On the periphery of the Bible: 2 Peter and Jude

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Some books of the Bible are effectively marginalised. In today’s church, Second Peter and Jude are among those which are pushed out to the edge of the canon. Modern scholars’ doubts that 2 Peter was written by Peter are paralleled by the early church’s reluctance to accept the book as one for public reading. Jude was rather more popular in the earliest centuries. When it comes to our lectionaries, there are only two readings from second Peter, and none from Jude. One comes in Advent,1 and the other is one of those provided for the Feast of the Transfiguration.2

Today’s scholarship is overwhelmingly convinced that 2 Peter is not from Peter’s hand, but written to perpetuate the author’s view of Peter’s teaching. It seems something almost written in the genre of a testament or farewell speech (see 2 Pet 1:14-15). Quite oddly, Peter’s second chapter plagiarises the letter of Jude, which is a good reason for treating them together. Jude’s letter, like Peter’s second chapter, is rooted in traditions of Jewish interpretation and apocalyptic literature. Both are full of urgent and dire moral warning.

A detail from an illustration by Gustav Doré of John Milton’s Paradise Lost,
one of the most famous versions of the story of an angelic fall found in 2 Peter.

There are, in both of these, but more obviously in Jude’s version, ideas which show something of the mingling of various popular traditions with biblical stories. In 2 Peter 2:4, sinful angels3 are cast into Tartarus,4 normally the name of the Greek underworld where the Olympic gods imprisoned the Titans. This is the small acorn of text concerning fallen angels from which a huge mediaeval oak tree grew. Jude has a slightly different reference, but draws in stories from other Jewish legends (especially verses 9 and 14) to embellish the biblical accounts he refers to. Like a number of Jewish texts which “rewrite” the Bible, Jude does not distinguish between scripture and late expansion. It was for reasons like this that some early protestants had problems with these texts: another reason they have stayed peripheral.

One other key reason people reject the idea this was written even close to Peter’s lifetime is the reference to Paul’s letters (2 Pet 3:13–16). Some at least appear to exist already as a collection, which are treated primarily as inherited texts without any reference to a living Paul who is still teaching. They seem also (verse 16) to be referred to as “scriptures” – it is a moot point whether the word simply means “writings” or whether it has the sense of “sacred writings”.

The reading for the Transfiguration, Peter’s “eyewitness” account of it, seems to be one of those sorts of details put in to establish the identity of the author as Peter, quite unlike the understated claims of the first letter. The other reading, used in Advent, is the famous description explaining the delay between Christ’s resurrection and his coming in glory: “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (2 Pet 3:8).”


Notes

  1. Advent 2, Year B – 2 Peter 3:8-15a (or 8-14 in the Lectionary for Mass)
  2. The same reading is also used when the Revised Common Lectionary uses the theme of the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent, Year A.
  3. Probably this refers to the same “sons of God” from the mysterious beginning of the flood story that I noted in yesterday’s post on the First Letter of Peter.
  4. Tartarus is used on a couple of occasions in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In Proverbs 30:16, both Hades and Tartarus are used for poetic variation. In Job, it also appears to be for poetic reasons.

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