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The letter of 1 John begins in verse 1:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

The testimonies are all given in the first person plural—"we have heard", "we have seen", "we have looked", "our hands have touched", "we proclaim."

Yet, the second chapter begins with the first person singular:

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.

Do the opening statements indicate that multiple people are writing this letter? Or does the first person singular in 2:1 suggest a single hand? If so, why is 1:1 in the first person plural? Who is the "we" in 1 John 1:1?

  • I have a hunch that the context of fellowship is the key here, i.e. those of us who are in fellowship are telling you the basis of true fellowship. There seems to be an us vs. them polemic occurring, most likely between Christians and Gnostics. I don't have time to write up a formal answer right now but figured I'd throw this out there as food for thought. Great question. – Dan Jun 5 '13 at 16:31
  • Related question: "Were 1 John and John’s gospel written by the same person?" – Dɑvïd Aug 11 '16 at 13:03
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[OP] Who is the "we" in 1 John 1:1?

A decent case can be made that the "we" of 1 John 1 is "editorial"; that is, it is a rhetorical device to refer to the author's self. This usage, related to the "royal 'we'", remains current, even if it now has a certain whiff of whimsy (or worse). In other words, the "we" refers not a group of apostles, nor the Twelve, nor the fellowship of the community addressed -- rather, "we" here is the author "himself" (making an assumption of male authorship).

The following factors point in this direction:

  1. As Judith Lieu points out, typical greetings in letters in antiquity were in the third person, "X to Y, greetings...", and this not only in the Greco-Roman period, but for "more than a millennium" (and certainly true, too, well attested in the letters of Lachish and Arad from the 6th C. BCE).1 The opening to 1 John, then, strikes a very different tone, with the "we" and "you" address being not only atypical, but forging a bond between writer and audience in a more direct fashion.

  2. The "editorial 'we'" is well attested in Koine Greek writing. Among older grammarians, the degree to which this observation is applied to NT writings (including 1 John) varies, from Blass's emphatic pronouncement, to Roberston's more considered guidance, to Moulton's more ambivalent discussion.2 What all three share, however, is the common perception that the "editoral 'we'" was alive and in use among the contemporaries of the NT's authors.

    It is worth pausing here to make two related points. (1) My survey of the scholarly literature suggests that the existence of the "editorial 'we'" (whatever name it goes under -- "literary plural", "der schriftstellerische Plural" auf Deutsch) was known and in use in ancient Greek. So this is not a controversial claim.3 (2) There is no indisputable linguistic datum which signals incontrovertibly when "we" really means "I". This is part of the social/cultural aspects of language, like being able to detect humour. E.g. "We are not amused" is a famous saying: most native English speakers would recognize it as a "royal 'we'", communicating individual self-reference; in this case we would need broader context for the set phrase to communicate a "plural we".

    In the case of 1 John 1, the sense that 1:4 (a plural) and 2:1 (a singular) for equivalent phrases sufficiently signals the "editorial 'we'" in 1:4 (see Jobes, below). But as this discussion makes clear, while the existence of the "editorial 'we'" is indisputable in ancient Greek, detecting its presence in any particular case remains a judgement call: more or less convincing depending on contextual factors (cf. the range from Blass to Robertson to Moule, above!).

  3. Observations on internal matters from a couple of more recent works point towards this "editorial 'we'" being the most natural sense for the prologue of 1 John:

    • Karen Jobes is among those who notes that the "we write" [γράφομεν] of 1:4 must carry the same sense as "I write" [γράφω] of 2:1.4 She suggests that "[t]he fact that the author uses both 'we write' and 'I write' to refer to one and the same letter strongly tilts the 'we' in 1:1-4 in the direction of a singular reference."
    • Richard Bauckham, in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, is probably the one who has argued for the "editorial 'we'" at greatest length.5 He finds the prologue to 1 John to be consistent with the same usage also in John 21, and 3 John 9-12 which he finds an especially compelling case of the singular "I" and plural "we" referring to the same individual. On pp. 373-375 he argues the case for 1 John 1:1-4 in particular. Here again, 1 John 1:4 ("we write") looms, as Bauckham considers this makes best sense if referring to an individual, and not only because of the perceived equivalent at 2:1, but at every point at which the writing of this letter is in view (Bauckham cites 2:1, 7-8, 12-14, 21, 26; 5:13). His argument can be summed up from this quote (p. 375):

      The prologue of the letter is quite evidently designed to state emphatically the author's authority to address his readers on the basis of his having heard and seen the reality of which he speaks. The augumented authority that the use of the first person plural gives to his claims makes the use of the first person plural in this solemnly formulated introduction to his work easily intelligible.

Summary - While certainty remains elusive for this question, a responsible interpretation is that the "we" in 1 John 1:1 (and throughout the prologue) refers to the author, i.e. John, himself.


Notes

  1. Judith Lieu, I, II & III John: A Commentary (Westminster/John Knox, 2008), pp. 35-39.
  2. F. Blass, Grammar of New Testament Greek (2nd English edition, 1905 [1911 printing]), p. 166 = § 48.4 (this discussion appears in the latest Blass-Debrunner-Funk on pp. 146-7, § 280, but not significantly changed from the 2nd English edition of 1905); A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Hodder & Stoughton, 1914), pp. 677-8, and cf. also pp. 406-7; J.H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Volume 1 (T & T Clark, 1906), pp. 86-87.
  3. For more literature and discussion, see Samuel Byrskog, "Co-Senders, Co-Authors and Paul’s Use of the First Person Plural", Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 87 (1996): 230–250. His four-fold categorization of uses of the 'pluralis sociativus', formulated with a view to possibilities in Pauline letters, shows the possible range: (1) the "we" includes sender and addressees; (2) the "we" is a specific group within the addressees; (3) the "we" includes the sender's associates/co-workers in some way; and (4) "we" may refer to the individual sender, "i.e. as a literary plural". It is the fourth category that I'm referring to by "editorial 'we'".
  4. Karen Jobes, 1, 2, and 3 John (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Zondervan, 2014), p. 49. (Her discussion of the "editorial 'we'", which she favours, runs from pp. 49-51 in double columns.)
  5. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 358-381 -- clearly his argument needs to be read in full!
  • Why "John" at all? He is not mentioned. Also, it would be strange for "John" to not provide his name and yet use a "royal we". Do you agree that the prologue refers to involvement with the earthly ministry of Jesus? – user10231 Aug 6 '16 at 15:27
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Since he is using the 'I' without further reference, he is the author. (No one else is being named explicitly who could be co-author.)
The 'we' in the beginning therefore can only be understood as standing for the group of witnessing disciples (apostles).

Regarding witness the commonness (plural) of the experience is important (as not being just an individual perception). It is the common ground of having come to know the Christ as the Word of God and living human which the author calls to the reader's (and listeners') attention.

Regarding encouragement and counsel and personal address the softness and closeness of the personal relation is what calls for the (here) more intimate singular (since it is the single author who witnesses and knows their situation, and they know him, but perhaps none of the others).

1

The 'we' here may be reference to the congregation who are being addressed by their absent Pastor. It could also be an address to disciples widely scattered. John feels that the things he declares demand the strongest evidence. He has not believed them lightly, and he does not expect others to believe them lightly.

1

Like most of the scrolls of the scriptures 1 John's author is anonymous. Nowhere within the scroll does the author says "I, John" or any such thing.

However the author claims to have been one of the disciples:

KJV 1 John 1:1-2 - modified by me

The [Jesus] that was from the beginning [of the gospel], which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the message of life; (For the life was manifested [to us], and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)

The author appeals to his firsthand experience with Jesus in order "set the record straight" concerning the "new-fangled" ideas about Jesus that are floating around including the idea that Jesus is divine or that the sins of one who believes are not counted.

I opine that the "we" refers to the disciples of Jesus who followed him in his earthly ministry.

0

I wonder if the context gives an answer that is consistent with what the authority of the book seeks to make. V 1-4 is one sentence in the Greek and it would follow that the thought is one consistent thought. 1 Jn seems to be presenting his authority in the light of the false teachers."We" who : heard, seen with eyes, looked at, and our hands touched. They are in community proclaiming thst which is from the beginning. Finally their fellowship is with the father and the son . As we fellowship with this truth, we too enter the we of this passage v 7 and the blood of Jesus purifies us from our sin .

-1

1 John chapters 2-4 could only have been written by a single person, so there is no good reason to see this epistle as written by multiple authors. In spite of tradition, few modern scholars would understand the author to be the apostle John, to whom the 'Johannine' writings were attributed later in the second century. Most scholars believe that 1 John was written by the same (anonymous) author as 2 John and 3 John, in both of which he identifies himself as 'the elder' or 'the presbyter'. In that regard, the rather superior attitude demonstrated in verses such as 2:1 ("My little children ...") shows he is accustomed to considerable respect from members of his 'Johannine' community.

Although he uses diminutive references when addressing the community, it is not beneath the elder to relate as no more than another member of the community - hence the use of the first person plural ('we'). The epistle is not really a letter, so it does not imply a lengthy absence of the part of the elder. He probably put this in writing because what he had to say was too important to be said and then just forgotten.

W. Hall Harris III ('3. The Author’s Opponents and Their Teaching in 1 John') says 1 John 2:19 provides good reason for thinking that a split has taken place in the Johannine community and the author’s opponents now constitute a community of their own, just as thoroughly committed as the author’s to spreading their understanding of who Jesus is. The elder realises he must strongly discourage the remaining community members from leaving to join the breakaway group, and so writes this as a polemic against them.

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