Luke Timothy Johnson
The Obscurity of Jude
Although Jude is among the shortest writings in the New Testament, it bristles with difficulties. Some of these have to do with placing the composition in the historical development of early Christianity. Others involve grasping its language, which has a number of obscure allusions. The two sorts of problems are related. Our ignorance of the author and his circumstances prevents us from having a secure context for reading the letter. But because Jude so obviously was responding to some kind of specific crisis, every attempt must be made to construct such a context if the letter is to yield any sense at all.
The introduction in the NAB (New Testament, p. 1665 ) states the majority scholarly opinion on most of the questions concerning authorship and occasion. Jude is considered a general epistle of relatively late date. It is an attack on false teachers, probably representing some form of Gnosticism (an early deviant form of Christianity stressing “self…fulfillment”). Another reading of the evidence suggests that Jude could have been written at virtually any period and was concerned less with false teaching than with bad behavior. This minority view will be developed in the paragraphs to follow. The main point, of course, is to make as good sense as possible out of the letter.
Far more puzzling than the identity of Jude is the placement of his letter among other early Christian literature. The author mentions an earlier draft he had begun, when the crisis among his readers demanded his turning attention to the polemic now being read by them (3). What was that earlier version? A not entirely unrelated issue is the relation of Jude to 2 Peter. Everyone recognizes that the material in 2 Peter 2 is similar to that in Jude 5–13 . Less clear is whether one author depended on the other, or both relied on a shared earlier tradition. Neither should the resemblance be overstated. Jude is not simply a source for 2 Peter. Each sharpens the material to a different polemical point.
Further literary puzzles are provided by Jude's literary allusions. He cites examples of sinners being punished. Some are readily apparent from the Bible, although a few (like Balaam) may derive as well from Jewish biblical interpretation. Jude also cites the apocryphal writing known as 1 Enoch as though it were Scripture (14). And his version of the dispute between Michael and Satan over the body of Moses appears to derive from another apocryphal writing, The Assumption of Moses (9). His reference to the “words spoken by the apostles” (17) is no clearer, since it is more an amalgam of early Christian statements on the end‐time (cf., for example, Mk 13, 22; 1 Tim 4, 1–3 ) than a specific citation.
That an author could assume familiarity with such sources among his readers seems to presuppose either a Jewish‐Christian readership, or a Gentile one familiar with Jewish apocrypha. What the ancient readers presumably understood, we do not, and the lack of literary context continues to make this letter obscure to present‐day readers.
Writings like 2 Peter and Jude remind us how little we know about early Christianity apart from the chronology provided by Acts and Paul's letters. We cannot fit them into any development we know about and must rely on guesswork. Every hypothesis, furthermore, is based solely on the text itself. Precision concerning what the text does and does not say is obviously critical to the value of any reconstruction.
Jude clearly takes a polemical stand against opponents and exhorts its readers to remain steadfast. Contrary to the usual opinion, however, the text contains no clear indication that Jude was opposing “false teachers” or that they were purveying any “heresy.” Their “scorning of Lordship” (4.8) seems to have been practical rather than theoretical. Jude attacks immoral behavior rather than false teaching. So thorough is his disparagement, indeed, that it is hard to know even what they were doing. He specifically accuses them of disrupting the community love feasts. The term is usually taken to mean eucharistic meals. They are also accused of carousing and of looking after only themselves (literally: “shepherding themselves,” 12). He also calls their behavior “divisive” (19). Otherwise, Jude uses all the standardized charges common to the polemic of the ancient world: they are sexually immoral (7), greedy (11.16), slanderous (15), and living for their own desires (16). In short, they “live on the natural plane, devoid of the Spirit” (19). They “pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness” (4).
Living by God's Grace
Letters of Paul such as 1 Corinthians attest how difficult it was for the early Christians to translate the gift of God (grace) into consistent patterns of moral behavior. Legitimate disagreement could exist on matters of diet, work, use of possessions, and the like. It was not immediately obvious in all cases what “life in the Spirit” meant behaviorally. In the case of Jude, however, it appears that disagreement has overstepped the boundary into true moral deviance; hence the outrage of the author. The opponents are “perverting the gift.”
Jude's first line of defense is an attack on the immoral people. He tries to demonstrate from Scripture how there have always been such troublemakers, and they have always been punished. These will be punished as well. In contrast to 2 Peter 2 , in which the emphasis is on the power of God to judge the righteous and unrighteous, in Jude the stress is entirely on the punishment of the rebellious.
The polemic is not random but carefully argued, with some rhetorical polish. Notice the repetition of “these people” in verses 8, 10, 12, 16, and 19 , which brings the examples of old to bear on the present circumstances. Jude also plays on the Greek words for “keep” in verses 1, 6, 13, 21, and 24 . His opponents fail to “keep their place,” but Jude's readers are to “keep themselves in the love of God” who is, in turn, able to “keep them from stumbling.”
Jude's second line of defense is to edify (“build up”) his readers in their “most holy faith” (20). He reminds them that God dealt with troubles like these from of old, and in fact the apostles of Jesus had foretold the emergence of such rebellious “scoffers” (17f). He reassures them that they are being “kept safe for Jesus Christ” despite this turmoil (1). Jude does not suggest that it is the believers' role to punish the reprobate. He exhorts them to avoid such immoral behavior (23) and to build up their own faith. If the opponents are “devoid of spirit,” the believers are to “pray in the holy Spirit” (20). But their love for God is to be demonstrated in an attitude of mercy and care for those who waver and even for those who appear to be lost (22f).
Jude's witness is a limited one. But the use of moral outrage is not entirely exhausted by the circumstances of the first century. The tendency to turn grace into libertinism is a perennial one. Combining justifiable outrage at license with mercy for the licentious is a delicate and difficult art. Few writings have carried it off as well as Jude.