The Epistles of John the Elder
“He wrote also one Epistle which begins as follows 'That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes and our hands handled concerning the word of life' which is esteemed of by all men who are interested in the church or in learning. The other two of which the first is 'The elder to the elect lady and her children' and the other 'The elder unto Gaius the beloved whom I love in truth,' are said to be the work of John the presbyter to the memory of whom another sepulchre is shown at Ephesus to the present day, though some think that there are two memorials of this same John the evangelist.” (Saint Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, 9)
Who Wrote the Epistles of John?
According to Saint Jerome, John the Apostle and Gospel writer wrote the first of these three Epistles and John the Presbyter (or Elder) wrote the other two. I disagree. The textual evidence clearly points to the same author for all three of the Epistles of John.
First, there is significant evidence that John the Elder existed and was a Christian leader of some influence. As Jerome recounts, there were two sepulchers at Ephesus, one to the memory of John the Apostle and the other to the memory of John the Elder. Papias, “the pupil of John, bishop of Hierapolis in Asia,” also mentions the elder John as a different individual from John the Gospel writer (Saint Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, 18).
In Sacred Scripture, we find that two of the three Epistles of John each have the author of referring to himself as “the elder.” The Second Letter of John begins: “The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth....” (2 John 1:1). The Third Letter of John begins: “The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.” (3 John 1:1). But in the Gospel of John, whenever John must refer to himself, he does not call himself the elder. This fact, in itself, might be dismissed for two reasons. The Gospel of John is not a letter, and so the Gospel writer might refer to himself differently than he would in a letter. And, during the events described in the Gospel of John, the Gospel writer was then a young man, without the age or position in the Church that would warrant the term “elder.”
However, the Revelation to John is, more or less, a type of letter, written and addressed like a letter: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace....” (Rev 1:4). Such wording is similar to many of Paul's letters, which begin with Paul stating his name and the name of the church or person to whom he is writing, and with a Christian greeting such as 'grace and peace to you.' The Book of Revelation was written by John in the form of a letter, at a time late in his life, after he had written a Gospel at the request of the Bishops and the people of the churches in Asia (western Turkey). John was writing a letter at a time when he was a kind of elder, with age and authority in the Church, yet he does not refer to himself as “the elder.” Therefore, the Second and Third Letters of John were not written by John the Apostle, but by John the Elder.
John the Elder did not have as much authority or support among the people in the various churches as John the Apostle did. John, late in his life, was the last surviving member of the Twelve Apostles, the writer of a Gospel at the request of various churches, and a much revered person throughout the Church on earth. John the Apostle would not have had the problem described in the Third Letter of John: “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority.” (3 John 1:9) The writer of this Third Letter is clearly not the same John as the Gospel writer. Since the introduction of the Second and Third Letters of John each state that the author is “the elder,” both of these letters are from John the Elder, not John the Apostle and Gospel writer.
John the Elder's letters have been mistaken for the work of John the Gospel writer because they use some of the same themes and expressions found in the fourth Gospel. But this use of common themes and expressions does not mean that John the Apostle wrote these Letters. Any faithful disciple of that time period, living in Asia, would have had a special connection with, and love for, the fourth Gospel, since it was written particularly for the people of that region. It was probably not uncommon for the disciples of that time and place to imitate John the Apostle in his life and in his words. He lived among the disciples of that region and taught the Gospel in person for many years after Christ's Ascension and after the deaths of the other Apostles. Thus, John the Elder's imitation of John the Apostles words is understandable and fitting.
John the Elder uses similar themes and expressions to John the Apostle, but there are also significant differences which indicate that the one author is not the other. This situation is similar to a comparison of two paintings, the one by a well-known painter, and the other by a student of his, whose work is both an imitation of and a digression from the work of his teacher. It is not necessary for me to point out the similarities and differences between these two author's works. Interested students of Scripture can read and notice these things for themselves quite easily. Also, much of the differences and similarities is found not merely in particular words or expressions, but in the overall feel and sense of these texts. One must read it for one's self.
The First Letter of John clearly has differences of word and expression from the Gospel and Revelation, just like the other two letters. It also has an important point of similarity to the Second Letter of John: both letters use the term “antichrist.” In the Second Letter, this mention is brief: “such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.” (2 John 1:7). In the First Letter, this mention is more extensive: “and you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.... This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:18,22). Then later, the First Letter returns to this idea: “and every spirit, which does not confess Jesus, is not of God. This is the spirit of the antichrist....” (1 John 4:3). Both letters use the term “antichrist,” a term not found in the Gospel of John, nor in the Book of Revelation.
John the Apostle repeatedly refers to the antichrist and his deeds at length in the Book of Revelation. Chapter 13 of Revelation is clearly about the antichrist, as is Rev. 19:20. Yet John never uses the term “antichrist.” The Book of Revelation was completed by some of John's disciples, who clearly added material to the book, yet they never use the term antichrist either. If John had used such a term, even in verbal teachings, his disciples would likely use the term when they edited the Book of Revelation. But no such term appears in Revelation. On the other hand, the First Letter of John uses the term “antichrist” repeatedly, even though it is a shorter work, less concerned with the time of the antichrist and with future events. Therefore, John the Apostle was not the author of the First Letter of John. All three Letters of John were written by John the Elder.
The letters of John the Elder were written at a later date than Revelation. By that time, Christians would have had an opportunity to reflect on the teachings of John the Apostle, especially that of Revelation. And they would have had some experience with the heresy and apostasy in the early Church (against which John the Apostle was writing). The term 'antichrist' then developed out of that reflection and experience. Thus, John the Apostle speaks at length about the Antichrist, but does not use the term, because that term had not yet developed in the Church. But John the Elder, writing at a later date, does use the term. He also shows an increased understanding about the Antichrist, a kind of development of doctrine about the Antichrist, which came from the Church's reflection on the prior writings of John the Apostle.
The Second Letter of John is addressed from “the elder” to “the elect lady,” in other words, to a church located in some town, or, more specifically, to a small community of Christians, away from the larger churches of the well-populated areas. For a small community, being called “the elect lady” would mean that they, too, are a church of Christ and a bride of Christ. Whereas, a larger community of Christians would not need to be encouraged with an expression that indicates they one of the churches. Also, notice that John the Elder writes: “I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children following the truth....” He would not rejoice greatly to find that “some” of the children of a church in a large city are following the truth. It would be more insult than complement to say such to a large group of Christians in a well-established church. But such words would be fitting praise and encouragement for a new, smaller group of Christians. Near the end of this letter, John the Elder writes that he would prefer to visit them and talk to them in person, rather than write a long letter. This preference fits the idea that they are a new small group of Christians. They do not have many teachers among them; they need someone in person to teach them at length.
The Third Letter of John is addressed from “the elder” to “Gaius.” This man seems to belong to a different group of Christians than those of the Second Letter. The Second Letter addresses a small group who need instruction and seem somewhat isolated from the other churches. The Third Letter address a somewhat larger group that is much less isolated. This group of Christians receives members from other churches, when they “render any service to the brethren, especially to strangers, who have testified to your love before the church.” (3 John 1:5). Thus, they receive visitors from other churches, whom they have not met before, who then go on to testify to the presence of Christ in their midst. Later verses also refer to visits from other churches to this church (3 John 1:10). The last verse mentions friends who the Christians of this church know, who are with John the Elder, and other friends who are known by John to be among this church: “The friends greet you. Greet the friends, every one of them.” (3 John 1:15). Again, this indicates a larger church with connections to other groups of Christians.
In the Third Letter, John the Elder states: “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority.” (3 John 1:9). John the elder wrote something, with authority, not merely a letter of greeting and friendship. But one man, named Diotrephes, resisted John's teaching in that letter. The letter referred to is not the Second Letter, which is to a different group of Christians. Rather, it is most likely a teaching letter, of some length, expressing various theological ideas, against which Diotrephes argues. And it is probably not merely another letter to this same group, addressed by way of one of their leaders, Gaius. For this other letter is written “to the church,” in other words, to believers in general. It is a letter from John the Elder, addressed not to any one group or individual, which teaches at some length about the faith. The First Letter of John fits this description. It was written by John the Elder, but he does not begin by referring to himself as “the elder” and then by referring to the person or group he addresses. In this case, because he is addressing the whole church, he simply begins to teach. The First Letter is one of theological teaching, whereas the Second and Third Letters are more ones of personal greeting and encouragement in the Faith. Thus, all three of the Letters of John were written by John the Elder, not John the Apostle and Gospel writer.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
December 31, 2005