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Notes_on_General_Epistles.docx

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      What follows is a brief overview of traditional matters of introduction to James–Jude.

I have also provided brief bibliographies listing mostly commentaries. I assume the presence of articles in the IVP dictionaries and in NT introductions.

      One additional word of preface. James through 2 Peter and Jude (typically leaving 1-3 John) are referred to as the “general epistles” or the “catholic epistles.” Both names reflect the fact that the letters are difficult to identity with any one place. In addition, they are grouped as such because do not come from Paul or John.

James

      In its own way, James is unlike any other writing in the New Testament. It does not contain the extended theological reflection of Paul’s letters, Hebrews, or 1 Peter. Furthermore, Jesus is mentioned only twice (1:1; 2:1). Yet the letter seems as close to the teaching of Jesus as anything else in the New Testament outside the gospels.

      At one time thought to be a collection of random exhortations with no unifying line of thought, James was largely ignored by scholars. Thanks to recent efforts by social-scientific and rhetorical critics, James has become a center of attention in New Testament studies.

Authorship

      The author identified (1:1) as “James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” but no more. A total of six individual named James appear in the NT. Which one could it have been? Obviously, the author and his first listeners knew his specific identity. The two usual “James” put forth as author are James the Lord’s brother and James the son of Zebedee with the former the most common.

      As one would suspect, scholars have raised objections to identifying the author with the Lord’s brother or one of the Twelve. Is the name “James” a literary fiction such as some people think exists for the so-called “pseudo-Pauline” letters? The primary objection stems from the literate Greek that characterizes the epistle, thought to be beyond the abilities of a Jew from rustic Galilee.

      Since we have no other writings by an identifiable “James” with which to compare this letter and since we have no early Christian writings that identify the writer, we simply lack sufficient historical information with which to make a firm decision. Traditions about James, the Lord’s brother, did survive into the second century, however. All identify him as an upright, exemplary leader in Jerusalem who led a model, though highly ascetic lifestyle. Such would match the depiction of the lifestyle encouraged by this letter.

Canon

      James appears to have been known and used in Rome early on. 1 Clement, writing around 96 CE, quotes James freely, for example, as does the Shepherd of Hermas (50 CE from Rome). Still, however, James does not appear to have been widely accepted in the West until the fourth century. It seems that the letter gained acceptance in the East quite early and that, through the influence of key leaders such as Origen, eventually gained more widespread approval.

      Questions about the letter’s canonicity resurfaced at the time of the Reformation. Luther saw it as opposed to the Pauline formula of justification by faith. In a famous phrase, Martin Luther judged it an “epistle of straw.” He placed James (along with Hebrews [!], Jude and Revelation) at the back of his translation of the NT, regarding them as less significant than the other writings.

     

Audience

      The designation of the recipients as “the twelve tribes in the diaspora” causes as much confusion as it does clarity. The two primary proposals regarding the audience are either a late century group in the actual physical diaspora outside of Palestine or a group in Palestine during the Jewish War. In the latter case, the word “diaspora” and “scattered” bear a metaphorical sense for those away from their heavenly home and at odds with the value of their surrounding earthly culture. Once again, evidence will not allow any firm decision. The general nature of the letter and the general statement of the addressees, seems to indicate that the letter was intended for broad circulation.

Genre

      James has been thought of as an “epistle” (it appears in the title added to early copies), though it certainly does not resemble the personal letters of Paul. Parallels between the form of James and both wisdom literature and moral instruction of the ancient Greco-Roman world have long been noted. Such moral instruction of took the form of paraenesis (an important term to know) loose collections of wise sayings typically held together by common themes and meant to exhort their hearers toward a virtuous life.

      More recently scholars have identified a unified argument to the letter. As a result, they no longer hold James to be paraenesis, but rather as type of writing known as protreptic discourse (another term to know). Protreptic bears a similar exhortative purpose toward a particular way of life, but does so through more sustained, organized arguments.

Particular Issues 

      James 2:14–26 has caused no little discussion over the centuries because of its supposed conflict with Paul’s teaching regarding justification by faith. The problem stems from shared vocabulary between the two writers (justification, faith, works, etc) which take on particular meanings in the argumentation of each. Few would find conflict between the two now. James is concerned that faith finds itself expressed in works of faith. Paul is concerned that work of the Law, signs of Jewishness, do not be required of gentile converts.

Bibliography

Davids, Peter. Commentary on James. New International Greek Testament Commentary.
      Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982. Detailed commentary on the Greek text.

Davids, Peter. James. New International Bible Commentary. Peabody: Hendrickson,
      1989. Popular exposition by a first rate James scholar.

Hartin, Patrick J. James. Sacra Pagina 14. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2003.

      Reliable commentary on the English text.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Letter of James. Anchor Bible 37A. New York: Doubleday,
      1995. Superb commentary on the English text with a lengthy introduction.

 

1 Peter

      1 Peter serves as one of the most neglected, yet significant books in the NT canon. Paul has garned the most attention among the letters, while the gospels and Revelation have both gained their own share of interest. I regard the letter as one of the best examples of basic Christianity, full of relevant discussion of Christian (plural) life especially issues related to the church’s relationship to its surrounding culture.

Authorship

      The letter identifies its author as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.” Historically, this has been assumed to be Simon Peter of Galilee. In recent centuries, this identification has been challenged on several grounds.

Arguments against Petrine authorship

1. The style of Greek is believed to be too high for someone referred to as “unlettered”
      (Acts 4:13). Peter would have been much more at home in the Semitic environment
      of Galilee than in the Greek style of 1 Peter.

2. If Peter wrote it, why are there not more references to the life of Jesus (an argument
      from silence, by the way)?

3. The letter sounds “too Pauline” to have emanated from another apostle.

4. The situation described by the letter reflects a time in Asia Minor after Peter’s lifetime.

5. The letter is addressed to people normally thought to be within Paul’s range of
      mission. Why would Peter be writing to them?

Responses from those who argue for Petrine authorship.

1. As a fisherman and trader, Peter would have come into contact with a large variety of
      people, including those conversant in good Greek. The reference to Peter being
      “unlettered” in Acts can mean no more than that Peter lacked formal training.

2. The letter was actually written by Silvanus (5:12) at Peter’s behest. This accounts for
      the quality of the Greek.

3. If only Paul could have worked Asia Minor, and if the letter is pseudonymous, why
      didn’t the writer attribute it to Paul?

4. Parallels with Paul can be reckoned to arise from common early Christian tradition.
      Plus a “Silvanus” was a traveling companion with Paul.

5. The letter actually claims to be by Peter.

      Once again, we must keep in mind that the manner in which letters were composed and attributed to authors in the ancient world varied. Peter could have been in prison and requested Silvanus to write it for him. We simply do not know.

Recipients 

      The cities mentioned in 1:1 “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” are all located in northwest Asia Minor in what was regarded as a “backwater” region. How these people in these cities first heard the gospel we do not know. The letter indicates that the recipients were mainly Gentiles (1:14, 18; 2:9–10, 25; 3:6; 4:3–4)

      The cities are named in the order a traveler would visit them. In all likelihood, the bearer of the letter traveled precisely along this route. The fact that the letter is addressed to multiple churches would account for the general nature of its contents.

            We cannot identify the suffering referred to in 1 Peter with any known persecution of Christians. In all likelihood, the nature of the suffering involves social discrimination on a local level, rooted in the fact that these people lived with different values and priorities than those of their neighbors.

Date of Composition

      1 Clement (96 CE) refers to the letter, providing historical evidence (though questioned by some) for a date no later than the early 90’s. The traditional dates for Peter’s martyrdom fall within the range of 64–68 CE. If Silvanus or Peter wrote it, the date of composition would like fall within the 60’s while Peter was in prison in Rome. If it is pseudonymous, most scholars date in somewhere between 75-95 CE. As you can see, the question of dating and authorship are intertwined. An origin in Rome is affirmed by the greetings from “Babylon,” a cipher for Rome common in early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism.

Characteristics

      The general, basic nature of the teaching in the letter has led some to ask if it might not be an early Christian catechetical document adapted into the form of a letter. Some have even proposed that it was originally a baptismal sermon. No one has been able, however, to demonstrate such theories.

      It is noteworthy that the Gentile hearers are labeled with terms that frame Israel’s own identity. For example, they are “exiles of the diaspora” (1:1) and a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9). Furthermore, their identity is described in terms taken from Israel’s scripture (see 2:4–10). Some find the fact the gentile followers of Christ are described in Jewish terms anomalous. If we think of the early Christian movement as a separate religion, that would be true. If we understand what we call “early Christianity” as a sect of Judaism that was open to Gentiles,1 Peter’s description of them in these terms is to be expected.

Bibliography on 1 Peter

Achtemeier, Paul J. 1 Peter. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

      Detailed commentary on the Greek text by a first rate, mainstream scholar.

Davids, Peter H. The First Epistle of Peter. New International Commentary on the New
      Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990. Readable commentary where Greek is
      confined to footnotes. Davids is highly regarded as an expert on the Catholic Epistles.

Elliott, John H. Conflict, Community, and Honor: 1 Peter in Social-Scientific
      Perspective
. Cascade Companions. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2007. An introductory

      guide to social-scientific criticism using 1 Peter as a prime focus.

Green, Joel B. ! Peter. Two Horizons Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2007.

      The best theological exposition of the letter in print.

Horrell, David G. First Peter. New Testament Guides. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2008.

      A well-written survey of scholarship on the letter from a mainstream perspective.

Jobes, Karen H. 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testamenti. Grand
      Rapids: Baker, 2005. Fine commentary based on the Greek text, but all references to
      Greek are relegated to the end of each section in detailed notes.

2 Peter

      I will treat 2 Peter, then Jude before discussing the relationship between the two letters and providing a joint bibliography for both.

Genre

      2 Peter bears the typical marks of a Hellenistic letter (see the letter opening and its self-description at 3:1). But scholars have also detected clear signs of what is know as a “testament” or “farewell speech.” The latter types of writing are quite common in early Judaism and typically contain an author’s (or purported author’s) ethical admonitions before death and/or revelations about the future. Passages typically identified as reflecting the genre of testament include 1:3–11 (a homily summarizing Peter’s teaching), 1:12–15 (reminder of teaching), and 2:1–3, 3:1–4 (predictions of events after Peter’s death).

Authorship

      For scholars convinced that 2 Peter is a farewell speech, understanding it as pseudonymous naturally follows (since testaments were usually composed by a person’s followers after his death). Such scholars would not detect any deception in attributing the letter to Peter because 1) the testamentary genre would clue 1st century readers into the fact that it was written in Peter’s name, 2) pseudepigraphy was a common practice in contemporary Judaism, and 3) the author(s) were doing nothing but faithfully passing along Peter’s teaching for a new day.

      Furthermore, the rough Greek of 2 Peter differs considerably from the fine Greek of 1 Peter. This indicates that Peter could not have written both. But if the Greek of 1 Peter is too fine for a Galilean fisherman (indicating the Silvanus might have written it for Peter), wouldn’t rough Greek be an indicator of Peter’s authorship? Peter can’t win either way it seems. Nevertheless, these are tough questions that scholars must face.

Date

      Once again, the questions of authorship and date run hand in hand. Peter likely died in the mid to late 60’s. If Peter authored the letter, it emanates during that time period shortly before his death. If it was penned by his followers, it could appear almost any time after Peter’s death until late in the first century.

Purpose

      We can describe the immediate cause and purpose of the letter as follows. Peter wrote to counter the effects of a group he labels ‘false teachers’ (2:1), describes as ‘scoffers’ (3:3), and compares with ‘false prophets’ (2:1). These teachers apparently understand themselves, and are understood by Peter’s auditors, as followers of Christ, though Peter sees them as having turned from the faith (2:20–22). Peter instructions indicate these people are an ongoing influence among the Christian group(s) to whom the letter is addressed. He entertains some level of concern that the false teachers may lead his hearers astray. He, therefore, urges them, ‘Guard yourselves lest you be led astray by these lawless people and lose your own stability’ (3:17).

      These persons’ teaching provoked an impassioned response from Peter at two points. First, they denied any final judgment (3:3–9). Second, and consequently, they advocated a libertine approach to moral issues (2:2, 10–19). Peter combats these teachings by reminding his auditors of apostolic teaching regarding salvation and coming judgment, and exhorting them to a life of active holiness and caution based on knowledge.[1] In Peter’s construal, the reality of coming judgment provides motivation for moral purity for those who will see eschatological salvation (2:9; 3:7, 11–14).

Audience

      The letter’s recipients as well as the false teachers appear to be from Gentile backgrounds. Although we must remain careful about making distinctions between Jews and Gentiles on the basis of how ‘Hellenized’ one is, the letter offers no hint that the recipients were Jewish. The temptation inherent in the false teaching portrayed in the letter stems from the pull of a lifestyle and conceptual world alien to Judaism.

      The auditors were, however, familiar with key events of divine judgment found in the Jewish scriptures. Furthermore, Peter assumes they were aware of early Christian teaching regarding Jesus’ death and parousia. Both of these factors indicate Christians with at least some background in Christian instruction.

      As is widely noted, 2 Peter betrays a Hellenized conceptual environment. The prime example here is Peter’s description of salvation as escaping the ‘corruption’ of the world and becoming ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (1:4). Additional examples would include Peter’s description of the apostolic witnesses to the Transfiguration as ‘eyewitnesses’ using the term e0po&ptai, a NT hapax legomenon (a word used only once in the NT) and a technical term within the mystery religions for those who had received the highest level of initiation (1:16). Furthermore, as noted above, both the eschatological skepticism and moral libertarianism characteristic of the false teachers reflect the widespread ideas and practices of the Greco-Roman world

      At the same time, the argument of the letter is steeped in Jewish traditions. In order to affirm the certainty of God’s coming judgment, Peter recalls God’s judgments in the past, known from the Jewish scriptures and writings—upon ‘angelic watchers’ (2:4) upon Noah’s generation in the Flood (2:5), and upon Sodom and Gomorrah (2:6–8). In addition, Peter’s depiction of eschatological judgment itself  (3:3–13) is thoroughly Jewish.

      This juxtaposition of Hellenistic and Jewish conceptual frameworks indicates Peter attempts to make the Christian message (which is itself a Jewish message) intelligible in a pagan environment. The dangers inherent in such a venture are apparent from the false teachers ‘mistranslation’ of that message into compromised ideas and lifestyles. As I have already noted above, this feature of the letter makes it a viable candidate to examine in terms of identity formation.

Jude

      When I was in my last year of residence in my PhD program at Union Theological Seminary of Virginia, a NT scholar named David Hay was on campus as a scholar-in-residence. Union was the home of the Interpretation commentary series, if you are familiar with those volumes. David was once introduced at a graduate student colloquoy by a Union professor who said, “If we had asked David to write the Interpretation commentary on Jude, the spine of the books would have read, ‘Hay . . .Jude’.” Perfect for those of us who grew up on John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

     

Authorship

      The name “Jude”  refers to eight different people in the NT (the English “Judah,” “Judas,” “Jude” translating the same Greek word). “Jude” is derived from a common Jewish name, making a positive identification of the “Jude” in this epistle notoriously difficult. Jude is identified as the brother of “James” (1:1), another common Jewish name. The most common resolution of this problem is to identify Jude as the brother of James, both brothers of Jesus.

      Scholars arguing that the letter is pseudonymous do so for two reasons, First, the claim is made that v. 17 implies that the letter was written at a time after the apostles’ death. But this statement is likely a reference to when the audience first heard the apostles’ preaching. Secondly, the Greek is allegedly too well-written for someone from Galilee. Once again, Galilee was bilingual (meaning many people there likely could express themselves in good Greek) and most all ancient letters involved the use of a scribe.

Date

      As with James and 1 Peter, dating the letter depends on one’s decision about authorship. Those holding that it is a genuine letter from Jude, the brother of the Lord, date it in the 50’s and 60’s. Those holding to pseudonymity place it later in the first century. But we have little historical information to place it within any exact time frame.

Recipients

      The shortness of the letter gives us precious little information to build upon. At most, we can say the author seems to know these people (v. 3) and that in all likelihood, they are mostly Jewish Christians. Beyond that, we are in the realm of speculation. Furthernore, we can only guess about where in the empire they were located.

Circumstances 

      Jude 4 mentions “certain people” who have slipped in among them. These people apparently promote an immoral lifestyle and cause divisions among the auditors. Jude writes to urge them to resist these people and defend the faith. Jude does so by making four comparisons between the infiltrators and historical person(s). In each case, the historical figures are condemned by God.

2 Peter/Jude

      Without doubt, Jude 4–13, 16–18 and 2 Peter 2:1–18; 3:1–3 betray some kind of literary dependence. Either one used the other, they depend upon some common source, or they were written by the same person. Resolving the questions requires detailed source critical examination of the Greek text, a project beyond the scope of these notes. Suffice it to say that most scholars now agree that understanding 2 Peter as dependant on Jude makes best sense of the similarities and differences between them.

Bibliography: 2 Peter, Jude

Bauckham, Richard J. Jude, 2 Peter. Word Biblical Commentary 50. Dallas: Word, 1983.

      Detailed commentary in the WBC format. Bauckham holds both letters to be
      pseudepigraphal.

Green, Gene. Jude and 2 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.
      Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008. Solid interpretation of both letters that holds to
      traditional ascriptions of authorship.

Reese, Ruth Anne. 2 Peter and Jude. Two Horizons. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

      A responsible theological reading of the letters.

1–3 John

      None of these letters bear John’s name, though throughout the church’s history they have been connected with the Fourth Gospel and associated with its author, John. The writings show unmistakable similarities in style, vocabulary and teaching. As a result, scholars have posited the existence of a “Johannine school” or “Johannine community” in early Christianity, meaning a group of the apostle John’s close disciples who protected and spread his teaching after John’s death. The relationship between letters and gospels, and the social situations that produced them is complex. Although a host of proposals have been put forward to explain these circumstances and how the teaching of these writings reflect those situations, all is mostly speculation. For our purposes, we wil focus on traditional issues of introduction related to the three letters.

Authorship

      The letters themselves are anonymous, though historically they have been attributed to John the apostle. 2 and 3 John are written by the “elder,” but the identification of this individual is a mystery. One should note, however, that evidence (1 Peter. 5:1) indicates that apostle could be called “elder” among early Christians. Eusebius speaks of John the apostle and one who seems to have lived later, further complicating efforts to identify the author(s).

Date

      Once again we lack specific enough information to place these letters within a time frame. Any time between 70-100 CE has been defended. We simply lack firm historical information needed to make a decision.

 Location

      Tradition associates John with Asia Minor in general and Ephesus in particular. Once again, we lack the sufficient information upon which to make a decision.

Situation 

      In likelihood, these letters reflect the existence of a network of related churches originating from the same apostolic activity. While we know of a “Pauline mission,” these writings probably reflect a “Johannine mission.”  Most scholars hold that the letters were written after the gospel in order to deal with problems that had arisen among these churches.

      In general, we can say that the letters reflect the presence and threat of false teachers (called “deceivers,” “liars,” “false prophets”). These people claim to be without sin and claim to love God without living their Christian brothers and sisters. The author is concerned that these churches hold on to the faith they have heard from the beginning. That teaching concerns first and foremost that they love one another. The auditors must persist in living out the truth they have heard.

Bibliography

Marshall, I. Howard. The Epistles of John. New International Commentary on the New
      Testament. Grand Rapids, 1978. First rate reading of these letter by one of the
      “elders” of evangelical NT scholarship.

Smalley, Stephen S. 1, 2, 3, John. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word, 1984.

Thompson, Marianne Meye. 1, 2, 3 John. Downers Grove: IVP, 1992.

      My first recommendation of a more exposition oriented commentary.


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