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Special Note on 1 John 4:3

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Special Note on 1 John 4:3

As indicated in the most recent daily note, there is a famous text-critical question in 1 Jn 4:3. It is unusual in that the majority reading is found in the entire Greek manuscript tradition, as well as nearly all versions, and yet the minority reading is still thought to be original by a number of scholars. Here is a translation of the verse with the variation unit marked by braces:

“…and every spirit which { } Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God; and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$], of which you have heard that it comes, and now is already in the world.”

The first italicized phrase characterizes this “spirit” which is subsequently identified as being “against the Anointed (One)”. Let us examine the verb which is at the point of variation:

  • The majority reading:
    pa=n pneu=ma o^ mh\ o(mologei= to\n Ihsou=n
    “every spirit which does not give common account [i.e. confess] (regarding) Yeshua…”
  • The minority reading:
    pa=n pneu=ma o^ lu/ei to\n Ihsou=n
    “every spirit which looses Yeshua…”

As indicated above, the majority reading is found in every Greek manuscript (and lectionary), as well as nearly all the versions, and in most of the Church Fathers who cite the passage. The minority reading, by contrast, has very limited attestation. Indeed, the Greek (manuscript) evidence is limited to the margin of the 10th century MS 1739, where it is noted that the verb lu/ei is the reading known by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen in the late 2nd century. That Irenaeus and Origen knew (and cited) this reading is confirmed, but only in Latin translation, by Against Heresies III.16.5, 8 and Origen’s Commentary on Matthew (§65 [PG] of the books/portions preserved only in Latin). The Latin equivalent of lu/ei to\n Ihsou=n (solvit Iesum) is also cited by Tertullian (Against Marcion 5:16), Priscillian (Tract 1:31), and other Church Fathers, as well as in a number of Old Latin and Vulgate MSS. The earliest surviving citation of the actual Greek would seem to be by the 5th century historian Socrates (Church History 7:32).

On the basis of the overwhelming textual evidence, most commentators accept the majority reading as original, though some scholars prefer the minority text as the lectio difficilior (on the principle that the “more difficult reading” is more likely to be original). If secondary, it is hard to explain how the verb lu/ei would have been introduced in place of mh\ o(mologei=. On the other hand, mh\ o(mologei= is grammatically peculiar enough that its presence in the entire Greek manuscript tradition, substituted throughout in place of lu/ei, seems most unlikely. Which ever direction the change took place, it probably occurred as an explanatory gloss, perhaps as a marginal reading such as we see in the Greek MS 1739. The reading lu/ei to\n Ihsou=n (solvit Iesum, “looses Yeshua”) is cited in the 2nd-3rd centuries—by Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian (and, presumably, Clement of Alexandria)—in relation to the Christological controversies of the time. This increases the likelihood that the reading was introduced, perhaps intentionally, in order to defend an orthodox (or proto-orthodox) Christology against certain “Gnostic” views which separated the man Jesus from the divine Christ. According to such an interpretation, the (variant reading of) 1 John 4:3 was cited to demonstrate that anyone who “separated” Jesus in this way was, in effect, denying him; certainly such a person was not giving account (i.e. confessing) as one (with the orthodox believers) the proper view of Christ.

But is this anything like what the author of the letter had in mind? Let us consider for a moment what the variant reading lu/ei might have meant for the author if original. The verb means “loos(en)”, and can be used: (1) in this general, fundamental sense; (2) of loosening a bond in the sense of freeing or releasing a person; (3) in the negative sense of “dissolve” (i.e. destroy). It occurs 7 times in the Gospel and Letters of John, more or less in each of these three senses:

  1. The basic meaning of “loosen” (Jn 1:27)
  2. The positive sense of freeing or releasing a person (Jn 11:44)
  3. The negative sense of dissolving/destroying something (Jn 2:19; 1 Jn 3:8)
    To this may be added a special usage (3a) related to the observance of the commands, etc. in the Law (Torah). To “loosen” observance of the Law means essentially to nullify its binding authority (Jn 5:18; 7:23; cf. also 10:35).

The context of 1 John 4:3 is decidedly negative, which suggests that something like meaning 3 above would be intended. The closest parallel is found in the Temple-saying by Jesus in Jn 2:19:

“Loose [i.e. dissolve] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (again).”

The Gospel writer in verse 21 makes clear that the sanctuary, or Temple building, of which Jesus spoke was his own body. This association is not too far removed from false view of Jesus in 1 Jn 4:2-3. As verse 2 speaks of confessing that Jesus is the Anointed One who has come in the flesh—i.e., as a real flesh-and-blood human being—the contrary message or belief in verse 3 would deny this. In effect, such a “spirit” would dissolve or destroy the body of Jesus, perhaps in the less concrete sense of denying or nullifying its importance for believers (cf. the parallel in Jn 5:18; 7:23).

Of course, if the majority text is original, the question is moot. The author in verse 3 simply negates the (orthodox) view of Christ in verse 2: the different “spirit” does not agree that Jesus is the Anointed One who has come in the flesh.

For several citations and points above, I have relied upon the detailed discussion by Bart Ehrman in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: 1993), pp. 125-35. He presents strong arguments in favor of the Majority text of 1 Jn 4:3.

Note of the Day – June 26 (1 John 4:1-6)

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1 John 4:1-6

There is a shift in the letter of 1 John, beginning in chapter 4. Previously, the theme of love for one another was emphasized in chaps. 2-3; now, that of faith in Christ comes more clearly into view. These represent the two aspects of the two-fold “command” defined in 3:23 (for more on this, cf. the previous daily note). This shift is marked by the sudden and striking wording in 4:1:

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit, but consider the spirits (carefully)—if they are out of [i.e. from] God (or not)—(in) that [i.e. because] many false foretellers [i.e. prophets] have gone out into the world.”

This use of the word pneu=ma (“spirit”) follows upon the closing words of the previous section (3:24): “…out of the Spirit which he gave to us”. Thus there is a clear contrast between the Spirit (of God and Christ) given to believers, and other “spirits” in the world. Are these to be understood as spiritual beings or in a more abstract sense, i.e. representing generally views, ideas, teachings, etc, which are contrary to God and the truth? Most likely, the author has the former in mind. The reference to “false foretellers [i.e. prophets]” suggests that these other “spirits” are entities which inspire the false prophets just as the Spirit of God inspires and teaches believers in Christ. If so, then this marks the only portion of either the Gospel or Letters of John where the word pneu=ma refers to false or evil “spirits”.

The context indicates that these “false prophets” are people who claim to be Christians, speaking in the name of Christ and in the Spirit, but who are not true believers and actually speak against Christ and thus speak from a different “spirit”. This section (4:1-6) must be read in light of the earlier passage in 2:18-25, where the word an)ti/xristo$ is introduced, which literally means “against (the) Anointed”, and which has been preserved as a transliteration in the English “Antichrist”. We are accustomed to think of “Antichrist” as a grandiose end-time ruler, based on passages such as 2 Thess 2:1-12 and Rev 13-17; notably, however, the word an)ti/xristo$ does not appear in such passages, but only in the letters of John, where it has a quite different denotation.

It is clear in 1 Jn 2:18ff that the “antichrists” are to be identified with supposed believers who have “gone out from us”—i.e., from the Community/congregations (of true, faithful believers) with whom the author considers himself to belong. This identification with the Community is clearly stated in verse 19 (note the wordplay involving the preposition e)k, “out of”):

“They went out of [i.e. away from] us, but they were not out of [i.e. belonging to] us; for if they (had) been out of [i.e. belonging to] us, they would have remained with us, but (they left so) that it might be made to shine forth [i.e. be revealed] that they all are not out [i.e. belonging to] us.”

In conventional religious terminology, we would say that these were separatist Christians—i.e., those who separated from the ‘mainstream’ Johannine congregations, and, we may assume, had a somewhat different theological (and Christological) outlook. The false (“lying”) message referenced in 2:21-22 and 4:1ff is described as a)nti/xristo$ (“against the Anointed”, 2:18, 22; 4:3, also 2 Jn 7). As such, it clearly relates to Jesus’ own identity as “the Anointed (One)”, which, in the Gospel tradition, at a very early point, was closely connected with the title “Son of God”. These two titles, taken together, were part of a confessional statement among Johannine believers, as indicated by passages such as Jn 1:34; 11:27; 20:31, and 1 Jn 1:3; 3:23; 5:20, etc. It is noteworthy that they are part of the foundational “command” in 3:23: “…that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed” (cf. the previous note). Consider the way the names/titles are combined:

  • His Son [i.e. Son of God] —Yeshua/Jesus
  • The Anointed One

The titles are clearly parallel, and, in many ways, equivalent. But what, exactly, was meant by them? The history of Christology provides countless examples of how believers can declare Jesus to be the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) or “Son of God”, and yet each mean something slightly different. For the author of 1 John, the “antichrists” and “false prophets”, who separated from the Community, declare a different view of Jesus than he (and his Community) holds. This is stated in both of the passages under consideration:

  • “Who is the false (speaker) if not the (one) denying that Yeshua is the Anointed (One)? This is the (one who is) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$], the (one) denying the Father and the Son.” (2:22)
  • “Every spirit which gives account as one [i.e. confesses together] (that) Yeshua (the) Anointed has come in the flesh is out of [i.e. from] God.
    And every spirit which does not give (this) account as one [i.e. confess together] (about) Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God—and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$]…” (4:2-3, cf. the similar statement in 2 Jn 7)

The implication would seem to be that the one who speaks falsely about Jesus’ identity is inspired by a false/lying spirit—and that both speaker and spirit are characterized as “against the Anointed” (a)nti/xristo$). Two distinct “false” statements regarding Jesus’ identity are indicated:

  • Jesus is not the Anointed One
  • Jesus, the Anointed One, has not come in the flesh

It is possible that these could represent the purported views of different groups or leaders. The second statement is much more precise, and suggests a kind of “docetic” view of Christ—that he did not come to earth as a true flesh-and-blood human being, or that his humanity needs to be qualified in some way. Yet, as there is a wide range of such views in early Christianity, we cannot be certain just what Christological belief these Johannine opponents or “separatists” held. Greater clarity can perhaps be provided from 5:6-12, which will be discussed in an upcoming note. The famous variant reading in 4:3 could conceivably shed light on the context; I discuss this in a separate note.

Regardless of the specific Christological view characterized as “against the Anointed”, it is clear that the author (and the congregations he represents) identifies himself, along with all true believers, as possessing the Spirit of God (and Christ), rather than the false/lying spirit(s) of the ‘separatists’, as indicated in verse 6:

We are out of [i.e. from] God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (while) the (one) who is not out of [i.e. from] God does not hear us. Out of [i.e. from] this we know the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error [lit. straying].”

According to tradition, the author of the letter is the Apostle John, one of Jesus’ close disciples, and, we must assume, among those addressed in the Last Discourse (Jn 13:31-16:33; chap. 17) and in the commission of Jn 20:21-23. This would give added weight to the idea of other believers hearing an Apostolic voice who represents Jesus for the congregations under his leadership. However, even if the traditional identification of authorship is not correct, the same authority would apply to the Community as a whole (i.e. “hearing us“)—all true believers who possessed the Spirit of God and Christ. According to the view of the author, one who separates from the Community of (true) believers, and proclaims a different (i.e. “false”) message regarding Jesus Christ, possesses a different “spirit”. Here in verse 6, the second occurrence of the word pneu=ma seems to be used in a more abstract sense—i.e., “the spirit of straying” (to\ pneu=ma th=$ pla/nh$). It could still refer to a spiritual entity, an evil/sinning spirit who leads would-be believers away from the true path. A pla/no$ is one who wanders about, straying from a path; figuratively, it can refer to one who is deceived/deluded or who misleads others. For the expression “Spirit of Truth” as a title for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God and Christ, cf. John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13, and 1 Jn 5:6. There is a similar dualistic distinction between the “spirit of truth” and “spirit of falsehood” in the “Two Spirits” section of the Qumran ‘Community Rule’ text (1QS 3:13-4:26).