Much has been written about the Gospels, and rightfully so. It is the Gospels that provide the most significant insight into the life and teachings of Christ. However, there is much more to the New Testament.
In this paper, I shall like to explore what is known as the Catholic epistles (an epistle is a letter). The epistles are James, Peter, John, and Jude. For each of the epistles, I will examine who the author was, the intended audience, and their theological significance.
EPISTLE OF JAMES
There is some question as to the authorship of the epistle of James, as there were two members of the twelve apostles named James. However, tradition ascribes the author to Jesus’ half-brother, James the Just.
James was the leader of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem and emerged as the authorized spokesman for the Jewish Christian population in the early Church (Acts 12:17). Joseph was believed to be martyred circa A.D. 62 (see Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. 2013).
The immediate audience for James’ epistle is “the twelve tribes in the dispersion.” The “twelve tribes” refers to Israel. At the same time, the “dispersion” appears to refer to the non-Palestinian Jews who had settled throughout the Greco-Roman world (see John 7:35). The broader audience of the epistle was likely the various Churches that were spreading across the region.
The predominant purpose of James’ epistle is ethical conduct. James seeks to emphasize sound teaching and responsible moral behavior. For James, ethical norms are derived not primarily from Christology but from a concept of salvation involving conversion, baptism, sin forgiveness, and the expectation of judgment (James 4:12).
THE EPISTLES OF PETER
The two letters of Peter (1 Peter and 2 Peter) are authored by Simon Peter. For brevity, I will seek to summarize both books in this space.
Peter’s first epistle commences with an address to the Christian communities in Asia Minor. It appears that these churches were composed of gentile converts. Peter seeks to encourage these Christians to remain faithful to their standards of belief and conduct despite threats of persecution. To bolster his audience’s hope, Peter appeals to their baptism and the resurrection of Christ. The suffering and death of Christ serve as both sources of salvation and examples to be followed (1 Peter 1:19; 2:21–25; 3:18).
The second epistle of Peter is an almost equal mix of teachings and warnings. Peter seeks to strengthen the faith of his audience (2 Peter 1:1), their hope for the future and to instill the Christian virtues (2 Peter 1:5–6).
Peter warns against false teachers, including those who claim there will be no second coming of Jesus, a doctrine that Peter strenuously argues for (2 Peter 3:1–10).
Ultimately, the second epistle of Peter addresses two issues: the need to avoid being led into error and the necessity of growing in knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ. Peter does this by appealing to the Divine authenticity of Christ’s teaching (2 Peter 1:3–4) and how Christians conduct themselves (2 Peter 1:5–15).
THE EPISTLES OF JOHN
Tradition has identified the author of John’s epistles (1, 2, and 3 John) to Saint John. John was one of Christ’s twelve disciples and a prominent leader in the early Christian Church. Along with James and Peter, John was one of Jesus’ closest confidants and appeared in more biblical accounts than the other disciples.
The purpose of the first epistle is to argue against various forms of Gnosticism and Docetism. Additionally, John seeks to strengthen the spiritual and social awareness of the Christian community (1 John 3:17).
John refutes the theological errors by appealing to the reality and continuity of the apostolic witness to Jesus. The author affirms that authentic Christian love, ethics, and faith occur only within the historical revelation and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. John recognizes that Christian doctrine presents intangible mysteries of faith about Christ, and he insists that the concrete Christian life brings to light the deeper realities of the gospel.
John uniquely addresses his second letter to “The elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth.” This address is likely a personification of the Church (elect lady) and Christians (her children).
Where 1 John had a decidedly theological focus, 2 John seeks to address issues within the Church. John encourages Christians to adhere to the commandment of mutual love and to the historical truth about Jesus. The Second Letter preserves the Johannine concerns of doctrinal purity and active love in the form of pastoral advice to a threatened community.
John’s third letter is addressed to a person named Gaius. This epistle gives us a glimpse into some of the early Church’s problems. The purpose of the letter appears to be to obtain hospitality and material support for missionaries. It becomes evident that the early Church dealt with various views on matters of faith, doctrine, and authority.
THE EPISTLE OF JUDE
The authorship of the epistle of Jude is ambiguous. Jude refers to himself as a “brother of James.” As such, the epistle is believed to be a relative of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3).
The letter is addressed to “those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ.” Most likely, this is a general address to all Christians.
Jude warns against false teachers and forms of Gnosticism. The letter is noteworthy for its closing, “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.”
In this paper, I have endeavored to provide a summary of the Catholic epistles. While perhaps not as well known as the Gospels, these books – James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, and Jude – provide insight into the development and difficulties of the early Church.