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What Was from the Beginning: Scripture and Tradition in the Johannine Epistles1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009

Judith M. Lieu
(Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King's College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS)
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‘That which was from the beginning, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched, concerning the word of life’ (1 John 1.1). However that claim to ear-, eye- and touch-witness is to be understood, there can be no dispute that for 1 John a claim to ‘that which was from the beginning’ is a linch-pin in the argument and in the theology of the letter. Yet the question of the use of Scripture in 1 John points further – to the relation between New Testament and Old, theologically and historically, but also to the origins and development of Johannine Christianity.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1993


2 Carson, D. A. in It Is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture (Fs B. Lindars, ed. Carson, D. A. and Williamson, H. G. M.; Cambridge: CUP, 1988) 245–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Dodd, C. H., The Johannine Epistles (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1947) lii.Google Scholar

4 Robinson, J. A. T., ‘The Destination and Purpose of the Johannine Epistles’, Twelve New Testament Studies (London: SCM, 1962) 126–58Google Scholar (reprinted from NTS 7 [1960–1] 56–65), 138

5 O'Neill, J. C., The Puzzle of 1 John (London: SPCK, 1966).Google Scholar

6 Clemen, A., Der Gebrauch des Alten Testamentes in den neutestamentlichen Schriften (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1895) 158Google Scholar; Dobschütz, E. v., ‘Johanneische Studien’, ZNW 8 (1907) 18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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8 Strecker, G., Die Johannesbriefe (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1989) 179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Brown, R. E., The Johannine Epistles (New York: Doubleday, 1982) 45, 97.Google Scholar

10 Houlden, J. L., The Johannine Epistles (London: Blacks, 1973) 97Google Scholar; Smalley, S. S., 1,2,3 John (Waco, Texas: Word, 1984) 183–4.Google Scholar

11 Fitzmyer, J., ‘The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament’, NTS 7 (1960–1) 297333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 RSV: Revised Standard Version, 1946; NEB: New English Bible, 1961; REB: Revised English Bible, 1989. Translations into French or German reflect a similar variety of interpretations.

13 ‘Merciful and gracious’ (sometimes reversed) comes only in passages related to this formula and in Pss 111.4; 112.4; Neh 9.31; 2 Chron 30.9; ‘slow to anger’ used of God is restricted to this tradition; it is used of people in Prov 14.29; 15.18; 16.32. The same restriction is true of ‘abounding in steadfast love’ although a similar formula with a personal preposition is used in Isa 6.3; Ps 5.8; 69.14; 100.7; Lam 3.32; Neh 13.22 where the LXX uses a different translation. See Dentan, R. C., ‘The Literary Affinities of Exod xxxiv 6f.’, VT 13 (1963) 3451Google Scholar; Sakenfeld, K., The Meaning of Hesed in the Hebrew Bible. A New Inquiry (Missoula: Scholars, 1978) 112–29.Google Scholar

14 ‘The evil’ is almost certainly intended eschatologically.

15 See Bickermann, E., Four Strange Books of the Bible (New York: Schocken, 1967) 41.Google Scholar

16 In Psalm 86.5 the characteristic (see n. 13) phrase ‘abounding in steadfast love’ anticipates the later use of the whole formula in v. 15.

17 See Sakenfeld, Meaning of Hesed, 128–9 for the importance of forgiveness in the understanding of hesed in this confession.

18 Outside the Hymns in 1QS 2.15; CD 2.4; 4Q400 1.18; 4Q491 4. See also J. J. Stamm, slh, ThHAT 2.150–60, who notes that the verb is less common than the noun in Qumran sources.

19 The Hebrew is selihah which the LXX translates by έξιλασμός, seen by Lella, A. Di, The Hebrew Text of Sirach (London, Hague, Paris: Mouton & Co., 1966) 113Google Scholar as evidence of the secondary character of the Greek.

20 This final phrase is repeated in 16.11 where it is followed by: ‘he is rich in forgiveness (Heb: forgiving and pardoning) and pours out wrath’; cf. 18.12.

21 Ps 85.5 is explicitly echoed in Ps.Sol 5.12; that God is έπιεικής and slow to anger comes in Jos and Asen 12.14–15; Aristeas 188.3.

22 Eű΄σπλαγχος; cf. James 5.11.

23 This strange phrase immediately recalls Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2, and may go back to a mistranslation of a similar Hebrew which perhaps spoke of God's sorrow over evil.

24 So 1QH 7.30; 11.9. Although ‘forgive’ is translated in Exod 34 by άφαιρ the same Hebrew verb can also be translated by άφίημι (so probably Sir 2.11) as in 1 John 1.9.

25 Οί οίκτιρμοί καί οί ίλασμοί.

26 In fact the link with Ps 130 was noted some time ago by Hanson, A., Studies on the Pastoral Epistles (London: SPCK, 1968) 91–5Google Scholar where he suggested that the Psalm was interpreted by the early church as referring to baptism and that 1 John 1.7–2.5 was written with it in mind. He drew attention particularly to the theme of confession in the two passages; to the use of ίλασμός which in 1 John is ‘with (πρός) the Father’ and in the Psalm is ‘with (παρά) God’, and to the final promise of the Psalm that God would redeem Israel ‘from all her lawless acts’ (άπό πασν τν άνομίων αύτο). These contacts are important but probably not enough to establish that Ps 130 is alone or even chiefly in mind; rather that it belongs to a chain of passages which use a common vocabulary and meet a common concern and so provide the background to our passage.

27 According to the edition of Brooke and MacLean ‘b’ reads ιλασμω αφιεις while αφιεις αμαρτιας, probably by assimilation to Exod 34.6, is also attested.

28 Έξιλάσκεσθαι, έξιλασμός are used for sℓℎ only at Sirach 5.5; 16.11 (where the Hebrew survives for comparison). See above n. 19.

29 Ίλασμόςis also used by the LXX at Lev 25.9 and Num 5.8 for kippurim, at 1 Chron 28.20 (no MT), Ezek 44.27 (ḥaṭath); 2 Mace 3.35; and at Amos 8.14 (ashmah).

30 See n. 29. The question should not be confused with that regarding ίλαστήριον (Rom 3.25) which is never used for the sℓℎ root in the LXX.

31 See Barrett, C. K., ‘The Holy Spirit in the Fourth Gospel’, JTS 1 (1950) 115CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Betz, O., Der Paraklet (Leiden: Brill, 1963) 157–8.Google Scholar

32 See Hanson, A. T., The New Testament Interpretation of Scripture (London: SPCK, 1980) 97109.Google Scholar

33 In the LXX the ‘emeth’ (truth) of Ex 34.6 is not translated by άληθεία as in John but by άληθινός. This is repeated in the other passages which take up Exod 34.6 and even added in Num 14.18 and Ps 103.8 (Alex) where it is lacking in the Hebrew. For both John and 1 John knowledge of God as άληθινός lies at the heart of Christian experience (John 17.3; 1 John 5.20). In the Greek OT this epithet used of God is restricted to the Exod 34.6 tradition and to some later passages which use it against the unreality of idols (3 Macc 2.11; 6.18; 1 Esd 8.89; 2 Chr 15.3 and Isa 65.16). However, while the Gospel may look back only to Exod 34.6 here, 1 John has combined it with this second OT tradition.

34 Dahl, N. A., ‘Der Erstgeborene Satans und der Vater des Teufels’, Apophoreta (Fs E. Haenchen; BZNW 30; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1964) 7084Google Scholar; McNamara, M., The New Testament and the Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch (AB 27A; Rome: Biblical Inst., 1978) 156–60, 299.Google Scholar

35 See Chester, A., Divine Revelation and Divine Titles in the Pentateuchal Targumim (Tübingen: Mohr, 1986) 365Google Scholar; for the different problems reflected by the Targumic traditions, Bassler, J., ‘Cain and Abel in the Palestinian Targums’, JSJ 17 (1986) 5664.Google Scholar

36 See also the same Targum on Gen 5.3: Eve had born Cain who was not from him (i.e. Adam); also Pirke R. Eliezer, ‘Sammael riding on the serpent came to her and she conceived’; so Cain was not of Adam's seed (21; 22).

37 There is of course a problem of dating these traditions, especially as this one only appears in Targum PsJonathan. They may, however, lie behind 2 Cor 11.2–3 and 4 Mace 18.9; cf. Goldberg, A., ‘Kain: Sohn des Menschen oder Sohn der Schlange?’, Judaica 25 (1969) 203–21.Google Scholar

38 See further Vermes, G., ‘The Targumic Versions of Genesis 4:3–16’, Post Biblical Jewish Studies (Leiden: Brill, 1975) 92126.Google Scholar

39 Sifre Deut 45 makes similar use of Gen 4.7 with reference both to forgiveness and to control over the ‘evil inclination’.

40 The interpretation is missing from Ps.Jon. Onkelos does not say ‘righteous’ but speaks of the ‘seed’. This interpretation is reflected already in m.Sanh. 4.5.

41 Skinner, J., Genesis (ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1910) 126Google Scholar argues a cross reference is intentional.

42 Cf. already Josephus Ant 1.2.2–3 (§65–9); Pirke R. Eliezer 21–2.

43 See Klijn, A. F. J., Seth in Jewish, Christian and Gnostic Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1977)Google Scholar; Fraade, S. O., Enosh and His Generation (SBLMS 30. Chico: Scholars, 1984)Google Scholar; Pearson, B., ‘The Figure of Seth in Gnostic Literature’, The Rediscovery of Gnosticism (ed. Layton, B.; SHR 41; Leiden: Brill, 19801981) 2.472504.Google Scholar

44 However it goes too far to say 1 John is particularly close to the Targumic tradition here as does M. McNamara, New Testament and Palestinian Targum, 159.

45 Elsewhere the opposite of ‘being of God’ is ‘not being of God’ or ‘being of the world’ rather than ‘being of the devil’ (v. 8). Yet the Cain exegesis is unlikely to have created the language of ‘children of God’ which 1 John does use elsewhere. Perhaps it was this language and the image of being begotten of God already present in Johannine tradition which have attracted the exegesis, for Gen 4 starts with Eve's response to the birth of Cain, ‘With the help of the Lord I have acquired a man’ – the verse which provoked all the speculation about his parentage and encouraged some later gnostics to claim that Cain stemmed from ‘a higher power’.

46 This means that the NT tradition of Abel as righteous, also found in Heb 11.4; Matt 23.35, is an original part of the Abel tradition and not borrowed from Isa 53. In this section the righteousness of Abel is anticipated in v. 7 by the description of Jesus as ‘righteous’ and as a model for those who like Abel do righteousness.

47 The word ‘murderer’ is an NT hapax coming only in 1 John and the related John 8, but Philo too calls Cain an άδελφοκτόνος- brother murderer (De Cherub 15).

48 See Beyschlag, K., Clemens Romanus und der Fruhkatholizismus (Tübingen: Mohr, 1966) 4852Google Scholar; also TBenj 7.5 which uses the story as an example of envy and of hatred of brother. The story of the two brothers may here in 1 John prompt the author to address his readers as ‘brethren’ (3.13) and not as children as he does elsewhere. For the moment in this verse the Cain/Abel pattern speaks not of relations within the community but of the righteous Abel-community faced by the murderous Cain-hatred of the world. This is not the main concern of the chapter but it may be a more original application of the exegesis.

49 Only Perkins, P., The Johannine Epistles (Dublin: Veritas, 1980) 45Google Scholar comes close to recognising this.

50 Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1981.

51 On έπιθυμία as reflecting the Jewish yetzer haraʿ/evil inclination see ThDNT III 170.

52 For the tradition of interpretation of the Isaiah text see Evans, C. A., To See and Not Perceive: Isaiah 6.9–10 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation (JSOT.S 64; Sheffield: JSNT, 1989)Google ScholarPubMed. On what follows see further Lieu, J. M., ‘Blindness in the Johannine Tradition’, NTS 34 (1988) 8395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

53 See Zimmerli, W., Ezekiel 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979) 269–70.Google Scholar

54 On the tradition in Isaiah see Clements, R. E., Isaiah 1–39 (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1980) 260.Google Scholar

55 ‘Stiffness of neck’ comes from Exod 32.9 etc.; for ‘heaviness of heart’ 1QS uses the language of the J tradition regarding Pharaoh's obstinacy (Exod 7.14; 8.11, 28; 9.7, 34; 10.1; also in 1 Sam 6.6 where Israel is compared to Pharaoh). This is probably because of the unusualness of the metaphor in Isa 6, ‘fatness’.

56 See Lieu, ‘Blindness’, 90–2; the Greek verb τυφλόω is not used in the LXX of Isa 6.10 but John 12.40 demonstrates its use within the Johannine school.

57 Evans, To See, 83–4.

58 Lieu, ‘Blindness’, 87–8.

59 Heb. ʾapheloth translated here in the LXX by άωρία but by σκοτός at 58.10; the more common word for darkness, hoshek, is used in the first part of the verse.

60 Heb. kshl, here translated by πίπτω but elsewhere by the σκάνδαλον root. The image of walking in darkness is of course a common one in the OT (e.g. Job 29.3; Isa 9.2 and the prohibition against putting a block in the way of the blind in Lev 19.14).

61 The LXX uses it for a different Hebrew root to describe the blind Isaac's groping to feel Jacob who for the sake of a blessing has become suddenly hairy.

62 John 15.27 is another ‘exegesis’ of this passage.

63 See Hanson, A. T., The Pastoral Epistles (London & Grand Rapids: MMS/Eerdmans, 1982) 139–41.Google Scholar