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Hebrews and the "catholic" Letters
Reaching Beyond
Paul's Churches

by Virginia Smith

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 of knowledge.

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 two reasons:

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 figure.

From 4:14—10:31, 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, 13-17; 5:1-6).

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; 3:13—4:19). 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 (3:8-12).

But suffering gets an entire block of text (3:13—4:19) 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 respective communities.

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.

Virginia Smith is one of the general editors of, and a frequent contributor to, Scripture From Scratch. She has an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University.

Next: The Dead Sea Scrolls (by Elizabeth McNamer)

 

Praying With Scriptures  

Faith is a dominant theme of both the Letter to the Hebrews and the catholic letters. Reflect upon your own Christian faith in comparison to what you find expressed in these letters. Make Hebrews 11 the focal point of a time of reflection.

 

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