Seven points of reference for a first-century church
Hermeneutics always has an ecclesial context and biblical interpretation is invariably formatted by this context. Nothing proceeds in a vacuum: we all examine where we are through the lens of our own world-view. If that rather obvious statement is accepted, then we may bring the documents of the New Testament under scrutiny as indirect statements of early church contexts. What, then, may we make of the church of St Jude? Can we construct a picture of an early Christian community from this short text?
The book of Jude is special both in its brevity of content and its gravity of judgement. Despite that brevity, it overflows with fascinating Old Testament and extra-canonical references and allusions: lessons from Israel in the Wilderness (Numbers 14 as in 1 Corinthians 10, Hebrews 3 and 4); the angels that sinned, (Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28, Genesis 6); the strange events in Sodom and Gomorrah, (Genesis 18 & 19); Michael and Satan’s contention over the body of Moses, (Deuteronomy 34, Revelation 11-12) and other insights from Cain, Balaam, Korah, (Genesis 4, Numbers 16, 22-25, 31) as well as the mysterious Enoch (Genesis 5.).
What deductions can we make about this level of intertextuality and about the community over which Jude claimed some level of authority? Of course, this very enterprise may be considered over-speculative. A recent commentary (Davids 2006) concluded that despite numerous hypotheses concerning date, provenance, addressees, milieu of composition and theology promoted by the false teachers whom Jude (and 2 Peter) denounce, there simply is not enough unambiguous situation-specific, internal or external evidence to make confident conclusions in these areas. So what –tentative- conclusions may be drawn? Let us address the evidence.
1. Jude is writing to a predominantly Jewish community
Clearly, the text speaks to a community that is thoroughly conversant with the history of Israel. Quick-fire factual phrases (“the way of Cain… the error of Balaam… the rebellion of Korah”) are stated rather than explained. It is not just a matter of locating these personages within the stories of Israel’s history, but of understanding their import for Jude’s precise denunciation of the heretical teachers with whom he had taken issue. Sometimes a level of ambiguity prevents precise interpretation: Is, for example, the “way of Cain” the destructive spirit that led to fratricide or the offering of sacrifices that were not acceptable? Is “the error of Balaam” a greed which led to using a prophetic gift for gain, or his spiritual blindness to an angel standing in his path with drawn sword? Is the “rebellion of Korah” the offering of “strange fire” or his challenge to the authority of Moses? Or –to put it quite simply- could we say that Cain, Balaam and Korah all refused correction? –and that they were obvious examples of rebellious men and of the punishment their conduct incurred (cf Genesis 4:8-16; Numbers 16:1-35; 31:16)? After all, Jude’s letter is a warning to teachers who were challenging his authority.
At any rate, one might reasonably assume that the church to whom Jude was writing was (or at least predominantly) a Jewish Christian community. By comparison, Paul makes far less demand upon his audience’s knowledge of ancient Jewish history, even within the tight reasoning of Romans 9-11 where it would have been quite understandable. It is an easy first step, then, to determine the Jewish flavour of Jude. Some of the older writers such as Farrar (1882) Wand (1934) and McNeile (1953) have readily pointed this out, as have some more recent scholars, such as Green (1968) Grundmann (1974), Eybers (1975), Ellis (1978), Bauckham (1990) and Davids (2006). The main point to which they all refer is Jude’s extensive use of the Old Testament (Rowston 1971: 37-45; Bauckham 1983b: 114-117).
Further, Chaine (1939: 277, 317), Kelly (1969:271f) and Chase (1899:801) each note that one of Jude’s OT allusions (Prov 25:14= Jude 12) cannot be dependent on the Septuagint because it does not even give the meaning he adopts. Secondly, the allusion to Ezekiel 34:2 in Jude 12 is much closer to the Hebrew than to the Septuagint (Bauckham 1983a: 87; 1990: 137). In a third instance, Kelly (1969: 274) notes that the allusion to Isa 57:20 in Jude 13 “most probably” derives from the Hebrew text rather than the Septuagint.
Gathering these neglected facts together, Bauckham (1990:137) refutes “the usual assumption that Jude’s knowledge of the Old Testament was dependent on the Septuagint,” suggesting instead a close familiarity with the Hebrew Bible. When a specific verse came to mind, that is to say, Jude never uses the Septuagint to recall it. This conclusion does not negate the possibility of a predominantly Gentile community, of course, but it makes it much more likely that Jude is making an appeal through the common currency of a shared tradition.
2. Jude is writing to a Palestinian Jewish community
Jude’s use of the Hebrew text tells us more about “Jude” than it does about the church to whom he was writing, but it is suggestive –no more- of a traditionally based community which was more Jewish than Greek. The next step is to determine whether this Jewish community is based in the Diaspora or in Palestine. Hahn (1981) assessed additional lines of enquiry, noting the use of 1 Enoch and the probable use of Enoch in Aramaic.
Jude’s use of the non-canonical 1 Enoch has provoked a flurry of responses throughout the long years of the Church: Based upon the single citation in v14f, Tertullian wanted to add Enoch to the canon of Scripture, and Jerome wanted to exclude Jude from it. Over the last century or so, when few scholars have questioned Jude’s dependence on 1 Enoch, some still worried over a direct quotation from a non-canonical source (Mayor 1907, Green 1968; Guthrie 1970; Ellis 1978; Kugelman 1980).
Once more, there is a scholarly tradition (Mayor 1907; Chaine 1939; Green 1968; Kummel 1975) asserting Jude’s use of a Greek version of Enoch. This was felt to be validated by the discovery in 1892 of the Akhmim Greek fragment, which includes 1:9. Zahn’s thesis (1909: 287) has yet to be refuted, however, that certain features of the quotation are only viable if Jude used a Semitic original and this view gained a certain measure of credence from the discovery of an original Aramaic text of 1 Enoch at Qumran (4QEnc 1:1:15-17).
Even aside from the quotation at v14f, many modern scholars (E.g. Black 1973; Osburn 1977; Wolthius 1987; Bauckham 1990; inter alia) emphasise the widespread usage of 1 Enoch in v4, 6, in vv12-13, and 16. It is unquestionable that Jude shows detailed familiarity with parts of the Enoch literature and that 1 Enoch 1-5 was a significant source in constructing the main body of his letter (vv4-19).
For our purposes here, as we consider the church for whom this explicit usage was quite reasonable, we may note the conclusion of some scholars (Grundman 1974; Eybers 1975) that the usage of Enoch generally (and if a Semitic text was used, specifically) adds further weight to a Palestinian Jewish provenance. Additionally, Wand (1934) suggested that the very use of apocryphal apocalyptic literature is an indicator of authenticity and of an early Palestinian provenance. As for Jude’s citing intertestamental literature as prophecy, Davids (2006) emphasises the fluidity of “canon” and acknowledges the likelihood of a Palestinian Jewish provenance.
Bauckham (1983, 1990) has also drawn attention to the style of exegesis employed in Jude vv5-19 and demonstrated cogently its association with the Jewish “pesher” style of exegesis found at Qumran. This cannot be more than referenced here, but the Palestinian background may be said at this point to be probable.
3. Jude is writing to reinforce a strongly eschatological/ apocalyptic worldview.
The third assumption that may be made about this community is that it had a strongly eschatological worldview. It may be argued that this was the emphasis of Jude against an opposite view which prevailed, but it can still be argued that the community was completely conversant with Jewish apocalyptic texts. By contrast, in 1 Cor 15, Paul asserts apocalyptic eschatology against denials of it, as does 2 Peter 3. It is fair to say that Jude’s apocalyptic is the world-view within which he naturally thinks and which he assumes his readers accept.
Jude has often been characterized as concerned almost exclusively with harsh judgment. Kelly (1969) described modern readers as being “put off by Jude’s almost unrelievedly denunciatory tone,” but Jude holds salvation and judgement in a tight tension as one would expect in an eschatalogically oriented community.
The theme of eschatological salvation is stated in the appeal from v 21-24, in which Jude exhorts his readers to be “looking forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.” The counterbalance to this positive picture is the theme of judgment, though in Jude the theme of judgment is not only a future eschatological event but past and present are woven together with the future to produce a rich tapestry of intimations, allusions, and interpretations. Yet allusions to past and present judgment are still part of the eschatological orientation of the epistle, for they contribute to understanding the theme of a future judgment. Such a relationship between past and future is one of the main features of the apocalyptic genre and Jude’s perspective is clearly informed by this orientation.
The apocalyptic genre has at its root the principle that primordial events are understood to have paradigmatic significance for the readers in their own time. In Jude, explicit references to past judgment have been grouped together by the author into two sets of three. The first triad, verses 5-7, summarizes three illustrations of judgment gathered from stories of the past: the Israelites being destroyed in the wilderness, the disenfranchised angels being kept in chains awaiting judgment, and Sodom and Gomorrah being punished with eternal fire. In the second triad in v11, as noted above, the merest mention of three infamous characters (Cain, Balaam and Korah) is sufficient enough to conjure up images of rebellion and impending judgment.
While the emphasis of this triad is on the execution of punishment, the evidence brought against each of them is also mentioned in a participial clause: the wilderness wanderers were those “who did not believe;” the disenfranchised angels were those “who did not keep their own dominion, but abandoned their proper dwelling,” and the cities were those which “indulged in sexual immorality and went after different flesh.” With respect to future judgment, the strongest statement is the quotation of Enoch’s prophecy in vv14-15.
The parousia, which is anticipated as the time of eschatological salvation, is in this text announced as the time of eschatological judgment. The text of Jude, then, far from dealing with a “delay of the Parousia” lives with both its imminent expectation and its present expression, much as the earliest letters of Paul did. This locates the letter within the earliest years of the Christian church and strongly within the milieu of apocalyptic Jewish Christianity.
4. Jude is writing to a community with a highly developed angelology
These descriptors of the community operate like concentric circles which develop definition: it is a first- century Jewish community, probably still based upon the precepts of Hebrew writings; it is located in Palestine and it has a sharply defined eschatological/ apocalyptic worldview. Further, -and reasonably, within these parameters- it would seem to have a highly developed angelology.
Within the twenty-five verses of Jude there are three significant references to angels. In v6 the angels who “did not keep their station,” are roundly condemned; in v9, the archangel Michael contends with the devil and in v14 “the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his holy ones”.
We may see here, on the simplest level, that the fallen angels of v6 symbolise the usurpation of authority that Jude’s opponents represent; the archangel Michael in v9 is a symbol, in a sense, of the Spirit that is in Jude contending with the Spirit of the [?] Antichrist (in the opponents); and the “myriads of holy ones” are a reminder of God’s judgement soon to come. But there is a richer context, since the study and worship of angels provides something of a subtext to a considerable portion of New Testament Christianity. L.T.Stuckenbruck’s 1995 monograph Angel Veneration and Christology provides a comprehensive coverage of views, and Gleason’s recent (2005) NTS article on “Angels and Eschatology in Hebrews 1,2” reminds us of how closely tied in 1st century thinking the study and worship of angels was to a strongly developed eschatological worldview. This is a well-argued line of discussion which was summarised in Rowland’s powerful analysis of Christian and Jewish apocalyptic thought in the 1982 classic Open Heaven.
The reliance upon angels for national deliverance and personal protection within Second Temple Judaism presumably posed a threat to the pre-eminence of Christ among Jewish Christians. It is clear that there were distorted teachings on angels among first-century readers that demanded correction. Are these distortions part of the worldview of Jude’s community?
D.E.Stevens’ dissertation ‘La notion juive des “anges des nations” à la lumière du texte biblique’ is instructive here (PhD Diss 1999: 238–47). Stevens connects the ancient Jewish belief in angelic guardians stalking the borders of the Land (e.g. Gen 28.12–17; 32.1–2, 25; Num 22.22–3, 31; Josh 5.13–15) with the expression ‘gods of the nations’ (2 Kgs 18.33; 19.12; Isa 36.11) through LXX interpretations and Qumran elaborations to a second Temple concept of “anges des nations.” The notion of guardian angels set over nations is expressed most dramatically in the book of Daniel, where it is recounted that Daniel mourned for three weeks over the desolation of Jerusalem until an angelic messenger arrived with a message of encouragement for him (Dan 10.2–12). The angel explained that he was delayed by ‘the Prince of Persia’ for 21 days until Michael ‘came to help’ him (Dan 10.13). After delivering his message the angel informed Daniel that he must ‘return to fight against the Prince of Persia [and] Greece’ (10.20).
Ever since Origen’s Homilies on Luke, there has been a line of commentators who understand Daniel 10 to refer to guardian angels set over nations. The angel Michael is described as ‘one of the chief princes (Dan 10.13) . . . who stands [guard] over’ the Jewish nation (Dan 12.1). Conversely, many have understood the ‘prince of Persia [and] Greece’ (10.13, 20) to refer to malevolent national angels due to a clear parallel with Michael. These traditions gave rise to the belief in angels set over nations within Second Temple Judaism (e.g. T. Levi 5.3–7; 1Enoch 56.5–6; Jub. 15.31–2).
Angels appear sporadically throughout the OT as God’s agents. They revealed messages to his prophets (1 Kgs 13.18; Ezek 9.1–7; Zech 1.9–14, 19; 2.3; Dan 7.16; 9.21–2), provided protection for his people (Gen. 19.11; 2 Kgs 6.15–18; Dan. 6.22), and executed judgment upon his enemies (Gen 19.12ff.; Num 22.33; 2 Sam 24.16; Ps 35.3–6; 78.49; Isa 37.36). Later Jewish literature evidences a growing fascination with angels, which is particularly true in the apocalyptic writings of the Second Temple period where speculation regarding their numbers, names, and functions reached new heights. Significantly, an increasing role was attributed to angelic protectors during times of national crisis.
The prominent role of angels in Israel’s deliverance is evident in much of the Jewish literature circulating in Palestine by the first century AD. A clear example is the War Scroll (1QM) found at Qumran which provides a vivid picture of the apocalyptic worldview of contemporary Judaism. The text foretells an eschatological conflict consisting of seven battles between the sons of light (that is, the members of the community, or Yahad), and the sons of darkness (that is, the Romans, or Kittim, and wicked Israelites). God eventually triumphs over ‘Belial and all [his] angels’ by destroying ‘all the men of his forces . . . forever’ (1QM 1.14). The descriptions of this conflict mention the presence of ‘holy angels’ fighting alongside the sons of light (e.g. 1QM 7.5; 12.3, 8; 4Q491 f1-3.1, 10). In the final battle God sends ‘help’ through Michael the archangel, who leads them and their angelic escorts to a decisive victory. Another Qumran text (4Q529) records Michael encouraging ‘the angels’ with the report of an elite angelic force defending Mount Zion, declaring: ‘I found there fiery troops.’ As a reward for his victory God promises to ‘exalt the authority of Michael among the gods’ (1QM 17.7–8).
Most of this assembled evidence may simply indicate a common tradition between Jude, Qumran and the apocalyptic Judaism of the Second Temple period. However, it is significant that the key features: the presence of Michael as an angelic protector, an eschatological conflict, judgement and contention for the faith is framed in the language of Jewish apocalyptic drawn from 1 Enoch and elsewhere and reshaped into an early Christian worship of Jesus. It provides a distinctive identity matrix for Jude’s community.
5. Jude is writing to a Davidide community
In any analysis of Jude’s church close attention must be paid to the work of Richard Bauckham both through his 1983 commentary, various journal articles and his 1990 monograph Jude and the Relatives of Jesus. One of the most intriguing lines of discussion that the latter work pursues is the probability that the family of Jesus –including Jude, of course- enjoyed a particular status in 1st Century Jewish Christianity. This derives partially from the statement by Justin Africanus found in Eusebius’ EH 1.7.14 about Jesus relatives referred to as the desposynoi (“those who belong to the master”):
“From the Jewish villages of Nazareth and Kokhaba they travelled around the rest of the land [most likely a reference to Eretz Israel] and interpreted the genealogy they had [from the family tradition] and from the Book of Days [i.e. Chronicles] as far as they could trace it [or: as far as they went on their travels].”
Bauckham’s conclusion is that the relatives of Jesus were the theological heart of the Jesus movement in Palestine and set its theological course. Their work reveals that they developed a Christology based on three legs: (1) Davidic messianism, (2) “Enochic” apocalypticism, and (3) pesher exegesis.
Bauckham’s thesis also derives from the earlier work of Rowston (1971, 1975) who also suggested a provenance for the letter of Jude within Palestinian “dynastic Christianity” which “in the second generation of the early church looked to the relatives of Jesus as authorities.” Bauckham takes Rowston’s suggestion much further and, indeed, provides a convincing rationale. Bauckham’s discussion of both the early Jewish Christian mission in Galilee led by Jesus’ relatives from Nazareth/Kokhaba during the first generation of the Jesus movement and the Davidic messianism contained in the Lukan genealogy. Luke’s family tree reveals that Jesus’ Davidic line runs not through Solomon (as Matthew’s does), but through the lesser known son of David, Nathan, who is linked then to Zerubbabel. The genealogy is not Luke’s creation and reveals a pre-Lukan traditional genealogy that traced the line from David to Nathan to Zerubbabel.
The striking assertion by Bauckham is that Luke’s genealogy derived from Jesus’ family. Thus, as Bauckham avers: “We must now see the family of Jesus as Davidides, conscious, through family tradition, of the hopes of Davidic restoration which had been cherished in their line since Zerubabbel . . . the tradition may not have been important to Jesus himself, but it was there to be activated and developed when Jesus’ relatives became some of his most convinced and dedicated followers” (Bauckham 1990).
Hegesippus (c..AD 110-c.180), mentions descendants of Jude living in the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96). Eusebius relates the following in his Historia Ecclesiae ((3,19f):
“But when this same Domitian had commanded that the descendants of David should be slain, an ancient tradition says that some of the heretics brought accusation against the descendants of Jude (said to have been a brother of the Saviour according to the flesh), on the ground that they were of the lineage of David and were related to Christ himself. Hegesippus relates these facts in the following words. “Of the family of the Lord there were still living the grandchildren of Jude, who is said to have been the Lord’s brother according to the flesh. “Information was given that they belonged to the family of David, and they were brought to the Emperor Domitian by the Evocatus. For Domitian feared the coming of Christ as Herod also had feared it. And he asked them if they were descendants of David, and they confessed that they were. Then he asked them how much property they had, or how much money they owned. And both of them answered that they had only nine thousand denarii, half of which belonged to each of them; and this property did not consist of silver, but of a piece of land which contained only thirty-nine acres, and from which they raised their taxes and supported themselves by their own labour.” Then they showed their hands, exhibiting the hardness of their bodies and the callousness produced upon their hands by continuous toil as evidence of their own labour. And when they were asked concerning Christ and his kingdom, of what sort it was and where and when it was to appear, they answered that it was not a temporal nor an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly and angelic one, which would appear at the end of the world, when he should come in glory to judge the quick and the dead, and to give unto every one according to his works. Upon hearing this, Domitian did not pass judgment against them, but, despising them as of no account, he let them go, and by a decree put a stop to the persecution of the Church. But when they were released they ruled the churches because they were witnesses and were also relatives of the Lord. And peace being established, they lived until the time of Trajan. These things are related by Hegesippus.
From a note in the Bodleian manuscript (Barocc. 142 De Boor in “Texte und Unters.”, V, ii, 169) the names of the grandsons are given as James and Zoker (Zechariah). There are some fascinating points made in this discursive narrative, quite apart from its historicity. Firstly, of course, we note that Jude is sufficiently well-known to be the point of reference for his grandchildren. In the second place, James and Zoker are described as adults living at c AD 90, which puts Jude’s own potential church leadership period back between AD 50-70. Again, the term ”family of David” is evidently a title of respect, which largely substantiates Bauckham’s thesis, for the information is given that they “ruled the churches because they were witnesses and were also relatives of the Lord.” Of great interest, finally, is the theology of their testimony. When ”asked concerning Christ and his kingdom” they replied that it was “heavenly and angelic.” The intriguing use of the descriptor “angelic” has a resonance with the angelology of Jude’s text. Further, the eschatological framework of their reply, that judgement “would appear at the end of the world, when [Christ] should come in glory to judge the quick and the dead” doubtless echoes later credal formulations but still sits well with the apocalyptic orientation of Jude’s epistle.
6. Jude is writing to a coastal community
The nautical imagery in Jude is striking. Wallace (2006) notes a series of somewhat inelegant phrases that he suggests show signs of interpolation.The mention of spilades in v12 is jarring, to say the least. Assuming that 2 Peter uses Jude (and not vice versa), then it is quite understandable that spilades is sanitised into spiloi since “spots, blemishes” is a reading calling for little explanation, but “hidden rocks” requires much more. The parallel text in Peter is certainly “spots” (spiloi). But here (in Jude) the manuscript evidence is strongly in favour of the RV reading: “hidden rocks” (spilades), a feminine noun linked with a masculine article or pronoun in such a way as to suggest: ‘These are they (who are) hidden rocks at your Love Feasts’. But is not this term, “hidden rocks”, hopelessly out of place in such a context?
There seem to be a few possibilities here. Either this rare word spilades carried the wider meaning of “ugly extrusion”, (there is some fourth century evidence to this effect), or else Jude (assuming here a use of 2 Peter), caught by the similarity between the two words, was deliberately creating the sinister picture of a smooth tranquil sea suddenly made to boil and foam by a hidden reef just breaking the surface (1 Tim. 1:10). If this is correct, then spilades was introduced by Jude to prepare the way for a similar and even more graphic idea in v13.
Alternatively, perhaps Jude’s choice of phrase is influenced by the community to whom he was writing. It is sometimes suggested that the writer of Revelation imported local information to colour his “letters to the seven churches.” Perhaps Jude is doing the same. This possibility gathers cogency with the striking series of nautical images that follow. In v13, Jude’s opponents are further characterised as “wild waves” (kumata agria). The waves are like untamed animals, swelling themselves up, and “foaming out” (epaphrizonta). The late and rare present active participle of epaphriz-, used in Moschus for the foaming waves as here. Isa 57:20 contains the similar idea: “The wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud.” Jude is clearly using imagery with which his audience is familiar, but is it from a knowledge of scripture or from the geography of their community? The “clouds without water” (nephelai anudroi) which are whirled around, has given a powerful picture of disappointed hopes and frittered opportunity. The skittish clouds promise refreshment but provide none. Jude is offering something of a Turner-esque seascape which is further evoked by the “over-swollen” (huperongkos) words of his opponents
In the phrase “raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame,” note that the word “shame” is actually plural which probably reflects Hebraic usage, to suggest “great shame. Jude describes the unattractive prospect of an ebbing tide leaving scum and froth and filth lining the beach. The final image is that of “wandering stars,” (asteres planetai). The phrase is a hapax legomena and some commentators (Wand 1934, Black 1973 inter alia) have suggested comets, shooting stars or a link to Isaiah 14:12 for an allusion to Babylon as the day-star who fell through pride, but the link is tenuous. The context suggests a simpler solution: that the asteres planetai are unreliable guides to sailors who depend on the sure guidance that the stars provide.
Thus the false teachers are seen in these pictures to be dangerous, immoral and untrustworthy as leaders. Two comments should be made about these nautical illustrations: (1) Although it is possible to find Jewish parallels/sources for the second and third, they are not very convincing. Further, no Jewish parallels have been put forth for the first analogy. (2) It is true that Jude also uses agricultural imagery throughout this epistle, but most of this is already found in 2 Peter, would be common to his own background, and does have excellent parallels in the OT and other Jewish materials. These two considerations seem to support the conclusion that Jude has gone out of his way to introduce this nautical imagery.
Wallace’s (2006) conclusion is that this indicates Ephesus and some commentators concur. The suggestion fails to convince, however, since contemporary Ephesus with its wide enclosed harbour, sluggish waters and continual silting problem is hardly connoted by the phrase “wild waves” or “hidden reefs.” If one wished to connect with the local inhabitants, other phrases might have worked better. Another explanation, given the cumulative weight of other points here, is that Jude is writing to a church on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Joppa, for example, was known for its hidden reefs, its unpredictable waves and drastic currents. A rather solemn tourist guide (2008) indicates that “the Tel Aviv shoreline is known for its unpredictable waves, especially in winter season. The municipality has poured hundreds of tons of rocks about 300 meters from the shore at selected locations, to protect swimmers and beachgoers from the seasonal seven foot waves and in an effort to reduce the drastic effect of currents. Each year several kids drown along the Israeli coast.”
7. Jude is writing to a community familiar with prophetic utterance
If Joppa is a possible destination point, it reminds us of one of the earliest Palestinian Christian settlements and the context of visions and prophetic utterance that birthed the church there.
v17f reads thus: “But you, my dear friends, should remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, how they said to you, ‘In the last age there will be scoffers, who follow their own desires for ungodliness.”
Barclay’s terse comments on vv17-19 (1986: 199) are characteristic among commentators: “The actual words of Jude’s quotation are not in any New Testament book…He may be quoting some apostolic book which we no longer possess. He may be quoting not a book but an oral tradition… or some sermon, which he himself had heard from the apostles…” The suggestion of an oral tradition seem quite likely. Jude is referring to apostolic utterance (rhematon) from the founders of the church. He is recalling them to it. The context, following hard upon the Enoch citation, is interesting. Is Jude suggesting a thought-connection between ancient prophecies and modern prophecies? Again, both prophecies are framed eschatalogically; both imply impending judgement; both emphasise the Lordship of God over the age of men. But to whom were these prophecies aimed?
There is something like consensus (but not unanimity) among scholars on Jude’s opponents being a form of proto-Gnosticism (Bauckham 1990: 162-167) since they distinguish between psychics (or, rather, ordinary, soul-centred Christians) and pneumatics (spirit-centred). Jude 19: “These people who make the distinction are themselves psychics as they do not have the Spirit.”
But if this is contemporary prophecy (in the sense that Irenaeus referred to as “the voices of the church” (AH 2) then the term “Gnostic” may well be anachronistic, and too prescriptive. It might quite easily be a tendenz rather than a full-blown heresy.
Here then are seven points of reference for a first-century church. This creates a fascinating insight into the thought-world of at least one section of the early church. It has, of course, a pre-canonical perspective with a fluid view of inspiration. Some of the appraisals of Jude have used this as a weapon to attack biblical inspiration but this is an anachronistic error. It is surely more profitable to consider the vitality of that early Christian context.
The text of Jude reveals the pre-history of “canon”, and of an early Jewish Christian community where 1 Enoch (or one version of it) is mixed in with a high degree of apocalyptic expectation, and the sayings of early Christian prophets, and devotion to “our master, the Lord Jesus Christ.” In this context, prophecy becomes the hallmark of canonicity.
Further, we are given a picture of a church which is completely familiar in the letters of Paul, John, Peter and James: where every step of the itinerant Christian teacher is dogged by itinerant teachers of differently nuanced belief and practice. It is evidently a picture of a community where Jew and Christian have not yet formally separated. The Jewish literature is mixed in with what will become characteristically “Christian” literature. The crack in the ground has not yet formed the Grand Canyon of a fixed unbridgeable chasm.
The book of Jude represents a moment in time of a multicultural mosaic: Jew, Christian, Gentile, Pagan, the struggle for purity and self-understanding… From a pastoral context of West London, one sees something possibly not too dissimilar every day, where different communities of Christians jostle for identity amidst a supermarket range of belief-options. Belief-patterns, swirl, shift and coalesce. Perhaps the overall pattern of the mosaic is more valuable ultimately than the drive towards Constantine’s monoculturalism (on the one hand) or a ghetto-church particularism (on the other).