The Setting of 2 John and 3 John -- By: John Polhill

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 10:3 (Fall 2006)
Article: The Setting of 2 John and 3 John
Author: John Polhill

The Setting of 2 John and 3 John

John Polhill

John Polhill is Senior Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Polhill has also studied at Harvard Divinity School; the University of St. Andrews; Princeton Theological Seminary; and the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to contributing to numerous journals, reference works, and denominational publications, he has authored Acts in the New American Commentary series (Broadman and Holman, 1992) and Paul and His Letters (Broadman and Holman, 1999). A devoted churchman, Dr. Polhill has served as pastor of congregations in Virginia, Kentucky, and Massachusetts.


Second and 3 John are among the most neglected books in the New Testament. This seems to have been true from an early date. The first clear reference to the Johannine epistles was by Irenaeus in the latter part of the second century. He knew of both 1 John and 2 John and attributed them to John the apostle, whom he also saw as the author of the Fourth Gospel. He did not mention 3 John, as is true also of the Muratorian Canon, a list of scripture used by the church in Rome around A.D. 200. It lists only the first two epistles and attributes both to the apostle John. In his discussion of books used by the churches Eusebius (early fourth century) lists the second and third epistles as being used by some churches but disputed by others. Even after the canon was finalized at our twenty-seven books in the Greek and Latin-speaking churches, the Syrian Orthodox Church omitted 2 and 3 John from its standard translation of around A.D. 400 and did not include them until its revised translation a hundred years later.1

Three factors likely contributed to the slow acceptance of the latter two Johannine epistles. One is their brevity. Third John is the shortest book in the New Testament, and 2 John comes in a close second. Both could be written on a single papyrus leaf.2 A second factor may have been the question of apostolic authorship. The writer of 2 John and 3 John called himself “the Elder,” whereas 1 John is anonymous. There is evidence that this “Elder” designation created some confusion. In the late fourth century, for instance, Jerome referred to all three epistles, maintaining that they were written by the apostle John, but he also noted that others in his day attributed the latter two to a different author (the Elder).3 It is quite likely, however, that the association of the epistles with the apostle John had much to do with these two short writings being included in the canon.

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