Interview with Jōrg Frey about the Theology of Jude and 2 Peter

Interview with Jōrg Frey about the Theology of Jude and 2 Peter November 15, 2018

Professor Jōrg Frey is Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Zurich and is the author The Letter of Jude and the Second Letter of Peter: A Theological Commentary (trans Kathleen Ess; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018).

Jude and 2 Peter are much neglected letters, and you’ve written a distinctly theological commentary on them, so what would you say is the theological mileage or theological benefits from reading Jude and 2 Peter?

Well, my commentary is a full philological, historical, and theological commentary. But it is true, Jude and 2 Peter have always been in the shadow of the more important NT writings, such as the Gospels, the Pauline epistles or also 1 Peter. Their contribution to Christian doctrine has only been marginal, and there has been a lot of suspicion about them since antiquity. So my interest is indeed to show their qualities, in language, intellectual discourse, and spiritual intention – while not neglecting the theological and hermeneutical problems they pose.

But it is important to look at each writing separately. Although they are connected by literary dependence, as 2 Peter utilizes Jude, they address different situations and problems, and also the respective opponents are quite different. The theological benefit from reading these texts is, that we cannot avoid to see the ambivalenses of those texts (which is, in some way, a very realistic reading): We must try to reconstruct the in the position of the respective opponents and how the two authors react (quite differently) to the challenges of their time.

So let’s first have a look at Jude. It a very short text, only slightly longer than 2 and 3 John. For long, it was considered a shortening of 2 Peter (thus, e.g., by  Martin Luther), thus being superfluous in the canon. Its alleged author is an otherwise almost unknown figure. Traditionally it was attributed to the “apostle” Judas son of Alphaeus, and only in modernity (since J. G. Herder), it is considered that the Jude meant here is the brother of James, thus a brother of Jesus. So, Jude is, in fact, a “Second James”. But most readers could not find any particularly important theological message in Jude. It was considered to be an expression of “early catholicism”, i.e. a decline from the original (Pauline) faith. Many readers were, instead, unhappy with a letter that is almost totally a fierce polemics against some “heretics“ the author considers damned to hell. This makes it difficult to be considered by some as an expression of a really Christian spirit.

In my commentary, I have tried to demonstrate that Jude is not just negatively focused on the polemics but also displays a pastoral interest in the various categories of community members.  Here, in v. 22-23, we find aspects of spiritual concern and of the spiritual practice in the community. So there is not only the early catholic idea of “faith according to the tradition” (cf. Jude 3), but there is also a lively interest in the addressees to be saved from what the author thinks is dangerous, and Jude 20-21 is a brief instruction for spiritual life.

There are many more interesting aspects in Jude. The way it utilizes Jewish haggadic traditions about the Watchers, Sodom and Gomorrah, Balaam, or Cain, and, in particular, the unique usage of 1 Enoch as Scripture, and also of other Jewish angel stories (Jude 9)

But there are also problems: The author is fond of angels and angel stories. And if people seem to disrespect the angels and the world order traditionally connected with them, he expects the worst things. Such people who have no respect at all, will also commit every evil deed – and there we have many standard polemical insults which are probably much exaggerated if there is any truth in them. And of course, he can take from Enoch (and only from there) the view that those angelic beings will be kept in a dark prison (as already the watcher angels are kept) for final destruction at the last judgment. A very dark, threatening scenario, considered that his opponents possibly held a view as expressed in Rom 8:38-9 that no kind of principalities, powers, angels or rulers can separate us anymore from the love of God in Christ, or Col 2:8 and 2:18 that angels and cosmic powers are not to be worshipped or particularly considered, since the power of the kingdom is with Christ. If this is the dispute – within the biblical canon – we have to decide, theologically, whether Jude’s high regard for the angels, and his polemic against all who do not follow him, is a problematic view.

The problems are even more substantial if we see what the author of Jude does. He is a divider. He wants the addressees to separate themselves from the ‘others’ who are apparently part of the community and their meals. But the reason for dividing is probably over a very special teaching. However, such processes often happen in faith communities even today. So if we reconstruct the struggle between Jude and his opponents we can also learn how not to act in a faith community.

Where did the letter from Jude originate? Who were the false teachers that the letter of Jude denounces, are they a specific group, or a generalized picture of impiety and wickedness?

In my view, the letter originates from opposition to the Pauline and Deuteropauline tradition, especially in response to criticism of the veneration of angels, as we have it in Colossians. Possibly the opponents (or the community members the author wants to denigrate as opponents) held views in the Pauline and post-Pauline tradition that critiqued angel veneration. For the opponents, “faith” (that has already become traditional), “freedom,” and “spirit” may be important words for them. But they are now considered disrespectful, denying the divinely installed world order – and thus, in the eyes of the author, they do the same blasphemy as the Watchers did (Gen 6:1-4; 1 Enoch 6-9), or the Sodomites … – and they will share their fate in judgment.

To see this, however, a critical reading is necessary that tries to distinguish between standard polemics and the issues actually at stake. As we can see from comparisons with other polemical letters, many charges of sexual impurity, boasting, deceitfulness etc. are directed against every group of heretics, by NT authors, church fathers, but also in philosophy against Epicureans, or other deviant groups. So it is doubtful whether all these charges are true or whether they are, as is often the case, derived from the imagination of the accuser who images what immoral people might do. The clearest issue – maybe the only clear one for my mind – is the charge of disrespecting angelic beings (Jude 8-9). Here is the most vibrant “dogmatic” issue which causes the author to polemicize against the group of “some” who seem to be hitherto members of the community of Jesus followers participating in the community meal and who might have considered themselves as true Christians.

To locate and date the letter is not easy. I suppose from the theological topics that it comes from Asia Minor where the Pauline tradition (and Colossians) is located, maybe somewhere at the end of the 1st or the beginning of the 2nd century.

There is no hint that the letter was written by a Semitic native speaker. It is written in very elaborate Greek. Thus, the author construction is pseudonymous. There is also no hint at all that the addressees knew the real Jude, brother of James and Jesus or were somewhat linked to his mission. We know about this person only from the notes about Jesus’s siblings in the Synoptics, and then, from an episode from Hegesippus, reported in Eusebius’s church history about Jude’s grandsons somewhere in Galilee, who were accused of ‘Messianic’ claims and reportedly brought to emperor Domitian who dismissed them in contempt. But if, at the end of the 1st century, at that time, his grandsons are in view, their grandfather must be already a figure of the past. So this Jude is virtually an unknown figure, and the authorial fiction is not elaborated beyond verse 1.

Actually, the authority in Jude 1 is created by the relation to James. So, Jude is, in fact, a Second James – and this fits into a theological position which is critical of or opposed to the Pauline tradition.

Does Jude regard 1 Enoch as Scripture?

Certainly, he does, regardless of which textual form was available to him. Jude 1:14-5 regards Enoch as a prophet and quotes 1 Enoch 1:9, notably the only Scriptural quotation in Jude.

But this is only strange for us. In the first two or three centuries, Enoch was an authority for many Jesus followers, as there is talk about the ‘Son of Man’ (in the Parables), and a lot of apocalyptic stuff. And from the Qumran library, we have so many Enochic manuscripts that it is clear, Enoch had a great authority in some (not all) Jewish groups.

At the end of the 2nd century, Tertullian still keeps Enoch in high respect. Only since Christians learned that the Jews (i.e. the Rabbinic restitution of Judaism after 70 CE) in their focus on the Hebrew tradition no more accepted Enoch as an authority, Christians also rejected it, because now it was useless for debates with Jews. And of course it did not fit the Christological views developed in the 3rd and 4th century, so Enoch was forgotten in Byzantine Christianity and only transmitted in Ethiopia, where it is part of the Bible still today. So, Jude provides us a glimpse into the difficult history of the Biblical canon.

What does Jude mean by “salvation”?

Salvation, for Jude, is to be considered to be found in true faith and blameless at the day of judgment. This is also a point where Jude (maybe in the line of James) differs from Paul. Of course, the addressees are chosen by God and Christ, but their faith is quasi status on probation, and final salvation will only be granted if the faith and conduct will be kept through the temptations until the end. You can hope to be saved in the end, but you can never be sure. Here, Jude is closer to Matthew 25 than to Paul (cf. Rom 5:1 or Rom 8:38-9) and John (cf. John 5:24-5; 10:28 etc.). And again it is interesting that there are different teachings within the canon, and finally I – as a theologian and when preaching – have to come to a sound verdict which one is stronger, or with which view I can live and die. And here, I am with Paul and John, not with Jude!

2 Peter is a letter widely regarded as pseudepigraphical, but the dating of the letter remains a puzzle. Richard Bauckham argued that the Apocalypse of Peter was dependent upon 2 Peter, enabling him to date 2 Peter in the 80s. However, Wolfgang Grünstäudl has argued that the relationship is the reverse, 2 Peter is dependent upon the Apocalypse of Peter! What makes you date 2 Peter to the second century?

Of course, this is a very important issue. First of all, I should again stress that we have to consider each letter separately. And even if 2 Peter used Jude, it is in a different situation. Probably the audience of 2 Peter was not supposed to know Jude, so the usage did not evoke suspicion.

But now, the chronology. I do not generally prefer late dates for NT writings. I keep, e.g., Luke-Acts in the period between 80 and 90. But on the other hand, the general tendency of conservatives to date writings as early as possible is also unrealistic and often guided by some wishful thinking. So if 2 Peter adopts Jude (already in a different situation), if 2 Peter also refers to 1 Peter as an already accepted writing (2 Pet 3:1), if it furthermore presupposes a collection of Pauline epistles which the author consideres somewhat complete (2 Pet 3:15-6: “in all his letters”), we are already well in the second century. Bauckham’s attempt to locate 2 Peter still around 80 CE was the last attempt of a conservative to date it as early as possible, all others have only repeated his arguments but added no further plausibility, but his presupposition of a Petrine school in Rome (including 1-2 Clement) is a bold construction that has been questioned and, in my view falsified, so there is no further link to the Roman context or a living memory in Rome.

The problem is, thus, the location, and Grünstäudl’s groundbreaking thesis is, primarily, about the location of 2 Peter which is, finally, located not in Rome, nor in Asia Minor, but in Alexandria. This is in accord with new scholarship on the (very strange) Apocalypse of Peter which seems to originate also in Egypt or Alexandria. There is mention of an “Acherusian Lake”,  strange angel names. and, very important, the motif of a total conflagration of the world in fire which is alien to Jewish tradition (as fire in judgment punishes the wicked but never burns the whole universe), a Stoic tradition which in Judaism is only adopted in the Sibylline Oracles. Apart from the Apoc. Pet., we know of another Petrine writing from Egypt, the “Kerygma of Peter” (with a very Gentile Christian teaching of Peter) which is used as a source by Clement of Alexandria. So if there was a “Petrine Discourse”, or the negotiation about what the figure of Peter stands for, in Alexandria (rather than in Rome), how could 2 Peter fit in there?

Now there is indeed the question what is first, the (canonical) 2 Peter or the (non-canonical) Apoc. Pet.? Of course, we are used to the idea that canonical writings are prior to non-canonical writings. But again, things are complicated. The Apoc. Pet. was very popular in the second century, and even Canon Muratori or Muratorian fragment (which I would still date at the end of the second century) mentions it next to the Apocalypse of John – so there were 2 apocalypses considered (at least by some authors) to be authoritative. We can be happy that the Apoc. Pet. was finally not adopted, as it is a cruel text with its descriptions of punishments etc., but that was what people liked to read (from the Odyssey until Dante’s “inferno”, and we could continue this until today).

The argument about priority is complicated, also due to the fact that the Apoc. Pet. is fully available only in the Ethiopic text. The Greek fragment from a codex of the 6th century is not very reliable, and only a few papyrus fragments from Vienna and elsewhere can help clarify the text as a few points.

There are some small but telling parallels in the description of the Transfiguration  (2 Pet 1:16-18) where 2 Peter differs from Matthew just in those aspects where there are parallels in the Apoc. Pet. Thus, 2 Peter might be influenced from another (indeed very different) description of the transfiguration.  There is also a strong analogy in the adoption of the motif of the conflagration (Apoc. Pet. 4-5; cf. 2 Pet 3:7, 10, 12). The observation that the argument in 2 Pet 3 (defending the hope for the Parousia) is so un-christological has stunned interpreters. Bauckham, therefore, speculated about unknown Jewish traditions from the lost book of Eldad and Modad, but this is completely speculative. But if we consider the pattern in the Apoc. Pet., we can see that (on the Day of God), there is first a burning of the whole world, and then (in ch. 6.) Christ appears to enact the judgment. So the burning, the conflagration is yet unrelated to Christ. This could explain the text in 2 Pet 3 (and also the very difficult textual problem in 3:10 where the new Nestle-Aland edition and ECM have a totally unnecessary conjecture.

But the most telling point is, probably, the mention of Peter’s death or martyrdom. In Apoc. Pet. 14:4 (text according to the Vienna fragment), Peter is warned of his martyrdom in Rome, and from this event (under Nero), the text seems to develop some hope for the beginning of eschatological events: “Therefore, Peter, I have revealed and presented everything to you. And go into the city that rules over the west and drink the cup that I have promised you, in the hand of the so in Hades, so that his destruction might have a beginning …” With Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, the destruction of Nero or the evil power should begin! This is a very strange ‘dated’ eschatological announcement of time (which must become questionable, of course, if time passes and nothing happens).

I think this can explain the complaint about the “scoffers” in 2 Pet 3:4 that “the fathers have died” and the world remains at it is, so the promise of the Parousia, of eschatological fulfilment is empty. Could these scoffers possibly react to a somewhat naïve eschatological expectation, spread under the name of Peter in the Apoc. Pet.?  But now, if Peter was already dead since decades, such a view (and with it the whole eschatological expectation) appeared questionable. In my view, this would be a plausible scenario for an author who could now write Peter’s “authentic” testament, the “real story” what Jesus had foretold him about his death (2 Pet 1:12-15) but also reject the critical scepticism and defend the hope for the parousia and the new world. There he could adopt aspects from the Apoc. Pet. (e.g. the conflagration) but correct the link with the date of Peter’s martyrdom, and draw a perspective in which a day can be thousand years (2 Pet 3:8-10). So, there is no “delay” of the Parousia, but it comes when it comes according to the divine timetable.

I think such a reconstruction can explain the rationale of the writing of 2 Peter, the debate on eschatology in 2 Pet 3 and the use of the figure of Peter for authenticating quite different teachings in the second century.

If 2 Peter is second century, then who are the opponents denounced in the letter?

The opponents (called “scoffers”) were probably sceptics with regard to eschatology. But as 2 Peter seems to draw on some philosophical ideas about “the eternity of the world”, arguing for the possibility of a final destruction, they seem to be rather educated people. Maybe we can conclude from the interesting passage mentioning “our dear brother Paul” that they also read Pauline epistles and referred to them. But now, “Peter” (i.e. the author of 2 Peter) says: “Regardless what you read from the Pauline epistles, I know that Paul and I are in consensus, so I know what the real meaning of Paul’s letters is.” This quite bold statement in some way prefigures in some manner what Peter later was used for: the authoritative voice of Catholicism: “Rome has spoken and the case is finished.” Thus, we get again insights into a vivid discussion on the meaning of Paul’s letters and (as in Jude) on the issue of salvation and judgment, freedom and ethics, or even “faith and works”. 2 Peter is, in my view, the last writing in the chain James – Jude – 2 Peter, in critical distance against Pauline tradition and, thus, authorized by another figure whose authority was unquestionable: Peter.

Should 2 Peter be considered as part of the Testament genre?

The testament genre is, of course a very wide genre, that consists of quite different texts – from the Jewish Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (or even Deuteronomy as last words of Moses) through the Johannine Farewell Discourses until 2 Timothy and also 2 Peter. But 2 Pet 1:12-15 clearly shows the image of Peter now phrasing his last and definitive teaching for the communities after his death. So, the testamentary character is clear.

What does 2 Pet 3.10-12 contribute to ecological ethics?

Interesting question. Should we say, if the whole world will burn in the fire of the conflagration, we should not care for our world or environment? That would certainly be a wrong conclusion from 2 Pet 3 (or also Rev 21:1), and in Romans 8 we read perhaps more moving ideas about the suffering of the creature and the created world. Perhaps 2 Peter shows how a Christian author very competently enters philosophical debates about cosmology and the possibility of change and destruction. He does not simply adopt the philosophical theories (i.e. the Stoic view of an infinite sequence of destructions and recreations) but corrects them from his biblical perspective: There are only three worlds, the antedeluvial world, the present world, and the new world we hope for in which justice will prevail.

Maybe this is the most advanced discourse between biblical tradition and philosophical learning in the NT. I think, this should inspire us not to remain in Christian closed circles but openly enter debates, while preserving the hope that is inspired from faith in Christ.

Do you see any resonance between Jude/2 Peter and the Pauline and Johannine corpora?

With the Johannine corpus, there are very few overlaps. If 2 Peter knew John, he did not use it, nor draw on its topics. Given the importance of the Spirit in John (and Paul), it is striking that 2 Peter never mentions the Spirit as a present reality in the communities. Its function is limited, instead, to inspiring the prophetic writings. Maybe, this is already a critical reaction to other groups in early Christianity.

As already stated above, there is a clear resonance of Pauline tradition which is referred to explicitly in 2 Peter but also implicitly in Jude. For both authors, Paul as an advocate of “freedom” seems to be provokingly liberal (or, possibly, he is misunderstood and taken as a legitimation for some kind of libertinism). Of course, the situation is different: Where Paul deals with the issues of the Jewish Law, these issues are now far away. So the discussion on freedom and Christian ethics has changed. For 2 Peter (1:5-11), faith has to create virtues, a “Christian” lifestyle, in order to finally provide salvation.  Is this “legalism”? A backdrop into a position “faith not without works” (cf. James 2)?  Is such a view legitimate, or even necessary, in a different situation? Or is it “early catholicism”, a betrayal of Paul? These discussions have to be continued in view of the whole of the NT canon, with its varieties, and there we have to look for the place and legacy of writings of the third generation, but also for preserving the provocative and liberating force of Pauline theology.

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