The Letter of Jude, one of the shortest texts of the New Testament and of the entire Christian Bible (25 verses), is often overlooked for devotional reading or relegated to the sidelines when investigating early Christianity. A review of the many commentators on Jude makes the reason for this neglect clear. The letter has been traditionally interpreted as representing a battle of words between competing Christian theologians. The author of Jude brings to the fight a number of literary examples of God’s past punishments of the wicked. But I think the author is reacting more to something that is happening in the church of his addressees and not just arguing Christian doctrine. This little letter gives us an excellent if tiny window into a situation that probably occurred in a number of early churches as the struggle for Jewish versus Gentile control of the congregations grew in intensity.
Let’s dispense with the preliminaries first. The letter’s author self-identifies as Ioudas in Greek, that is, Judas or Judah. The English “Jude” is often preferred as it avoids any association of the author with Judas Iscariot but it likewise hides the author’s connection with Judaism. That is unfortunate. I will identify him as Judah. This Judah was probably meant to be understood as one of Jesus’s brothers (Mark 6:3) whether or not he actually was. In other words, the author may have claimed kinship with Jesus in order to promote his views and establish authority for the letter. I side with those scholars who consider the work a product of the late first or early second century, that is, after the time of the historical Judah. That decision is based on the good Greek grammar of the letter, its use of the word faith (pistis) as a body of beliefs rather than trust in Christ/God, its mention of “our common salvation,” and the representation of the apostles as figures of the past. Be that as it may, its date of origin does not affect our review of the text.
The letter was written by a Jewish follower of Christ. Its intended audience was a Christian church that was predominantly Jewish but had Gentile members as well. These two facts can be deduced from references, some of which are obscure, to Jewish literature both Biblical and pseudepigraphical. Both writer and reader would have had to be familiar with the references for there to have been a profitable exchange of meaning. I propose that the intended readers belonged to a church in the city of Antioch or elsewhere in Syria where Jewish customs prevailed in Christian churches for a long time.
At the outset of the letter, Judah refers to “those who have crept in” to the congregation and made trouble. The identity of these mysterious creepers has occupied scholars of Jude for a long time. I submit that they were not Christians with an alternative Christology (such as Gnosticism) but pagan mystics who were invited into the church, possibly as catechumens or even as authority figures, by some of the Gentile members. But the interlopers had a hidden agenda: they sought to ridicule the beliefs and disrupt the practices of the congregation. Let’s look at the clues.
The author describes the infiltrators as “ungodly” (asebeis; vss 4, 15 [3x], 18). He wrote that they denied Christ (4), committed sexual sins (7-8), indulged in corruption like unreasoning animals (10), were mockers (18), and psychical (natural) rather than spiritual men (19). Judah says they were predestined for judgment (v 4).
In my view, the denial of Christ and the rejection of God (ungodly) both point to pagans. Yet somehow these interlopers were admitted into the congregation. Therefore they may have been accepted provisionally as guests, catechumens, or teachers (vs 4). They have been allowed to participate in the Christian “love feasts” (agapais; vs 12). But Judah implies that their presence profanes the feasts. They were like “hidden reefs” (12), unforeseen and unexpected, upon which the boat of Christian ritual celebration had crashed. Is it possible, as some claim, that intra-Christian antagonisms, enflamed by “false teachers,” are in view? Or is it more likely that an incursion has taken place by mean-spirited outsiders? Given the author’s choice of proof texts used to characterize the wickedness of the interlopers, I think a solid case can be made that they were disingenuous pagans.
The first prooftext is biblical and recalls the rescuing of the Hebrews (by God? by Jesus?) from Egyptian slavery (5). But Judah adds that “[God] in the second place destroyed the ones who did not believe.” Most scholars understand this reference to refer to the destruction of some of the liberated Hebrews due to their unfaithful behavior at the foot of Mount Sinai where Moses received the commandments. But there is another possibility. Judah may be referring to the destruction of pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea, a miracle of God that saved the Hebrews and destroyed the pagan Egyptian forces (Ex 15:4).
Judah’s next example speaks of the evil angels who once broke out of heaven but now reside in hell (“nether gloom”) awaiting judgment (6). These are demons (Nephilim), probably the ones who fornicated with human women according to Torah (Gen 6:4) and whose demonic roles were elaborated in later Jewish writings (such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees). Jewish speculation considered these fallen angels to be the false gods worshipped by pagans.
Next, Judah makes reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. The interlopers are compared to the residents of these cities who “whored about and went in pursuit of other flesh” (7). Many scholars suggest that the “other flesh” were Lot’s angelic visitors with whom the inhabitants wanted to have sex. But there is Jewish literature from around the time of the Letter of Jude that accuses the residents of Sodom with human sexual misbehavior typical of pagans (see, for example, Philo, On Abraham 26:133-6).
Judah’s three historical examples all seem to point to the punishment of pagans or pagan-style behavior. Judah writes that “in the same way these dreamers [the infiltrators] defile the flesh” (8). Calling them dreamers or visionaries indicates they may have appealed to supernatural authority, divinations, or revelations that called into question the practices and beliefs of the Christians. That they defiled the flesh may mean that they did not observe Jewish restrictions regarding sexual activity.
Judah went on to cite other historical examples with which to compare the intruders and to make his case that whatever the intruders could not understand (e.g., Christian teaching), “they blasphemed” (8). He was making the case that what is impure contaminates what is holy.
First, Judah charges the intruders with “traveling the path of Cain” (11). Cain’s actions brought the denial of God (godlessness) into the world (see Josephus, Antiquities 1:60-61). These interlopers would therefore be considered Cainites, a term later used for gnostic Christian groups who turned Cain into a hero. Despite what some scholars suggest, however, I do not think Gnosticism is in view in the church being addressed.
Judah then charges the intruders with “abandoning themselves to the error of Balaam” (11). Balaam was a pagan seer in the days of the Hebrew invasion of Canaan (Num 22-24). At that time, the fearful Moabite king offered money to Balaam to prophesy against the Hebrews and stop their army’s progress. The charge made by Judah likely reinforces his identification of the interlopers as pagan diviners who, like Balaam, seek to work against God’s purposes.
Finally, Judah refers to the “sedition of Korah” (11). He means, of course, the Korah mentioned in Numbers 16. Korah was snubbed in his efforts to be awarded honors by Moses. His unmet demands for authority led him to recruit members of the tribe of Reuben and others to challenge Moses. God opened up the earth to swallow the leaders of this revolt and sent fire to burn the remaining troublemakers. Those these insurrectionists are not identified as pagans, they do become godless (damned) and profane the holy community.
Judah’s final literary citation comes from the first century BCE apocalyptic work known as First Enoch 1:9 (14-15). In the prophecy chosen by Judah from this pseudepigraphical text, God was expected to bring his holy army in order to defeat ungodliness at the end of days. Again, ungodly means without God—in a Jewish context this refers to those outside the covenant, i.e., pagans. Judah reinforces the prophecy with another made “by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” to the effect that there would be such men as these interlopers who “follow after their own desires for ungodly things” (18).
In summary, someone, probably Gentile Christ-followers, had invited into the church certain pagan mystics who feigned an interest in Christianity but later revealed their true colors. They were only interested in defaming and ridiculing Christ-faith and perhaps taking over the community on behalf of their own theology. The Jewish Judah wrote to the largely Jewish membership of this church and warned them both of the danger such intruders posed and the ultimate fate that awaited the intruders at the judgment (which perhaps attests to the difficulty of removing them). The letter ends by encouraging forgiveness of those of the congregation who had succumbed to doubt. He urges the preservation of their salvation “by seizing them out of the fire” (23). “Have mercy on them in fear,” he wrote, “hating even the inner tunic stained by the flesh” (23).