The Catholic Epistles
The New Testament contains seven letters known as "Catholic," viz. that of James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and that of Jude. These letters were added to the Canon of the New Testament later than the rest of its contents. In ancient manuscripts, versions, and catalogues their position in the New Testament varies, and for a long time they were often placed between Acts and St. Paul's Epistles. 1 Peter and 1 John were the first to be universally received. About A.D.300 all seven were known and received in the Greek Churches, but nearly as late as A.D.350 the Syrian Church was unacquainted with any of them except James. After this the Syrian Church adopted 1 Peter and 1 John, and finally the whole seven. This fact with regard to the Syrian Church is of peculiar importance. It shows us that we must take care not to argue that an Epistle is probably a forgery because an important Christian community was unacquainted with it at a comparatively late date. For the evidence for the genuineness of 1 Peter and 1 John is even stronger than the evidence for the genuineness of James. Yet at a time when the best Greek critics were entirely satisfied as to the genuineness of 1 Peter and 1 John, the Syrians did not recognize them. The only reasonable explanation of this is the simplest explanation, namely, that some Epistles were translated at a later date than others. Among Syrian writers we find two distinct tendencies. Writers who were entirely at home with Greek literature, and in communion with the orthodox Greek Church, like St. Ephraim or St. John of Damascus, used the same Catholic {220} Epistles as the Christians of Alexandria or Jerusalem. On the other hand, Christians who were cut off by schism from the main body of Christendom continued for centuries to use exactly the same Canon of Scripture as that which had been employed by their ancestors before the schism. Thus Ebed Jesu, Metropolitan of Nisibis, and the last prelate of the Nestorian sect who wrote important works in Syriac, died in A.D.1318. But we find that he only uses the three Catholic Epistles contained in the Peshitta Syriac version of the New Testament, probably completed soon after A.D.400.

If we pass from the extreme east to the extreme west of ancient Christendom, we find ourselves confronted with similar but not identical facts. We find that a superior degree of authority was allowed to belong to 1 Peter and 1 John. There can be no doubt that in all the great centres of Christian life outside Syria these two Epistles were in the Canon by the year 200. The Muratorian Fragment, written in Italy about A.D.180, mentions two Epistles of St. John and that of St. Jude. It contains no mention of 1 Peter, but there are grounds for believing that there was a reference to it in the lost portion which was devoted to Mark. It contains no mention of James, though that Epistle seems to be quoted in the Shepherd of Hermas, written at Rome about A.D.140. It was long before James was universally regarded as part of the Canon. It is quoted as Scripture by Origen of Alexandria early in the 3rd century, but a hundred years later Eusebius says that it was disputed by a minority. It is accepted by Eusebius himself. The very private character of 2 and 3 John accounts for the slowness with which they won acceptance as part of the word of God, yet 2 John is backed by the high authority of Irenaeus, and both Epistles are obviously the work of the same author. The Second Epistle which bears the name of St. Peter is connected with peculiar difficulties, and possesses less evidence in its favour than any of the other Catholic Epistles.

We cannot do better than quote the admirable words in {221} which Dr. Sanday has sketched the adventures of such books. "An Epistle lodged in the archives of a great and cultured Church like the Church of Rome would be one thing, and an Epistle straying about among the smaller communities of Bithynia or Pontus would be another; while an Epistle written to an individual like the Gaius of 3 St. John would have worse chances still. There were busy, careless, neglectful, and unmethodical people in those days as well as now; and we can easily imagine one of these precious rolls found with glad surprise, covered with dust in some forgotten hiding-place, and brought out to the view of a generation which had learnt to be more careful of its treasures. But even then, once off the main roads, circulation was not rapid; an obscure provincial Church might take some time in making its voice heard, and the authorities at headquarters might receive the reported discovery with suspicion. They might, or they might not, as it happened." [1]

But by degrees the customs of the different Churches were levelled. Before the end of the 4th century all the Catholic Epistles were accepted as canonical in Europe, and in a large part of the Christian world which lay beyond Europe. This leads us to inquire why these Epistles bear the name of Catholic. The answer seems to be that the name Catholic or General was given to the more important of the seven, because they were addressed to the Church Universal, or to groups of Churches, and not to individuals or to single Churches. The words Catholic Epistles therefore signify Circular or Encyclical Letters. Origen gives the name of Catholic to 1 Peter, 1 John, and Jude. By the 4th century the name was applied to all the seven. There can be little doubt that 2 and 3 John are not Catholic in the sense of being Circular or Encyclical. But they were numbered with the others for the sake of convenience, being naturally associated with the first and more important letter by St. John.


The following table gives an idea of the gradual incorporation of the Catholic Epistles into the Canon. An * denotes a direct quotation or the expression of almost no doubt; a ? notes that the writer is aware of decided doubts, a () marks an uncertain reference.

1 2
J P P 1 2 3
a e e J J J J
m t t o o o u
e e e h h h d
s r r n n n e

Laodicea, A.D.363 . . . . . . . * * * * * * * Rome, A.D.382 . . . . . . . . . * * * * * * * Carthage, A.D.397 . . . . . . . * * * * * * *

(a) Syria.
Ephraim, A.D.370 . . . . . * * * * * * * Chrysostom, A.D.400 . . . . * * *
Peshitta version, ? A.D.410 * * *
Junilius, A.D.550 . . . . . ? * ? * ? ? ? John of Damascus, A.D.750 * * * * * * * Ebed Jesu, A.D.1300 . . . . * * *
(b) Palestine.
Eusebius, A.D.330 . . . . . ? * ? * ? ? ? Cyril, A.D.348 . . . . . . * * * * * * * (c) Alexandria.
Clement, A.D.190 . . . . . * * * * Origen, A.D.220 . . . . . . * * ? * ? ? * Athanasius, A.D.367 . . . . * * * * * * * (d) Asia Minor.
Polycarp, A.D.110 . . . . . * *
Amphilochius, A.D.380 . . . * * ? * ? ? ? Gregory Nazianzen, A.D.380 * * * * * * *

(a) Italy.
Muratorian, A.D.180 . . . . * * * Hippolytus, A.D.220 . . . . * ( ) *
(b) Gaul.
Irenaeus, A.D.180 . . . . . * * *
(c) Roman Africa.
Tertullian, A.D.200 . . . . * * *

[1] Inspiration, p.368.


chapter xviii the epistle to
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