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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Jude

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Jude describes himself as a ‘servant’ and as a brother of James. Any authority to write, therefore, is based not on apostolic office but on blood relationship. It is addressed to those ‘who are called’ (cf. Rom 8:30; 1 Cor 1:2 ) ‘who are beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ’.

(vv. 2–7 )

Jude sets out to remind readers about ‘the salvation we share’ (v. 3 ). It is under threat from certain people ‘who have stolen in’ (echoes here of Gal 2:4 ). The understanding of them is determined by what was written long ago, probably here a reference to the condemnation written about in 1 Enoch, 14–16. They are those angels who have forsaken their heavenly position (v. 6 ), an allusion to the ancient story of the fall of the Watchers told at length in 1 Enoch, 6–10. They turn grace into licence (a common criticism of the effects of the Pauline gospel: Rom 6:1, cf. 3:31 ). The reference to the denial of Jesus Christ may suggest a Christological slant to the false teaching: Jesus was not part of their scheme of salvation, something which has often been missed in discussing the false teaching of the opponents in 1 John 2:22 ). Such a denial of Jesus is comprehensible within a situation of Jewish influence, though how that relates to the charges of licence is not clear.

As in 1 Cor 10:5 the threat to an emerging church and their group identity is illuminated by an allusion to the temptation of emerging Israel in the wilderness. There is a summons to return to former ways rather than be on the receiving end of God's wrath (v. 5 ). In v. 5 and 1 Cor 10 the writers are communicating with readers who consider themselves ‘fully informed’ and who need to be reminded of the fate of an earlier generation of God's people who thought themselves privileged. One interesting feature of this passage is the range of variant readings in v. 5 , some of which suggest that the Lord who ‘once…saved [his] people’ is a reference to the pre-existent Christ (Codex Vaticanus reads ‘Jesus’).

The story of the angels (v. 6 ) who did not recognize their position in the divine order but sought something better, only to end up in judgement (1 Enoch, 10:6; 12:4 ), is a potent warning to a group that teeters on the brink of going the same way. So community identity is illuminated by salvation history, by Israel and the angels, and by the judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 7 ) who committed fornication (probably to be taken in a metaphorical sense of idolatry, and total involvement in the culture that involved idolatry, as in Rev 2:17; 17:2; 18:9 ). We have here a situation where a people with the privilege of the divine grace of election, who, in the words of Heb 6:4 , have ‘tasted of the heavenly gift’, now face the loss of their ‘first love’ (cf. Rev 2:4 ). They risked forfeiting their privilege, as did the angels and the people of the Exodus.

(vv. 8–13 )

A major sin is blasphemy (v. 8 ). The rejection of authority and ‘slanders’ of ‘the glorious ones’ (cf. reference to Moses in Sir 45:2 and the glorious ones of 2 Enoch, 22:8–10; Wis 10:14 ) is a reminder of the concern about the risk of profanity in the speculative Jewish theology of the early Christian centuries, occasionally alluded to in traditions about rabbis roughly contemporary with Jude. Even the great Rabbi Akiba (who died in the Bar Kochba revolt in c.135) was reproached by a contemporary for ‘profaning God’ in daring to suggest that King David might sit alongside God on one of the thrones mentioned in Dan 7:9 (see b. Hag. 14a, where there is also reference to Elisha ben Abuyah, a rabbi who lived at the beginning of the second century CE who was vilified by his contemporaries for his antinomianism and his blasphemy against the divine power).

A contrast is made between the opponents and the archangel Michael who, in his words to the Devil, resists taking God's name in vain. The charge of blasphemy is to be left to God (v. 9, cf. Rom 12:19 ). There is a particular danger of humans exceeding their place in the divine economy and ‘slandering the glorious ones’ (v. 8 ). In behaving thus the opponents do not have the Spirit (v. 19, cf. Lk 12:10 ). Even if robust polemic against opponents is allowable (the language of v. 12 offers an excellent example), this must stop short of blasphemy, which is unforgivable (Lev 24:16 ). It reflects the same kind of presumption that characterized the angels of 1 Enoch who left their heavenly abode and had intercourse with human women and revealed heavenly wisdom which should have remained with them (1 Enoch, 7:1 , ‘they taught them charms and spells’; 8:1 , ‘they taught men to make swords, daggers, and shields and breastplates…and the art of making up the eyes and beautifying the eyelids…’). The result was that, as the author puts it, ‘the world was changed’ (1 Enoch, 8:2 ). In Jude 6 and 9 the behaviour of angels is called to mind. The recollection of the behaviour of the angels of old is a way of challenging those whose life in Christ offered them the privilege of standing with the angels in the divine presence (v. 24 ), and, like the members of the Qumran community, sharing the lot of the angels by participating in the Christian community (1 QH 3:19; Col 1:12f–13 ). As with the fallen angels, to return to the life of a pagan world was not only to lose something of infinite worth but also to compromise the divine salvation in which they had participated (cf. Heb 6:4 ).

The words of blasphemy are uttered in ignorance (v. 10 ), but lack of knowledge is not the lot of the Christians: ‘enlightenment’ (Heb 6:4 ) means awareness of the limits of what is acceptable in the sight of God. For the ancients words mattered, perhaps in ways that have largely passed us by except when Western civilization comes face to face with another culture. The effect of words, both psychologically and socially, is something of which we remain largely unaware.

Jude's frequent contrasts between ‘you’ and ‘these’ (vv. 10, 12, 16, 17, 19 ), in a way parallel to the two ways tradition (cf. Barnabas, Didache, Mt 7:13 ), enable the reader to be aware, at least in general terms, of the path to avoid, even if the characteristics of the way of righteousness are left more vague. In v. 6 the fall of the angels suggests a warning of assimilation into pagan culture. There is a repeated refrain of drawing the readers back to the faith that was handed down (v. 3 ) and reminding them of what they already know (vv. 5, 17 ).

In addition to the myth of the fallen angels, Cain, Balaam, and Korah are alluded to and used as lenses through which to view the community's present predicament (v. 11 ). They will perish like Korah (Num 16:19–33 ). Their activities are compared to Balaam's ‘deceit’ (cf. Rev 2:14 , where it is linked to false prophecy, cf. Deut 13:5 ), and ‘the way of Cain’, which, if 1 Jn 3:12 is anything to go by, is manifested in a style of life that involves ‘hatred’ of the brethren and the delights of life (1 Jn 2:16, cf. Jude 16 ): the one who hates a brother is a murderer (1 Jn 3:15, cf. Jn 8:44 ), and the reason why Cain slew his brother is ‘because his deeds were evil and his brother's were righteous’. In Haggadah, contemporary with the NT found in Josephus' version of the Cain and Abel story (Ant. 1.60), Cain had become the type of one who loved ‘the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches’ (1 Jn 2:16 ). This is a theme taken up in Augustine's exploration of the contrasting identities of the citizens of the earthly and heavenly cities, Cain being the exemplar of the former (City of God, 15.17).

The striking use of metaphor in v. 12 captures the self-centred and evanescent nature of the way of life of the opponents. They shepherd themselves (cf. Jn 10; Rev 7:17; Ezek 34 ); they are ‘waterless clouds’ and ‘twice dead’. The latter metaphor renders them both useless and without substance. Whether or not the author intended the metaphor thus, the notion of a cloud being without water is to make it disappear. The abhorrence of their behaviour means that, just as the tree that does not bear fruit is not only useless but has lost any real substance, they disappear, vanishing into the mores of contemporary culture, thereby losing that distinctiveness based on the teaching of the apostles. Jude wants his readers to avoid a similar path. The simile of trees ripped up and twice dead speaks of apostates, and is thus doubly threatening, because they had been in the community, ‘but went out from us’ (1 Jn 2:19, cf. Heb 6:4 ). They ‘deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’ (v. 4, cf. 1 Cor 12:3 ). Their return to the values of the prevailing culture made them a real threat to the distinctiveness of the identity of the ‘beloved’ whom Jude addresses. Their role as ‘deceivers’ (v. 13 ) puts them in the tradition of false prophets (Deut 13 ) who lead the community astray (cf. Mt 24:24 ).

(vv. 14–16 )

The Letter of Jude is the only NT text (although Mt 25.31–46; 1 Pet 3:19; Rev 8:8 are other possible allusions) that explicitly quotes the book of Enoch. Affinities with the Greek of 1 Enoch may be found in v. 1 , cf. 1 Enoch, 12:5–6; 16:3; v. 6 , cf. 1 Enoch, 16:1; v. 6 , cf. 1 Enoch, 15:3, 7; 17:2; v. 8 , cf. 1 Enoch, 15:4; v. 12 , cf. 1 Enoch, 15:11; v. 18 , cf. 1 Enoch, 15:4 ; and v. 25 , cf. 1 Enoch, 12:3; 14:20 . There are several verbal allusions to other parts of the Enoch corpus in these verses: e.g. wandering stars (1 Enoch, 18:13 ff; 86:1 ff); and angels as shepherds (1 Enoch, 89:59 ff, cf. Ezek 34 ; we have seen that there is also an allusion to the condemnation of the fallen angels in Jude 6 ). Enoch is hailed as one who ‘prophesied’ (Jude 14 ) and whose words to the fallen angels apply directly to those who the writer thinks have gone off the rails in his own day. This relates to the coming of the Lord (here identified with Christ) in a way similar to that in which OT passages about God came to be linked with the pre-existent Christ, e.g. in Heb 1:10–12 and John 12:41 . 1 Enoch, 10 relates how the Watchers were consigned to judgement beneath the earth, despite the intercession of Enoch on their behalf (1 Enoch, 12–15). The allusions to the Enoch corpus are woven into a remarkable tapestry of typological use of Scripture in which the present circumstances are viewed and understood through the lens of these scriptural types.

The reference to 1 Enoch as authoritative prophecy demands of readers an awareness of the perspective of extra-canonical literature in their reading. Jude underlines the importance of that perspective and the necessity of a hermeneutic which makes comparison with contemporary extra-canonical (particularly Jewish) literature a necessary part of the interpretative enterprise. Our Western canon of Scripture (though we should remember that texts such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees form part of the canon of Scripture of the Ethiopic Coptic church) is incomplete without attention to 1 Enoch, a rambling text it is true, but one that opens up to readers, in the manner of an apocalypse, that it is the perversion of human culture by an alien wisdom and the manifold ways in which that culture stands under judgement (1 Enoch, 6–15).

The coming of the Lord is not a threat that is past (NRSV fn. points out that the Gk. has an aorist), or merely future. Coming in judgement is a present fact, much as it is in John's gospel ( 5:24; 12:31 ) and even in the synoptic tradition (Mk 8:38; Mt 25:31 ). Parousia is not merely far off, for the community lives at the end of time (v. 17 ), and, like the seven churches of the Apocalypse, needs to be reminded that the Lord has come and stands in judgement in the midst of humanity (cf. Rev 1:19 ).

(vv. 17–23 )

v. 17 begins a two-part address of admonition (vv. 17–19 ) followed by an affirmation of the reason for confidence that the writer believes exists (vv. 20–3 ). The two parts both begin with the same phrase, ‘you, beloved’. Both admonition and affirmation have a retrospective air. In the former there is an appeal to the ‘predictions of the apostles’. This is a phrase more comprehensible as a reference to an apostolic text although it could merely echo the words of warning in such passages as Mk 13 and par. which had become part of apostolic tradition. The appeal to tradition (as earlier in v. 3 ), often seen as an indication of a later generation looking back to the founding ancestors of the faith, is comprehensible in a situation where there is a claim to new insight or revelation (v. 8 ). The comparison with Balaam (v. 11 ), who is a type of the false prophecy, requires the stability of tradition. The appeal to tradition, therefore, is to be expected at any time when there is the risk of disruption from the claim to new religious insight and may be paralleled in the appeal to authoritative tradition in the face of the harmful use of the apocalyptic and the mystical in contemporary Jewish circles (see b. Hag. 12a). What is unusual in v. 18 is the phrase ‘in the last time’ (even more unusual is the variant reading, ‘at the end of time’ in the Gk. cf. Rev 10:6 ), a reference to the end of time which is without parallel in the NT. Other parallel references in 2 Pet 3:3; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 3:1 suggest the eschatological times which, in both ancient Jewish and Christian tradition, would be a threatening time of tribulation preceding the hope of earthly blessing. In Jude 18 we have repeated the word ‘desire’ which has already made its appearance in v. 16 in a related description of the rhetorical bombast of the opponents. In v. 20 the phrase ‘most holy faith’ has the key early Christian disposition used as a reference to a body of doctrine that is the foundation, together with prayer in the Holy Spirit, for keeping oneself ‘in the love of God’. The coming of the Lord will not be tribulation and judgement for those who follow the author's advice but ‘mercy’ (v. 21 ). Meanwhile in a situation of uncertainty and difficulty the readers are exhorted to support those going through particular trials. This verse is one with a complex textual tradition with considerable variation in order in the oldest MSS. Whatever the exact reading, the implication is clear: a congregation under pressure from various religious factions is urged to build on the faith handed down, and from the safety of that position seek to support the waverers and save those who would abandon it.

(v. 24 )

The final doxology pictures the hope of the author that the readers will stand in the presence of the divine glory ‘blameless’. This recalls the multitude who have come out of the great tribulation (Rev 7:14 ), or the 144,000 standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion, who are without defilement (Rev 14:1–5 ) and possess the Lamb's name and the name of God on their foreheads (another link with Revelation is found in v. 23 in the words ‘hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies’ (cf. Rev 3:4; 6:11; 14:4; 16:15 ). They are blameless (cf. Isa 53:9; 1 Pet 2:22 ), as is the group in Jude 24 . Jude fears that his readers might soil their robes (v. 23 ). It is worth noting that inappropriate sexual activity is a particular issue in the myth of the fallen angels according to 1 Enoch, 7:1 . So, being ‘without blemish’ characterizes those who are found worthy to come close to the throne of glory (Eph 1:4; Col 1:22 ). As in Col 1:12 there is a close link between angels and humans here. In v. 3 the ‘saints’ are humans, whereas in v. 14 they are probably angels (NRSV ‘holy ones’). It is the preservation of the readers' angelic status (unlike the opponents who are criticized in the letter for following the path of the evil angels of 1 Enoch, 6:11 in forsaking the holy community of which they had been a part), that the epistle seeks to achieve, just as Paul urged the Christians at Philippi to avoid murmuring (cf. Jude 16 ) and be ‘blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world’ (Phil 2:15 cf. ‘wandering stars’ in v. 13 ).

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