Genre of the Letters of John

2 and 3 John

The literary genre of 2 and 3 John is clearly the letter in the Greco-Roman form. Both documents contain common features of letters: named addressee or author (2Jn 1:1; 3Jn 1:1), greeting or prayer (2Jn 1:3; 3Jn 1:2), thanksgiving (2Jn 1:4; 3Jn 1:3-4), and closing greeting to others (2Jn 1:12-13; 3Jn 1:13-15). Both documents are the typical length of a letter and would fit on a single papyrus sheet.

1 John

The literary genre of 1 John is less certain. On the one hand, there are recurring allusions to the writing of the document (1Jn 1:4; 2:1, 7-8, 12-14, 21, 26; 5:13). The early church fathers characterized 1 John as an epistle (Iren. Her. 3.16.8; Euseb. H.E. 3.25.2; compare H.E. 3.39.16; 7.25.8). On the other hand, it does not contain many of the usual features of a letter, such as: named sender or receiver, greeting or prayer, thanksgiving, blessing, and closing greeting to others.

Robert Yarbrough thinks there is something along the lines of a personal greeting:

It is often noted that 1 John lacks a personal greeting. This is not quite true, since in 2:12-14 the writer personally addresses his readers. The greeting is simply delayed, not absent altogether. He addresses them not by name but by age group. What might be lost here in terms of interpersonal specificity (cf. Paul’s greetings in Rom. 16, also not at the epistle’s beginning) is offset by a certain gain in universality of application: no one can feel unaffected by virtue of having not been cited by name. Additionally, and strategic from a pastoral point of view, no one need feel accused or singled out maliciously.1

Kysar provides the following hypothesis about the composition of 1 John:

A number of features of 1 John help to shape the literary form in which it needs to be read. First, it is obviously a written communication intended for those affected by a rather specific set of circumstances. Second, it is comprised of a series of rather loosely related subsections which have a homiletical quality about them. The repetitious style of the book betrays the origin of much of its content in oral communication. Third, the document has a “pastoral flavor” about it. That is to say, the efforts of the author demonstrate a deep concern for the readers and an attempt to address their needs, emotional as well as moral and creedal. Fourth, the author assumes a posture of authority with regard to the readers which influences the reception of the writing.

These features dictate certain conclusions regarding 1 John. One cannot take it to be a general letter of some sort given the specificity of the situation addressed therein. The author certainly has a particular community of readers in mind. But it cannot be assumed that the document does not have its roots in homilies simply because it is presently in written form. The work is profitably read with attention to the pastoral stance of its author and the function the work was designed to play in the lives of the first readers. The author was known to the first readers and was accepted as one who spoke from the vantage point of some authority or privilege.

It may, therefore, be useful to imagine that the present form of 1 John is the result of the author’s effort to draw together bits and pieces of several homilies, link them loosely together, give the whole a general unity by means of thematic links among sections, and supply a written tone by the use of frequent references to “I write” or “I am writing”. The effort would have been to bring together homilectical pieces directed to the critical situation facing the community as a pastoral attempt to reassure and strengthen the faith of some of the segments of a community schism. The disparate portions of the document were drawn from different homilies delivered at different times and perhaps different locations amid the emerging crisis. They were pulled together and published as an effort to make a more concerted response to that crisis and to make the response more widely available. This view is reflected in the proposed structure of the document and is made more feasible by an understanding of the situation facing the first readers.2

While Kysar is correct that “it cannot be assumed that the document does not have its roots in homilies simply because it is presently in written form”, we must also identify Kysar’s concluding paragraph as speculation.

Echoing some of Kysar’s comments above, Donald Guthrie reiterates that the genre of 1 John is most like an epistle:

Several scholars have classed this epistle as a general tractate or a diatribe in letter form. But there are difficulties in this view because a definite historical situation lies behind the letter. When the false teachers are mentioned, the readers themselves are referred to by way of contrast in a manner which suggests the writer’s acquaintance with them personally (cf. 2:21; 4:4). The circle of readers is, therefore, fairly limited, and is confined to those with Christian experience (1:3; 2:1, 20, 27). The addressees are many times called ‘children’ and many times addressed as ‘dear’, which indicates a personal relationship between readers and writer which would be lacking in a general tractate.3

Bibliography

Akin, Daniel L. 1, 2, 3 John. The New American Commentary 38. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.

Berkhof, Louis. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1915.

Brown, Raymond E. The Epistles of John. New York: Doubleday, 1982.

Derickson, Gary W. First, Second, and Third John. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. 4th Revised Edition. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996.

Kysar, R. “John, Epistles of”. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Stott, John. The Letters of John. Reprint Edition. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 19. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2014.

Strecker, Georg. The Johannine Letters: A Commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John. Translated by Linda M Maloney. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Sweeney, J. P. “John, First Letter of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Sweeney, J. P. “John, Second Letter of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Sweeney, J. P. “John, Third Letter of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Wahlde, U. C. von. “John, Letters of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Yarbrough, Robert W. 1-3 John. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008.


  1. Yarbrough 2008, Kindle Locations 3054-3058 
  2. Kysar 1992, 3.902 
  3. Guthrie 1996, 868-869 
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