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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 24: The Catholic Epistles and Revelation"


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The Epistles we have seen were addressed to special churches or groups. There are others, most of them addressed to the whole Church, hence the general name "Catholic". These are: James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, and Jude.

James: It is not clear who is this James. James the Apostle, son of Zebedee, was martyred in 62. If by him, this Epistle would be very early. Another James the Apostle, son of Alphaeus was not prominent, and so may not be the author. There was a James, who seems to have been an administrator in Jerusalem, whom Paul calls (Gal 1:19) "brother of the Lord." Since Hebrew ah was used so broadly of any sort of relative, there is no shred of evidence for saying he was a son of the Mother of Jesus, or even for saying he was a son of Joseph before his marriage to Mary.

The opening line is addressed to "the twelve tribes in the dispersion." This might mean Jews away from Jerusalem - but there would not be 12 tribes any more since the Babylonian captivity. for only 2 tribes returned. So it may be addressed to all Christians.

Writers of the first centuries wavered about accepting this Epistle as part of inspired Scripture. Not cited as Scripture until Origen in the third century. Luther in his first edition of his German Bible (not in later editions) called it an Epistle of straw, since it seems to contradict his ideas.

The ideas are very simple on the whole. We mention a few special texts:

2:10: If a persons violates one commandment, he is guilty of all. This is true on the assumption that the person is logical: he has then denied the authority of the lawgiver, and in that sense has broken all commandments. In a somewhat similar way we might ask if someone who accepts all but a few of the teachings of the Church has any faith at all: for, his reason might be not that the Church so teaches - it might be just inveterate stubbornness. However, people are not nearly always logical.

2:14-26: Faith without works is dead. We must notice that James uses the word faith in a much narrower sense than Paul does. Paul means a faith that believes what God says, has confidence in His promises, obeys His commands, does all in love. For James it is merely intellectual belief.

3:2 If someone does not sin by the tongue, he is perfect. The reason is that sins of the tongue are so common, so hard to avoid, that if one succeeds in avoiding these, probably he avoids all others.

5:14-15: The Council of Trent defined (DS 1716) that here the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is "promulgated" in James.

5:20: If someone saves another's soul from spiritual death, he will save his soul. Does it mean the other's soul, or is it an assurance he will save his own? Either interpretation is possible.

First Peter: Many think it was not really by Peter. The chief reasons advanced against his authorship are these: Its similarity at times in content and even language to some things in Paul's letters.- But this hardly proves anything. Peter may well have been familiar with them, and he surely knew Paul personally. Further, it seems from 5:12 that Silvanus drafted this letter for Peter: "I am writing this through Silvanus". This is likely to have been the Silvanus who was St. Paul's companion at times: cf. 2 Cor 1:19; 1 Ths 1:1. Just as modern Popes do, Peter could have given his thoughts to Silvanus, and asked him to write them up. The second reason is the good quality of the Greek: could a Galilean fisherman have written such Greek? - Again, Silvanus could account for that.

Early tradition, beginning with Irenaeus, without hesitation said it was by Peter. Oddly, the Muratorian Canon omits this Epistle. However, it mentions as Scripture an "apocalypse of Peter". Some scholars think a line had fallen out of the Muratorian Canon, so that really this Epistle was meant.

The chief themes in the Epistle are the dignity of the Christian vocation, and the value of sharing in Christ's suffering. This of course accords with the great Pauline theme: We are saved and made holy if and to the extent that we are members of Christ, and like Him.

1:17: "You sojourn in a strange land". This is like the line of Hebrews 13:14: "We have not here a lasting city." We are headed elsewhere.

2:5-9: We are a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices, a chosen race. - Pius XII in Mediator Dei, the basic liturgy Encyclical, explains well that at Mass the people (AAS 39.555-56), "offer through the hands of the priest from the fact that the priest at the altar in offering a sacrifice in the name of all His members, does so in the person of Christ, the Head [of the Mystical Body]. In that sense the ordained priests acts for them. Secondly they offer in that they join their interior dispositions of obedience, praise, petition, expiation and thanks along with those of the ordained priest, even of the High Priest Himself.

Vatican II,LG § 34, explains "spiritual sacrifices", saying: "All their works, prayers,and apostolic endeavors, their married and family life, their daily work, their relaxation of mind and body, if they are carried out in the Spirit, even the hardships of life, if they are patiently borne, become spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ which are offered devotedly to the Father in the celebration of the Eucharist, along with the offering of the Lord's Body."

2:10: Once they were without mercy. Mercy here, as in Romans 9, has the special sense of a particular favor in the external order, i.e., here, of full membership in the People of God.

3:3-4: Here Peter seems to have in mind the wives of pagan husbands: he asks them to win them not by cosmetics, but by interior character and virtue.

3:15: Here Peter wants them to be able to give a rational account of why they believe: they should not just jump up onto Cloud 9 and believe with no basis. What is needed is apologetics.

3:19-20: Jesus went to preach to the spirits. The thought is not fully clear. We do know that the souls of the just who died before Christ, were not given the vision of God until after His death. He must have gone to announce to them that now they could come.

4:18: The verse cites Proverbs 11:31, as in the Septuagint. It means that since we must even give an account for every idle word (Mt 12:36) we must work. Yet, His yoke is easy and His burden light (Mt 11:30).

5:13: Greetings from Mark "my son". This agrees with the tradition we saw in commenting on the Gospels that Mark wrote from the preaching of Peter.

Second Peter: There is greater doubt about authorship here than about any other NT book. We do not have here the strong testimony of ancient witnesses we have for other books. The first explicit testimony comes from Origen, who admits its authorship, but says there are others who do not. St. Athanasius cites it without question, as does Didymus. Eusebius lists it among the disputed works, and he himself does not think it by Peter. St. Jerome accepted it, but admitted not all did.

The internal arguments are more difficult to deal with here. Some say it depends on an apocryphal work, The Apocalypse of Peter (probably written 110-140 AD); but others say it depends on the Epistle of Jude. Really, the similarities are not so close as to strictly prove dependence at all (e.g., compare 2 Pet 2:1-5 with Jude 4-7). In speaking of the return of Christ, it says that the ancestors have been laid to rest, and still it does not come. This implies a later generation of Christians, after the death of Peter.

1:4: Christians are sharers in the divine nature, by grace, which gives them the radical capability - to bear fruit only in the next life -- of taking part in the vision of God, a thing beyond the powers of any conceivable creature. Only one partly divine could do that.

3:12-13: Some translations here are too strong, speaking of the present skies as going to be "destroyed." It really means only loosed. The fire is taken from apocalyptic language. We need to compare these words with St. Paul, Romans 8:19-22 where we learn that creation will be renewed and delivered from its present "slavery to corruption." The "fire" will bring this about.

3:15-16: The writer says Paul's Epistles contain many things hard to understand. Anyone who has studied them carefully will say a loud Amen. Yet, in spite of the claims of some commentators, it is possible to make sense of everything in St. Paul, as we have seen in our comments above, especially on Romans. This remark of the author need not mean he had a full collection of all of St. Paul - Romans and Galatians alone would be enough to justify the comment.

First Epistle of John: The author is probably John the son of Zebedee. There are explicit testimonies to his authorship from Tertullian, St. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Dionysius of Alexandria, and probably also the Muratorian Canon (not fully clear). There are numerous allusions earlier: Shepherd of Hermas, St. Polycarp, St. Justin and the Epistle to Diognetus.

Some today deny John's authorship, chiefly on the ground of style, which is never conclusive, and not enough to outweigh the many explicit external testimonies. In this respect, we observe there is a striking similarity and parallel between the opening lines of 1 John and those of John's Gospel.

2:18: This verse speaks of both Antichrist, and Antichrists. Mt.4:5: "Many will come in my name, saying, I am the Christ. " There is a well-known Hebrew pattern in which an individual stands for and embodies a collectivity. So there is to be a great, chief Antichrist, shortly before the end, but before that, many smaller figures.

3:2: "We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." Only a soul partly divine (cf. 2 Peter 1:4) can see God directly. Cf. Mt 11:27 (Lk 10:22): "No one knows the Father but the Son and no one knows the Son but the Father."

3:9: "Every one who is begotten of God does not sin, for His seed is in him, and he cannot sin because he is begotten of God." This is much like the pattern of focusing we saw in St. Paul (in commenting on Gal 2:15): The state of being a son of God, as such, cannot bring forth anything but good, cannot bring forth sin.

3:19: "In this we have known love, that He laid down His life for us." As we gather from John's Gospel 3:16, to love is to will good to another for the other's sake. Jesus so greatly willed our good, eternal life, that He died to make that possible for us. Thus He proved His love: cf. Rom 5:8, and our comments on the redemption in chapters 21 & 23 above.

3:19-22: Just as He proved His loves by His action of dying for us, so we prove our love for God by our actions. If we do that, we need not have worries about our love of God. Although love in general consists in willing good to another for the other's sake, yet we cannot will good to God, who can lack nothing. So the word love needs to be used in a somewhat different sense (analogical) when we love God: Scripture pictures Him as pleased when we obey, displeased when we do not. It is not that He gains anything from our obedience, yet His Holiness wants it: 1) He loves everything that is objectively good; that means creatures should obey their Creator, children their Father; 2)He wants to give His benefits to us and steer us away from things harmful to us: we become open to Him, and avoid harmful things by keeping His commandments. So in practice, love of God = obedience to God, as 5:32 says: "This is love of God, [namely] that we keep His commandments."

4:8: "God is love." Being utterly One, there are no real distinctions in God. So we should not say that He has love - that would be a duality, He and His love. We say He is love. Similarly, He is goodness, mercy, justice, etc.

Within the Most Holy Trinity, the Father loves in willing the infinite Good of the divine nature to His Son who is constituted by that Love. Father and Son will the infinite good of divine nature to the Holy Spirit, who is constituted thereby and is therefore the love of the Father and the Son. And the Spirit wills that good to Father and Son, and so all is love: God is love (cf. Rom 5:5).

5:16: Here John says we should not pray for one whose sin is to death. This does not mean just any mortal sin - the precise terms we now enjoy took long to develop. St. Augustine thought this was the sin of apostasy (De Sermone Domini 1.22.73). The Roman Synod, under Pope Gelasius I, on May 13, 495 (DS 349) said the sin to death is seen in the case of those who remain in the same sin. It is not to death if they give up the sin."

Second and Third Epistles of John: In favor of Johannine authorship we find: St. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, St. Dionysius of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Epiphanius, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Tertullian and probably the Muratorian Canon (unclear). However, we meet with silence on authorship in St. Cyprian, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and St. John Chrysostom. Origen says some doubt, but he does not share the doubts. St. Jerome seems to accept them himself, but reports others doubt. Eusebius lists them among the debated Epistles.

Style seems to indicate the same author for both (an inconclusive point). The fact that the writer calls himself "the Elder" is a bit puzzling. Why not Apostle? We think of the fact that Papias distinguishes two Johns, the Apostle, and the Elder.

2 Jn 1: We are not sure who the "elect Lady" is. It may be Christians in general: that name is applied to Christians in 1 Pet 1:1 and Tit 1:1.

2 Jn 6: "This is love, [namely] that we walk according to His commandments." This is the same thought we commented on above in 1 John 3:19-22.

2 Jn 10: Urges avoidance of false teachers, the same thought we saw in Titus 3:10.

3 Jn 9-10: Diotrephes the leader of the church to which the author writes rejects the author. If this is the Apostle John, we have a strong case of rebellion very early.

The Epistle of Jude: There were various persons in the early Church named Jude. But the writer says he is the brother of James. Since he gives no other information, it seems this is a well known James, and that should be James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, the "brother" of the Lord. Ancient tradition for the most part believed he was the Apostle Jude.

Ancient witnesses to authorship by Jude include: Muratorian Canon, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and others.

The chief message is a warning against false teachers.

7 and 14-15: Verse 7 seems to use The First Book of Enoch 9.8; 10.11; 12.4. Verses 14-15 clearly cite First Enoch 1.9. St. Jerome (De viris illustribus 4) says this citation caused some to reject the book. However, for Jude to cite an apocryphal work need not mean he believed it himself. Similarly, St. Paul seems to use a rabbinic legend in 1 Cor 10:4. A person today could use a line from Alice in Wonderland, without believing the story was real.

Apocalypse/Revelation: Greek apocalypsis means revelation.

Early tradition was unanimous in saying this work was by John the Apostle the author of the Gospel and the three Epistles. However, in the third century some began to think it was John the Presbyter, in line with the remark of Papias about two Johns, an Apostle and a Presbyter.

The genre is at once apocalyptic and prophetic.

Interpretations proposed are almost countless. We could summarize the chief tendencies thus:

Historicist position: This finds references to later developments in Church history, e.g., the command to use the open scroll to prophesy in 10:8-11 was used by some Protestants to refer to Luther's break, using Scripture alone.

Futurist position: This takes the seven letters to the seven churches as standing for seven ages of Church history to follow. But these writers usually take everything from 4:1 on to refer to the last few years of the history of the world, recalling the prophecy in Mt 24:21 of the great tribulation. Some fanciful theories often result, with no solid support at all: mere guesses. In line with this some would take the first plague, 16:1-2 to foretell the epidemic of AIDS. Reasonable people do debate whether or not it is a divinely sent punishment. But it would be something else to say it was foretold in 16:1-2.

First century position: This is a common view today, and it sees the book as a response to first century conditions, to give consolation in the face of persecution, by predicting the final victory of the divine over the human power.

Achronological position: The events of chapters 4-20 are not events in chronological sequence but overlapping pictures of human pride and the sufferings of the Church such as it is found in any period of history In view of such diversities, it is hard to speak with confidence on individual things in the book. But we will make a few attempts:

Chapter 12: Here is the vision of the woman clothed with the sun. We are fortunate to have several Magisterium texts on this. St. Pius X (Ad diem illum. ASS 36.458-59): "No one of us does not know that that woman signifies the Virgin Mary...yet laboring from some hidden birth....ours, we who...are still to be brought forth to the perfect love of God and eternal happiness." Pius XII (Munificentissimus Deus, AAS 42.762-63) says the Fathers and Scholastic doctors "have considered the assumption of the Virgin Mother of God as that woman clothed with the sun." Paul VI (Signum magnum, May 13, 1967) said "the sacred liturgy, not without foundation," saw this as referring to the most Blessed Mary." John Paul II (Redemptoris Mater, § 24) says she was "the woman spoken of by the book of Genesis (3;15) at the beginning and by the Apocalypse (12:1) at the end of the history of salvation."

We gather, the image refers to the Blessed Virgin and to the Church. This is a well known Hebrew pattern, in which an individual stands for and embodies a group. B. J. Le Frois, in a dissertation presented to the Pontifical Biblical Institute of Rome in 1954 suggested that if this is a prophecy of the end time, it could mean that then the Church will take on a specially Marian character, in a sort of Age of Mary. St. Louis De Montfort (True Devotion §§ 51-59) foretold such an age.

Chapter 13: This chapter gives a picture of two beasts coming out of the sea and the earth. It is possible that they stand for two aspects of the Antichrist, and say that in the last age when the Antichrist appears, he will gain power over the earth, and prevent anyone from buying or selling without credentials from him. Interestingly, the New Age Movement according to Constance Cumbey, Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow, (Huntington House, Shreveport, 2d ed.1983) seems to plan to carry out precisely this scenario. As to the number 666, it is surely symbolic. Greek and Hebrew reuse the letters of the alphabet for numbers. In that way, the number could stand for Nero. According to some, the title of Christ who slays the Beast has the value of 777 - so, if we take something away from the perfect number at all points, it will stand for all evil.

Chapter 20: If read superficially,it seems to foretell two resurrections. First the just would rise, and reign with Christ on earth for 1000 years. Then the others would rise. Taken crudely this would be millenarianism (from Latin mille, 1000, or Chiliasm, from Greek chilioi, 1000). A fair number of the early writers held some form of this view: 1) Gross and extreme form: Life would be coarse unrestrained sensual pleasure. Eusebius (3.28) says Cerinthus, late 1st century, held this, and some others; 2) Moderate Form: Material and sensual but not extreme or immoral pleasures. Eusebius (3.39) says Papias held this; 3) Mild Form: A period of spiritual joys. Held by Tertullian (Against Marcion 3 24), St. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5.32), St. Justin (Dialogue 80-81), and a few others. St. Augustine once held it, gave it up (Sermo 259.2). There were many opponents. The Church never accepted the view. St. Augustine (City of God 20.7) said the first resurrection was that from sin, the reign on earth meant people were not slaves of their vices, the second resurrection would be physical, for all. The 1000 years stands for all the time from the ascension to the parousia.

21:1-5: God will wipe away all tears from every eye, and will say: "Behold, I make all things new"!

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