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Catholic Epistles

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology What is This? An encyclopedic treatment of major theological issues and themes in the Bible, including traditional and modern perspectives.

Catholic Epistles

“Catholic Epistles” is a name given to seven texts that appear in the New Testament immediately after the 14 texts in the Pauline corpus. These texts are called catholic—meaning “universal”—or general epistles since, unlike the Pauline texts, they are not directed to particular communities or individuals. Arranged in an order that seems to have been influenced by Galatians 2:9, the collection includes the Epistle of James, the First and Second Epistles of Peter, three Epistles of John, and the short Epistle of Jude. Since 2 and 3 John appear truly to be letters, addressed, respectively, to a community and to an individual, some authors use the terminology of “catholic epistles” only in reference to James, 1–2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude. The three Epistles of John, with close links to the Fourth Gospel, belong to the New Testament’s Johannine corpus. They will not be further examined in this essay.

The Epistle of James.

Whether this text should be considered as a real letter is problematic. Addressed to “the 12 tribes in the Dispersion,” the text has an epistolary opening (Jas 1:1). It lacks an epistolary closing and is hardly circumstantial; it contains no reference to a particular set of circumstances that would have prompted its composition. Its “addressees” are generically addressed by means of the Greek adelphoi, literally, “brothers” but translated as “brothers or sisters” to reflect the fact that both men and women belonged to the community (Jas 1:2; 2:1, 5, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 4:11; 5:19) or as “beloved” for variety’s sake (Jas 1:16, 19; 5:7, 10, 12). Sometimes the Greek term is qualified by “my” (mou) or “beloved” (agapētoi).

Among biblical scholars there is also a debate as to whether the Epistle of James was written by James, the brother of the Lord, or not. It is virtually certain that it was not written by James, the son of Zebedee, who was put to death in 44 C.E., a date much too early for the composition of this text. There is greater likelihood that the “James” of the epistolary salutation is the brother of the Lord and pillar of the church in Jerusalem who died in the 60s. Some scholars consider that James himself wrote the epistle. Others consider that the text was written posthumously, shortly after James’s death. Still others think that the text is quite clearly pseudepigraphic and that it was written sometime later in the first century. The epistle’s lack of circumstantial referents makes the dating of the text a difficult issue to resolve, but there is little doubt that the relative of Jesus is the authority behind the letter and the reason for its inclusion in the New Testament canon.

Written under the aegis of the brother of the Lord, the Epistle of James is more theological and hortatory than it is Christological and kerygmatic. Indeed, the name of Jesus appears only twice in the epistle, at 1:1 and 2:1. In both of these passages, Jesus is described as the “Lord Jesus Christ.” Reference is made to the Parousia in 4:7–8, but otherwise the epistle is virtually devoid of specifically Christian content. The text contains no mention of the resurrection and death of Jesus. On the other hand, a short passage on prayer speaks about anointing in the name of the Lord and about the Lord raising up those over whom the elders of the church have prayed (5:13–16). Arguably, Jesus is the referent of “Lord” in each instance.

Much of the paraenetic material in the epistle parallels sayings of Jesus, especially some found in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, the sayings on oaths in 5:12 (see Matt 5:33–37). The parallels are not verbatim. Moreover, the logia are not explicitly attributed to Jesus or the Lord. Hence, it is questionable if this material really draws from the early Jesus tradition.

The hortatory material in James also bears marked similarity with Jewish exhortations such as those found in the wisdom tradition, for example, Proverbs, Job, Qoheleth, Sirach, and Wisdom. The author’s familiarity with the Jewish scriptures is evident in his use of Abraham (2:21–23), Rahab (2:25), Job (5:11), and Elijah (5:17–18) as exemplars and in his use of such key components of the Jewish ethical tradition as “love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8) and the Decalogue (2:11).

The epistle’s paraenetic material is also similar to material found in the writings of Greco-Roman philosophic writings, albeit not those of any one author in particular. Perhaps more striking than the epistle’s parallels with specific Hellenistic texts is the fact that James makes abundant use of the diatribe (e.g., 4:4), a hortatory device common in the Cynic-Stoic tradition. Together with many Hellenistic texts, its paraenesis is also enriched with comparisons and metaphor (e.g., 1:9–11; 5:2–3).

Understood in the narrow sense of discourse about and understanding of God, the theology of the epistle echoes that of the Judeo-Christian tradition; but it is also similar to that of the Islamic tradition. Among its highlights are that God is one (2:19) and that God is unchanging (1:17B). God creates men and women in his own likeness; they are the apex of creation (1:18; 3:9). God cannot be tempted and tempts no one (1:13).

God is preeminently a relational God. God is Lord and Father (1:27; 3:9). God draws near to those who draw near to him (4:8). God has chosen the poor (2:5). God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (4:6, citing Wis 2:10). God hears the cries of the oppressed (4:4) and listens to the prayer of the righteous (5:16). God is compassionate and merciful (5:11).

God is the generous giver of all good gifts (1:5, 7, 12, 17; 3:15, 17). God is lawgiver and judge, able to save and destroy (2:13; 4:12A; 5:1). God promises a crown of life to those who love him (1:12). God’s will is supreme. Human life and the ability of humans to do anything at all depend on the will of God (4:13–15).

Overall, however, the Epistle to James is a paraenetic text, exhorting its addressees, “the 12 tribes in the dispersion” (1:1), arguably an indication that the text was intended primarily for Jewish Christians, to be doers of the word, rather than merely hearers (1:22). In context, this is not easy to do. The epistle’s opening exhortation is addressed to those who face trials (1:2). These are not persecutions from outside forces but a testing of faith, a temptation to sin that arises from one’s own desire (idia epithymia, 1:12). Endurance and patience are necessary (1:3–4, 12; 5:7–12) until the coming of the Lord.

Faith is a dynamic reality; it must be expressed in action. Faith is brought to fruition in works that express one’s faith (2:22); works are the demonstration of faith. Without works, faith is dead. The relationship between faith and works is exposited at length in 2:14–26. That this passage speaks about faith and works has led some commentators throughout the centuries—Luther is perhaps the most famous of them—to consider that the epistle is at odds with the Pauline tradition. In fact, that is not the case. In James, works are not a precondition of salvation; rather they are a consequence of faith, one of God’s good gifts (3:13), and the result of wisdom that comes from above (3:17–18). Moreover, the works of the law that Paul writes about are identity markers which set Jews apart from Gentiles—specifically, circumcision, sabbath observance, and dietary requirements—whereas the works mentioned in James are the good fruits of wisdom from above.

Illustrating the importance of works, the author rhetorically asks if there is anything good about wishing a person well but not taking care of his or her bodily needs, that is, not providing food and clothing when he or she is hungry and virtually naked (2:15–16). The illustration points to one of the major concerns of the epistle, care for the poor whom God has chosen (2:5). Indeed, the epistle defines pure and undefiled religion (thrēskeia) as this, “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27). Whereas the cries of laborers defrauded of their labors will reach the ears of the Lord, those who live in luxury should weep and wail in the face of the miseries that await them (5:1–6). Accordingly, partiality toward the rich must be avoided when the Christian assembly convenes (2:1–7).

Single-mindedness is also important; believers must not be doubled-minded (dispychos; 1:8; 4:4). A choice must be made between the devil and God (4:7–8), between earthly wisdom and wisdom from above (3:13–18). Indeed, friendship with the world is enmity with God (4:4). This sharp dichotomy is similar to the Didache’s notion of the “two ways” (cf. Did. 2:4; 4:4). The epistle’s understanding of the ethical life is also holistic. One cannot pick and choose. Using the Decalogue as an example, the epistle notes that a person who has murdered but has not committed adultery has transgressed the law (2:11). Whoever keeps the whole law but has failed in one point is accountable for all of it (2:10).

Proper use of the tongue is another matter of concern in the epistle. The same tongue that praises God can curse those who are made in God’s likeness. This should not be (3:9–10). Believers must not speak evil against one another (4:11). If they choose to do so, they are judging the law and are oblivious to the one judge and lawgiver (4:12).

With unwavering faith, the believer should pray to God for the gift of wisdom from above (1:5–8). The prayer that proceeds from faith, the prayer of the righteous, is powerful and effective (5:13–18). The epistle especially commends the prayer of the community for the sick and suffering. Its leaders should pray over them in the name of the Lord.

The First Epistle of Peter.

Like the Epistle of James, the First Epistle of Peter is a paraenetic text; but it is clearly more Christological and more theological than James. As is the case with the Epistle of James, the authorship of this text is also disputed. Some interpreters maintain that it was written by the apostle himself (1:1) shortly before his death in Rome under Nero (ca. 64 C.E.), but others, seemingly the majority, consider the document to be pseudonymous. Many of its verses have parallels elsewhere in the New Testament, especially in the Synoptic Gospels and the Pauline epistles.

The theological bent of the document is announced from the outset. The epistolary address describes those to whom the epistle is written as people “who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood” (1:2). Ostensibly addressed to the exiles of the dispersion in five areas of twenty-first-century Asian Turkey, the epistle is an exhortation for those who are living in a hostile society. They have been verbally and, in some cases, physically abused. To enable the readers to bear up under this suffering, the epistle offers the example of the sinless Jesus who was abused but did not retaliate (2:21–24). With this example, the epistle exhorts its readers, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (3:9). Jesus is also the paschal lamb revealed in the final times for our sake (1:18–19). His resurrection from the dead (cf. 3:18, 21–22) is the source of our new birth, living hope, and imperishable inheritance (1:3–4). Jesus has gone into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, with other heavenly forces subject to him (3:22).

Those who suffer and are abused share in the sufferings of Jesus (4:13–14; cf. 5:1). Suffering is the universal lot of believers (5:5) and is in accordance with God’s will (3:17), but suffering does not come from God. Rather, suffering and abuse come from the devil (5:7) and evil humans. Believers are to endure steadfastly suffering, hoping in God who supports and strengthens believers, calling them to eternal glory in Christ (5:10). It is important that believers do not suffer for doing wrong (2:19–10; 4:15) but only because of the genuineness of their faith, which is tested as if by fire (1:7).

Although Jesus Christ is the primary example cited in the epistle, God is the epistle’s primary theological focus. God is the faithful creator (4:19). The good news through which believers have been born anew comes from God (3:23–25). The doxologies of 4:11 and 5:11 proclaim that power belongs to God. God raised Jesus from the dead (1:21). God, the Father, is the judge of the living and the dead, the believer and the unbeliever (1:17; 2:23; 4:5, 17). God is glorified in all things through Jesus (4:11).

God has chosen and destined believers (1:2). Citing the scripture, “you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:45), the epistle urges its addressees to be holy. Holiness has a twofold dimension. First of all, the holiness of the community implies that it belongs to God; it is God’s possession. A number of pregnant images are used to describe the church. Among them are the living temple (2:4–5) and a flock of sheep with Christ as the shepherd (2:25; 5:2–4). The community of believers is also described as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9), with manifest reference to Exodus 19:6, almost suggesting that the community of believers is a new Israel.

In addition, holiness has an ethical dimension. The chosen race is expected to live as a holy people. Righteous behavior is the hallmark of the believer. Primarily, this is evident in faithful suffering without retaliation. Believers must live honorably among Gentiles (2:12), but they are to avoid the licentiousness and idolatry that is characteristic of Gentiles (4:3–4). They are to accept the authority of temporal rulers for the Lord’s sake and honor the emperor (2:13–15, 17). Believers live in freedom but, as servants of God, are not to abuse their freedom (2:16). Indeed, their ethical conduct should appeal to nonbelievers (2:11; 3:1).

The structures of the Greco-Roman household are retained (2:18–19; 3:1–7); but wives are to live simply, and husbands are to honor their wives (2:18–19; 3:1–7). Everyone is to be honored, but love is to be directed toward those inside the family of believers (2:17; 3:8; 4:8). All in all, the vices recognized by the philosophic moralists are to be avoided, while Hellenistic virtues are to be pursued. Self-discipline is necessary (5:8).

If Jesus, the exemplar of righteous suffering, is the primary example cited in the epistle, biblical examples are also used. Sarah is praised for her obedience to her husband and her simple life (3:1, 5–6). Noah and the ark are cited as a prefiguration of baptism (3:20–22). This is the only explicit reference to baptism in the epistle. Because of this reference and the text’s references to new birth, the First Epistle of Peter was considered to have been based on baptismal homilies; but this approach to the text has largely been abandoned.

The Epistle of Jude and the Second Epistle of Peter.

Jude and 2 Peter must be considered together. The remarkable similarities between Jude 4–13 and 16–18 and 2 Peter 2:1–18 and 3:1–3 are such that it is necessary to postulate some sort of literary dependence between the two texts. The most plausible explanation is that the author of 2 Peter made use of Jude, the shorter and earlier of the two documents. Almost 80 percent of Jude reappears in 2 Peter, albeit in somewhat modified fashion.

The epistolary format of Jude requires that its author be identified. The epistle is said to be from “Jude [Ioudas], a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1). Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 mention a Judas (Ioudas) who, along with James, is a “brother” of Jesus. This Jude is most likely the Jude to whom the epistle makes reference. Scholarly opinion is, however, divided as to whether the text was actually written by the brother of the Lord. If not, the epistle is a late first-century pseudepigraphic text. One of its distinctive features is its use of nonbiblical material: it contains an allusion in verse 6 to a story about angels that appears in 1 Enoch 6:1—10:15, a citation of 1 Enoch 1:9 in verses 14–15, and the use of a tradition in Jude V. 9 that is otherwise attested in The Testament of Moses. The use of the Enoch material led some ancient authors, notably Tertullian, to hold that 1 Enoch has a rightful place in the Christian Bible.

The Epistle of Jude exhorts its readers to remember the words of the apostle (v. 7), build themselves up in their most holy faith, maintain their love of God, and await the mercy of Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life (v. 21). Their reception of mercy should lead them to treat others mercifully, perhaps even saving others thereby (vv. 22–23). These exhortations come at the end of a short text that is otherwise largely polemical. False believers have intruded into the community; these false believers are imaginatively described with a series of derogatory epithets (vv. 8, 10, 12–13). They are said to deny Jesus Christ, our Lord and Master (v. 4); but the text does not indicate what their beliefs might have been. It is, however, intimated that this denial has led to a licentious way of life, similar to that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Just as the biblical perpetrators had faced punishment for their licentiousness (v. 7), so the intruders will face certain judgment as a result of their immoral conduct (vv. 4, 7, 13–15).

In 2 Peter the difficulties that trouble the community seem to arise from within. They are described with vituperative language similar to that used in Jude’s negative portrayal of the intruders. The passages in 2 Peter most dependent on Jude revile false teachers who espouse cleverly devised myths (1:16) and utter bombastic nonsense (2:17). These reprobate folks lead people astray with a libertinism that leads to enslaving licentiousness (2:17–19). God has punished people in the past (2:5; 3:5–6) and will certainly judge the false teachers (3:7, 10–12).

The dependence of 2 Peter on Jude is generally accepted among scholars. On the other hand, 2 Peter has little relationship with 1 Peter and seems not to have been the work of the same hand. Many scholars consider this pseudepigraphic text to be the latest of the canonical New Testament writings, probably written in the second century, and liken it to a literary testament.

The epistle’s introductory discourse (1:3–11) offers a positive summary of its theology. Verses 3–4 speak of God’s many gifts, everything that is necessary for life and godliness. Verses 5–10 speak of the ethical life and the effort necessary to maintain it. Living an ethical life confirms the believer’s call and election. Verse 11 caps off the summary by affirming that entry into the eternal kingdom of the Lord and Savior Jesus is the awaited goal of the salvific process and ethical endeavor.

The false teachers seemed to have scoffed at the notion of the Parousia, undermining the salvific process that began on the day of creation (3:3–7). Accordingly, the epistle dwells at length on the delay of the Parousia. It affirms that the day of the Lord will come like a thief (3:10), but in God’s good time, which is not to be measured by ordinary human standards. If there seems to be a delay in the coming of that day, it is because God is merciful and wants to give people a chance to repent (3:9). To underscore the reality of the coming of the day of the Lord, the pseudonymous author places himself at the transfiguration of Jesus, the revelation of the glory that Jesus has received from the Father (1:16–18).


Although these four epistles are relatively short, pseudepigraphic, and rather late additions to the canonical collection, they provide an important complement to the theology of the New Testament. James’s emphasis on believers acting ethically as an expression of their faith rings a tone that needs to be heard. The words of 1 Peter on suffering provide support for many of our contemporaries. Jude reminds us that wrongdoing does not escape the wrath of God. Echoing this message, 2 Peter reminds us that serious difficulties sometimes arise from within the community of believers itself.




  • Achtemeier, Paul J. 1 Peter. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.
  • Donelson, Lewis R. I & II Peter and Jude. New Testament Library. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2010.
  • Elliott, John H. 1 Peter. Anchor Bible 37B. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
  • Hartin, Patrick J. James. Sacra Pagina 14. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2003.
  • Hartin, Patrick J. James of Jerusalem: Heir to Jesus of Nazareth. Interfaces. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2004.
  • Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Letter of James. Anchor Bible 37A. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
  • Neyrey, Jerome. 2 Peter, Jude. Anchor Bible 37C. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
  • Painter, John, and David A. deSilva. James and Jude. Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012.
  • Richard, Earl J. Reading 1 Peter, Jude, and 2 Peter: A Literary and Theological Commentary. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys, 2000.
  • Senior, Donald P., and Daniel J. Harrington. 1 Peter, Jude, and 2 Peter. Sacra Pagina 15. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2003.
  • Watson, Duane F., and Terrance Callan. First and Second Peter. Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012.

Raymond F. Collins

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