Alternative Proposals to John’s Authorship of the Johannine Letters

In this article I would like to look at three alternative proposals to John’s authorship of the Johannine letters. My hope is to answer a few very critical questions about John’s authorship of the Johannine letters by summarizing the internal and external evidence in favor of John’s authorship. Finally, I will discuss which was written first: John’s Gospel or John’s Letters? and Why?

      According to Andreas Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, the three alternative proposals to John’s authorship of the Johannine letters are as follows:

  1. an unknown elder in the so-called “Johannine community”
  2. a follower of the apostle John (or the “disciple Jesus loved”)
  3. the legendary “John the elder” in Asia Minor

They also point out that the last alternative proposal was a popular decision among nineteenth-century theologians that have been reopened by M. Hengel. Both the early church and the modern church acknowledge John’s authorship of the Johannine letters. This is testified to by internal as well the external evidence if one looks at the Johannine letters with a sincere heart. 

On external evidence, Köstenberger et al., states, “the external data point quite early to 1 and 2 John as coming from the apostle. John’s authorship of 3 John, most likely due to the letter’s brevity and the lack of extant patristic works, is supported less widely. But since there is evidence to assume that the letters circulated together, it is likely that 3 John was included as well.” 

On internal evidence B. H. Streeter writes, “The three Epistles and the Gospel of John are so closely allied in diction, style, and general outlook that the burden of proof lies with the person who would deny their common authorship.” However, Köstenberger et al., while agreeing that “the similarities are so numerous and multifaceted that they dwarf any perceived differences by comparison” they advise caution that “these similarities are often attributed to either a ‘house style’ within the Johannine community or a conscious imitation.” Therefore, Köstenberger et al. suggests “it is important not simply to note the similarities but to look for those congruities that suggest a writer was naturally expressing himself in ways other than conscious imitation.”  The following observations can be made while looking at the internal evidence:

1). the same author would be expected to use similar vocabulary in similar ways, 

2). the same author would be expected to use his stock phrases and themes in a nimble fashion and not like an imitator, 

3). the same author would be expected to compose his works with a similar style, 

4). If there were “Johannine patterns” or “house style,” would one not expect for it to be found also in extrabiblical literature? 

5). the author’s self-references indicate that he considered himself an eyewitness to Jesus,

6). the author assumed an authoritative tone that is consistent with an apostle,

7). There is also an indication that the author was advanced in years.

Personally, I believe that the Gospel of John was written before the Johannine Epistles because the Epistles assume that the reader is familiar with the Gospel of John.

Now let me take a few minutes to discuss the occasion and purpose for the writing of 1 John. More importantly answer a few more questions: who were John’s opponents? What was the nature of the opponents’ doctrine and how did John respond to it? Does the doctrine of these opponents exist today? If so, where? How can we use John’s response today?

According to Köstenberger et al., 1 John was written to a number of churches who were “under doctrinal and emotional duress.” They write, “the Christians to whom John wrote in 1 John were in need of instruction, but more importantly they needed to be reassured and comforted in light of the recent upheaval ending in the departure of the false teachers.” It is not possible to pinpoint the exact nature of the false teachers, however the information provided in 1 John give us a clear understanding of what these false teachers were preaching and teaching. We learn the following characteristics of the false teachers:

  1. The false teachers did not know God because they did not keep his commandments.
  2. They did not conduct themselves the way Jesus did, especially with regard to the commandment to love one another. They were disobedient to the Lord.
  3. They denied that Jesus had come in the flesh. This may reflect a docetic Christology.
  4. They denied the atoning merit of the cross.
  5. They rejected the apostolic witness.

The purpose for writing 1 John was similar to the purpose for writing the Gospel of John. The purpose statement for 1 John can be found in 5:13 where the author writes, “I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” According to D. Guthrie, “Nowhere else in the New Testament is the combination of faith and love so clearly brought out, and it seems probable that this is emphasized because the behaviour of the readers leaves much to be desired.”

Regarding the doctrine Köstenberger et al. states, 

They had a defective Christology that denied that Jesus was the Messiah, though the reason for this is unclear. Moreover, they were disobedient to the commands of God, especially the love command (see 3:10-15). This led to a doctrine that minimized the reality or at least the seriousness of sin. Thus, the false teachers showed that they were not really Children of God. D. Akin described the false teachings well: they flaunted a new theology that “compromised the uniqueness of the person and work of Jesus Christ”; a new morality that “minimized the importance of sin; they claimed to have fellowship with God despite their unrighteous behavior”; and, finally, a new spirituality that “resulted in spiritual arrogance; consequently they did not show love to others.

In our time, this can be seen in many churches including some very well known churches who invite people to come to church and worship God but tell them not to worry about making significant changes in their lives. I must say that the emerging church movement would be the most prominent church with such doctrine that 1 John address. I also see that the universal church and many liberal churches practice the same false doctrine. The true Church of Jesus Christ must confront the false teachers and false doctrine publicly and unanimously. 

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