‘Little Children, Keep Yourselves From Idols’ (1 John 5:21) -- By: Terry Griffith

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 48:1 (NA 1997)
Article: ‘Little Children, Keep Yourselves From Idols’ (1 John 5:21)
Author: Terry Griffith


‘Little Children, Keep Yourselves From Idols’ (1 John 5:21)1

Terry Griffith

This study approaches 1 John from its ending. Commentators struggle to explain the introduction of the unexpected topic of idols as the very last word. Either the ‘idols’ are made to fit the Procrustean bed of the commentator’s theological under–standing of 1 John, or they are used as evidence of redactional activity. The result is that little independent research is undertaken in order to gauge how the reference to idols makes a contribution to the argument. This study takes up that task.

The first chapter surveys interpretations of the ‘idols’ as either conceptual, literal, metaphorical, or literary. It is concluded that none does justice both to the semantic value of εἴδωλον, as found in Jewish (LXX) and Christian writings, and the connection of 5:21 to the rest of 1 John.

Chapter two is based on a study of all occurrences of the term εἴδωλον between 300 and 200 A.D. Büchsel’s statement that Polybus 31.3.13-15 ‘is the only established passage in which pagan Greek uses εἴδωλον for an idol’ (TDNT 2.376, n. 2) is shown to be incorrect. However, in Jewish hands the wide semantic range of εἴδωλον is reduced almost exclusively to a pejorative description of cultic objects and the pagan deities themselves (it is the latter, not the former, which is the Jewish innovation). Thus it became an important vehicle for expressing Jewish polemic society against idolatry. An investigation of this in the literature of Early Judaism reveals that it did not function as an apologetic aimed at Gentiles, but as a device for bolstering Jewish self-identity, by defining the boundaries between

Jewish and Gentile communities in contexts where loss of other Jewish identity markers was in view.

Chapter three contains a detailed exegesis of the antithesis between the ‘true God’ (5:20e) and the ‘idols’. The referent of the ‘true God’ is shown to be Jesus. The Jewish background of this antithesis is explored, as well as that of the term ζωή αἰώνιος (5:20e), the vocative τεκν[]α, and the avoidance theme φυλάσσειν ἀπό (5:21). It ...

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