Monday, January 19, 2015

Making Sense of 3 John: A Proposal

A couple of years ago a friend and I were talking about reading the Bible, when he admitted that he struggled with where to start. Not knowing where to begin, he began with one of the shortest books of the Bible he could find--3 John. He didn't get much out of it and was curious to know what in the world he was supposed to make of it. What he didn't know is that there are many people in the course of studying the Scriptures who have asked that very same question.

The letter of 3 John is a personal letter written to Gaius. By and large it covers personal and church business--"I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health...I have written something to the church but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority..."(vv. 2, 9). In other words, there's not a lot of meat on the bones for "daily devotions." You don't see many t-shirts or coffee mugs with verses from 3 John. Why is it in the New Testament? How are we supposed to read it?

While studying Introduction to the New Testament, I found a helpful solution in the work of Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson has written a helpful book--The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. He proposes a theory that all three Johannine letters were written as a packet.

"3 John was most likely a letter of recommendation from the elder to Gaius, certifying that the carrier of the other two letters, Demetrius, was to be received with open arms. Second John was to be read to the entire assembly as an introduction and cover letter for 1 John, which is not really a letter at all but an exhortation, closer in nature to a homily. The Johannine letters thus make most sense when viewed as parts of the same epistolary package" (562).
Based on this this theory, read the letters in reverse order and see if 2 and 3 John make more sense. Personally, I have found this method helpful and believe that it is a solid theory. It explains why the two shorter letters would have been collected into the New Testament and it gives a context for understanding 1 John.

You may be like me and wonder, "Why, then, would these letters be placed in reverse order within the canon?" The answer may be found in the fact that the epistolary material in the New Testament is arranged by length. Paul's letters start with the longest (Romans) and end with the shortest (Philemon), Hebrews is anonymous, but is associated with the Pauline circle, so it stands alone after Paul's letters. None of this arrangement is based on chronology. It is arranged by length. The Johannine letters most probably were arranged in the same way for the same reason.

I encourage you to try the theory for yourself and see if it yields any insights or if it holds up to scrutiny. Please let me know what you find.

No comments:

Post a Comment