Darian Locket (Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Talbot School of Theology) recently wrote and published Letters from the Pillar Apostles: The Formation of the Catholic Epistles as a Canonical Collection. We wanted to learn more about this book, so we had Darian respond to some questions:
Why did you write this book? What motivated you to focus on the Catholic Epistles?
This work has allowed for the delightful intersection between two enduring research interests: canonical Biblical Theology and the Catholic Epistles. I have been writing this book in my mind since participating in the Scripture and Theology seminar while studying for my PhD at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews from 2002 to 2005. It was during those fortnightly seminar discussions that I was introduced to the general challenge of Biblical Theology, the relationship between the two Testaments, and more specifically the prospects of reading the Old and New Testaments in the context of canonical sub-collections. We explored the the fourfold Gospel as a collection and its hermeneutical significance in interpreting each of Gospel texts. From those discussions I wanted to investigate whether or not one could read the Catholic Epistles as a coherent collection too.
To address the second part of your question, I guess I’ve always been interested in the Catholic Epistles—especially the Letter of James. Before I started my PhD studies I had completed some missionary work in Eastern Europe. While there I met individuals who had served the church faithfully under Communist rule and had suffered for it. It was the experience of persecution and trial in the Christian life that drew me especially to James as a research interest. The relationship between wholeness before God and the experience of trials was particularly fascinating. From there it was a natural move to 1 Peter’s concern for suffering and from there my interests grew to include the rest of these fascinating letters. In the context of both Biblical Scholarship and the church in general, the Catholic Epistles have not enjoyed the attention that the Gospels and Paul’s letters have, so the sheer lack of academic work and Christian preaching focusing on these letters has also drawn me to them.
You note that one of your primary concerns is to challenge the notion that one should read these seven letters as separate texts from different historical authors to different situations. Why is this such a concern?
To be clear, I do think investigating the historical issues of original author and audience are necessary for proper interpretation. However, I would argue that such historical context alone is insufficient. Literary, theological, and reception-historical insights must be set alongside historical-critical insights in order to appreciate fully. The key question I ask in this book is whether or not the Catholic Epistles should be read in isolation from each other, understanding their individual historical situations as the single, determinative context for their interpretation, or whether their collection and placement within the New Testament specifically should constitute a further context within which these letters ought to be interpreted. Of course, throughout the book I argue that their collection and placement in the NT canon does constitute a further context in which the Catholic Epistles should be interpreted.
Some scholars, especially those committed to an exclusive historical-critical methodology, might push back and question whether reading the Catholic Epistles as you are suggesting reaches beyond Biblical Studies into later early church history or even Systematic Theology. What would you say to such a critique of your work?
In the modern era of Biblical Studies historical and theological (or canonical) concerns have largely been sealed off from one another. I think this exposes a deeper problem within New Testament scholarship regarding the relationship between historical-critical analysis of New Testament writings and reception-historical, theological study of their importance in early Christianity. The key question I have attempted to address in this book is whether subsequent judgments regarding canon clarify or obscure the meaning of these texts. The historical-critical approach to New Testament studies typically rejects later canonical judgments regarding the collecting and ordering of the texts as anachronistic to their right interpretation. I would argue that this pits the texts’ situation in history is over against their situation in the canon. On the other hand, I think the opposite is equally distorting. Pitting the canonical context over against the historical context results in a docetic text cut free from time and place.
Historical reconstruction and the theological significance of the text are further isolated from one another as these two means of inquiry are usually assigned completely different disciplines within the academy—namely, Biblical Studies and Patristics—such that practitioners of either discipline are encouraged by their professional context not to account for the results of each other’s work. Asking whether the Catholic Epistles should be read as a canonically significant collection cuts across the line of demarcation between Biblical Studies and Patristics. A basic presupposition of mine is that the significance of canon is not limited to the listing of received books (canon as a fixed collection), but also involves the process by which these texts were received, collected, transmitted, and shaped in the early apostolic period (canon as a “ruled” process). Thus insights flowing from the process of reception, collection, and arrangement of these texts into the New Testament canon constitute an important set of hermeneutical guides that are important for interpretation. More broadly, I hope this book might provide at least one way forward in reconnecting the historical concerns of Biblical Studies and the theological concerns of Systematic Theology.
What is some of the evidence you provide for reading the Catholic Epistles as a collection?
In the book I break the evidence down into two broad categories: external and internal evidence of collection. I start in chapter 3 by tracing the history of canonization of these seven texts through the indirect evidence of early citation and use of these texts in the church along with the early manuscript tradition. Despite the ambiguity resulting from the lack of historical evidence (especially in the use of these texts by the early church Fathers), it is clear that the texts quickly became associated together and circulated first in smaller associations (1¬–2 Peter, Jude) then finally as a seven-letter Catholic Epistle collection. The survey of the early reception history of the Catholic Epistles suggests that the collection and arrangement that took place during the canonical process constitutes an important hermeneutical context for interpreting these letters.
In chapter 4, I consider more external evidence, specifically something I call paratextual information. Paratextual features are characteristics of manuscripts beyond the actual text contained in the manuscript itself. Paratexts include order and arrangement of texts (within a larger, multi-text book role or codex), titles appearing at the beginning, as running heads, or as superscripted to a manuscript, reading aids (for example, chapter divisions, nomina sacra, author bios, hypothesis, or kephalaia), and the presence of a colophon. Though such textual features are not formally included in the original moment of composition (namely, the first author did not necessarily produce such textual features), they are nonetheless hermeneutically significant regarding the text’s composition and compilation into a final form as a collection. I note several of these paratexutal elements in the Catholic Epistles which suggest intentional collection and arrangement.
What is some of the internal evidence you found?
In chapters 5 and 6 I argue that concerns for collection and arrangement—compilational concerns—not only occur in the later canonical process (when the texts were received and collected in the early church), but also may be detected at the compositional level. Following Timothy Stone’s helpful investigation of the Megilloth, I used his four criteria: 1) “catch-words or catchphrases at the seams of contiguous books”; 2) “framing devices” like an inclusion; 3) “superscriptions” that may indicate collection consciousness; and 4) “specific themes that are either continued in a similar manner or reversed to create a sharp contrast across contiguous books.” In addition to Stone’s category of catchword associations between contiguous books, chapter 5 assessed the relationship between the Catholic Epistles and those texts that were received as authoritative Scripture (the Old Testament) at the moment of composition. My assumption is that the authors of the Catholic Epistles wrote their letters within the context of a stable and authoritative collection of Old Testament texts. I argue that “canon-consciousness” (our collection consciousness) includes any indications that an author directly associates his composition with that broader (authoritative) literary context or understands his work to serve a particular function within that broader context.
I was fascinated to find several catchwords drawing the individual compositions together. Several of these connections were linked contiguous texts by means of a repeated key word or concept. I found that some catchword associations were stronger (James and 1 Peter) than others (2 Peter and 1 John), but that they likely constituted compositional clues which later readers and compilers detected and interpreted as indicating significant association between these texts. Furthermore, several of the catchwords appearing in the prescript of the letters enumerated the identity of the letter’s author so as to form a connect to the narrative depiction of these authors in the book of Acts. The prescripts of the letters, therefore, work in conjunction with this narrative to draw these particular letters together into an overall narrative picture.
In chapter 6 I consider framing devices that draw the collection together and thematic development running through the collection. Primarily the significant connections between James and Jude (especially between their openings and closings) seems to result in creating a frame bracketing the Catholic Epistles. Not only were parallels between their openings detected, but James and Jude both end with a command for restoration—either to reclaim a fellow believer from the path of error (James 5:19–20), or to show mercy to the διακρνομένους (Jude 22–23). Taking this network of associations between the letter openings of James and Jude along with the concluding command for restoration—both of which express the logic of mercy triumphing over judgment—it seems plausible that the compiler(s) of the collection placed these two letters in first and last position in order to bookend the Catholic Epistle as a coherent collection.
Finally, in the last part of chapter 6, I consider several thematic connects running through each of the letters. The analysis demonstrates that the love command is a strong and comprehensive theme woven through all seven letters. The second theme of “word,” “law,” and “commandment” is prominent in all the letters as well. Whereas these two themes are common across the New Testament generally, it is the consistent connection between the love command and the divine word/law/commandment that demonstrates the unique thematic coherence in the Catholic Epistles.
This is all very interesting and gives insight into the Catholic Epistles as a collection. What is the ultimate goal of your book?
First, I hope that the book might encourage further research in and focus upon the Catholic Epistles in general. These texts are full of theological, ethical, and pastoral riches that are too often eclipsed by other prominent New Testament texts. Second, the goal of the book is to further a conversation about reading the Catholic Epistles as a coherent collection. Again, I don’t want to argue that one cannot or should not read each of these texts on its own. My argument is that however necessary reading these texts individually, such a reading is not by itself sufficient. The dynamics of these texts as Christian Scripture demand to be read in the context of other Catholic Epistles and ultimately within the context of the rest of the New and Old Testaments.
Finally, and more broadly, I have self-consciously attempted to span the gap existing between the historical-critical assessment of the New Testament and the theological reception of their interpretation in the Christian church. Rather than pitting these two means of retrieval against one another, here I attempt a methodological rapprochement. I hope that my book might stand alongside the growing number of works that similarly attempt an integrated interpretive approach using both historical and theological methodologies.
Your ultimate goal seems to have relevance to the Church as the community of faith that received and is shaped by the New Testament as Scripture. How might your work be relevant to the Christian community?
The primary audience of the book is other academics as much of the work interacts with scholarship and historical reconstruction. However, I do hope that as some of these insights are digested, assessed, and refined that they might be used by seminary professors and pastors in their thinking about the hermeneutical implications of canon. A controlling metaphor that has helped me think about the relationship between the various sub-corpora of the New Testament (the fourfold Gospel, Paul’s Letters, Acts and the Catholic Epistles, etc.) is that of a choir. The individual texts sing, as it were, their own notes. Yet, these individual singers are organized into mid-range groups: basses, tenors, altos, and sopranos. In any given musical score there might be several bass or soprano parts (ages ago I sang second bass in my high school choir). The individual texts/singers at the same time sing their particular notes within the context of their immediate group (tenors singing in a similar range for their voices, yet voicing individual notes) and within the entire context of the choir itself. A choral performance, though made up of individual voices grouped within a particular vocal range, is the dynamic of all these voices heard together. Though during choir practice the director asks the individual singers to rehearse their part, the intention of the choral composition is for all the parts to be heard at the same time. The individually sounded notes merge together in harmony and dissonance such that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. In a similar way, the texts of the New Testament must be appreciated both as individual voices and as voices group together in canonical sub-units. However, it is as the church hears and responds to the full choir of Scriptural voices that God’s word is heard. It is my hope that the book serves a small part in aiding the church to pick out the group of tenors or altos singing together as they form part of the whole choir.