“The Epistle of Jude” and the Jewishness of Christianity

by George Anastaplo

(First Friday Lecture Series, The University of Chicago – April 2, 2010)

I.

The Epistle of Jude, with its twenty-five verses, has been called “the most neglected text in the New Testament.”  It is the last text found today in the standard Bible before the final and dramatic Book of Revelation (or Apocalypse).  [[It seems fitting and proper that a text which is as “despised” as the Epistle of Jude seems to be should merit our attention on Good Friday, a day when the Divine is regarded as dreadfully eclipsed.]]  The remarkable brevity of this text permits us, despite its unfamiliarity, to make on this occasion a preliminary examination of all of it with some care.

Jesus Christ is referred to explicitly a half-dozen times in the fewer than five hundred words found in the Epistle of Jude.  Nothing at all is said explicitly, however, recalling either the career or the teachings of Jesus, although his apostles are quoted.  The primary concern is with what was considered the then-current disturbing distortion, by nominal adherents, of the way of life believed to have been prescribed by Jesus.

The author of the Epistle is given, at its outset, as “Jude, a servant [or, slave] of Jesus Christ . . .” In the original text, which is the Greek of the New Testament, the author’s name is Judas—but, considering what Judas Iscariot is generally believed to have done in betraying Jesus, the once venerable and quite popular name of “Judas” is rarely used by Christian translators even when it belonged to men who were exemplary in their careers.  This particular Jude is further identified as the brother of James, someone who is believed to have been both a brother (or half-brother or cousin) of Jesus himself and the first bishop of Jerusalem (after the Ascension of Jesus).

II.

The Greek of the Epistle of Jude is regarded as quite polished.  Some scholars acclaim this proficiency as indicative of the Hellenistic culture that prevailed among the multitudes of Jews in the Dispersion (or Diaspora), a proficiency that had developed among Jews well before the time of Jesus.  A grand monument of this Dispersion had been the Septuagint, the much-acclaimed translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, perhaps primarily for the many Jews in Egypt (and perhaps about 200 B.C.).

It has been said of the Septuagint that it probably “was the first work of substantial size ever to be translated into another language.”  (Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary, p. 770) This can be seen as providing the first major exposure of Judaism to the world at large, at least since the time of the centuries-long sojourn of the House of Jacob in Egypt.  The next major exposure of Judaism to Gentiles can be said to have been during the career of the Apostle Paul, a Jew raised (as a Roman citizen) on the other side of the Holy Land from Egypt.

Scholars seem uncertain as to when the Epistle of Jude was written, with informed estimates ranging from 62 A.D. to 81 A.D. and even later.  Some place Jude in the Holy Land, others in Egypt (perhaps in Alexandria).  It is likely that the epistle was written, evidently for general distribution, at a time when what we now know as “Christianity” was made up almost exclusively of Jews.

III.

The primary concern of the author of this Epistle of Jude seems to be with the everyday life of those addressed, people whom he evidently regarded as what we would call co-religionists.  Little is said directly about personal immortality or about Heaven or indeed about the very long run.  Of particular concern seems to be lust or lasciviousness—that is, perversions of the flesh.

Thus, the principal concern is not with what we would consider grand matters of state, but rather with the failings of everyday life.  Such an orientation, it would be argued by some, “naturally” follows among a Jesus-oriented cult which emphasizes personal choice and love.  Troubling concerns about the pitfalls of a love-oriented approach may be seen, in modern times, in such troubled and troubling explorations as Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure , a novel by an author obviously steeped in Biblical texts (who originally named his hero “Jack Hawley” rather than the “Jude Hawley” [Jude Holy?] he settled upon).

The Epistle of Jude, with its grounding in a gospel of love, is in striking contrast to what is emphasized in most of the Hebrew Bible.  The critical distraction for Jews under the old dispensation was not lasciviousness, but rather idolatry.  There may be seen here one of several critical indications of a vital difference between individual-oriented and community-oriented approaches to what we call “religion.”

IV.

When the author of Jude looks to the past for warnings about the risks run by those who defy divine authority (whatever such authority may concern itself with), seven events are explicitly drawn on.  Six of these—the first three and the last three—have to do with moral failures.  The central event provides a caution about the restraint needed even in chastising immoral beings, a restraint evidently not exhibited by the lustful contemporaries that Jude condemns.

The emphasis in the first three illustrations is on the misconduct of multitudes.  The second of these multitudes is that of the disobedient angels who are now kept chained in deepest darkness awaiting “the judgment of the great day.”  The third multitude were found in Sodom,  Gomorrah and the neighboring cities, long-destroyed places where lasciviousness had reigned.

The first multitude recalled by Jude consists of those, among the Israelites liberated from Egypt, who went thereafter woefully astray in the Desert.  Thus, at the outset of these seven recollections, those who have been liberated by what Jesus has offered are warned that one is not immune from subsequent divine condemnation simply because one has once enjoyed extraordinary divine favor.

V.

The central event (of the seven recalled by Jude) draws upon a story not found at all in the Scriptures that have long been regarded as authoritative, if not even as divinely inspired.  This central story, related in a non-Biblical text called “The Assumption of Moses,” recalls a contest between the Archangel Michael and the Devil for possession of the corpse of Moses.  Jude draws on this account, which shows the remarkable restraint of the Archangel even in criticizing the Devil—Jude uses the account to counter the slanders of those who (we have noticed) justify their lasciviousness by attacking their critics.

We can be reminded, by “the parade of horribles” in the Epistle of Jude which turn around a Devil-related episode, that the Devil (that is a malevolent Satan) is barely noticed in the Hebrew Bible.  Much more is made of him in the Greek Bible (or the New Testament), even though that text is less than one-third the length of its Hebrew predecessor.  That so much should turn around the corpse of Moses may reflect an awareness among Jude and his associates of the significance for them of the corpse of Jesus and its reported transformation.

These Jesus-people (who would eventually be generally known as “Christians”) confronted both some who doubted the Resurrection and others (especially among the Gnostics) who doubted the Incarnation (especially those who did accept the divinity of Jesus but who insisted he had never been truly human).  However that may have been, if much depends on Jesus for the person, for each individual, then it may be only natural that much should be made of a particularly ambitious “personality” (that is, Satan) who fiendishly attempts to divert one from such salvation.  Students of these matters cannot be properly confident of their understanding of the Bible if they should be unable to explain why pious Israelites had no need of the Devil in accounting for human sinfulness and communal disasters.

VI.

The final three episodes drawn on by Jude recall the careers of Cain, Balaam, and Korah.  Far less is said about these last three events than about those already referred to in the Epistle.  All of the seven events drawn on are recalled in the first half of this Epistle.

Scholars do speak of Jude as an author in command of a cultivated Hellenism.  Some place him, we have noticed, in the large Jewish community in Egypt, which makes it even more significant that he begins in his catalogue with Israelites liberated from Egyptian control who were “afterward destroyed” because they “did not believe.”  Thus, the cultivation that is noticed in the language of Jude—something not usually associated with the men originally around Jesus in the Gospels—is reflected in the care with which Jude’s list of significant “events” is crafted.

That care is further evident in what is done with Moses (who comes out of Egypt, as the family of the infant Jesus [after having fled from Herod] is sometimes said to have done).  Moses is “involved” in the opening, in the central, and in the closing parts of the seven events recalled by Jude (for “the rebellion of Korah” had been against the authority of Moses).  Thus, it seems, the emphasis for the followers of Jesus is to be on the Mosaic (or liberating) aspects of Israelite “history,” not on the Davidic (or political) or even the spiritual predecessors of Jesus.

VII.

The number seven we have noticed in the episodes used by Jude may also be seen, in passing, in the identification of Enoch (in the second half of this Epistle) as having been in the seventh generation from Adam (which number is gotten by counting Adam along with Enoch).  This Enoch is known, in the Hebrew Bible, as a man so righteous that he did not die but rather was taken alive by the Lord.  Was he, for Jude, somehow a predecessor of the Resurrected Jesus in this respect?

It may be wondered, of course, how divinely inspired this particular part of the Greek Bible truly is.  Jude evidently regarded the “Enoch” text drawn on by him as going back to the eminently righteous man described in Genesis.  Scholars seem to be generally agreed, however, that the text used by Jude had been crafted only a century or two before Jude, and not (much earlier) by the most distinguished Enoch.

Was it a matter of chance that Jude regarded this source as he did?  Was it also a matter of chance that he seemed to suggest that he and his contemporaries were already living in “the last time” predicted by the apostles of Jesus?  How astute, or inspired, had been those Christians, therefore, who insisted that the Epistle of Jude belonged in the Bible, and especially as the immediate predecessor to the Book of Revelation with its graphic accounts of “the last time”?

VIII.

However all this may be, there is evident in the Epistle of Jude a text (presumably from someone intimately connected with those close to Jesus) in which the deep Jewishness of Christianity is obvious.  If the Jewish foundations of Christianity should be demolished, what does that do to the soundness of the Christian edifice?  Indeed, is not that sometimes deadly hatred of Jews that we in the Western World know as “anti-Semitism” a particularly ignoble form of suicide by those “Christian” communities who thus indulge themselves?

What did the destruction by Pagans of the Jerusalem Temple, in 70 A.D., do to the status of Judaism among the peoples of the world?  Did it make all Jews vulnerable, a people that would be denied, for two millennia thereafter, an ancestral land of their own?  And has this contributed in turn to allowing Christianity to be dominated for almost two millennia by Gentiles?

Even so, these Christianized Gentiles—currently, two billion of them—are carriers of the profound influence of Judaism in the modern world.  Much the same can be said about another two billion people today, the Islamic peoples likewise grounded somewhat in the Hebrew Bible.  Thus, the spiritual descendants of Abraham (through either Isaac or Ishmael) can be said to help guide almost two-thirds of the entire human race today (even though the numbers of the Jews are comparable only to those of, say, the Sikhs, the Bahais, or the Mormons).

IX.

It should be obvious, therefore, that both Muslims and Christians very much depend on Jewish sources.  Less obvious may be how much Jews and Judaism have themselves been shaped by the Christian and Islamic faithful who make up two-thirds of the human race today.  Thus, the fifteen million or so Jews of our time would barely be known in the world today if they had not been both relied upon and shaped as the Jews and the world have long been by Christianity and Islam.

Among the developments among Diaspora Jews that should be noticed is what has followed upon their exposure to Classical learning, something which an intensely disciplined people has been able to put to considerable use (as testified to, these days, by the Nobel Prizes routinely awarded to Jews in remarkable numbers).  It is almost as if what the Greek artists, philosophers and mathematicians were was in anticipation of a people equipped to make substantial use of them generation after generation.  One consequence (perhaps a predictable consequence)  of this steady harvesting by Jews worldwide of the legacy of Greek literature, theology, and science has been that relatively few Jews today observe most of the everyday practices taken for granted by their pious forebears in Jesus’ time and place.

The Epistle of Jude, however “neglected” it may have always been destined to be, has managed to have a profound influence on Christendom.  For this Epistle provides, in its closing verses, language that is often said to be the most beautiful and moving doxology that has come out of the Bible, a doxology that is much recited worldwide by Christians (adapted here from the King James Version of the Bible):

Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever.  Amen.

How Jewish, it may be usefully wondered, is this Christian prayer in its presuppositions, aspirations, and expectations?

George Anastaplo’s publication include The Bible:  Respectful Readings (2008) and The Christian Heritage (2010).

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