The Letters of John

Summary of the Tradition

    Polycarp: The first letter is quoted, but without attribution (Epistle to the Philippians 7).

    Papias: Eusebius indicates (Church History 3.39.16) that Papias relies on the first letter of John, but Papias's actual words have been lost. Regarding the other letters, Jerome regarded Papias's following comment relevant:

If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings - what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. (Jerome's Lives of Illustrious Men 18)

This indicates the possibility of two different Johns, an apostle John, and a presbyter (elder) John. However, Papias does not mention the other letters in his surviving fragments.

    Muratorian Fragment: There are at least two letters written by John, and the first letter is quoted.

    Irenaeus: The first letter is quoted, with attribution to John (Against Heresies 3.16.5). The second letter is also quoted, with attribution to John (Against Heresies 1.16.3). The third letter is not mentioned.

    Clement: The first letter is quoted, with attribution to John the apostle (Stromata 2.15). He quotes it as being the longer letter, but he does not quote the other letters in the surviving texts.

    Tertullian: Tertullian quotes the first letter frequently, with John as the author (Against Marcion 5.16, Against Praxeas 15, 28, Scorpiace 12 and others).

    Origen: Origen frequently quotes John at the author of the first letter (Commentary on the Gospel of John 6.26 and others). He states that it is unknown if the second and third letters are genuine (Eusebius's Church History 6.25.10).

    Jerome: John the apostle wrote the first letter. John the elder wrote the other two. He bases this on the quotation of Papias, above (Illustrious Men 9).

    Augustine: Augustine wrote Homilies on the First Epistle of John, with John listed as the author. He states that there are three letters of John (On Christian Doctrine 2.8.13).


    All of the letters and the Gospel share common themes and word choices, quickly implying to a casual inspection that they are all from the same community of believers. This impression becomes stronger as the text is analyzed more thoroughly, in word choices, style, theological emphasis, and many direct cross references. At minimum then, the letters and the Gospel are all from the Johannine community. This community may be defined more through shared relationships and history than geography, however.

    For the first letter of John, the tradition is unanimous and goes back to the beginning. Unlike for the Gospel, there is no real evidence of multiple authors. In addition, in the introduction (1 Jn 1:1-4), the unnamed author indicates that he is a direct eye witness. The author speaks with an unmistakable air of authority. Finally, he refers to his target audience as dear children as would be expected of the now old John the Apostle. For these reasons, ascribing this letter directly to John is the most reasonable action. However, when we discuss the Apocalypse, we will assert that it was probably written by John as well, even though the Greek is much worse. This implies that this letter was likely written with the assistance of an amanuensis (personal secretary).

    The evidence is much thinner for the other two letters. The letters themselves are very short. While the first letter is a developed sermon, the other two are personal letters that conclude with a promise to visit, so that more can be discussed. This makes textual criticism difficult, except to say that the second two letters are written by the same person (the self-identified presbyter of 2 Jn 1:1; 3 Jn 1:1) due to the nearly identical format.

    The short length of the letters undoubtedly is the reason that these two letters were referenced so rarely in the tradition. We only have one solid ancient witness (Irenaeus) on which to base authorship, and several incidental references. Jerome's evidence that the apostle and the presbyter were not the same person and that Papias was referring to the author of the letters is not convincing. By default, then, we should identify the author of the second and third letters as John, but the evidence is admittedly weak. If he is not the author, then it is certainly a member of the Johannine community.


    Precise dating of the letters is difficult. It would be tricky to understand the letters without the Gospel, which implies that the Gospel already existed; but it is clearly possible that the Gospel existed only in oral form when the letters were written. Note that the presbyter of the second and third letters indicates a substantial oral preference. "Although I have much to write to you, I do not intend to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and to speak face to face so that our joy may be complete" (2 Jn 12; 3 Jn 13-14). The first letter was written by John when he was old (but not dead), so we can expect that it was written between A.D. 60 and 100. We have even less to go on for the second and third letters. From the topics of the letters, we know that the church already had multiple communities and disputes, so an extremely early date is unlikely. However, Paul's letter to the Galatians from the early 50's (ยง 4.1.4) also indicates multiple communities and doctrinal disputes. A very late date is impossible because Irenaeus quotes the second letter as authoritative and from before his time. The nearly identical formats of the second and third letters make it likely that they were not only written by the same person, but also at about the same time. This analysis gives a wide range of A.D. 45-130. If we accept authorship by John, then we can move the end date to A.D. 100.

This page was last changed on 2011/08/28