The Elusive Contexts of the Johannine Literature

A Response to Paul Anderson

As I see it, then, Prof. Anderson and I represent two very different ways of approaching these texts. Prof. Anderson approaches these texts as relatively transparent, direct, and trustworthy windows into history. I, on the other hand, view them in a more ambivalent light—as texts whose witness to history is indirect, limited, and problematic. The difference between our views is the difference between confidence and caution. I much prefer caution.

By Hugo Méndez
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC
April 2020

I want to thank Paul Anderson for his response to my recent article, “Did the Johannine Community Exist?” (JSNT). I was deeply honored by his considered engagement with my piece; very rarely do early-career scholars see their work receive so immediate a response, let alone for a mere article-length contribution. I am also grateful to Mark Elliott for his invitation to respond to Paul.

In this response, I would like to engage Prof. Anderson’s article—highlighting areas of agreement, clarifying misunderstandings, and exploring our disagreements. My response will be brief in the hope of cutting straight to the essential issues in the debate. For this reason, I would encourage any reader new to my work to read my original article first for the necessary context.

  1. Points of Agreement

Reading through Prof. Anderson’s response, I am struck, first, by how much we agree upon.

1. The Johannine Community hypothesis is a serious proposal.

From time to time, I come across individuals who speak of the Johannine community hypothesis as a moribund or passé thesis. It is not. Although critiques by Richard Bauckham and Stanley Stowers have undermined the bases for reconstructing other “gospel communities,” the Johannine community hypothesis still dominates Johannine studies, and for a very good reason. It is required by any literal, historical reading of 1, 2, and 3 John. In taking the idea of a Johannine Community as a serious proposal—albeit one I disagree with––Ishare something very much in common with Prof. Anderson.

2. The Johannine literature emerged in contact with a broad range of influences.

I agree that the Johannine authors lived in contact with Christians of other persuasions and ideas. The idea of an isolated and introspective body of Johannine authors is implausible. I also believe, with Prof. Anderson, that these authors were influenced, in part, by the Synoptic tradition. Whereas Prof. Anderson prefers a “dialogical” model of contact between Markan and Johannine streams of tradition, I prefer the simplicity of John’s knowledge of Mark (with Jörg Frey, Harry Attridge, et al.). No matter. We both find strict Johannine independence from the Synoptic tradition improbable.

3. The Johannine literature was meant to circulate among a broad(er) audience.

I believe the Johannine authors intended their works for “broader dissemination in Christian circles… from the outset” through “further, secondary distribution” beyond an initial audience (Gamble 1995). Prof. Anderson holds a similar position.

4. The Gospel of John deserves serious consideration in historical Jesus research.

Although my work is skeptical of many materials in the Gospel, I am grateful for the important work of the SBL “John, Jesus, and History” group (2002–2016), which Prof. Anderson helped steer. I agree that John may relate authentic, historical memories of Jesus not found in other gospels.

  1. Points of Misunderstanding

(that is, hidden or missed agreements)

Several sections of the response are based on misreadings of my article. In these, Prof. Anderson claims my article assumes what it explicitly denies. By correcting these misunderstandings, however, I hope to highlight two more essential areas of agreement between us.

1. Anderson and I (actually) agree that the Johannine authors wrote within and for concrete social groups.

Across several longer sections (III.1, 3), Prof. Anderson mischaracterizes my thesis as an argument that the Johannine texts “were written as forgeries by persons in isolation, disengaged from communities of faith, consumed only by texts and not interested in other individuals or groups.” In one place, he asks, “Do we have empirical ancient historical evidence of forgers with no communities?” In yet another, he says that “to imagine that multiple forgeries were conducted by different persons not involved in a particular community—nor writing to or for intended audiences—stretches imaginations beyond the breaking point.” He also insists that “there were likely very few Jesus adherents in the late first century CE that were totally isolated from other believers; such is a fiction and critically implausible.”

This is not my view. On the contrary, my article is clear that each of the Johannine authors participated in some social context or group:

“[O]ur author was probably attached to a local Christian assembly…” (368)

“The recognition that our author was embedded in a specific social matrix…” (368)

“Whatever social matrices stand behind these texts…” (367)

More than that, I am quite clear that these social contexts probably shaped the views of these writers:

“[Our author] might have synthesized [his ideas] through experiences in several contexts and networks; his gospel reveals a range of influences.” (368)

In short, I stand firmly in the mainstream of New Testament scholarship by asserting that the Johannine authors were shaped by specific contexts and that they tailored their works to the needs of individuals in those contexts.

That being said, Prof. Anderson and I do differ on an important point—namely, the extent to which we can use 1, 2, and 3 John to reconstruct these contexts (more on that below).

2. Anderson and I (actually) agree that differences in style and ideas indicate different authors.

In one section (I.2), Prof. Anderson claims that my paper argues against the common authorship of the Johannine texts “on the basis of… similarities,” unlike Judith Lieu and Udo Schnelle, who “distinguish the authors of the Johannine Gospel and Epistles on the basis of their differences.” He concludes, “both approaches cannot be right.”

In this case, Prof. Anderson has misunderstood the nuances of my argument as it relates to real and implied authorship. As regards the differences, I am clear that “the subtle differences between the gospel and epistles dismantled the traditional view that they shared a common [real] author” (353). In other words, I too—like Lieu, Schnelle, and others—“distinguish the authors of the Johannine Gospel and Epistles on the basis of their differences.” My appeal to the “similarities,” however, speaks to a different issue—namely, implied authorship. In my paper, I argue that the similarities between the four Johannine texts demonstrate that they share a common implied author.

As I see it, it is crucial to recognize what both the “differences” and “similarities” between the Johannine texts tell us. “The similarities,” I note, construct a common authorial claim” across the four texts. “The differences,” in turn, “falsify” that claim by demonstrating that the texts do not have a common author (365, no. 31). This disparity is evidence of pseudepigraphy.

  1. Points Prof. Anderson and I May Yet Agree On

Of course, there are also some meaningful points of disagreement between Prof. Anderson and me. Some, I think, are surmountable.

1. Nomenclature

Early in his discussion (I.1), Prof. Anderson faults scholars who use the term “forgery,” arguing that such “language appeals more to sensationalism than it does well to represent the ancient phenomenon of yoking a known authority to one’s writing in order to lend it gravitas.”

I understand this concern. In my discussion, I expressly note “problems attending” the term “forgery” in my paper (369, no. 39), and I indicate in another place that “readers are welcome to substitute other terms as desired – for instance, ‘fake’ or ‘imposture’ – recognizing that ‘the lexicon that defines literary “forgery” and its cognates’ is plagued by ‘semantic instabilities’” (352, no. 3). But I find value in the term in something like the sense applied to it by Bruce Metzger—hardly a scholar who appealed “to sensationalism” (369, no. 39).

Unfortunately, our field has yet to adopt a single, consistent nomenclature for the literary practices I describe in my article. One issue is that nearly all the available terms are also politically, legally, morally, and ethically charged, though, as Bart Ehrman has pointed out, the ancient terminology was no less charged. Another issue is that certain practices—for instance, the “implicit pseudepigrapha”/“anonymous forgeries” (more below)—stretch the usefulness of the most common terms to their limits (after all, what is a pseudepigraphon without an actual epigraph/inscription?). So yes, nomenclature is a problem, though it is only a secondary issue. Thankfully, from what I gather from Prof. Anderson, it is more of a secondary issue for him as well.

2. The Plausibility of Anonymous Forgery

In two separate sections (I.1., III.1), Prof. Anderson casts my thesis as improbable, if not implausible, since “neither the Johannine Gospel nor the Epistles claims a name”—a fact he believes “diminishes the likelihood that they were forged.” As he says in one place, “if [the Johannine] authors or editors wanted to make explicit name-claims… they could have done so, but they did not.”

Here, Prof. Anderson fails to appreciate how common it is to find false authorial claims even in anonymous ancient works. As New Testament scholars, we work with an admittedly narrow set of materials—one that limits our knowledge of a phenomenon as broad and varied as pseudepigraphy. When we survey a broader sweep of ancient texts, however, we find many examples of what I would call “anonymous/nameless” or “implicit” pseudepigrapha (Ehrman uses “non-pseudepigraphic forgeries,” which may be confusing for some). These works “set forth clear, but false, authorial claims without actually naming an author” (Ehrman 2012: 35) That is, they are anonymous, but they present their implied authors in a false mold.

This type is so well represented in ancient literature that several examples appear in the Bible—among them, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) and (in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles) the Wisdom of Solomon. Both of these texts are anonymous, but each strongly suggests that its author might have been Solomon. Ecclesiastes references its author only as “Qoheleth/the Teacher”—a title as opaque as “the Elder” of 2 and 3 John—but tantalizingly calls this author “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” and describes him as “very wise” person, who “set in order many proverbs” (Eccl 1:1, 12:9; cf. 1 Kings 4:32). The Book of Wisdom also never names its author, but several chapters in, its anonymous speaker writes: “you have chosen me to be king of your people… you have commanded the building of a temple on your holy mountain” (Wisdom 9:7–8). The implication is clear. According to Clare Rothschild, Hebrews gestures at Pauline authorship in the same, indirect way (13:22–25). Of course, texts can also make the same subtle gestures without suggesting a particular, known historical personage in mind. The Martyrdom of Marian and James falsely construes itself as the account of an eyewitness, albeit an eyewitness who is otherwise unknown, unnamed, and who corresponds to no known figure. I see the Johannine texts as implicit/anonymous pseudepigrapha of this type.

  1. Points of Disagreement
    (…where Paul and I part ways)


These final points represent the core differences between our views.

1. Is pseudepigraphy present in any text of the New Testament?

Anderson:   No (as far as I can read from his essay)

Méndez:      Yes

Prof. Anderson and I seem to differ on a core question—namely, whether any text in the canon is pseudepigraphal. Critical scholars have long situated texts like the Pastorals or 2 Peter in the category. And yet, in two sections of his essay (I. 1, 3), Prof. Anderson takes pains to distance “canonical” works from those he believes show signs of false or deceptive authorship:

“The mid-second century Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Philip, Judas, and Mary certainly qualify as pseudepigrapha… Jewish pseudepigraphal writings abounded in the intertestamental era, but the canonical gospels and epistles are more like each other than noncanonical texts.” (I.1)

Prof. Anderson carries this contrast through when speaking of these works. Whereas he speaks of a noncanonical text like the Gospel of Peter as “pseudepigraphal,” he merely says that the canonical “writings attributed… to Peter” (1 and 2 Peter) have special “authorship issues” (I.1)—a distinction I find artificial and unconvincing.

To make this claim work, of course, Prof. Anderson must dismiss the significant evidence that certain early Christians also questioned the authenticity of some of these texts. Eusebius counts texts like James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John as “disputed” (Gk. ἀντιλεγομένων; Eusebius, HE 3.25.3), a category proximate to “spurious” works, including known forgeries like the Apocalypse of Peter (Gk. νοθεύεται; HE 3.25.3–4). In one instance, he uses the term “spurious” when speaking of James and Jude (HE 2.23.25). Didymus the Blind, in still clearer terms, uses the term “falsified” when discussing the disputed nature of these texts (Lt. falsatum; Enarr. In Epist. Cath.). Against this evidence, Prof. Anderson insists that “later canonical debates over whether to include the Pastoral Letters and 2 and 3 John had to do primarily with whether letters to individuals should be included for all readers” (I.3). This view, however, is incorrect since the same writers who register these disputes—e.g., Eusebius (HE 3.3.5)—raise no qualms regarding Philemon, a letter written to an individual.

2. Are the “Beloved Disciple” and “Elder” Historical?

Anderson:   Yes.

Méndez:      Probably not.

Critically, Prof. Anderson and I stand in two different camps on the question of whether the Beloved Disciple is a historical figure—a question currently dividing Johannine scholars. Prof. Anderson assumes that the Beloved Disciple definitely existed. I, on the other hand, am skeptical. I have found the arguments of Ismo Dunderberg and Harry Attridge that the Beloved Disciple is probably some sort of literary device compelling. I have also been persuaded by David Litwa’s comparisons of the Beloved Disciple to invented eyewitnesses in ancient literature. As I see it, the most damning evidence against the disciple’s existence is the fact that “every Synoptic parallel that could corroborate [the disciple’s] presence at a given moment in Jesus’ life does not – not the Synoptic crucifixion scenes (cf. Mk 15.40-41; Mt. 27.55-56; Jn 19.26-27) nor Luke’s description of Peter’s visit to the tomb (Lk. 24.12; cf. Jn 20.2-10)” (363). I also find the artificial and idealized texture of the disciple highly suspicious. These issues cannot be dismissed easily.

Because we differ on the historicity of the “Beloved Disciple,” we also differ on the historicity of “the Elder” since my paper revives the case for seeing the two as a single authorial construct (as indeed the earliest writers to comment on these texts inferred).

3. Can we reconstruct social history from the Johannine epistles?

Anderson:   Yes.

Méndez:      Probably not.

As I noted above, Prof. Anderson and I agree that the Gospel and Epistles of John emerged in concrete social contexts. But we differ on the extent to which we can use 1, 2, and 3 John to reconstruct these contexts and audiences.

Prof. Anderson imposes no limits on his ability to infer and reconstruct real-world realities from these texts. He repeatedly assumes a one-to-one correspondence between all figures and situations discussed in these texts and real-world realities, freely citing dozens of verses as direct insights into the “Johannine situation” (III.2). For him, (virtually) all the details in them are history. I, on the other hand, have no such confidence. I see these texts are deeply problematic, given their dubious authorial claims.

I am sure there are direct or indirect correspondences between the literary realities in these texts and external, real-world realities; the details in these texts are not “totally fictive,” as Prof. Anderson mischaracterizes my view (III.2). In my article, for instance, I am clear that “one may reconstruct the author’s immediate social matrix with some features assigned to the more specific and elaborate construct of the ‘Johannine community’ – for instance, the experience of synagogue expulsion.” But I “urge caution” in any such reconstruction (368, no. 38). In the case of 1 John, I certainly think that the letter’s author intended to intervene in some controversy—sometime, somewhere—regarding Jesus’ coming “in the flesh.” But I have no confidence that I can reconstruct the shape and players of that controversy from a text articulated around an invented character. As David Lincicum writes, in pseudepigraphal texts, our ability “to discern reality from appearance is severely problematized” (Lincicum 2017).

As I see it, then, Prof. Anderson and I represent two very different ways of approaching these texts. Prof. Anderson approaches these texts as relatively transparent, direct, and trustworthy windows into history. I, on the other hand, view them in a more ambivalent light—as texts whose witness to history is indirect, limited, and problematic. The difference between our views is the difference between confidence and caution. I much prefer caution.

4. Can we trust the patristic data?

Anderson:   By and large, yes.

Méndez:      By and large, no.

Across one lengthy section (III.3), Prof. Anderson faults my thesis for ignoring “the near entirety of early Christian memories” that link these texts to the activities “John the Apostle and John the Elder with Ephesus and the churches of Asia Minor.”

First, I think it is important to note that neither of us is in lockstep with “early Christian memories.” Rather, we both engage the patristic data selectively, accepting some parts but discounting or overlooking others. To take a single example (mentioned earlier), Prof. Anderson reconstructs the Beloved Disciple and the Elder as separate, historical individuals. He claims that “following the death of the Beloved Disciple… the Elder” composed the epistles (IV.5). But this contradicts the earliest “Christian memories.” The earliest writers to attest 2 John—Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria—identify the Beloved Disciple and the Elder as one in the same person. By identifying these two literary figures, my view is more in line with the patristic witness than Prof. Anderson’s. The difference, of course, is that I do not believe either the Beloved Disciple or the Elder was a historical person, as Irenaeus and others mistakenly assumed.

That caveat aside, Prof. Anderson’s claim raises a valid question—namely, how much authority should scholars assign to the patristic witness, or how far should we question it? 

I will admit that I am skeptical of arguments articulated around “early Christian memories.” For one, biblical scholarship has proven time and again that these memories are unreliable guides to gospel origins. Other points of widespread early Christian consensus—for instance, the idea Matthew wrote in Hebrew composition and that Matthew wrote his gospel before Mark—have been flatly falsified.

I also find it problematic to speak of "early Christian memories” of the activities of John the Apostle and John the Elder. From what I see, the patristic “memories” of these figures depend almost entirely on mistaken inferences regarding the authorship of John and Revelation, as well as competing readings of a single ancient work, Papias’ (now lost) Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord. As it stands, we know that these authors disagreed with one another’s inferences and readings. Eusebius faults Irenaeus for claiming that “Papias… was a hearer of John” since “Papias… does not claim he was himself a hearer and eye-witness of the holy apostles” (HE 3.39.1–2). Likewise, whereas Irenaeus believed 1 and 2 John shared a common author, Eusebius suggests the two might have been written by writers “of the same name” (NB: Prof. Anderson’s view agrees with neither claim). And although Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian claim John the apostle wrote Revelation, Dionysius of Alexandria denied that claim based on internal evidence, while Eusebius entertains both possibilities. These are not firm memories, and they should not be treated as such; they are, rather, inferences comparable to those scholars make today.

Whereas Prof. Anderson picks and chooses between these traditions, assembling a bricolage reconstruction that no single early Christian writer would recognize, I believe a sounder approach would have us investigate how these sprawling, branching, and contradictory traditions emerged in the first place. In my view, the association of “John the Apostle” with these texts probably began as a simple authorial inference. In John, the Beloved Disciple is one of Jesus’ most intimate disciples, seated closer to Jesus than Peter himself (13:23–24). Of course, the Synoptics know that Jesus had three inner disciples: Peter, James, and John. The Beloved Disciple could not have been Peter since Peter appears beside the disciple (13:23–24; 20:2–3). He also was unlikely to be James, who, according to Acts, was killed not long after Jesus was killed (Acts 12:1–2). That leaves John. This inference succeeded (a) in the absence of a serious alternative and (b) because it was popularized by early writers. Of course, once the author was identified as John, it was easy to identify him with the “John” who wrote Revelation—a text addressed to Asian churches, including Ephesus (Rev. 2–3). And indeed, the earliest writers who place the author of John in Asia also identify him as the author of Revelation (e.g., Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen). Of course, virtually no critical scholar believes that John and Revelation share a common author, undermining the very basis of this tradition.

5. Postscript

I appreciate the care with which Prof. Anderson has critiqued my article. He and I represent two different approaches to the complex data of the Gospel and Epistles of John—approaches I look forward to seeing debated for years to come. In offering this response, I hope I have helped clarify the terms of that debate and the critical issues at stake in it.



Ehrman, Bart D. 2012. Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Gamble, Harry Y. 1995. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press). 

Lincicum, David. 2017. “Mirror-Reading a Pseudepigraphal
Letter,” New Testament Studies 59: 172.


Article Comments

Submitted by John MacDonald on Wed, 04/15/2020 - 12:27


Dr. Mendez's response here to Dr. Anderson was very interesting and informative. I have long thought Jesus apparently lying when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but then went “in secret.” (John 7:8-10), is a literary clue to the inner circle reader that liberties are being taken by the author. This can be conceived within the broader context of justified lies and deception in the ancient Greco-Roman-Jewish world. And Pious Fraud is a real possibility, since the deceivers may have thought they were doing God's will. After all, even God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets. (1 Kings 22:21-22)

Submitted by John MacDonald on Tue, 04/28/2020 - 07:47


I have just completed and posted a new blog post (with Endnotes!) incorporating some of Dr. Mendez's ideas here exploring the deception theme in The Gospel of John with Drs Tyler Smith, Adele Reinhartz, Dennis MacDonald, and Candida Moss. I consider the post a natural outgrowth of Dr. Mendez's argument. It's here if anyone is interested:…

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