‘Sin unto Death’ In 1 John 5:16: A Media Critical Approach



Recent developments in the field of biblical media criticism, the study of the function and dynamics of various mediums of communication, offer potential for advancing our understanding of the referent of ‘sin unto death’ in 1 John 5:16-17. Indeed, precise interpretation has proven to be elusive for both ancient and modern scholars as questions abound. What type of death is in view? Which sin does the author have in mind? Can a true believer commit “sin unto death?” As it stands there is no scholarly consensus on these issues. To be sure, a recent commentary surveyed at least 20(!) possible meanings.

This paper will propose a way past the stalemate by considering the oral dynamics of the text. It will apply John Miles Foley’s (Immanent Art, 1991; Singer of Tales In Performance, 1995) concept of “word power” to the passage, following Rafael Rodriguez’s adaptation of the method to NT studies (Structuring Early Christian Memory, 2010). I will argue that the apostasy of the false brethren from among the audience is the most likely referent, given the interpretation’s ability to best incorporate the oral dynamics of the text and it’s contextualizing tradition.


Orality; Oral tradition; New Testament; 1 John; “Sin unto death”


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.29357/issn.2521-179X.2018.20.5


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