Rod Whitacre went singing home to God on May 22, 2023.

Johannine Polemic: The Role of Tradition and Theology

Rodney A. Whitacre, Johannine Polemic: The Role of Tradition and Theology. SBL Dissertation Series 67. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982. (Scholars Press is now SBL Press.)

In 1980 I completed this doctoral dissertation at Cambridge University under the direction of Professor Morna D. Hooker.

I started with the general question of what criteria authors of the New Testament use for distinguishing truth from error. Almost every document in the New Testament refers either explicitly or implicitly to people claiming to speak for God with whom the author disagrees. How did they go about convincing their readers that they were right instead of the other teachers?

Professor Hooker suggested I focus on 1 John, where this issue is explicit. As I studied the conflict between John and the former community members with whom he disagrees I decided to compare it with the conflict between Jesus and his Jewish opponents in the Gospel of John.

In both cases the conflict involves differing interpretations of the tradition held in common. Thus the appeal to Old Testament plays a major role in the gospel. Every argument used against Jesus on the basis of Scripture is countered at some point in the gospel by appeal to Scripture in witness to Jesus.

In contrast, the Old Testament is only cited once in the epistle—the example of Cain! (1 John 3:12) In the epistle the issue focusses more on who is the true bearer of the teachings of the community. Of the several criteria appealed to, the clearest is John himself! “We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and the one who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:6)

Underlying this conflict over the interpretation of commonly held traditions is the deeper issue of theology, that is, the knowledge of God. In the gospel the heart of the polemic comes down to two foci, namely, who are the true followers of Moses (chapter 5) and who are the true children of Abraham and thus the true children of God (chapter 8). The opponents claim to have God as their father, but Jesus says they are of their father the devil. (John 8:41, 44)

Similarly, in 1 John the author does not view the teachings of the former community members as minor differences, but rather of the greatest significance. Thus, he ends, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21) The opponents do not have misunderstandings about the true God, but rather they have come to embrace an idol.

In the light of continuing research by various scholars some of my discussion of the historical background should be revised, such as the role of the Jewish birkath ha-minim in relation to the conflict in the gospel. See, for example, William Horbury, “Birkath Ha-Minim Revisited,” New Testament Studies 55, no. 4 (October 2009): 523-51. I think, however, that my findings regarding the general shape and significance of the polemic remain valid.

Perhaps of related interest is an article on 1 John that provides a brief summary of key points of theology in both John and 1 John. See “John and Theology,” available under the tab for other resources.

Johannine Polemic: The Role of Tradition and Theology is out of print, but is listed on the Society of Biblical Literature website (scroll down) and on Amazon.

© Rodney A. Whitacre. All rights reserved.