New Advent
 Home   Encyclopedia   Summa   Fathers   Bible   Library 
 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 
New Advent
Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > J > Epistles of Saint John

Epistles of Saint John

Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more — all for only $19.99...

Three canonical books of the New Testament written by the Apostle St. John.

The subject will be treated under the following heads:

First epistle


External evidence

The very brevity of this letter (105 verses divided into five chapters) and the lateness of its composition might lead us to suspect no traces thereof in the Apostolic Fathers. Such traces there are, some unquestionable. St. Polycarp (A.D. 110-117, according to Harnack, whose chronology we shall follow in this article) wrote to the Philippians: "For whosoever confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the Flesh is Antichrist" (c. vi; Funk, "Patres Apostolici", I, 304). Here is an evident trace of I John, iv, 2-3; so evident that Harnack deems this witness of Polycarp conclusive proof that the first Epistle and, consequently, the Gospel of John were written toward the end of the reign of Trajan, i.e. not later than A.D. 117 (cf. Chronologie der Altchristlichen Litteratur, I, 658). It is true that Polycarp does not name John nor quote word for word; the Apostolic Fathers cite from memory and are not wont to name the inspired writer whom they cite. The argument from Polycarp's use of I John is strengthened by the fact that he was, according to Irenæus, the disciple of St. John. The distinctively Johannine phrase "come in the Flesh" (en sarki eleluthota) is also used by the Epistle of Barnabas (v, 10; Funk, op. cit., I, 53), which was written about A.D. 130. We have it on the authority of Eusebius (Church History V.20) that this First Epistle of John was cited by Papias, a disciple of John and fellow of Polycarp (A.D. 145-160). Irenæus (A.D. 181-189) not only cites I John ii, 18, and v, 1 but attributes the citation to John the Lord's disciple ("Adv. Hær." 3, 16; Eusebius, Church History V.8). The Muratorian Canon (A.D. 195-205) tells the story of the writing of John's Gospel consequent upon a revelation made to the Apostle Andrew, and adds: "What wonder, then, that John so often in his letters gives us details of his Gospel and says of himself, etc." — here I John. i, 1, is quoted. St. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 190-203) quotes v, 3, with his usual indubitable accuracy, and expressly assigns the words to John ("Pædag.", III, xi; Kirch. Comm., ed. I, p. 281). Tertullian (A.D. 194-221, according to Sunday) tells us that John, in his Epistle, brands as Antichrist those who deny that Christ is come in the flesh (De Præscrip. 33), and clearly attributes to "John the author of the Apocalypse" several passages of the First Epistle (cf. "Adv. Marc.", III, 8, and V, 16, in P.L., II, 359 and 543; "Adv. Gnost.", 12, in P.L., II, 169; "Adv. Prax.", 15, in P.L., II, 196).

Internal evidence

So striking is the internal evidence in favour of common authorship of the Gospel and First Epistle of John, as to be almost universally admitted. It cannot be by accident that in both documents we find the ever-recurring and most distinctive words light, darkness, truth, life, and love; the strictly Johannine phrases "to walk in the light", "to be of the truth", "to be of the devil", "to be of the world", "to overcome the world", etc. Only such erratic and sceptical critics as Holtzmann and Schmiedel deny the forcefulness of this argument from internal evidence; they conclude that the two documents come from the same school, not from the same hand.


The foregoing citations, the fact that there never was any controversy or doubt among the Fathers in the matter of the canonicity of the First Epistle of John, the existence of this document in all the ancient translations of the New Testament and in the great uncial manuscripts (Sinaitic, Alexandrian, etc.) — these are arguments of overwhelming cumulative force to establish the acceptance of this letter by the primitive Church as canonical Scripture, and to prove that the inclusion of the First Epistle of John in the Canon of Trent was only a conciliar acceptance of an existing fact — the feet that the letter had always been among the Homologoumena of Holy Writ.


The only part of the letter concerning the authenticity and canonicity whereof there is serious question is the famous passage of the three witnesses: "And there are three who give testimony (in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost. And these three are one. And there are three that give testimony on earth): the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three are one" (1 John 5:7-8). Throughout the past three hundred years, effort has been made to expunge from our Clementine Vulgate edition of canonical Scripture the words that are bracketed. Let us examine the facts of the case.

Greek manuscripts

The disputed part is found in no uncial Greek manuscripts and in only four rather recent cursives — one of the fifteenth and three of the sixteenth century. No Greek epistolary manuscript contains the passage.


No Syriac manuscript of any family — Peshito, Philoxenian, or Harklean — has the three witnesses; and their presence in the printed Syriac Gospels is due to translation from the Vulgate. So too, the Coptic manuscripts — both Sahidic and Bohairic — have no trace of the disputed part, nor have the Ethiopic manuscripts which represent Greek influence through the medium of Coptic. The Armenian manuscripts, which favour the reading of the Vulgate, are admitted to represent a Latin influence which dates from the twelfth century; early Armenian manuscripts are against the Latin reading. Of the Itala or Old Latin manuscripts, only two have our present reading of the three witnesses: Codex Monacensis (q) of the sixth or seventh century; and the Speculum (m), an eighth or ninth century manuscript which gives many quotations from the New Testament. Even the Vulgate, in the majority of its earliest manuscripts, is without the passage in question. Witnesses to the canonicity are: the Bible of Theodulph (eighth century) in the National Library of Paris; Codex Cavensis (ninth century), the best representative of the Spanish type of text: Toletanus (tenth century); and the majority of Vulgate manuscripts after the twelfth century. There was some dispute as to the canonicity of the three witnesses as early as the sixth century: for the preface to the Catholic Epistles in Codex Fuldensis (A.D. 541-546) complains about the omission of this passage from some of the Latin versions.

The Fathers

(1) Greek Fathers, until the twelfth century, seem one and all to have had no knowledge of the three witnesses as canonical Scripture. At times they cite verses 8 and 9 and omit the disputed portions of verses 7 and 8. The Fourth Lateran (A.D. 1215), in its decree against Abbot Joachim (see Denzinger, 10th ed., n. 431) quotes the disputed passage with the remark "sicut in quibusdam codicibus invenitur". Thereafter, we find the Greek Fathers making use of the text as canonical. (2) The Syriac Fathers never use the text. (3) The Armenian Fathers do not use it before the twelfth century. (4) The Latin Fathers make much earlier use of the text as canonical Scripture. St. Cyprian (third century) seems undoubtedly to have had it in mind, when he quotes John 10:30, and adds: "Et iterum de Patre et Filio et Spiritu Sancto scriptum est — Et hi tres unum sunt" (De Unitate Ecclesiæ, vi). Clear also is the witness of St. Fulgentius (sixth century, "Responsio contra Arianos" in P.L., LXV, 224), who refers to the above witness of St. Cyprian. In fact, outside of St. Augustine, the Fathers of the African Church are to be grouped with St. Cyprian in favour of the canonicity of the passage. The silence of the great and voluminous St. Augustine and the variation in form of the text in the African Church are admitted facts that militate against the canonicity of the three witnesses. St. Jerome (fourth century) does not seem to know the text. After the sixth century, the disputed passage is more and more in use among the Latin Fathers; and, by the twelfth century, is commonly cited as canonical Scripture.

Ecclesiastical documents

Trent's is the first certain ecumenical decree, whereby the Church established the Canon of Scripture. We cannot say that the decree of Trent on the Canon necessarily included the three witnesses. For in the preliminary discussions signs that led up to the canonizing of "the entire books with all their parts, as these have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the old Latin Vulgate", there was no reference whatsoever to this special part; hence this special part is not canonized by Trent, unless it is certain that the text of the three witnesses has "been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and is contained in the old Latin Vulgate". Both conditions must be verified before the canonicity of the text is certain. Neither condition has as yet been verified with certainty; quite the contrary, textual criticism seems to indicate that the Comma Johanninum was not at all times and everywhere wont to be read in the Catholic Church and is not contained in the original old Latin Vulgate. However, the Catholic theologian must take into account more than textual criticism; to him the authentic decisions of all Roman Congregations are guiding signs in the use of the Sacred Scripture, which the Church and only the Church has given to him as the Word of God. He cannot pass over the disciplinary decision of the Holy Office (13 January, 1897), whereby it is decreed that the authenticity of the Comma Johanninum may not with safety (tuto) be denied or called into doubt. This disciplinary decision was approved by Leo XIII two days later. Though his approval was not in forma specifica, as was Pius X's approval of the Decree "Lamentabili", all further discussion of the text in question must be carried on with due deference to this decree. (See "Revue Biblique", 1898, p. 149; and Pesch, "Prælectiones Dogmaticæ", II, 250.)


It was of chief moment to determine that this letter is authentic, i.e., belongs to the Apostolic age, is Apostolic in its source, and is trustworthy. Among those who admit the authenticity and canonicity of the letter, some hold that its sacred writer was not John the Apostle but John the Presbyter. We have traced the tradition of the Apostolic origin of the letter back to the time of St. Irenæus. Harnack and his followers admit that Irenæus, the disciple of Polycarp, assigns the authorship to St. John the Apostle; but have the hardihood to throw over all tradition, to accuse Irenæus of error in this matter, to cling to the doubtful witness of Papias, and to be utterly regardless of the patent fact that throughout three centuries no other ecclesiastical writer knows anything at all of this John the Presbyter. The doubtful witness of Papias is saved for us by Eusebius (Church History III.39, Funk, "Patres Apostolici", I, p. 350): "And if any one came my way who had been a follower of the elders, I enquired the sayings of the elders — what had Andrew, or what had Peter said, or what Philip, or what Thomas or James, or what John (he ti Ioannes) or Matthew or any one else of the disciples of the Lord; and what were Aristion and John the elder, the disciples of the Lord, saying?" (a te Apistion kai ho presbuteros Ioannes, oi tou kuriou mathetai legousin). Harnack insists that Eusebius read his sources thoroughly; and, on the authority of Eusebius and of Papias, postulates the existence of a disciple of the Lord named John the Elder, who was distinct from John the Apostle; and to this fictitious John the Elder assigns all the Johannine writings. (See Geschichte der Altchristliche Litteratur, II, i, 657.) With all Catholic authors, we consider that either Eusebius alone, or Papias and Eusebius, erred, and that Irenæus and the rest of the Fathers were right, in fact we lay the blame at the door of Eusebius. As Bardenhewer (Geschichte der Altkirchlichen Literatur, I, 540) says, Eusebius set up a straw man. There never was a John the Elder. So think Funk (Patres Apostolici, I, 354), Dr. Salmon (Dictionary of Christian Biography, III, 398), Hausleiter (Theol. Litteraturblatt, 1896), Stilting, Guerike, and others.

Eusebius is here a special pleader. He opposes the millennium. Wrongly fancying that the Apocalypse favours the Chiliasts, he assigns it to this John the Elder and tries to rob the work of its Apostolic authority, the clumsiness of expression of Papias gives occasion to Eusebius in proof of the existence of two disciples of the Lord named John. To be sure, Papias mentions two Johns — one among the Apostles, the other in a clause with Aristion. Both are called elders; and elders here (presbuteroi) are admitted by Eusebius to be Apostles, since he admits that Papias got information from those who had met the Apostles (substituting ton apostolon for ton presbuteron; see Church History III.39.7). Hence it is that Papias, in joining John with Aristion, speaks of John the Elder and not of Aristion the Elder; Aristion was not an elder or Apostle. The reason for joining the Aristion with John at all is that they were both witnesses of the present to Papias, whereas all the Apostles were witnesses of the past generation. Note that the second aorist (eipen) is used in regard to the group of witnesses of the past generation, since there is question of what they had said, whereas the present (legousin) is used in regard to the witnesses of the present generation, i.e. Aristion and John the Elder, since the question is what they are now saying. The Apostle John was alive in the time of Papias. He and he alone can be the elder of whom Papias speaks. How is it, then, that Papias mentions John twice? Hausleiter conjectures that the phrase he ti Ioannes is a gloss (Theol. Litteraturblatt, 1896). It is likelier that the repetition of the name of John is due to the clumsiness of expression of Papias. He does not mention all the Apostles, but only seven; though he undoubtedly means them all. His mention of John is quite natural in view of the relation in which he stood to that Apostle. After mention of the group that were gone, he names the two from whom he now receives indirect information of the Lord's teaching; these two are the disciple Aristion and John the Apostle.

Time and place

Irenæus tells us the letter was written by St. John during his stay in Asia (Against Heresies III.1). Nothing certain can be determined in this matter. The arguments are probable in favour of Ephesus and also for the last few years of the first century.

Destination and purpose

The form is that of an encyclical letter. Its destination is clearly the churches which St. John evangelized, he speaks to his "little children", "beloved", "brethren", and is affectionate and fatherly throughout the entire letter. The purpose is identical with the purpose of the Fourth Gospel — that his children may believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and that believing may have life eternal in His name (1 John 5:13; John 20:31).


A logical analysis of the letter would be a mistake. The thought is built up not analytically but synthetically. After a brief introduction, St. John works up the thought that God is Light (i, 5); so, too, should we walk in the light (i, 7), keep from sin (i, 6-ii, 6), observe the new commandment of love (ii, 7), since he that loves is in the light and he that hates is in darkness (ii, 8-iii). Then follows the second leading Johannine thought that God is Love (iii-v, 12). Love means that we are sons of God (iii, 1-4); Divine sonship means that we are not in sin (iii, 4-13), that we love one another (iii, 13-44), that we believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God (iv, 5, 6); for it was love that impelled God to give us His only Son (iv, 7-v, 12). The conclusion (v, 13-end) tells the reader that the purpose of the letter is to inculcate faith in Jesus Christ, since this faith is life eternal. In this conclusion as well as in other parts of the letter, the same salient and leading Johannine thoughts recur to defy analysis. John had two or three things to say; he said these two or three things over and over again in ever varying form.

Second epistle

These thirteen verses are directed against the same Docetic errors and germs of Gnosticism which St. John strives to uproot in his Gospel and First Epistle. Harnack and some others, who admit the canonicity of the Second and Third Epistles, assign them to the authorship of John the Elder; we have shown that this John the Elder never existed. The authenticity of this second letter is attested by very early Fathers. St. Polycarp ("Phil.", VII, i; Funk, "Patres Apostolici", I, 304) cites rather II John, 7, than I John, 4. St. Irenæus expressly quotes II John, 10, as the words of "John the Disciple of the Lord". The Muratorian Canon speaks of two Epistles of John. St. Clement of Alexandria speaks of the larger Epistle of John; and, as a consequence, knows at least two. Origen hears witness to the two shorter letters, which "both together do not contain a hundred lines" and are not admitted by all to be authentic. The canonicity of these two letters was long disputed. Eusebius puts them among the Antilegomena. They are not found in the Peshito. The Canon of the Western Church includes them after the fourth century; although only Trent's decree set the question of their canonicity beyond the dispute of such men as Cajetan. The Canon of the Eastern Church, outside that of Antioch, includes them after the fourth century. The style and manner of the second letter are very like to those of the first. The destination of the letter has been much disputed. The opening words are variously interpreted — "The ancient to the lady Elect, and her children" (ho presbuteros eklekte kuria kai tois teknois autes). We have seen that the elder means the Apostle. Who is the lady elect? Is she the elect Kyria? The lady Eklekte? A lady named Eklekte Kyria? A lady elect, whose name is omitted? A Church? All these interpretations are defended. We consider, with St. Jerome, that the letter is addressed to a particular church, which St. John urges on to faith in Jesus Christ, to the avoidance of heretics, to love. This interpretation best fits in with the ending to the letter — "The children of thy sister Elect salute thee."

Third epistle

Fourteen verses addressed to Gaius, a private individual. This Gaius seems to have been not an ecclesiastic but a layman of means. He is praised by John for his hospitality to visiting brethren (verses 2-9). The Apostle then goes on: "I had written perhaps to the church; but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them, doth not receive us" (verse 9). This Diotrephes may have been the bishop of the Church. He is found fault with roundly, and Demetrius is set up for an example. This short letter, "twin sister", as St. Jerome called it, to the second of John's letters, is entirely a personal affair. No doctrine is discussed. The lesson of hospitality, especially of care for the preachers of the Gospel is insisted on. The earliest certain recognition of this letter as Apostolic is by St. Denis of Alexandria (third century). Eusebius refers to the letters called "the second and third of John, whether these chance to belong to the evangelist or to someone else with a name like to his" (Church History III.25; Schwartz, II, 1, p. 250). The canonicity of the letter has already been treated. The greeting and ending of this letter are internal evidence of composition by the author of the previous Johannine letter. The simple and affectionate style, the firmness of the rebuke of Diotrephes are strictly Johannine. Nothing certain is known as to time and place of writing; but it is generally supposed that the two small letters were written by John towards the end of his long life and in Ephesus.

About this page

APA citation. Drum, W. (1910). Epistles of Saint John. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Drum, Walter. "Epistles of Saint John." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Ernie Stefanik.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

Copyright © 2023 by New Advent LLC. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.