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Chapter 20

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Chapter summary

Chapter 20

Christian Conflicts with Christians and the Cosmos: James, 2 Peter, Jude, and the Book of Revelation

Chapter Summary:

Christian Conflicts with Christians
In addition to disputes with pagans and Jews, Christians also contended among themselves over ethics, leadership, and doctrine. As we have seen, Christianity was far from unified in the first few centuries. This diversity led to conflicts over whose views were "orthodox."

The Epistle of James
The author of the epistle of James argued that some Christians had distorted Paul's message of justification by faith by teaching that only a person's beliefs, not his actions, mattered for salvation. James taught that a person's beliefs must be embodied in action.

The book begins like an epistle (with a prescript that names the author, followed by a greeting), but it does not have an epistolary conclusion and does not seem to have been written for a specific occasion. It is, instead, a collection of advice for Christians. Although many readers have attributed this book to James, Jesus' brother, there is no evidence to substantiate this claim. The name James was common in the first century, and if the author was (or was claiming to be) Jesus' brother, surely he would have made the claim explicitly.

Scholars have questioned the "Christianness" of this book since Jesus is only mentioned twice (1:1 and 2:1). In fact, the ethical teachings are general and could be applied equally to Judaism and Christianity. Some scholars have suggested that this was originally a Jewish text that was subsequently Christianized. On the other hand, though, many of James' teachings resemble those of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as some of Jesus' other teachings.

Jude
The author of this short letter claims to be Jude, the brother of James. In early Christian traditions, Jude and James are named as Jesus' brothers. Thus, the author may be claiming to be related to Jesus. Most scholars, though, believe the letter is pseudonymous and was written near the end of the first century. This book is primarily concerned with false teachers in the Christian community, but, regrettably, the author does not clearly describe their views, so we cannot firmly categorize their teachings. Jude was used as a source by the author of 2 Peter.

2 Peter
Most scholars agree, against the author's insistence, that this book was not written by Jesus' disciple, Peter. The author of 2 Peter, moreover, is not the same as that of 1 Peter. Many early Christian books were written in Peter's name, and we should add this book to that list of pseudonymous texts.

The author of 2 Peter writes against false teachers who espouse a proto-Gnostic worldview, using mythologies and genealogies to support their beliefs. These teachers are, in addition, anti-apocalyptic. The author insists that although the end is coming soon, Christians have misunderstood what that means. For God, this author writes, "a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day" (3.8). Thus, humans should not insist that God follow their conception of time. Christians must understand that even a delay of thousands of years still constitutes an imminent judgment.

Conflicts within the early Christian communities
By the end of the first century, Christianity was made up of any number of distinct groups with their own leaders who had vastly different messages. When we read about these various forms of Christianity as they are described by our New Testament authors, we must remember that these groups would have much to say in their own defense.

Christian conflicts with the cosmos
Although some groups of Christians eventually rejected an apocalyptic worldview, other groups remained firmly committed to the idea that Jesus' return was imminent. Near the end of the first century, John wrote a book that gave an account of the end of the world.

The Content and Structure of the Book of Revelation
The revelation, or "apocalypse," was given to John by God through Jesus and an angel. The first section of the book contains seven letters addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor. These letters describe the conditions of the churches and, in most cases, urge a change in behavior. John's vision is recounted in the rest of the book.

The Book of Revelation From a Historical Perspective
Revelation was not the only apocalypse written in antiquity. In fact, there are many Jewish and Christian apocalypses. Like Revelation, these texts also claim to be proclamations of the imminent end of the world. All of these texts utilize similar literary features and can be studied as a distinct genre.

Apocalyptic Worldviews and Apocalypse Genre
The term "apocalyptic" refers to a worldview; the term "apocalypse" refers to a genre of literature that embodies apocalyptic views. Although Jewish and Christian apocalypses differ because of doctrinal differences in the religions, both reflect the beliefs of communities that are experiencing some kind of suffering. These books assert that despite present circumstances, God is in charge and will soon intervene and vindicate his people. Apocalypses, then, offer encouragement and assurance to their audiences. In general, these writings share the following features: they are first-person narratives, their highly symbolic visions are interpreted for the prophet by a heavenly being, and the visions explain the suffering of God's people and promise vindication.

Apocalypses utilize several specific literary features. First, they are typically pseudonymous. Like other pseudonymous works, these texts seek to gain authority by attributing their message to an important figure from the past. Second, these texts contain bizarre symbolic visions that are interpreted for the prophet by the angelic mediator. Third, apocalypses contain violent repetitions. These repetitions, in other words, violate the literal sense of the text: the story cannot be mapped out chronologically. Fourth, these texts all conclude with a triumphalist note and are intended to motivate their audiences to remain faithful in spite of their suffering.

The Revelation of John in Historical Context
Most scholars agree that parts of Revelation were written during the 60s, at the time of Nero's persecutions of Christians. Other parts of the book, however, may have been written later, perhaps during the reign of the emperor Domitian (ca. 95 C.E.). Regardless of the date of the text, we can know something about the community's experiences. The churches of Asia Minor were apparently experiencing persecution, and many Christians in the churches were losing their faith. Rather than offering a blueprint for the end of the world, as many modern readers assume, Revelation was written to offer solace to a specific community, historically located in first-century Asia Minor. Its vision offers to its audience an explanation of their present circumstances, gives them hope of the imminent end, and urges them to remain faithful.

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