BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
NOT A HAPPY TITLE
There are various explanations of the term catholic (\katholikai epistolai\) as applied to this group of seven short letters by four writers (one by James, two by Peter, one by Jude, three by John). The Latin for \katholikos\ is "generalis", though the Vulgate terms these letters "Catholicae". The meaning is not orthodox as opposed to heretical or canonical, though they are sometimes termed \Epistolae canonicae\. As a matter of fact five of the seven (all but First Peter and First John) Eusebius placed among the "disputed" (\antilegomena\) books of the New Testament. "A canonical book is primarily one which has been measured and tested, and secondarily that which is itself a measure or standard" (Alfred Plummer). Canon is from \kan“n\ (cane) and is like a yardstick cut to the right measure and then used as a measure. Some see in the term \katholikos\ the idea that these Epistles are meant for both Jews and Gentiles, but the Epistle of James seems addressed to Jewish Christians. There were two other chief groups of New Testament writings in the old Greek manuscripts (the Gospels and Acts, then the Epistles of Paul). This group of seven Epistles and the Apocalypse constitute the remainder of the New Testament. The usual interpretation of the term \katholikos\ here is that these seven Epistles were not addressed to any particular church, but are general in their distribution. This is clearly true of I Peter, as is shown by the language in #1Pe 1:1|, where seven Roman provinces are mentioned. The language of #2Pe 3:1| bears the same idea. Apparently the Epistle of Jude is general also as is I John. But II John is addressed to "an elect lady" (verse #2Jo 1:1|) and III John to Gaius (verse #3Jo 1:1|), both of them individuals, and therefore in no sense are these two brief letters general or catholic. The earliest instance of the word \katholikos\ is in an inscription (B.C. 6) with the meaning "general" (\tˆi katholikˆi mou prothesei\, my general purpose). It was common after that. The earliest example of it in Christian literature is in Ignatius' Epistle to the Church of Smyrna (VIII) where he has "the catholic church" (\hˆ katholikˆ ekklˆsia\), "the general church," not a local body. Clement of Alexandria ("Strom". IV. xv) applies this adjective to the letter sent to the Gentile Christians "in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia" from the Jerusalem Conference (#Ac 15:23|).
ORDER AND DATES
The oldest Greek manuscripts give these General Epistles immediately after the Acts, and Westcott and Hort so print them in their Greek New Testament. But the English Versions follow the Textus Receptus and put them just before the Apocalypse. The order of the seven letters varies greatly in the different manuscripts, though usually James comes first and Jude last (as the last accepted and the least known of the four authors). It is possible that the order of James, Peter, and John (omitting Jude) represented a sort of chronological precedence in some minds. It is possible also that no importance is to be attached to this order. Certainly John wrote last and after the destruction of Jerusalem, while the others come before that great event if they are genuine, as I believe, though there are difficulties of a serious nature concerning II Peter. James may be very early. If so, these seven Epistles are scattered all the way from A.D. 45 to 90. They have no connection with one another save in the case of the Epistles of Peter and Jude.
IMPORTANCE OF THE GENERAL EPISTLES
Without them we should be deprived of much concerning three outstanding personalities in early Christianity. We should know much less of "James, and Cephas, and John, they who were reputed to be pillars" (#Ga 2:9|). We should know less also of the Judaic (not Judaizing) form of Christianity seen in the Epistles of James and Jude in contrast with, though not opposed to, the Pauline type. In Peter's Epistles we see, indeed, a mediating position without compromise of principle, for Peter in the Jerusalem Conference loyally supported Paul and Barnabas even if he did flicker for a moment later in Antioch. In the Johannine Epistles we see the great Eagle soar as in his Gospel in calm serenity in spite of conflict with the Gnostics who struck at the very life of Christianity itself. "The only opposition which remains worthy of a Christian's consideration is that between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate, God and the world, Christ and Antichrist, life and death" (Plummer). So we can be grateful for the preservation of these little Epistles which reveal differences in the development of the great Christian leaders and the adaptation of the gospel message to changing world conditions then and now.