The books of the New Testament are now before us. Our task is not without its difficulties; questions will confront us which have never yet been answered, and probably will never be; nevertheless, compared with the Old Testament writings, the books of the New Testament are well-known documents; we are on firm ground of history when we talk about them; of but few of the famous books of Greek and Latin authors can we speak so confidently as to their date and their authorship as we can concerning most of them.
We have in the New Testament a collection of twenty-seven books, by nine different authors. Of these books thirteen are ascribed to the Apostle Paul; five to John the son of Zebedee; two to Peter; two to Luke; one each to Matthew, Mark, James, and Jude, and the authorship of one is unknown.
Of these books it must be first remarked that they were not only written separately but that there is no trace in any of them of the consciousness on the part of the author that he was contributing to a collection of sacred writings. Of the various epistles it is especially evident that they were written on special occasions, with a certain audience immediately in view; the thought that they were to be preserved and gathered into a book, which was to be handed down through the coming centuries as an inspired volume, does not appear to have entered the mind of the writer. But this fact need not detract from their value; often the highest truth to which a man gives utterance is truth of whose value he is imperfectly aware.
It must also be remembered that these books of the New Testament were nearly all written by apostles. The only clear exceptions are the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistle to the Hebrews; and the authors of these books, though not apostles, were undoubtedly in the closest relations with apostolic men, and reflected their thought. These apostolic men had received a special training and a definite commission to bear witness of their Master, to tell the story of his life and death, and to build up his kingdom in the world.
We must admit that they possessed unusual qualifications for this work. Those who had been for three years in constant and loving intercourse with Jesus Christ ought to have been inspired men. And he promised them, before he parted from them, that the Spirit of truth should come to them and abide with them to lead them into all truth.
Now although we may find it difficult to give a satisfactory definition of inspiration; though we may be utterly unable to express, in any formularies of our own, the influence of the Infinite Spirit upon human minds, yet we can easily believe that these apostolic men were exceptionally qualified to teach religious truth. No prophet of the olden time had any such preparation for his mission as that which was vouchsafed to them. No school of the prophets, from the days of Samuel downward, could be compared to that sacred college of apostles, -- that group of divine peripatetics, who followed their master through Galilee and Perea, and sat down with him day by day, for three memorable years, on the mountain top and by the lake side, to listen to the words of life from the lips of One who spake as never man spake.
To say that this training made them infallible is to speak beyond the record. There is no promise of infallibility, and the history makes it plain enough that no such gift was bestowed. The Spirit of all truth was promised; but it was promised for their guidance in all their work, in their preaching, their administration, their daily conduct of life. There is no hint anywhere that any special illumination or protection would be given to them when they took the pen into their hands to write; they were then inspired just as much as they were when they stood up to speak, or sat down to plan their missionary campaigns, -- just as much and no more.
Now it is certain that the inspiration vouchsafed them did not make them infallible in their ordinary teaching, or in their administration of the church. They made mistakes of a very serious nature. It is beyond question that the majority of the apostles took at the beginning an erroneous view of the relation of the Gentiles to the Christian church. They insisted that Gentiles must first become Jews before they could become Christians; that the only way into the Christian church was through the synagogue and the temple. It was a grievous and radical error; it struck at the foundations of Christian faith. And this error was entertained by these inspired apostles after the day of Pentecost; it influenced their teaching; it led them to proclaim a defective gospel. This is not the assertion of a skeptic, it is the clear testimony of the Apostle Paul. If you will read the second chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians you will learn from the mouth of an unimpeachable witness that the very leaders of the apostolic band, Peter and James and John, were greatly in error with respect to a most important subject of the Christian teaching. In his account of that famous council at Antioch, Paul says that Peter and James and John were wholly in the wrong, and that Peter, for his part, had been acting disingenuously: --
|But when Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face, because he stood condemned. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing them that were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews [the Jewish Christians] dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Cephas before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest as do the Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, how compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?|
Now it is evident that one or the other of these opposing parties in the apostolic college must have been in error, if not greatly at fault, with respect to this most vital question of Christian faith and doctrine. When one apostle resists another to the face because he stands condemned, and tells him that he walks not uprightly, according to the truth of the gospel, it must be that one or the other of them has, for the time being, ceased to be infallible in his administration of the truth of the gospel. And if these apostolic men, sitting in their councils, teaching in their congregations, can make such mistakes as these, how can we be sure that they never make a mistake when they sit down to write, that then their words are always the very word of God? We can have no such assurance. Indeed we are expressly told that their words are not, in some cases, the very word of God; for the Apostle Paul plainly tells us over and over, in his epistles to the Corinthians (1 Cor. vii.; 2 Cor. xi.), that upon certain questions he is giving his own opinion, -- that he has no commandment of the Lord. With respect to one matter he says that he is speaking after his own judgment, but that he |thinks| he has the Spirit of the Lord; two or three times he distinctly declares that it is he, Paul, and not the Lord, that is speaking.
All of these facts, and others of the same nature clearly brought before us by the New Testament itself, must be held firmly in our minds when we make up our theory of what these writings are. That these books were written by inspired men is, indeed, indubitable; that these men possessed a degree of inspiration far exceeding that vouchsafed to any other religious teachers who have lived on the earth is to my mind plain; that this degree of inspiration enabled them to bear witness clearly to the great facts of the gospel of Christ, and to present to us with sufficient fullness and with substantial verity the doctrines of the kingdom of heaven I am very sure; but that they were absolutely protected against error, not one word in the record affirms, and they themselves have taken the utmost pains to disabuse our minds of any such impression. That is a theory about them which men made up out of their own heads hundreds of years after they were dead. We shall certainly find that they were not infallible; but we shall also find that, in all the great matters which pertain to Christian faith and practice, when their final testimony is collected and digested, it is clear, harmonious, consistent, convincing; that they have been guided by the Spirit of the Lord to tell us the truth which we need to know respecting the life that now is and that which is to come.
Furthermore, it is a matter of rejoicing when we take up these books of the New Testament to find their substantial integrity unimpeached. There is no reason to suspect that any important changes have been made in any of these books since they came from the hands of their writers. Whatever may be said about the first three Gospels (and we shall come to that question in our next chapter), the remaining books of the New Testament have come down to us, unaltered, from the men who first wrote them. There is none of that process of redaction, and accretion, and reconstruction whose traces we have found in many of the Old Testament books. There may be, here and there, a word or two or a verse or two which has been interpolated by some officious copyist, but these alterations are very slight. The books in our hands are the very same books which were in the hands of the contemporaries and successors of the apostles.
I shall not attempt any elaborate discussion of these twenty-seven books. I only propose to go rapidly over them, indicating, with the utmost brevity, the salient facts, so far as we know them, respecting their authorship, the date and the place at which they were written, and the circumstances which attended the production of them.
From the fact that the Gospels stand first in the New Testament collection it is generally assumed that they are the earliest of the New Testament books, but this is an error. Several of the Epistles were certainly written before any of the Gospels; and one of the Gospels, that of John, was written later than any of the Epistles, except the three brief ones by the same author.
The first of these New Testament books that saw the light was, as is generally supposed, the First Epistle to the Thessalonians. It was in the year 48 of our era that St. Paul set out on his first missionary journey from Antioch through Cyprus and Eastern Asia Minor, a journey which occupied about a year. Two years afterward, his second journey took him through the eastern part of Asia Minor and across the Aegean Sea to Europe, where he preached in Troas, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth. His stay in Thessalonica was interrupted, as you will remember, by the hostility of the Jews, and he remained but a short time in that place; long enough, however, to gather a vigorous church. Afterward, while he was in Corinth, he learned from one of his helpers that the people of Thessalonica had misunderstood portions of his teaching, and were in painful doubt on certain important subjects. To set them right on these matters he wrote his first epistle, which was forwarded to them from Corinth, probably about the year 52.
This explanation was also misunderstood by the Thessalonians, and it became necessary during the next year to write to them again. These two letters are in all probability the first of the Christian writings that we possess. They contain instruction and counsel of which the Christians of Thessalonica were just then in need. The question which had most disturbed them had relation to the second coming of Christ. They expected him to return very soon; they were impatient of delay; they thought that those who died before his coming would miss the glorious spectacle; and therefore they deplored the hard fate of some of their number who had been snatched away by death before this sublime event. In his first epistle the apostle assures them that the dead in Christ would be raised to participate in their rejoicing. |We who are alive when the Lord returns,| he says, |will have no advantage over those who have been called to their reward before us; for they will be raised from their graves to take part with us in this great triumph.| It is manifest that Paul, when he wrote this, expected that Christ would return to earth while he was alive. Alford and other conservative commentators say that he here definitely expresses that expectation; others deny that these words can be so interpreted, but concede that he did entertain some such expectation. |It does not seem improper to admit,| says Bishop Ellicott, |that in their ignorance of the day of the Lord the apostles might have imagined that he who was coming would come speedily.| [Footnote: Com. in loc.] |It is unmistakably clear from this,| says Olshausen, |that Paul deemed it possible that he and his contemporaries might live to see the coming again of Christ.| |The early church, and even the apostles themselves,| say Conybeare and Howson, |expected their Lord to come again in that very generation. St. Paul himself shared in that expectation, but being under the guidance of the Spirit of truth, he did not deduce any erroneous conclusions from this mistaken premise.| [Footnote: Life and Epistles of St. Paul, i.401.] It is evident, then, that St. Paul and the rest of the apostles were mistaken on this point; this is one of the evidences which they themselves have taken pains to point out to us of the fact that though they were inspired men they were not infallible.
Paul's first letter to the Christians at Thessalonica was interpreted by them, very naturally, as teaching that the return of the Lord was imminent; and they began to neglect their daily duties and to behave in the same foolish way that men have behaved in all the later ages, when they have got their heads full of this notion. His second letter was written chiefly to rebuke this fanaticism, and to bid them go right on with their work making ready for the Lord's coming by a faithful discharge of the duties of the present hour. St. Paul might have been mistaken in his theories about the return of his Master, but his practical wisdom was not at fault; it was his spirit that survived in Abraham Davenport, the Connecticut legislator, who, in the |dark day| of 1780 when his colleagues thought that the end of the world had come, refused to vote for the adjournment of the House, but insisted on calling up the next bill; saying as Whittier has phrased it: --
|'This well may be
The Day of Judgment which the world awaits;
But be it so or not, I only know
My present duty, and my Lord's command
To occupy till he come. So at the post
Where he hath set me in his providence,
I choose, for one, to meet him face to face, --
No faithless servant frightened from my task,
But ready when the Lord of the harvest calls;
And therefore, with all reverence, I would say,
Let God do his work, we will see to ours.
Bring in the candles.' And they brought them in.|
These two letters are, then, the earliest of the New Testament writings. Like most of the other Epistles of Paul they begin with a salutation. The common salutation with which the Greeks began their letters was |Live well!| that of the Roman was |Health to you!| But Paul almost always began with a Christian greeting, |Grace, mercy, and peace to you.| In these letters he associates with himself in this greeting his two companions, Timothy and Silas.
The last words of his epistles are almost always personal messages to individuals known to him in the several churches, -- to men and women who had |labored with him in the gospel,| -- casual yet significant words, which |show a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity.| The letters were written by an amanuensis, -- all save these concluding words which Paul added in his own chirography. He seems to desire to put more of himself into these personal messages than into the didactic and doctrinal parts of his epistles. At the end of the second of the letters to the Thessalonians we find these words: |The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write;| better, perhaps, |This is my handwriting.| This signature and this concluding greeting are to be proof to them of the genuineness of the letter. It appears from other references in the same epistle (ch. ii.2) that some busybody had been writing a letter to the Thessalonians, which purported to be a message from Paul; he puts them on their guard against these supposititious documents. At the end of the letter to the Galatians you find in the old version: |Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with my own hand;| but the right rendering is in the new version: |See with how large letters [what a bold chirography] I have written unto you with my own hand.| |These last coarse characters are my own handwriting.| It is almost universally assumed that Paul was a sufferer from some affection of the eyes; the large letters are thus explained. Mr. Conybeare, in a foot-note on this passage, speaks of receiving a letter from the venerable Neander a few months before his death, which illustrates this point in a striking manner: |His letter,| says Mr. Conybeare, |is written in the fair and flowing hand of an amanuensis, but it ends with a few irregular lines in large and rugged characters, written by himself and explaining the cause of his needing the services of an amanuensis, namely the weakness of his eyes (probably the very malady of St. Paul). It was impossible to read this autograph without thinking of the present passage, and observing that he might have expressed himself in the very words of St. Paul: 'Behold the size of the characters in which I have written to you with my own hand.'| [Footnote: Life and Epistles of St. Paul, ii.149.]
There is another touching sentence at the end of Paul's letter to the Colossians which was written from Rome when he was prisoner there: |The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand. Remember my bonds. Grace be with you. Amen.| This seems to say: |There is a manacle, you remember, on my wrist. I cannot write very well. Grace be with you.| I will only add that the subscriptions which follow the epistles in the old version are no part of the epistles, and in several cases they are erroneous. They embody conjectures of later copyists, or traditions which are without foundation. These letters to the Thessalonians, for example, are said to have been written from Athens; but we know that they were written from Corinth. For Paul expressly says (iii.6) that the letter was written immediately after the return of Timothy from Thessalonica, and we are told, in Acts xviii.5, that Silas and Timothy joined him at Corinth after he had left Athens and had gone to Corinth. Besides, he associates Silas and Timothy with himself in his greetings, and they were not with him at Athens. The evidence is therefore conclusive, that the subscription is incorrect. You will not find any of these subscriptions in the new version. Some of them are undoubtedly correct, but some of them are not; and in no case is the subscription an integral part of the epistle. The excision of these traditional addenda was one of the first results of what is called the |Higher Criticism,| and admirably illustrates the uses of this kind of criticism, which, to some of our devout brethren, is such a frightful thing. Why should it be regarded as a dangerous, almost a diabolical proceeding, to let the Bible tell its own story about its origin, instead of trusting to rabbinical traditions and mediaeval guesses and a priori theories of seventeenth century theologians?
These two letters were, no doubt, read in the assemblies of the Thessalonian Christians more than once, and were sacredly treasured by them. They were the only Christian documents possessed by them; and there was, at this time, no other church so rich as they were. The Gospels, as we have them now, were not then in the possession of any Christian church. The story of the gospel had been repeated to them by Paul and Silas and Timothy, and had been diligently impressed upon their memories; but it was only an oral gospel that had been delivered to them; the written record of Christ's life and sayings was not in their hands. They remembered, therefore, the things which had been told them concerning the life and death of Jesus Christ; they repeated them over one to another, and they explained and supplemented these remembered words by the two letters which they had received from the great apostle.
The next year after Paul wrote these letters to the Thessalonians from Corinth, he returned to Jerusalem and Antioch (Acts xviii.18-23), and the year following, probably 54, he set out on his third missionary journey, which took him through Galatia and Phrygia in Asia Minor to Ephesus, where his home was for two or three years. While there, perhaps in the year 57, he wrote the first of his letters to the Christians in Corinth. Shortly after writing it he went on to Macedonia, whence the second of his letters to the Corinthians was written; presently he followed his letters to Corinth, and while there, probably in 58, he wrote his letter to the Galatians. Galatia was a province rather than a city; there may have been several churches, which had been established by Paul, in the province; and this may have been a circular letter, to be handed about among them, copies of it to be made, perhaps, for the use of each of the churches. It was in the spring of the next year, while he was still in Corinth, that he wrote his letter to the Romans, the longest, and from some points of view, the most important of his epistles. He had never, at the time of this writing, been in Rome (ch. i.13), but he had met Roman Christians in many of the cities of the East where he had lived and taught; and, doubtless, since all roads led to Rome, and the metropolis of the world was constantly drawing to itself men of every nation and province, many of Paul's converts in Asia and Macedonia and Achaia had made their way to the Eternal City, and had joined themselves there to the Christian community. The long list of personal greetings with which the epistle closes shows how large was his acquaintance in the Roman church, and, doubtless, by his correspondence, he had become fully informed concerning the needs of these disciples. He tells the Romans, in this letter, that he hopes to visit them by and by; he did not, however, at that time, expect to appear among them as a prisoner. This was the fate awaiting him. Shortly after writing this epistle he returned from Corinth to Jerusalem, bearing a collection which had been gathered in Europe for the poor Christians of the mother church; at Jerusalem he was arrested; in that city and in Caesarea he was for a long time imprisoned; finally, probably in the spring of 61, he was sent as a prisoner to Rome, because he had appealed to the imperial court; and here, for at least two years, he dwelt a prisoner, in lodgings of his own, chained by day and night to a Roman soldier. During this imprisonment, probably in 62, he wrote the letters to the Colossians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, and Philemon. From the first imprisonment he seems to have been released; and to have gone westward as far as Spain, and eastward as far as Asia Minor, preaching the gospel. During this journey he is supposed to have written the first letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus. At length he was re-arrested, and brought to Rome where, in the spring of 68, just before his death, he wrote the second letter to Timothy, the last of his thirteen epistles.
Much of this account of the late years of Paul's life, following the close of his first two years at Rome, where the narrative in the Acts of the Apostles abruptly leaves him, is traditional and conjectural; I do not give it to you as indubitable history; it furnishes the most reasonable explanation that has been suggested of that productive activity of his which finds its chief expression in the letters that bear his name.
Of these letters it is impossible to give any adequate account in this place. Let it suffice to say that the principal theme of the two epistles to the Thessalonians is the expected return of Christ to earth; that those to the Corinthians are largely occupied with questions of Christian casuistry; that those to the Galatians and the Romans are the great doctrinal epistles unfolding the relation of Christianity to Judaism, and discussing the philosophy of the new creed; that the Epistle to the Philippians is a luminous exposition of Christianity as a personal experience; that those to the Colossians and the Ephesians are the defense of Christianity against the insidious errors of the Gnostics, and a wonderful revelation of the immanent Christ; that the Epistle to Philemon is a letter of personal friendship, embodying a great principle of practical religion; and that the letters to Timothy and Titus are the counsel of an aged apostle to younger men in the ministry.
|May we go farther,| with Archdeacon Farrar, |and attempt, in one or two words, a description of each separate epistle, necessarily imperfect from the very brevity, and yet perhaps expressive of some one main characteristic. If so we might perhaps say that the First Epistle to the Thessalonians is the epistle of consolation in the hope of Christ's return; and the second of the immediate hindrances to that return, and our duties with regard to it. The First Epistle to the Corinthians is the solution of practical problems in the light of eternal principles; the second, an impassioned defense of the apostle's impugned authority, his Apologia pro vita sua. The Epistle to the Galatians is the epistle of freedom from the bondage of the law; that to the Romans of justification by faith. The Epistle to the Philippians is the epistle of Christian gratitude and of Christian joy in sorrow; that to the Colossians the epistle of Christ the universal Lord; that to the Ephesians, so rich and many-sided, is the epistle of the 'heavenlies,' the epistle of grace, the epistle of ascension with the ascended Christ, the epistle of Christ in his one and universal church; that to Philemon the Magna Charta of Emancipation. The First Epistle to Timothy and that to Titus are the manuals of a Christian pastor; the Second Epistle to Timothy is the last message of a Christian ere his death.| [Footnote: The Life and Work of St. Paul, chap. xlvi.]
The genuineness of several of these books has been assailed by modern criticism. The authorship of Paul has been disputed in the cases of nine out of the thirteen epistles. The Epistle to the Galatians, that to the Romans, and the two to the Corinthians are undisputed; all the rest have been spoken against. I have attended to these criticisms; but the reasons urged for denying the Pauline authorship of these epistles seem to me in many cases far-fetched and fanciful in the extreme. Respecting the pastoral epistles, those to Timothy and Titus, it may be admitted that there are some difficulties. It is not easy for us to understand how there could have been developed in the churches at that early day so much of an ecclesiasticism as these letters assume; and there is force in the suggestion that the peculiar errors against which some of these counsels are directed belong to a later day rather than to the apostolic age. To this it may be replied that ecclesiasticism is a weed which grows rapidly when once it has taken root, and that the germs of Gnosticism were in the church from the earliest day. And although the vocabulary of these epistles differs in rather a striking way, as Dr. Harnack has pointed out, [Footnote: Encyc. Brit., art. |Pastoral Epistles.| ] from that of Paul's other epistles, I can easily imagine that in familiar letters to his pupils he would drop into a different style from that in which he wrote his more elaborate theological treatises. One could find in the letters of Macaulay or Charles Kingsley many words that he would not find in the history of the one or the sermons of the other. Putting all these objections together, I do not find in them any adequate reason for denying that these epistles were written by St. Paul. Indeed, it seems to me incredible that the Second Epistle of Timothy should have been written by any other hand than that which wrote the undoubted letters to the Corinthians and the Romans.
When we come to the other disputed epistles, those to the Thessalonians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, and the Colossians, I confess that the doubts of their genuineness seem to me the outcome of a willful dogmatism. What Archdeacon Farrar says of the cavils respecting the epistles to the Philippians applies to much of this theoretic criticism: |The Tubingen school, in its earlier stages, attacked it with the monotonous arguments of their credulous skepticism. With those critics, if an epistle touches on points which make it accord with the narrative of the Acts it was forged to suit them; if it seems to disagree with them the discrepancy shows that it is spurious. If the diction is Pauline it stands forth as a proved imitation; if it is un-Pauline it could not have proceeded from the apostle.| [Footnote: Life and Work of St. Paul, chap, xlvi] One grows weary with this reckless and carping skepticism, much of which springs from a theory of a permanent schism in the early church, -- a theory which was mainly evolved from the inner consciousness of some mystical German philosopher, and which has been utterly exploded.
We may, then, receive as genuine the thirteen epistles ascribed to St. Paul; and we have good reason for believing that we have them in their integrity, substantially as he wrote them.
The title of one of these epistles, that to the Ephesians, is, however, undoubtedly erroneous. As Mr. Conybeare says, the least disputable fact about the letter is that it was not addressed to the Ephesians. For it is incredible that Paul should have described a church in whose fellowship he had lived and labored for two years as one of whose religious life he knew only by report (ch. i.15); and it is strange that he should not have a single word of greeting to any of these Ephesian Christians. Several of the early Christian fathers testify that the words |at Ephesus| are omitted from the first verse of the manuscript known to them. The two oldest manuscripts now in existence, that of the Vatican and that known as the Sinaitic manuscript, both omit these words. The destination of the epistle is not indicated. The place filled by the words |at Ephesus| is left blank. Thus it reads: |Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, to the saints which are and the faithful in Christ Jesus.| Some of the old fathers expatiate on this title, drawing distinctions between the saints which are and the saints which seem to be, -- an amusing example of exegetical thoroughness. Undoubtedly the letter was designed as a circular letter to several churches in Western Asia, -- Laodicea among the number; and a blank was left in each copy made, in which the name of the church to which it was delivered might be entered. Some knowing copyist at a later day wrote the words |at Ephesus| into one of these copies; and it is from this that the manuscript descended from which our translation was made.
That these letters of Paul were highly prized and carefully preserved by the churches to which they were written we cannot doubt; and as from time to time messengers passed back and forth between the churches, copies were made of the letters for exchange. The church at Thessalonica would send a copy of its letter to the church at Philippi and to the church at Corinth and to the church at Ephesus, and would receive in return copies of their letters; and thus the writings of Paul early obtained a considerable distribution. We have an illustration of these exchanges in the closing words of the Epistle to the Colossians (iv.16): |And when this epistle hath been read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that you also read the epistle from Laodicea.| It is probable that the last-named epistle was the one of which we have just been speaking, called in our version, the Epistle to the Ephesians.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is ascribed in its title to |Paul the Apostle.| But the title was added at a late date; the Greek Testaments contain only the brief title |To the Hebrews,| leaving the question of authorship unsettled. Of all the other epistles ascribed to Paul his name is the first word; this epistle does not announce its author. In the early church there was much controversy about it; the Eastern Christians generally ascribed it to Paul, while the Western church, until the fourth century, refused to recognize his authorship. One sentence in the epistle (ch. ii.3) is supposed to signify that the writer was of the number of those who had received the gospel at second hand, and this was an admission that Paul always refused to make; he steadily contended that his knowledge of the gospel was as direct and immediate and copious as that of any of the apostles. For these and other reasons it has been contended that the letter was written by some one not an apostle, but an associate and pupil of apostolic men; the most plausible conjecture ascribes it to Apollos. The date of it is not easily fixed; it was probably written before the destruction of Jerusalem; such an elaborate discussion of the Jewish ritual would scarcely have been made after the temple was destroyed, without any reference to the fact of its destruction.
Following the letter to the Hebrews in our New Testament are seven epistles ascribed to four different authors, James, Peter, John, and Jude. These are commonly called the |Catholic Epistles,| -- catholic meaning general or universal, -- since they are not addressed to any one congregation, but to the whole church, to Christians in general. Two of them, however, the Second and Third of John, hardly deserve the designation, for they are addressed to individuals.
The author of the Epistle of James is not easily identified. There are numerous Jameses in the New Testament history; we do not readily distinguish them. It was not James the son of Zebedee, for he was put to death by Herod only six or seven years after the death of our Lord (Acts xii.2). Probably this was the one named James the Lord's brother, who was a near relative of Jesus, brother or cousin, and who was the leading man -- perhaps they called him bishop -- of the church at Jerusalem. He may, also, be identical with that James the son of Alpheus, who was one of the apostles. The letter was issued at an early day, probably before the year 60. It was addressed to the |twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion,| -- that was the name by which the Jews scattered through Asia and Europe were generally known. To Christians who had been Jews, therefore, this letter was written; in this respect it is to be classed with the letter to the Hebrews; but in the tenor of its teaching it is wholly unlike that letter; instead of putting emphasis on the ritual and symbolical elements of religion, it leaves these wholly on one side, and makes the ethical contents of the Christian teaching the matter of supreme concern. There is more of applied Christianity in this than in any other of the epistles; and both in style and in substance we are reminded by it of the teaching of our Lord more strongly than by any other portion of the New Testament.
The First Epistle of Peter is addressed to the same class of persons, -- to |the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion| in various provinces of Asia Minor. The only intimation of tha locality of the writing is contained in one of the concluding verses: |She that is in Babylon, elect together with you, saluteth you.| What Babylon is this? Is it the famous capital of the Euphrates? So some have supposed, for there is a tradition that Peter journeyed to the distant East and founded Christian churches among the Jews, who, in large numbers, were dwelling there. Others take it to be the mystical Babylon, -- Rome upon her seven hills. This theory helps to support the contention, for which there is small evidence, that Peter was the first bishop of Rome. The first conjecture has a firmer basis. But who is |she| that sends her salutations to these Asian saints? Was it the church or the wife of the apostle? Either interpretation is difficult; I cannot choose between them. Of the origin of this letter we know little; but there is nothing in it inconsistent with the unbroken tradition which ascribes it to the impetuous leader of the apostolic band. Like the Epistle of James it is full of a strenuous morality; while it does not disregard the essentials of Christian doctrine it puts the emphasis on Christian conduct.
The Second Epistle of Peter is the one book of the New Testament concerning whose genuineness there is most doubt. From the earliest days the canonicity of this book has been disputed. It is not mentioned by any early Christian writer before the third century; and Origen, who is the first to allude to the book, testifies that its genuineness has been doubted. The early versions do not contain it; Eusebius marks it doubtful; Erasmus and Calvin, in later times, regarded it as a dubious document. It seems almost incredible, with such witnesses against it, that the book should be genuine; but if it is not the work of St. Peter it is a fraudulent writing, for it openly announces him as its author and refers to his first epistle. There is a remarkable similarity between this letter and the short Epistle of Jude; it would appear that this must be an imitation and enlargement of that, or that a condensation of this. There are some passages in this book with which we could ill afford to part, -- with which, indeed, we never shall part; for whether they were written by Peter or by another they express clear and indubitable verities; and even though the author, like that Balaam whom he quotes, may have been no true prophet, he was constrained, even as Balaam was, to utter some wholesome and stimulating truth.
The three epistles of John are the last words of the disciple that Jesus loved. The evidence of their genuineness, particularly of the first of them, is abundant and convincing; Polycarp, who was John's pupil and friend, quotes from this book, and there is an unbroken chain of testimony from the early fathers respecting it. Of course those who have determined, for dogmatic reasons, to reject the Fourth Gospel, are bound to reject these epistles also; but that procedure is wholly unwarranted, as we shall see in the next chapter. These epistles were probably written from Ephesus during the last years of the first century. The first is a meditation on the great fact of the incarnation and its mystic relation to the life of men; it sounds the very depths of that wonderful revelation which was made to the world in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The other two are personal letters, wherein the fragrance of a gracious friendship still lingers, and in which we see how the spirit of Christ was beginning, even then, to transfigure with its benignant gentleness the courtesies of life.
The Book of Jude, the last of the epistles, is one of whose author we have little knowledge. He styles himself |the brother of James,| but that, as we have seen, is a vague description. Of the close relation between this letter and Second Peter I have spoken. It is not in the early Syriac version; Eusebius and Origen question it, and Chrysostom does not mention it; we may fairly doubt whether it came from the hand of any apostolic witness. One feature of this short letter deserves mention; the writer quotes from one of the old apocryphal books, the Book of Enoch, treating it as Scripture. If a New Testament citation authenticates an ancient writing, Enoch must be regarded as an inspired book. We must either reject Jude or accept Enoch, or abandon the rule that makes a New Testament citation the proof of Old Testament canonicity. The abandonment of the rule is the simplest and the most rational solution of the difficulty.
I have now run rapidly over the history of twenty-one of the twenty- seven books of the New Testament, -- all of the Epistles of the inspired book. The end of the first century found these books scattered through Europe and Asia, each probably in possession of the church to which it had been sent; those addressed to individuals probably in the hands of their children or children's children. Some exchanges, such as I have suggested, had taken place; and some churches might have possessed several of these apostolic letters, but there was yet no collection of them. Of the beginning of this collection of the New Testament writings I shall speak in the chapter upon the canon.
I said at the beginning that these writers probably had no thought when they composed these letters that they were contributing to a volume that would outlast empires, and be a manual of study and a guide of conduct in lands to the world then unknown, and in generations farther from them than they were from Abraham. But each of them uttered in sincerity the word that to him seemed the word of the hour; and God who gives life to the seed gave vitality to these true words, so that they are as full of divine energy to-day as ever they were. It is easy to cavil at a sentence here and there, or to pick flaws in their logic; but the question always returns, What kind of fruit have they borne? |By their fruits ye shall know them.| One of the most precious gifts of God to men is contained in these twenty-one brief letters. It is not in equal measure in all of them, but there is none among them that does not contain some portion of it. The treasure is in earthen vessels; it was so when the apostles were alive and speaking; it is so now; it always was and always will be so; but the treasure is there, and he who with open mind and reverent spirit seeks for it will find it there, and will know that the excellency of the power is of God, and not of men.