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Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Scripture, Tradition, and John's Truncated Letters

The Meaning of 2 John 12 and 3 John 13-14

2 and 3 John may be the least-quoted and least-studied books of the New Testament. I doubt that many books have been written on "The Theology of 3 John." As you can see at the far right of the word count graph in a previous post, these letters are about the size of contemporary academic abstracts—245 and 219 words respectively (in Greek). (1 John is not a very long letter either, but it is nearly ten times the length of 3 John!) In view of the brevity and lack of theological depth of these letters, one might be excused for wondering—without any irreverence intended—why God saw fit to include these letters in the Bible. Do they offer any theological insight that could not be gained from other books?

As I was puzzling over this recently, I was struck by two similar statements that appear near the end of the respective letters:
Though I have many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, so that your joy may be made full. (2 John 12 NASB)
13 I had many things to write to you, but I am not willing to write them to you with pen and ink; 14 but I hope to see you shortly, and we will speak face to face. (3 John 13-14 NASB)
Taken at face value, these statements suggest an explanation for why the two letters are so brief and cursory. It is not that the author has little to say; quite the opposite. He has much to say, but he refrains from saying it because he prefers to communicate his full message face to face (literally "mouth to mouth," but translated idiomatically for obvious reasons) rather than with "pen and ink."1 2

Various interpretations for the socio-rhetorical function of these statements have been offered. Watson suggests that the stated desire to visit the audience is merely an "epistolary convention" and does not imply an actual intention to visit.3 For Funk, too, the "nearly word-for-word" parallel between 2 John 12 and 3 John 13-14 "suggests that the author is drawing upon a formulaic convention of his own if not of wider usage," though he appears to think it reflects an actual intention.4 Polhill takes the statements as expressing a genuine desire to personally visit.5 Painter sees these statements as the author's own customary sign-off: this "must have been the way the Elder was accustomed to end his letters."6 Interestingly, under his reconstruction of the literary and chronological relationship between the three Johannine epistles,7 2 John was written before 1 John, and 1 John actually contains the "much more" that 2 John 12 indicates the author had wished to say.8 This might indicate either that the author was unable to make his planned visit (and thus had to put his ideas down in pen and ink in a follow-up letter) or else that 1 John contains the substance of an address the author gave face-to-face when he did make his intended visit. Thatcher thinks the statements contain "an underlying threat."9 In 2 John, "While John seems hopeful that his readers will remain loyal to him, he subtly warns them of his intention to come and see just how loyal they are."10 Jobes likewise sees an element of subtlety in the expressed wish,11 but she sees the thought of "many more things to say" as having substance: "This suggests the elder's sense that he owes more of an explanation to Gaius, as opposed to just wanting casual conversation with him."12

Watson's view that these statements are merely an epistolary convention is doubtful, since he offers no evidence for such a convention outside 2 and 3 John. The repetition of the formula in both letters may indicate it is a customary salutation for the author, but this of course does not imply he did not mean it. That he did mean it is implied by the unusual brevity of the letters: he explains why his letters are brief because they are. The expressed desire to visit is, moreover, entirely understandable within the historical setting of the letters. What pastor would not prefer to deal with sensitive, divisive issues within his flock in person?13

If Painter is correct, we do have in 1 John the substance of the "many things" the author refrained from writing in 2 John (as per 2 John 12). Certainly the main themes hit on in 2 John (the commandment of love; Jesus Christ having come in the flesh) are treated in more detail in 1 John. However, it seems clear that we do not have the substance of the "many things" the author wanted to say to Gaius as per 3 John 13-14. Du Rand summarizes the theme of 3 John as, "Show hospitality towards those who go out for the sake of his Name,"14 and neither 1 John nor any other Johannine writing specifically addresses the subject of hospitality toward missionaries. Thomas adds that most scholars believe the problem with Diotrephes (3 John 9-10) is unrelated to false teaching.15 Rather, it has to do with Diotrephes' refusal to recognize the author's authority, more specifically by refusing to receive his emissaries.16

Thus, in both 2 and 3 John, we have a letter-writer abbreviating his remarks because he intends to communicate more fully in person—with the result that no record of the full message survives (at least in the case of 3 John).

Theological Implications

The article so far may seem a rather dull treatment of an obscure detail at the end of two ancient letters. However, it is in light of the canonization of 2 and 3 John as Holy Scripture that this detail becomes theologically significant. From our point of view, the author's decision to abbreviate his remarks in favour of face-to-face communication seems very regrettable. His audience's gain was our loss, in that the "many things" he communicated orally (assuming the intended visit did take place)17—were never recorded in the Bible for posterity but are lost to history. There is no question that, had the author simply put pen to ink with the "many things" he had intended to write, the theological value of 2 and 3 John as books of the Bible would be more readily apparent.

The theological question this raises is, "Why did the Divine Author of Scripture inspire (or at least permit) the human author of 2 and 3 John to truncate these letters, omitting a full account of his instructions and their theological basis?" A definitive answer to this question does not seem achievable, but let us consider some possibilities. Could it be that the "many things" the author wished to write included errors, so the Holy Spirit prevented him from writing in order to safeguard the inerrancy of Scripture? Not likely. Why should divine inspiration forsake the author at this point, right on the tails of his assertion, "you know that our testimony is true" (3 John 12)?

A second suggestion: perhaps, although the author's message would be inspired, the Holy Spirit judged that the detriment to the original audience in receiving it in "pen and ink" rather than "face to face" outweighed the benefit to posterity in having it preserved in writing. This is more plausible, but we should bear in mind that divine inspiration is not a zero-sum game. In so many other New Testament epistles, the Holy Spirit was able to achieve both ends: communicating the message effectively (one assumes) to the original audience while also preserving it for posterity. This includes highly sensitive content, like an order to expel an incestuous man from the church (1 Cor. 5), or denunciations of various opponents by name (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:20).

I would suggest a third explanation, one which (if correct) reveals something important about the nature of divine revelation. I would suggest that the "many things" our author wanted to communicate were not lost to posterity. I do not mean that a written record of the "many things" has been preserved (apart from the possibility that 1 John constitutes the substance of the "many things" referred to in 2 John 12). What I mean is that the "many things" were not lost because they were incorporated into the apostolic tradition. If indeed John the Elder visited his charges and spoke the "many things" to them face to face, their content was thereby subsumed into the deposit of faith which the Church received from the apostles and transmitted through subsequent generations down to the present day. Thus, while the specific content of this message is irretrievably lost, the spiritual and doctrinal benefit it provided to the first-century Church did not vanish into history but helped make the Church what it was and is. The benefit still accrues to us today.

The abridgment of 2 and 3 John poses no problem for a theology of revelation which grants some authority to tradition alongside Scripture. It is difficult to explain, however, within a restorationist paradigm which excludes even a subordinate epistemological role for tradition. (Such a paradigm is sometimes called Solo Scriptura or Nuda Scriptura to distinguish it from Sola Scriptura). Under restorationism, whatever benefits Gaius may have received from a face-to-face meeting with John are lost to us today, because the Church subsequently became completely corrupt, abandoned the deposit of faith, and needed to be restored using Scripture alone.

Moreover, under a restorationist paradigm, the only enduring, unbreakable legacy of the apostolic church was the production of the New Testament. Writing the New Testament (and doing things recorded in the New Testament) was the apostles' crowning achievement. In fact, it was their only achievement that still has relevance for us today. Whatever they may have said and done that was not written down may have helped their own generation, but it is no help to us. Within this paradigm, it is difficult to explain why an inspired and/or apostolic writer would opt to omit material from Scripture in order to communicate it orally. And 2 and 3 John are only one example of this problem. What about the majority of the apostles whose writings have not survived, if they wrote at all? What benefit does today's Church gain from their labours in the Master's vineyard?


The author of 2 and 3 John left "many things" out of these letters because he preferred to communicate them orally rather than in writing. This is puzzling if writing the New Testament was the inspired/apostolic writers' most important and enduring task in contrast to the transient value of their unrecorded oral teaching. If, however, the apostles' bequest to the Church included both writings and oral tradition, then the statements in 2 John 12 and 3 John 13-14 are readily understandable, since the "many things" the writer did not write down were not lost to posterity but absorbed into the apostolic tradition. The Holy Spirit then did not have to balance the needs of the first century believers against ours, but could minister to both at the same time.


  • 1 Note the past tense "I had many things to write" in 3 John 13; this may suggest the author had initially intended to write a longer letter but changed his mind. Jobes writes, "The use of the imperfect tense may express the idea that the elder has had, and will continue to have, these many things on his mind for a while" (Karen H. Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014] 334).
  • 2 Compare similar references to omitting material in John's Gospel: first in Jesus' discourse in John 16:12, and second in the editorial comments at 20:30-31 and 21:25. The reasons for the omissions are different there, but the conclusions of this article could also be applied to them. Jobes (1, 2, & 3 John, 334) notes the echo of John 16:12.
  • 3 On 2 John: "the Presbyter provides a succinct statement of his desire in conventional terms in v. 12...It must not be inferred from the mention of a desire to visit that the Presbyter has any real intention of visiting the audience. Such an expressed wish is an epistolary convention." (Duane F. Watson, "A Rhetorical Analysis of 2 John According to Greco-Roman Convention," New Testament Studies 35 [1989], 104-130, here 129). Similarly, on 3 John 13-14, although Watson thinks the "notification of a coming visit" "accentuat[es] the message by noting it has many more facets which are better discussed in person... which enable[s] the body-closing to form a bridge to further communication" (Duane F. Watson, "A Rhetorical Analysis of 3 John: A Study in Epistolary Rhetoric," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 [1989] 479-501, here 499), in a footnote he adds, "This antithesis between reality and hope is probably not an indication of a planned visit or the seriousness of the situation, but is merely an epistolary convention with stylistic flair. Therefore it is probably not functioning as a rhetorical constraint" (Watson, "A Rhetorical Analysis of 3 John," 500 n. 142).
  • 4 "the author expresses his preference for face-to-face conversation over the letter, a preference he hopes to indulge by coming to see them" (Robert W. Funk, "The Form and Structure of II and III John," Journal of Biblical Literature, 86 [1967] 424-30, here 428-29).
  • 5 "Like Paul, John probably often had to communicate with his churches by letter when he would much have preferred the “joy” of a personal visit" (John Polhill, "The Setting of 2 and 3 John," Southern Baptist Journal of Theology [2006] 28-39, here 33-34).
  • 6 John Painter, 1, 2, and 3 John (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002) 380.
  • 7 This is a disputed issue. Thomas writes that "there is little consensus about the order of the Johannine Epistles’ composition, with nearly every conceivable order having been set forth" (John Christopher Thomas, "The order of composition of the Johannine epistles," Novum Testamentum, 37 [1995] 68-75, here 68).
  • 8 Painter, 1, 2, and 3 John, 334.
  • 9 Tom Thatcher, "3 John," In Expositor’s Bible Commentary (ed. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland; vol. 13; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) 525-38, here 537.
  • 10 Tom Thatcher, "2 John," In Expositor’s Bible Commentary (ed. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland; vol. 13; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) 507-23, here 523; similarly, on 3 John 13-14, "It is an 'apostolic parousia' which subtly enforces obedience to instructions lest one should be censured at a potential visit" (Thatcher, "3 John," 537).
  • 11 The elder wishes to emphasize that he is "still able to travel the distance between him and his original readers"; and he "might be testing the waters to see if the sister church was still open to receive him" (Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 277-78).
  • 12 Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 334, on 3 John 13-14. Similarly, the closing of 2 John "suggests that the situation caused by confusion, strife, and heretical teaching called for more than could be said in these brief notes" (Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 335).
  • 13 As du Rand writes, "By arranging cola 22 and 23-24 in an antithetical parallelism, it is ensured that the reader clearly realizes the seriousness of the resolution by the presbuteros to visit them rather than to write a letter" (J. A. du Rand, "The Structure of 3 John," Neotestamentica 13 [1979] 121-131, here 128).
  • 14 du Rand, "The Structure of 3 John," 129.
  • 15 Thomas, "Order of composition," 71.
  • 16 Watson states, "The exigence prompting the Presbyter to write is the refusal of Diotrephes, a new and ambitious leader of a Johannine church, to extend hospitality to traveling missionary brethren of the Johannine Community" (Watson, "A Rhetorical Analysis of 3 John," 481). Some take epidechomai in 3 John 9 to mean "acknowledge someone's authority" while others take it to mean "receive" or "welcome". See Margaret M. Mitchell, "'Diotrephes does not receive us': The Lexicographical and Social Context of 3 John 9-10," Journal of Biblical Literature, 117 (1998) 299-320, esp. 317-19.
  • 17 It seems likely that such a visit did take place. The preservation of the letters implies they were well-received by the original recipients, who would therefore have supported the author's wish to come to them.