The era that immediately followed the death of the apostles is usually designated as the early post-apostolic period. It was a critical time in the history of the Christian church, for the church's membership had spread to various parts of the world, and in both size and influence the movement was growing. Because the early pioneers of the movement were no longer living, leadership was necessarily recruited from among newer members. Problems constantly arose, and there was need for guidance in dealing with them. For the purpose of helping meet this need, relatively short documents were produced and distributed among the churches. Because the problems with which these texts were concerned were not confined to any one local community, the documents were written for the church at large. For this reason, they have sometimes been designated as the Catholic Epistles. Although most of them have been credited either to one of the apostles or to someone closely associated with the apostles, evidence indicates that all of the documents belong to the post-apostolic period. When they first appeared, they were anonymous, but in later years they were attributed to individuals who were prominent in the beginnings of the Christian movement, which gave added prestige to the documents. This group of writings includes one letter attributed to James, two to the apostle Peter, three to John, the disciple of Jesus, and one to a Christian named Jude.
1 Peter is one of the more important letters in this group of open letters. Like the Book of Revelation, 1 Peter was written primarily for the benefit of Christians who were suffering severe persecution at the hands of the Roman government. However, Revelation was addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor because it was in that locality that emperor worship was threatening to destroy all those who refused obedience to its demands. When 1 Peter was written, this type of "fiery ordeal" had become worldwide, and Christians, wherever they might be living, were called upon in the name of the government to renounce their allegiance to Christ. Even to be called a Christian was considered sufficient grounds for condemnation. This situation did not exist prior to the reign of Emperor Domitian (81–96 A.D.) or during the last decade of the first century, which is one of the main reasons for assigning the letter to a period that came after the death of Peter the Apostle.
Although there is relatively little of a theological nature in this letter, it sets forth a very high standard of Christian living. In contrast with the Book of Revelation and all of its bitter condemnations of the Roman Empire, 1 Peter urges Christians to take a different attitude toward their suffering. The trials and afflictions that have come upon them are for the purpose of testing their faith. Christian character is not developed by living under conditions of ease and comfort. Only by meeting difficult situations and conquering them can Christians become spiritually strong, for they must be challenged in order to bring about the perfection of their character. Besides this, Christians have the example of Jesus to follow, and they should consider it a privilege to be counted worthy to suffer as Jesus did for the glory of God. To endure with patience even to the end is a goal worthy of attainment. However, Christians should be encouraged because they know that their suffering will last for only a short time; they have the hope of a glorious future, of which there will be no end.
One interesting passage in 1 Peter refers to the time when Jesus preached to "those who are now dead." Since Christians believed and taught that faith in Jesus the Christ is essential for salvation, the question arose concerning the fate of those who died without having the opportunity to know or even hear of Jesus. Could they be saved? If they could not, then the justice of God would be brought into question; if they could, then faith in Jesus would not be essential for salvation. In order to meet this dilemma, the idea to which this passage refers was developed.
According to this conception, Jesus, between the time of his death and his resurrection, descended to Sheol, where, according to ancient Hebrew tradition, all persons go after death. There, Jesus preached to all those who had died, thus giving to them a chance to accept or to reject his message. The influence of this idea can be recognized in that portion of the Apostles' Creed that reads, "He descended into hell."
2 Peter is attributed in its superscription to Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus. Because 2 Peter contains many indications of authorship later than the death of the apostle, the superscription assumedly was used to give authority to the letter as a whole. The letter warns against those persons who are skeptical concerning the coming of the Day of the Lord. The churches are encouraged to hold fast the faith they have received, for as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be again when the Son of Man shall come. The Day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. Therefore, all Christians should live in readiness for it.
James' letter appears to have been written at a time near the close of the first century. The letter is traditionally attributed to James, who was the brother of Jesus, but the contents of the letter raise some doubts if this James is the real author, for the letter contains a conception of religion quite different from the one that James, who later was the head of the Jerusalem council, supported. Perhaps, then, the letter was written by yet another James, who had a message that he regarded as appropriate for the churches of his time.
Paul emphasized the importance of faith as the means of salvation and disparaged those who believed that salvation could be obtained by obedience to the laws of God. Many interpreters of Paul's comments understood his message to mean that nothing matters so long as a person believes that Jesus is the Christ. The Law was no longer binding, and Christians could follow their own inclinations in matters of conduct. To correct this notion, the letter of James was written.
The author defines "pure and faultless" religion strictly in terms of ethical conduct. As he sees it, the actions of individuals are far more important than the mere content of their intellectual beliefs. He insists that "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." Furthermore, the standard of goodness is obedience to the laws of God. In obeying what the author calls "the perfect law that gives freedom," individuals gain their true freedom. Anyone who breaks one of the commandments is guilty of all. However, evidently the writer has the moral rather than the ritualistic commandments in mind, for he sees no virtue in mere formalism. Helping the poor and the needy and maintaining a humble attitude exemplify the Christian religion. The writer also has much to say about the harm that may arise from gossip and careless use of the tongue. The rich, too, are severely criticized for hoarding their wealth instead of using it to meet the needs of their fellow humans. The letter ends rather abruptly but emphasizes the type of ethical conduct that should always characterize the life of a true Christian.
A short homily written by a Christian elder, 1 John instructs the churches concerning a problem that was becoming more serious. Christians were taught that after Jesus left this earth, the Spirit of God would guide and direct the Christian movement. The spirit that was present in Jesus would speak through the apostles, and once the apostles were gone, the spirit would continue to speak through other individuals. As a result of this belief, many people claimed to be the medium through which God's truth was revealed to the churches. All sorts of ideas were advanced by individuals who insisted that the Spirit of God revealed to them whatever it was that they were advocating. Unless some restraint was placed on individuals who made such claims, the situation soon would become chaotic. This letter proposes that two tests be applied before accepting anyone who claims to have been informed by the Spirit of God.
One of these tests is doctrinal in character. It states that anyone who denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. This test was directed especially against a form of Gnostic philosophy known as Doceticism. Docetists accepted the idea of Jesus' divinity, but they denied his humanity, insisting that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body. The other test is an ethical one. People who claim to be possessed by the Spirit of God must be examined before being accepted in the church. If their conduct does not harmonize with the ethical teachings of Jesus, they are not to be received into church fellowship. The church is warned against the many false prophets and teachers who have arisen, and the church is urged to apply the test of brotherly love, as well as that of obedience to the commandments of God.
2 John is a very short letter written by the same elder to a sister church that he designates as the "chosen lady." The letter indicates that the false teachers who deny that Jesus Christ was present in the flesh have made inroads in the church and are causing a serious schism. The church is warned concerning these deceivers and told to show no hospitality toward them.
In this letter from the same elder, the church is commended for receiving Gaius, who performed important services for the congregation. Also, the church is warned about a certain man named Diotrephes, who has spoken slanderously about the elder and tried to have him thrown out of the church.
This writing of Jude, who speaks of himself as a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James, contains a single chapter, whose purpose is similar to that of 2 Peter. In fact, some scholars maintain that this letter was written before 2 Peter and that parts of it were copied and expanded by the author of 2 Peter. A polemical tract written to warn the churches against false doctrines that were gradually making inroads within the membership of the churches, it is directed primarily against Gnosticism and its teaching concerning a strange kind of wisdom expressed in mysterious language. The Gnostics' dualistic conception of good mind but evil body is out of line with Christian doctrine and should be rejected, and the same holds for their conception of Jesus as one who only appeared to have a human body. The author quotes from the Book of Enoch, which is one of the Jewish apocalypses included in the Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament.
The open letters to the churches are valuable as source materials for reconstructing the history of the early church. They tell us about the theological and practical problems with which the church contended. Some of these letters — especially 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, and Jude — have little value apart from this history. But something more can be said for the other three. 1 Peter sets forth a conception of the Christian life that is attractive and ennobling. It tells how the hardships and trials of human life may become a means toward the development of Christian character, and it sets before Christians a glorious hope that may serve as a guide and inspiration. James' letter will always be remembered for its ethical conception of religion at its best. It serves, too, to correct the faulty notion that Christian faith is merely a matter of intellectual belief, and it shows that true faith in the Christian gospel will be expressed both in actions and in what one thinks. 1 John, which presents a conception of Christianity that has much in common with the Gospel of John, makes love the central element in the Christian life.