Lenten Reading Challenge: the letters of Jude and 1, 2, 3 John
Congratulations – we made it through Revelation.Tomorrow we’ll begin journeying through Luke and Acts. Today we read the letters of Jude and 1st, 2nd and 3rd John. Each is very short, so I’ll combine our categories today and just share a bit about each of the texts.
••Jude was long attributed to one mentioned in Mark 6:3 as a brother of Jesus and James. If so, this would be another candidate for earliest letter in the NT – but scholars consider it to have been written about the year 100AD. The letter is a condemnation of “intruders” who teach false doctrine – it’s tempting to think about Paul’s similar complaints and his conflict with James – but here the writer agrees with Paul. If a brother of that James did so, one would think Paul would mention it.
There is nothing to indicate location, but the conflict seems to have been over “antinomisim” – which is to say God’s grace means our behavior doesn’t matter much. The tone is consistently judgmental and condemning, broken, however by the magnificent passage proclaiming that “God is love.” This letter shares many distinctive phrases with 2nd Peter, consensus is that this text came first. Interestingly, Jude also refers to non-biblical Jewish sources (verses 6 and 14-15 refer to 1 Enoch, a known Jewish text not included in Hebrew or Christian scriptures, verse 9 may refer to another).
••The letters known as 1, 2 and 3rd John all likely emerge from the same Johannine community as the Gospel. Scholars are divided on if the same person wrote all 3 or not.
•1 John especially echoes the Gospel of John’s themes and imagery. Consensus is that these letters are later than John. As with Jude, 1 John reflects a community divided by theological differences. Again harsh language is used – including the only NT use of the word “anti-Christ” – which is used in both singular and plural forms. Basically the author is announcing that the differences with those who have left are so significant that the others are “against Christ” – a pronouncement of excommunication. The conflict here is thought to have been an early form of Docetism – basically that while Jesus “seemed” to be human he was really “only” divine. Note that while the Gospel of John emphasizes Jesus’ divinity – it locates that in “the Word become flesh.” The Johaninne community would not be the last to grapple with this mystery and its meaning.
•2 John has the typical characteristics of a letter that are lacking in 1 John and shares that books themes – a reminder of a commandment that is not “new” but known “from the beginning” and a caution against “deceivers.” Note the address to “the elect lady and her children” and “the children of your elect sister.” These have long been treated merely as references to Christian communities – house churches – but what if they actually refer to women in leadership? Might the Johannine community have preserved Paul’s earliest communities embrace of leadership regardless of gender (see Romans 16 for example).
•3 John is just 15 verses long, yet features commendation and condemnation. These brief lines are yet another window into the life and struggle of the early Christian communities to “not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good.”
Blessings on your reading!