The General Epistles are letters written to the Church in the first century AD by apostles other than Paul. They are James, 1 and 2, Peter, 1, 2, and 3, John, and Jude. They are called the general epistles to distinguish them from the Pauline epistles, which precede them in the New Testament. They were written to the entire Church rather than to a specific branch.
The General Epistles: James
James was written between AD 45-65. In it church meeting places were called synagogues (James 2:2), so it was likely written when the Church membership was mostly Jewish. The organization of the Church was relatively simple with only elders and teachers (masters) mentioned as Church leaders. It was written in excellent Greek. It has a very Jewish tone but is fully Christian in doctrine. It shows a very close knowledge of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. In content and style, however, it is more like Proverbs or Amos than like other books of the New Testament.
It was written in a prophetic voice in the style of the Jewish prophets. It forthrightly taught the people what they should be doing. It was about justice, fairness, and ministering. Its teachings against oppression of all kinds, by the rich in particular, echo the writings of Amos and Isaiah. It challenges us to choose whether to be friends of the world or friends of God. It affirms the moral prescriptions in the law of Moses while not encouraging its ordinances or rituals—much as Isaiah 1 did. Doctrinally and stylistically, it could be placed amongst the Old Testament writings without much change.
It was written by an apostle named Jacob. His name has changed more than most, as it has been translated into other languages. Strangely, in English, he became James.
The James who wrote it was almost certainly a half-brother of Jesus, a son of Mary and Joseph. He was not the brother of John—of Peter, James, and John fame. That James was dead when the epistle was written (Acts 12:1-2). James, as the leader of the Jerusalem Church, was likely writing to his members who had been scattered by persecutions such as the recent killing of Stephen. Jewish Christians had left Jerusalem in large numbers fleeing to Syrian Antioch, Phoenicia, and Cyprus after Stephen’s death. James was writing to address the needs and concerns of his former branch members in their dispersed condition.
James later became known as James the Just because of his reputation for completely living the law of Moses. From Acts and Paul’s letters, we can infer that James definitely had a leadership role that seemed to focus on the Christian Church in Jerusalem, which was ethnically Jewish (Acts 12:17; 15:12-21; 21:17-26; 1 Corinthians 9:1-6; 15:3-8; Galatians 1:18-19; 2:1-14).
He presided in Jerusalem as the resident apostle supervising the Jewish Christians in and around Jerusalem. According to tradition, he was murdered at the temple in Jerusalem by enemies of the Church in about AD 62. The scenario was much the same as when the mob there attempted to kill Paul. According to tradition, when Paul escaped death by appealing to Cæsar and being placed under the Roman law’s protection, the Jewish leaders then turned the focus of their hate on James, the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem, which led to his death a few years later. That is tradition, but a plausible story.
The General Epistles: Jude
Jude is the same name as Judas or Judah. This epistle was written by the half-brother of Jesus and the full brother of James, the author of the epistle of James. Jude may have been the same man as Judas (not Iscariot), one of Jesus’ original Twelve apostles although he seems to speak of the Twelve as separate men from himself (Jude 1:17-18).
Jude along with James may be the earliest written works in the New Testament. Jude quoted the Hebrew Bible from a Hebrew text rather than the Greek Septuagint text used by all other New Testament writers. Therefore, he likely had a tight link to the Jewish Christian community. It too was written in a very literary and high-quality style of Greek.
Jude was written to combat the oncoming Great Apostasy. It addressed the false doctrines that 2 Peter and the 1st and 2nd epistles of John contested. Immoral men preaching an apostate view of Christianity were going amongst the members of the Church as itinerant preachers telling them that they were saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, such that any sins committed in the past, present, or future were erased unconditionally by the Atonement. Repentance was seen to be a once and forever thing. Having entered the Church by baptism the cleansed member could suffer from sin no more—no matter what he or she did. The body, according to these false teachers, was part of a corrupt physical world and irrelevant to salvation. All heavenly beings and concerns were only spiritual. The sins of the flesh were not counted against anyone. One repented, accepted Christ, and then waited for heaven to come by grace. Amazing grace, indeed!
This was the same early gnostic doctrine against which Paul, Peter, and especially John would write. It was the heresy of Nehor (Alma 1:1-4) and Korihor (Alma 30:12-18). It is still the stock and trade of an antichrist in any age. Either there is no God, so sin is non-existent (Korihor); or God is an immaterial spirit who has saved all by His grace (Nehor). In the former case—eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. In the latter case—eat, drink, and be merry, because when we die our bodies and their sins are irrelevant. Our purified spirits will ascend to the Father of spirit from whom we came before we were trapped in this mistaken physical creation—such was the gnostic heresy.
Jude wrote to combat the evil beliefs and practices in the Church which gave license to sin. The writings of these general epistles are very pertinent, apt, and applicable to the world in which we live today where the same doctrines of devils are taught and too often believed.