Paul, Jude, and the Libertines

Weird things happen when you teach several different things at once.  Since I am teaching a Bible survey for a Men’s Bible study at my church and a Pauline Lit, I found myself reading about Jude but thinking about Paul, especially the early years before the Jerusalem council.

While I have always thought of Jude as rather late (post 70 at least, if not in the 90’s), In his WBC volume on Jude and 2 Peter, Richard Bauckham argues that the letter is very early, perhaps as early as A.D. 50.  This reading is based on the use of Jewish apocalyptic style found in the letter.  He finds three elements of the book which lean toward the earlier date:  There is a lively hope for the return of Jesus (14-15).  Secondly, the style of the letter is a Jewish midrash which draws together texts from the Hebrew Bible to argue that the false teachers will face judgment at the Coming of the Messiah.  Finally, there is no hint of church offices in the letter – elders, deacons or bishops, nor is there any appeal to human authority.  The institution of the church is limited when the letter was written.

One serious challenge to this early date is the nature of the opponent.  They seem to be libertine, or even antinomian, which has always made me think that the letter must therefore be written later, after Paul’s death at the very least.  But if the letter is written at the time of Paul’s first missionary journey and the controversy of which led to the Jerusalem council, the issue is quite a bit different from Galatians or James.  In Galatians, Gentiles are discouraged from keeping Law (Paul says “gentiles, your are not converting to Judaism”) and in James Jews are encouraged to continue keeping the Law (James says, “Jews, you are not converting away from Judaism.”)

Jude might give witness to some people who took Paul’s gospel of freedom from law to an extreme and lived a life that was not bound by law at all.  These libertines are not really an issue in Acts 15, but they are in Philippians, perhaps in 1 Thess 4, and certainly a problem in Corinth and Romans 6.  That Paul has to answer the objection, “should we sin that grace may abound” implies that someone was in fact sinning so grace might abound!

What made me wonder is the fact that Jude seems clearly Jewish – it is a midrash constructed from various texts from the Hebrew Bible. If Jude is writing to Jewish Christians who have antinomians in their midst, it seems like these might very well be Jewish Libertines not Gentiles. If that is the case, then Paul’s gospel of freedom from the Law for Gentiles might have had some traction among Hellenistic Jews which led to a rejection of the Law. Perhaps this is the source of James’ concern in Acts 21, that some think that Paul has rejected the Law.

4 thoughts on “Paul, Jude, and the Libertines

  1. Other problems with dating Jude early is in verses 3 and 17. Verse 3 speakings of contending for “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” Is it likely that such a claim would be made in the AD 50’s?. There is a similar situation in verse 17 where Jude challenges the audience “to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

  2. I agree with you Charles, that the early date is more difficult to hold. I think that there is some evidence for a “tradition” handed down in 1 Cor 15, albeit form five years later. Paul says that he passed along what he received. This is very much the same sort of language. In addition, the title “apostle” is the earliest title, especially if in does reflect the Hebrew “sent one,” the Twelve were the recognized “shiliach” Sent Ones of the Lord.

    I have always thought the two deciding factors for the date of Jude is the Faith handed down and the nature of the opponent, but I think I have talked myself into at least the possibility of the tradition handed down as potentially early; the libertine opponent, however, is so so much like the Nicolatians, that I have trouble seeing them that early. (That Baalam = Nicolas is the clicher for me). I suppose Jude’s libertines do not have to be what will eventually be the Nicolatians, but it seems fairly obvious to me.

  3. I don’t believe that any of Richard Bauckham’s arguments have any real traction. The first point, “there is a lively hope for the return of Jesus (14-15)” was valued by every believer. They were looking forward to His return since the beginning of the church as demonstrated by their communal lifestyle in Acts 2 (note: this view is not endorsed by the GGF). This traditional anticipation for Jesus’ return is still valued today as the current church also waits for His return and therefore doesn’t seem like a valued argument to date it either way.

    “Secondly, the style of the letter is a Jewish midrash which draws together texts from the Hebrew Bible to argue that the false teachers will face judgment at the Coming of the Messiah.” In our studies of Paul over the past two years we’ve learned that Paul spoke in Midrash all the time. It was just an excepted way to argue with anyone who knew and understood scripture.

    ” Finally, there is no hint of church offices in the letter – elders, deacons or bishops, nor is there any appeal to human authority. The institution of the church is limited when the letter was written.” This last point seems the weakest. Just because James didn’t address the leadership ladder doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there. It just didn’t need to be mentioned. It would in no way have helped him argue his points to say that the council thinks you guys are wrong and need to settle down. They needed to be convicted and convinced through study and the Holy Spirit.

  4. I agree with PJ, against Baukham’s assumption. However, I would like to look at the Libertine opponent. Polhill defines libertines as “those whose stomach was their god,” (168) yet at the same time he suggests that these libertines (in the Philippians context) could be the same group as the Judaizers. He also suggests a libertine Gnostic group of opponents in Philippians. With regards to the extensive, yet broad definition given to the opponents present in Jude, it seems very difficult to define that they were libertines. A few examples from Jude:
    • “Jude 4- certain men whose condemnation was written about
    • Jude 4- godless men
    • Jude 8- dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings.
    • Jude 10- these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand
    • Jude 10- unreasoning animals
    • Jude 12- blemishes at your love feasts
    • Jude 12- clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted-twice dead.
    • Jude 13- wild waves of the sea
    • Jude 13- wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever
    • Jude 16- rumblers and faultfinders
    • Jude 16- follow their own evil desires
    • Jude 16- boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage
    • Jude 19- men who divide you
    • Jude 19- follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit”

    The opponents could have been any group that was deviating from God’s commands. The evil aspects of these men are so broad that it would be hard to categorize everyone into simply Libertines, although there is much that can be said of the libertine spirit in this epistle.

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