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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Catholic Epistles


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The title ‘Catholic Epistles,’ as applied to a group of seven Epistles in the NT, viz. those of James, Peter (two), John (three), and Jude, is first met with in Eusebius (HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] ii. xxiii. 25 [bis] and vi. xiv. 1), and, somewhat later, in Cyril of Jerusalem (Catecheseis, iv. 36) and the original ‘Euthalius’ (ed. Zaccagni, 1698, i. 405, 409). We can thus trace the title in the above sense as far back as c. [Note: . circa, about.] a.d. 310, and even then it comes before ns as a long-established and familiar designation, the origin of which we may therefore assign to the 3rd century. As regards its usage by Eusebius, the contest of the first passage cited (ii. xxiii. 25) shows us that it cannot bear the meaning of ‘canonical’ or ‘apostolic,’ since he there employs it simply in the sense of Epistles not addressed to a definite and relatively narrow circle of readers. With this usage we may compare his application of the term ‘catholic’ to the Epistles of Dionysius of Corinth in HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] iv. xxiii. 1, where he presumably makes use of an already current designation of that group of seven (!) Epistles, which, though directed to particular communities, might nevertheless, so far as their character and contents are concerned, have been addressed to any community in Christendom, The title ‘Catholic Epistle,’ again, as applied to a particular letter, is used, c. [Note: . circa, about.] 260, by Dionysius of Alexandria (ap. Eus. HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] vii. xxv. 7, 10) of 1 John-in contradistinction to the other two Epistles of John, which are not addressed to the Church at large; the term is used more frequently by Origen of 1 John, Jude, and 1 Peter, as also, in a single instance, of the Epistle of Barnabas (c. Cels. i. 63). The letter of the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:23-29) is referred to as ‘catholic’ by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. iv. xv. 97) c. [Note: . circa, about.] 205, and he applies the same attribute to Jude in his Hypotyposeis (T. Zahn, Forschungen zur Gesch. des NT Kanons, pt. iii. [1884] 83, Gesch. des NT Kanons, i. [1888] 319f.). The anti-Montanist Apollonius speaks (197) of a ‘Catholic Epistle’ which the Montanist Themiso had composed in imitation of the Apostle (ap. Eus. HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] v. xviii. 5)-probably St. John in his First Epistle.

We may therefore assume that, by the end of the 2nd century, the title ‘catholic’ was applied to certain Epistles which, as contrasted above all with the Epistles of Paul, were not explicitly addressed to particular churches, and that it was likewise used on similar grounds of 1 John as contrasted with 2 and 3 John. From this point, again, a further step was taken, probably in the first half of the 3rd century, in applying the attribute ‘catholic’ to all the non-Pauline Epistles in the sacred collection, even although the term as hitherto used was not appropriate to 2 and 3 John. These, however, were by that time closely linked with 1 John. The usage of the term as equivalent to ‘general’ or ‘encyclical’ was still recognized by Leontius of Byzantium (de Sectis, ii. 4) and Œcumenius (Com. in Ep. Gath. Jacobi). The change by which the attribute ‘catholic’ came to signify the opposite of ‘non-apostolic’ or ‘uncanonical’ took place in the West, and it was there also that this group of seven Epistles in the NT came to be known generally as the Canonical Epistles (cf. Council of Damasus of 382; see C. H. Turner, Journal of Theological Studies i. [1899-1900] 554, and E. v. Dobschütz, Decret. Gelasianum, 1912, p. 28; Pseudo-Didymus, in Ep. Can. [in the Latin version], and Cassiodorus, de Instit. Div. Lit., 8). In would thus appear that these terms were resorted to as a mere makeshift, and that they are of very little service to us either as regards the history of the canon or from the literary point of view.

Literature.-Histories of the NT Canon, and Introductions to the NT, esp. H. A. Schott, Isagoge hist.-crit. in libros Novi Fœderis, Jena, 1830, pp. 371-5, and E. Reuss, Gesch. der heiligen Schriften Neuen Testaments3, Brunswick, 1860, § 301 (Eng. translation , Edinburgh, 1884); E. T. Mayerhoff, ‘Über die Bedeutung des Namens ἐπιστολαὶ καθολικαί in Hist.-krit. Einleitung in die petrinischen Schriften, Hamburg, 1835, pp. 31-42; A. Deissmann, Bibelstudien, Marburg, 1985, p. 243f. (Eng. translation , Edinburgh, 1901, p. 50ff.); the relevant excursuses of Jan van Gilse and W. C. L. Ziegler (‘Animadversiones in sensum nominis epist. cathol.’) in J. Dahl, Commentatio exegetico-critica de αὐθεντίᾳ epist. petr., Rostock, 1807.

H. Jordan.


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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Catholic Epistles'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/catholic-epistles.html. 1906-1918.

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