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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Trouble in the church

Codex Sinaiticus. 3 John 1-2.

The Elder to dear Gaius (1). The opening, the prayer for Gaius' health, the expression of pleasure at news recently received: all these can be paralleled in numerous private letters in Greek which have been preserved on papyrus in the sands of Egypt. The author is writing as men constantly wrote to their friends in the ancient world. At the same time, he is The Elder—a senior and distinguished Christian (see above on 2 John)—writing to one whom he calls one of his children (4), that is (if we may assume that he uses the figure of speech in the same way that Paul does), to a man whom he converted himself to Christianity or who belongs to his own flock. The Christian term he chooses around which to compose his greeting is one that has occurred again and again in these three letters: the truth.

The writer is in touch with some fellow-Christians who have been making a missionary journey and who depend for their sustenance (as the rule was in the church) not on the pagans (7) to whom they have been preaching but on the hospitality of Christians in the neighbourhood. Gaius has been host to some of these, and has treated them so well that the report of it has come back to the Elder. It only remains to help them on their journey (6) (which presumably involves a certain expense)—and this is one of the reasons for writing the letter. Another is the common one of sending a testimonial. This is for a certain Demetrius. The testimonial tells us little about him; somewhat obscurely, the writer once again works in his theme-word, truth.

Hospitality to travelling Christians, letters of commendation from one church to another: these things were part of the normal life of Christian communities. That they were subject to abuse we know from the previous letter and from many other references in early Christian literature. It would not be surprising if some church leaders occasionally erred too far in the direction of forestalling abuses, and deprived deserving Christians of hospitality to which they were entitled; and this could well have led to friction between the leader of the church which refused hospitality and the church from which the travellers came. The Elder, it seems, had written a letter commending some of his own people to the leader of another church named Diotrephes; but his letter had not been heeded, and his people had been treated much as he had himself recommended that heretics should be treated in 2 John (10-11). Exactly how the two men stood to each other we do not know. The Elder was clearly an authority in his own church, but may not have been equally respected elsewhere; Diotrephes he calls a would-be leader (9), a word which was certainly intended to be derogatory, but is not very precise: ← See the footnote in NEB (Second Edition). Diotrephes was probably really the leader, but is being criticized for arrogance and spitefulness. What would in fact have happened when they confronted each other we do not know. It is possible that this conflict between them was characteristic of a period in the history of the early church when the leadership of men like the Elder, whose memory reached back to the first generation of Christians, was passing to an elected hierarchy of younger men; but this is guesswork. In any case, the Elder is not asking Gaius to take any action. He is merely citing the case of Diotrephes as an example which is emphatically not to be followed. By his conduct, Diotrephes has shown himself up as an evil-doer (11), which means (according to the argument of 1 John) that he is one who has never seen God.

The ending of the letter (13-14), like the beginning, uses the conventions of the age, and repeats a whole sentence (which was doubtless also a letter-writer's convention, then as now) from the ending of 2 John.