Table of Contents
The General Letters are a block of seven writings comprised of James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude which have been placed together in Christian scripture since early times. They are called “General” because they are not addressed to anyone in particular. They are also called “Catholic,” meaning “universal,” for the same reason: as they are addressed to no one in particular they might be considered to be addressed to everyone in general. (Hebrews and, possibly, Ephesians also fall into this category. However, they have always circulated as part of Paul's letters.) Perhaps New Testament letters without specific recipients can be considered as apostolic encyclicals?
The General Letters offer a valuable insight into apostolic teaching. Our theology is shaped by the New Testament writings. As Paul's letters comprise such a large proportion of the New Testament, it is very useful to have the General Letters as a complement. These letters deserve close attention as independent witnesses to primitive Christianity.
Unfortunately, certain constraints prevent this course from covering all of the General Letters. Faced with the awful choice of which ones to leave out, I finally decided to cover 1 Peter and 1-3 John. This means that we will not look at James, 2 Peter, or Jude and interesting questions associated with them (e.g. apostolic disputes, literary dependence, canonicity, pseudepigraphy).
Some of the questions we ask are hard to answer. It is always good to go to the sources. An illusion of certainty can be created just because something is often said. Sometimes, following a frequently quoted line back to its sources shows that a popular edifice ultimately rests on shaky foundations. In view of this, it helps to consider the level of confidence which should be attached to an assertion. I find the following set of categories helpful in this respect:
A: Beyond reasonable doubt: There is no serious competition to the prevailing view.
B: Better of two: There are two competing views, one being a better fit to the evidence.
C: Several alternatives: The evidence supports a few viable alternatives (more than two but not too many).
D: Speculative: There is insufficient evidence to decide. Any opinions ventured are speculative.
A convergence of evidence can sometimes produce a high level of confidence in a particular explanation. It sometimes happens that a long-overlooked clue or new way of looking at the data can be decisive in answering a question. When there is a lack of firm evidence to contradict what a writing says about itself, I prefer to presume innocence. Thus, for example, when 1 Peter says it is by Peter and there is no compelling evidence to contradict that claim, I am happy to accept it.
The earliest manuscripts which preserve all of these letters place Acts and the General Letters together. In their time, a complete New Testament would consist of four parts:
The Four Gospels
Acts and General Letters
Paul's Letters (including Hebrews)
This order (i.e. Acts and General Letters immediately following the Gospels) is used in Codices Vaticanus (4th century) and Alexandrinus (late 4th or early 5th century). Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) places Paul's letters immediately after the Four Gospels. In either arrangement, Acts serves to introduce the authors of the letters which follow.
This table lists Roman emperors during the first hundred years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
||Caligula||37-41||There was a financial crisis and famine during his reign. Assassinated.|
||Claudius||41-54||Had Jews expelled from Rome (49?) for tumult incited by “Chrestus.” Probably poisoned by his wife to make way for her son Nero.|
||Nero||54-68||Instigated a terrible persecution against Christians (65?). Committed suicide after being declared a public enemy.|
|Galba, Otho, Vitellius||68-69||These three had consecutive reigns during 69 CE. Two were murdered, one committed suicide.|
||Vespasian||69-79||Appointed to suppress the Jewish revolt (66-70). Died of natural causes.|
||Titus||79-81||Elder son of Vespasian, he ended the Jewish revolt in 70. Died of natural causes?|
||Domitian||81-96||Younger son of Vespasian. Eusebius says he persecuted Christians. Assassinated.|
||Nerva||96-98||Died of natural causes.|
||Trajan||98-117||The Roman Empire reached its greatest extent during his rule. Pliny (the younger) sought his advice concerning Christians. Died of natural causes.|
||Hadrian||117-138||His policy regarding Jerusalem provoked the Bar Kokhba revolt. Died of natural causes.|
1 Peter was written to Christians living in certain provinces of the Roman Empire. By the time 1 Peter was written, the Empire had become a military dictatorship which was, nevertheless, careful to maintain due process with respect to law. However, even though policies were in place, there was no guarantee of their uniform application. It was common for policies to be unequally enforced across the Empire.
Those born into foreign religions were generally tolerated provided they did not challenge Roman rule. Non-Romans were not expected to practice Roman religions; practice of foreign religions by Romans was discouraged but could be tolerated. Any troublesome sect could be suppressed on a whim. The Jewish religion enjoyed a measure of official recognition though at times it was subjected to various modes of suppression, such as prohibition of rites, banishment, and taxation. According to Achtemeier,
... the distaste inspired by Jewish exclusivity transferred to Christians, who suffered the additional disadvantage of not being able to plead ancestral custom for their religious practices. Despite that fact, the basic Roman tolerance for foreign religious rites could also be applied to the Christian faith.
Collegia were associations or clubs formed to promote a common interest. The government was ever paranoid about collegia being hotbeds of political dissent, and a number of Emperors took steps to control them. Dislike of collegia may have been a principal cause of official maltreatment of Christianity.
The practice of Emperor worship was still taking shape in the first century. It was practiced eagerly practiced in the provinces of Asia Minor, far more so than in Rome itself. Failure to engage in Emperor worship implied disloyalty to Rome. Provincial authorities were careful to suppress anything that might be interpreted as rebellion against Rome for fear of the awful consequences that would follow.
The author identifies himself as “Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ” (1.1) and “a witness of Christ's sufferings” (5.1). This would seem an unmistakable reference to Simon, son of Jonah, whom Jesus named “Cephas,” meaning “Rock,” which in Greek is “Peter.” Some people doubt that the letter is Peter's; however, for every argument there is a counter-argument:
It is written in a sophisticated style. (Peter is perceived to be unlearned and ignorant in Acts 4.13.) However, someone like Silvanus could have added the polish.
It's quotations and allusions are often from the LXX. But the letter is written in Greek so one might expect use of a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible for quotations. Could Silvanus again be responsible?
It lacks references to Jesus' life. But the letter is not intended as a life of Jesus.
It seems to use concepts attributed to Paul. But there is no definite dependence. Common concepts can be attributed to a common agenda, an apostolic “party line.” All this requires is communication among the apostles and guidance by the Spirit of God.
Some think that the persecutions mentioned in the letter did not happen until after Peter died. However, local and unofficial persecution could have taken place at any time. Besides no one being sure when Peter died, it is always hard to tell how uniformly official persecution was executed in the provinces.
The letter is written to residents of areas evangelized by Paul. However, of the regions mentioned in the address, only Asia and Galatia have a direct connection with Paul's missionary travels. The Holy Spirit prevented Paul from entering Bithynia (Acts 16.7). Perhaps Peter was already in communication with people in the areas mentioned?
Karen Jobes says,
If the evidence traditionally used to point to a late date and pseudonymous authorship is actually inconclusive because it could pertain to any period of the Christian church in the first century, then it becomes more difficult to avoid a more direct association of the letter with the apostle Peter himself. And there is substantial evidence that would point to a very close association of the apostle Peter with the letter.
I shall refer to the author as Peter.
Peter's reference to himself at 5.1 as a συμπρεσβυτεροσ “fellow elder” may be a clue to his age when writing. A similar Greek word, πρεσβυτησ, refers to the sixth of the seven ages of man:
|παιδιον (little boy)||0-6||Time of baby teeth.|
|παιs (boy)||7-13||Late childhood.|
|μειρακιον (lad)||14-20||Beard begins to show.|
|νεανισκοσ (young man)||21-27||Peak of physical strength. Not usually regarded as old enough to be in a position of reponsibility.|
|ἀνηρ (man)||28-48||A man in the prime of life.|
|πρεσβυτησ (aging man)||49-55||Peak of reason. A man of the older rather than younger generation.|
|γερων (old man)||56+||A man in the final stage of life.|
The recipients are described as “[the] chosen [race], temporary residents of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia [who have been] set apart for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ according to the Father's foreknowledge” (1.1-2). In other words, though scattered among the pagans as were the Jews of the past, they are yet the chosen people of the new covenant.
According to Guthrie, “Although this epistle possesses the character of a circular letter, it differs from the other general epistles of the New Testament in specifying the area in which the readers are confined.”
The following map of the Mediterranean by Adolf Harnack shows where these provinces are located:
In Acts 2.9, Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia are mentioned as the homes of Jews who had travelled to Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost. Further on in Acts (16.6-7), we read that the Holy Spirit prevented Paul and his companions from speaking the word in Asia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them to travel into Bithynia. The order in which the provinces are listed could be followed by someone delivering the letter.
Describing the recipients as the chosen race and members of the diaspora makes them sound Jewish. Paul says “... men of repute ... acknowledged that I had been entrusted with the Gospel for the Gentiles as surely as Peter had been entrusted with the Gospel for the Jews” (Gal 2.6-7, NEB). If Peter is the Apostle to the Jews, is this letter addressed to Jews? Some have argued for Jewish, some for Gentile, and some for mixed Jewish and Gentile recipients. Those for a Gentile audience see verses such as 1.14, 1.18, 2.9-10, and 4.3-4 as apt for Gentiles but not Jews. However, any of those verses could be taken to refer to a Jewish audience as well. The audience may well have comprised both Jews and Gentiles. Whatever their ethnic background, it seems they were bound together by a common ethos, one that brought them into conflict with society at large.
Perhaps the early Christian leaders had in conference divided up responsibility for oversight of established Christian communities among certain leaders. The General Letters and those of Paul are one means by which the apostles could exercise their responsibilities as shepherds, feeding the lambs and taking care of the sheep. The Christian communities listed as recipients of 1 Peter would then be among those with whose care Peter had been charged.
Perhaps the reference to temporary residents should be taken at face value rather than in a metaphorical sense. Jobes thinks the recipients might have been part of a Roman colonization program or among those Jews expelled from Rome by Claudius. According to Suetonius (Life of Claudius 25.4), Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit: “he expelled Jews from Rome because of the continual tumult incited by Chresto.”
Peter says he is writing from “Babylon” (5.13). At the time, Babylon on the Euphrates was in ruins. There was a military outpost on the Nile called Babylon but it seems unlikely Peter was there. The most popular theory is that Peter uses “Babylon” as code for Rome, something also done in Revelation. Early traditions says that Peter moved to Rome, so he may well have been writing from there.
If the author does not provide a date then it is necessary to use indirect methods to obtain a date range within which it was composed. The lower and upper limits of a date range are called the terminus post quem (“limit after which”) and terminus ante quem (“limit before which”). There are two ways to establish these limits: external evidence looks at outside factors such as quotations by other writers; internal evidence looks at the writing itself to find clues.
Concerning external evidence, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian make unmistakable references to 1 Peter, so it had wide circulation by the second half of the second century. There may be allusions to 1 Peter in the first letter of Clement, which is dated about 95 CE. However, Achtemeier says that the first writings that can be confidently regarded as referring to 1 Peter are by Polycarp, who was executed for being a Christian in 156 CE. If 2 Peter 3.1 is a reference to 1 Peter then the date of 2 Peter places an upper limit on the date of 1 Peter. If 2 Peter is by Peter then it must have been written before Peter's death. No one knows when Peter died. It may be that he was crucified during Nero's persecution (about 65) although he may have died much later, towards the end of the first century.
Concerning internal evidence, the letter is sent to established Christian communities in the provinces mentioned. These communities could have been established by those who witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, making a foundation date as early as the 30s possible. If these communities were formed by some of those expelled from Rome by Claudius (49?) then the letter was written after that.
Some have noticed similarities between 1 Peter and other New Testament writings such as Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, and James. If these are more than coincidental then the dates of those writings might help in dating this one. However, which writing influenced which? If the apostles were in communication and taking coordinated action then it is conceivable that similar themes would be emphasised in their writings. Common themes and characteristics could be evidence that writings which contain them were written about the same time.
Peter says he is writing from “Babylon” (5.13). Reading between the lines, Peter might not have wanted to broadcast his location. He was, after all, on the run from the law. (He did a jail break in Jerusalem, even if it was with the help of an angel of the Lord.) Some think that this code word for Rome was not widely used until after 70. However, who is to say that Christians in Rome did not begin using the code word at an earlier date?
If the suffering mentioned in 1 Peter refers to official persecution by the Roman Empire then this might provide a hint about when the letter was written. The persecution mentioned may well have been the same kind of non-official harassment that is described in Acts and Paul's letters. However, if it was due to the state then the tendency is to locate the persecution during the reign of one of the following Emperors:
Nero: He blamed Christians for the great fire of 64, which many believed that he had engineered. According to Tacitus, “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.”
Domitian: He had a propensity for executing people and liked to be addressed as “our Lord and God.” Saying this would have been a problem for any Christian who met him. He may well have punished members of his own household for being Christian. Although Eusebius says that Domitian stirred up persecution against Christians, there is some doubt that widespread state persecution occurred during Domitian's reign. 
Trajan: While governor of Bithynia-Pontus about 112 CE, Pliny (the younger; Pliny the elder died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79) wrote to Trajan asking how to deal with those charged with being Christian.
Robinson favours an early date, seeing the events under Nero as cause for an urgent message from Peter preparing the recipients for what may lie ahead if what has just happened in Rome spreads to the provinces. If this is what prompted Peter to write then the letter's date can be narrowed down to somewhere around April 65.
The emphasis on hope in the face of suffering may indicate that the letter was prompted by reports of persecution among the Christian communities to whom the letter was addressed. Another possible trigger was Nero's attack on Christians following the great fire of 64. This could have prompted the dispatch of this encyclical as a matter of urgency.
This letter exhorts the Christians of Asia Minor not to give up their allegiance to Jesus Christ in the face of persecution. (Hebrews has the same intent.) It also encourages them to have a missionary outlook, conducting themselves so that, if charged with an offence, the only “crime” for which they can be convicted is allegiance to Christ.
Various other theories exist concerning the purpose of this letter: something to be read at a baptism service; teaching for new converts; instilling a sense of common identity; reducing tensions over contentious issues (e.g. perceived differences between church leaders, as in First Corinthians); increasing Peter's authority; or encouraging the recipients to engage in mission.
Achtemeier says, “There is ... little reason to question the identification of 1 Peter as a circular letter addressed to Christian communities scattered over the northern half of Asia Minor.”
It has the sound of a paraenetic letter, aimed at “promoting growth in character through moral transformation.”
Witherington regards it as a rhetorical piece having an exordium to establish a rapport with the audience, a propositio to state the thesis, a probatio to list arguments supporting the thesis, and a peroratio to make a final appeal based on pathos to persuade the audience.
The letter seems to come to an end by saying “Amen” some time before it really ends. (Interestingly, Hebrews does the same thing. Oh, and so does Romans.) Some people take this to mean that the final part (4.12-5.8) was tacked on to a pre-existing piece as an after-thought. Another proposal says that the letter was originally a baptismal liturgy.
Along with Hebrews, Luke, and Acts, this letter is amongst the most polished prose found in the New Testament. It uses many rhetorical devices such as comparison, alliteration, anaphora, and parallelism. The author seems to have had a formal education.
1 Peter is saturated with quotations and allusions from the Hebrew Bible, often using the Septuagint (LXX) version. Achtemeier lists a number of possible parallels that others have noticed between 1 Peter and the Gospels, Acts, James, Romans, Ephesians, and Hebrews:
|1 Peter||Matt (or Luke)|
|3.14||Matt 5.10 (Luke 6.22)|
|4.8||5.20 (see Prov 10.12)|
Some of these share only a single Greek word in common. Other similarities relate to such things as style (e.g. 1 Peter and Hebrews) and themes (1 Peter and Ephesians).
Martin Luther thought that 1 Peter had everything a Christian needed. Suffering and hope are important themes. There is a parallel between the suffering of Christ and that of the Christian community. Just as Christ had to endure suffering on his road to glory, so must the Christian. The Christian community is the new Israel, members of the New Covenant consecrated by the blood of Christ.
Taking a lead from Michaels, the theology of 1 Peter can be treated under the trinitarian categories of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his mercy gave us new birth into a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 1.3, NEB.) According to 1 Peter, the God of Jesus Christ is the source of grace, the one who chooses the elect, who is worthy of praise, who gives new birth, who protects those being rescued, who is the object of faith and hope, who resists the proud and favours the humble, who is to be respected.
Jesus Christ is the agent of salvation, the one who sent Peter, whose blood seals the New Covenant, who has been resurrected, who is to be revealed, whose spirit inspired the prophets of old, who suffered then attained splendour, through whom the redeemed come to trust in God, the living stone, the one through whom we offer sacrifices to God, who is our example, who dealt with our sins through his own body, the shepherd and guardian of your souls, who is to be revered.
The glorious Spirit dedicates the elect to serve God, inspired the prophets, gives power to the Gospel, and rests upon those persecuted for Christ. “In the body Christ was put to death; in the Spirit he was brought to life.” (1 Peter 3.18, adapted from the NEB.)
The Translator's Handbook on the First Letter from Peter says, “There are many ways of outlining this letter... The following outline, which no doubt has its weaknesses and can be improved, is offered here as an aid...”
1.3-12: Prayer of thanksgiving
1.13-2.10: The Christian Life
2.11-3.22: Christian behaviour
4.1-19: Christian suffering and service
5.1-11: Admonitions to the church
Here is an an alternative outline by Richard K. Moore:
1.3-2.12: Salvation: Our destination
2.13-3.12: Submission: Our duty
3.13-5.11: Suffering: Our discipline
Michaels uses two occurrences of the term “Dear friends” (αγαπητοι) at 2.11 and 4.12 as a cue for dividing the letter:
1.3-2.10: Identity of God's people
2.11-4.11: Responsibilities of God's people
4.12-5.11: Responsibilities of a church and its elders
According to Achtemeier, the structure is “in accordance with ancient letters, and more particularly Christian letters” where an opening is followed by a multipart body and closing. He sees the two occurrences of “Dear Friends” and a “Therefore” (διο) at 1.13 as markers which produce a three-part body:
1.13-2.10: Body opening
2.11-4.11: Body middle
4.12-5.11: Body closing
Even though the arrangements given by Michaels and Achtemeier are quite close, the lack of a consensus indicates that there is no obvious arrangement. According to Kümmel, “A simple organization of 1 Peter cannot be given because of its paraenetic character. Each delineation is no more than a possibility.”
Witherington gives this structure, which assumes a rhetorical paradigm:
1.3-12: Exordium: Thanksgiving for so great a salvation
1.13-16: Propositio: You are holy and have a hope, so live accordingly
1.17-2.10: Argument 1: Living as redeeming temporary residents
2.11-3.12: Argument 2: Submission to authority
3.13-4.11: Argument 3: Suffering and self-control
4.12-19: Argument 4: Suffering with Christ
5.1-5: Argument 5: Elders and Youths
5.6-9: Peroratio: Be humble and vigilant, resist the devil, and cast your cares on God
For the purposes of this course, 1 Peter is divided into nine sections of roughly equal length which do not necessarily follow natural divisions found in the letter:
1 Peter 1.1-12
1 Peter 1.13-25
1 Peter 2.1-12
1 Peter 2.13-25
1 Peter 3.1-12
1 Peter 3.13-22
1 Peter 4.1-11
1 Peter 4.12-19
1 Peter 5.1-14
After being written, the letter was distributed through Asia Minor. No one knows which copy or copies of the original stand behind what we now have. Other parts of the New Testament were gathered into blocks of writings then circulated as units from an early stage. For example, the Letters of Paul seem to have been circulating as a unit by the end of the first century. The Four Gospels seem to have been a unit by the time of Irenaeus (180 CE), if not earlier. I don't know when the General Letters first began to circulate as a collection. Our earliest intact copies of entire New Testaments place them together. Our earliest surviving copy of 1 Peter is papyrus manuscript P72, dated around 300 CE. It is constructed from pieces of a number of codices and contains 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude along with a number of non-canonical writings. (What does “non-canonical” mean?) It is quite possible that the codices from which these pieces were obtained did contain all of the General Letters.
David Trobisch has noticed a surprising uniformity in the naming and order of writings in ancient copies of the New Testament. He takes this to mean that they are all descended from an edition of the New Testament which added the titles we now take for granted. It is hard to tell when this edition was first published. Knowing when the General Letters began to circulate as a collection would be an important factor in establishing when the First Edition was published, if indeed Trobisch's thesis is correct.
Our earliest surviving copy of the text (P72) is dated about two centuries after the original. Without having the original, it is impossible to say how much the reconstructed text used today, as exemplified by the INTF's ECM, differs from the text that was first written down. I believe that the reconstructed text represented by the ECM is very close to the original, so much so that a typical audience would have trouble detecting any differences between the original and reconstructed texts if both were translated and read out. However, not everyone agrees with this assessment.
Here is a three-dimensional map produced by multidimensional scaling of distances between witnesses of the First Letter of Peter deduced from the apparatus of the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament:
Here is a “dendrogram” produced from Greek manuscripts alone:
As both the MDS map and divisive clustering dendrogram are based on quite a small sample of variation units, any conclusions drawn from them are provisional. This is because analysis of a larger sample might produce significantly different results.
The dendrogram can be cut at any height to produce a partition. There doesn't seem to be a clear group structure so the decision of which height to use is fairly arbitrary. The following partition is produced with a height of 0.45 units:
C, M945, M1739, M1881, M322, M323, M2298, M81
Byz, P, L, K, Lect
M33, M2344, M436, M1409, M1067, M2464, M1735
M1175, M1241, M1243, M1852
M1292, M1611, M2138, M1505
The dendrogram indicates that there is a broad division with P72, B, U1, and A on one side and the rest on the other. P72, B, and U1 happen to be the oldest surviving copies of First Peter. The fifth cluster of the nine-way partition is entirely comprised of examples of the Byzantine standard text which began to dominate after the fourth century. Each cluster represents a textual family whose members share common characteristics, probably due to common ancestors. It may be that some of the clusters are associated with ancient Christian population centres. For example, the Byzantine standard may be a later development of the ancient text of Syrian Antioch.
Including all of the witnesses produces the following dendrogram:
Including early versions (Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, Slavic) makes the picture more complicated. It is interesting to see that most of the versions end up on the side associated with the oldest Greek witnesses P72, B, U1, and A. It makes sense that the Syriac Peshitta, Armenian, and Ethiopic would be close to each other given that the Armenian is thought to be based on a Syriac original and that there are historical links between the Syrian and Ethiopic churches. It also makes sense that P72 and the Sahidic Coptic are associated because both are Egyptian. The implied associations between (1) U1 (Sinaiticus) and the Ethiopic; and (2) A and the Old Latins are surprising.
As for the witnesses on the right, it is somewhat surprising to see the Harclean Syriac on a different side to the Peshitta. The association between the Harclean Syriac and the family comprised of M1292, M1505, M1611, and M2138 has been noticed before. It is more surprising that the Bohairic Coptic is separated from the Sahidic. The Bohairic is associated with a set of witnesses whose quality has long been recognised, namely M33, M81, M2344, and M2464. Perhaps this cluster represents a later development in the Egyptian text, influenced by the emerging Byzantine standard? The association between the Slavonic and the Byzantine standard is no surprise. This version was produced in the ninth century by Cyril and Methodius, possibly from Greek manuscripts found in their home town of Thessalonika.
The cluster comprised of C, M1739, and the rest up to majuscule 44 remains to be discussed. C is the fifth century Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, so called because its biblical text was washed off before being replaced with sermons of Ephraem the Syrian. Minuscule 1739 is recognised as preserving an ancient text, possibly of the kind used by Origen. Could this cluster represent a Palestinian text?
Through the generosity of the Institute for New Testament Textual Research, I have now been able to analyse comprehensive data for 1 Peter:
More results are available here. The main features I notice are a number of “nuclei,” perhaps representing centres of textual copying. Each nucleus in the MDS map corresponds, more or less, with a cluster in the DC dendrogram. Whether these correspond to Christian population centres or centres of ecclesial authority, I don't know. The largest cluster represents the Byzantine text which eventually became dominant. It is interesting to see that corridors between non-Byzantine nuclei and the Byzantine nucleus are occupied but corridors between non-Byzantine nuclei are not. I interpret this to mean that, as far as texts are concerned, there was not much crosstalk between non-Byzantine centres but there was crosstalk between non-Byzantine centres and the Byzantine centre.
The dendrogram shows two broad divisions. The one on the left includes nearly all of the oldest members of the analysed sample of witnesses. The one on the right includes all of the witnesses we are accustomed to calling “Byzantine.” P72, from the third or fourth century CE and one of only two papyri in the sample, stands apart from these two broad divisions.
Cutting the dendrogram at a height of about 0.20 units produces a number of clusters which are listed in the following table, along with comments on each. The decision to divide the dendrogram at a height of 0.20 is purely a matter of preference. Every resultant cluster contains sub-clusters which have their own stories to tell.
This map and dendrogram present the relative dispositions of witnesses but say nothing about which nucleus or cluster best represents the initial text. If forced to choose, I would favour the primary Alexandrians. However, each of the other clusters may preserve an ancient text beneath a veneer of later “improvements.”
Saint Jerome said that when the Apostle John was very old his disciples had to carry him into church. All he would say was, “Little children, love one another.” When asked why he always said the same thing, John replied, “Because it is the Lord's command. When only this is done, it is enough.” Love is a central theme in these three letters, which the early church attributed to John.
The letters we call 1-3 John were given these names (John A = 1 John, John B = 2 John, and John C = 3 John) by unknown persons at an unknown time in the history of the New Testament text. Why this order was chosen is also unknown: it might simply reflect length, which seems to be an organising principle in other groups of New Testament letters as well. According to David Trobisch, the fact that the names and order of New Testament writings are almost completely uniform in surviving ancient copies of the New Testament indicates that they go back to a single early edition of the New Testament, perhaps produced in the second century. Whether 1-3 John circulated as part of a collection comprised of Acts and the General Letters before being incorporated into copies of the entire New Testament has not yet been examined as far as I know.
To answer the question of who wrote 1-3 John, it is first necessary to determine whether they were all written by the same person or persons. 2 and 3 John let it be known that one person is responsible: “The Elder.” 1 John switches between “we,” indicating multiple authors (e.g. 1 John 1), and “I,” indicating a single author (e.g. 1 John 2). This might be taken to indicate that 1 John is a collaborative effort with one principal figure. As it happens, the Fourth Gospel, also attributed to John, has the same characteristic: John 21.24 says “It is this same disciple who attests what has here been written. It is in fact he who wrote it, and we know that his testimony is true.”)
Taken by themselves, 1-3 John say almost nothing about who this individual was, as if an effort was being made to hide his identity. According to 1 John, he is one of a group who has heard, seen, and felt that which was from the beginning, the Word of Life, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. That is, he is one of a group who has had direct contact with Jesus Christ, making him an apostle. But which apostle?
Throwing the net wider, it may be that the Gospel attributed to John and even the Apocalypse attributed to someone named John were written under the same authority as 1-3 John. Looking first at the Gospel, we are only told that this was “the disciple who Jesus loved,” again keeping his name hidden for some reason. If the Apocalypse was written by the same person then we are finally given a name: “I, John, your brother, who shares with you in the suffering and the sovereignty and the endurance which is ours in Jesus — I was on the island called Patmos because I had preached God's word and borne my testimony to Jesus.” (Rev 1.9, NEB.) (Perhaps there was no point in hiding his identity while the authorities had him in custody?)
Irenaeus (born 120-140?; died about 200 AD) regarded John, the Lord's disciple who reclined on his breast, as author of the Gospel of John, Revelation, and 1 John. Nevertheless, some have suggested that the early church got it wrong and that 1-3 John and the Gospel of John are actually by the apostle Thomas, or Lazarus, or a literary persona representing gentile Christianity! Even Eusebius of Caesarea, at the beginning of the fourth century, distinguished between two Johns. Based on something written by Papias around 130 AD, Eusebius thought that John the Apostle and John the Elder were different people, attributing the Apocalypse to John the Elder. However, what Papias wrote is ambiguous with respect to whether John the Apostle and John the Elder are one or two people.
Taking a different tack, Poythress conducted stylistic tests based on certain conjunctions and asyndeton (omission of connectives such as “and”). He says that “a consistent pattern is found throughout the Gospel and the Epistles, confirming unity of authorship.” Concerning the Apocalypse, he says “the pattern tends strongly to confirm unity of authorship.” That is, based on these tests, Poythress thinks the Gospel, Letters, and Apocalypse attributed by the early church to “John” have the same authorship.
John A. T. Robinson believes that John the Apostle was responsible for the Gospel and the Letters of John. He sums up by contrasting the views of Brown and Cullmann with his own:
|Brown||Beloved disciple = John Zebedee||Beloved disciple ≠ Evangelist|
|Cullmann||Beloved disciple ≠ John Zebedee||Beloved disciple = Evangelist|
|Robinson||Beloved disciple = John Zebedee||Beloved disciple = Evangelist|
In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, I take these Letters to have been written under the authority of John the Apostle.
Assuming that all three Letters of John have the same author, what can be said about the ones to whom the letters were addressed? The recipients are known to the author of 1 John, who calls them his “children” (τεκνια, 1 John 2.1, 2.12, 2.18, 2.28, 3.7, 3.18, 4.4, 5.21), “brothers” (αδελφοι, 1 John 3.13), and “beloved” (αγαπητοι, 1 John 2.7, 3.2, 3.21, 4.1, 4.7, 4.11). In 2 John 1 the recipient is called the “chosen lady” (εκλεκτη κυρια). This can be taken literally, making the recipient an individual woman, but can also be taken as a cryptic reference to a Christian community. If the latter is true then references to “children” in 1 and 2 John are parallel. The recipient of 3 John is clearly identified: Gaius, who is addressed as one of the author's “children” (τεκνα, 3 John 4) and also as a “dear friend” (αγαπητε, 3 John 5, 11).
All three letters imply a division between two parties: those who are in good standing with the author and those who are not. 3 John names Diotrephes, someone with authority, as a member of the opposition. 2 John warns the chosen lady's children to beware of deceivers who do not acknowledge that Jesus has come in the flesh, describing such deceivers as the Antichrist. 1 John supplies a series of tests by which to discern between God's true children and impostors.
Lack of appeals to the Old Testament in 1-3 John might imply that the recipients were not familiar with it.
Nothing within the letters indicates where the recipients lived; however, a number of external factors point to Asia Minor:
Church tradition associates the Gospel of John with Ephesus.
The recipients of John's Apocalypse are in the same place, if indeed the Apocalypse, Gospel, and Letters of John have the same authorship.
The kind of “gnosticizing” teaching condemned by 1 and 2 John was connected to Asia Minor.
The earliest unmistakable use of 1 John was by Polycarp, who lived in Smyrna.
If the Apocalypse of John was written by the same person who wrote the Letters of John then it contains a hint about where these letters might have circulated. John's Apocalypse is addressed to seven churches in the province of Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. (Rev 1.4, 1.11.)
Taken on their own, the Letters of John do not say much about when they were written. The similarity of the closing sections of 2 and 3 John indicates that these two were written at the same time: 2 John 12 has “I have much to write to you, but I do not care to put it down in black and white,” while 3 John 13 has “I have much to write to you, but I do not care to set it down with pen and ink.” If 1 John is a tract sent with 2 John as a covering letter — which, by the way, amplifies some of the expressions in 1 John — then all three could have been written at the same time.
When would that have been? As far as external evidence is concerned, we can set the latest possible date by reference to Polycarp's quotation of 1 John (i.e. mid-second century). If the Gospel, Letters, and Apocalypse are all by the same John then attempts can be made to date them by reference to one another. This raises the question of their relative order, and all kinds of possibilities exist. Many place the writings of John late in the first century, associating the Apocalypse with Domitian's reign. However, others such as John A. T. Robinson, impressed by the absence of any mention of the destruction of Jerusalem, date the Gospel before 70 AD. Indeed, Robinson dates 1-3 John in the period 60-65 and associates the Apocalypse with the reign of Nero.
All three of the Letters of John imply a power stuggle within the Christian community to whom the Letters were sent; 1-3 John are an apostolic effort to deal with a church split. Those on one side are called beloved children while their opponents are called self-deceived, strangers to the truth, liars, antichrists, and false prophets. 1 John 4.1-3 and 2 John 7 imply that the opponents were “docetists,” a term later introduced by Ignatius of Antioch (died 108?) to describe those who say Jesus only seemed (δοκειν) to be human. Others have suggested they were Judaizers, Gnostics, or Cerinthites. (Cerinthus denied the virgin birth, regarded Jesus as son of Joseph, and taught that the Christ descended on Jesus at his baptism and departed at his crucifixion.)
1 John does not have the initial or final greetings associated with a letter. Instead, it is a treatise directed at distinguishing between true and false, light and dark, love and hate, God's household and the godless world, Christ and Antichrist. Its purpose is to assure those who accept its message that they have eternal life because of their allegiance to the Son of God.
The second and third Letters are two of the best examples of the Greco-Roman letter form found in the New Testament. It is quite possible that 2 John was a cover letter for 1 John, including explanations of how to interpret certain phrases in 1 John.
Smith says, “Except for the example of Cain as murderer (3:12; cf. Gen 4:8), there is no explicit reference to scripture, i.e. the Christian Old Testament, in any of the Johannine Epistles.”
There are similar phrases in the Letters and Gospel of John. In particular, there is a close correspondence between 1 John 1.1-7 and John 1.1-9.
|Word of Life from the beginning||1 John 1.1-2||John 1.1-4|
|Light||1 John 1.5-7||John 1.6-9|
|Paraclete||1 John 2.1||John 14.16, 26; 15.26; 16.7|
|New commandment||1 John 2.7||John 13.34|
|The world hates you||1 John 3.13||John 15.18|
|Death to life||1 John 3.14||John 5.24|
|Jesus lays down his life||1 John 3.16||John 10.11-18; 15.12-14|
|Commandment to believe||1 John 3.23||John 6.29|
|No one has seen God||1 John 4.12||John 1.18|
|Saviour of the world||1 John 4.14||John 4.42|
|Born of God||1 John 5.1||John 1.12-13|
|Water and blood||1 John 5.6||John 19.34|
|Eternal life||1 John 5.13||John 3.16|
|Commandment to love||2 John 5-6||John 13.34|
But which reflects which? Does 1 John presuppose the Gospel of John or vice versa?
Searching for an overall structure in 1 John may be futile due to the aphoristic nature of the text. (An aphorism is a pithy statement. If 1 John is simply a string of pithy statements then no larger structure should be expected.)
The two sections on the Antichrist and three summary statements at 5.18-20 may reveal the basic plan:
Introduction: The Word of Life has been revealed.
Walk in the light. (No child of God is a sinner.)
Beware of the Antichrist.
Remain in him. (We are of God's family.)
Beware of the Antichrist.
God sent his Son into the world to bring us life. (The Son of God has come.)
We know very little concerning the early transmission of the Letters of John. Church tradition attributes them to the Apostle John and places him in Asia Minor. Presumably, they were sent to Christian communities in that region. How they were transmitted to other Christians after that is unknown. The early Christians seem to have been in the habit of copying letters that had been sent to one church then sending them to other churches if they were written by important figures and contained important guidance.
Whether the Letters of John circulated individually or as part of a collection is unknown. Canon lists, references by Church Fathers, and the earliest surviving manuscripts indicate that they circulated as a group.
Concerning the relationships of the various witnesses, here is a multidimensional scaling map for the First Letter of John:
Here is a divisive clustering dendrogram based on the same data:
The following dendrogram results if only Greek manuscripts are considered:
These two dendrograms have a number of surprising aspects. The similarity of Sinaiticus (U1) and Ψ (U44) is unexpected. Also, the branch which includes M322, M323, M945, M1241, M1739, M1881, and M2298 shifts from one place to another, being located in the same branch as Sinaiticus (U1) and Vaticanus (B) in the dendrogram of Greek manuscript. It will be interesting to see what happens when a larger data set is analysed.
Before concluding, the Comma Johanneum (i.e. “Johannine Sentence”) needs to be mentioned. At 1 John 5.7-8, the Authorised Version reads, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in the earth, the Spirit and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” That is a really nice trinitarian proof text. However, the New English Bible reads, “For there are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are in agreement.” The underlying Greek phrase indicated by the emphasised section of the AV text is found in only eight Greek manuscripts; in four of these it is a later addition written in the margin. The phrase is not quoted by any Greek Fathers and is absent from all ancient versions except the Latin. Among Latin manuscripts, it is absent from the early form of the Old Latin and Jerome's Vulgate. It seems to be a Latin trinitarian formula that eventually spread to these few Greek manuscripts.
A better set of MDS and DC results is now available for 1 John. These results are generated from comprehensive data kindly made available by the INTF.
Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger, eds. The Greek New Testament. United Bible Societies 4th rev. ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993.
Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland†, Gerd Mink, Holger Strutwolf, and Klaus Wachtel, eds. Novum Testamentum Graecum: Editio Critica Maior. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1997-.
Arichea, Daniel C. and Eugene A. Nida. A Translator's Handbook on the First Letter from Peter. Helps for Translators. New York: United Bible Societies, 1980.
Brigham Young University. “Silva Rhetoricae.” http://rhetoric.byu.edu/.
Davids, Peter H. The First Epistle of Peter. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Elliott, John H. Review of Theology and Ethics in 1 Peter: Paraenetic Strategies for Christian Character Formation by J. de Waal Dryden. RBL 12 (2009). http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/7248_7887.pdf.
Jobes, Karen H. 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.
Moore, Richard K. Introduction to New Testament Studies. 2nd ed. Bentley: Baptist Theological College of Western Australia, 1994.
Overstreet, R. Larry. “The Greek Concept of the 'Seven Stages of Life' and Its New Testament Significance.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19, no. 4 (2009): 537-63.
Poythress, Vern S. “Johannine Authorship and the Use of Intersentence Conjunctions in the Book of Revelation.” Westminster Theological Journal 47, no. 2 (1985): 329-36.
Seland, Torrey. “Resident Aliens in Mission: Missional Practices in the Emerging Church of 1 Peter.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19, no. 4 (2009): 565-89.
Spencer, Matthew, Klaus Wachtel, and Christopher J. Howe. “The Greek Vorlage of the Syra Harclensis: A Comparative Study on Method in Exploring Textual Genealogy.” TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism 7 (2002). http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/vol07/SWH2002/.
Smith, Moody D. "The Epistles of John: What's New Since Brooke's ICC in 1912?" Expository Times 120, no. 8 (2009): 373-84.
Stevenson, J. ed. A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337. Revised by W. H. C. Frend. London: SPCK, 1987.
Wachtel, Klaus. Der byzantinische Text der Katholischen Briefe: eine Untersuchung zur Entstehung der Koine des Neuen Testaments. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1995.
Witherington III, Ben. Letters and Homilies for Helenized Christians, vol. 2, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1-2 Peter. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2007.
Witherington III, Ben. “NT Rhetoric -- A Handbook.” Blog entry dated 23 April 2008. http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2008/04/nt-rhetoric-handbook.html.
 Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament, 24-25.
 “List of Roman Emperors,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_Roman_Emperors.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 25.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 25-26.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 26-28.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 1-43; Michaels, 1 Peter, lxii-lxvii; Moore, Introduction to New Testament Studies, 342; Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, 296-98.
 The LXX is the Septuagint, a widely used Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures.
 Jobes, 1 Peter, 14. Jobes summarises evidence supporting Peter's authorship on pages 14-19.
 Overstreet, “Concept of the 'Seven Stages of Life,'” BBR 19.4 (2009) 537-63.
 Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 783.
 Moore, Introduction to New Testament Studies, 344.
 Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 784-86.
 Jobes, 1 Peter, 28-41.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 63-64.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 45.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 28-36.
 Stevenson, A New Eusebius, 3-5.
 See “Persecution by Domitian, 96” (Dio Cassius, Epitome, 67.14) in Stevenson, A New Eusebius, 6.
 Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 232-33.
 See “The Christians in Bithynia” and “Trajan's Reply” (Pliny, Ep. 10.96-10.97) in Stevenson, A New Eusebius, 18-21.
 Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 150-69.
 Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 161.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 66; Seland, “Resident Aliens in Mission,” 565-89.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 62.
 Witherington, Commentary on 1-2 Peter, 45-49. Definitions of rhetorical terms can be found at Silva Rhetoricae. They can also be found in Lausberg, Handbook of Literary Rhetoric. Witherington provides a convenient summary of the art of rhetoric as practised in the New Testament here: NT Rhetoric -- A Handbook.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 58-61.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 2-7.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 12-13; Michaels, 1 Peter, xl-xli.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 14-21; Michaels, 1 Peter, xli-xlv. Verses from Acts which Achtemeier discusses in an excursus on conceptual similarities between 1 Peter and Acts (ibid., 15) have not been included here.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 64.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 64-73.
 Michaels, 1 Peter, lxvii-lxxv.
 Arichea and Nida, Translator's Handbook on First Peter, 3-4.
 Moore, Introduction to New Testament Studies, 343.
 Michaels, 1 Peter, xxxvii.
 Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 73-74.
 Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, 293.
 Witherington, Commentary on 1-2 Peter, 45-49.
 Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament.
 Aland et al., Editio Critica Maior. INTF = Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung (Institute for New Testament Textual Research).
 Aland et al., Greek New Testament. An explanation of the multivariate analysis techniques used here (i.e. multidimensional scaling and divisive clustering) can be found at http://purl.org/tfinney/Mapping/.
 See Wachtel, Der byzantinische Text.
 See Zuntz, Ancestry of the Harklean New Testament, 8.
 See Wachtel, Der byzantinische Text, 69.
 Edwards, The Johannine Epistles, 11.
 Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament.
 Edwards, The Johannine Epistles, 47.
 Stevenson, A New Eusebius, 47-49.
 Poythress, “Johannine Authorship,” 329, 332.
 Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 310.
 Painter, 1, 2, and 3 John, 77-78.
 Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 869
 Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 307-8, 252.
 Smith, "What's New," 377; on Cerinthus, see Stevenson, A New Eusebius, 49-50.
 Smith, “What's New,” 379.
 Kruse, The Letters of John, 5.
 Smith, “What's New,” 378.
 Metzger, Textual Commentary, 647-49.