Book Review: Nienhuis and Wall, Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John & Jude as Scripture

Nienhuis, David R. Robert W. Wall. Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John & Jude as Scripture: The Shaping and Shape of a Canonical Collection. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013. 314 pp. Pb; $30.00.  Link to Eerdmans

Canonical approaches to the Bible have grown in popularity in the last two decades. While Brevard Childs is usually associated with the beginnings of this movement, there have been a number of recent books that attempt to study the “shaping of the canon” in its final form. Many of these studies are on sub-canons within the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Psalms), Canon studies have caught the attention of New Testament scholarship. For example, Francis Watson’s recent Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Eerdmans, 2013) uses the shape of the Canon as a way to get at Gospel origins. Robert Wall has written several important works on the formation of the Canon as well as commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles and James. Nienhuis contributed Not By Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and Christian Canon (Baylor, 2008). That book focused primarily on the formation of a Catholic canon and used James as a model. Both writers are influenced by Brevard Childs (p. 273) and this book forms a companion to Childs’s The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus (Eerdmans, 2008). In this new book, Nienhuis and Wall continue the method developed by Childs by applying it to the seven of the letters that follow the Pauline books.

Nienhuis and WallNienhuis and Wall begin by lamenting the lack of clarity in New Testament studies on the nature of the so-called Catholic Epistles. While the Synoptic Gospels, Pauline and Johannine literature are almost universally recognized as canonical units, the “other books” are less-clearly defined. Should the collection include Hebrews and/or Revelation? If the collection is to be defined as “non-Pauline,” should the deutero-Pauline letters such as the Pastorals or Ephesians be included? If the collection is defined as later representing a later, catholic Christianity, should non-canonical books such as Didache be included? Even the name of the collection varies in New Testament introductions. This book attempts to “rehabilitate” the letters of James, Peter, John, and Jude by suggesting that there is canonical coherence in these seven letters. They reflect a conscious attempt to create a “Pillars collection” that gives balance to the Pauline collection of letters in the overall Canon of Scripture.

In the first part of the book, Nienhuis and Wall devote three chapters to the formation of a Catholic Epistles canon. They trace the development of the canon in general in both the Western and Eastern churches by examining the comments on these letters in Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origin. The main motivation for mentioning the Catholic Epistles during this period is to link the mission of Paul and the “Pillars” from Jerusalem as an answer to Marcion’s claim that only Paul understood the Gospel. Paul’s letters represent a mission to the Gentiles while 1 Peter and 1 John represent the mission to the Jews. This “Acts-inspired missional logic” was used by Tertullian to “demote Paul’s authority” in response to Marcion (p. 21). It is not until Origin that there are references to James, and then primarily because the letter was a useful response to overly fideistic readings of Paul.

In fact, Nienhuis and Wall state that Augustine thought the Catholic Epistles were added to the canon “in order to keep readers from falling into a Paulinist fideism” (p. 35). Paul must be understood through the lens of the canonical frame of Acts on the one side, and the Catholic Epistles on the other.

The “shape” of the seven letter canon is based on at least two factors. First, Nienhuis and Wall argue that James functions as a “frontpiece” to the Pillars collection. As such, the Epistle of James is a presentation of the theology of the collection. This necessarily means that James was composed for the express purpose of drawing the Pillars collection together, taking cues from the book of Acts and the memory of James as leader of the Jerusalem church. Whether or not the “historical James” is the source for the sayings in the Epistle of James is of no interest to this study; the book might come from the real James or not (p.62).  The function of the Letter of James in the Pillars Collection is more important than matters of authorship and history.

Second, the authors argue that these letters were shaped into a collection alongside the book of Acts.  Since Acts indicates that Peter (and to a lesser extent John) was the initial spokesperson for the Jerusalem community and James became the leader of that community, their voices ought to be heard along with Paul. The book of Acts plays “a strategic hermeneutical role in the canonical process” as an “early catholic narrative: that has only a moderate conflict between Paul and the Pillars in Jerusalem (p. 61). Acts gives shape to the Pillars collection rather than Galatians 2,

In order to demonstrate their suggestion, the authors provide a number of “intertextual readings” which they argue show that this collection is the result of an “intentional, deliberate movement” at some point in the canonical process. These intertextual connections traced in the conclusion by reading James as the frontpiece, then showing how 1 Peter takes up themes from James. The chapter steps through the letters in canonical order, attempting to connect the letters (from James to 1 Peter, from 1 Peter to 2 Peter, and so on.

This frequent use of the term “intertextual” is a serious problem, however. The book as a whole uses phrases like “clearly maker by a series of intertextual linkages” (p. 254) often, but never does the book define what an “intertextual linkage” is nor is there any real method for determining if these links are real and intentional, or simply a coincidence due to similar subject matter.

For example, the authors state that there “clear verbal and thematic linkages” between 2 Peter and 1 John that center around the motif of witness. Both 2 Peter and 1 John claim to be written by an eyewitness (p. 255). A second example is language used to describe false teachers: they are pseudoprophetes (2 Peter 2:1 and 1 John 4:1); both letters describe the false teachers as denying Christ (using arneomai, 2 Peter 2:1 and 1 John 2:27); both describe the false teachers are deceivers (using plane and planao, 2 Peter 2:15, 18; 3:17 and 1 John 2:26, 3:7, 4:6, 2 John 7). But is any of this language unique enough to imply a conscious intertextual allusion? Witness language also appears in Acts and John, so it is possible that the intertextual allusion points to those books.

There are similar themes and vocabulary to be sure, but what is to be made of this? Is this “intertext” evidence of a common source? Perhaps one writer made use of the other to expand on an idea? Was the source of this intertext the author of the letter or at the “canonical shaping” level? As with most intertextual studies, there is uncertainty as to which direction the intertext flows, but that is not really an issue for this book. The Pillars collection s arranged as it is in order to create two intertextual relationships that were not at all in view when the letters were first written.

The two books that frame the seven letters, Hebrews and Revelation, are not covered in this book. The reason for the omission of Hebrews is that there is no evidence that the book was ever considered a part of this canonical collection in antiquity (p. 36). Hebrews was more often included in the Pauline corpus of 14 books. In fact, Childs devotes a section to the influence of Hebrews on the Pauline collection in his Reading Paul. Nienhuis and Wall follow Childs by suggesting that Hebrews serves as a canonical balance to the Pauline letters, connecting the theology of Paul its Jewish roots. Like the Pillars collection, Hebrews balances Paul in the shape of the final canon. Likewise, Revelation was always something of a loner in the biblical canon because of genre. Rather than suggest Hebrews and Revelation form some sort of a frame for the Pillars collection, the books are simply left out of the study.

Conclusion. Nienhuis and Wall offer a way of reading the Pillars collection as a unit that teases out a consistent theology for a section of scripture that is often ignored as secondary to the Jesus and the Gospels or the Pauline literature. As an example of a Canonical Reading of the New Testament this book makes a case for an ongoing process of collecting, editing, and arranging the letters in order to create a balance to a heretical misreading of Pauline Theology.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Nienhuis and Wall, Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John & Jude as Scripture

  1. Thanks for introducing us to this book. Sounds like an interesting thesis but I do wonder (backed up by what you seem to say) if it can really be backed up with much substance. As you point out, I think it would be hard to establish counter-influence from one book to another and in which direction.

    The point about creating balance overall, theologically, as the canon was gradually formed, is one that does seem to make sense.

    As to James, whatever the reason it was included in the canon, it does seem to be clearly an intentional counter-balance, if not a corrective to Paul’s faith-alone theology. Very curious to me that it gets put under James’ name (and accepted as by THE James by most Evangelicals), and yet is so highly Jewish in nature, does not focus much at ALL on Jesus, especially as universal savior, object of faith in terms of justification, a “substitutionary” sacrifice, etc. It can easily be understood to be by someone from a Jewish sect that was not part of Christianity in either the Pauline sense or the picture projected by Acts, Hebrews; nor also the eventual way (after 4th century or so) earliest Christianity was envisioned broadly.

    • The book puts a lot of weight on patristic citations of these books. Since there is nothing for James until late, that counts as evidence for a second century composition. The statement by Augustine is the most clear, but that is well after the fact and makes me wonder if it is not an explanation of what he thought happened, rather than what did happen.

      There are simply no comments about why anyone arranged the books, and while this Pillars collection theory is well-argued, it still must be held tentatively. I suppose I could make a similar argument for another arrangement, since the theory is built entirely on allusions, assumptions, and silence.

  2. Thanks, Phil, for your fair review of our book. Yes, I do think we could have provided a more robust definition of intertextuality, perhaps from some of my early work, to secure our practice of intertextual readings in this study. Of course, the book that still needs to be written is one that fully engages the two collections, Pauline and Catholic, in a mutually glossing dialogue of the sort we mention in the book’s “epilog.” We hope to produce this book within the next couple years.

    On the other hand, I do think our brief treatment of Hebrews is more suggestive (and distances ourselves somewhat from Childs) than you indicate in your review. What is needed is yet ANOTHER study (!) that considers the role of Hebrews within the NT as cued by its final shape and pre-canonical reception history.

    With respect to The Revelation to St. John, I’ve written a bit about this topic, which also needs more deliberate unpacking. In my reading, The Revelation is detached from the Johannine Corpus (late 2nd, early 3rd century) to take an independent route to Scripture’s final book to perform the role of conclusion (not ending) to the scriptural whole. Whilst its letter-form–i.e., its aesthetic–may indicate a more limited role as one bracket (along with Hebrews) that frames the church’s reading of the Catholic Epistle collection, I doubt the canonical process–if mined for clues–would lead one in this direction. Especially the difficult route it eventually takes to its final resting place within the Eastern canon would indicate a role that is more like a “concluding chapter” to a more expansive story than as a rhetorical panel that frames the reading of only one part of this story.

    In any case, a few thoughts generated by your good review. Thanks again,

    Rev. Rob Wall, Th. D.
    The Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture&Wesleyan Studies
    Seattle Pacific University

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