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.

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The first papal encyclical? 1 Peter

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

My title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Historically, Rome seems not to have had a single monarchical bishop until well into the second century. Nonetheless, there is a sense that, in looking back to Peter as the first pope, church tradition reflects his calling to be first among the apostles, the rather wobbly rock on which Jesus chooses to start building his church, as well as his clear association with Rome, from where this letter appears to be written. More accurately, calling it an encyclical picks up the way in which it is written to a circle of churches rather than a single congregation.

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Keeping it in the family: James

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Short selections of James are read mainly in the latter part of Year B.1 The letter, largely full of practical moral guidance in a largely traditional Jewish mode, sometimes has echoes of Jesus’ teaching. Tradition attributes it to James, the brother of Jesus, and nearly all its content fits with the picture we gain elsewhere of James, clearly a leader in the Jerusalem church in Paul’s day. In this prominence of Jesus’ brother in the community, the early Jesus movement is showing that traditional Jewish family and community values were maintained alongside the more radical prophetic note Jesus often sounded.

The strongest arguments against James’ authorship are the high quality of the Greek the letter is written in and perhaps the apparently settled and socially unequal nature of the Christian synagogue James is challenging about their behaviour. The question of who wrote the letter does not substantially affect its meaning.2

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Negotiating the master-slave relationship in a church family: the letter to Philemon

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s letters. (That hasn’t stopped someone writing a 600 page commentary on its 25 verses!) In the Roman Catholic lectionary selected verses are read on the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C. The corresponding Proper 18 in the Revised Common Lectionary, as so often, lengthens the reading to almost the whole letter, leaving out only the closing greetings. 

While some of the precise details are obscure, the overall picture is generally agreed to be straightforward. Philemon seems to be a member of the church at Colossae, who found his Christian faith through Paul’s ministry. Onesimus is a runaway slave of Philemon who has ended up in Paul’s company, and been visiting him while Paul is under arrest. As a result of his contact with Paul, he has come to faith in Christ independently of the commitment made by his master. 

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House rules and cultural accommodation: the Pastoral letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Icon of St Timothy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Sunday lectionary reads selections from 1 & 2 Timothy through in sequence towards the end of Year C,1 and uses a couple of short excerpts from Titus in the selections for Christmas Day. As I noted in my introduction to Paul’s letters, these three are sufficiently like each other to be grouped together, and sufficiently different from Paul’s other letters for many people to wonder if he wrote them. Although they are usually called, collectively, the Pastoral Letters, I think they might better be thought of as “organisational letters” written for those who have some responsibility for organising the church.

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It’s the end of the world as we know it: the Thessalonian letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

I take both the letters to the church at Thessalonica together. Between them they have no more lectionary readings than the individual letters we have already looked at, and they cover much the same territory. Their key theme is how to live when you are expecting the end of the world as you know it. While living in expectation of Christ’s appearing remains a significant theme in Paul’s letters, it is at its most intense here. It also seems to be an expectation that is not fully understood by his Gentile converts in Thessalonica, who lack the grounding in Old Testament texts to fully appreciate it. Unsurprisingly, given this emphasis, the majority of readings from these letters comes in the Advent season.

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King of the universe: Colossians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

A small number of passages from Colossians crop up several times over the course of the lectionary. Selections from the letter are read through in the earlier summer weeks of post-Easter Ordinary Time, in Year C. The hymnic passage extolling Christ as the centre of both creation and its restoration as new creation (Col 1:15-20) is also read on Christ the King (again Year C). And the opening of chapter 3 is also read on Easter Day (Year A).

The letter as a whole reads a little like a first rehearsal for some of the themes we have seen developed in Ephesians. The story of human redemption is told on the same cosmic scale. In his description of Christ as “the image of the invisible God”, Paul seems to be echoing Wisdom chapter 7, especially verses 23-27. If Jewish thinkers increasingly saw Torah as the repository of divine wisdom, Paul leads the way for Christian thinkers in seeing Christ as wisdom’s true incarnation, a theme that is developed in John’s gospel.

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