General Epistles

This name is given to seven short epistles of the NT, namely James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Jude. They are also known as the Catholic epistles. It is usually held that “general” means much the same as “catholic” and that the reason for the name is that these letters, unlike the Pauline epistles, are not addressed to specific churches or individuals. This is not true of 2 and 3 John, which carry specific addresses, nor is it quite true of 1 Peter, though the address there covers quite an area. It may well be that writings like 1 John, which is in fact general and not addressed to anyone at all, were first given the name and it afterward attached to the group as a whole. Some seek another explanation of the name, and maintain that “catholic” was originally equivalent to “canonical”—i.e., it signified epistles received in the Catholic Church. Against this is the fact that this would apply equally to the Pauline epistles. Further, some of the seven had not come to be regarded as canonical at the time the expression was first used. It seems that “general” is the way we should understand the term.

The church was slow to accept all the letters in this group. The Muratorian Fragment, regarded as giving us the canon accepted at Rome in the second half of the second century, lists two epistles of John, and also Jude, but none of the others. 1 Peter appears to have been accepted in Africa at this period. In the East there was a greater readiness to welcome these writings, and Origen uses all seven (though with doubts about James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John). His attitude was not universal, for in the early fourth century Eusebius of Caesarea regarded only 1 Peter and 1 John as canonical. He put the five others into the category of disputed books. However, they steadily made their way and by the end of the century seem to have been accepted in most places, East and West alike, except in the Syrian Church. The Peshitta of that church included James, 1 Peter, and 1 John. But it never did include the four others. They were added only in the Philoxenian revision of a.d. 508.

James is usually held to have been written by James the brother of the Lord, but the attribution is uncertain. So is the date, though the epistle seems early. It is concerned with the way the Christian faith is to be lived out in daily life, perhaps the most important section being that in which James opposes a corruption of the Pauline teaching that a man is justified by faith alone. While he does not espouse a doctrine of justification by works, he denies that faith without works is viable. Faith shows its presence by works (2:18).

Traditionally the Apostle Peter is held to have written 1 Peter, and while this has sometimes been denied it seems the preferable view. This is a letter written to Christians facing suffering, and it encourages them to a steadfast and joyful endurance of what confronts them, together with a steady insistence on the importance of living out the Christian faith in innocence and purity.

In recent times many have been prepared to deny the apostolic authorship of 2 Peter, partly on the grounds of style, partly on those of the nature of the teaching given and opposed. This has been met by pointing to the possibility of the use of an amanuensis in one or both epistles and to our ignorance of the kind of teachers that arose in the early church. This letter addresses itself to refuting heretics of unsound doctrine and immoral life and to pointing its readers to the coming of Christ as the hope of the church. 2 and 3 John are written by “the elder” but he remains unnamed and there is no author mentioned in 1 John. The style of all three, however, is much that of the fourth gospel, and this has led to the general acceptance of all three of these letters as from the Apostle John. This is denied by some, but is widely accepted among conservative Christians. 1 John is concerned to insist on the reality of the Incarnation. It is important to recognize that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:2). The epistle insists just as strongly on the importance of the Christian virtues, especially love. The same concern for sound doctrine and upright living runs through 2 and 3 John.

Jude is written by the “brother of James” (v. 1), but unless we can identify James this does not help. It is usually taken that this is the James who wrote the epistle which bears his name. Jude sternly denounces heretics for their false teaching and for their immoral lives. He speaks of the divine punishment which awaits such men and urges believers to build themselves up on their most holy faith.

B.F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John (1883); J.H. Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James (1916); E.G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter (1946); D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction: Hebrews to Revelation (1962); E.F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (1964); Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude (1964); W.G. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament (1966); J.N.D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and of Jude (1969).