Bible Study: New Testament
The Catholic Epistles
Epistles for the Church at Large
In St. Jerome's Vulgate, as edited by Vallarsi and Martiannay, we have a Prologue prefixed to the Seven Catholic Epistles which runs as follows:
"The Greeks, who are entirely wise and follow the sound faith, have not the same order among the seven Epistles which are termed 'canonical,' as we find in the Latin manuscripts, where, for example, since Peter is the first in the number of the Apostles, his Epistles too are placed in the series before the others. Since, however, we have recently corrected the Evangelists in accord with truth, so too by God's help have we set these Epistles in their proper order. The first of the series is the single Epistle of James, then the two of Peter, next John’s three, and last the one of Jude. Now these Epistles ought to be as faithfully translated into the Latin tongue as they were faithfully written by these men. They ought not to provoke ambiguous questionings in the readers' minds, nor should their different ways of expressing themselves seem mutually conflicting. More especially is this the case in that passage where we find the unity of the Trinity laid down in the First Epistle of St. John. In this Epistle we discover many departures from the truth by faithless translators. They set down, for instance, only the words expressive of the triad of water, blood, and spirit in their copies, while they omit the testimony of the Father, the Word, and the Spirit. Yet by this testimony is the Catholic faith most particularly confirmed and the oneness of the divine nature of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit proved."
Most critics reject this Prologue as spurious, though there are still some who uphold it. The question of its authenticity does not, however, concern us here. For us the Prologue is of interest for the term "canonical" applied to these Epistles instead of the more usual term "Catholic," also for the relative order of the Epistles. It is remarkable that, whereas the Council of Trent in its decree on the Scriptures gives the order of these Epistles as Peter, John, James, and Jude, yet the Vulgate order has always been that which this prologue upholds, viz. James, Peter, John, and Jude. The title "canonical" instead of "Catholic" is of great interest. Apparently it is never used in the Eastern Church, and, as far as we can discover, is never elsewhere used by St. Jerome, who always uses the term "Catholic." This might be an argument against the authenticity of the Prologue just given. Writers of the next century, however, use it, e.g. Junilius and Cassiodorus; the latter says that Clement of Alexandria commented "in Epistolis canonicis," and he adds First and Second Peter and James. The Greek Fathers use invariably the term "Catholic" for these Epistles. Thus Eusebius: "James is said to be the author of the first of the so-called Catholic Epistles," and he refers in the same context to "the Catholic Epistle of Jude." But they do not confine their use of this term "Catholic" to these Epistles; Eusebius, for instance, uses it when speaking of the letters of Dionysius of Corinth, which were addressed, some to the Lacedaemonians, others to the Athenians, the Nicomedians, the Cretans, the Church at Amastris, the Gnosians, the Romans, and—most instructive of all—"to Chrysophora, a most faithful sister." St. Cyril of Jerusalem and Clement of Alexandria both speak of the Decrees of the Council of Jerusalem, Acts 15, as "a Catholic Epistle," while Origen uses the same term when speaking of the Epistle of Barnabas. These facts are instructive, for they show in what sense these Epistles were called "Catholic": they were encyclicals, addressed, that is, not to individual Churches alone, but—as was perhaps the case with St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians—intended to be read by many Churches while nominally addressed to one. We particularly referred to Dionysius' letter to Chrysophora because it serves as an excellent illustration of how a letter addressed to an individual, like 2-3 John, could yet be regarded as Catholic."
Besides the general commentaries and introductions see Westcott, The Epistles of John, the Introduction; also Drach et Bayle, Les Épîtres Catholiques, Lethielleux, Paris, 1873. For the Old-Latin text see J.T.S., July, 1911.__________________________
1. P.L. XXIX. 821.
2. See Chapman, Early History of the Vulgate Gospels, pp. 262-267.
3. E.g. Charteris, Canonicity, where it is quoted without any reservation; so, too, Salmond in H.D.B., The Catholic Epistles, pp. 359 and 360.
4. Denzinger, Enchiridion, No. 784, The Council of Carthage, A.D. 397, has the same order; the same, too, holds good for the place assigned to these Epistles between St. Paul and the Apocalypse; the majority of MSS. have them between the Acts and St. Paul.
5. This order is that of Vaticanus, B.
6. E.g. Viris Illustr. i, ii, iii, iv, and on Is 65:8 and Je 1:13, P.L. XXIV. 636 and 685. See, too, Ep. LIV. 8, P.L. XXII. 548, where he says: "James, Peter, John, and Jude"—note the order, the same as that in the disputed Prologue—"have published seven Epistles as mystical as they are compact, as brief, too, as they are lengthy; for they are brief in words, profound in meaning, so that it not seldom happens that we are short-sighted as we read them."
7. De Instit. viii.
8. H.E. II. xxiii. 5.
9. H.E. IV. xxiii.; cp. VI. xiii. and VII. xxv.
10. Catech. IV. 28.
11. Strom. IV. 15.
12. Contra Celsum, I. 63.
Very Rev. Hugh Pope, O.P., S.T.M.
Doctor in Sacred Scripture,
Member of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, and
late Professor of New Testament Exegesis at the Collegio Angelico, Rome.
Luke Walker, O.P., S.T.L.;
Austin Barker, O.P., S.T.L.
Bede Jarrett, O.P., S.T.L., M.A.