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The ‘Opponents’ in I John

  • John Painter


The question of the ‘opponents’ in 1 John has long been recognized as significant for the study of that ‘letter’. The great commentaries by Theodor Häring, R. Law and Rudolf Schnackenburg make the conflict with the ‘schismatics’ the key to their interpretations. Most recently Raymond E. Brown1 has presented a detailed account of the conflict in the context of the history of Johannine Christianity as the basis for his own commentary. I find myself in general agreement with the approach and position set out there. But I remain unconvinced on a number of important issues where I find that my views remain fundamentally unchanged,2 not through stubbornness I trust. These views will need further elaboration and defence in due course. Before doing this certain preliminary matters need to be dealt with.



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[1] The Johannine Epistles (Anchor Bible, Doubleday 1982).

[2] See my John Witness and Theologian (= JWT) (SPCK, London, 1975) 114–28.

[3] The author of 1 John, often called the Presbyter, does not refer to himself in this way – but see 2 John 1; 3 John 1–nor does he use the term anywhere, even where it might have been expected. Instead he speaks to those he calls πατέρες (1 John 2. 14) in the sequence τεκνία, νεανίσκοι πατέρες. He may have avoided the term πρεσβύτεροι because he rejected the authority structure it implied–we 2. 20, 27; or because his reference to the πατέρες was to an age group not to the tradition bearers. Brown 107 ff. rightly argues that attitude to ecclesiastical authority separated the author of 1 John from Diotrephes. Hence, if the Presbyter wrote 1 John, that title can only indicate one who was a tradition bearer. For him it was the tradition rather than the tradition bearer which was authoritative. However, I doubt that the author of 1 John also wrote 2 and 3 John. Because of this I have restricted the scope of my study to 1 John.

[4] It is not possible to be without a perspective. Lacking the perspective of the Jewish conflict they must have had another! Brown 71, 97–9, 103, 111, 223 recognizes that the schism occurred after the separation from the synagogue. He also recognizes the presence of Gentiles but does not think that either of these issues was materially relevant to the schism. He admits that it was the Jewish conflict which explains the silences and emphases in GJ that allowed the opponents, in their new context, to develop their position. But he rejects the view that they were importing ‘totally foreign ideas’, Brown, 324, n. 20. Nothing so crude is suggested. They imported ideas by reinterpreting the GJ tradition from their perspective.

[5] Brown's ‘methodological cautions’ (72 ff.) are well formulated and justified though his refusal to acknowledge that the opponents distorted the GJ tradition where this position makes best sense of the evidence is to take the cautions to a point where it must be assumed that the evidence is distorted.

[6] See 2. 1, 7, 12, 13, 18, 28. Brown (545) attempts to use the forms of address as a guide to the division of the book. See also Brown 300.

[7] It is therefore not possible to ignore the problem of the opponents, which was the historical context of 1 John, and to concentrate only on the literary context, because the opponents also appear in the literary context.

[8] Brown, 70, takes this view. Had the author's group left (separated from) the opponents this could easily have been expressed in terms of separation from the world. Thus we must take seriously the evidence that the opponents initiated the ‘schism’.

[9] Richter, G. (‘Die Fleischwerdung des Logos im Johannesevangelium’, NT 14 (1972) 265 ff.) has argued that the author of 1 John was the anti-docetic redactor who added GJ 1. 14–18. This is a suggestive line of thought, though not all of 1. 14–18 is Johannine, as the uncharacteristic vocabulary indicates. But σαρ εγένετο was a Johannine addition and was anti-docetic. See my Christology and the History of the Johannine Community in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel’, NTS, vol. 30 (1984) 460–74. Brown (109 f.) doubts that 1. 14 is anti-docetic, appealing to Käsemann's view that ‘appeared’ is a possible translation of σαρ ⋯γένετο. It is interesting that the Gnostics did not adopt σαρ⋯γένετο as a docetic formula.

[10] Brown (73) recognized that the opponents were dependent on GJ tradition, not GJ and argued that they were loyal to that tradition, xi, 42 f., 69–72. Hence they reveal the dangers inherent in GJ, xi. Their position was defensible on the basis of GJ, 79. They exploited the silences and onesidedly emphasised certain themes, 97. Yet Brown also (164, 178, 181, 278) suggests that the opponents ‘misinterpreted’ GJ. What led to that misinterpretation? This paper suggests that the opponents interpreted the GJ tradition from a perspective different from the one in which it was formed. It is possible that Brown's references to ‘misinterpretation’ are a concession to the point of view of the author whereas this paper argues that the opponents did in fact misinterpret GJ.

[11] Brown (232, 255 f.) suggests that this may be the case. The conditional form of groups 1 and 3 distinguishes them from the second group of boasts. The first group is distinguished from the others by the use of the first person plural. Could this mean that some of the author's own adherents were wavering in their resolve and were showing signs of following his opponents into schism? Perhaps they had taken up these slogans though it is probably only a stylist variation.

[12] While GJ does not, in the conflict with Judaism, need to emphasize future eschatology (see Brown 98), 1 John re-emphasizes this theme against the opponents, see also 2. 28; 3. 2–3. The opponents, like the πνενματικοί at Corinth, stressed present fulfilment to the exclusion of future eschatology. They believed that they had ‘arrived’ already.

[13] They were anti-Christs because they would not confess that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus is Son of God, Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. Does a refusal to confess constitute a denial?

[14] See my The Farewell Discourses and the History of Johannine Christianity’, NTS 27/4 (1981) 525–43.

[15] An alternative reading asserts ‘you know all things’ which could be justified on the basis of GJ 14. 26; 16. 13. See Brown 348 who on contextual grounds accepts ‘You all know’ against the exclusive claims of the opponents and explains the reading ‘You know all things’ as verbal harmonization with GJ 14. 26.

[16] See my JWT 118.

[17] In 2. 29 where the theme is ‘born of God’ probably God is in view though ‘Jesus Christ the righteous’ is spoken of in 2. 1.

[18] 1 John uses the GJ term αλλήλονς and introduces αδεØός, possibly because of using the story of Cain who hated/murdered his brother, 3. 12 ff.

[19] Especially in the boasts, we Brown 249 concerning 1. 5–2. 11. Brown does not sufficiently take account of 4. 20 as the final boast which is treated at great length in 1 John.

[20] Brown 386 recognizes the use of this theme by the opponents and sees it as the common property of the Johannine community. However, it is probable that the GJ treatment of this theme belongs to the later strata which already respond to the emerging problem of the opponents, see GJ 1. 12–13; 3. 3–5. In these sections GJ distinguishes Jesus as Son from the children of God and emphasizes his unique status with the term μονογενής, 1. 14, 17; 3. 16, 18. The opponents probably saw Jesus’ sonship in the same terms as their own. GJ emphatically distinguishes the two. While GJ uses νιός only of Jesus and τέκνα θεο of the believers, both words are used of believers by Paul, Romans 8. 14–17. Perhaps the opponents had been influenced by a misunderstanding of this position. See my article on the Prologue mentioned in note 9, and we notes 42 and 51 below.

[21] Brown (240, 216) rightly recognizes this.

[22] Rightly recognized by Brown 97 f.

[23] The єαν εïπωμεν ὅτι formula is used in the three boasts of 1. 6, 8, 10, and is an example of our author's liking of arrangements in threes. On the stylistic variations and arrangements into units of three and seven we Brown 116 ff., 123. In 1. 6, 8 κοινωνίαν and αμαρτίαν are used with ἔχομεν, the latter negatively with ουκ, but 1. 10 negates the perfect tense ουχ ημαρτήκαμεν. See note 34 below.

[23] Brown (116 ff., 123) also notes our author's characteristic stylistic forms of arrangement but failed to ask if this might account for the variation of formulae introducing the boasts.

[25] See TDNT III 799 f.

[26] See 1 John 1. 7; 4. 7, 12. Both themes in 1 John are treated in response to the opponents’ claims to have fellowship with God and to love God. In both instances the claims are tested in terms of the relationship with one another and the reality of fellowship is tested in terms of love. Hence the view of E. Malatesta that 1 John is constructed around the theme of κοωωνία cannot be justified. Our author used this term only in response to the use of it by his opponents (4 times in 1. 3, 6, 7). Characteristically and in common with the GJ tradition he uses love terminology.

[27] The ‘new commandment’ also provided our author with the model for his καθώς ethic (see 2. 6; 3. 3, 23;4. 17), which is also implied in 1. 7; 2. 27;4. 11, 19, and is expressed negatively in 3.12. It is based on GJ 13. 34 but see also GJ 17. 11, 14, 16, 18, 21, 22; 20, 21. Hence according to GJ the disciples of Jesus are to live (walk) as he lived. See Brown 97 f.

[28] The liar also denies that Jesus is the Christ and in so doing denies the Father and the Son; on the liar see 1. 6; 2. 22; 4. 1 (lying prophets); 4. 20.

[29] See my JWT 120. Brown (82) rejects this view because ‘children of God by nature’ cannot be derived from GJ. But this use of the criterion that the position of the opponents must be derivable from GJ is too rigorous and inflexible. If the opponents made the heavenly origin of the ‘Son’ the paradigm for their own ‘sonship’, GJ could provide a basis for such a view though such a view would be a misinterpretation of GJ.

[30] In English the sentence is translated better ‘no one who is born of God sins…’.

[31] The language of 3. 9 is not drawn from GJ but is characteristic of the mystery religions, TDNT VII, 545. This, together with the apparent contradiction of 1. 8, 10 and the way our author has modified the assertion of 3. 9 by setting up a test for the claim in the immediate context of the passage in which it has been embedded, indicates the claim to possess God's σπέρμα comes from the opponents.

[32] For this reason 1 John exhibits both polemical and paranetic tradition because it was written to oppose the ‘heretics’ and to encourage the author's adherents. It did this by transmitting and interpreting the GJ tradition. See my JWT 112 f.

[33] Both 3.9 and 5.18 assert ‘everyone born of God does not sin’. According to 3.9 it is because God's σπέρμα abides in him, whereas in 5. 18 it is because ο γεννηθεις ⋯κ το102; θεο τηρειaυοόν. God's σπέρμα is ογεννηθεις ⋯κ το θεο in the thought of the opponents though our author may have identified ογεννηθείς with Christ.

[34] In the conditional sentence of 5. 16 the present participle is used of a particular sin. But the specific act of sin is indicated by the use of the cognate accusative. The present participle indicates that the act was in process at the time of the action of the verb in the conditional clause. Given the proximity of 5. 18 to this discussion it could be suggested that the ούχ αμαρτάνει there implies προς θάνατον. But 3. 9 is too far away for this assumption to work there. For an alternative solution see Bogart, J., Orthodox and Heretical Perfectionism (Scholars Press, 1977).

[35] The second group of three boasts, each of which is introduced ⋯ λέγων (öγι)… The first uses öτι + the perfect tense òγ νωκκα αττόν. The second and third use ⋯ν + the dative + a present infinitive: ⋯ν αύτò μένεω and ⋯ν τ øωτιωαι; 2.4, 6. 9. See note 23 above.

[36] See my JWT 120 for a discussion of Bultmann's distinction between αυτός, which refers to God, while ⋯κεīνος refers to Christ. This change would be too subtle to be recognized.

[36] TDNT 1, 698. ‘…it is knowledge of His claim, whether present in direct commands or contained in His rule. It is this respectful and obedient acknowledgement … Knowledge … is possessed only in its exercise and actualization.’

[38] Schnackenburg, R., Die Johannesbriefe (Herder 1963).

[39] Brown rightly recognizes that the opponents used the GJ term μένεω. It is used 40 times in GJ, 17 times (as in the Synoptics) in relation to a locality and 23 times in a ‘spiritual’ sense which might betray Gnostic influence though reinterpreted in terms of the revelation in GJ. The concentration of use is increased in 1 John (23 times) in response to the boast of the opponents in which the Gnostic sense re-emerges. GJ, 1 and 2 John account for 66 of the 113 uses of μένεω in the New Testament. These statistics would be more impressive if only ‘spiritual’ uses were indicated.

[40] On the use of ‘walk’ as a figure for living see TDNT 5, 945. Here in 2. 6, as often in Paul, under the influence of the Greek O.T., the walk is qualified by a καθώς statement. See also Bultmann, GJ Blackwell (1971) 343 n. 1.

[41] This boast might have been developed on the basis of the tradition now in GJ 1. 9 and is related to the boast to have κοινωνία with God who is light, 1 John 1. 5 f.

[42] See m ‘Paul and the πνενματικοί at Corinth’ in Paul and Paulinism: Essays in Honour of C. K. Barrett (SPCK 1982) which suggests that the problem with the πνευμαγικοί was a consequence of the encounter between Christianity and the mystery religions. A similar situation might have occurred in the community of 1 John. Brown (49 f.) rejects the suggestion that the opponents were ‘enthusiasts’ such as those at Corinth because of the centrality of the christological controversy. But in the very chapter dealing with the πνευματικοί and tongues we note a Christological problem, 1 Cor 12. 3. However, while Brown denies the link with ‘enthusiasm’ (see also p. 60, n. 141, pp. 452, 503) he argues that the real Pauline parallel is 1 Cor 12. 3, Brown 505. But that problem is dealt with by Paul in the context of the ‘enthusiasts’. Returning to 1 John it may be that χρīσμα was appealed to by those who claimed the experience by initiation while those who spoke of participating in God by nature claimed to possess the divine σπ⋯ρμα. This distinction may have had implications also for the role of the heavenly Christ with the first while the second group claimed to participate in the ‘light nature’ of God.

[43] TDNT, 7, 545. See also Bultmann, R., The Johannine Epistles (Fortress Press) p. 52 and nn. 36, 37. χρīσμα occurs 3 times in 1 John and nowhere else in the NT. On the Gnostic use of χρīσμα see Schnackenburg 252, nn. 2, 3, 4, 5. Schnackenburg thinks that our author could be opposing ‘false gnostic’ claims concerning these terms.

[44] άν τις εïπη α⋯απωοòθεόν … The formula is similar to that of the first group of three boasts except that the verb is in the 1st person singular instead of the first person plural. This boast also speaks of God.

[45] See Brown, 84, 85. However Brown (80) acknowledges that the opponents attributed no salvific significance to ethical behaviour. That being the case it is unlikely that they acknowledged any obligation (òøείλομεν) to love one another, 1 Jn 3. 11; 4. 11.

[46] See Brown, 76, 97, 245, 264, 762.

[47] Brown (70) argues that the opponents may have been the larger group and that they made out quite well in the world. The refusal to give them hospitality (2 Jn 10) would not have hindered them seriously. Nor need this policy be an indication of malice. It was rather a decision not to aid the spread of error.

[48] See my JWT 123. It is doubtful that GJ or the author of 1 John spoke of loving God, see JWT 121 ff.

[49] See notes 12, 20 and 42 above.

[50] The two uses of ‘Jesus Christ’ in GJ 1. 17; 17. 3 belong to later strata of the Gospel which already reflect the emerging problem of the opponents. See my ‘Prologue’ and ‘Farewell Discourses’ articles referred to in nn. 9 and 14 above.

[51] The reference to God sending his unique Son (τον υιòμτοо μονογεν) in 4. 9 is relevant to the Prologue of GJ 1. 14, 18 and the discourse on birth from above, GJ 3. 16, 18 where the same terms are used distinguishing the Sonship of Jesus from the children of God, GJ 1. 12. The opponents probably thought of the Revealer as a child of God, begotten of God, in terms similar to themselves. They claimed that they participated in the nature of God, and that his ‘seed’ dwelt within them. The focus on being born of God in 1 John is a consequence of the claims of the opponents. The theme appears in GJ 1. 14, 18; 3. 16, 18 in contexts dealing with children of God (τέκνα θεο), being born of God (⋯κ θεο ⋯γεννηθήσαν), and being born from above (γεννηθηνωωθεν), 1. 12 ff.; 3. 4 ff. Here, as in 1 John, Jesus is referred to as υιός not τ⋯κνος and his designation is qualified by μονογενής. μονογενής is used only five times in the NT, all in the conflict with the opponents in the later strata of GJ and in 1 John. See notes 9. 20 and 42 above.

[52] The formula of the christological confession (ομολόγεω) in 4. 2 is interesting and should be compared with the confession in 2 John 7. Both forms of the confession appear to have been derived from a combination of formulae which appear in GJ referring to the Revealer as one ερχόμενος εις τον κόσμον and to the ο λόγος σαρ ⋯γένετο.The form in 2 John 7 confessing Jesus Christ ⋯ρχόμενον εν σαρκί suggests a simple combination of the two formulae, retaining the present participle which is used in the formula in GJ (see 6. 15) while 1 John has modified the tense of ⋯ρχόμενος to give more adequate expression to the ⋯γένετο of GJ 1. 14. This suggests that either 2 John 7 and 1 John 4. 2 were developed independently on the basis of GJ, or that the confession of 1 John is a later form of that to be found in 2 John. However, both forms were a consequence of the situation created by the opponents.

[53] Brown (74 ff.; 492 ff.) does not think this possible. He argued that the opponents denied the salvific value of Jesus' life and death without denying the incarnation, or the reality of Jesus' life and death. Yet he allows for Käsemann's docetic reading of GJ 1. 14 (109 f.). Thus it is difficult to see why he rejects the view that the opponents were docetists.

[54] See note 9 above. The suggestion that the author inconsistently stressed the truly human (fleshly) life of Jesus while having a low view of ‘the world’ (see 1 Jn 2. 15–17) overlooks the (at least) double sense in which ‘world’ is used. Perhaps it would be better to talk of the paradoxical use which is a consequence of seeing the world as creation and therefore of value and to be taken seriously, 1 John 3. 17. But the world is not God and it should not be allowed to seduce man to the desire above all else to possess it.

[55] See notes 12 and 42 above and especially p. 243 and n. 42, p. 249 of my ‘Paul and the πνενματικοί at Corinth’.

[56] For such a group the OT probably held little authority and perhaps was not even directly relevant. On the other hand the GJ tradition was appealed to by the opponents as their authoritative source. It could be that the influence of the mystery religions made relevant our author's final warning: ‘Little children, guard yourselves from idols’. See notes 20, 42, 51 above for the relation of the opponents to the πνενματικοί at Corinth. It is significant that Paul had to deal with the problem of idolatry in 1 Corinthians. We also need to inquire concerning the relation between the mysteries and Gnosis, especially in the light of the distinction between those who were ‘saved by nature’ and those who were ‘initiated’.

The ‘Opponents’ in I John

  • John Painter


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