The Letter known as John 3 is the briefest of the three epistles attributed to “John.” Only the Letter to Jude rivals this text in brevity in the New Testament. Given that it has been a while since our last post on this stream, I had some opportunity to look at very recent scholarship on the entire body of literature under the name of John. There are five books in the New Testament under the name of John:
 the Gospel, of course;
 1 John Letter;
 2 John Letter;
 3 John Letter [today’s post]; and
 The Book of Revelation.
Toan Do’s excellent essay on the Johannine literature in The Paulist Biblical Commentary  summarizes recent scholarship on the three letters of John. [pp. 1551-1566]. It is fascinating to me, an old catechetical war horse, to see the evolution of thinking about John in my lifetime. In the PBC commentary, To observes that until the nineteenth century the Church simply assumed everything under the name of John was written by John. By the time I arrived in grad school in 1971 with my high hopes and lunch in my briefcase [no backpacks then], there was a strong consensus that the Book of Revelation was written by a different author utilizing an apocalyptic [futuristic] vision for a persecuted people.
During much of my professional life the dean of Johannine study was the American priest, Father Raymond Brown. An immensely gifted researcher and writer, Brown put forward the thesis that the early Church featured a division between those who acknowledged Peter as the center of the Church, on the one hand, and followers of “the beloved disciple” on the other. Brown summarized his theory in his 1979 The Community of the Beloved Disciple, an eminently readable text and easy to obtain today. Today’s students of John illustrate that we are not certain of precisely who John is. The Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] only identify John as, with James, “the sons of thunder” whereas the Gospel of John identifies “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
The best we can say with historical probability is that a “school of John” arose with a rich theology of Jesus and the Church. Apart from Revelation, all the John writings reflect a portrait of Jesus who is truly God and truly man. Consider the first chapter of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word….” The latest Gospel, John’s first chapter is possibly a salvo in a theological war of ideas, as multiple sources attest to a heresy in the early Church which denied the humanity of Christ. It is possible, too, that all the Johannine literature bears Greek influence as the Church expanded into Turkey and Greece. Legend has it that after Good Friday the Apostle John took Jesus’ mother to live in Ephesus in modern day Turkey.
The literature of John carries a constant message of the necessity of love. This may be another indication of the Greek influence in the early Church which many members felt important to protect and practice as the principal imitation of Christ. Greek thinkers identified two forms of love: eros, or possessive love, and agape, a total giving of one’s self for the other. John’s Gospel seizes the definition of agape, as in Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, an episode which is not mentioned in the other Gospels.
This, then, is the backdrop of 3 John, which appears to be a product of the “Johannine wing” of the Church. This third letter was included in the Biblical Canon of Revelation by the early fourth century, and was cited by earlier bishops and saints of the Church from the early 100’s. The unknown author identifies himself as “an elder,” which may indicate he was a regionally respected exemplar of fidelity and teaching authority. The letter is addressed to one individual, Gaius, a friend of the elder. Gaius, it seems, is somewhat beleaguered by the teachings and behaviors of other visible members of his local church.
The elder boosts his spirits, noting that “the truth is in you,” a cause of personal rejoicing. The author feels no need in this letter to identify the tenets of the truth; both men assume they are one in fidelity to the truth of Jesus, i.e., that he is God and man. The elder evidently has other connections with this church, as he references a recent visit from Gaius’ town from other brethren. Perhaps it is from them that he learns of the problems Gaius is confronting. The brethren report that many in their community are “walking in truth” and “living genuinely” [i.e., in a spirit of agape.]
The elder encourages Gaius to keep doing what he is doing and encourages him to extend hospitality and support to friends like the elder and strangers alike. Ministers of the Gospel were highly dependent upon support of the places they visited but had learned through hard experience that unconverted Gentiles were not likely to help them much. The elder promises to send another elder, Demetrius, to assist Gaius in a brewing battle with another member of his community, Diotrephes. It is not clear precisely what lie at the heart of this local theological crisis. The NABRE Bible suggests that Diotrephes was an old-guard believer who distrusted the elder in his efforts to consolidate his authority. This may reflect the changing governance of the Church at the end of the first century, when charismatic and independent ministry began passing to the oversight of bishops. The elder, though, notes the pride of Diotrephes and his withdrawal from the mainstream of the local community.
In any event, the elder has surmised that Diotrephes was a threat to the agape that held the early churches together. He does not believe that excommunication would be helpful [perhaps Diotrephes had his own following]; he hoped instead that the errors of this discontent would be evident if Gaius and others taught and lived “the way,” the idiom used for fidelity to the life and will of Jesus. In concluding, the elder determines the problem with Diotrephes would not be solved by letter. “Instead, I hope to see you soon, when we can talk face to face. Peace be with you. The friends greet you; greet the friends there each by name.”
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