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The Christian scriptures:

The eight "General" Epistles

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These are sometimes called "Catholic Epistles."

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Meaning of "Epistle":

"Epistle" simply means a literary letter which was intended to be published and read by the general public. This was an established literary style as early as the 4th century BCE.  The general epistles were apparently letters to churches and individuals written to handle specific topics. They usually started with a salutation, "followed often by the main body of the letter...rounded off by more or less personal messages." 1

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Themes of the Epistles:

A common theme running through many of the epistles was an attack on Gnostic Christians. During the early years of the Christian movement, there were a number of divisions within the faith. The main ones were:

bullet the Jewish Christians, a reform movement within Judaism, centered in Jerusalem, headed by James, the brother of Jesus, with Jesus' surviving disciples playing influential roles.

bullet the mostly Gentile Christians who were former Pagans. They lived throughout the Roman empire, in congregations founded mainly by Paul.

bullet the Gnostic Christian movement who taught that Jehovah is an evil deity, that all matter is evil, that Jesus was not fully human, and that individuals are saved by having special secret knowledge.

Other themes common to many epistles are: love within the Christian community, hospitality to strangers, and exhibiting godly behavior.

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Estimated dates of composition and author identity:

Interpretations differ:

  • Conservative Protestants typically believe in the inerrancy of all of the books in the Bible. Thus, they believe that the authors, as identified in most of the Epistles, were the actual writers. Most believe that the Apostle John wrote both the Gospel of John and the Epistles 1,2, and 3 John. They generally believe that the Epistles were written early in the history of the Christian church; all but 1, 2 & 3 John were written before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, at 70 CE.

  • Liberal Christians typically believe that those Epistles whose approximate dates can be estimated were written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, by unknown persons. By that time, various segments of the early Christian movement had introduced new beliefs that were not present in primitive Christianity as taught by Jesus of Nazareth and Paul. They contain a lot of information about how beliefs developed within the church in the later 1st century and first half of the 2nd century CE.

  • Roman Catholic scholars: Fr. Raymond E. Brown, is a member of the Vatican's Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission, and was described by Time magazine as "probably the premier Catholic scripture scholar in the U.S." 7 He has expressed his beliefs concerning the authorship of these epistles:
    • In "Hebrews" there is no reference to Paul being the author; there is no reference to the Hebrews. It was only in the second century CE that this epistle became interpreted as being directed at Hebrews.

    • 1,2 and 3 John contain no reference to authorship by the author(s) of the Gospel of John. That belief also arose in the second century.

    • Fr. Brown suggests that among critical scholars of the Bible:
      • 95% believe that Peter did not write 2 Peter;
      • 75% believe that Jude did not write Jude;
      • 75% believe that James did not write James;
      • about 50% believe that Peter did not write 1 Peter.

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Comparison of conservative and liberal Christian beliefs:

    Conservative Christians  Liberal Christians
Epistle Likely Target Audience Date Written4 Author 4 Date Written 5 Author 5
Hebrews A Jewish Christian Group
65 CE
Unknown
60 - 93 CE
Perhaps Priscilla
James Jewish Christians outside of Judea
45
James, a brother (or cousin or friend) of Jesus
100 -125 CE
Unknown
1 Peter Jewish Christians being persecuted
65
Apostle Peter
Before 64 to after 112 CE
Perhaps Peter
2 Peter Christians everywhere
67
Apostle Peter
125 - 150 CE
Unknown
1 John Ephesus Church
85
Apostle John
before 117 CE
Unknown
2 John Christian woman
85 - 90
Apostle John
Unknown
Same as 1 John
3 John Personal friend
90
Apostle John
Unknown
Unknown
Jude (actually Judas) A specific but unknown group
67-73 CE
Judas, a brother of Jesus
after 100 CE
Unknown

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Additional information:

bullet Hebrews: The author does not identify herself/himself. Many suggestions concerning authorship have been made. A common guess is that Paul wrote it. However, the style and vocabulary used is definitely not that of Paul. One possible scenario is that the Epistle was written by someone from the Christian community in Alexandria, Egypt to Jewish Christians in Rome. Scholar Adolph von Harnack, first suggested that Priscilla, a colleague and co-worker with Paul, may have written Hebrews. Author Ruth Hoppin has recently convinced many that Priscilla did write the Epistle. 6 The purpose of Hebrews appears to have been to show the superiority of Christianity when compared to Jewish law, and to urge mature believers to not abandon their faith. Other theologians believe that the target group are longtime Christians who have little Jewish background. There is some speculation that chapter 13 may be a later addition by another writer; it differs in structure from the preceding text.

bullet James: Conservatives generally accept that this epistle was written by James, the brother of Jesus and the head of the Jewish Christian group in Jerusalem. But, the letter was not known in Christian circles until late in the 2nd century CE; it it doubtful that an epistle by such an important Christian leader would have remained unknown for so long. Also, the letter is written in excellent Greek. James, the brother of Jesus, would have spoken Aramaic as his primary language; Greek would have been only his second language. The epistle stresses proper behavior for a Christian. The author criticizes Christians because their behavior did not seem to have been reformed after their conversion to Christianity. The author expects that they would separate themselves from the world, have victory over old sinful habits and exhibit compassion for the needy. There were indications of envy, conflict and gossip and other improper behavior within the group. The letter may have been sent to Jewish Christians who had fled Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen. It remained virtually unknown in the western church until Jerome included it in the Vulgate translation of the Bible about 382 CE. The book was only reluctantly accepted into the canon of the New Testament. Centuries later, Martin Luther demoted it to a mere appendix at the end of the Christian Scriptures because of its emphasis on good works. Luther called it an "epistle of straw."

bullet 1 Peter: Conservatives generally believe that the author was Peter, one of Jesus' inner circle of disciples. Liberals point out that Peter, being a Galilean fisherman, would not have been able to write in such excellent Greek. Also, the author refers to some of Paul's writings, which apparently were not in circulation until long after Peter's death. The intent of the letter is to encourage Christians who were undergoing ridicule from non Christians, and persecution from their government. He urges his readers to have hope for the future and to be faithful to Jesus.

bullet 2 Peter: Most Christian conservatives accept Peter as the author. However, there is a consensus among liberals that he could not have written the epistle. The book refers to the book of Jude, which was written too late to have been known by Peter. The book also refers to the writings of Paul as "scriptures." This term was not applied to Paul's writings until long after Peter's death. Also, the author supports the belief that Jesus' second coming was in the immediate future. He criticizes the increasing doubt about the immanence of the second coming within the Christian community. This was a problem that only materialized long after Peter's death. The author stresses the importance of correct knowledge in order to grow in faith: knowledge that Jesus would be returning at any moment, and knowledge of how to conduct godly lives. He also wants to warn Christians of the dangers of false teachings by "lawless men.". He mentioned that false teachers can be identified by their "pride, immorality, sensuality, and deceptiveness." 4 These beliefs are found throughout history: branding individuals who hold different religious beliefs as sinful, immoral people.

bullet 1 John: This book deviates from the pattern of most epistles. It is more like a sermon, concluded by a doxology. Religious conservatives generally believe that the author was John, the beloved disciple of Jesus and author of the Gospel of John. Liberals point out many style and theological differences between 1 John and the gospel.  For example, the gospel assigns the advocate role to the Holy Spirit. In 1 John, he is Jesus. The author is concerned about heresy within the churches, particularly from those who have Gnostic beliefs. He writes that fellowship with God will preserve the believer from errors in belief and sin. The believer must be constantly on guard against attacks by Satan. He discusses the imminent arrival of the Antichrist and the coming end of the world, which of course did not happen.

bullet 2 John: This letter was apparently written to a Christian woman and her children by the author who also wrote 1 John. Some theologians believe that the woman symbolizes a Christian congregation, and that the letter was written to a church rather than an individual. It stresses the dangers of being led astray by false teachers, probably Gnostic Christians. Love and obedience are critical. She should separate from anyone who does not teach Jesus' humanity and deity.

bullet 3 John: This is a personal letter to a friend Gaius. His friend is commended for his faithfulness, love and hospitality. The author complements Diotrephes and criticizes Demetrius, for their behavior.

bullet Jude: The author identifies himself as Judas, the brother of James, and thus a brother of Jesus. However, some denominations believe in the eternal virginity of Mary and thus interpret "brother" as cousin or friend of the family. The translators of the King James version of the Bible were concerned that people would confuse Judas with the other Judas -- the one who allegedly betrayed Jesus. So they changed his name and the name of his book to "Jude." Almost all other Bible versions followed their lead.

The phrase in Jude 3: "The faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" is from the second century, long after Jesus' brothers/cousins/friends would have died. Also, Jude 17 indicates that the time of the apostles is in the past. Finally, there are references to conflicts with the Gnostics - a concern that only surfaced late in the 1st century.  The letter is addressed to some unknown group of Christians who were perceived as falling away from the faith. Because of the extensive references to the Old Testament, it may have been a group of Jewish Christians. It deals extensively with the topic of false teachers - presumably Gnostics. He claimed that they were "proud, deceptive, rebellious, covetous and selfish." 4

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References:

  1. R. McL. Wilson, "The Literary Forms of the New Testament," essay in C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991)
  2. J.D. Douglas, Gen. Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Testament Volume," Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1990)
  3. H.R. Willmington, "Bible Handbook", Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1997)
  4. P.N. Benware, "Survey of the New Testament," Moody Press, Chicago IL (1990)
  5. C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991)
  6. Ruth Hoppin, "Priscilla's Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews," Lost Coast Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store An Amazon.com reviewer wrote:
    "Ruth Hoppin has taken a giant step toward demonstrating Harnack's hypothesis, unearthing archaeological data and testimony to show clearly that Priscillan authorship is a viable suggestion that needs to be seriously considered. Hoppin also points out flaws in certain other popular theories about the authorship of Hebrews, rounding out her thorough analysis by pointing to the possible location of writing and destination of the letter. If you are interested in examining the roles of women in New Testament times, buy this book."
  7. Raymond E. Brown, "Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible," Paulist Press, (1990). Page 49 - 50. Read reviews or order this book safely

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Copyright © 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-JUL-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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