The general, or Catholic, letters of James, Peter, John and Jude are the “final frontier” of NT studies (xiii). If it’s true that these letters are neglected individually individually, they are even more neglected as a unit. Darian Lockett’s Letters from the Pillar Apostles aims to remedy this neglect. His goal is “a sustained argument for reading the Catholic Epistles as an intentional, discrete collection set within the New Testament” (xvi).
Letters from the Pillar Apostles
A canonical study of the Catholic epistles focuses on context. The usual context for interpretation is found through pursuing the historical background of individual texts “read in isolation from each other.” A context less considered is the canonical context, where “[the letters’] collection and placement within the New Testament specifically (and within the Christian canon generally)” (xiv) are brought into the interpretive process. Is the collection and placement of these letters a historical coincidence? Is there any interpretive significance when one asks questions such as why are these letters together and why in this order?
Chapter one surveys other attempts to read the Catholic Epistles as a collection. This includes the varied work of Davids, Niebuhr, Neinhuis and Wall, Newman, and Childs on there’s letters. In doing so, Lockett identifies many of the major issues he will discuss throughout the remainder of the book.
Chapter two explains the hermeneutical factors important for a canonical interpretation. A key question is the relationship between Scripture and canon. Is the canon an event or a process that includes the process of reception, collection, transmission, and shaping by the early church? Lockett argues for the latter.
Chapter three considers the history of canonization by examining the early church fathers, early canon lists, and manuscript tradition.
Chapter four examines the relevance of para-textual data. This includes super- and subscribed titles, nomina sacra and chapter divisions in the manuscripts. Though this data was not present in the original letters as written, it still represents an early stage of tradition that preceded final canonization.
Chapter five examines shared use of OT passages and “catchwords” or “catchphrases” shared across two or more epistles. Proverbs 3:34, Isaiah 40:6-8, Proverbs 10:12, Leviticus 19, Ezekiel 33-34, Genesis 4 and 6-7 are all used by at least two letters, showing a shared tradition and even interpretation among these letters.
Chapter six notes that brothers of Jesus (James and Jude) bracket off the collection and then considers the themes of the collection and whether they develop. In terms of themes, the letters show a deep engagement with Leviticus 19, especially the connections between love, word, law, and commandment. Beyond this, other shared themes are considered, such as trials, fidelity to God vs. the world, and faith vs. works.
Chapter seven concludes by summarizing the argumentation of the previous chapters.
Lockett marshals an impressively vast and varied collection of evidence, displaying his own expertise in the letters. Chapters five and six are especially illuminating, most likely because they contained the most fascinating data and compelling argumentation. It is here that Lockett’s hard work in earlier chapters pays off. While many potential readers may be intimidated by the earlier material, these chapters have a more instant and broad appeal and display the fruits of the canonical approach in an appealing way.
In contrast, chapters one through four contain much more rigorous engagement with reception history and textual criticism, areas that may be less familiar or instantly applicable to potential readers. These chapters contain much technical jargon and reflect the detailed debates among canonical interpretations. Those who are waiting to be convinced of the benefit to such an approach may be turned off. For those, I would suggest dipping into chapters five and six first. However, these earlier chapters contain a wealth of insight and information that deserve consideration. Those already engaged in canonical studies will no doubt benefit.
In Letters from the Pillar Apostles, Darian Lockett has produced a detailed and thorough presentation of the Catholic epistles as a collection. It fills a need in canonical scholarship and moves the conversation forward. For the uninitiated, there are still many insights to be gained from which any interpreter of these letters would benefit.
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Many thanks to Wipf & Stock for providing a review copy.