Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Epistle of Jude

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INTRODUCTION

The Epistle of Jude is the last letter in the Christian New Testament, wedged between 3 John and Revelation. Only 25 verses in length, it is written not as a letter to a specific person, but rather to Christians in general. Clearly the author’s intent was that his text would be read and copied and passed from congregation to congregation. It may well be that the author himself made numerous copies from the start, sending them to all the churches he knew.

THE WRITER’S IDENTITY

The writer identifies himself as “Judas” – Ioudas in Greek, which is from the Hebrew name Yehuwdah (Judah). That our modern Bibles call him “Jude” is simply a tradition borne out of an effort to differentiate the writer of this letter from Judas Iscariot, the man who is the betrayer of Jesus in the four Gospels. In fact, the writer of the letter of Jude, and the betrayer Judas Iscariot, had identical names.

In addition to identifying himself as Judas, he also calls himself a servant of Jesus and a brother of James. It seems a reasonably certain fact that Jesus had a brother named James, who went on to become a prominent figure in the early Christian church, specifically as head of the Church at Jerusalem – home base for Christianity, as it were. The Epistle of James in the New Testament is traditionally attributed to him. Any religious reference by a 1st century Christian to “James” could well be referring to James the brother of Jesus. Therefore, in noting that his brother is James, the writer of Jude may also be claiming kinship to Jesus.

Both Mark and Matthew refer to Jesus’ brothers, and both include a James and a Judas. This may seem to support the idea that the writer of Jude was, in fact, Jesus’ brother. However, Church tradition has generally attributed this text to a different person – the disciple known as St. Jude (hence the name of the letter). St. Jude the disciple is referred to as “Judas, brother of James” in the Gospel of Luke. However, only Luke and John mention this disciple. The list of 12 in Mark and Matthew contains no “Judas, brother of James” as a disciple of Jesus. Instead, Judas is replaced in these two Gospels with a disciple known as Lebbaeus Thaddaeus. Traditionally, the Church has simply argued that Judas, brother of James, and Lebbaeus Thaddaeus were one and the same. Other than contradicting lists between Luke and the other Gospels, however, there is no evidence to support this assertion. Furthermore, the English translation “Judas, brother of James,” is probably inaccurate, as the original Greek grammatical context actually calls this Judas the son of James. Since the writer of Jude definitely calls himself a brother, and not a son, of James, it would appear that St. Jude and the writer of the Epistle of Jude cannot be the same person.

Most scholars in the modern world suggest that if the writer of Jude was attempting to call himself Judas the brother of James and Jesus, or if he was claiming to be St. Jude the disciple, then he was probably writing pseudonymously – that is, claiming to be someone else for the purpose of sounding authoritative. This is known to have been extremely common especially in the first few centuries of Christian history. Even Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, warns about people writing forged letters in his name (although this warning, ironically enough, comes in a letter than many scholars believe was, in fact, a forgery). On the other hand, it is not entirely clear that the writer of Jude was claiming to be Judas the brother of James and Jesus or St. Jude the disciple. He doesn’t identify himself as one of the 12, after all, and he certainly doesn’t claim to be Jesus’ brother. It may be that he was just an anonymous Judas, who had a brother named James, and therefore referred to himself as such. This, however, would cast doubt on the authority of the text itself, and there can be no question that the early Church councils of the 4th century, who ultimately decided on which texts to include in the canon, included Jude out of the belief that it came from St. Jude the disciple, and was therefore authoritative.

Such is the tenuous nature of the origins and authority of the texts we call Scripture.

TEXTUAL STYLE

As for the letter itself, many scholars have noted the chiastic form of the text. “Chiastic” writing is a poetic form of writing wherein the wording of successive phrases is reversed: “He climbed up the hill, and up the hill climbed she.” In its more complex form, a succession of entire topics will be followed, and then reversed. Outlined, it may look something like this: A, B, C, D, C, B, A.

Scholars have argued that Jude is written chiastically, with five opening sections, a pinnacle, and five closing sections that reverse the five opening sections.

A1. Assurance for the Christian.
B1. The Believer and the Faith.
C1. Apostates Described.
D1. Apostasy in Old Testament history.
E1. Apostates in the Supernatural Realm.

F. An Ancient Trio of Apostates.

E2. Apostates in the Natural Realm.
D2. Apostasy in Old Testament prophecy.
C2. Apostates Described.
B2. The Believer and the Faith.
A2. Assurance for the Christian.

(Source: Coder, S. Maxwell, “Jude: The Acts of the Apostates.” Chicago, Moody Press, 1958, p. 6.)

WARNINGS AGAINST FALSE TEACHERS

After identifying himself, the writer of Jude opens his short letter with a warning to Christians about false teachers, a problem that seems to have become epidemic by the start of the 2nd century when the writer of Jude was probably composing his letter.

By this time, Christianity had spread far enough that many people in many different areas were teaching and practicing varying forms of Christianity, some of which were so different as to almost be separate religions. Debates raged among these congregations about the nature of Jesus, the nature of God, Jesus’ relationship to God, the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, the meaning of the resurrection, which apostolic tradition was primary, and so on. In short, all the things that many Christians are still debating and discussing today!

In verse 4 of his letter, Jude says: “For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.”

To a modern reader, this may seem to be a simple reference to an unbeliever – a non-Christian. However, taken in its historical context, it is a clear reference to a style of early Christian faith known as Docetism.

DOCETISM

Docetism was a fairly widespread and popular form of Christian practice in the first three centuries of the common era, and was ultimately outlawed as heretical by the Church councils of the 4th century. It involved the belief that Jesus had not really been human, but had instead simply been a spirit who only appeared human. This belief was based on two things: first, the idea that the “flesh,” that is, humanity, was fallen and sinful and beneath God; second, the idea that Jesus was God. If Jesus was God, and if humanity was beneath God, then God could not have become a human being, because the divine cannot become un-divine, the supernatural cannot become natural. Therefore, Jesus must have simply been the spirit of God appearing as a human. This naturally led to different ideas about Jesus’ death and resurrection as well. Jesus had only appeared to suffer and die on the cross. In fact, as the perfect spirit of God, he had not suffered and died at all, as that is only something that happens to human beings.

This may seem outrageous to any modern self-respecting Christian, but that is only because we now have 1600 years of post-Constantine Christian history behind us. As I noted above, throughout the first few hundred years of Christianity, Docetism was very common and widespread among Christian believers. Historians such as Charles Freeman have even argued that Docetic forms of Christianity constituted the primary form of Christian belief throughout most of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The enormous time and effort spent by New Testament writers and early Church fathers to counter Docetic beliefs testify to its popularity among average Christians.

But this very tendency among the New Testament writers to denounce Docetism is one that may offer an interesting clue into the mindset of the earliest Christians and how they viewed Jesus.

JESUS: HUMAN OR DIVINE?

I have already noted that Docetists believed that Jesus had been God. It was Jesus’ humanity that Docetists denied, not his divinity. So when New Testament writers such as Jude referred to Docetists as people who “deny Jesus Christ,” they were suggesting that a denial of Jesus’ humanity constituted a denial of Jesus. For these New Testament writers, Jesus’ humanity was an incontrovertible truth; to deny it was not only absurd, but even heretical.

Yet these same New Testament writers rarely, if ever, refer to Jesus and God being one and the same – something that was foundational to Docetic belief. Instead, these Christians believed that Jesus’ divinity was a phenomenon that was bestowed upon Jesus upon his resurrection from the dead. Paul says this explicitly in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans: Jesus Christ was “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (1:4). Thus, Jesus was a human man, “born of a woman” as Paul says in Galatians 4:4, who became divine – the Son of God – by his resurrection.

In this context, it is easy to understand why writers such as Jude viewed a denial of Jesus’ humanity, and a suggestion that Jesus and God were one and the same, to be heretical – to be equal to “deny[ing] Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” The Trinity doctrine of the 4th century, which attempted to connect Docetic beliefs about Jesus’ divinity with Orthodox beliefs about Jesus’ humanity, was still 200 years in the future for the writer of Jude, who would no doubt have viewed the Trinity doctrine with the same level of suspicion with which he viewed Docetism.

APOCRYPHAL IMAGES

The writer of Jude devotes about half his letter to berating the Docetists, calling them, among other things: “clouds without rain,” “autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted, twice dead,” and “wandering stars for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.”

In his diatribe against Docetism, however, there are several curious references that would no doubt confuse the average Christian reader. These include:

Verse 6: And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home – these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.

Verse 9: But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”

Verses 14-15: Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”

What is the writer of Jude talking about in these passages? Angels bound in everlasting chains? A dispute over the body of Moses between the archangel Michael and Satan? A prophet named Enoch? These are stories and references that certainly do not appear anywhere else in the Bible, so just what is Jude referring to?

In fact, Jude is quoting from, and referring to, apocryphal books that are not actually included in the Christian canon of Scripture.

The Epistle of Jude is unique in the New Testament as being the only book that directly quotes another religious text that is not found in the Bible.

THE BOOK OF ENOCH

Verses 6, 14, and 15 come from a piece of Jewish apocryphal literature known as the Book of Enoch. This book has an interesting history. Written in five sections, like a 5-act play, it appears to be a conglomeration of earlier texts, which themselves were no doubt based on older story-telling traditions. Most scholars think the stories originated in the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.E., and were put together into what we know as the Book of Enoch during the late 1st century B.C.E. – that is, perhaps 50 years or less before the birth of Christ. Some historians date at least one section of Enoch as late as the 1st century C.E., into the Christian era. The stories claim to be written by Enoch, who is named obliquely in the Old Testament as one of the ancestors of Adam (the 7th generation after Adam, as noted by the writer of Jude). They entail visions Enoch was shown as he toured heaven and hell.

This book was very popular among both Jews and early Jewish Christians, and continued to be influential in Christian circles well into the Middle Ages. It was clearly considered authoritative by the writer of the Epistle of Jude, and its influences are seen throughout other New Testament texts such as 1 Peter and Revelation. Early Church fathers such as Tertullian and Iranaeus believed it to be authentic, and it is referenced as authoritative in several non-canonical early Christian writings such as the Epistle of Barnabas. Even much later, its influences are seen widely in Dante’s famous work “The Divine Comedy” – which itself has become a much stronger source for modern concepts of hell and damnation than anything contained in the actual New Testament. To this day, the Book of Enoch is considered canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which also claims to have the original copy written by Enoch himself (incidentally, this church also claims to have in its possession the Ark of the Covenant).

However, outside of Ethiopia, the text is not considered authoritative by any modern Christian denomination, and was rejected by the 4th century councils who created the Christian Bible. The primary reasons the book was rejected included its ambiguous and certainly pseudonymous origin, and the fact that it includes scenes that were too vicious and outrageous even by 4th century standards (fallen angels with horse-sized penises having sex with human beings, God slaughtering children born of fornication, etc.).

For this reason, inclusion of the Epistle of Jude into the Christian canon was met with much debate in the 4th century Christian councils. How could the Church include a text in its canon which quoted another text that had been justifiably rejected from the canon? If the Book of Enoch was not authoritative, how could the Epistle of Jude be authoritative, considering that it quoted the Book of Enoch?

THE ASSUMPTION OF MOSES

To compound these matters, the Book of Enoch was not the only non-canonical work referenced by the writer of Jude. Verse 9, quoted above, which references a story about the archangel Michael in a dispute with Satan over Moses’ body, comes from another work of Jewish apocrypha called The Assumption of Moses. This text is a bit harder to pin down, as only one copy of it exists – an incomplete 6th century text discovered in the 19th century. This particular copy, in fact, does not even contain the scene referenced by the writer of Jude. It is assumed that the scene comes from the portions of the text that are missing. The only reason, in fact, that historians have long been aware that the Jude reference comes from The Assumption of Moses is because several early Church fathers made note of it in their writings.

Scholars who have studied the Moses text generally date it to the 1st century, meaning it would have been a rather “modern” text to the writer of Jude. It does not appear to have ever been considered for inclusion in any Christian canon of Scripture.

We won’t ever know with certainty exactly how the discussions played out, but the Epistle of Jude was ultimately included in the Christian canon, despite its overt references to other texts that were rejected for inclusion.

This, of course, brings up some bothersome issues – the same issues the Church councils no doubt debated heatedly in the 4th century: is Jude authoritative, despite referencing, and even quoting, non-authoritative texts?

JUDE’S DIVINE AUTHORITY

Modern evangelicals believe the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God. Everything in the Bible can be accepted as true and accurate representations of God’s revelation to humankind. The Bible is incapable of being wrong on anything. Yet God certainly did not fax the New Testament down from heaven (to borrow an image from Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code”). As I have noted, the New Testament as we know it was compiled from an array of available sources in a series of Church councils in the 4th century. Twenty-seven texts were included in the official New Testament canon, and as many or more were excluded.

As such, anyone who has faith that the Bible is the infallible, inspired, and complete Word of God must first have faith that these councils chose the right books to start with. It is a fact that the Book of Enoch and The Assumption of Moses were excluded from the canon. As such, they were deemed non-authoritative forgeries that contained unreliable information. Yet, it is also a fact that the Epistle of Jude quotes and relies heavily upon their content. As I have already noted, content from the Book of Enoch also served as a basis for content within several other New Testament texts. If the Book of Enoch and The Assumption of Moses are unreliable forgeries, does that not cast doubt on the claim of inspired infallibility for those books that rely upon them for content?

Stated a different way, if we take Jude as the inspired, infallible Word of God, we must assume that the archangel Michael had a dispute with Satan over Moses’ body. Yet this is a story that we know comes from a text rejected by the Church councils whom modern Christians believe were working on behalf of God in compiling our sacred scriptures. It would seem that we cannot have it both ways. The content referring to Michael, Satan, and Moses cannot be both authoritative and non-authoritative, inspired and forged, fallible and infallible.

It cannot be an unreliable forgery in The Assumption of Moses, but the inspired Word of God when copied into the Epistle of Jude.

THE “SCOFFERS”

After warning his readers against false prophets and “godless” men within their communities, the writer of Jude offers some words of encouragement. He reminds them that the apostles foretold that “in the last times there will be scoffers who follow their own ungodly desires” and that these people are the ones “who divide you.” The writer then encourages his listeners to stay strong in the faith as they await Jesus’ second coming.

Jude’s words here are interesting for several reasons. First, his reference to the apostles in the third person implies strongly that whoever this writer was, he was not St. Jude the disciple, nor was he attempting to forge a letter in that disciple’s name. Otherwise, why would he refer to the apostles as a group of people apparently separate from himself? This hasn’t, however, stopped Church tradition from attributing the text to St. Jude.

Second, Jude’s words in this passage help in the effort to date the text. His reference to the apostles seems to imply that they are men long dead, who foretold the events now playing out within the communities he was writing to. In fact, his phrase “in the last times there will be scoffers who follow their own ungodly desires” sounds a lot like a similar warning found in the book of 2 Peter, which of course is attributed to Peter the apostle: “In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires” (3:3b). 2 Peter, however, is regarded by most scholars to be a very late work – perhaps the latest work in the entire New Testament, written sometime in the first part of the 2nd century, and certainly not written by Peter. It may be that 2 Peter and Jude both referenced some other apostolic writing with a similar warning, or that the writer of 2 Peter – in an effort to bolster his claim to be Peter himself – borrowed the phrase from Jude, who had asserted it was an apostolic prophecy. More than likely, the texts are simply 2nd century contemporaries and were merely repeating a sentiment that was common in that time period.

Either way, the writer of Jude, like most of his fellow New Testament writers, clearly believes that he and his contemporaries are living “in the last times.” Like Paul, writing some 50 years earlier, Jude believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent, perhaps even something that would happen in his own lifetime. Paul had clearly been wrong in his own belief about this, but that did not stop later generations of Christians, like Jude, from believing the same thing. And, of course, such ideas have continued to exist in every generation of Christianity since that time. Even to this day, there are Christians who seem convinced that “signs of the times” suggest that Jesus’ return is near. There is nothing new under the sun in that regard – it is literally one of the oldest traditions in Christianity.

Another interesting phrase that comes from this passage is the one that follows the “scoffers” phrase. Jude points out that such men follow “mere natural instincts” and do not have the spirit of God. This may be a reference to Gnosticism, which was another branch of Christianity eventually deemed heretical in the 4th century.

GNOSTICISM

Related to Docetism in terms of being more mystically-oriented than Orthodox Christianity, Gnosticism asserted that the God of the Old Testament – Yahweh – was an evil god and that the real God of the universe decided to set things straight by sending Jesus as a sort of “emissary” to humanity. Jesus imparted secret knowledge to his various disciples before finally being crucified and taken back to heaven. This secret knowledge varied among Gnostic sects, but generally involved the belief that humans in their purest forms were perfect and godlike, but that worldly sin had corrupted them. The only way to attain salvation, then, was to get in touch with one’s own inner divinity, or inner light. Just how to go about this self-actualization was primarily what separated one Gnostic community from another, but in either case, Gnosticism in general was a much more mystical and personal form of Christianity than the Orthodox form, and focused far more on finding salvation for one’s self than on receiving salvation through the mercy of God.

This tendency among Gnostics to look inward for salvation rather than upward may be the idea behind Jude’s assertion that the “scoffers” were men who followed “mere natural instincts,” rather than the external spirit of God.

If this was indeed a reference to Gnosticism, then it also supports a 2nd century date for the Epistle of Jude, as Gnosticism did not really begin flourishing and spreading until about that time.

JUDE’S DOXOLOGY

The writer of Jude ends his short letter with a doxology that is perhaps one of the most beautiful from a literary standpoint in all the New Testament:

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

This passage demonstrates the highly literary Greek with which the entire text is composed. Such a learned style of prose may be yet another clue implying a later date (early 2nd century) for this text.

CONCLUSION

The Epistle of Jude is one that is frequently overlooked and understudied in many Christian circles. In three decades of association with various churches, I cannot remember any time ever hearing a sermon, or a Biblical reading, from this letter. This is, no doubt, due to a variety of reasons. First, the letter’s short length and non-primary authorship relegates it to second class status among the Pauls and Peters and Johns of the New Testament. Second, its content is comprised mostly of warnings against false prophets and encouragements to stay strong in the faith – topics covered in depth by other more prominent New Testament texts. Finally, its questionable authorship, and especially its references to non-Biblical content, have led to suspicion about the letter’s authority since its acceptance into the canon. Even Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers of the 16th century questioned whether or not it should remain in Protestant scriptures. This history of disputed authority, then, may also play a role in why the letter has traditionally been ignored in Christian circles.

Be that as it may, the letter, as I hope I have illustrated here, offers a great deal of insight into what was going on in the world of Christianity in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries.

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