An early Christian schism over how to view Jesus’ flesh: Opponents of John the elder (Diversity 1.2)

Although philosophical debates about the nature of Jesus Christ in terms of his humanity and / or divinity were clearly a hallmark of the fourth century (as evidenced in the church councils and creeds), it is true that how one viewed Jesus’ fleshliness was a divisive factor among some followers of Jesus in the late first century and into the second. In fact, one of the earliest cases of schism within a specific community of Jesus-followers seems to relate to this factor.

The author of the tractate and epistles associated with John the elder (1-3 John) provides us with evidence of this earliest of schisms (probably in the late first century). More specifically, this elder attests to the fact that a group of people had left what was previously a relatively united community of followers, likely somewhere in western Asia Minor (usually labeled the “Johannine community” by scholars due to the community’s shared traditions associated with the Gospel of John).

The divide that had since developed between John the elder and his supporters, on the one hand, and those that had left, on the other, was considerable, with very little sign of reconciliation. So much so that the elder associates them with “the world” in a strongly negative sense and he does not hesitate to label them “deceivers” and “antichrists” — strong language indeed. The central factor in the disagreement relates to what the elder considers a failure to acknowledge Jesus’ coming in the flesh:

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7-8 [RSV]).

“For many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already” (1 John 4:1-3).

(For a discussion of the rhetorical use of “Satan”, “antichrist” and related labels, see my other post here.)

Elsewhere, the elder also claims that this had some implications regarding ethics or behaviour, regarding how these opponents were viewing “sin”, namely that “we have no sin” (1 John 1:5-10). It is hard to evaluate the truth in this accusation of false claims, if there is any, since the elder claims that he and his camp, in opposition to the “children of the devil”, know that “no one who abides in [Jesus] sins” (1 John 3:6). Both sides are claiming sinless status though disagreeing on the other’s precise understanding of that and of whether or not the other is “abiding” in Jesus.

Apparently the “flesh” factor also underlies the elder’s other accusations that the opponents supposedly deny “the Father and the Son” or deny that “Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22). We need to take these generalizations with a grain of salt and interpret them in light of the “flesh” factor, since it is hard to imagine that these other followers of Jesus were indeed denying that Jesus was the Messiah or that Jesus was sent by the Father. Instead, the elder seems to equate any downplaying of Jesus’ humanity as the equivalent of denying Jesus, the Son, and the Father altogether.

As scholars such as Raymond Brown point out, it seems that the elder and his opponents, who had belonged to the same community and had the same favourite writings, were both interpreting the gospel of John’s rather high Christology (Jesus as the preexisting “Word” or Utterance of the Father) in two very different ways. Both might agree that Jesus was preexistent and that Jesus was made flesh in some manner, but each interpreted such things differently and put more emphasis on one factor (divine preexistence) than another (flesh).

It is difficult to know precisely how these opponents relate to the opponents attacked by Ignatius of Antioch just about a decade later, also in Asia Minor. These opponents are accused of saying that Jesus “suffered in appearance only” (Letter to the Trallians 10). The downplaying of Jesus’ fleshliness is once again a factor here in what scholars often label “docetism” (from the Greek word dokein = to seem or appear to be). We’ll come back to docetism and Ignatius in a later post.

For more on the opponents in 1-3 John, see Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 93-144.