Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles

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Other books, like Hebrews, were most likely written decades later. The three letters of John were probably among the last books of the New Testament to have been written near the end of the first century. It is helpful when studying each of these books to have in mind the types of issues that would have characterized the time when they were written. For various reasons, persecution of Christians increased as the decades of the first century advanced. Even before the Roman government began to imprison and sometimes execute Christians in the second half of the century, Christians faced social ostracism and hostility from local rulers.

These forms of persecution took place from the very beginning, starting with Jesus and then experienced by his apostles as well. The newly formed church needed instruction on how to live in such a climate so that they would neither assimilate to the expectations of a pagan society nor become so separatist that they would fail in their mission of evangelization.

The Mamertine Prison, where it is believed both Peter and Paul were imprisoned. Once Gentiles began to come to faith in Christ in great numbers, it did not take long for heresy to become a problem for the apostles. Tendencies in Greco-Roman philosophy, such as Neoplatonism and incipient Gnosticism , were influential in first-century thinking and caused distortions of the perception of who Jesus was, of the goal of salvation, and consequently, of moral issues concerning how Christians were to live.

The books of 2 Peter and Jude and the Johannine epistles take on the important task of correcting various types of heresy that caused wrong beliefs and behavior in the church. Because these books are in the New Testament, Hebrews and the General Epistles are theological writings. They are about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the necessary implications that follow for Christian faith, life, and morality.

Millions of Christians rightly read the words of these books in worship and devotions. These are ancient books that were written in a time and place quite unlike the modern setting in which we read them today. To appreciate the original historical setting, we must have knowledge of the who, what, when, and why. The biblical authors assumed that their original readers shared a vast amount of knowledge about the people, places, customs, religions, society, politics, and philosophies of that moment simply because both author and reader were alive at the same time and shared many common experiences.

For modern readers today, that needed knowledge can come only by study, which is why I have written this book. Without such knowledge, the risk of misunderstanding the biblical books is great. Furthermore, the books of the New Testament not only have historical settings and references that must be correctly understood; they are themselves literary texts produced in a culture that is not our own. This means that each book was written in a particular genre, has a structure to its discourse, involves the use of ancient images and rhetorical features, and alludes to other ancient writings.

All of these things were no doubt commonly understood by the original readers in the first century; however, because we have not grown up in that culture, reading texts in koine Greek or biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, our work is to study to learn as best we can about those things that will inform our reading of the New Testament books. This book should help inform its readers of such issues in general terms and prepare them for further reading in the commentaries and monographs pertaining to each of the General Epistles. The great consensus of modern New Testament scholarship is that few of the New Testament books were actually written by the authors traditionally assumed or explicitly stated within the texts.

A text is said to be pseudonymous when the author is deliberately identified by a name other than his own. In our day, authors have sometimes adopted a pen name for various reasons, such as Samuel Clemens adopting the pen name Mark Twain. The difference is that a modern writer generally makes up a new name for himself or herself and does not try to impersonate a well-known writer. The practice of ancient pseudonymity as it relates to the Scripture is a very different thing, because the actual author is not the same person as the named author, and the named author is generally someone of renown whose authority and reputation would be assumed for the text.

The term pseudonymity focuses on the identity of the author; the related term pseudepigrapha , from the Greek pseude false grapha writings , identifies a type of writing that is known or believed to be pseudonymous. Serapion, the second-century bishop of the church at Antioch, used the word to refer to texts that were falsely attributed to a New Testament writer, for instance, the Gospel of Peter and the Acts of Paul Eusebius, Hist.

The Testament of Adam is a text that likely dates to the Christian era in which the actual author adopted the name of an Old Testament personality and wrote as if he were Adam. There are many such ancient texts that are obviously pseudonymous. Collectively, ancient texts that are believed to be pseudonymous and not part of the biblical canon are referred to as the Pseudepigrapha. The common practice of using an amanuensis in the ancient world needs to be distinguished from pseudonymous authorship.

An amanuensis was a scribe who put pen to papyrus on behalf of an author, who for various reasons e. Without doubt, some of the New Testament epistles were penned by an amanuensis, and some have attributed the quality of the Greek to him when it seems beyond the ability of the stated author e. But at what point does an amanuensis shade into a pseudepigrapher? The common assumption is that an amanuensis worked during the lifetime of the person who commissioned him. But what if an amanuensis wrote after the death of the author? Within what time period after the death would an amanuensis have become in fact a pseudepigrapher?

And so New Testament books written by an amanuensis should be considered an authentic work of the person who commissioned it. The key is whether the person who put pen to papyrus and wrote in the name of another was granted that task by the person whose name appears in the text.

So if the apostle Peter used an amanuensis to write 1 Peter on his behalf, it is authentic; if not, it is pseudonymous. The trickier hypothetical situation is if a disciple of an apostle decided to write in the name of the apostle after his death without express permission but with an assumed permission based on the closeness of the relationship. The topic of pseudonymity in the ancient world is taken up in a vast corpus of literature; this discussion will be limited to the idea so prevalent in New Testament studies today, that some, perhaps most, of the New Testament epistles were not actually written by their stated author.

The idea of pseudonymous epistles should be distinguished from anonymous New Testament books, such as the Gospels and the epistle to the Hebrews.

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Inerrancy claims that what the Scripture says is true when read as the inspired author intended it to be read. A Hellenistic letter opening, which is where the name of the alleged author is found, could be read in no other way except to take the letter as having come from the stated person. Needless to say, those scholars who come to the topic of pseudonymity with no belief in, or concern with, the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible bring a different bias than those who affirm that doctrine.

We may lay down as a general principle that, when biblical books specify their own authorship, the affirmation of their canonicity involves a denial of their pseudonymity. Pseudonymity and canonicity are mutually exclusive. The idea that the New Testament epistles are probably pseudonymous has become so commonplace, even among many evangelical scholars, that it may seem futile to argue that those whose names are stated in the letter openings actually did write the letters.

Some have described such attempts as desperate, as if no historical argument can plausibly be made.

There is even disagreement about whether it matters who wrote the New Testament books. People who are otherwise on opposite ends of the theological spectrum sometimes argue that this topic is irrelevant. On one end of the spectrum are those who have no belief in a unified canon of the New Testament and who do not see these ancient texts as normative for life today. Their study of the New Testament is purely a historical inquiry into an artifact from the ancient world. Therefore, it matters little to them who actually wrote the letters that came to comprise so much of the New Testament, except perhaps as a point of historical information.

Clearly, by my devoting space in this book to the topic, I judge the topic of pseudonymity to be both relevant and significant to the well-informed and thinking Christian. The concept of a pseudonymous New Testament text arose in the mid-nineteenth century when the German scholar F. Baur proposed that the Pastoral Epistles had not been written by the apostle Paul. If supernatural miracles did not happen, how can their presence in the Gospels be explained?

It must be because the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts but are the much later ruminations about Jesus by otherwise unknown Christian communities that included miracle stories for a variety of reasons. Although internal evidence based on the texts themselves has been argued to support pseudonymity — such as the quality of the Greek of 1 Peter and the testament genre of 2 Peter — the weight of such evidence strikes some as compelling and others as not.

Those scholars who argue for pseudonymous New Testament epistles but nevertheless value the theological concept of the authority of the canon reach for ways to understand pseudonymity as a legitimate and acceptable practice in the ancient world. The claim that a pejorative evaluation of pseudonymity is anachronistic because the correct attribution of authorship was of little concern in an age prior to copyright laws.

The claim that pseudonymity was an acceptable literary device conventionally employed in ancient genres such as wisdom literature, apocalyptic, and even epistles.

Letters to the church: a survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles | Fondren Library

A view of divine inspiration that involves an author essentially channeling an apostolic personality. If everything he knew was from the master, the master should get the credit. This thought developed into the idea of schools of disciples — for example, the Johannine school, the Pauline school, and others — that is so widely accepted in New Testament studies today.

There is much debate about whether pseudonymity was acceptable in the ancient world and, if so, in what circumstances, and whether the intent to deceive was or was not involved. But it is clear that the forgery of texts with the intent to deceive was not acceptable in the ancient world. The great Hellenistic libraries, such as those at Ephesus and Alexandria, purchased rare copies of books by well-known writers, and that provided financial incentive for newly created texts to appear that had allegedly been written by famous Greek authors.

Letters to the church : a survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles

Consequently, well before the Christian era, in Alexandria, Egypt, techniques were employed to detect and reject literary forgeries. In some cases, pseudonymity was interpreted by the law as criminal forgery. Within early Christian circles, orthodoxy and orthopraxy motivated well-meaning but deceptive people to write in the name of the apostles, resulting in many New Testament pseudepigraphical books, such as the apocryphal Gospel of Peter and the Acts of Paul. When it was discovered that the letter was pseudonymous, and had actually been written by an elder of a church in Asia Minor, Tertullian reports that the elder was removed from office in shame, even though he confessed to being motivated only by love for Paul Bapt.

Both were condemned and rejected as forgeries by the Muratorian Canon. Such historical evidence does not explain how pseudonymous works were detected, but it does clearly show that when it came to letters allegedly written by apostles, pseudonymity was not an acceptable practice. We ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us — whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter. The issue of pseudonymous texts also has significant exegetical implications.

Only if the letters attributed to an apostle actually originated with him do we have enough extant historical context to make sense of the New Testament. Although we may wish we knew more about Peter, Paul, John, and the other apostles, there is much more known about these men that informs exegesis than if the actual author was an unknown believer in an unknown place who wrote for unknown reasons. To embrace such a scenario is like deliberately locking your car keys in the trunk and then expecting to drive the car.

Furthermore, the embrace of pseudonymous New Testament writings insidiously turns the study of the New Testament into a study, not of what Jesus and his chosen eyewitnesses said and did, but merely of the religious ruminations of some anonymous people in the Roman period, and it effectively cuts off any genuine knowledge of Jesus and his first followers.

We receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ, but the writings which falsely bear their names we reject … knowing that such were not handed down to us. Against all arguments for pseudonymous New Testament books is the further question of whether it is psychologically conceivable that the men Jesus chose to be his witnesses, who saw him die and then be resurrected from the grave, could have passed from this life without writing anything down about the most awesome and magnificent event of human history, but that much later anonymous believers would have been both motivated and able to create the texts that came to be the New Testament.

It seems to me that the idea that the New Testament books are largely a created fiction of the later church apart from the apostolic witness, as many critical scholars would argue, calls into question the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event by rejecting it as sufficient motivation for those alive at the time to have written about it. And if the story of Jesus ended in the grave, that raises the question of how the later church came to be the church without any other historically identifiable event to give energy and momentum to a movement that swept the Roman world.

There is very little space for the common modern assertion that pseudonymity was a widely acceptable practice in the ancient world. That pseudonymous apocalypses were widespread is demonstrable; that pseudonymous letters were widespread is entirely unsupported by evidence; that any pseudonymity was knowingly accepted into the New Testament canon is denied by the evidence. Carson, Douglas J. There is much debate over how to interpret the historical evidence available to us and how it answers the questions raised by the theory of pseudonymous authorship.

Stephen J.

Freely available

John MacArthur. Marianne Meye Thompson. Making Sense of the Church. Wayne A. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg. Jensen's Survey of the New Testament. Irving L. Christian Hope through Fulfilled Prophecy. Charles S. The Parables of Jesus. Tim Ware. Timothy George. Life Study of Matthew. Witness Lee. Romans Teach the Text Commentary Series. Marvin Pate. Stan Campbell. Gospel of God.

New Testament Commentary by a Mathematician. Victor Porton. Peter J. John Gerald L. Tom Taylor. Stephen Wellum. Numbers Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. David L. Joe Blair. Johannine Theology. Paul A.

A Shorter Life of Christ. Donald Guthrie. New Testament Theology and Ethics. Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World. Frederick J. Romans Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. Cary Holbert. Donald A. James W. Philippians Verse by Verse. Grant R. The Dad who Left me. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark. John R. Donahue SJ. Daniel J. John Wesley. First the Antichrist. Bob Gundry. Our Spiritual Inheritance. Ed Skidmore. The Navigators.

Read More From Karen H. Jobes

Holy People, Holy Land. Jobes is the Gerald F. The author of several works, she has also been involved in Bible translation. She and her husband are members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. High-quality video lectures and interactive reading materials are further enhanced by Cerego. Their next generation learning engine applies adaptive learning and memory science to enhance how you learn, study, and remember. All of your lessons are taught by scholars, designed by educators, and enhanced by Cerego.

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