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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.

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