Christian Interactions 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 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 little 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, he did not make it explicit.
Scholars have questioned the “Christianness” of this book because 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, many of James’ teachings resemble those of the Sermon on the Mount as well as some of Jesus’ other teachings.
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, who engage in perverse behavior and create divisions. 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.
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. The accusation that they use mythologies and genealogies to support their beliefs suggests that the opponents may be early Gnostics. The author of 2 Peter also attacks their misuse of Paul and immoral behavior. 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.
The Johannine Epistles
The letters of 1, 2, and 3 John make up the Johannine epistles. 1 and 2 John appear as brief letters; 3 John is less like an actual letter and more like a treatise. The same author, who refers to himself as “the elder” in 1 and 2 John, appears to be responsible for all three letters. This author’s familiarity with themes of the Gospel of John suggest that he may be part of the Gospel’s community; however, differences in writing style and community concerns show that the author of the epistles did not write the Gospel.
Understanding the Johannine Epistles
The Johannine epistles offer clues concerning their historical context; by examining these clues, we can reconstruct the situation that prompted the three letters. The most important event that can be detected is a recent schism within the community. One group of Christians left the community because, according to the author of 1 John, “they have denied that Jesus is the Christ” (2:22). This letter, coupled with 2 John, makes it clear that these secessionists adhered to a docetic Christology: they did not believe Jesus came in the flesh. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is depicted as equal with God; some members of the Johannine community continued pushing their Christology higher and higher until not only was Jesus equal with God, he was God. If Jesus was God, he could not be flesh and bloodhe only appeared to be human. The Johannine epistles were written from the more conservative point of view: Christ had a real human body and his blood brought about salvation. The author of the Johannine epistles also accuses the secessionists of moral failures; it may be that their lack of belief in Jesus’ flesh that led to a lack of concern for their own bodies.
Reflections on the Contextual Method for Understanding the Johannine Epistles
One difficulty with reconstructing the Johannine context based on the letters is that we only have access to one side of the conversation. We can only surmise what the secessionists believed on the basis of what the author of the Johannine epistles wrote. What else can we know about the situation of the Johannine epistles? We know that the author was not present within the community because he expresses his desire to visit them. In addition, he sees himself as an authority figure who is able to dispense useful advice to a community. The letters urge the community to remain faithful to the teaching they have received and not to be influenced by the secessionists.
Conflicts within the Early Christian Communities
By the end of the first century, Christianity was made up of many distinct groups with their own leaders who had vastly different messages. In many cases, we have access to these diverse groups only through their opponents; such “heretics” would presumably have much to say in their own defense. The authors who later came to be canonized in the New Testament thus represent only part of rich diversity of early Christianity.