Because Paul was the biblical letter writer extraordinaire,
it's easy to dismiss the others as being less significant. Truth
to tell, they are sometimes overlooked altogether. That's a
shame because each of them is a small gem, valuable as much
for providing a unique perspective as for adding to our store
The eight non-Pauline letters are, with one exception,
grouped under the title "catholic letters," but notice that's
catholic with a small "c" meaning universal. Unlike Paul's letters
to the Romans, Corinthians, Philippians and so on, the catholic
letters are not specifically addressed to any particular faith
community but are meant more for the Church at large.
Although most carry a name to which they may be
attributed (James, Peter, John, Jude), their authorship is not
quite as obvious as it first appears. And, in the case of the
Letter to the Hebrews, the writer is simply unknown.
In this issue of Scripture From Scratch,
we'll look at each of these writings in the order in which they
appear in the Christian Scriptures.
The Letter to the Hebrews
The Letter to the Hebrews is a very complex writing
and is rarely included with the catholic letters for at least
1) Because it was circulated as part of a collection
of Paul's letters to the early churches, Paul was first thought
to be its creator. That school of thought was challenged as
early as the second century, but prevailed until relatively
recently when marked differences in style, vocabulary and themes
have virtually ruled out Pauline authorship. Many names have
been brought forward to fill the gap: Barnabas, Luke, Apollos,
Priscilla (Prisca), Aquila, and Clement of Rome. But, as the
letter itself provides no clue to its writer, the question must
be set aside.
2) Hebrews does not belong in the literary genre
of letter. No traditional salutation opens Hebrews 1, and the
letter-like closing verses, 13:22-25, may have been added later
as the document began to circulate. By both style and content
Hebrews falls in the category of written sermon.
It seems reasonable to suppose that its title derived
from its original audience, probably Christian converts from
Judaism. The writer assumes a good bit of prior knowledge.
For instance, the opening chapters, 1:1-4:13, stress
Jesus' superiority to Moses, a theme of little interest to Gentiles.
In these chapters, readers are urged to pay even greater heed
to the words of Jesus than those of their greatest authority
From 4:1410:31, the author centers on a comparison
of Jesus' sacrificial death with the sacrifices offered by the
Jewish priesthood. Jesus is portrayed as both priest and victim
whose sacrifice is ultimate and whose priesthood is eternal.
The Jewish priesthood ended with the destruction of the Temple
in 70 C.E. Some think Hebrews was written prior to that date
since it speaks of the priesthood in the present tense. Others
believe that to be a literary device and date the document much
later in the first century.
The final portion, 10:32-12:29, is a kind of pep
talk, laying before early Christian converts what they can reasonably
hope for in light of Jesus' supreme sacrifice. Again, knowledge
of the Hebrew Scriptures is presumed as the author leads through
a magnificent paean on faith in Heb 11, one of the most loft
y passages in the Bible.
Hebrews closes with a few do's and don'ts and may
have originally ended with 13:21.
The Letter of James
This has long been one of my best-loved writings
in either testament, although it is undeniably true that many
others over the long historical haul have not shared my enthusiasm.
The matter of authorship is somewhat clearer here
than it was in the Letter to the Hebrews, but not by much. A
given name is attached, but, then as now, James was a relatively
common name. Several figure prominently in the New Testament.
From these must be plucked the most likely candidate.
James, the son of Zebedee (also known as James the
Great or Greater), is out of the running immediately. His death
sometime in the 40s is documented in Acts 12:1-2. James the
Less, son(?) of Alpheus, also one of the Twelve is an obscure
figure of whom virtually nothing is known. That leaves James,
the brother/relative of the Lord (see Mk 6:3, Mt 13:55, 1 Cor
15:7, Gal 1:19). This James comes into his own as the respected
leader of the Jerusalem church, where his intelligence is obvious
and his judgment is deferred to during the deliberations of
the landmark Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).
Even so, scholars have trouble believing that a
Jew reared in a semi-rural setting could write the polished
Greek found in this letter. To some, that indicates the handiwork
of a better educated scribe/secretary. To others, it points
to pseudonymous writing (great word, I'll explain it later).
The Jewish historian Josephus writes in his Antiquities
(20.9.1) that this James died by stoning in 62 C.E. If this
work is indeed to be credited to him, it would be among the
earlier New Testament writings, predating any of the Gospels.
Like Hebrews, James bears little resemblance to
the traditional letter and may well not have been one. According
to New Testament authority Luke Timothy Johnson, it "is concerned
almost exclusively with ethical conduct. It therefore falls
within the tradition of Jewish wisdom literature...."
The letter is addressed "to the twelve tribes of
the dispersion" (Jas 1:1b) meaning all Jews wherever they have
scattered. The person who emerges from the lines that follow
is a centrist Jew who, while holding the traditions of Judaism
in great respect, is not afraid to move beyond them. This stance
seems consistent with the James who assumes a prominent leadership
role at the Council of Jerusalem.
One thing can be said without fear of contradiction,
and it is this which endears James' letter to me. Here you find
no equivocation, no hedging, no spin doctoring. James lays it
on the line. Whether you like what he has to say or you don't,
you clearly know what he has to say.
Among those who didn't like what he had to say was
Martin Luther who called this "a right strawy epistle" and dismissed
it as part of the Christian canon (it was later restored). Much
of Luther's displeasure resulted from James' insistence on the
importance of good works, which clashed with Luther's tenet
that everything rested on faith.
The Letter of James may never have been as popular
as it is today since it resonates well with contemporary emphasis
on social justice issues (see Jas 1:22-27; Jas 2; Jas 4:1-3,
A biblical basis for the Sacrament of the Sick appears
in this letter as well (5:13-15). Vatican II returned the Church
to a more traditional stance regarding this sacrament, encouraging
us to utilize it more as James describes it rather than only
as "last rites."
The Letters of Peter
It would be difficult to imagine two writings more
different, yet ascribed to the same author. They almost certainly
were not written by the same person.
The first letter bearing Peter's name might actually
have been written by him. Irenaeus late in the second century
believed that to be the case, and the credibility has held relatively
constant until today. That would argue for a composition date
in the early 60's inasmuch as tradition places Peter's death
in the mid-60's during Nero's persecution in Rome.
Arguments favoring Petrine authorship include the
subject matter. This letter is clearly written to encourage
those undergoing considerable hardship and suffering (see 1:1-25;
3:134:19). The writer's knowledge of what Jesus said seems
consistent with someone who had first-hand experience. On the
other hand, there are those who feel the elegant Greek of this
epistle is unlikely for a Galilean fisherman. And the references
to widespread persecution seem to belong to a later persecution
under Domitian in the 80's and 90s.
Regardless of which timeline one opts for, the content
of the letter is clearly intended for Christians who are having
a tough time. As such, it tends to be largely pragmatic in tone,
providing solid and practical advice on everything from how
to live as good Jewish converts to Christianity (2:11-12), good
citizens of the state (2:13-17), even good slaves (2:18-25).
Marriage counseling is provided (3:1-7) as is behavior modification
But suffering gets an entire block of text (3:134:19)
and the lion's share of attention. Obviously, the first readers
had great need of advice on the meaning of adversity and how
to handle it as Christians. The writer emphasizes Jesus' own
suffering. The inference drawn is that the road the master trod
will feel the feet of the follower as well.
The letter closes with an acknowledgement of the
services of Silvanus, who may have been the holy ghost writer,
which might explain the elegant Greek if the author really was
Peter. There is also mention of "the chosen one at Babylon"
(5:13a), a code name for Rome during times of persecution. Lastly,
the writer offers to the persecuted, "Peace to all of you who
are in Christ" (5:143b).
The Second Letter of Peter is almost certainly pseudonymous.
Simply put, the letter is attributed to Peter, but someone else
wrote it. Today, such an idea horrifies us. An endless stream
of lawsuits spring from the very premise. But in the ancient
Near East, pseudonymous writing was perfectly acceptable and
ethical. For example, at least three "Isaiahs" contributed to
the book in a different time period. The Gospels of Matthew
and John, while they may well reflect the thinking and teaching
of their namesakes, were probably more the products of their
Pseudonymous writing was used either because the
writer's name carried little weight by comparison with Peter
or Paul or because of the writer's sincere belief that what
he had written was, indeed, what Peter or Paul would have said
on the subject had they been alive.
2 Peter may well have been the last of the New Testament
books to be written and, for that reason, was not easily accepted.
It was recognized almost from the beginning that Petrine authorship
was nearly out of the question. That issue would have arisen
even without considering its date because the writing style
and general content of the two letters are so dissimilar.
Nonetheless, the letter's late date is almost assured
by its diatribe excoriating the false teachers who were cropping
up (Pt 2) and by its prolonged discussion of the "delayed" second
coming of Jesus (Pt 3).
The Letters of John
Notice that the letters are growing shorter and
shorter. The Christian canon ranks them from longest to shortest.
For our brief assessment of the Letters of John, I turn again
to Raymond Brown and his Introduction to the New Testament:
"...I John makes most sense if understood as written in
a period following the appearance of the Gospel [John's], when
the struggle with the synagogue and 'the Jews' was no longer
a major issue. Rather, a division among Johannine Christians
had now occurred, sparked by different views of Jesus."
"II John is sent to a Johannine community at a distance
from the center. The secession has not yet reached there, but
secessionist missionaries are on the way" (II Jn 10-11) In III
John, the shortest New Testament book, "there is no critique
of moral indifference or christological error, only of complicated
church relationships that involve rival authority, a situation
very difficult to diagnose."
The Letter of Jude
The writer of this brief letter identifies himself
as "brother of James" (Jude la), and he probably was. This puts
him among the brothers/relatives of Jesus (Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55)
and not on the apostolic roster of the Twelve. The letter is
a terse warning to the faithful to avoid false teachers. Thus,
its origin may well be quite late.
Jude alludes to a pair of apocryphal books (those
which are not part of the canon of the Bible): the Assumption
of Moses and the Book of Enoch. There is a certain apocalyptic
tone to this writing. Because of its unflinching negativity
and its obvious aim at a late first-century audience, Jude does
not resonate well with modern readers and is little used.
Collecting the Letters
With the exception of Hebrews, all of these letters
are quite short. Still, they should not be dismissed as inter-office
memos. They enable us to understand the latter years of first-century
Christianity and give us pause to consider the implications
of being authentically Christian in our own century.
Next: The Dead Sea Scrolls (by Elizabeth McNamer)