Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The General Epistles: An Introduction

     Since at least the 4th century, the seven NT epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude have been collectively known as the “catholic” or “universal” or “general” epistles, mainly to distinguish them from the writings of Paul. This joint designation is intended to convey the sense of a broad, indefinite address to all Christians as opposed to a particular congregation or individual. C. R. Holladay suggests that one of the reasons these epistles were collectively so designated early on was because they were accepted and read by the church in general (A Critical Introduction to the NT 469).  

     Apparently 1 John was the first to receive the appellation that was eventually applied to all seven epistles for the sake of convenience (see Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.23.25; 5.18.5; 7.25.7), although 2-3 John were not initially written for the universal church and 1 Peter has a geographically limited address (cf. also 2 Pet. 3:1). The General Epistles bear the respective names of their authors, in contrast to the Pauline letters which bear the names of the recipients. While some have included Hebrews in this list, most recognize as the “General Epistles” only James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude. The writings of James and 1 Peter are principally ethical, Jude and 2 Peter eschatological, and the Johannine epistles christological and ethical.

     B. M. Metzger observes that “our New Testament would be infinitely poorer without the variety of emphases supplied by the general letters…. As sunlight is composed of a variety of colors, so the spectrum of early Christian theology represented in the New Testament letters is remarkable for its diversity of emphases as well as for its unity in fundamentals” (The NT: Its Background, Growth, and Content 283).

Approx. Date
James the Lord’s brother (1:1)
1 Peter
Peter and Silvanus (1:1; 5:12)
2 Peter
Peter (1:1)
Jude the Lord’s brother (1:1)
1, 2, 3 John
John the apostle

     Five of these writings were contributed by apostles of Jesus Christ, while the other two were written by the Lord’s half-brothers. Chronologically they comprise the earliest and among the latest of the NT documents.1

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 For more chronological details, see K. L. Moore, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament 201-21.

Related PostsEpistle of JacobEpistle of Judas, Distinctive Features of 1 PeterDistinctive Features of 2 PeterIntroducing the Johannine Epistles

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