When you talk about the shortest books of the Bible, the Second Letter of John in the New Testament must be a magnet of attention. 2 John consists of one chapter, which in turn consists of four modest paragraphs. The First Letter of John, by contrast, consists of five chapters; see the preceding post on this stream. My initial reaction to the study of this letter led me to think that this tiny snippet, along with the equally short Third Letter of John, were included in the New Testament Canon primarily because of the identification of the author as the “Apostle John” or one or more of his closest disciples in the writings of early Church sources.
However, the content of these three letters together contributes a considerable amount in the development of the Church and its Tradition. The most recent research I have at my fingertips, To Doan’s introduction to the three letters of John in The Paulist Biblical Commentary , indicates that we still know very little about the authors of the entire library attributed to the Apostle John, including the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation. This did not seem to trouble the early bishops who inserted the Letters of John into the New Testament Canon. The content of the letters themselves treat of the nature of Christ, the errant followers or early heretics, the Antichrist, and the daily morality of a people baptized into the life of God, who is love.
2 John, like its companion pieces, was most likely written in Western Turkey [then marked on maps as Asia Minor] late in the first century. Turkey is a far piece from Jerusalem, which had been leveled by the Romans in 70 A.D., and Rome, where the Christian Church was setting roots, despite intermittent persecutions, to establish a general evangelization to the entire empire. Thus, Turkey, isolated from Roman and Palestinian culture, was significantly influenced by Greek thought. Think for a moment of St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:23: “Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…”
For a moment, let’s concentrate on why Christians were persecuted in their missionary efforts. Roman persecution was easy to understand. Roman emperors were considered gods, and the Christian refusal to venerate the emperors was interpreted as treason and punished accordingly, if not constantly. Jewish persecution, until the fall of Jerusalem, rested upon the idea that to equate the crucified Jesus of Nazareth to the Lord Yahweh, whose very name was forbidden to pronounce—was blasphemy to the ultimate degree.
But further to the East, as Christians settled in Greece and Turkey, they encountered the rich world of Greek philosophy, the land of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whose bodies of work were produced a few centuries before Christ. Aristotle, known simply through Church history as “The Philosopher,” would inspire St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200’s A.D. to put forward the Catholic structure of thought we still find today in the Catechism and other standard texts.
Greek thought from this era is notable for its “metaphysics,” a term which roughly means “that which comes after physics.” Put another way, metaphysics is the science of drawing mental conclusions of reality from what we can see and experience in the material world. In one sense the Greeks opened a gulf between a material world and a world beyond visibility, a principle that reality is composed of matter and spirit. Because of Greek thought, the Church would be able to develop a religious anthropology in what a human being possessed a body and a soul. Without the Greeks, we would still think of a person as a unitary creature whose death was the end of human essence.
Two things happened when the early Christians, mostly Jewish converts, began to encounter the Greek world. The Greek questioned how the metaphysical god of total otherness could be identified with the human Jesus of Nazareth. St. Paul’s sermon at the altar of the unknown god [Acts 17:23] tackles this conflict head on, but his Greek hearers replied “we should like to hear you on this some other time,” as polite a brush-off as one finds in the bible. The second challenge faced by Christians in Greek lands was an infiltration of pseudo-Christians who carried misbegotten metaphysical notions about Jesus that, taken together, denied the pillar of salvation possibility: the Incarnation. God, they reasoned, could not become man.
2 John is a letter written by an elder [presbyteros] from another Christian assembly to people he knows well, calling them “the chosen Lady and to her children,” emphasizing the truth that dwells within them, that Christ is one with the eternal Father. He commends the fact that some of the children [members] are walking in the truth. He reminds them of the necessity of loving one another, not as a new teaching, but as something that has been the cornerstone of every teaching they have received.
But all is not well. The elder is distressed. In 2 John 1:7 he warns against the antichrist, an apocalyptic figure who will mislead many just before the Second Coming, which evidently was expected soon. But in 2 John 1:9 the elder becomes more specific, and he commands this local church to reject “progressives” from among its membership. Goodbye Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? Perhaps some bishops would favor that today, but, the elder is referring to a brand of Christian teaching which held that the man Jesus Christ would “progress” on to a higher metaphysical plane. Such corrupted teachers could not bring themselves to believe that Jesus could be both God and man, which is the heart of orthodox Christology.
An error like this one arises from a belief that matter is evil, and only the metaphysical [or “spiritual”] is good and true. This is a contradiction of the Hebrew accounts of creation, where God looked out over everything he created and saw that it was good. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si addresses the sacredness of God’s creation in our own time. If matter is evil, then the human Jesus is evil and unworthy of our faith. Unfortunately, denial of Christ’s humanity had a long shelf life. In the days of 2 John such heresy would have multiple names and forms, such as Docetism and Gnosticism. In the fourth century the heresy, under the name of Arianism, would prompt the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea [325 A.D.], which produced the Nicene Creed we proclaim every Sunday.
One reason 2 John is so brief is the elder’s pledge to personally visit this community shortly to elaborate his concern, perhaps to correct in-house error, and to extend the love of his own Christian community to them.