle of John, as to be almost universally admitted. It
cannot be by accident that in both documents we find the ever-recurring and most
distinctive words light, darkness, truth, life, and love; the strictly Johannine
to walk in the light,
to be of the truth,
to be of the devil,
be of the world,
to overcome the world, etc. Only such erratic and sceptical
critics as Holtzmann and Schmiedel deny the forcefulness of this argument from
internal evidence; they conclude that the two documents come from the same
school, not from the same hand.
The foregoing citations, the fact that there never was any controversy or doubt among the Fathers in the matter of the canonicity of the First Epistle of John, the existence of this document in all the ancient translations of the New Testament and in the great uncial manuscripts (Sinaitic, Alexandrian, etc.) - these are arguments of overwhelming cumulative force to establish the acceptance of this letter by the primitive Church as canonical Scripture, and to prove that the inclusion of the First Epistle of John in the Canon of Trent was only a conciliar acceptance of an existing fact - the feet that the letter had always been among the Homologoumena of Holy Writ.
The only part of the letter concerning the authenticity and canonicity
whereof there is serious question is the famous passage of the three witnesses:
And there are three who give testimony (in heaven, the Father, the Word, and
the Holy Ghost. And these three are one. And there are three that give testimony
on earth): the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three are one (I
John, v, 7-8). Throughout the past three hundred years, effort has been wade to
expunge from our Clementine Vulgate edition of canonical Scripture the words
that are bracketed. Let us examine the facts of the case.
A. Greek Manuscripts The disputed part is found in no uncial Greek manuscripts and in only four rather recent cursives - one of the fifteenth and three of the sixteenth century. No Greek epistolary manuscript contains the passage.
No Syriac manuscript of any family - Peshito, Philoxenian, or Harklean - has the three witnesses; and their presence in the printed Syriac Gospels is due to translation from the Vulgate. So too, the Coptic manuscripts - both Sahidic and Bohairic - have no trace of the disputed part, nor have the Ethiopic manuscripts which represent Greek influence through the medium of Coptic. The Armenian manuscripts, which favour the reading of the Vulgate, are admitted to represent a Latin influence which dates from the twelfth century; early Armenian manuscripts are against the Latin reading. Of the Itala or Old Latin manuscripts, only two have our present reading of the three witnesses: Codex Monacensis (q) of the sixth or seventh century; and the Speculum (m), an eighth or ninth century manuscript which gives many quotations from the New Testament. Even the Vulgate, in the majority of its earliest manuscripts, is without the passage in question. Witnesses to the canonicity are: the Bible of Theodulph (eighth century) in the National Library of Paris; Codex Cavensis (ninth century), the best representative of the Spanish type of text: Toletanus (tenth century); and the majority of Vulgate manuscripts after the twelfth century. There was some dispute as to the canonicity of the three witnesses as early as the sixth century: for the preface to the Catholic Epistles in Codex Fuldensis (A.D. 541-546) complains about the omission of this passage from some of the Latin versions.
C. The Fathers
(1) Greek Fathers, until the twelfth century, seem one and all to have had no
knowledge of the three witnesses as canonical Scripture. At times they cite
verses 8 and 9 and omit the disputed portions of verses 7 and 8. The Fourth
Lateran (A.D. 1215), in its decree against Abbot Joachim (see Denzinger, 10th
ed., n. 431) quotes the disputed passage with the remark
sicut in quibusdam
codicibus invenitur. Thereafter, we find the Greek Fathers making use of the
text as canonical. (2) The Syriac Fathers never use the text. (3) The Armenian
Fathers do not use it before the twelfth century. (4) The Latin Fathers make
much earlier use of the text as canonical Scripture. St. Cyprian (third century)
seems undoubtedly to have had it in mind, when he quotes John, x, 30, and adds:
Et iterum de Patre et Filio et Spiritu Sancto scriptum est - Et hi tres unum
sunt (De Unitate Ecclesiæ, vi). Clear also is the witness of St. Fulgentius
Responsio contra Arianos in P. L., LXV, 224), who refers to
the above witness of St. Cyprian. In fact, outside of St. Augustine, the Fathers
of the African Church are to be grouped with St. Cyprian in favour of the
canonicity of the passage. The silence of the great and voluminous St. Augustine
and the variation in form of the text in the African Church are admitted facts
that militate against the canonicity of the three witnesses. St. Jerome (fourth
century) does not seem to know the text. After the sixth century, the disputed
passage is more and more in use among the Latin Fathers; and, by the twelfth
century, is commonly cited as canonical Scripture.
D. Ecclesiastical Documents
Trent's is the first certain ecumenical decree, whereby the Church
established the Canon of Scripture. We cannot say that the decree of Trent on
the Canon necessarily included the three witnesses. For in the preliminary
discussions signs that led up to the canonizing of
the entire books with all
their parts, as these have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are
contained in the old Latin Vulgate, there was no reference whatsoever to this
special part; hence this special part is not canonized by Trent, unless it is
certain that the text of the three witnesses has
been wont to be read in the
Catholic Church and is contained in the old Latin Vulgate. Both conditions must
be verified before the canonicity of the text is certain. Neither condition has
as yet been verified with certainty; quite the contrary, textual criticism seems
to indicate that the Comma Johanninum was not at all times and everywhere wont
to be read in the Catholic Church and is not contained in the original old Latin
Vulgate. However, the Catholic theologian must take into account more than
textual criticism; to him the authentic decisions of all Roman Congregations are
guiding signs in the use of the Sacred Scripture, which the Church and only the
Church has given to him as the Word of God. He cannot pass over the disciplinary
decision of the Holy Office (13 January, 1897), whereby it is decreed that the
authenticity of the Comma Johanninum may not with safety (tuto) be denied or
called into doubt. This disciplinary decision was approved by Leo XIII two days
later. Though his approval was not in forma specifica, as was Pius X's approval
of the Decree
Lamentabili, all further discussion of the text in question must
be carried on with due deference to this decree. (See
Revue Biblique, 1898, p.
149; and Pesch,
Prælectiones Dogmaticæ, II, 250.)
It was of chief moment to determine that this letter is authentic, i.e.,
belongs to the Apostolic age is Apostolic in its source, and is trustworthy.
Among those who admit the authenticity and canonicity of the letter, some hold
that its sacred writer was not John the Apostle but John the Presbyter. We have
traced the tradition of the Apostolic origin of the letter back to the time of
St. Irenæus. Harnack and his followers admit that Irenæus, the disciple of
Polycarp, assigns the authorship to St. John the Apostle; but have the hardihood
to throw over all tradition, to accuse Irenæus of error in this matter, to cling
to the doubtful witness of Papias, and to be utterly regardless of the patent
fact that throughout three centuries no other ecclesiastical writer knows
anything at all of this John the Presbyter. The doubtful witness of Papias is
saved for us by Eusebius (
Hist. eccl. III, xxxix, Funk,
Patres Apostolici, I,
And if any one came my way who had been a follower of the elders, I
enquired the sayings of the elders - what had Andrew, or what had Peter said, or
what Philip, or what Thomas or James, or what John (he ti Ioannes) or Matthew or
any one else of the disciples of the Lord; and what were Aristion and John the
elder, the disciples of the Lord, saying? (a te Apistion kai ho presbuteros
Ioannes, oi tou kuriou mathetai legousin). Harnack insists that Eusebius read
his sources thoroughly; and, on the authority of Eusebius and of Papias,
postulates the existence of a disciple of the Lord named John the Elder, who was
distinct from John the Apostle; and to this fictitious John the Elder assigns
all the Johannine writings. (See Geschichte der Altchristliche Litteratur, II, i,
657.) With all Catholic authors, we consider that either Eusebius alone, or
Papias and Eusebius, erred, and that Irenæus and the rest of the Fathers were
right, in fact we lay the blame at the door of Eusebius. As Bardenhewer
(Geschichte der Altkirchlichen Literatur, I, 540) says, Eusebius set up a straw
man. There never was a John the Elder. So think Funk (Patres Apostolici, I, 354),
Dr. Salmon (Dictionary of Christian Biography, III, 398), Hausleiter (Theol.
Litteraturblatt, 1896), Stilting, Guerike, and others.
Eusebius is here a special pleader. He opposes the millennium. Wrongly fancying that the Apocalypse favours the Chiliasts, he assigns it to this John the Elder and tries to rob the work of its Apostolic authority, the clumsiness of expression of Papias gives occasion to Eusebius in proof of the existence of two disciples of the Lord named John. To be sure, Papias mentions two Johns - one among the Apostles, the other in a clause with Aristion. Both are called elders; and elders here (presbuteroi) are admitted by Eusebius to be Apostles, since he admits that Papias got information from those who had met the Apostles (substituting ton apostolon for ton presbuteron; see Hist. eccl., III, xxxix, 7). Hence it is that Papias, in joining John with Aristion, speaks of John the Elder and not of Aristion the Elder; Aristion was not an elder or Apostle. The reason for joining the Aristion with John at all is that they were both witnesses of the present to Papias, whereas all the Apostles were witnesses of the past generation. Note that the second aorist (eipen) is used in regard to the group of witnesses of the past generation, since there is question of what they had said, whereas the present (legousin) is used in regard to the witnesses of the present generation, i.e. Aristion and John the Elder, since the question is what they are now saying. The Apostle John was alive in the time of Papias. He and he alone can be the elder of whom Papias speaks. How is it, then, that Papias mentions John twice? Hausleiter conjectures that the phrase he ti Ioannes is a gloss (Theol. Litteraturblatt, 1896). It is likelier that the repetition of the name of John is due to the clumsiness of expression of Papias. He does not mention all the Apostles, but only seven; though he undoubtedly means them all. His mention of John is quite natural in view of the relation in which he stood to that Apostle. After mention of the group that were gone, he names the two from whom he now receives indirect information of the Lord's teaching; these two are the disciple Aristion and John the Apostle.
V. Time and Place
Irenæus tells us the letter was written by St. John during his stay in Asia (Adv. Hær., III, i). Nothing certain can be determined in this matter. The arguments are probable in favour of Ephesus and also for the last few years of the first century.
VI. Destination and Purpose
The form is that of an encyclical letter. Its destination is clearly the
churches which St. John evangelized, he speaks to his
brethren, and is affectionate and fatherly throughout the entire
letter. The purpose is identical with the purpose of the Fourth Gospel - that
his children may believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and that believing may
have life eternal in His name (I John, v, 13; John, xx, 31).
A logical analysis of the letter would be a mistake. The thought is built up not analytically but synthetically. After a brief introduction, St. John works up the thought that God is Light (i, 5); so, too, should we walk in the light (i, 7), keep from sin (i, 6-ii, 6), observe the new commandment of love (ii, 7), since he that loves is in the light and he that hates is in darkness (ii, 8-iii). Then follows the second leading Johannine thought that God is Love (iii-v, 12). Love means that we are sons of God (iii, 1-4); Divine sonship means that we are not in sin (iii, 4-13), that we love one another (iii, 13-44), that we believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God (iv, 5, 6); for it was love that impelled God to give us His only on (iv, 7-v, 12). The conclusion (v, 13-end) tells the reader that the purpose of the letter is to inculcate faith in Jesus Christ, since this faith is life eternal. In this conclusion as well as in other parts of the letter, the same salient and leading Johannine thoughts recur to defy analysis. John had two or three things to say; he said these two or three things over and over again in ever varying form.
These thirteen verses are directed against the same Docetic errors and germs
of Gnosticism which St. John strives to uproot in his Gospel and First Epistle.
Harnack and some others, who admit the canonicity of the Second and Third
Epistles, assign them to the authorship of John the Elder; we have shown that
this John the Elder never existed. The authenticity of this second letter is
attested by very early Fathers. St. Polycarp (
Phil., VII, i; Funk,
Apostolici, I, 304) cites rather II John, 7, than I John, 4. St. Irenæus
expressly quotes II John, 10, as the words of
John the Disciple of the Lord.
The Muratorian Canon speaks of two Epistles of John. St. Clement of Alexandria
speaks of the larger Epistle of John; and, as a consequence, knows at least two.
Origen hears witness to the two shorter letters, which
both together do not
contain a hundred lines and are not admitted by all to be authentic. The
canonicity of these two letters was long disputed. Eusebius puts them among the
Antilegomena. They are not found in the Peshito. The Canon of the Western Church
includes them after the fourth century; although only Trent's decree set the
question of their canonicity beyond the dispute of such men as Cajetan. The
Canon of the Eastern Church, outside that of Antioch, includes them after the
fourth century. The style and manner of the second letter are very like to those
of the first. The destination of the letter has been much disputed. The opening
words are variously interpreted -
The ancient to the lady Elect, and her
children (ho presbuteros eklekte kuria kai tois teknois autes). We have seen
that the elder means the Apostle. Who is the lady elect? Is she the elect Kyria?
The lady Eklekte? A lady named Eklekte Kyria? A lady elect, whose name is
omitted? A Church? All these interpretations are defended. We consider, with St.
Jerome, that the letter is addressed to a particular church, which St. John
urges on to faith in Jesus Christ, to the avoidance of heretics, to love. This
interpretation best fits in with the ending to the letter -
The children of thy
sister Elect salute thee.
Fourteen verses addressed to Gaius, a private individual. This Gaius seems to
have been not an ecclesiastic but a layman of means. He is praised by John for
his hospitality to visiting brethren (verses 2-9). The Apostle then goes on:
had written perhaps to the church; but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the
pre-eminence among them, doth not receive us (verse 9). This Diotrephes may
have been the bishop of the Church. He is found fault with roundly, and
Demetrius is set up for an example. This short letter,
twin sister, as St.
Jerome called it, to the second of John's letters, is entirely a personal affair.
No doctrine is discussed. The lesson of hospitality, especially of care for the
preachers of the Gospel is insisted on. The earliest certain recognition of this
letter as Apostolic is by St. Denis of Alexandria (third century). Eusebius
refers to the letters called
the second and third of John, whether these chance
to belong to the evangelist or to someone else with a name like to his (
eccl., III xxv; Schwartz, II, 1, p. 250). The canonicity of the letter has
already been treated. The greeting and ending of this letter are internal
evidence of composition by the author of the previous Johannine letter. The
simple and affectionate style, the firmness of the rebuke of Diotrephes are
strictly Johannine. Nothing certain is known as to time and place of writing;
but it is generally supposed that the two small letters were written by John
towards the end of his long life and in Ephesus.
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