Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
 Supplementary Articles - No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.

The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.

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Supplementary Article No. 2



The puzzle of 1 John, a phrase that has become almost a cliché, is usually presented in terms of the epistle's fundamental incoherence. J. C. O'Neill (The Puzzle of 1 John, p.1) declares that "the whole attempt to find a connected train of thought in the Epistle is misplaced. Progression of thought from one paragraph to the next is usually unclear . . ." Different and contradictory ideas are found juxtaposed. Specific themes and terms are concentrated in one section of the letter but nowhere else; or they may occur at widely separated intervals. J. H. Houlden (The Johannine Epistles, p.22, 31) has called this epistle "a puzzling work," and suggests that "to try to find a single logical thread . . . is liable to lead to infinite complexity or to despair."

That 1 John is a document which has been "assembled" from multiple sources, or was composed over time by having new elements added to earlier layers, are ideas that have been around for many years, although there are commentators who steadfastly refuse to see any layering at all. My own solution adopts the principle that the epistle was added to over time, but it also benefits from abandoning established preconceptions which are still being applied. I do not attempt to address every detail of the epistle, or even every puzzling element in it (some are mentioned only in passing). Rather, I will concentrate on its broad outlines along with a few key passages, so as to illuminate the evolution of the document and the community's thinking, and to draw implications for an understanding of Christian genesis as a whole.

I will in most cases refer only to the first epistle of John, the longest, most substantial of the three. The third is very short and does not discuss matters of faith. The second is also short but repeats certain points from 1 John. This second epistle must come later than 1 John, or at least later than all but the final stage of it. 2 John will be mentioned only where it adds to or clarifies what 1 John is saying. That all three epistles were written by the Apostle John in the Gospels is no longer seriously held. (Nor is that Apostle any longer thought to be the author of the Fourth Gospel). The author of the Johannine epistles is unknown. The second and third epistles identify the writer as "the Elder," though whether this man wrote any part of the first epistle is not certain. I will also have a few things to say about the Gospel of John.

Those who wish to follow only the core argument of this article, may skip those sections which have a heading preceded by an asterisk.

The Johannine Community

Much has been written about the nature and location of the Johannine community (or perhaps a circle of communities, usually located somewhere in northern Syria) which produced the epistles and the Gospel, for it is recognized that Johannine ideas are often worlds apart from those of the Synoptics. Indeed, scholars often treat this Johannine community as though it were some ancient Shangri-la, a mountain fastness penetrated and converted by some mysterious apostle from Jerusalem, only to shut itself off from the wider world of the Christian movement and evolve in its own unique fashion.

The view of Jesus contained in the Fourth Gospel is unlike any other in the New Testament. When the superficial overlay of the pattern of Jesus' ministry and passion is stripped away—something which, as I analyze it, would have been borrowed at a later stage from some synoptic source and imposed on earlier material about a spiritual Revealer Son—one finds a figure who bears little relationship to the Jesus of Mark and his redactors, Matthew and Luke, or, for that matter, to the Jesus of Paul. In fact, the Johannine literature is one of the best pieces of evidence we have in support of the theory that Christian ideas grew up independently in many places, and that the movement as a whole did not begin from any one point and figure of origin. This particular set of ideas is headed in the direction of the second century gnostics, so that the Johannine community is often labeled "proto-gnostic."

*A Preliminary Question: Which Came First?

Before unraveling 1 John itself, one question should be addressed. Which was written first, the epistles or the Gospel? That the former predate the latter should be, even by New Testament standards, a simple and logical conclusion. Yet a great majority of scholars who have examined these documents have opted for the reverse. After examining the question, we will see why this is so.

In theology and doctrinal points, in language and expression, the epistles are more primitive than the Gospel; even those who argue that the Gospel came first acknowledge this impression. In 1 John, not a single Gospel detail is brought in, no teachings are attributed to a human Jesus; there is not even a specific reference to the cross and nothing at all about a resurrection.

Those who argue for the priority of the Gospel view the epistle as an attempt to reestablish more traditional principles in the face of a kind of "runaway" interpretation of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel. Those using the Gospel, so the theory goes, were moving in dangerous directions, specifically toward Gnosticism. Now, it is true that some form of the Gospel of John first surfaces as a favorite of second century gnostics. Consequently, it seems to have been regarded with suspicion by orthodox circles until it was "revamped" around the middle of the century and brought into the ecclesiastical fold. But nowhere in 1 John does the writer allude to such a situation, let alone spell it out. If he is countering a segment of his community which has "misused" the Gospel, how can he fail to refer to that Gospel? How can he avoid pointing to specific features of it in the course of defending a "proper" interpretation of Jesus? Why have the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel simply dropped into a black hole?

One of these, for example, is the Paraclete. This concept is paramount in the Gospel of John: Jesus promises to send, once he is gone, "another to be your Advocate (parakletos), who will be with you forever, the Spirit of truth" (14:16). This Spirit promised by Jesus will guide believers until he returns. Now, 1 John is a polemical document. It attempts to counter various opponents it labels liars, deniers and Antichrists. In 4:1f it speaks of true and false "spirits" claimed by different factions of the community; those which agree with the writer are "from God," those holding differing views are false. But not only does the author show no knowledge of Jesus' promised Paraclete in all this, he lacks even the fundamental idea that any appeal can be made to traditions of belief or authority going back to Jesus. The world of the epistle writer functions according to current "spirits" claimed from God, nothing more; as such, it conforms to the wider Christian picture we see in Paul, of inspiration from the Spirit. That the author would either be ignorant of or choose to ignore the entire Spirit/Paraclete tradition as recorded in the Gospel, if this was already in existence, is impossible to accept. (Note that the reference to an "advocate" in 1 John 2:1 is not to such a spirit acting on believers, but to Jesus himself interceding with God in heaven.)

On the other hand, the development of the Paraclete tradition embodied in the Gospel can be easily understood as a subsequent solution to the problem of conflicting "spirits" in the community of 1 John. This sort of thing is a universal feature of sectarian activity: problems and disputes are solved by having an authoritative position on them read back into the past, usually at the beginnings of the sect and embodied in a statement or action by the founder. Many ideas in the Gospel of John can be viewed as attempts to solve problems faced by the earlier community of the epistles.

While the Gospel of John has almost completely abandoned the expectation of an immediate end of the world, the epistle speaks of living in "the last hour" (2:18). The progression from imminent apocalypticism to an acceptance that the church faced a long-term future was a feature of Christian development as the first century passed into the second. Yet we are to believe that the writer of 1 John "returns to a more primitive eschatological awareness" (J. H. Houlden, The Johannine Epistles, page 13). Such patterns of regression rarely if ever take place, and no scholar has provided an explanation for why such an anomaly would have occurred here. Certainly, the epistle writer gives no indication that he is reverting to something previously abandoned.

Another equally improbable regression is from Christo-centricity to Theo-centricity. The Gospel, of course, centers on Christ. But in 1 John God occupies center stage, with Jesus a kind of supporting player. It is God "who dwells within us" (3:24). Believers are "God's children" (passim). Knowledge and revelation, imparted through the rite of chrisma (evidently an initiation ceremony of anointing) is the gift of "the Holy One," meaning God. It is God who is to appear on the final day, not Jesus. "God is light" (1:5) says the writer, yet he has not a word for Jesus' own declaration: "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12). The admonition to "love one another" is constantly reiterated in 1 John, yet such a command is said to come from God (2 John 4 and 6 makes this unambiguous), ignoring the many times the Gospel puts such a recommendation into the mouth of Jesus. The concept of Jesus as a teacher is nowhere in evidence in the epistle, even amid references to the idea of Christian teaching. (Which does not preclude the occasional creative translation, such as the NEB's 2:8 and 4:21, where a reference to Christ is not supported in the Greek.) Rather, knowing and keeping the commandments of God is one of the central issues in 1 and 2 John, and only in the Gospel is this turned into the keeping of Jesus' commands. The epistle writer's advice to approach God with requests (5:14) becomes, in the Gospel, Jesus' appeal to ask of God anything "in my name" (16:23, etc.). And so on.

The Christology as a whole is notably more primitive in 1 John, but no one explains how the epistle writer could simply rid his mind of more advanced modes of thinking and expression, nor why he would perceive it as in his interests to do so. If he feels progressive forces have gone too far with the Gospel, he is far more likely to argue for the proper way of interpreting established expressions rather than abandon them altogether as though they never existed.

Does he now disagree that Jesus is the Logos or Word of God, or that this Word was made flesh? Apparently so, for in "recasting" the mighty Prologue to the Gospel, he has discarded the Word and its incarnation, he has dropped the references to pre-existence and creation; and the figure of John the Baptist has mysteriously disappeared as well. Scholars who argue that the Gospel came first acknowledge that the opening of 1 John is "a poor imitation" of the Gospel's Prologue. But the more obvious explanation is that the opening passage of the epistle is the earlier formulation of certain ideas, a focusing on the "message" about eternal life that the community has received by revelation, and that the Gospel represents a later stage, producing a Jesus who was the proclaimer of that message and an incarnation of the Word itself. I will return to the epistle's "prologue" presently.

Finally, the concept that 1 John has been formulated to deal with a crisis over the Gospel would have to suggest that it was composed more or less at once, and by a single writer. Yet this ignores the state in which we find 1 John, and is inconsistent with the widespread observation that it is a layered document put together over time by multiple authors. There is hardly a single compelling argument to be made for the priority of Gospel over epistle.

(The late) Raymond E. Brown, the most prominent Catholic authority on the Johannine writings, bases his decision that the Gospel came first on several arguments (The Epistles of John, p.31-3, 97-103), but his bottom line is the observation that the epistles are dealing entirely with an internal dispute in the community, one producing a schism, whereas the Gospel involves a larger conflict with the outside world of the Jewish establishment. He finds it difficult to believe that the schism would not have left its mark on the Gospel, or even that such a rent community could have survived.

Such difficulties, however, are based on preconceptions. As much as 20 years may have passed between the basic layers of the epistle and the creation of the Gospel, and any group surviving the earlier split could have gone on to rejuvenate itself, especially since it would now be the one in possession of the vital new idea sweeping many branches of the Christian movement: that the spiritual Christ had come to earth, "in the flesh." If the earlier community of the epistle is seen essentially as a Jewish sect with a belief in a divine Christ, especially an isolated one, wider conflict is less likely to play a part; but once out into the new arena of belief in the Son as a recent historical man, the stage is reached at which the group will attract the opposition of the mainstream Jewish establishment. In the face of the hostility of the world at large, the issue of any earlier schism at the time of the inception of the historical Jesus idea passes into a murky and perhaps misunderstood or even forgotten past. Besides, it is not clear that the communities producing the epistles and the Gospel stand in sole, direct succession. The relationship, as we shall see, may be more complicated than that.

The claim of priority for the Gospel of John over the epistles may be one of the most misguided conclusions of New Testament research, but the reason for it is easy to see. If the epistles are first and yet lack all sense of the Gospel Jesus, all trace of the sophisticated discourses and high formulations of the "I am" sayings, it then becomes difficult not to conclude that the picture of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel has no historical roots prior to itself, that it is the unique construct of an isolated community, created for that community's needs. For mystic-minded Christians over two millennia, the sayings of Jesus in John have been a life-sustaining treasure, one not easily surrendered as having no likelihood of authenticity. By extension, this picture of a specific kerygma arising out of one group's experience would call into question the authenticity of all pictures of Jesus contained in the Gospels and elsewhere. The total lack of personality and detail about Jesus of Nazareth in the epistles of John, if primary, points to the void to be found in all pre-Gospel circles, a void filled only by the constructions of the evangelists.

1 John: The Prologue

We can now proceed with the dissection of the First Epistle, starting with the so-called Prologue. These opening verses tell of an event which lay at the inception of the sect. Once more we are given an insight into the originating dynamic of Christ belief. Here is the New English Bible version:

Despite the sonority of the English translation, the quality of the Greek prose is deficient, with grammatical problems. This does not dissuade scholars from seeing this passage as a poetic paean to the ministry of Jesus, spoken by eyewitnesses—or at least represented as such. Nor do they shrink from pronouncing it a distillation from the more famous prologue of the Gospel. But are such views sustainable?

Combining both points in the discussion, we first note that the word for "beginning," arche, is not used in the same sense as the Gospel Prologue's "in the beginning was the Word." In the Gospel's hymn to the Logos, arche refers to the time before time, before creation, when the divine Word existed with God; this is the doctrine of the pre-existence of the Son. In the opening of the epistle, on the other hand, arche refers to the beginnings of the sect. 2:24 (and elsewhere) makes this clear:

That the writer of the epistle would have so adulterated such a lofty thought is hard to believe. Nor can we believe that he would simply have eliminated the ringing concept of Jesus as the Logos, the personified heavenly partner of God. In verse 1, the "word" of life bears no such connotation and has its traditional meaning of "message about." Again we meet the ubiquitous "phaneroo," to reveal, manifest, give evidence of. The writer is speaking poetically of the revealed message about eternal life: he speaks of it being made visible, seen by the eyes, heard and felt with the hands. To make this a reference to those who witnessed Jesus' ministry and even touched his person is more than faintly silly; nowhere in the epistle does the writer appeal to such things and besides, the pronoun used to refer to what was seen, heard and touched is neuter, something impersonal. Similarly, it is the "eternal life" which "dwelt with" the Father, not a Son or personal entity. The writer is speaking of doctrinal beliefs, not a human man.

What we have in this opening paragraph is the account of an event of revelation, or perhaps a longer process symbolized as a single event, a moment when certain people believed that they were receiving evidence of the offering of eternal life. As the Prologue in its present form expresses it (verse 3), that offering is envisioned as coming through the Son, Jesus Christ.

The Witness to the Son

Let's compare the sentiments of the Prologue with an important passage in chapter 5:

Much ink has been spilled over the interpretation of elements in this passage, particularly verses 6 to 8. First, we must note that the overall effect is devoid of any sense of a life of Jesus. It is the witness of God which provides belief in the Son, and the fact that the Son is the channel to eternal life. There is a total silence on any ministry of Jesus and his personal teachings about himself and about eternal life. (If the Gospel had preceded the epistle, it is inconceivable that Jesus' own witness to these things would not be appealed to here.)

We should also note that the writer does not present us with the necessity to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, or any other human man, was the Son. Nor are any historical events appealed to in support of such a proposition. God's witness concerns the fact of the Son and the eternal life which is derived from belief in such a figure, not to any identity he had nor deed he had performed.

This does not prevent commentators from suggesting that "water" and "blood" are to be interpreted as cryptic references to Jesus' baptism and crucifixion (e.g., R. E. Brown, J. H. Houlden). But there is a much less strained explanation for these terms. Though their exact significance is lost to us today (Houlden labels them "enigmatic"), they show all the signs of referring to sacramental or mystical elements within the community's beliefs and practices, through which knowledge of, or benefits from, the Son are perceived to flow. The author points to the three elements of Spirit, water and blood as belonging to a common category: all three "bear witness," all three are "in agreement." Since Spirit clearly belongs to the realm of revelation, it follows that water and blood are also, at least in part, revelatory channels. All three are presented as part of the witness of God, and God works through revelation. It is too great an anomaly to have the first refer to the manifestation of the prophetic voice and the latter two refer back to supposed events in the life of the Gospel Jesus, a story studiously ignored throughout the epistle.

Besides, how does Christ "come" through the events of his baptism and crucifixion? (This is a little too cryptic even by Johannine standards.) But if we take the verb (which is really an aorist participle: "the one having come") as a reference to the coming of the spiritual Christ into the world through his manifestation in God's revelation—which is a common mode of expression in the New Testament epistles (see Part Two)—then verse 6 is essentially saying that Jesus Christ has been revealed through the rites (?) of water and blood. These are likely some form of purification ritual and a sacred meal. Together with the general activity of the Spirit, which is one of the community's hallmarks (see 4:1f), such things constitute God's witness. God has revealed the Son and the availability of eternal life through him.

The writer of this passage, as of the Prologue, moves in a milieu of divine revelation, not of the preservation of the teachings and deeds of a recent historical man. As we shall see further, the whole concept of apostolic tradition going back to a Jesus is missing from this epistle, as are any Apostles themselves. Note that 9a is simply a comparative to 9b, a general rule, saying: "We are in the habit of accepting testimony from men, so how much more should we accept testimony from God?" Certainly, apostolic testimony is not included in the witnesses enumerated in the previous verses, nor does it appear anywhere else.

We might also note that the writer in verse 6 makes a point of stressing that the "blood" must be included, with the clear implication that others are resisting its inclusion. This precludes it being a reference to an historical crucifixion, for who would deny such an event or its central significance? (The issue of docetism is nowhere in evidence in this letter, despite some scholars' attempts to introduce it: see below.) If, however, the term relates to a rite that reflects a later layer of theological development about the spiritual Son (which we shall see), we are again looking at an entirely inspirational situation, a scene of revelation on a stage which lacks any central character of Jesus of Nazareth.

This absence of any historical Jesus at the sect's beginnings is strikingly clear in 2:27:

This anointing (chrisma) seems to be an initiation rite for entry into the sect, and no Christian writer who knew of a teaching Jesus, or who possessed any information whatever derived from him through oral or apostolic tradition, could possibly have said such a thing.

Now that we have established that this is a sect which relies entirely on mystical revelation, we can go back to the opening Prologue and read the sentence which follows it:

This fundamental truth about God, which is one of the core beliefs of the Johannine community, is thus to be seen as something which has been imparted by revelation. The "from him" may refer either to God or the spiritual Son (commentators are split as to its antecedent). But that it refers to the teaching of Jesus in a ministry on earth cannot be supported. Nor does the Gospel of John contain any such saying; rather, there Jesus says that he is the light. The latter is the more advanced idea, assigning qualities originally belonging to God to the intermediary figure, and is a further pointer to the priority of epistle over Gospel.

Layers in 1 John

We must now go on to the question of strata in 1 John and how the epistle was put together. Some scholars (e.g., Houlden, op.cit., O'Neill, op.cit., Kenneth Grayston, The Johannine Epistles) have concluded that the epistle is not a unity, but that it reflects more than one stage of thinking and conflict within the community. Much of chapter 4 and parts of 5 are the product of a later stage, and even within the first three chapters sentences have been inserted which do not fit their context.

As part of the argument for stratification in 1 John, we will bring in the question of what were the views of the dissidents who are attacked in the letter as liars and antichrists, and whether they are the same throughout the epistle. At least some of these dissidents (the ones in chapter 2) have stomped off to operate independently of the writer's group.

As examples of insertions which stick out like proverbial sore thumbs, consider these:

Such sentiments clash with ideas found in adjoining sentences. In 1:9, the earlier layer told readers that "if we confess our sins, he (God) is just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every kind of wrong." At this earlier stage, the Son was apparently not perceived as involved in forgiving sin. 2:1 presents a Jesus in heaven "pleading our cause with the Father," but as an advocate, not as a blood propitiation. This is not the only anomaly on the subject of sinfulness. At several points, the writer seems to hold the view that the true child of God is without sin, that he is incapable of it (as in 3:9); yet at others he speaks of forgiveness for sins committed, as in 2:1, and even cautions that claims to sinlessness are "self-deception" (1:8).

Two prominent references to Christ in the epistle also seem to interrupt the flow and context:

Both disturb the flow of passages which speak of the believer's relationship to God or to his fellow sect member. (More on both these verses later.) Christ seems to have been added as an enlargement on the basic ideas, the later feature of an editor who views Christ as a good example of the points the previous writer was making, in which no Son was mentioned.

In passing, we can note that in both passages quoted above, as well as several others, Christ is referred to obliquely by the pronoun "ekeinos," meaning "that one". This is peculiar, and no one has provided a convincing explanation for it. My own instinct is that it began as a way of referring to a specific part of God, that emanation of him which served as intermediary; in other words, the spiritual Son. It has an impersonal character out of keeping with the idea of a recent historical person or distinct human personality. This is one of the characteristics of this epistle, that there often seems to be no sharp distinction between God and Christ, a curiosity encountered in other New Testament epistles.

But we need to define the strata in 1 John more broadly. There seems to be a progression in nature and degree concerning the involvement of the Son / Jesus Christ in the topics under discussion, and it would make sense to see in this a reflection of the evolution of ideas about him, perhaps over the course of a few decades (though we really have no way of judging the length of time).

The latest stage (which probably included some evolution in itself) would comprise those views which speak of "cleansing by his blood" (1:7d), "a propitiation for our sins" (2:2 and 4:10), the Son "who appeared to undo the Devil's work" (3:8b). It would have begun with the idea that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (4:2) and include the verses looked at above, that Christ had conducted himself in a certain way which was exemplary, and had "laid down his life" in some fashion. Strangely, this is never specified as crucifixion, nor does a resurrection ever appear in the ideas of those who contributed to this letter.

When we move back beyond this latest stage we find the letter reverting to less specific ideas about the Son, ideas which do not involve sacrifice or incarnation. To clarify the distinction between these two levels, we can compare the dissidents who are spoken of in chapter 2 with those in chapter 4.

Two Sets of Dissidents

Let's look at the ones in chapter 4 first:

Here the dissidents are called "prophets falsely inspired." They are moved by "spirits" which do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. (To "confess" is to declare an article of faith.)

Let's examine this "false inspiration" for a moment. In trying to understand what could possibly be meant here, scholars often raise the specter of docetism, the early second century "heresy" which stated that Christ had not been a real flesh and blood human being but only one who seemed to be such. But of docetism there is no suggestion here. The issue is not phrased in these terms, and none of the arguments for or against this doctrine are ever alluded to, something unlikely if the writer is contesting such a position. At the very least we would expect him to make some general reference here to the human life of Jesus; but he does not.

Nor is there any suggestion that the dissidents are renegades rejecting a long-held view, such as would be the case with docetists. Rather, they simply do not confess the belief the writer holds. These dissidents are rivals, not apostates. We cannot even be sure that a schism is involved here. It may simply be a case of competing congregations holding differing views.

Another thing to note is that "Jesus Christ" in the writer's mind cannot simply equal "Jesus of Nazareth," since this would make the statement a tautology: "Jesus of Nazareth (a flesh and blood person) has come in the flesh." As phrased, the Jesus Christ this writer has in mind must be the spiritual Son, the pre-existent divine figure in heaven. This is his starting point. He is making a statement about his heavenly Christ: that he has come in the flesh. In other words, he has been incarnated, simply that. The writer seems to be telling us that some Christians are going about claiming that the heavenly Jesus Christ was not incarnated.

Even more startling, in 4:5 the writer reveals that to these deniers of the incarnation "the world listens." In 2 John 7-11, we can see that some Christian circles welcome such "deceivers" into their houses and give them greeting. How could such a radical rejection of traditional belief and history itself gain this kind of hearing?

What's more, this incarnation which the writer believes in: how is it known? Does he appeal to historical memory, to authorized channels going back to Jesus? How could he fail to support his position by making at least a passing reference to the record of the past, to apostolic tradition and the human witness to Jesus of Nazareth? Instead, the doctrine that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is the product of true spirits from God, namely revelation; while those who deny such a doctrine are laboring under false spirits which the writer labels "antichrist" (4:4). It would seem that the belief in Jesus' incarnation had nothing to do with verifiable history or established tradition. For competing views of the "truth" this is a level playing field.

Now consider the dissidents who are attacked in chapter 2, the "antichrists" who "went out from our company" (2:19):

These people deny "that Jesus is the Christ" (hoti Iesous ouk estin ho Christos). Again, we must consider what this means. The traditional interpretation has usually been: Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, a statement about an historical situation. But there are serious problems with this proposed meaning.

First, the present tense is used, not a past one, which certainly to our minds would be the natural, even unavoidable mode of expression. (Not even the scholars who interpret the phrase this way are able to avoid it.) Again, there is no drawing on Gospel details or apostolic tradition to make a defence of the statement.

But the insurmountable objection is this: these "deniers," like the later ones mentioned above, still seem to be part of the wider Christian community. "You no less than they are among the initiated," says the writer in 2:20. Another level playing field. But how can this be? The bottom line for inclusion in a Christian sect would surely have to be belief in the proposition that Jesus had been the Christ. Such deniers would no longer be Christians. In fact, 2:22's "Who is the liar?" implies that these very opponents had accused the writer's group of being liars, to which the writer has retorted that they are the liars. What Christian group could be accused of "lying" by another Christian group for declaring that Jesus of Nazareth had been the Messiah?

If it were claimed that the dissident group no longer regards itself as Christian, this would mean that they had simply abandoned their faith, and the whole issue would have taken on a different significance for the writer. They would be apostates, cast out and no longer even to be bothered with. But the writer blames them for leaving (2:19). The tone he adopts—including calling them "antichrists"—is that they are now a rival group with opposing views. They have begged to differ from his doctrine, not abandoned something which an entire movement has held for over half a century. No matter how you look at it, "Jesus is the Christ" cannot mean "Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah."

Before unraveling this puzzle, we can note that the dispute involved here cannot be the same as the one addressed in chapter 4. Here there is no mention of any issue about "coming in the flesh," nor is there concern over true and false spirits. Moreover, the two are incompatible, especially if given the conventional interpretations. It is not uncommon to find a commentator seeing docetism as involved in chapter 4 and the denial of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah in chapter 2. Yet how can the same group which earlier has rejected the historical Jesus as being the Christ go on to concern themselves over whether this non-Christ was a real human being?

What, then, is the meaning of 2:22? The declaration that "Jesus is the Christ" has the ring of a confession of the type we meet in Romans 10:8-9:

Paul places such a declaration entirely in the realm of present faith, not history. We can compare it to the confession of emperor worship that "Caesar is Lord." Here Caesar is an established given, as is "Jesus" for Paul. Both statements are a confession made toward a given figure, not a claim about someone in the past. Paul acknowledges that "Jesus is the Lord of us," as the Romans do of Caesar, whoever he may currently be. Either declaration has the effect of addressing itself directly to the divinity, as if to say: "You are Lord!"

In the same way, the phrase in 1 John 2:22 declares that Jesus, a given spiritual figure and Son of God, is the Anointed One, the Messiah of God's promise (a declaration which would not have fitted popular Jewish conception). The term "Messiah" in this period had taken on a wealth of emotional connotation over and above its traditional significance, and this included the meaning of "Savior." And so we might compare the phrase to the modern declaration "Jesus Saves." In the milieu of this early layer of 1 John, we can expand its significance to this: "I believe in a Jesus who is the Son of God (see also 4:15) and our Anointed Savior." Compare this with 3:23, "to have faith in the name of his Son Jesus Christ," which is another way of saying that the believer acknowledges him and his power. The issue in the earlier schism, then, boils down to whether such a being exists or not.

In fact, the writer goes on in 2:23-25 to enlarge on this very meaning, that the dispute is over the existence of the Son:

Not only do we get the sense here that the writer is speaking of two divine personages in heaven, he is stating the core of his group's religious faith. It is simple "Christ belief." That there is a Son, that he is the avenue to the Father, both for knowledge and for intercession. To dwell in one is to dwell in the other. As 5:1 phrases it, "He who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God." This is the bottom-line feature of the "Christ" movement: the existence of the Anointed Son, the intermediary channel to a transcendent God, the avenue of salvation. For such sects, the Christ is not a human End-time ruler, but a divine entity, pre-existent with God in heaven. Without him, humanity does not reach God. This 'Jewish' sectarian version of the Son is a reflection of the benchmark belief of the Hellenistic age.

Christian and Pre-Christian Strata

Now we can address the puzzling question I asked about this earlier stage of the letter. How can there be a faction which declares both the Father and the Son indispensable, and a faction which apparently denies the very existence of the Son—and yet both claim to be legitimate representatives of the sect, both claim to be holding to the truth and call the other faction "liars"?

Both groups have passed through the rite referred to as "chrisma." This "anointing by the Holy One" (i.e., God) is the mark of membership in the sect, no doubt from the beginning. Through it, God has imparted "all knowledge" (2:20), "all you need to know" (2:27). Both groups underwent it, and both are currently appealing to it. It follows, then, that the doctrine that "Jesus is the Christ" cannot have been part of the "knowledge" laid out at the anointing. If it were, the writer's group could hardly be called liars for upholding it, and the dissidents could hardly maintain that they were "still among the initiated" if they had rejected it. The actions of the dissidents imply that the writer's group, by declaring "Jesus is the Christ," have gone beyond the anointing and the doctrines embodied in it.

The only deduction that can be made here is that the original expression of the sect did not entail the faith declaration embodied in "Jesus is the Christ." In other words, the sect originally did not have a Son. This is further implied, as we have seen, by the little diatribe the writer directs at the dissidents in 2:23: "To deny the Son is to be without the Father; to acknowledge the Son is to have the Father too."

Is this possible? Let's try to look at the first part of the epistle in a different light. If we take 1:1 to 2:17 as a block (which it is), we find that with the exception of a few phrases, the thought is entirely theocentric. The focus is firmly upon God; he is the channel of eternal life (1:2), he is the "light" (1:5). With him, believers walk in the light (1:7a); his are the commands they are exhorted to keep (2:3-4). In verses 2:12-14, which are usually translated as a series of metrical lines, since they have a distinct poetic style, there is not a word about Christ: sins are forgiven for God's sake; readers know him who has been from the beginning, namely God; "God's word is in you." Mastery over Satan is the central ethical concern. If we remove from our block the four references to Christ, three of which, as we have seen, have the air of insertions since they are recognized to clash with their contexts, we are left with an extended passage which hangs together in style and content: at the beginning eternal life was revealed to be "in the Father," we can walk in the same light as he does, we know him by obeying his commands, by loving our brothers, by mastering the evil one, by rejecting the godless world.

In such a picture, the references to Christ are totally incidental and often inconsistent with surrounding statements: 1:7d, 2:1b, 2:2, 2:6. We can even include 1:3c, near the end of the Prologue: "(that life which we share with the Father) and his Son Jesus Christ," for it too has the air of an addendum. The Prologue up to that point has made no mention of the Son; indeed, he is notably missing in the core phrase of the Prologue: "We here declare to you the eternal life which was in the Father and was revealed to us." For a document which is so concerned about those who deny the Son, there is precious little about him in this entire opening declaration.

So what do we have here? We have an initial stratum which is entirely Jewish; pre-Christian. It is a type of Judaism tinged with dualism, of the kind found at Qumran, but also elsewhere, ultimately going back to Persian ideas: light vs. darkness, truth vs. error. The concept that "God is light" suggests Hellenistic Jewish circles. There are children of God and children of the Devil. This is a sect which is detached from the outside world: a world evil, godless and hostile.

In this picture the Son is an afterthought and quite unnecessary. He is a new idea grafted on in patchwork fashion, imperfectly integrated with earlier ideas. 2:1b views him as an advocate in heaven. The latter part of chapter 2 declares that one can reach and have the Father only through the Son. All this is a reflection of the basic function of the Son as an intermediary to a transcendent God. In a later third layer, as reflected in 1:7d and 2:2, that function takes on a dramatic turn: the Son is now a propitiation for sins, cleansing them by his blood; this is within the new context of the Son having come in the flesh (4:2), an article of faith known through the Spirit. Dwelling in God has also come to be measured by a new standard: conducting oneself as Christ himself had done (2:6). This latter verse is extremely vague and likely a late addition.

Other parts of the epistle mirror the same mix of elements. The initial pre-Christian stratum, with no Son, survives in 2:28-3:2 which speaks of God's anticipated appearance at the Parousia, not Jesus'. We are God's children and when he arrives we shall be like him. In 3:9f criteria are offered for determining who is a child of God and who a child of the devil. Readers are exhorted to approach God with confidence, to "obtain from him whatever we ask" (3:21-22).

Within such passages, insertions about the Son create a disjointed and detouring effect. The necessity to give allegiance to the Son (e.g., 3:23) comes from the next stage of thinking, for such necessity is lacking in other passages which discuss the believer's relationship with God. Among the insertions from the third stage are 3:3 and 5, 3:8b, and the famous 3:16. This declaration, "that Christ laid down his life for us and we in turn are bound to lay down our lives for our brothers," is painfully out of place here, for the text goes on in verse 17 to descend with a dull thud from this lofty idea to the remark that if a man has enough to live on he should give to a brother in need. This latter verse, in its tone and motifs, follows logically from verses 14 and 15. Some scholars (Houlden, op.cit., p.100 and Grayston, op.cit., p.113) have recognized the unhappy sequence of ideas here and perhaps need to be more courageous in their implication that 3:16 may have been lacking in the original text.

The Schism

But let's return to the picture of schism contained in the early part of the letter, between the forces of the original stage 1 and those of stage 2. It now becomes clear. A great dispute has arisen between those who adhere to the initial Jewish outlook from the sect's beginnings, a faith based entirely on God, and those who reflect the new development in religious thinking which was permeating fields far beyond the sect's own: the existence of the intermediary Son. The writer's group is convinced that the Son is the avenue to the Father; to be without him is to be without the Father. Both groups claim to be legitimate representatives of the sect, but the group holding to the traditional views have "gone out," since they cannot accept the new doctrine.

It might be objected that the "progressive" group would be on shaky ground if they were pushing a view which was not part of the original "knowledge" bestowed by the rite of anointing, if it was not part of the doctrine revealed "from the beginning." But that it did not go back to the beginning is suggested by the very fact that the writer does not specifically make such a claim in support of his position. 2:24 does not really fill this bill, for it is too allusive:

Aside from the fact that what was heard is not spelled out, the point is not presented as an argument to prove the group's position against their opponents. Rather, it is a kind of 'consolation' statement, confirming that what was heard will enable the reader to dwell in the Son and Father and receive the promised eternal life. 3:11 actually states the message (or at least part of it) which was heard at the beginning: "that we should love one another." The fact that the writer does not similarly state that the doctrine of the Son was part of the original message is telling.

I suspect that what is happening here is that he is "reading back" the subsequent development of belief in an Anointed Son into the revelation spoken of in the Prologue and finding a general support for it there. Even when he goes on to speak of what has been learned at the initiation, he remains notably unspecific. There must have been little if anything of real substance for the writer to appeal to in support of his side of the schism which the community has just suffered.

This in itself would lead us to consider that the phrase in 1:3c linking the "Son Jesus Christ" to the Father is an addition to the initial version of the epistle's Prologue, by someone who subsequently chose to see the Son as implied in the sect's original revelation. Such a practice of reading later ideas into earlier writings and of constantly updating those writings was anything but unusual in the documentary history of Christianity.

A further objection might be made over the term "antichrist" (2:18, 4:3). If the doctrine of the Son is relatively new, at least in its acceptance by a formal group within the community, how can the writer speak as though the antichrist (meaning the one destined to be against the Messiah) was a traditional part of the congregation's expectations? But the idea of a "man of lawlessness," an agent of Satan (or Satan himself), was indeed longstanding in Jewish apocalyptic expectation, a figure who would oppose God's work and that of his Messiah at the End-time establishment of the Kingdom. The writer may be recasting him in a new application to the spiritual Christ and Son, with a new name. In fact, there is no record of the term "antichrist" before 1 John, and scholarship generally regards the term as invented by the writer of this epistle or the group he represents.

The End of the Epistle

A curious effect is created by the concluding section of the epistle. Following the dramatic dispute of the third layer over whether Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (4:1f), the rest of the letter gradually loses sight of it and the final block from 5:13 to the end reverts entirely to the middle stratum. Here ideas of incarnation and propitiation are definitely lacking. The sentiment returns to "giving allegiance to the Son of God" and to the idea that the Son keeps the true child of God safe from the evil one. A key verse is 5:20:

Here the role of the Son is the classic one of Revealer. He gives understanding to know God ("him who is real"). The verb "has come" is in the present tense in the Greek, implying an ongoing condition. There is no sense here of the declaration in 4:2, which is in the perfect, that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. The Son is simply the newly-revealed channel to God, which represents the fundamental inceptive stage of Christ belief. It is this revelation of God which confers eternal life, the hallmark of the Johannine community's soteriology (concept of salvation) throughout all the stages of its documentation.

Thus, in this one little disordered jumble of an epistle, we can discern the fundamental course of early Christian development. We can trace one group's progression through the ascent which the spiritual Christ followed from soil to full flowering. When this sect was formed, it was without a Son. God himself revealed that he was light, that people could become his children and gain eternal life by withdrawing from the world, obeying his commands and loving one another. No doubt the sect expected that the arrival of the Kingdom would not be long in coming. At some point, the idea that God had a divine Son who served as the mediator of this revelation, and thus the avenue to salvation, took hold and crystallized in the minds of some portion of the community, to be vigorously resisted by others. Such an idea may have been the result of outside influences and it could well have filtered in over time, discussed and studied by certain members of the sect until it reached a point of critical mass, to divide the community in schism.

Further on down the road, the group which had adopted the new Son came to believe that he had been incarnated, that he had "come in the flesh," and whether at this point or a little later (I suspect it was later), this coming in flesh entailed the idea that he had died as a sacrifice for sins. Now a new schism (if the two sides in chapter 4 are from the same community) resulted with those who resisted the idea of incarnation. The community still views Jesus as the revealer of God, it maintains the concepts of stage two, but it has added the extra dimension of a propitiatory sacrifice in a life lived "in flesh."

How much this idea of a life "lived" and "laid down for others" was assigned to a specific point in history is impossible to say, since no historical allusions are ever made. I suspect it was still indeterminate, to solidify into recent history only when the next stage was reached: the Gospel of John. I have not addressed the possibility that the "in flesh" (en sarki) of 4:2 still inhabits the mythical arena seen in Paul and other early epistles, rather than an actual incarnation to earth. The effect, however, would be little different.

2 John is also a product of the later stratum, for it too concerns the schism over whether "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (verse 7). Here the writer warns his readers not to receive into their houses those who do not stand by ("dwell in") this "doctrine about the Christ." 3 John, while it specifies no doctrine, is almost certainly concerned with the same schism.

*From Epistle to Gospel

As Jesus speaks about himself in the Gospel of John, he represents a personification of the second stratum of 1 John. This is a revealer Son, though he has attracted to himself some of the attributes given to God in the epistle: "I am the light of the world." Jesus personifies the knowledge of God that comes from God: "I am the bread of life." No one can come to the Father except through Jesus, the Son.

As in the middle stratum of 1 John, salvation is achieved by receiving and accepting the knowledge about God and about his revealer, Jesus: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, even though he die, shall live." The Gospel of John has no teachings beyond Jesus' proclamation about himself, for he has nothing else to say. He is the Son, the light, eternal life, the living bread, the living water, the door of the sheepfold; he is the one come down from heaven, he is the revealer of the Father. There are no ethics. To "love one another" is little more than an in-house rule, not a universal moral dictum; 11:35 shows that he is simply advocating love among his followers, so that "all will know that you are my disciples." Those disciples are part of an elect, an idea which emerges regularly, as in 13:1 and 17:6: "I have made thy name known to the men whom thou didst give me out of the world." There is little sense of a universal salvation.

Indeed, Jesus' ministry amounts to little more than standing up in the marketplace or in the synagogue and declaring to all the world the most mystical, pretentious pronouncements about himself. But they become acceptable if we view such declarations as going back to the theology of earlier groups about the object of their worship: the mythical and mystical Son and Word, something which was a purely spiritual entity, the mediatorial channel to God. It is only when they are placed in the mouth of a human Jesus walking through Palestine that they take on this air of unreality, this ludicrous megalomania.

These passages in the Gospel of John which contain the "teachings," Jesus' self-declarations, have long been recognized as a distinct layer of material. Scholars have always struggled to see this Johannine interpretation of Jesus as a later development, imposed on traditions about the historical figure which are more like those of the synoptic Gospels. But I would suggest that the situation is the reverse. The distinctive Johannine material, in some form, would once have stood alone. It represented an earlier phase of the community's faith, a faith based on belief in God's revelation, in knowledge transmitted through the spiritual Son. In other words, the "teachings" were once the community's pronouncements about the intermediary Son as a Revealer entity. (We see them in an incipient state in the middle layer of 1 John, and we can compare them with sentiments in documents like the Odes of Solomon: see Article No. 4.)

Under the influence of synoptic ideas which came to it from outside, the Johannine community eventually jumped onto the new historical Jesus bandwagon. The Gospel of John borrowed its historical dimensions from elsewhere. The miracles were taken from a distinct source which is somehow related to, though not identical with, Mark's miracle collection (scholars call it the "Signs Source"). Part of their function in the Gospel is to provide some proof for the claims Jesus makes about himself.

The evangelist also needed to give the community its own special link back to the new historical founder, and so he invented the Beloved Disciple, a figure later identified with Mark's apostle John. Any sign of such a figure is lacking in the Johannine epistles.

The movements in Jesus' ministry have also been superimposed, but the editor here either did not care or did not possess the abilities of a Mark to create the sense of an ordered narrative. Jesus wanders back and forth without purpose between Galilee and Jerusalem. There is none of the synoptic pattern which creates a sense of evolution to the ministry, none of the ascending tension as Jesus makes his way inexorably toward Jerusalem and his fate. John's ministry is simply a loose structure on which to hang the pronouncements of Jesus as the channel to God, the vehicle of salvation through proper belief.

The Johannine concept of salvation required notable cuts to the synoptic picture. Jesus could not be represented as redeeming through his death and resurrection, and so there is no Eucharist in the Fourth Gospel, no establishment of a sacrificial rite at a Last Supper. The passage regularly pointed to as "embodying eucharistic teaching," 6:51-58, does no such thing. When Jesus styles himself the living bread, the bread of life, and declares that to possess eternal life one must eat his flesh and drink his blood, this is in no way connected with his death. This is not sacrificed blood, not slain flesh. In fact, the flesh and blood of these verses (51c-56) are an enlargement on the previous metaphor of bread alone, and remain within its parameters: they are additional symbols representing the ingestion of divine knowledge, imparted through the person of Jesus. The idea is tied full circle by verse 58: "This is the bread that came down from heaven." The evangelist has introduced these elements, but he has kept them in the service of the basic Johannine soteriology: salvation through revelation, through Jesus as a Revealer figure, not a sacrificial one. (Some Johannine scholars, such as R. E. Brown [The Epistles of John, p.98], suggest that there are "minor indications" of a sacrificial and vicarious view of Jesus' death, but these are far from stating an atonement doctrine and can be otherwise interpreted, as Brown himself points out [n.227].)

This is not to say that the terms of the metaphor itself, flesh and blood, were not derived from that source in which they did signify elements of a sacrifice: the irresistible story of Jesus of Nazareth created by the synoptic evangelists, whose primary feature was the sacrificial Christ of the Pauline cult. At some point the Johannine community with its spiritual Revealer Son had come in contact with the Markan Jesus and found itself compelled to incorporate him. But it was determined to do so on its own terms.

That determination is nowhere so evident as in the handling of Jesus' passion and death. There is no doctrine in John about atonement for sin or any redemptive consequence to Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus is not even allowed to suffer. (Not even emotionally: there is no Gethsemane scene in John.) His raising up on the cross is an "ascension," a glorification (12:23). It is the ultimate support for the proof of his claims, the ultimate miracle. Jesus is in control throughout the trial and crucifixion, bearing all in sublime detachment, fulfilling what must be "accomplished" by the will of his Father. Note that John refuses to introduce Simon of Cyrene, declaring that Jesus "carried his own cross" (19:17), nor does Jesus utter the desolate cry on the cross put into his mouth by Mark.

John also presents the crucifixion as a "lifting up" of the Son into full view of the world, so that they can see him and believe. "This Son of Man must be lifted up as the serpent was lifted up by Moses in the wilderness, so that everyone who has faith in him may in him possess eternal life" (3:14-15). And notice how the evangelist deftly avoids any idea of atonement in these references to Jesus' death: "God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not die but have eternal life" (3:16). Or, "There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends" (15:13). If John had any sympathy for the concept of the Atonement, this is where he would have expressed it. (Note that the last saying is not offered in any context about Jesus' death.) The strata of Johannine Revealer and synoptic Crucified One have not been integrated.

Having analyzed the Gospel of John, in one of its main aspects, as a kind of personification of the middle stratum of 1 John, a presentation of Jesus as a Revealer Son rather than a sacrificial atoner, what then do we make of the fact that the Gospel fails to reflect any of the content from the final layer of the epistle, those insertions which specify Jesus as a propitiation for sin? In fact, as I have pointed out, the Gospel seems to have gone out of its way to avoid such an idea. And yet it is not likely that the evangelist would have discarded such a doctrine if it was an established part of his own community's thinking. Does this compromise the seemingly compelling argument made earlier that the epistle must precede the Gospel?

The solution lies in a principle which constantly rears its head in the study of early Christianity, one scholars have come increasingly to realize: that relationships between strands of thinking, between documents and communities, are far more complex and subtle than can be understood and conveyed by any academic presentation from the vantage point of our time. Judith Lieu has expressed the view (The Theology of the Johannine Epistles, p.16-21) that "the Epistles imply more than one community owing some loyalty to the Johannine tradition," and that "both the Gospel and First Epistle are the outcome of a lengthy process of development within Johannine thought." Noting also that a few recent scholars have started to swing away from the position that 1 John grew out of the Gospel, she suggests that Epistle and Gospel may be to some extent independent, each separately "crystallizing out of Johannine traditions in different circumstances."

We must conclude that the Gospel does not simply stand in direct line from the final version of 1 John. It may be the product of a parallel community, with a different set of emphases. It may be that the very latest parts of the first epistle overlap the earliest phase of the Gospel, and almost certain that references to Jesus' blood sacrifice are derived from a different line of thinking than that of the evangelist. (I have been referring to the author of John in the singular, but in reality the Gospel seems to have gone through a number of stages of evolution before reaching its canonical form, perhaps as many as five in the view of Helmut Koester ["History and Development of Mark's Gospel" in Colloquy on New Testament Studies, ed. B. Corley, p.63].) The Gospel builds upon the ideas of the epistle, but at what stage of the latter is anything but sure. Nor can we be certain even that the evangelist had the epistle in hand, for the problems the epistle reflects would have been common to the community as a whole, and many of its ideas and expressions the property of the entire Johannine circle. Certainly, 3 John suggests a picture of multiple congregations spanning more than one geographical center.