COMPANION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT - The New English Bible. By A E Harvey. - © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press, The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press. 1970. - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2014.


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Truth and love

Codex Sinaiticus.  2 John 1.

The Elder to the Lady (1). In form, this is exactly the way any letter was expected to begin: "From A to B, greetings". Indeed, unlike THE FIRST LETTER, this and THE THIRD LETTER are more like the actual letters of their time than almost any other writing in the New Testament. They are both of the right length to fill one side of a sheet of papyrus, they both have a beginning and end typical of the conventions of letter-writing in the ancient world. Yet there is a difference between them, THE THIRD LETTER is part of a correspondence between individuals, and was clearly written personally to its recipient; but THE SECOND LETTER, though it uses exactly the same conventions, puts them to a different use. It is not a private letter at all, but an open one. And the salutations and greetings (as in the letters of Paul) are made to carry a load of Christian teaching.

To this extent, the letter is artificial, and its artificiality can be seen at once in the opening. The Lady, if a real lady, would have a name. But this lady has only children and a Sister (13). The symbolism is obvious: just as, on a Roman coin, a lady goddess often represented a nation or a city (our own Britannia was one of these), so, for a Christian writer, a Lady could stand for a particular church, her Sister for a neighbouring church. It is the same convention as in 1 Peter 5.13: in each case the symbolic lady is called chosen by God (1). No Christian reader would have doubted what was meant.

Thus the formula, "From A to B", is turned into a symbolic device for addressing an open letter to a church. The same is done with the rest of the formula: "greetings". Not only is the usual Greek word (chairein, greeting) replaced by its Christian equivalent (charis, grace (3)) and combined with two other solemn words—mercy, and peace—but the whole phrase is transformed from a conventional expression of good wishes into a statement of Christian hope: Grace, mercy, and peace shall be with us. And into this framework is worked a brief variation on two themes which are dominant in 1 John, and which the NEB has chosen for the heading: Truth and love.

The whole salutation, then, (like that of many of Paul's letters) is a piece of conscious literary artifice. What then of the Elder? Is this also a pen-name for some well-known person? We might be tempted to think so, were it not that the opening of 3 John, which is not in ihe least artificial, uses exactly the same term, 'the Elder'. To the first readers of the letter, this was evidently sufficient to identify the author: it must therefore have been a fairly distinctive title. Now by the end of the first century A.D. the word "elder" (presbyter) had become a title for one of the orders of ministry in the church. Every church had its "elders", who came next in seniority after the bishop. By this time, no church leader could have referred to himself simply as "the Elder"—there were too many elders in each church for this to be a distinctive title. Indeed, from the very first appearance of "elders" in the church, there seems always to have been more than one of them in each place. However, this was not the only use of the word. A man became "an elder" (or "senior"), not just as an official status, but by reason of advancing years. In the church in the New Testament period, it was a distinction in itself to be old enough to have met some of the original eye-witnesses to the events of Jesus' life. Early in the second century, a certain Bishop Papias knew of a John whom he called "the Elder", evidently meaning that this John had been a Christian long enough to remember the first generation of Christians. The same John may or may not have been the author of this letter; but in any case the most likely explanation of the title, "the Elder", is that it was borne by a man of great seniority in his own church, whose advanced years made him a unique contact with the early days of Christianity, and who thereby possessed the authority to write the two letters which begin, The Elder.

Did the writer of this letter also write 1 John and the gospel of John? That he did has been the tradition of the church since early times. But there are the same difficulties here as have been mentioned in connection with i John. In particular, the letters are not so much an extension of the thought of the gospel, as its subsequent application to particular situations in the church; and 2 John is at one remove further from the gospel, in that it applies, not the thought of the gospel itself, but the formulation of it which we find in 1 John. Thus the first exhortation, to love one another (5), is compounded almost entirely out of the teaching in 1 John 2.6-8; and the description of the deceivers matches the treatment of the same theme in 1 John 2.18-19. As in 1 John (2.22-3; 4.2), the point at issue between the author and the heretics is the doctrine of the Christ (9); the deceivers (7) (almost a technical term, as in 1 John 2.26, where it is translated, 'those who would mislead you') did not recognize that the abstract figure of Jewish mythology, the Christ, was identical with the Jesus who had come in the flesh (or could be known as coming, as this letter puts it, probably without much difference of meaning). The only new point added here is that such a doctrine is characteristic of one who runs ahead too far (9). The heretics are too progressive, and the author implies that the true doctrine of the church is something relatively stable and unchanging. We can overhear a certain anxiety (similar to that expressed in the letters to Timothy and Titus) to preserve the church's heritage intact against the onslaught of adventurous thinkers.

In 1 John much has been said about the danger which is constituted by such a heretic. Now, for the first time, we are told what action must be taken: do not welcome him into your house or give him a greeting (10). This sounds less than Christian; but we must remember the background. Heresy was not seen by the church at this time as something which it could contain and influence for good, but as a manifestation of those intensified forces of evil which must be expected to assail the faithful during this critical stage of history. There were of course Christians who were borderline cases, wavering between truth and error: these it was proper to pray for (1 John 5.16). But on the whole, the heretics betrayed their true colours, and could be identified as malicious opponents of the church, as the Antichrist, the arch-deceiver (7). They were particularly dangerous when they descended upon a church from the outside. Giving hospitality to travelling fellow-Christians was an absolute duty in the church; and any visitor who was a "prophet" had a special claim on such hospitality. The problem of the abuse of this hospitality by "false prophets" soon became pressing; and it is perhaps understandable that when (as in this case) there was a clear criterion which showed whether the teaching of such a visitor was heretical, and when the heresy in question had manifested itself as a diabolical menace to the church, it seemed right to make the position absolutely clear: do not welcome him into your house or give him a greeting (10).