By Adolf Jülicher
THE CATHOLIC EPISTLES
§14. A general Survey of the Catholic Epistles
The name ʽCatholic Epistles,ʼ under which we include to-day the seven shorter New Testament Epistles which are not ascribed to Paul, was thoroughly familiar to Eusebius,1 about 395. Origen2 also used it frequently, although only in the singular of individual Epistles, such as 1 John, Jude and 1. Peter. Dionysius of Alexandria3 applies the word ʽCatholicʼ to the 1st Epistle of John, apparently in contradistinction to the 2nd and 3rd. But perhaps the oldest record of it that we possess is to be found in the writings of the Antimontanist Apollonius,4 who attributes to the heretic Themison the composition of a Catholic Epistle in imitation of that of ʽthe apostleʼ (John?). In any case, this title clung to it long afterwards—e.g. in the writings of Socrates and Theodoretus in the fifth century—and especially in the form Ἰωάννου ἡ καθολική. Now, since Eusebius declared that most of the Catholic Epistles were disputed, he cannot have understood the name to mean as much as ʽrecognised by the whole Churchʼ; nor can Origen, for he called the Epistle of Barnabas ʽCatholicʼ too; and least of all Apollonius. ʽCatholicʼ in this connection has a mere outward significance; the epithet was probably intended in the first instance to denote 1. John unequivocally as encyclical, addressed to the world at large, and, as it were, official, as distinct from such private letters as 2. and 3. John and the Pauline Epistles, which were addressed to single persons or communities. In this sense Jude and 2. Peter were Catholic, and possibly James also, if the ʽtwelve tribesʼ5 were intended to signify the new people of God; while 1. Peter was at any rate addressed to half the Christian world. The whole collection of non-Pauline Epistles would then in a short time have been so designated, a parte potiori, and the name restricted to these seven. The Epistle of Barnabas is actually distinguished by Eusebius6¯ from the Catholic Epistles, and the custom soon arose of making quotations from the latter under this title, as well as from ʽthe Apostle,ʼ or fourteen Pauline Epistles. When the name became known in the West, however, it was misinterpreted, for the word ʽCatholicʼ represented a dogmatic idea to the Latins, and not one of form, and it was replaced by the presumedly synonymous term ʽCanonical,ʼ i.e. genuine, part (according to the doctrine of the Church) of the divine Scriptures: in which case there could no longer be any idea of contradistinction to the Pauline Epistles. Not till the Middle Ages did the older name ʽCatholic Epistlesʼ become general in the West as well, and even then it was scarcely better understood than it had been in former times.
2. The Church showed a proper instinct in gathering this set of letters together. Augustine himself observed7 that whereas Paul in his Epistles carried his support of the thesis that man was justified by faith, without the works of the law, so far that there was some danger of misunderstanding him, the Epistles of the other Apostles, Peter, John, James and Jude, were written with the very intention of enforcing the doctrine that faith without works was useless. This, however, contains some exaggeration, and the Pastoral Epistles must be excepted in such a judgment of Paul. But it is true that such a difference does exist between the respective levels and the dominant ideas of the two collections; Paul occupies himself throughout in laying the foundations, the authors of the Catholic Epistles in raising the superstructure; he is concerned with the genuineness of the root, they with that of the fruit; he feels himself a minister of the Gospel, they speak in the name of the Church—already becoming the Catholic Church.
In spite of the fact that according to the superscriptions these Epistles are divided among four authors—one being assigned to James and one to Jude, two to Peter, and three to John—all of them, that is, to men of the earliest Apostolic circles—there yet exist numerous points of relationship between them. Above all they have this peculiarity in common, that their contents, taken as a whole, even though the addresses may, as in 2. and 38. John, seem to deny it, concern the Church in general; they lack the personal stamp, and necessities universally felt are met by them with counsel universal in tone. Ephesians, Hebrews and the Pastoral Epistles no doubt form the transition to this class of epistle, but the individuality of the letter-writer and the peculiarities of the epistle here retire still further into the background: the epistle is merely the literary form in which the unknown writer holds intercourse with an unknown public, and one might almost say that this form was then the fashion of the moment, were it not that its approved value, realised through the beneficent influence of the Pauline heritage, was evidently the cause of its retention. The authors of the Catholic Epistles—and we need not suppose that they devoted very much reflection to it—simply wrote epistles because they already possessed the letters of ʽthe Apostle,ʼ and this already implies that these epistles can only have sprung from post-Pauline times, and therefore not from any of the Primitive Apostles.
They are all of trifling bulk—Jude and 2. and 3. John quite short, about the same length as Philemon; James, 1. Peter and 1. John, which are all of about equal length, a little longer than Colossians, and 2. Peter not much longer than 2. Thessalonians. Not one of these writers engages in far-reaching trains of thought or searching investigations; the Epistles contain little theology, but all the more practical advice for the life of the Christian and of the Church, together with much edifying exhortation in the epistolary form, the ideas loosely strung together. The modest proportion here maintained between the value and the extent of the subject matter, must have decidedly assisted their circulation and recognition; epistles like the 1st and 2nd of Clement and the Epistle of Barnabas would on account of their length have had much greater difficulty in establishing themselves in all communities, even though they had been ticketed with the names of Apostolic authors. Moreover, the history of the reception of the Catholic Epistles! at once leads us to consider that they represent the product of a later time than that of the ten Pauline Epistles; only 1. John and 1. Peter were considered Canonical writings as early as the second century, while 2. John, Jude and 3. John followed slowly from the year 200 onwards, and James and 2. Peter hardly appeared at all before the third century.
1) Died in 340.
2) Died 254.
3) About 200 A.D. See Husebius, Historia Eecles. VII. 25, vii. and x.
4) About 197 A.D. See Eusebius, V. 18.
5) James i. 1.
6) Historia Eccles. VI. 14, i.
7) De Fide et Operibus, xiv. 21
8) See Part II.