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Catholic Epistles

CATHOLIC EPISTLES. A term applied to the Epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude. It goes back to the early church fathers, but how it arose is unknown. The most commonly accepted explanation is that these epistles were addressed, not to individual churches or persons, but to a number of churches. They were addressed to the church at large, i.e., the universal church. The seeming exceptions, 2 and 3 John, were probably included as properly belonging with 1 John and of value to the general reader.

CATHOLIC EPISTLES (ἐπιστολαὶ καθολικαί). The description used of the group of seven NT epistles consisting of James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. These epistles are generally treated as a group distinct from the other NT group of books. They share certain features, although they also show some marked differences. That they were regarded as a group at an early period is well attested. They are all epistles, although there are differences in their epistolary form. James seems to belong to the category of the Gr. diatribe. First John is more a homily than an epistle, since it has no opening address or closing salutation. First Peter is addressed to specified provincial areas, although 2 Peter has no such address. Second and 3 John are different in method of address. The Catholic epistles are also distinguishable from each other in their varied emphases on aspects of Christian truth. For instance, 1 Peter dwells on Christian patience under trial, 1 John on Christian love, and James on matters of essentially practical interest. They form a unity because of their distinctiveness from the Pauline epistles and Hebrews, rather than because of their own internal cohesion.

The order in which these epistles stand in the Eng. texts was not universally maintained in the early history of the canon. The variation of order was considerable, not only within the group, but also in the position of the group among the other NT books. Some lists place 1 Peter and 1 John at the head, presumably because these were the best authenticated. The position of James seems to have been particularly fluid. In many canonical lists and some ancient MSS these epistles are placed between the Acts and the Pauline epistles. In other lists they follow the Pauline epistles and precede Acts.

As for the use of the word “catholic” to describe these books, there have been various suggestions: (1) That the reference is to a collection of epistles expressing the opinion of all the apostles, to mark them off from the epistles of Paul which formed a group of their own. This view is discounted by the fact that early writers used the same term to describe non-canonical books (Epistle of Barnabas, Epistle of Dionysius) and heretical books (such as Epistle of Themison). Moreover, the word does not seem to have been used in the sense of common apostolic authorship. (2) That the word is used in the sense of ecclesiastical recognition, in which case the “catholic” epistles would denote those regarded as authentic by the “catholic” church. Whereas the adjective came to be used in an ecclesiastical sense, there is no evidence that this usage was early enough to account for its employment to describe the seven epistles. (3) That the word is intended to distinguish the epistles from heretical works, but this can be discounted because it is not used of the Pauline epistles, which are equally to be distinguished from heretical works, and because it is used of an heretical work like the Epistle of Themison. (4) That the word refers to the nature of the destination of these epistles, which is the most widely held view. It accords, as none of the other explanations do, with all the evidence. It distinguishes these epistles from the epistles of Paul addressed to individual churches or groups of churches, and it accounts for the use of the term for both canonical and non-canonical books among patristic writers. The word also may be synonymous with “encyclical.” The main problem with this view is that 2 and 3 John appear to be more specific than general in their address, one to the elect lady and the other to Gaius. Nevertheless this explanation, in spite of its difficulties, seems preferable to any other. In the Western Church, where there was more delay in the final acceptance of these epistles (except 1 Peter and 1 John) than in the E, the word “canonical” was preferred rather than “catholic,” but the eastern usage later became universal.

When the Catholic epistles are considered within the context of the NT as a whole, their value may be seen in various directions. They provide a cross section of early theological opinion. They show many points of contact with other NT books, as, for instance, 1 Peter with the Pauline epistles (esp. Romans and Ephesians), and 1 John with the fourth gospel. There is also much ethical instruction which provides, with the other NT books, a wide basis for the study of NT ethics.


B. F. Westcott, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament, 4th ed. (1875); S. D. F. Salmon, “Catholic Epistles,” HDB I, 359-362; A. Souter, The Text and Canon of the New Testament (1913). Standard commentaries on the separate epistles; D. Guthrie, Hebrews to Revelation (1962). Other NT Introductions, esp. McNeile-Williams, Feins-Behm-Kummel, Michaelis.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

In distinction from the apostolic or Pauline epistles which were addressed to individual churches or persons, the term "catholic," in the sense of universal or general, was applied by Origen and the other church Fathers to the seven epistles written by James, Peter, John and Jude. As early as the 3rd century it came to be used in the sense of "encyclical," "since," as Theodoret says, "they are not addressed to single churches, but generally (katholou) to the faithful, whether to the Jews of the Dispersion, as Peter writes, or even to all who are living as Christians under the same faith." Three other explanations of the term have been given, namely,

(1) that it was intended to indicate a common apostolic authorship (only a few support this view);

(2) that it signifies that the seven epistles were universally received as genuine;

(3) that it refers to the catholicity of their doctrine, i.e. orthodox and authoritative versus heretical epistles whose teachings were in harmony with Christian truth. By some misconception of the word "catholic" the Western Church interpreted it as signifying "canonical" and sometimes called these epistles epistolae canonicae. That it was originally used in the sense of "general" epistles is now commonly received.

This is evident from their form of address. James wrote to all Jews, "of the Dispersion," who had embraced the Christian faith. In his first epistle Peter addressed the same Christians, including also Gentileconverts, resident in five provinces of Asia Minor: "elect who axe sojourners of the Dispersion." His second epistle is to all Christians everywhere. John’s first letter was evidently written to a cycle of churches and intended for universal use. Jude also had in mind all Christians when he said "to them that are called beloved in God," etc. The seeming exceptions are 2 and 3 Jn, addressed to individuals, but included with the catholic epistles as properly belonging with John’s first epistle and of value to the general reader. The character and contents of these seven epistles are treated under their various heads. The letters of James and Jude belong to the Judaic school of Christianity; those of Peter to a broad and non-partisan type of faith that both includes and mediates between the Judaists and Paulinists. John’s letters were written after the internal doctrinal controversies of the church had ceased, and the pressure of opposition and error from without tended to unite his "little children" in a new community of love and spiritual life.

Dwight M. Pratt

See also

  • General Epistles