« Prev Chapter I. The Catholic Epistles. Next »




THIS volume is to treat of the General Epistle of St. James and the General Epistle of St. Jude. According to the most common, but not invariable arrangement, they form the first and the last letters in the collection which for fifteen centuries has been known as the Catholic Epistles. The epithet "General," which appears in the titles of these Epistles in the English versions, is simply the equivalent of the epithet "Catholic," the one word being of Latin (generalis), the other of Greek (καθολικός) origin. In Latin, however, e.g. in the Vulgate, these letters are not called Generales, but Catholicæ.

The meaning of the term Catholic Epistles (καθολικαὶ ἐπιστολαι) has been disputed, and more than one explanation may be found in commentaries; but the true signification is not really doubtful. It certainly does not mean orthodox or canonical; although from the sixth century, and possibly earlier, we find these Epistles sometimes called the Canonical Epistles (Epistolæ Canonicæ), an expression in which "canonical" is evidently meant to be an equivalent for "catholic." This use is said to occur first in the Prologus in Canonicas Epistolas of the Pseudo-Jerome given by 2 Cassiodorus (De Justit. Divin. Litt., viii.); and the expression is used by Cassiodorus himself, whose writings may be placed between A.D. 540 and 570, the period spent in his monastery at Viviers, after he had retired from the conduct of public affairs. The term "catholic" is used in the sense of "orthodox" before this date, but not in connexion with these letters. There seems to be no earlier evidence of the opinion, certainly erroneous, that this collection of seven Epistles was called "Catholic" in order to mark them as Apostolic and authoritative, in distinction from other letters which were heterodox, or at any rate of inferior authority. Five out of the seven letters, viz. all but the First Epistle of St. Peter and the First Epistle of St. John, belong to that class of New Testament books which from the time of Eusebius (H. E. III. xxv. 4) have been spoken of as "disputed" (ἀντιλεγόμενα), i.e. as being up to the beginning of the fourth century not universally admitted to be canonical.11   "Canonical" (κανονκός), from canon (κανών, connected with κάννα, "a reed or cane," "measuring-rod or ruler"), is used in both a passive and an active sense. A canonical book is primarily one which has been measured and tested, and secondarily that which is itself a measure or standard. Just as a cane, cut to the length of a yard-measure, thenceforth becomes a yard-measure itself, so the Scriptures were first of all tested as to their authority, and then became a standard for testing all other teaching; i.e. they became canonical. And it would have been almost a contradiction in terms if Eusebius had first called these Epistles "catholic" (H. E. II. xxiii. 25; VI. xiv. 1) in the sense of being universally accepted as authoritative, and had then classed them among the "disputed" books.

Nor is it accurate to say that these letters are called "catholic" because they are addressed to both Jewish 3 and Gentile Christians alike, a statement which is not true of all of them, and least of all of the Epistle which generally stands first in the series; for the Epistle of St. James takes no account of Gentile Christians. Moreover, there are Epistles of St. Paul which are addressed to both Jews and Gentiles in the Churches to which he writes. So that this explanation of the term makes it thoroughly unsuitable for the purpose for which it is used, viz. to mark off these seven Epistles from the Epistles of St. Paul. Nevertheless, this interpretation is nearer to the truth than the former one.

The Epistles are called "Catholic" because they are not addressed to any particular Church, whether of Thessalonica, or Corinth, or Rome, or Galatia, but to the Church universal, or at any rate to a wide circle of readers. This is the earliest Christian use of the term "catholic," which was applied to the Church itself before it was applied to these or any other writings. "Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be," says Ignatius to the Church of Smyrna (viii.), "just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church"—the earliest passage in Christian literature in which the phrase "Catholic Church" occurs. And there can be no doubt as to the meaning of the epithet in this expression. In later times, when Christians were oppressed by a consciousness of the slow progress of the Gospel, and by the knowledge that as yet only a fraction of the human race had accepted it, it became customary to explain "catholic" as meaning that which embraces and teaches the whole truth, rather than as that which spreads everywhere and covers the whole earth. But in the first two or three centuries the feeling was rather one of jubilation and triumph at the rapidity with which the "good news" was spreading, 4 and of confidence that "there is not one single race of men, whether barbarians or Greeks, or whatever they may be called, nomads or vagrants, or herdsmen living in tents, among whom prayers and giving of thanks are not offered, through the name of the crucified Jesus, to the Father and Creator of all things" (Justin Martyr, Trypho, cxviii.); and that as "the soul is diffused through all the members of the body, Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world" (Epistle to Diognetus, vi.).22   Comp. Ignatius, Magn. X.; Irenæus, Hær. I. x. 1, 2; III. iv. 2; V. xx. 1; Clement of Alexandria, Strom. VI., sub-finem; Tertullian, Apol. i., xxxvii.; Adv. Judæos, vii., xii., etc., etc. Under the influence of such exultation as this, which was felt to be in harmony with Christ's promise and command (Luke xxiv. 47; Matt. xxviii. 10), it was natural to use "catholic" of the universal extension of Christendom, rather than of the comprehensiveness of the truths of Christianity. And this meaning still prevails in the time of Augustine, who says that "the Church is called 'Catholic' in Greek, because it is diffused throughout the whole world" (Epp. lii. 1); although the later use, as meaning orthodox, in distinction to schismatical or heretical, has already begun; e.g. in the Muratorian Fragment, in which the writer speaks of heretical writing "which cannot be received into the Catholic Church; for wormwood is not suitable for mixing with honey" (Tregelles, pp. 20, 47; Westcott On the Canon, Appendix C, p. 500);33   It has been remarked that this play upon words (fel and mel), which cannot be reproduced in English, is an argument against the theory of a Greek original. and the chapter in Clement of Alexandria on the priority of the Catholic Church to all heretical assemblies (Strom. VII. xvii).

5 The four Gospels and the Epistles of St. Paul were the Christian writings best known during the first century after the Ascension, and universally acknowledged as of binding authority44   In the Codex Sinaiticus and some other authorities the Pauline Epistles are placed immediately after the Gospels, an arrangement which probably had its origin in the fact that for many early Christians these two groups constituted their New Testament. Among versions the Memphitic and the Thebaic have this order.; and it was common to speak of them as "the Gospel" and "the Apostle," much in the same way as the Jews spoke of "the Law" and "the Prophets." But when a third collection of Christian documents became widely known another collective term was required by which to distinguish it from the collections already familiar, and the feature in these seven Epistles which seems to have struck the recipients of them most is the absence of an address to any local Church. Hence they received the name of Catholic, or General, or Universal Epistles. The name was all the more natural because of the number seven, which emphasized the contrast between these and the Pauline Epistles. St. Paul had written to seven particular Churches—Thessalonica, Corinth, Rome, Galatia, Philippi, Colossæ, and Ephesus; and here were seven Epistles without any address to a particular Church; therefore they might fitly be called "General Epistles." Clement of Alexandria uses this term of the letter addressed to the Gentile Christians "in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia" (Acts xv. 23) by the Apostles, in the so-called Council of Jerusalem (Strom. IV. xv.); and Origen uses it of the Epistle of Barnabas (Con. Celsum I. lxiii.), which is addressed simply to "sons and daughters," i.e. to Christians generally.

That this meaning was well understood, even after 6 the misleading title "Canonical Epistles" had become usual in the West, is shown by the interesting Prologue to these Epistles written by the Venerable Bede, c. A.D. 712.55   It is omitted by Giles and other editors, but is given by Cave, in his Historia Literaria (I., p. 475), who says that it comes from an ancient MS. in the Library of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. This prologue is headed, "Here begins the Prologue to the seven Canonical Epistles," and it opens thus: "James, Peter, John, and Jude published seven Epistles, to which ecclesiastical custom gives the name of Catholic, i.e. universal."

The name is not strictly accurate, excepting in the cases of 1 John, 2 Peter, and Jude. It is admissible in a qualified sense of 1 Peter and James; but it is altogether inappropriate to 2 and 3 John, which are addressed, not to the Church at large, nor to a group of local Churches, but to individuals. But inasmuch as the common title of these letters was not the Epistles "to the Elect Lady" and "to Gaius," as in the case of the letters to Philemon, Titus, and Timothy, but simply the Second and Third of John, they were regarded as without address, and classed with the Catholic Epistles. And of course it was natural to put them into the same group with the First Epistle of St. John, although the name of the group did not suit them. At what date this arrangement was made is not certain; but there is reason for believing that these seven Epistles were already regarded as one collection in the third century, when Pamphilus, the friend of Eusebius, was making his famous library at Cæsarea. Euthalius (c. A.D. 450) published an edition of them, in making which he had collated "the accurate copies" in this library; and it is probable that he found the grouping already existing in those copies, and did not make it for himself. 7 Moreover, it is probable that the copies at Cæsarea were made by Pamphilus himself; for the summary of the contents of the Acts published under the name of Euthalius is a mere copy of the summary given by Pamphilus, and it became the usual practice to place the Catholic Epistles immediately after the Acts. If, then, Euthalius got the summary of the Acts from Pamphilus, he probably got the arrangement from him also, viz. the putting of these seven Epistles into one group, and placing them next to the Acts.66   Westcott On the Canon, pp. 362, 417, 3rd Ed.

The order which makes the Catholic Epistles follow immediately after the Acts is very ancient, and it is a matter for regret that the influence of Jerome, acting through the Vulgate, has universally disturbed it in all Western Churches. "The connexion between these two portions (the Acts and the Catholic Epistles), commended by its intrinsic appropriateness, is preserved in a large proportion of Greek MSS. of all ages, and corresponds to marked affinities of textual history."77   Westcott and Hort, II., p. 321; Scrivener, Introduction to the Criticism of the N.T. pp. 70, 74, 3rd Ed. It is the order followed by Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, John of Damascus, the Council of Laodicea, and also by Cassian. It has been restored by Tischendorf, Tregelles, and Westcott and Hort; but it is not to be expected that even their powerful authority will avail to re-establish the ancient arrangement.

The order of the books in the group of the Catholic Epistles is not quite constant; but almost always James stands first. In a very few authorities Peter stands first, an arrangement naturally preferred in the West, but not adopted even there, because the authority of the original order was too strong. A scholiast on the 8 Epistle of James states that this Epistle has been placed before 1 Peter, "because it is more catholic than that of Peter," by which he seems to mean that whereas 1 Peter is addressed "to the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion" in certain specified districts, the Epistle of James is addressed "to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion," without any limitation. The Venerable Bede, in the Prologue to the Catholic Epistles quoted above (p. 6), states that James is placed first, because he undertook to rule the Church of Jerusalem, which was the fount and source of that evangelic preaching which has spread throughout the world; or else because he sent his Epistle to the twelve tribes of Israel, who were the first to believe. And Bede calls attention to the fact that St. Paul himself adopts this order when he speaks of "James, and Cephas, and John, they who were reputed to be pillars" (Gal. ii. 9). It is possible, however, that the order James, Peter, John was meant to represent a belief as to the chronological precedence of James to Peter, and Peter to John; Jude being placed last because of its comparative insignificance, and because it was not at first universally admitted. The Syriac Version, which admits only James, 1 Peter, and 1 John, has the three in this order; and if the arrangement had its origin in reverence for the first Bishop of Jerusalem, it is strange that most of the Syriac copies should have a heading to the effect that these three Epistles of James, Peter, and John are by the three who witnessed the Transfiguration. Those who made and those who accepted this comment certainly had no idea of reverencing the first Bishop of Jerusalem, for it implies that the Epistle of James is by the son of Zebedee and brother of John, who was put to death by Herod. But it is probable 9 that this heading is a mere blundering conjecture. If persons who believed the Epistle to be written by James the brother of John had fixed the order, they would have fixed it thus—Peter, James, John, as in Matt. xvii. 1; Mark v. 37; ix. 2; xiii. 3; xiv. 33; comp. Matt. xxvi. 37; or Peter, John, James, as in Luke viii. 51; ix. 28; Acts i. 13. But the former arrangement would be more reasonable than the latter, seeing that John wrote so long after the other two. The traditional order harmonizes with two facts which were worth marking—(1) that two of the three were Apostles, and must therefore be placed together; (2) that John wrote last, and must therefore be placed last; but whether or no the wish to mark these facts determined the order, we have not sufficient knowledge to enable us to decide.

How enormous would have been the loss had the Catholic Epistles been excluded from the canon of the New Testament it is not difficult to see. Whole phases of Christian thought would have been missing. The Acts and the Epistles of St. Paul would have told us of their existence, but would not have shown to us what they were. We should have known that there were serious differences of opinion even among the Apostles themselves, but we should have had a very imperfect knowledge as to their nature and reconciliation. We might have guessed that those who had been with Jesus of Nazareth throughout His ministry would not preach Christ in the same way as St. Paul, who had never seen Him until after the Ascension, but we should not have been sure of this; still less could we have seen in what the difference would have consisted; and we should have known very little indeed of the distinctive marks of the three great teachers who 10 "were reputed to be pillars" of the Church. Above all, we should have known sadly little of the Mother Church of Jerusalem, and of the teaching of those many early Christians who, while heartily embracing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, believed that they were bound to hold fast not only to the morality, but to the discipline of Moses. Thus in many particulars we should have been left to conjecture as to how the continuity in the Divine Revelation was maintained; how the Gospel not merely superseded, but fulfilled, and glorified, and grew out of the Law.

All this has to a large extent been made plain to us by the providence of God in giving to us and preserving for us in the Church the seven Catholic Epistles. We see St. James and St. Jude presenting to us that Judaic form of Christianity which was really the complement, although when exaggerated it became the opposite, of the teaching of St. Paul. We see St. Peter mediating between the two, and preparing the way for a better comprehension of both. And then St. John lifts us up into a higher and clearer atmosphere, in which the controversy between Jew and Gentile has faded away into the dim distance, and the only opposition which remains worthy of a Christian's consideration is that between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate, God and the world, Christ and Antichrist, life and death.

« Prev Chapter I. The Catholic Epistles. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection