Who Wrote the Book of . . . 1, 2, & 3 John?

Posted by Clark Bates
September 24, 2016
For those who argue against the traditional apostolic authorship of the Johannine Epistles often favor what’s commonly called the “Johannine School”, or a community of believers that followed the apostle John. In fact, so prevalent is this approach, much of scholarship presupposes it as fact a priori. The question that must be asked, is whether or not this presupposition is warranted, or is there enough internal or external evidence to support the alternative, apostolic authorship? As with other articles in this series, it is exactly this question that I will seek to answer below.

External Evidence 

While this article is meant to discuss the authorship of the three Johannine epistles the bulk of the arguments leveled against traditional authorship comes from the link between 1 John and the Fourth Gospel. Because the second and third epistles bear such close textual and thematic connections to the first, what can be said of 1 John will hold bearing upon 2 and 3 John as well. At the outset it must be stated that, “Early on, by the second century in fact, Christian tradition identified their author as John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles.”1

Allusions to the epistles in the first two centuries of the church include:

1. Clement of Rome (c.96) describes God’s elect people as being “perfected in love” (1 Clem. 49:5;50:3; cf. 1 Jn. 2:5; 4:12, 17-18)

2. The Didache (c. 90-120) speaks of the world passing away in 10:5-6 (cf. 1 Jn. 2:17)

3. The Epistle of Barnabus (c. 130) speaks of Jesus as “the Son of God come in flesh” (5:9-11; 12:10; cf. 1 Jn. 4:2; 2 Jn. 7)

4. Polycarp (c. 135) warns against deceiving false brothers in these terms: “For everyone who does not confess Jesus Christ to have come in the flesh is Antichrist” (Phil. 7:1), surely dependent on 2 Jn. 7 and 1 Jn. 4:2-3; 2:22.

In addition to the above, as recorded by the 4th century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, the first author to refer specifically to a Johannine epistle as the work of John is Papias of Hierapolis (c. 70-163) in the middle of the second century.2 It should be noted that Eusebius makes this reference regarding a disputation on the authenticity of 2 and 3 John, but the acknowledgment that the apostle whom Jesus loved was accepted as the author of 1 John remains valuable to the discussion at hand.

By the time of Irenaeus (c. 180). at least the first and second epistles are explicitly attributed to John, the disciple of the Lord and the author of the fourth gospel.3 Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), prolific writer and leader of the early church, knew of more than one Johannine epistle. This is evident when he wrote of 1 John as, “the greater epistle” ascribed to the apostle John.4 Furthermore, Regarding 2 and 3 John it is Origen (c. 253) who first mentions all three epistles, and while this is only recorded late into the third century it cannot be asserted that Origen created this particular stance but merely repeated what was common consideration of that day.5 IN fact, it can be easily asserted that never, at any time, are any of the three Johannine epistles attributed to anyone other than John the son of Zebedee.6 These facts lead eminent theologian D.A. Carson to affirm, “In line with the majority view among Christian students during the past two thousand years (though out of step with today’s majority), I think it highly probable that John the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel and the three letters that traditionally bear his name.”7

Internal Evidence 

Much like the Pauline epistles, the opening verses of 1 John claim that the author was an eyewitness of Jesus’ life. And, as was stated in the opening, since 2 John and 3 John stand in close conceptual relation – to each other and to 1 John – the gravity of their admittedly sketchy content is maximized.8 Because of this, the claim to authorship of all three epistles rests firmly on the relation of 1 John and the fourth gospel. This is also the area of contention in modern scholarship as we will see shortly, but first it is widely acknowledged that the fourth gospel and 1 John contain many striking similarities:

1. They both contain the themes of light and darkness, life and death, truth and falsehood, as well as love and hate; all with no third alternative.

2. Both writings contain the same syntax and the same “scheme of salvation”.9

3. Within this theme we are “of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8/Jn. 8:44); “from the world” (2:16;4:5/8:23; 15:19); we “sin” (3:4/8:34) and “have” sin (1:8/9:41); “walk in darkness” (1:6; 2:11/8:12; 12:35), and are “dead” (3:14/5:25).

4. Jesus is the “Savior of the world” (4:14/4:42) so that “we might live” (4:9/3:16). We pass “from death to life” (3:14/5:24); “have life” (5:11/3:15). Life is in the Son of God (5:11-12/1:4; 14:6).

Those who appeal to a different author appeal to three kinds of phenomena:

1. There are subtle but significant differences between the fourth gospel and the epistle of 1 John. For example, only in John is the logos (Word) personal (Jn. 1:1, 14); in the epistle, the “word” is the “word of life” and it is the life that is personal (1 Jn. 1:1-4). In the fourth gospel, the Holy Spirit is the parakletos (Counselor) (Jn. 14 – 16); In the epistle, Jesus is the parakletos (1 Jn. 2:1). John states that “God is Spirit (Jn. 4:24); 1 John says that He is light and love (1:5; 4:8). In the gospel, Jesus’ death is portrayed as his being “lifted up” and “glorified”; in the epistle, Jesus’ death is propitiatory (2:2; 4:10)

2. There are words and expressions in John’s gospel that are not found in 1 John, and vice versa.10

3. There is a “Johannine school” of writers which took turns writing parts of the books attributed to the apostle.11

In response to objection 1, it is true that the prologue to the fourth gospel uses logos to refer to the pre-incarnate Son of God, but it uses the same word numerous times throughout the gospel with its more common meaning of “message” (8:31). In contrast to the claim, some scholars also see the personal aspect of the “word” in the epistle’s use of “word of life” as well. That Jesus could be called the parakletos in 1 John should not be surprising given that in the fourth gospel, John recounts Jesus insisting that He will send “another” counselor in reference to the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16). This suggests that there is a “Counselor” prior to the Holy Spirit, as John reveals in the epistle, namely Jesus Christ. And lastly, If the fourth gospel looks at Jesus’ death as “lifting up” and a “glorification,” it is partly because it is focusing on the historical Jesus and partly because it is intent on showing that the cross was not the defeat that some Jews thought it was. If the epistle casts Jesus’ death in terms of its propitiation, that owes much to his polemical purpose: he is concerned to show that sin has serious effects, and the only way to remove those effects is by the provision that God himself has made.

In response to objections 2 and 3, the divergent vocabularies enjoy greater similarity than those of Luke and Acts (known to come from the same writer) or Ephesians and Colossians (also from the same writer, i.e. Paul). These variations actually suggest common authorship rather than servile copying. While a great deal of weight is being made to ride on a “Johannine School” whose existence is not more certain than a number of questionable inferences, there is little more than a presupposed hyper skepticism supporting that weight. What’s more the epistles of 2 and 3 John are so closely linked in vocabulary and theme, any suggestion of separate authorship must bear an almost untenable burden of proof.

While much is made of the author’s reference to himself as John “the elder” in 2 and 3 John there is nothing anomalous about an apostle designating himself as such (1 Pet. 5:1). Also, the term “elder” can also be used to refer to an old man rather than an office of the church. If the author of these epistles is the son of Zebedee and subsequently the last remaining apostle, such an allusion is perfectly appropriate. This is even strengthened by his use of “the elder” possibly suggesting that among all the elders of the Ephesian church, this author is one of singular importance. Finally, the author of separates himself from his readers with “we” versus “you” statements (1:1,3; 4:14; 5:6-7). The author distinguished himself as a writer and eyewitness from his readers, a second generation believers.


It can be difficult in the realm of academia to want ot contest a rising tide of skeptical criticism in regards tot he New Testament documents. It can be even more daunting for the average layperson to stand against such claims made by scholars in the field. However, the oft repeated claim that “all of scholarship says…” is largely overdrawn and should be received with its own healthy level of skepticism. The truth of the matter is that there are good reasons to accept the traditional authorship of these books as represented from within the text and maintained by the first two thousand years of the Christian church. Given the evidence above and the inability for the “Johannine school” to effectively prove the opposite, I see no reason to doubt that the author of the 3 epistles of John is any other than “he whom Jesus loved”.

1 D. Rensberger, The Epistles of John, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 2.

2 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.17

3 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.16.18

4 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 3.4.32; 3.5.42; 4.16.100.

5 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6.25.10.

6 D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament: 1,2,3 John, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 671.

7 D.A. Carson, “The Johannine Writings,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T.D. Alexander and B.S. Rosner, (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press), 132.

8 Robert W. Yarbrough, Baker Exegetical Commentary Series: 1-3 John, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 6.

9 John R.W. Stott, The Letters of John, TNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 21-23.

10 A.E. Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, ICC, (Edinburgh: T & T. Clark Publishing, 1912), xvi.

11 R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John, IBT (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 152.


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