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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

James, I & II Peter, I, II, & III John, Jude

Tradition held that the Letter of James was written by Jesus' brother, the leader of the church in Jerusalem who had a prominent role in the dispute over the mission to the Gentiles debated in Acts 15. That is highly unlikely, though it is quite plausible that one of his followers or subordinates wrote it. He addresses the global Christian community, and is particularly concerned with spiritual maturity, understood as being "complete." Thus the letter is filled with dualities from which we faithful are meant to choose correctly that we might be "undivided": endurance of trials/succumbing to temptation, faith/doubt, the word from God/our words of wickedness, justice/favoritism, tongue/body, gentleness/envy, spiritual/earthly, doing/judging. But the key duality is one to be resolved rather than chosen between: that of faith and works. We are to be both hearers of the word and doers of the word; our faith should be visible in the ways we live our lives, the choices we make, the spiritual unity we seek and then display. James does not stand in opposition to Paul's emphasis on salvation by faith, but rather is arguing that claiming faith without acting on it, without works also, is incomplete. Hence his wonderful emphasis on justice, on caring for widows and orphans and the poor.

The First Letter of Peter was probably written during the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor during the reign of Trajan at the turn of the second century. This setting – referred to in the opening, when he tells his audience that their faith is "more precious than gold tested by fire" (1:7) – leads the author to exhort his readers regarding how their faith can sustain them in times of difficulty. They are to have a strong sense of duty, and maintain orderly relations in the community and home – don't draw attention! - but they are meanwhile to understand themselves as leading an entirely new life, as having broken with the world, as possessing imperishable honor with God amid the temporary pain and ignominy of persecution. Thus "once you were not a people, but now you are God's people"; while you seem to be powerless before Rome's might, "you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." (2:9-10) This is encouragement for any of us in this time of crisis.

The Second Letter of Peter is focused on maintaining faith in the second coming of Christ, in God's future completion of his creation. This faith was urgent in Paul's letters, as he admonished his readers to believe as he did that it would happen any day, certainly during their lifetimes – but by the time of this letter the end times have not come and there are those who mock that God is idle or asleep, that the delay is permanent, that such a faith is worthless and you may as well relax and live life easy. Those who mock are berated as "blots and blemishes," as dogs and pigs (unclean animals, to that culture) who return to their vomit and mud – lovely stuff. But the author argues from Old Testament stories that God's promises are valid even if God's time is not like our time, which is a powerful reminder that God's picture is rather larger than our picture – and "therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation." (3:14-15)

The last set of epistles in the New Testament feature three written by an unnamed author whose style and theology are sufficiently related to the author of the Gospel of John that the latter's name has long been associated with them. It is a reasonable assumption – while it is highly unlikely that the disciple himself wrote all of these works, it is perfectly plausible that one of his disciples did, and wanted to indicate on whose teaching the writing was based. All most likely date from around the turn of the first century, and tradition has connected John's followers with the city of Ephesus.

The three brief letters (two of them quite brief!) are all related, and document a division, a schism, in the community. Some have hewed to the teachings of the author; to these he gives encouragement of a pastoral nature regarding the need to love one another. Some, however, have left the community to follow other teachers; these are condemned in harsh and polemical language, including being called antichrists. Two tests are outlined for true believers: those who walk in the light love one another, and believe that the human Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. Those who do not show love are false, and their falsehood is revealed in their denial of Jesus. The second letter is addressed to the church ("the elect lady and her children"), while the third is addressed to an individual, Gaius; both are commended for their hospitality to other true believers, the author's representatives, and are urged to show no such hospitality to the schismatics. There is some confusion in the first letter between understanding that we sinners are forgiven in Christ and the later assertion that true believers do not sin; nonetheless, we are encouraged to "abide" in Jesus and love as we are loved.

The letter of Jude also takes on the issue of false teachers. The author identifies himself as a brother of James, who is the brother of Jesus; it is odd that Jude would not make the latter claim as well. If it was indeed written by a brother of Jesus, it would be the earliest document in the New Testament; few scholars, however, accept that identification and therefore it is usually dated in the early second century. The emphasis in this letter is on the punishment that awaits false teaching – for the false teaching itself seems to be that believers will not be subject to judgment. Jude refutes this with examples of judgment and punishment of the condemned from the Old Testament. The final exhortation to the faithful is to hold themselves upright in faith and save others from error.

It is oddly reassuring, in this era of divisions among and within denominations (including our own), to see that even in the earliest days of the Christian faith it was impossible to keep everyone on the same path. Such difficulties remind us that the heart of our faith, the encounter between us and God in the person of Jesus Christ, is a mystery that cannot be pinned down to the satisfaction of all.