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The Greek text of 1 John 1:1–2 according to the Textus Receptus states,

Αʹ ὃ ἦν ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν ὃ ἐθεασάμεθα καὶ αἱ χεῖρες ἡμῶν ἐψηλάφησαν περὶ τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς Βʹ καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἐφανερώθη καὶ ἑωράκαμεν καὶ μαρτυροῦμεν καὶ ἀπαγγέλλομεν ὑμῖν τὴν ζωὴν τὴν αἰώνιον ἥτις ἦν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα καὶ ἐφανερώθη ἡμῖν TR, 1550

which may be translated into English as,

1 That which was from the beginning, that which we had heard, that which we had seen with our eyes, that which we beheld and handled with our hands, regarding the word of life, 2 and the life was manifested, and we had seen [it], and we testify and declare to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us.

The author mentions “the word of life” (ὁ λογός τῆς ζωῆς) and “the eternal life” (ἡ ζωὴ ἡ αἰώνιος) which was with the Father. Not only does he say that this life was manifested—it appeared—but he also states that he (and others) saw it with their eyes, beheld it, heard it, and handled it with their hands! One must find it difficult to deny that this word of life, this eternal life, is a person. Moreover, the parallels with John 1:1 are hard to ignore:

  • ὃ ἦν ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς (1 John 1:1) ► ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος (John 1:1)
  • τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς (1 John 1:1) ► ἐν [λόγῳ] ζωὴ ἦν (John 1:4)
  • τὴν ζωὴν τὴν αἰώνιον ἥτις ἦν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα (1 John 1:2) ► ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν (John 1:1)

Admittedly, many Christians probably interpret this passage to be concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. I do.

Question

But, why then does the author use the neuter-gender relative pronoun instead of a masculine-gender relative pronoun which would accord with the masculine natural gender of the Word (the Lord Jesus Christ)?

ἦν ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς ἀκηκόαμεν ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν

Or, why doesn’t the author at least use a feminine-gender relative pronoun which would accord with the feminine grammatical gender of ἡ ζωὴ?

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. The latter fits the common use of the neuter gender relative pronoun as referring to conceptual things.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

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.

Conclusion

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).

  • Re: Boyer and ὅ in John 17:24, couldn’t that simply be a collective singular? – user862 Dec 13 '16 at 23:10
  • @SimplyaChristian: As to "number," yes, a relative could be a collective singular. But the issue here is "gender," and the later κἀκεῖνοι is masculine, so if collective of that group, then it would be a postcedent to that, and there would be no reason to not make the relative a singular masculine if referring to that same group as a collective. Boyer's view seems to essentially see it as a singular collective (i.e., as an abstraction of the personal group), but I'm not entirely convinced it explains the gender shift, especially when the context of what was given to Christ is in v.22, "glory." – ScottS Dec 13 '16 at 23:40
  • 3
    This is what is known as "characteristically thorough". ;) FWIW, Westcott's (brief) analysis of the syntax corroborates your view, also picked up by Smalley's Word commentary. The argument turns on v. 2 being regarded as parenthetical -- which is uncontroversial, I believe -- so v. 3 resuming the relatives of v. 1. – Dɑvïd Dec 14 '16 at 18:06
  • (+1) for the analysis of varying viewpoints. Am I understanding you correctly that your "bottom line" is that he is referring, in verse 1, to written text? – user10231 Dec 14 '16 at 19:11
  • @WoundedEgo: Yes, that "bottom line" is where I lean as to what John is referring to, the written text about Jesus (all revelation prior to the manifestation, and then that now being added because of the manifestation, so v.3). – ScottS Dec 15 '16 at 16:56
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A reader with a question about the meaning of something in a letter and especially in the opening, will first seek an answer from the document they are reading. This letter addresses the key issue of the physical nature of Jesus Christ and seeks to refute claims of Gnosticism and/or Docetism which deny Jesus Christ had a physical body:

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God (4:2) 1

Naturally a reader would expect the writer to build a defense on the fact that Jesus did in fact come in the flesh. This letter has only one viable candidate:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— (1:1)

If “that” refers to the man Jesus, the letter is opening with a direct statement refuting the gnostic claim. If "that" refers to anything else, the letter devolves into a suspect response to Gnosticism since it fails to ever affirm Jesus came in the flesh. Therefore in the context of refuting gnosticism, a reader would seek to understand "that" as it refers to the man Jesus.

Yet finding the "wrong" pronoun 2 would cause the reader to question: what is the writer's specific point of His nature? If this was not answered to satisfaction within the letter, the reader would seek understanding in the previous work by the same writer: the Gospel of John. (One aspect of the poetic element in 1 John 2:12-14 is ground the understanding of the current letter in the previous document.)

It is widely accepted the Gospel and this letter have much in common. Tradition holds both were written by John. Regardless of exact authorship the relationship can be summarized:

...the Epistle throughout has the Gospel as its background and is hardly intelligible without it. 3

Given this, the reference a reader would use to resolve the question is the Gospel. Both works open using similar language and style:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us... (John 1:14)

However, while similar there is a major difference. The letter begins with "the word of life" not "the word." Moreover, nowhere in the Gospel is there found "word of life." So the writer has elected to open the letter by making a distinction between both the opening and the entire language of the Gospel. This is a difference which a reader is obligated to understand in the context of both documents. In other words, this is an exercise in seeking to understand the difference the writer makes between two works which the writer has also chosen to connect. 4

Considering both documents, the fundamental difference between the letter and the Gospel is the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His now current standing with His Father. Therefore the "word of life" may be approached as primarily meaning the resurrected Jesus Christ in the flesh.

Gospel: The Word became flesh and was crucified, died, and was buried
Letter: The Word of Life was resurrected in the flesh and is now the source of eternal life

The defense is not simply that Jesus came in the flesh or even the written Word; it is Jesus was raised to life and is now in the flesh. The writer is proclaiming their first-hand experiences with the resurrected Jesus, which is a continuation of both their experiences and the Gospel. Nor does it stop with their testimony of His resurrection since His resurrected state is now part of a current hope:

Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (3:2-3)

The opening thought of the letter flows directly to Jesus, the man resurrected:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1:1-3)

The Gospel describes the fellowship the writer and others had only with Jesus Christ. Nowhere is there found fellowship with the Father. 5 What the writer is now able to proclaim in the letter is the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the means to fellowship with both the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. This is their message of the word of life.

Two things to note. The first-hand experiences with the resurrected Jesus are connected to, and a result of, the writer's status as one of the disciples who did not abandon Jesus:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (John 6:66)
And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:27)

While there were many who could claim first-hand experience(s) with the man Jesus before His death, only a few could also claim the physical and first-hand experiences with the resurrected Jesus.

Second, when understood through the perspective of the resurrection, the neuter takes on additional significance:

Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (3:2)

Which reflects what Paul wrote:

who, by exerting that power which enables Him even to subject everything to Himself, will [not only] transform [but completely refashion] our earthly bodies so that they will be like His glorious resurrected body. (Philippians 3:21 AMP)

Jesus Christ was indeed resurrected in the flesh and one day men and women alike will have a body like His. This can only be correctly described using a neutral word. It is a fulfillment of creation (Genesis 2:24) which states male and female will become one flesh.


1. Scripture from the English Standard Version
2. Ambiguous use of pronouns is found elsewhere in the letter. Significantly 1:9, 1:10, and 5:20 and the use of "we/us/they" throughout. This must be seen as an intentional device of the writer. The explanation of "that" in the opening cannot be made in isolation from the overall document which is filled with pronoun ambiguities.
3. David Smith, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, volume 5 p 154 [Expositor's Greek Testament]
4. The connection of the two works is obvious and intentional regardless of whether they were written by the same person. A discussion "that" refers to the written word (the Gospel) is conditioned on recognizing the writer of the letter claims to be the writer of the Gospel. A consequence of this (intentional) "grammatical" issue is to affirm the meaning of "that" in the letter connects the writer of the letter to "that" Gospel.
5. The separation between the disciples and the Father is stated throughout the Final Discourse, in particular John 14:1-7.

  • (-1) for Trinitarian eisegesis. – user10231 Dec 11 '16 at 22:00
  • @WoundedEgo Fellowship is with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ (1:4). Fellowship is with Him (God) (1:6). Plain reading of the text is not eisegesis. BTW eisegesis is reading into the text and failing to read the text. – Revelation Lad Dec 12 '16 at 0:34
  • Your entire argument is predicated on the idea the 1 John must uphold "the deity of Christ" when that is NOT his mandate. He didn't use Greek semantic tricks to slip in a creed or two. You are operating in a fantasy far from the rooted grounded text. – user10231 Dec 12 '16 at 1:22
  • I don't think that word "explicit" means what you think it means. – user10231 Dec 12 '16 at 1:57
  • 1
    (+1) to help differentiate a useful answer from lower-quality answers. – Steve Taylor Dec 12 '16 at 12:13
-3

I would translate 1 John 1:1-3 like this:

1 That which from the beginning ‒ that which we have heard; that which we have seen with our eyes; that which we have beheld and our hands have touched ‒ was about the word of life.
2 Indeed, we have seen the life that was manifest, and we bear witness and proclaim to you that life ‒ the eternal life which was within the Father and was manifest to us.
3 That which we have seen and heard we also proclaim to you, so that you, yourselves, also might have fellowship with us. For our fellowship, indeed, is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

Details for verse 1:

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The writer is presenting testimony here. His testimony concerns the Word (MS) of Life (FS). His testimony concerns what he has seen with his eyes (MP) and touched with his hands (FP). This testimony has been strung together like different coloured beads on a thread, and linguistically, the relative pronoun in the neuter case provides that thread.

  • “his eyes (MP) and touched with his hands (FP)”—I honestly don’t understand what those would have to do with the neuter-gender relative pronoun. Were they somehow looking at their own eyes or touching their own hands? – user862 Dec 11 '16 at 21:39
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    In v. 1, how (and why?) did you relocate ἦν ["was"] into a significantly different position? Seems like you're re-writing the text. – Dɑvïd Dec 11 '16 at 22:55
  • @Dɑvïd Whether you can accommodate what the writer has done, is immaterial to what the writer has done. If you were to remove the beads the writer has threaded for you on the string, what would remain? Ὃ ἦν ἀπ ἀρχῆς περὶ τοῦ Λόγου τῆς ζωῆς – enegue Dec 11 '16 at 23:08
  • @SimplyaChristian ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν (that which, itself, we have heard), ὃ ἑωράκαμεν (that which, itself, we have seen), ὃ ἐθεασάμεθα (that which, itself, we have beheld) – enegue Dec 11 '16 at 23:53
  • What is the justification for translating περὶ as "about"? Doesn't the choice of that particular preposition carry more meaning than you give? If you're modifying isn't "encompassing" or "surrounding" more in keeping with περὶ? – Revelation Lad Dec 12 '16 at 7:52

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