“This second letter, beloved, I now write to you”
— 2 Peter 3:1
Bishop John A.T. Robinson thought this alluded to the earlier Epistle of Jude, not to the First Epistle of Peter as traditionally understood. This would mean that the Second Epistle of Peter was not written by Peter — hence the difference in style from the First Epistle — but rather by Jude who, writing less as Peter’s amanuensis and more at Peter’s behest, inserted into the middle of his writing a revision of his own earlier letter, the Epistle of Jude. In other words, what we know as the second chapter of the Second Epistle of Peter is actually a revision of the Epistle of Jude.
This might be confusing but I find any new angle like this interesting even though I might not ultimately be convinced. What is obvious to scholars is that one of these texts — either Jude or 2 Peter 2 — was written in reliance upon the other. What is not so obvious is which way this dependency goes. In other words, which one was written first? Bishop Robinson thought it was Jude.
I loved Robinson’s 1976 book, Redating the New Testament, which I read not long after it was first published. It was a favorite of mine and I read it over and over. This was probably the beginning of my interest in New Testament chronology. His book taught me to rely on scholarship and also taught me to question the changing academic fashions of 19th and 20th century “orthodoxy” when it came to these matters. A scholarly “consensus” is often asserted when it is merely the majority view and a wide range of opinions and disagreements still exist. It simplifies the field for the convenience of new seminarians and the educated public, but it can also be misleading.
I used to devote a lot of time to New Testament chronology. It opens up many insights into what individual New Testament texts are about.
I enjoy the way meticulous details shape the bigger picture. Even more, I enjoy how they shape my imagination, and how my imagination gives flavor to my interpretations.
Lately I haven’t engaged in much chronological research, however, because I’m realizing that my obsessiveness about getting everything right is not good for me. I’ve long had an obsessiveness about a text’s linguistic details as well. A certain drivenness seems to grab hold of me, so that — while I might be concerned about how the things I learn relate to their bigger picture, including the context that includes us and our contexts (what preachers call the “application”) — what I don’t see is my own immediate lived life and how this drivenness itself affects me, what it is and where it comes from, and whether it is leading me closer home, that is, toward a more authentic life.
I’m looking for a healthy balance so I’m not a casualty of my own introversion. I’ll always be an introvert, no doubt, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but any obsessiveness that’s too narrow is probably not healthy.
Commitment is not the same as obsession,
and obsessiveness is not the same as discipline.
I find that in my case, what is behind my obsessiveness, what is driving it, is something I don’t really want: a demand that’s in the wrong place, or is probably misguided — with the source of which (namely, vestiges of childhood trauma) I want to have a different and healthier relationship.
I want to own and embrace my imperfection, and my ignorance of things, without shame or self-loathing. Become “poor in spirit,” in other words. For all the interior distance I have traveled, this is still difficult for me.
Lately I’ve been in a lot of pain. When I had a filling repaired, it sealed an infection inside my tooth. When it had nowhere to go, pressure built up quickly and the infection spread along my jawline from ear to chin. I had an emergency root canal procedure done which released the pressure, though the tooth drained for four days before it could finally be sealed. It is doing better now — though I still can’t let up on the pain medication — but for about a week the pain was quite severe.
When my concentration is broken like this, and I don’t have the strength to keep my obsessions at bay, my obsessiveness can revisit me.
Recently when I was distracting myself on Facebook (I deleted the app but it still tempts me), I inflicted on others my thoughts about 2 Peter and Jude because something my dear brother (a fellow Franciscan) had posted “triggered” this demon of mine. It is inappropriate stuff for Facebook, more appropriate for my blog. So I thought I should transplant my thoughts here, in case there was anyone interested, instead of just deleting them.￼
My remarks really do emerge from the past, however, for it has been a long time since I thought about these two barely canonical epistles. Not all of the great Christian communions accept their canonical status. I wrote — and am writing —this without my notes or textbooks available, just off the top of my head. So I hope you take it that way, however it sounds.
My own approach to these epistles is as a historian and textual scholar. I’m not asserting that they should or should not be canonical or given that kind of authority. I’m not judging their content at all; I’m just trying to figure out what their content in fact is.
I think a text should speak for itself rather than having its authority imposed on it from the outside. What a text says to each of us emerges from a dialogue of the “here” and “there.” When we read something, we project ourselves into the words, and, as we respect and pay closer attention to the words and their infinity of contexts, our projections shift accordingly, and back and forth we go. What we ultimately hear, however, will depend entirely on who and what we bring to this exchange. What a text says will change, depending on how much we notice about the text and its contexts (depending on our conscious and unconscious filters) and what our own changing contexts are.
The text really can speak to us in new and fresh and living ways, but what we are hearing is what our perception of it constructs in that space between the text and ourselves. I’m not saying that there is no “objective” text on the other side of this exchange. I’m just saying that I don’t really know what “objective” means in this case (aside from the actual physicality of the script); and if such an objectivity of textual meaning were to exist, we would never be able to know what it is in any case. Our very act of observation – the act itself — already changes the nature of what we are observing. We can’t get there.
In other words, traditional ways of framing “the authority of the Bible” — unless we’re only speaking childishly about material facts (which the “Bible” often gets wrong) —are nonsensical from a post-modern perspective.
So here is my embarrassing Facebook comment, after I cleaned it up and embellished it a bit:
2 Peter and Jude
The Sixties of the Common Era
First, About 2 Peter
My own calculus is that the apostle Peter might indeed have sent out what we know as the Second Epistle on the eve of his death. It is not as beautifully composed as the First Epistle but in my view it is authentic, written in the middle of the seventh decade of the common era (Peter’s martyrdom was around 66), even though other scholars might place it decades later in the early part of the second century.
In this letter, especially in what we call the second chapter, the author “predicts” — or, rather, warns about — what was likely to arise within the Messianic assemblies in the coming years.
What About 1 Peter?
The same hand, however, could not have written both the First and Second Epistles of Peter. However, if Peter wrote the Second Epistle (through an amanuensis), Peter’s preaching might still be the authority behind the First Epistle, one of the most beautiful of the New Testament epistles. When “Peter” wrote in 5:12 that
“through Silvanus, the faithful sibling, as I account him,
I have written to you briefly …”
it might indicate that Silvanus did more than write the letter at Peter’s dictation; Silvanus might actually have composed it from the sermons that Peter gave while Peter was staying in Rome. I think it is a collection of the sermons which Peter gave to the persecuted community, which Silvanus had transcribed at the time and then redacted into its present epistolary form.
The Epistle of James is an example of another collection of sermons redacted into a single epistle. (The prophetic writings of the Hebrew Scriptures are likewise collections of sermons, redacted over centuries by temple scribes.)
The Origin of the Gospel according to Mark
Mark’s gospel is actually Mark’s redaction of Peter’s new account of the Gospel which Peter unintentionally gave before an audience in Rome when he interwove what was before him in the two scrolls of Matthew and Luke — in an attempt to settle the dispute going on between Jewish and gentile followers of Jesus over which version of the Gospel was the right one to use when they broke bread.
Here I depart from the popular “Q Theory” of gospel origins. When I graduated from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York in 1993, I was given the Hitchcock award for having done the best work in the field of Church History. I was then accepted into the Ph.D. program to study the Early Church. My advisor and professor, one of the most distinguished scholars in the field, did not accept that there ever was any such thing as the “Q document.” He agreed with the Two-Gospel Hypothesis of gospel origins as opposed to the commonly accepted Two-Source Hypothesis. He encouraged me to also question the common view. I did my own research and I agree with him.
The Two-Gospel Hypothesis proposes that
- Matthew’s gospel was written first, based on eyewitness accounts (my calculation is that he published it around 52 C.E., ridiculously early from the point of view of the Two-Source Hypothesis);
- then Luke’s, based on Matthew’s gospel and his own interview of eyewitnesses (my calculation is that he finished it around 56 C.E.);
- and then Mark’s, a digest of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels with the addition of Peter’s own firsthand details (my calculation is that it was published around 68-70 C.E.).
I think that around the time Peter was in Rome, at least part of which was during Nero’s pogrom against the Christians in 64-68 C.E., besides preaching sermons, Peter was arbitrating various controversies between factions in the believing community.
One controversy had to do with the Gospel according to Luke.
Originally the Messianic groups would gather to recount stories of Jesus — the “Gospel” — and to break bread together in remembrance.
When Messianic communities began to spring up in areas beyond the reach of eyewitnesses, Matthew — staying in Antioch of Syria — organized his papyri and wrote the Gospel down on a single scroll to be copied and distributed among the scattered Messianic communities of the diaspora. It was written to be read in the course of a year, corresponding to the Babylonian lectionary of the diasporan synogogues. (The Palestinian synagogues used a three-year lectionary.) Matthew had in mind the Syro-Palestinian Jews that he knew, and selected and organized his text in seven sections — chapters 1–2 and 26–28 as a frame embracing a five book torah consisting of a narrative (aggadah) and teaching (halakah) section — as a sustained justification of the controversial gentile mission and to help the new communities sprouting up in the Diaspora. This scroll became the “Gospel” used in the Messianic assemblies outside of Palestine when they gathered to break bread.
Luke, however, a synagogue-attending gentile from Philippi of Macedonia, was converted by Paul’s preaching when he was traveling in Asia Minor. He decided to head to Palestine and do his own research. He decided that the Hellenistic assemblies of the Pauline mission would be better served by a different, more cosmopolitan, more blended telling of the Gospel, a narrative in the form of a Hellenic bio. So he wrote his own scroll, clearly with Matthew’s scroll open in front of him. He finished it and rejoined Paul as his co-worker in 56 C.E., at which point the “we” accounts of the Acts of the Apostles begin.
When Peter arrived in Rome the Jewish Messianic gatherings were using copies of Matthew’s gospel. The Messianic gatherings of mixed Jews and Gentiles, products of the Pauline mission, were probably using Luke’s gospel — or at least wanted Peter’s stamp of approval so they could use it.
Shouldn’t all the gatherings be using the same gospel? Wasn’t Matthew’s more Jewish gospel good enough, or did Luke’s Hellenistic one supercede it? Ethnic tensions were also involved.
To resolve the issue, Peter had taken the two scrolls, the Gospel according to Matthew and the cosmopolitan Gospel according to Luke, before an audience, and orally wove them together in order to affirm them both, adding his own memory of details, thus creating his own interpretive digest.
Though unintended, this digest soon became a third gospel. The audience included at least one scribe, John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. He and the other scribes (if any others were present) wrote it all down and in the next few years John Mark redacted the notes into their present form as the Gospel according to Mark.
Peter’s intention was to show the Messianic community that both scrolls accurately represented the single Gospel, to persuade the divided community to treat both of them as “scripture,” that is, writings to be read publicly in their gatherings with equal authority as authentic witnesses to the Gospel.
In the process, he inadvertently gave the same authority to a third scroll, the Gospel according to Mark, though Mark’s smaller scroll would not be published until after Peter’s death.
I think that the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. would be the terminus of when Mark would have finished his redaction. Jesus’ prophetic warning of that catastrophic event is formulaic enough in all three synoptic gospels that none of them seem to have been influenced by the actual event. Moreover, what all three got wrong was what was supposed to have immediately followed — and did not. Would they have left the scandal in place, or would they not have attempted to figure out what they got wrong?
The Seventies C.E.
After the predicted persecution in the 60s — when the great leaders of the church had all been martyred —and the predicted war on Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple had taken place, followers of Jesus were anticipating his immediate return in glory. Nothing happened. Not immediately. Ten years later nothing still had happened.
The Eighties C.E.
The eighties came. The church was scandalized and demoralized. People were falling away. New leaders arose who scrambled to bring new life into the Messianic movement. Old ideas resurfaced and found new traction, new ideas arose and sparked interest. Jesus’ Judaism became suspect. People were looking for something less material and more “spiritual.” They played with how they could reinterpret what they had learned, the old stories, and the old texts. This was the period of Docetism, of proto and nascent gnosticisms, and new stories about Jesus.
Jude Wrote in the Midst of this Confusion
James of Jerusalem, a brother of Jesus, is responsible for the earliest of the New Testament Epistles, the Epistle of James, written around 42 C.E.
Jude, another of the brothers of Jesus wrote the Epistle of Jude, in my view in the early 80s, during the period when the morale of the church had collapsed. It is not a particularly original writing since it basically took the warning contained in 2 Peter 2 alluding to the future, and made it speak of the present. Nevertheless, there is enough embellishment and license to make it an interesting historical read.
The Nineties C.E.
The Pauline Collection
The early nineties was the time when the writings of Paul were being gathered into a single collection in Ephesus by a bishop named Onesimus, a work that the apostle himself began when he wrote his Epistle to the Romans. Paul sent a copy to Ephesus along with his Epistle to the Galatians and his Corinthian correspondence. (Romans 16 was the “cover letter.”) The church, as an organic entity, was seeking to find its essence, to sum itself up, and things were happening in Ephesus, the center of the Pauline mission forty years earlier.
The Johannine Writings
What the church needed most at this time was not the scolding of Jude, however well intentioned, but the recapitulation of the Gospel itself, composed by a hardly-known elderly disciple who was originally from Bethany or Jerusalem, who had never been one of the apostles and was never mentioned in the synoptic gospels, and yet who had known Jesus personally as a young person. As Jesus was dying, Jesus gave the care of his mother into the hands of this unknown disciple. He or she took Jesus’ mother into their home after Jesus’ death. For the remaining decades of Mary’s life — during which the two of them migrated from Jerusalem to Ephesus — Mary of Jerusalem, the mother of Jesus, mentored this unheard of disciple into the essential meaning of the Gospel. We now know this anonymous disciple only as “the Elder” — implying one of the remaining few who was there “from the beginning” — who wrote the three Epistles of John, and who, as the “beloved disciple,” wrote the Gospel according to John. All four of these writings can be dated to the first half of the tenth decade of the common era (the gospel c. 90 and the letters between 90 and 95 C.E.).
The Scroll of the Revelation of Jesus Christ (the Apocalypse) came afterwards, written in 95 C.E. or shortly thereafter. It was also written in Ephesus, but by someone else, a prophet returned from exile, who had no relation to the Elder who wrote the last of the four canonical gospels.