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Was “Johannine Christianity” Intolerant?

October 24, 2017

In the discussion following the first of his Croall Lectures in New College yesterday, Professor Werner Jeanrond referred to the “Johannine Community” as a group in which he wouldn’t feel comfortable, perceiving it to have been a rather narrow and intolerant group.  It was an off-hand remark during the question period, not at all a focus of his lecture.  And he didn’t expand on it or illustrate what he meant.  But it did set me wondering about the matter.

Now, to be sure, the NT writings typically linked to a “Johannine community” of early Christians (Gospel of John and Epistles of John) certainly reflect an exclusivist stance.  In all of these texts, Jesus is the singular and ultimate expression of God’s purposes, and anyone who denies Jesus’ significance is referred to as benighted.  That is, these writings (along with the other NT writings and a good many more early Christian texts) make allegiance to Jesus requisite for a right relationship with God.  In short, these texts espouse a rather straightforwardly Christian faith-stance in very particularist terms.

But I had the feeling that Jeanrond was asserting some more narrow stance or attitude, perhaps a kind of sectarian intolerance for any Christian diversity.  Whatever he may have meant, I’ll note some texts that suggest to me a somewhat more positive view of those reflected in these writings.

The writing known as “1 John” is probably the clearest evidence of a specific group of early Christians that might comprise “Johannine Christianity.”  1 John reflects some kind of schism in this group, and this seems to have been the occasion for the author to have composed this writing.  It bears noting, however, that this schism was apparently produced by certain members of the group leaving those addressed in this writing.  Those now outside the group weren’t expelled, but abandoned the group:  “They went out from us” (2:19).  So, if there was any narrowness, or sectarian action, it appears more to have characterized these secessionists, not the circle addressed in 1 John.

To be sure, the author characterizes these secessionists in pretty strong terms.  He effectively accuses them of being “antichrists” (2:18), because (as the authors sees the matter) they deny that “Jesus is the Christ” (2:22), and so “deny the Son,” thereby also denying “the Father” (2:22-23).  They appear to advocate some teachings that the author regards as unacceptably revisionist.  They claim special insight for their views, and may have chosen to secede from the “Johannine” circle when their claims and new teachings were not accepted.

The author also characterizes their succession as their abandonment of the necessary love for fellow believers, which seems to be reflected in the repeated emphasis on fraternal love as a requisite expression of authentic faith (e.g., 3:10-18; 4:7-12).  So, these secessionists are portrayed as false prophets (4:1-6), who would “deceive” other believers (their teachings portrayed as some sort of major revisionist view of Jesus in particular that departed from the tradition advocated by the author), and also as failing to exhibit the fraternal love that is to be expected of believers.

These secessionists may have seen themselves as having a superior insight or version of beliefs, and may have found the apparent reluctance of other believers to accede to their claims as a just basis for breaking fellowship with them.  But the observation I reiterate is that they weren’t apparently expelled; they walked away on their own.  They apparently considered the differences with the other believers important enough to separate themselves.  If so, it is they who were acting in a narrow and sectarian manner, not the circle to whom 1 John was addressed.

Granted, the little writing known as 2 John warns recipients (“the elect lady and her children” v. 1) about “deceivers” accused of denying that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (v. 7), urging that they should not be entertained and given a platform to spread their teaching (vv. 10-11).  Some may see this as narrow-minded, but others may see it simply as a concern to guard the religious integrity of the group from those with seriously dissonant aims.

Obviously, the characterization of  “Johannine Christianity” would require much more than this blog posting.   The “Johannine” writings surely reflect strong efforts at religious-group “boundary maintenance,” and they express affirmations of what is presented as the tradition of the group(s) addressed.  But perhaps, just perhaps, Johannine Christianity wasn’t quite as narrow and uncomfortable as Professor Jeanrond seemed to fear.

















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  1. Sean permalink

    Thanks for these thoughts Larry.
    I would propose that a (primary?) reason for their “boundary maintenance,” was due to external pressure from “the world” because in 3:13 it is the world that “hates” them – where classical authors (e.g., Aristotle and Plutarch) see “hate” not just as an emotion but as including the intention to harm. We also know from other sources that Christians struggled with outsiders in Ephesus, if that is the location of the elder and the Johannine community (cf. 1 Cor. 15:32; Acts 19). Furthermore, there are theological hints at an openness to the world in 1 John. In 2:2, Jesus is the expiating sacrifice for the sins “of the whole world” and in 4:14, Jesus is the saviour of the world. Why emphasize these theological elements if they were closed off to the world? I imagine that the emphasis on the love command and the repeated references to “one another” are to aid the creation of a community that could withstand pressure from outside and be an inviting community to those interested in Christianity.

  2. John Mitrosky permalink

    I was wondering if you might think it possible that the people “who went out from us” were folks who also believed in Thomas saying 108? I have always liked the theory that 1 John is linked to the Gospel of John. And that Thomas and John did share a belief in, “Is it not written that “you are gods?” But then, they divided over how to interpret the issue of Jesus being the Christ. So all this was going on, say, between the years 80 and 100 C.E.

    • John: There is likely some sort of historical connection between the GJohn and GThomas. The figure of Thomas in the latter text likely derives from his prominence in GJohn. See my discussion of Johannine Christianity in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, 349-426, and the Gospel of Thomas, 452-478. The elitist tone and haughty and disdainful attitude to other Christians in GThomas may well reflect the kind of view of the secessionists mentioned in 1 John.

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Your book is very good. In particular I like the chapter about Christians having a “bookish” culture.

    At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that your own book comes within a long tradition too: of talking up the benefits of Christianity to the culture of the west.

  4. sue knetko permalink

    Thanks Larry for this measured and helpful comment. Sue from Oz.

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    By any modern standard of tolerance I’d say it’s pretty intolerant to call people names and ostracise them for believing differently. Really, what definition of “tolerance” includes such behaviour?

    But entirely to be expected in that time and culture I suppose.

    Which reminds me, I wonder if you’ve come across this book or even considered reviewing it:

    Since it seems to be a sort of antidote to your “Destroyer of the Gods” book, looking rather at the downsides of Christian ascendancy.

    • If that book is “antidote” to mine, then that says what you think if mine! Her book is a retread of a tired old view long ago laid aside among ancient historians. But, because most journalists and many general readers don’t know any different, it gets noticed as sensational and new. “Dark ages”?? A term no longer used in academia. To the extent that we have classical literature, it’s down to Christians (largely in monasteries) preserving it.

  6. Dr. Hurtado, first let me state that I am not a scholar rather I am a very dedicated reader of II Temple Judaism, NT & Early Christianity history (c. 400 BCE through 1000 CE). I am on your blog & am always fascinated with your thoughts on how to write non-sectarian history as well as your fine critiques of current historical works.
    Now my question. Would you provide me with some current historical works concerning the Gospel of John & the 3 short letters?
    Thank you, Clint Capers

    • Clint: The bibliography on Johannine literature is oceanic. Here’s something to start with: John Painter, The Quest for the Messiah: The History, Literature and Theology of the Johannine Community, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

  7. eliadefollower permalink

    I will have to dig through my notes to find the reference, but I would note that while the writer of the Gospel of John, and presumably the letters, makes references to “the Jews”, it has been noted that this would have been a common way to reference members of a different Jewish sect than the speaker in 1st century CE Judaism. Further the Gospel of John is a remarkable example of “channeling” the Dead Sea Scrolls, appoint that is often missed.
    For this to be though the work must be pre-70 CE as there is no indication of such sectarian literature after the collapse of the Temple. This also suggests that 1 John is likewise early, making it possible tht John is referencing the same problem that Paul referenced in Galatians.

    • No, neither Qumran scholars nor John scholars think that the GJohn “channeled” Qumran! Instead, Qumran shows that some of the conceptual categories in GJohn were authentically Jewish and in the Jewish tradition, not (as asserted often previous to the discovery of the Qumran material) from, e.g., Iranian sources or whatever. As for the likely date of GJohn, the late first century date is pretty secure.

      • eliadefollower permalink

        Larry, so you do not think that he evidence for an early date from Josephus is worth considering?

      • What evidence from Josephus on the date of the Gospel of John?? You got some text the rest of the world doesn’t have?

      • eliadefollower permalink

        Larry, Josephus presents an example of Greco-Roman Royal Biography, so it was known in the 90’s by Jewish writers. And it seems that two gospel writers also used that same pattern, that is Matthew and Luke. Why then would John, if he was writing following these other examples, not use it for a personage such as Jesus? The evidence has been present for roughly 2000 years. but I have only found it recognized in the past 4 years.

      • Uh, if what you mean is that the biographical-type genre was around and not invented by the four Evangelists, we’ve known that for well over a century! Sorry, but you didn’t uniquely discover this. You just don’t know scholarly work well enough.
        –Clyde Weber Votaw, The Gospels and Contemporary Biographies in the Greco-Roman World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), originally published: “The Gospels and Contemporary Biographies,” American Journal of Theology 19(1915), 45-73, 217-49.

        But your earlier posting was about the date when GJohn was likely composed. Biographical writings had been around for a couple of centuries or so. But GJohn on internal grounds seems to scholars to presuppose one or more of the other Gospels, and so is likely late first century CE.

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