Discussion of the Neuter Gender
James L. Boyer wrote an article that is helpful here, "Relative Clauses in the Greek New Testament: A Statistical Study," Grace Theological Journal 9 (Fall 1988): 233-256. I will quote the relevant part of his conclusions on 1 John 1, but then challenge his ideas with an alternative using his own categories. Points in the quote below particular relevant to the discussion here are bolded by me.
Boyer states generally of relative pronoun agreement (245):
Since a relative has connections with both the antecedent and the relative clause, its grammatical identifiers (gender, number, and case) do double duty. Normally, gender and number agree with the antecedent, but the case of the relative is determined by its grammatical function in its own clause. This normal rule is true in the NT more than 96% of the time. The exceptions to this rule are often called by grammarians “ad sensum” agreement, i.e., agreement in sense but not in grammatical form. The exceptions may be listed in five categories.
He also states in footnote 20 on the title of his section about agreement:
For the rest of this section on the mechanics of relative clauses, I have depended largely on the thorough work of A. T. Robertson ([A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934)], 714–22). Very helpful also is the discussion of ὅς in BAGD, 583-85.
So that gives you his sources.
Now one of those five exception categories he refers to as the "Neuter of Abstraction," which he classifies the 1 John 1 within (247):
In the NT as also classical Greek, and especially in John’s writings, the neuter is frequently used of a person when he is being thought of in an abstract way. This happens at least 6 times29 in which a neuter relative is used to refer to an antecedent who is obviously a person. An example is found in John 17:24: Πάτερ, ὅ δέδωκάς μοι, θέλω ἵνα ὅπου ἐιμὶ ἐγὼ κἀκεῖνοι ὦσιν μετ ̓ ἐμοῦ, “Father, I desire that they also whom [the neuter, ὅ] Thou has given Me be with Me where I am.” The antecedent is obviously not impersonal. This abstract neuter is used elsewhere of God (John 4:22) and of men (John 6:37, 39; 17:2 ; 1 John 5:4).
1 John 1:1–3 has a list of five relative clauses serving as object of a verb in v 3. The relatives are all ὅ (neuter) and the antecedent is not stated. Two interpretations are conceivable: one is impersonal (“we proclaim to you the message which”), the other is personal (“we proclaim to you the One who”). The obvious parallel to the prologue of the gospel of John strongly indicates the personal view, and the use of the expression ὅ…αἱ χεῖρες ἡμῶν ἐψηλάφησαν, “which our hands handled” (my translation) requires the personal view—one cannot feel a message with his hands. What should be noted particularly here is that the neuter does not require the impersonal interpretation. It may refer in an abstract way to “all He was and did, abstract Deity.”
His footnote 29 states:
John 17:24; 1 John 1:1–3 (5 times). There are other places where the neuter relative has a grammatically neuter antecedent (πᾶν), so that the gender mismatch is obscured: John 6:37, 39; 17:2.
A Critique of Boyer's Thoughts
I agree that the neuter gender can refer to abstractions, to concepts and phrases/clauses that express those. Indeed, Boyer gives a prior category (another one of the five) as the "Neuter of General Notion" (247):
Sometimes the antecedent seems to be not some specific word but the general notion, the concept. Col 3:14 has an example: ἐπὶ πᾶσιν δὲ τούτοις τὴν ἀγάπην, ὅ ἐστιν σύνδεσμος τῆς τελειότηρος, “And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.” The antecedent is ἀγάπην (feminine), but the sense suggested by the neuter relative seems to be “that thing, quality, which is the uniting bond.”
This accords more from my reading of BDAG/BAGD regarding the neuter, specifically s.v. ὅς, 1.g.β or γ.
So an issue I have with Boyer's analysis and expressions of his neuter of abstraction are the following:
- He states 6 instances are an "antecedent who is obviously a person," yet his footnote 29 has 5 of those in the 1 John 1 passage, which he later says has a clearly conceivable possibility of an impersonal interpretation. Though he leans toward a personal and gives his reasons why, by his admission of a possible impersonal, 5 of those 6 instances are not "obviously" a person.
- The sixth instance he gives is John 17:24, but that is a textual variant, for the majority text reads οὕς not ὃ, making it a weaker example. But even assuming ὃ is correct, it is not clearly referring to a person. Christ is praying there, and the words as Boyer gives from the alternate reading may be translated "Father, that which you gave to me [ὅ δέδωκάς μοι], I wish, in order that where I am, they may be with me." The "that which you gave to me" would be referring back to the concept he just noted in v.22, the concept of the glory Christ had received from God that He also had given to them to make them one.
- He lists other abstract neuter uses, of which three are John 6:37, 39; 17:2 (in his footnote 29 noting the challenge with these is their use with the neuter "all" in the context). The others are John 4:22 and 1 John 5:4. But each of these in context may be challenged:
- 1 John 5:4 is not a relative pronoun use, but an instance he gives of a neuter referring to persons. It has the statement "πᾶν τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ," my translation "all that have been born out of God" (NKJV: "whatever is born of God"). But the neuter here need not at all be considered abstract, for in 1 John 5:2 it just stated "By this we know that we love the children [τέκνα; neuter noun] of God, when we love God and keep His commandments." So the neuter "all that have been born" (πᾶν τὸ γεγεννημένον) in context grammatically ties to the whole of the "children" just noted. So there is a grammatical explanation here and it is not a relative pronoun example, so is very weak evidence for his argument.
- 6:37, 39 can conceivably be Christ referring not just to all people who come to Him, but rather the entirety of all that Christ has coming to Him from the Father will come to Him (v.37a; i.e., angels, new heaven/earth, etc.) and all that is given will be exalted in the last day (v.39). This idea is more credible by the fact that in each case, the "all that which" is followed by a similar, more personal (masculine gender) statement regarding any "one" individual who is believing/coming to Him (v.37b and v.40). If the neuter statements were only reflecting the personal, human believers, then v.37-40 contains a large amount of redundancy. So there is logical explanation that the neuter is referring to a more broad, general concept here.
- John 17:2 seems related to the John 6:37, 39 usages. The Greek word order is: καθὼς ἔδωκας αὐτῷ ἐξουσίαν πάσης σαρκός, ἵνα πᾶν ὃ δέδωκας αὐτῷ, δώσει [= majority reading, future active indicative 3rd singular; the alternate reading is δώσῃ, aorist active subjunctive 3rd singular] αὐτοῖς ζωὴν αἰώνιον. My word for word translation: "Just as you gave him authority of all flesh for the purpose that all that which you gave him, he will give to them eternal life." Could πᾶν ὃ δέδωκας αὐτῷ be a personal reference? Very questionable, because the context is clearly indicating what was given was the position of "authority of all flesh." So again, this very well may not be a personal reference at all, but could be a reference to the purpose of the general concept of this authority over all flesh, which was so that He could grant eternal life to "them" in that flesh that He would so grant it to (that is part of the authority He has).
- John 4:22 likewise fits in the general concept category, for the use there does not appear to be referring directly to who is being worshipped, but rather the whole formalities of worship, including in part the "why" and "how" behind the worship. That is, in v.20 the Samaritan woman refers to the place of worship. Jesus does not correct the who of her worship, for he acknowledges both she and the Jews are worshiping the Father in their respective places (v.21). But the Samaritan's do not know what (ὃ) they worship (v.22a), whereas the Jews do know what (ὃ) they worship (v.22b), the explanation given being "for [ὅτι] salvation is of the Jews" (v.22c); then he expands that it is both spirit and truth that comprise the "what" (why/how) of true worship. The Jews had the truth, the Samaritans were lacking in some of that.
So every example apart from his 1 John 1 references has some serious doubts about intentionally being an exception pointing toward a person as Boyer places it in, and most fit fine within the "general notion" category or another category (as in the grammatical match in 1 John 5:4).
If Boyer is wrong regarding 1 John 1, what is left? Still the impersonal, referring to a general concept.
Analysis of 1 John 1:1-4
Notice how specifically worded and ordered John's statement is in 1 John 1:1-4 (my translation, very similar to NKJV and OP's):
That which [ὃ] was from the beginning, which [ὃ] we have heard, which [ὃ] we have seen with our eyes, which [ὃ] we have looked upon and our hands have handled, concerning [περὶ] the Word of life—2 And the life was manifested, and we have seen and do testify [μαρτυροῦμεν] and declare [ἀπαγγέλλομεν] to you that eternal life which [ἥτις] was with the Father and was manifested to us—3 that which [ὃ] we have seen and heard, we declare [ἀπαγγέλλομεν] to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. 4 And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.
Verse 2 identifies that the word of life's life "was manifested," which in the context of John's writings is no doubt a reference from his gospel where Jesus Christ is the word and life manifested (see John 1).
Note also that the first four uses of ὃ clearly refer to something "concerning the Word of life," meaning concerning Jesus Christ:
- That something was from the beginning
- That something was capable of being heard
- That something was capable of being seen
- That something was capable of being handled
It is also clear that John did not end v.1 with a statement "which is the Word of life", but rather, "concerning" (περί) that Word. The former might have helped clear any ambiguity by making it a direct identificaion. But περί is simply making a statement that this "something" is "in reference to" that Word of life in some way, whether by direct identification (i.e., the Word of life itself) or direct content (i.e, information about the Word of life).
Recall Boyer rejects the impersonal idea in part because "one cannot feel a message with his hands." But that is a bit of a myopic view, for a written message can be handled, and so Scripture fits the four points as well as Christ:
- The content of the Scripture concerning Christ was from the beginning (Gen 3:16 is one, but from other revelation, even the creation narrative itself)
- The content of Scripture is capable of being heard (and very often was prior to being written; "thus saith the Lord...")
- The written Scripture is clearly capable of being seen (since it is read)
- The written Scripture is also capable of being handled (for it is written upon something)
So there are two very viable options for "that which": Jesus Christ Himself or Scripture as a testimony of Jesus Christ.
But there are more reasons to see the impersonal than just the match to the four points above.
- The latter fits the common use of the neuter gender relative pronoun as referring to conceptual things.
- The statements in v.1 are made prior to referencing that the life was manifested, which implies it refers to things concerning the word prior to that manifestation; this is furthered by the fact that v.2 emphasizes the seeing and hearing because of the manifestation.
- John's focus in the passage is the testimony and declaration of the word of life (v.2), which he is furthering by his writing of the present letter (v.4); this parallels to the testimony of prior Scripture "concerning" Christ.
- The book of 1 John focuses extensively on the testimony/declaration of the verbal revelation in various ways:
- John emphasizes the things "heard" of God (besides 1:1, 3): 1:5; 2:7, 18, 24 (x2); 3:11; 4:3, 6.
- John emphasizes "commandments" and "promises" in his letter (i.e., words of command or promise, not a person): 2:3, 4, 7 (x3), 8, 25 (x2); 3:22, 23 (x2), 24; 4:21; 5:2, 3 (x2).
- John emphasizes the "confession" and "declaration" and "witness" of the "message" heard/known (besides 1:2-3): 1:5 (x2); 3:11; 4:2, 3, 15; 5:6 [and v.8 if the dubious Johannine comma is included], 9 (x3), 10 (x2), 11.
- John emphasizes the "truth" (over lies) of the content and givers of it: 1:6 (x2), 8, 10; 2:4 (x2), 21 (x3), 22, 27; 3:18, 19; 4:6; 5:6, 10.
- John emphasizes his own "writing" of the testimony (besides 1:4): "I write" 2:1, 7, 8, 12, 13 (x3), "I have written" 2:14 (x2), 21, 26; 5:13.
- The result of the above is near 80 some times in the few short chapters of 1 John, the apostle refers in some way to the written/spoken (i.e., verbal) testimony.
- This written declaration as testimony was the final point he emphasized at the end of his gospel, the testimony given in writing by him about Christ (John 21:24).
If the first four uses of ὃ in 1 John 1:1 are referring to the prior written testimony, then the fifth use of ὃ in v.3 is, in context, a reference to John's (and the apostles') personal revelation from the manifestation of life (v.2) being added to all that was previously available (v.1). That is v.1 is the record of previous revelation, v.2a is the manifestation that brought more revelation, and v.2b-3a is the now record resulting from that living revelation.
Commentaries vary on understanding. Any bolding is added by me.
Gary W. Derickson, First, Second, and Third John, edited by H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012) notes:
Five possible meanings for the pronoun translated “that which” have been proposed: (1) John might be referring to revelation about Christ (Painter, 120). This would fit with some of the doctrinal issues raised in the epistle. (2) It could refer to the teachings of Christ, which would fit with some of the ethical issues raised in the epistle. (3) It refers to the eternal life manifested by Christ. (4) It could refer to Christ Himself. On one hand, this option may initially appear less likely because it would be much clearer with the masculine pronoun. However, elsewhere John uses the neuter pronoun to refer to people (1 John 5:4) and Christ (John 3:6; 6:37, 39; 17:2 and 24) [notice Derickson does not give a person, but this was Boyer's argument]. Finally, (5) it could refer to all of Jesus’ life, teachings, as well as His person (Burge, 53; Haas, de Jonge, and Swellengrebel, 11; Strecker, 10).
Notice that (5) is really a summary of (2)-(4), but (1) incorporates all as well, since revelation about Christ would include the other points: Christ's teachings (2), Christ's manifestation of eternal life (3), Christ Himself (His Person) (4), and yet (1) would also include revelation prior to Christ's manifestation.
Daniel L. Akin, 1, 2, 3 John, vol. 38, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001) states:
Why, then, did John use the neuter pronoun “that which” to begin v. 1? It is because he wishes to draw attention equally to the “Word proclaimed” and the “Word as person.” The message and the person ultimately cannot be separated. Each explains the other. The message about Jesus is intimately related to who Jesus is.
Akin's statement is true, but does not really help identify which is intended, since "that which" still cannot refer to both message and person. It is either the Person Himself or it is the words that declare that Person to which John refers.
The discussion from Karl Braune, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1, 2, 3 John, edited by John Peter Lange, Philip Schaff and translated by J. Isidor Mombert (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008) states:
The simplest explanation of the designation of the personal Logos by the Neuter ὃ, is the supposition that the Apostle, moved by the mysterious sublimity and the fulness of essential [belonging to the Being or Essence of Christ—M.] glory (which will not be fully recognized and known before His ultimate revelation in His second advent, ch. 3:2: καθώς ἐστι), writes with a soaring sense of indefiniteness, and views the Person to whom he refers at the same time as the principle of the world and its history, although this does not pass into a reflecting consciousness [sic in German.—M.]. Similarly τὸ κατέχον precedes ὁ κατέχων in 2 Thess. 2:6; similar terms may also be seen in Luke 1:35; John 3:6; 6:37; Heb. 7:7; 1 Cor. 1:27 sq.; Col. 1:26; 1 John 5:4. The reference is consequently not to abstraction, the Word of Life, the Life (Huther), or to the connection of the Person of Jesus with His history and doctrine (Lücke Ebrard), or the taking together of His preëxistence and historical appearance (Düsterdieck), or to the mere designation of the Apostolical annunciation (Hofmann). [Braune’s explanation lacks perspicuity, and really seeks to combine the views of Huther and Düsterdieck, with the addition of a reference to the second coming of Christ; we doubt whether it will convince many readers, while Huther’s explanation, which we give in full, supplies a clear and natural reason for the use of the Neuter ὅ. “The Apostle points to the Apostolical annunciation, namely, the personal Christ, by the Neuter because he thinks of Him as ‘the Word of Life,’ or ‘the Life.’ The reference then being to an abstract (per se) or general idea, ζωή, the Neuter ὅ seems to be in place. The Apostle might indeed have used ὅς for ὅ, because this ζωή is to him the personal Christ; but considering that the characteristic import of Christ consists in His being the Life (not only a living individual) and that John, full of this idea, begins this Epistle, it was more natural that he should use ὅ than ὅς”—M.]
Here, the editor has discarded Braune's view in favor of Huther. For Braune clearly wrote it was not an abstraction (as Huther argued). Rather, Braune appears to argue it is the Person viewed as both principle and history of the world, that is the Christ as beginning and focus of world history being revealed. This is just another view.
Another explanation of neuter is from H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., 1 John, The Pulpit Commentary (London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), where he states:
The first clause states what or how the object is in itself; the next three state St. John’s relation to it; “which,” in the first clause nominative, in the others is accusative. The neuter (ὅ) expresses a collective and comprehensive whole (John 4:22; 6:37; 17:2; Acts 17:23, etc.); the attributes of the Λόγος rather than the Λόγος himself are indicated. Or, as Jelf expresses it, “the neuter gender denotes immaterial personality, the masculine or feminine material personality.”
In short, Spence sees the neuter as not referring directly to the Person of Christ, but his attributes being expressed.
Another commentary states similarly to Akin; Leon L. Morris, “1 John,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, edited by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham, 1397–1409, 4th ed (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994):
The opening Greek word, translated that which, is neuter. It thus appears to refer to the gospel message rather than to a person. But John goes on to speak of hearing, seeing and even touching, which makes it necessary for us to think of Jesus. This is the case also with the Word of life, for while this term might well mean the gospel message, we must bear in mind that Jesus is called both ‘the Word’ and ‘the life’ (Jn. 1:1; 14:6), it is said that ‘in him was life, and that life was the light of men’ (Jn. 1:4). This unusual opening, then, reminds us both of the gospel and of him on whom the gospel centres.
Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995) makes it clear he believes it refers not just to Christ, but more specifically:
The substance is that God has come in human flesh. The first four clauses in verse 1 lead from eternity (“the beginning”; not the beginning of the gospel) through history to the resurrection (cf. John 1:1–3; Gen. 1:1). The eternal One became man (incarnate) and was discerned by three senses (hearing, sight, touch). He was “heard” and “seen”; the verbs looked at and touched (i.e., to behold intelligently and to handle) are the climax of the verse and point to Christ’s resurrection body (Luke 24:39).
The phrase concerning the Word of life refers either to Christ as the living Word of God (logos; John 1:1, 14) or to the lifegiving message. The latter, impersonal idea is preferable to the former, personal idea: life rather than Word is stressed (v. 2). It is possible, however, that both are in view. Life may be both the content of the message and the gift of the message (it is life-giving).
So he impersonalizes life, really making it a reference to being related to the resurrection that Christ obtained.
As Boyer does, an argument can be made that the neuter gender is still a personal reference. But that argument seems weak to me. Many other views have been noted as well. To me, the reference appears to be a general conceptual one with regards to the written testimony about Christ, which testimony John has been (in his gospel) and is now adding to with the present letter of 1 John. This conceptual viewing allows for the message of Christ and eternal life to be referring to all that Scripture contains on it, both old and newly revealed. This view, in turn, seems to match his continuing references in the epistle about prior commands, prior promises, and the truth revealed (and at his time, still being revealed).