In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Johannine Letters

  • Introduction
  • Greek Text
  • Authorship
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Brief Commentaries
  • Critical Commentaries
  • Commentaries Written from a Distinct Perspective
  • Monographs on Topics Pertinent to the Letters
  • Other Issues Associated with 1 John

Biblical Studies Johannine Letters
Urban von Wahlde
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0253


The “Johannine letters” consist of three documents almost universally associated with the Gospel of John. They are often grouped (erroneously) with the “catholic” epistles—the letters not intended for a specific audience but for various groups. The traditional view is that the author of the letters is the same as that of the Gospel, and that this author was John, the son of Zebedee. However, modern critical scholarship has generally abandoned this view and considers the author of the letters to be John the Elder. The three letters are commonly thought to have been written after the Gospel. However, in recent years, some have proposed that it was written before the Gospel, while others have proposed that 1 John was composed sometime before the final edition of the Gospel. The first Letter of John is now generally recognized to be not a true letter but a tract dealing with various issues confronting the author’s community. The problems the letters confront are generally (but not universally) thought to be related to issues raised by the theology and circumstances of the group responsible for the Gospel. There is no generally agreed-upon conclusion about the number and identity of the author’s opponents. The majority of scholars see the author as confronting one group of adversaries, while others see two, or even three, groups. There is also considerable discussion of the theological and cultural background of the opponents. Possibilities for background and/or orientation of the opponents include Jewish Christians, Gentile Christians, or Christians with Docetic, Cerinthian, or Gnostic tendencies. Yet another widely disputed issue is the structure of 1 John. Generally, the letter is thought to have a prologue and an epilogue, but scholars disagree about the number of thematic divisions within the body of the letter. One popular view is that the body consists of two parts, while others see three, or as many as six. In addition, the themes said to govern each division are also quite varied. Third John is the shortest document in the New Testament; it is written to a single individual and is unique in that it does not mention either “Jesus” or “Christ,” yet at the same time it is the only Johannine document to mention ecclesia (church). Second John is the second-shortest New Testament document. Their lengths suggest that they were each written on a single sheet of papyrus. Second John was written to a satellite community. Third John was written to a single individual by the name of Gajus. The (in)famous term “Antichrist” appears for the first time in Christian literature in 1 John 2:18. Among current Johannine scholars, no commentary is considered to be so thorough, of such detail, and of such balanced judgment as that of R. E. Brown (see Brown 1982, cited under Critical Commentaries).

Greek Text

The Greek text of the Letters of John poses two sorts of problems. First, there are textual variations that require analysis to determine the reading that is most likely to be original. Second, there are problems of how to translate a given text appropriately into English.

  • Brown, Raymond E. “Appendix IV: The Johannine Comma.” In The Epistles of John. By Raymond E. Brown, 775–787. Anchor Bible 30. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982.

    The term “comma” as used in reference to 1 John means a “part” of a sentence or larger text. The Johannine comma refers to an addition to the text of 1 John 5:7–8 intended to clarify the wording of those verses by interpreting the words as referring to the Holy Trinity. It is universally recognized not to be part of the original text of 1 John. Yet it has had a prominent place in the textual tradition of 1 John.

  • Haas, C., M. de Jonge, and J. L. Swellengrebel. A Translator’s Handbook on the Letters of John. London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1987.

    A revision of the 1972 original.

  • Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2d ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.

    Helpful explanations of the reasons for specific decisions regarding various textual variants in the texts of the letters, composed by the Editorial Committee of the United Bible Societies.

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