Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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28. The Johannine Letters: 1 John, 2 John, 3 John


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding the historical background for the three Johannine letters, including suppositions regarding authorship, the likely date and place of composition, and the situations these letters were intended to address.
  • describe what the letters say with reference to themes that may have been topics of controversy within the community that produced them: the humanity of Christ, the doctrine of atonement, and the continuance of sin.
  • articulate the ethic of love presented in these letters and discuss what it means for “loving one another” to be a prime commandment for Christian communities.
  • relate what the Johannine letters have to say about conflict and schism in the church and indicate how the letters have been used to understand dynamics of church conflict.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Libel

In groups, have students examine the three Johannine Letters and describe the conflict and crisis that affects the community. Why is this crisis particularly bitter? What language is used to describe the opponents, false teachers, or secessionists? Now have the groups turn to the Gospel of John chapter 9. After reading the chapter together, ask the groups to reflect on this question: how does an examination of the Johannine Letters illumine an understanding of John 9? The conflicts in the letters and in the Gospel are probably not occurring at the same time, yet using the lens from one writing can help to imaginatively conjure the setting for the second writing.

Bring the class back together and ask them to reflect on the process of interpretation. What are the benefits to reading the three Johannine Letters side by side, rather than one letter (1 Peter or 1 Timothy) alone? What understanding do we gain from comparison and contrast?


In this exercise, students move from literary and historical analysis to reflect on their own interpretation. It may help to have students articulate and enumerate the steps they take in interpreting a letter. In this way they become more aware of the analytical tools they are learning.

2. Dualism: Identifying Language and Function

A simple exercise to begin exegetical analysis is to have students identify the “dualistic” language in the letters (or one letter in particular). Students may work alone or in groups. Once students have identified the dualistic language, the instructor can take the exercise in a number of directions.

Look at the rhetorical effects of this language. Ask students what purpose this language serves. What effect does the dualism create? With what key topics or theological themes is the dualistic language used?

Look at the early communities under social, economic, and identity pressures. What ideologies arise? What role does language serve in helping these communities to survive? What is the community’s perspective on the world? Do they sound like a sect? Might they become very insular and distrustful of neighbors?


The first level of analysis is identification of a kind of language—dualism. Students learn to look for the Christian images and phrases that express dualistic views of the world. The second level of analysis is to understand how the dualistic language functions. Students may notice that the language functions within each letter and also in relation to the social community that receives the letter. How far can students parse the function of language? On how many levels can they think at once?

Discussion Prompts

  1. Compare 1 Corinthians and 1 John. How does each author use “love” to address problems of discord and conflict in the communities to whom they write? Do the authors have the same definition of love? What are some of the differences or similarities?
  2. Hospitality is one of the greatest virtues in the ancient world, where travelers often needed social protection as well as a roof over their heads. What is the role that hospitality plays in the Johannine Letters? What about in the Gospel of John? What parallels do the authors draw between receiving Jesus and receiving those who minister in Jesus’ name or follow Jesus? How do the authors view a lack of hospitality and in what circumstances do they exhort the Johannine believers not to offer hospitality?
  3. Look at box 28.5 in the text. Why so much affirmation in these letters?