The Epistle of Jude, a Christian Midrash
by Risto Saarinen
Read the PDF
from LF Spring 2010
The Letter of Jude has been called “the most neglected book of the New Testament.” Some classical theologians, among them Martin Luther, have held that Jude is not only dependent on but even contained in II Peter. Exegetes still wrestle today with the proper classification of Jude. Is it a “catholic letter,” meaning that it belongs together with I and II Peter and, maybe, the Pastoral Epistles? Or does it rather indicate a proximity to Jewish Christianity, belonging therefore with Matthew and Mark? Is it a “genuine letter,” composed for the purpose of solving a real controversy, or a treatise against heresy in general?
In my brief commentary on Jude, I emphasized the Jewish features of this epistle and consider it to be a “genuine letter.” At the same time I admit that we do not really know the identity of “certain intruders” (v. 4) and “worldly people” (19) who “reject authority” (8). This ignorance may be a defect, but it at least allows us to read Jude as a more general treatise against heresy. Many modern exegetes differ from Luther and claim that ii Peter borrows from Jude, not vice versa. Jude therefore needs to be read as a coherent text which makes a consistent argument.
Although Jude is a concise text, its argument makes extensive use of both the Jewish Bible and emerging Christian doctrine. Jude 20–21 employs a clear trinitarian formula: “pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord.” God the Father and Jesus Christ are mentioned together several times (1, 4, 21, 25), and Jesus is normally called “our Lord” in this context. The trinitarian and christological emphases of the emerging Christian church are thus evident.
The identification of Jesus as Lord has significant consequences for understanding Jude 5: “Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those who did not believe.” Many ancient authorities and some modern commentaries present an alternate reading: “Though you were once for all fully informed, that Jesus, who saved a people out of Egypt…” The two variants are not so different from one another, since“the Lord” in Jude normally refers to Jesus Christ. The author means that Jesus saved the people of Israel in Exodus.
As in many other New Testament texts, we are dealing with a Christian reading of the Jewish Bible. Here the Christian reading is particularly emphatic, since it underlines the role of Jesus Christ already in the formative event of Jewish history. We might say that Jude performs a canonical exegesis before the establishment of the Christian canon. Jude reads the Jewish Bible through the lenses of basic Christian texts and doctrines. It is fascinating but also puzzling that such a strong version of canonical reading has found its way to our Bible.
The term “Lord” has an essential argumentative role in Jude. Referring to Zechariah 3:2, Jude 8–9 argues that the Lord will rebuke those who slander exemplary Christians. Again, Jude tells us that the Old Testament term “Lord” in Zechariah alludes to Jesus Christ. In Jude 14, the apocryphal I Enoch 1:9 is employed in the same manner: already the seventh generation from Adam saw that the Lord will come to execute judgment on all. Jude claims that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Lord referred to in Jewish writings. We need not bother here with Jude’s habit of using apocryphal Jewish texts, as their claims can be found in the Jewish Bible. What is fascinating but also puzzling in these passages is the manner of seeing the lordship of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament.
Jude is a study on the identification of God, a way to disclose the true identity of our Lord. In his Systematic Theology, Robert W. Jenson pays detailed attention to the unfolding of God’s identity through the Jewish Bible and the history of Israel. Jenson uses the methods and resources of narrative theology: a story can reveal the agent behind a chain of events. Jude likewise employs narratives which focus on the true identity of the Lord.
These narratives are used in a fashion similar to the Jewish midrash, a didactic application of a well-known exemplary story for the education of people reading or hearing the example. The invention of good examples has always been an important strategy of storytelling. The examples of Jude sound somewhat peculiar, but they continue the tradition of Jewish midrash and, in their own manner, the parables of Jesus. When Jude portrays himself as “servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (v. 1), he underlines the proximity between his authority and the immediate family of Jesus. This identification is so close to Matthew 13:55 that Jude has sometimes been identified as the brother of Jesus.
Jude is in many ways a dark and apocalyptic narrative. “The Lord, who once for all saved people out of the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their own position, he [the Lord, Jesus Christ] has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day” (Jude 5–6). “See, the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all, and to convict everyone of all the deeds of ungodliness” (14–15). Our Lord Jesus Christ appears in these verses as the final judge who will come to judge the living and the dead.
At the same time, this narrative identification or the Christian midrash has its moment of unexpected surprise. When the intruders slander the orthodox Christians (8), Jude gives them advice by means of a curious midrash: “When the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him, but said: ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” The midrash is taken from non-canonical Jewish literature, maybe from the Testament of Moses, but it contains canonical elements, as in Zechariah 3:2.
The point of this midrash is that not even an archangel can issue a word of condemnation. The final judgment must be left to the Lord Jesus Christ who will come to execute judgment. The surprising turn of the example is that, although Jude employs harsh words against intruders and worldly people, he also claims that no one other than our Lord can judge them. Although Jude says that these people “go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perish in Korah’s rebellion,” he is nevertheless not rebuking or condemning them. The judgement is left to the Lord.
Sometimes people say: “He is a scoundrel and villain, but I do not condemn him.” Hearing such things leaves the hearer with a certain ambivalence, and it is this ambivalence with which Jude’s midrash is playing. Christian existence helps in the discernment of spirits; a sincere Christian can see when some people are “waterless clouds carried along by the winds, autumn trees without fruit” (12). At the same time no final judgment is made, for the Christian is called to leave the judgment to the Lord. Is this a credible attitude? The first impression might be that it is not, since the speaker behaves in a judgmental manner. On a second look, however, the didactic purpose can be seen in another light. We are by nature hot or cold and should not remain indifferent. The difference between right and wrong conduct should be clear even while we exercise toleration and leave the judgment to the Lord.
One feature of narrative theology and Christian midrash is the permanent ambivalence of the story. The exemplary story may appear more or less credible: it unfolds the different layers of relating to the moral alternatives. But while the story clearly recommends a position—discern the spirits but leave the final judgment to the Lord—it also permanently points to the incomplete nature of our attitudes and alternatives. Thus we are called to be confident that the Lord will judge the wrongdoers, but we are also left to wonder about the dark and apocalyptic language used of these wrongdoers in the Letter of Jude.
This ambivalence is balanced through the other main theme of Jude, namely, mercy. The theme of mercy appears already in the greeting: “May mercy, peace, and love be yours” (2). When the Christians look forward to the future coming of our Lord, they are also looking forward to the mercy that leads to eternal life (21). This background needs to be presupposed when the strange practical advice of Jude 22–23 is considered: “Have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.”
We are again dealing with a basic problem of identification. People around Jude are not merely good guys or bad guys, godly people or scoundrels. The non-judgmental attitude of Christians should lead to a differentiated identification of various groups of people between the two extremes. The three groups mentioned here remain somewhat mysterious and they have been debated extensively in exegetical literature. My aim is to understand them as exemplary, narrative paradigms of human condition rather than some particular groups or parties around Jude. Perhaps we can also speak of certain psychograms, without trusting too much on psychological exegesis.
The first group, those who are wavering, is the easiest to understand. Some people are uncertain as to which group they should belong. They should be treated with toleration and mercy. The second group consists of those who need to be snatched out of the fire. Given that “fire” here symbolizes their adherence to the wrong party, Jude advices his people to rescue some other people with available means. This advice does not concern toleration or mercy but calls Christians directly to act to help such people. It is missionary advice.
Unlike the second group, Christians are not called to involve themselves with the third group of outsiders. On the contrary, Christians should deal with them with fear and even hatred. These people are such hardened sinners that contacting them will not help but will rather harm the good-natured helper. At the same time, the advice not to contact them contains a deep ambivalence: the third group is nevertheless to be treated with mercy, that is, with the same attitude as the first group of uncertain people.
The differentiated attitude toward three kinds of outsiders thus recommends a peculiar strategy. While a missionary attitude is proper to snatch some people out of the fire, an attitude of mercy is proper with regard to the uncertain people and to the hardened sinners. This strategy of human mercy is parallel to the mercy of Jesus Christ (21–23). Jesus Christ clearly saves many people from the eternal fire. But some people remain uncertain, and some remain hardened sinners. The three groups result thus from the work of Christ. In 22–23 Jude recommends the prolongation of the mercy of Jesus Christ in the behavior of faithful Christians.
It is important that Christians should exercise mercy on those people who are seemingly left untouched by the mercy of Christ. Some remain uncertain or wavering, while others remain hardened sinners. But these groups are to be treated with the same mercy that is found in Jesus Christ. In this manner the theme of mercy repeats and strengthens the admonition to non-judgmental behavior: Christians are called to be merciful even in those cases in which they cannot provide actual help and cannot remain impartial or indifferent. These cases can be of different kinds, a fact illustrated by the distinction between the first and the third group. We need to imitate our Lord in mercy, although we cannot and should not exercise judgment in the manner of Christ the judge. The Christian midrash of Jude is an effective means of teaching this differentiated attitude to various groups of people around the Christian church.
Risto Saarinen is Professor of Ecumenics at the University of Helsinki and the author of The Pastoral Epistles with Philemon and Jude, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008).
Subscribe now to enjoy great content like this delivered quarterly to your door!
1. D. J. Rowston, “The Most Neglected Book in the New Testament,” New Testament Studies 21 (1974): 554–73.
2. Especially in vol. 1. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford, 1997).
3. Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, II Peter, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 50 (Waco: Word, 1983), 4.