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In the rhymed preface to his Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan explains that he was drawn into writing the allegory when he was occupied with another book.
I had undertook
To make another, which when almost done,
Before I was aware, I this begun.
So Judas meant to write upon the general theme of the Christian salvation, but, says he, I am forced to write you this special appeal, in view of a sudden emergency. Only, Bunyan’s alteration of purpose was literary. In Bedford gaol he had been thinking and indeed writing already about—
And Race of Saints, in this our Gospel-day.
Fortunately for the world, the allegorical handling of the subject suddenly appealed to him with such force that he struck off into allegory, instead of composing a theological treatise as he had originally intended. Judas had to drop a wider project for a special piece of counsel and warning; he had to change his message rather than his method. So far as we know, he never wrote the book or epistle which he had in mind, when he turned to dictate this urgent call. Pindar opens his first Isthmian Ode by apologizing for writing it when he had already begun to compose a paean for Delos, which he is obliged to put aside meantime. But the poet lived to complete the paean in question; it has been preserved. Whereas, if Judas ever finished his original plan of composition, it has not survived, unless, as some have thought, he had a hand in the composition of the church-manual called the Didaché. Probably it is another of the books which early Christians meant to write and never wrote. Ignatius, for example, in his letter to the Ephesian church, said that if it was the will of Christ, ‘I will proceed, in the second treatise which I propose to write to you, to explain the divine plan relating to the new man, Jesus Christ, which I have begun to discuss.’ But he did not live to write this treatise. So, for some reason, Judas has only left us this brief manifesto.
What moved him to write it was an outburst of antinomianism. Antinomianism is an ugly word for an uglier thing. In religion it is the belief that a truly spiritual man is exempt from the moral law, in virtue of his relationship towards God. For certain religions it has never been binding on a so-called ‘saint’ to be what his fellow-beings would call a moral person. But Christianity from the first insisted on faith and fellowship being bound up with a good life, and therefore the appearance of antinomian tendencies within its communities caused instant and indignant protests.
That such tendencies should manifest themselves, however, was only natural. Antinomianism, like Pharisaism, is a perversion of religion at its very best. It is the exaggerated extreme of a merely legal view of religion. Once people awake to the truth that God’s favour is not to be earned by an accumulation of merits, nor by merely doing this or that in obedience to a prescribed code, they turn to the evangelical or mystical line; ‘faith is everything, we are not under law but grace.’ Pushed to an extreme, this may become, and in the history of the church it often has become, for mystics and evangelicals alike, a repudiation of any moral restrictions or regulations as inconsistent with inner freedom. Mediaeval outbursts of the Free Spirit, the sectaries whom Luther had to check, and the English Ranters, are notorious cases in point. Paul had already met this spirit, which he denounced as a caricature of his teaching about salvation by faith. But towards the close of the first century it began to assume formidable proportions, as it became connected with a ramified movement of thought in Egypt, Asia, and Syria, which exploited the revival of Platonism in the interests of an ultra-spiritual conception of the world; a theoretical basis for antinomianism was afforded by those who sought to explain the origin of evil as part and parcel of the material world. The Christian church, says Judas, adores the one and only God, our Saviour, the same God in creation and in redemption. But the creation of the world was ascribed in some circles to an inferior deity, the O.T. Creator, and redemption was the emancipation of the soul from the trammels of the senses by means of some higher God, the Father, who in Jesus intervened to rescue the pure spirit. Perfection was of the spirit alone. Hence an enlightened spirit might either take an ascetic view of evil, or regard anything done in the flesh as irrelevant to the well-being of the spirit the more so when the O.T. decalogue was regarded, as it was by many, as the code of the inferior creator-god, whose sway was cancelled for the redeemed.
It is against a background of this kind that pastoral letters like those of Judas and Second Peter are intelligible. The details are obscure, for the precise data of the controversy cannot be recovered, but the general trend is fairly plain. Judas, for example, is an earnest, honest leader of the church, not a keen analyst or cool religious critic of heresies. He denounces the errorists, instead of describing them. Indeed this would have been superfluous, as his readers are assumed to know them at first hand. It is therefore difficult to identify them amid the movements that swarmed between the last quarter of the first century and the middle of the second within the Christian churches of the East. The pastoral is no transcript of the errorists’ opinions and practices, and the" hints dropped by Judas do not fit any one party known to us. But some suggest that he must have been attacking an incipient phase of the gnostical tendency which characterized, for example, what Irenaeus called ‘the party of Simon and Carpocrates,’ who were antinomian on principle and held erroneous views of the person of Christ, besides disparaging angels. Thus the Simonians believed that redemption emancipated the elect from the sway of the rebellious angels and celestial powers who ruled or mismanaged (according to them) the universe. As Judas put it, they scorn the Powers celestial and scoff at the angelic Glories. They also held that the distinctions between good and evil were the arbitrary work of these angels, and that the free man, saved by grace, could do as he pleased; morality, as usually understood, was a matter of opinion, due to the angels of the present world. Besides, said some, one ought to try all experiences, good or bad. Thus, said the indignant Judas, they pollute their flesh, and pervert the grace of our God into immorality. And when he charges them with disowning Jesus Christ, it may be a reference to their view, resembling that of Cerinthus the traditional opponent of St. John, that the Supreme Power descended in Judaea in the form of man (yet not a man), who only seemed to suffer (since the flesh and suffering were incompatible with the deity). Some did not believe Jesus to be the Son of God, and they claimed, says Irenaeus angrily, to be not only like Jesus, ‘but sometimes even better.’ Obedience to the moral law might be good enough for ordinary church believers, who did not possess the Spirit, but the emancipated spiritualists held that perfection belonged to the spirit, not to the flesh. Hence, they not merely took a docetic view of the person of Christ, but regarded the passions and impulses of the body as indifferent; in some cases adherents of such parties openly held that men ought to obey these instincts and were entitled to do so freely—like irrational creatures, Judas puts in!
They made extensive use of dreams and visions, these visionaries! They scoffed at the O.T. prophecies as inspired by the inferior angels, arrogantly preferring their own revelations. And they practised their religious rites and cures for money—for what it brings them, as Judas sneered, to benefit themselves. Like the prophet John, who found similar lax movements in the Asiatic churches of Ephesus and Smyrna and Thyatira towards the close of the first century, Judas took the effective line of stamping the errorists with O.T. names of notorious offenders—Cain, Balaam, and Korah; but he is controverting a more subtle and speculative movement, though it evidently was tinged with the same tendency to moral laxity. Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromateis (iii. 2), declares that what Judas wrote (8-17) seemed to him an actual prediction of what went on at religious gatherings of the Carpocratians and other sects in Egypt. He even accuses some of vice and sensual perversity, i.e. of sodomy. This was nearly a century later than Judas, and probably the movement had degenerated in the interval. But if the errorists belonged partly to a rudimentary phase of the movement which was organized definitely by Carpocrates the Alexandrian early in the second century, it would throw light on some of their traits, for the Carpocratians believed that Jesus was born of human parents (a disowning of our sole liege and Lord Jesus Christ); they also disparaged the world and the angels who were supposed to have created it, and from this principle further deduced the practical conclusion that all things ought to be common (including wives), and that such mundane scruples as moral restrictions on vice and theft were not binding on the free soul, which was only concerned with faith (no most holy faith, this!) and free love. Love! says Judas angrily these fine advocates of spiritual love are simply stains on your love-feasts!
It is through glimpses like these of various rampant tendencies, all speculative and antinomian, that we can form some idea of the teachers against whom this emphatic pastoral is directed. It is alive to the unholy alliance between speculative theosophy and practical immorality, just as the first epistle of John is, though the latter faces the Cerinthians with their doctrine of a truly human Jesus who was endowed with the divine spirit of Christ only between the baptism and the passion. The prophet John in the book of Revelation denounces Nicolaitans, who were connected somehow with the followers of Carpocrates or at anyrate with the tenets of that party, but he fastens on their immoral tendencies like Judas, whereas the first epistle of John deals more definitely with the error about the person of Christ, an aberration which Judas merely notes in passing.
It would be interesting to know if, in ver. 11, Judas had in mind the extremists who maintained that Cain, the Sodomites, and Korah were maligned victims of the creator-god, and therefore heroes! These extremists belonged to the party named or nicknamed Serpent-worshippers (Ophites), since they viewed man’s fall as his real emancipation, thanks to the serpent, from the tyranny of the creator-god. In any case, all such views about God, which separated creation from redemption, were to Judas an infringement of the prerogatives of the Christian deity. It is not against pagan polytheism, nor is it a merely liturgical flourish, when he lifts his doxology to the only God, our saviour. There is but one God in the universe, good and just, and Jesus Christ is our sole liege and Lord, by whom He saves us, keeping us unblemished. Yet Judas is absorbed, not in the speculative error about God’s nature, but in the immoral practices which ooze out of it. Mr. Gladstone once wrote to the Duchess of Sutherland, ‘There is one proposition which the experience of life burns into my soul; it is this, that man should beware of letting his religion spoil his morality. In a thousand ways, some great, some small, but all subtle, we are daily tempted to that great sin.’ There is much about this tract of Judas which is remote and obscure, but it clearly shows an early Christian teacher passionately warning people inside the Christian church against religious theories that spoil morality.
‘I read my Bible,’ says the mother of Felix Holt, in George Eliot’s romance, ‘and I know in Jude where it’s been stained with the dried tulip-leaves this many a year, as you're told not to rail at your betters if he was the devil himself.’ Most people know the epistle of Judas from the same passage about the railing accusation against the devil, or from the passage at the close about ‘building ourselves up in the love of God.’ The rest of the writing has little permanent interest or value. It is full of denunciations which sound to a modern more forcible than profitable. Judas was evidently indignant and alarmed about some development in the religious world of his day, but who he was and what he was attacking, we neither know nor greatly care to inquire. ‘To a modern reader,’ as its ablest English editor, Professor J. B. Mayor, observes, ‘it is curious rather than edifying, with the exception of the beginning and the end.’ But it must have impressed the church deeply in these early days. The first trace of it is either in the Martyrdom of Polykarp (see on 2, 25)—at Smyrna the message would be welcome!—or in the second epistle of Peter, whose author thought so highly of it that he made copious use of it in his treatise. By the end of the second century it was widely known and read at worship, in spite of its brevity. Alexandria, Carthage, and Rome esteemed it as scripture. This is hardly surprising, when we remember that libertinism and gnostic errors were surging through the churches during that period. No wonder an early, pungent warning like the tract of Judas, coming from the border of the apostolic days, was appreciated and circulated!
The feature that compromised it in some quarters before long was its use of the book of Enoch and of legends like that about the dispute between the devil and Moses. There were simple Christians like Mrs. Holt who read such passages without taking offence at them. But the day came—even in the second century it was dawning—when a strict, narrow view of inspiration resented any imprimatur being given to the book of Enoch as inspired, and the tract of Judas was on that account either read with hesitation or excluded from some lists of the N.T. canonical writings. For the vogue of apocalypses like the Assumption of Moses and the book of Enoch was waning. To the primitive church these had come as prophetic contributions from the ancient world.
In the first epistle of Peter, as we have seen, the collection of apocalyptic tractates called the book of Enoch is familiar to Peter and his circle, and Judas definitely cites it as inspired. Any modern reader who looks into it will marvel at the reputation it once enjoyed in these enthusiastic Christian communities. Unless he has been in touch with simple, uneducated pietists of a prophetic cast, he may even fail to understand why such apocalypses ever held the mind and heart of the church. ‘In the apocalyptic and eschatological literature of the time, the world was to come to an end. But what really did come to an end,’ says Professor Vladimir Simkhovitch, ‘in that literature was the last shred of thinking capacity and common sense.’ This is far too severe. Still, by the end of the second century Christians were losing interest in the immediate end of the world and in the hectic prophecies that predicted it; they began to ask inconvenient questions even about the book of Enoch. How did it survive the Flood? Once this decline of sympathy with the naïve belief in Enoch set in, the tract came under suspicion. ‘Because Judas draws a testimony from the apocryphal book of Enoch, his epistle is rejected by very many,’ says Jerome in the fourth century; but by the end of that century it was nevertheless finally canonized. Indeed it is fully owned as scripture in the so-called Muratorian Canon of the N.T., a second-century list of N.T. books. The Muratorian Canon came from the Egyptian church, and it was there that the tract found its earliest admirers, in Origen and Clement; the latter wrote comments on it. Its affinities with the Didaché, perhaps another Egyptian book, further confirm the hypothesis that the tract was of Egyptian origin. It was in Egypt that the first weeds of the sinister Carpocratian heresy shot up; we are not far wrong in supposing that Judas was some teacher or prophet of the Egyptian church, that is, in all likelihood, of the Alexandrian.
No tradition, however, has come down to us about its origin. Like the epistle of James, another Egyptian church encyclical, while it reflects some personal experience and local observation, it is a homily or pastoral which the writer designs for more than his immediate circle. As a teacher of the church, he writes urbi et orbi, in a Christian sense. It was the weight of his tract, for all its apparently fugitive character, that carried it so far, in the second century. Judas, like James, had the immense spiritual prestige of a teacher, and the intrinsic merits of his tract, so timely and pungent, were backed by the spiritual authority of his vocation. No wonder that Tertullian and others were calling him an apostle by the end of the century. But Judas was no apostle. So much we know, though little more. Judas was not an uncommon name among Hebrew Christians, and Judas the brother of James may quite conceivably be some Judas otherwise unknown to fame. There was a Judas in the reign of Hadrian who was bishop of the Jerusalem church, for example, though this is not likely to be our author. Or, we may ask, was the original title merely Judas a servant of Jesus Christ, and did some one insert and a brother of James, to guarantee, as it were, the credentials of the writer by connecting his person with the first head of the Jerusalem church, whose antipathies to pagan antinomianism were well known?’ Or is the entire title pseudonymous?
This throws us back upon the fact that among the brothers of Jesus were two called James and Judas, who would be born about the beginning of the century. The former we know. The latter is unknown to tradition, except in connexion with a tale of his grandsons, who were haled before the suspicious emperor Domitian, because they belonged to the Davidic lineage and were supposed to have hopes of a messianic empire. They were horny-handed peasants, who had no difficulty in proving their innocence of any revolutionary designs. Now, as this interview took place after Judas was dead, he must have written his tract by about A.D. 90 at the latest. There is nothing in the references to the errorists which quite shuts out this as a possibility. Those who prefer to think that in the second century some anonymous writer composed the manifesto under the pseudonym of Judas a brother of James have to explain how so unimportant a figure was likely to have been chosen to voice the warning.
The difficulty on either of these hypotheses is to understand why he called himself or was called a servant of Jesus Christ, instead of a brother. This was felt early, and answered by Clement of Alexandria, who thought it was due to reverence and humility. This is ingenious, but is it necessary? Some Judas who had a brother called James may well have written the manifesto. And this is the more likely when the James who wrote the canonical epistle is seen to have had no connexion with the strict Jewish Christian head of the Jerusalem church. So far from claiming to be an apostle, Judas bids his readers recall how the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ had predicted this latter-day movement of mischief. He looks back on the apostolic age. But probably all the apostles were dead by about 90. On the other hand, his tone of surprise at the news or sight of the errorists would indicate that the phenomenon was new, or that it had but recently been brought under his notice. He starts back from it in horror, shocked by its appearance and inroads, even while he insists that it is an innovation which had been foreseen beforehand by the apostles. His very allusion to the apostles is an indication that he wrote comparatively early in the post-apostolic age, for he does not call the loyal Christians to rally round the ministry of bishops and presbyters as preserving true doctrine. Ignatius does this in the first quarter of the second century, and against gnostic perversions of the gospel it became increasingly a natural and needful safeguard. For Judas it is enough as yet to uphold the apostolic tradition as such. Remember the words of the apostles, he urges; he does not say, hold by their true successors in authority over the church. All this renders it rather unlikely that the pastoral is much later, if later at all, than the close of the first century, when already, as we know from the book of Revelation, some forms of this heresy were rampant in the churches of Asia Minor.
Whatever view be held of its authorship, it was either written or meant to be taken as having been written at the close of the apostolic period as a sort of fiery cross sent through the churches to rally the faithful against a new insidious foe. The danger against which it sought to forewarn Christendom has altered its form, but it is always present, and the burden of the letter retains its significance. For antinomianism, like gnosticism in general, is by no manner of means a far-off unhappy tendency in the religious world, whose interest for ourselves is purely historical or antiquarian.
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