The Letter of Saint Jude – a reflection part 2
by Fr Richard Copsey, O.Carm
Having looked at the contents of Jude’s letter, it is now time to consider what the letter can tell us about the author and whether it was written by Jude himself. It is worth starting by giving a warning that if you were to ask a learned scripture scholar about who wrote the letter of Jude then he or she would look at you with an expression that said “I wish you hadn’t asked that question”. Scholars are divided in their opinions and there is no agreed consensus of opinion. But let’s look at what indications we have.
Firstly the author is clearly Jewish for, not simply is he well acquainted with the Old Testament but he is also familiar with some of the apocryphal works which were not part of the canon or accepted works of the Old Testament but which were read by many Jews at that time. (Similar to the New Testament where there were many apocryphal works circulating in the early centuries and which only fell out of use when the present composition of the New Testament was formally accepted in the 4th century). The author of the letter of Jude quotes from two apocryphal works, the First Book of Enoch and The Assumption of Moses. This would indicate that the author was not only Jewish but well read and probably had studied in a rabbinic school like St Paul.
Secondly, the author has a good grasp of Greek and can not only read Greek well but also write well in Greek. As many will be aware, it is not difficult to acquire an ability to read in a foreign language, even if you have to go slowly with a dictionary in hand. But writing in a foreign language takes much more skill. Hence there is the question of how Jude the brother of James, coming from a small village in Galilee could have acquired this familiarity with the Old Testament and its apocryphal works and such a fluency in written Greek.
As for the date of the letter, again there are difficulties. It seem likely that the letter was written after the death of the apostles Peter and Paul as there is no reference to them, i.e. some time from 70 AD onwards. Conversely there is no reference to any of the four gospels which would suggest an early date. Mark’s gospel was written around 70 AD and Matthew and Luke some years later. Allowing for the difficulty of obtaining handmade copies of the gospels, this would indicate an approximate date between 70-90 AD, although some scholars argue for a later date, 90+ AD, because of the problems happening in the church, etc.
If it is assumed that Jude was a little younger than Jesus and was born around 10-15 AD, he would have been around 60-70 years of age when the letter was written. So, the attribution of the letter to Jude the brother of James is quite possible, even if a little unlikely. However, if the letter was written by another, then it does indicate that Jude was held in high esteem in the Christian community. His name was put on the letter in order to encourage its acceptance as trustworthy and worth reading.
In all this consideration of who wrote the letter and when, it is easy for our attention to be distracted from the contents of the letter and what it says. It is a letter warning believers of the danger of listening to people who do not follow the way of Christ and who behave badly. The writer is urging us to focus, not on them, but on what Jesus would want of us and we can learn this through reading the gospels and the letters which follow in the New Testament. Also, we can benefit from so many of the saints who have given great witness in their following of Christ and whose writings help us to offer our lives in prayer and to come closer to the loving God who watches over us.
In the letter of Jude, we have noticed how the author uses examples from the Old Testament and from the apocryphal works. It is worth looking a little more closely into these passages as it gives us a glimpse of the mindset of the Jews in the first century of the Church.
In the three examples of God’s judgement, the first is taken straight from the Old Testament. The Israelites had left Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and then marched straight to the Promised Land. Before entering, they sent men to reconnoitre the land and they reported that it was prosperous, a land “flowing with milk and honey”, but the inhabitants were strong. Caleb their leader recommended that they should attack and conquer them but the others disagreed claiming that the inhabitants were too strong. Then:
“All the Israelites muttered at Moses and Aaron, and the whole community said to them, 'Would to God we had died in Egypt, or even that we had died in this desert! Why has Yahweh brought us to this country, for us to perish by the sword and our wives and children to be seized as booty? Should we not do better to go back to Egypt?” [Numbers 14:2-3].
At this, Yahweh loses his patience and condemns them to wander in the desert for the next forty years.
The second example of God’s judgement is taken from the apocryphal First Book of Enoch. In a long account, the story relates how two hundred of the angels in heaven, attracted by the beautiful daughters of the human men on earth, came down from heaven and made love to them. They taught them spells and how to read astrology. The women became pregnant and gave birth to a race of giants who turned against the human men. Michael, Gabriel and the other leading angels in heaven saw what was happening and begged God to take action. God then gives his instructions to the archangel Raphael:
“Bind Azazel by his hands and his feet and throw him into the darkness. And split open the desert, which is in Dudael, and throw him there. And throw on him jagged and sharp stones and cover him with darkness. And let him stay there forever. And cover his face so that he may not see the light. And so that, on the Great Day of Judgement, he may be hurled into the fire. ….” [I Enoch, 10:4-7].
The third example of God’s judgment is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the turning of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, related in the book of Genesis (Chaps. 18-19).
The final reference in this section relates how the archangel Michael argued with the devil over the corpse of Moses. This is taken from another apocryphal work The Assumption of Moses, but sadly the one surviving text of this work does not contain this passage.
In the letter of Jude, these punishments are mentioned to illustrate the awful power of God and how he will punish those who wilfully disobey his commands. Jude here is warning the itinerant preachers who have come into his communities of the terrible consequences of their actions if they continue to live lives of debauchery and wickedness. In essence, he is saying ‘Do not treat God lightly, otherwise he will punish you severely’.
Jesus’ preaching teaches us that we have a loving Father, one who will go out of his way to find the lost sheep and forgive the prodigal son. A Father who is open to all who repent and turn back to him, whatever they may have done in the past. But we should never forget that he is God Almighty, the Creator, the God who keeps the whole world in existence. As the Book of Proverbs states: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” [Prov, (:10]
Let us hope and pray that the sense of awe which we should feel as we approach God will never leave us. May we find, in contemplating his majesty, what a wonderful God we have who sent his Son to teach us how to address him as Our Father.
Part 3 will be published next Friday 2nd July at 11am.