...and no, that is not a typo!
What does this beautiful creature have to do with the Catholic Epistles? Read on...
In any language, words, and phrases are often incorrectly used. Sometimes, a particular incorrect usage occurs so frequently that over time, it begins to be accepted as valid. An example is the English word “butterfly.” Have you ever wondered how the butterfly received its name? There is nothing particularly “buttery” about a butterfly. In fact, the original English word for this beautiful animal was “flutterby,” which makes total sense, given the way butterflies fly. For some reason, people began to mispronounce the poor creature’s name. Over time, so many people were mispronouncing it that “butterfly” became an accepted alternative name for the flutterby. Finally, no one even said “flutterby” any more, and what was once an incorrect way to pronounce and spell the word became the accepted correct way.
For another example, consider two phrases. The first phrase is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, you can’t know if something is good or not unless you try it (whether you are referring to an actual food or to something more metaphorical, like a certain activity). In recent years, this phrase has often been misquoted as “the proof is in the pudding.” This misquotation has happened so much that this mistaken way of saying the proverb now seems to be an acceptable alternative form of it. Another example is the saying “I couldn’t care less!” How many times have you heard someone incorrectly say, “I could care less?” In spite of the fact that this corruption actually means the exact opposite of the original phrase, it nevertheless seems to be increasingly accepted as an alternative way of saying the same thing.
This same process of semantic change has occurred with the English word “catholic.” When the average educated person sees the word “catholic” with a small “c”—meaning not necessarily referring to the Roman Catholic Church—what meaning does he or she assign to it? Probably nine out of ten English speakers would say that “catholic” means “universal.” But this is not the true and original meaning of the word. The English word “catholic” is really just a transliteration of the Greek word “katholikos.” This word derives from the prefix “kata,” which means “according to,” and “holos,” which means (not surprisingly) “whole.” Thus, “katholikos” and therefore “catholic” literally means “according to the whole.” In other words, it means whole, complete, lacking nothing.
But in a similar way to the other words and phrases I mentioned, for some reason, people started using the word “catholic” to mean “universal.” And that misuse of the word became so widespread that “universal” actually became an accepted secondary definition of the word. And it is that sense of the word that is used in the phrase “Catholic Epistles.”
But enough amateur linguistics—let’s get to some Bible study. First of all, what exactly are the Catholic Epistles?
The New Testament contains 27 books. If we subtract out the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the book of Revelation, that leaves 21 books. All 21 of these “books” are not really books, but epistles. Of these 21, two-thirds, or 14 in all, were written by St. Paul or by someone very close to him. That leaves seven epistles. These are the epistles that the Church has collectively named the “Catholic Epistles” (Protestants usually call them the “universal” or “general” epistles, in order to avoid the use of the term “Catholic.”). The reason these epistles are called catholic or universal is because unlike St. Paul’s epistles, they are not addressed to a particular church or group of churches, nor to a particular individual. Instead, they are all addressed to the Church in general.
Which epistles are considered to be part of the Catholic Epistles? The Catholic Epistles include the Epistle of St. James, the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter, the First, Second, and Third Epistles of St. John, and the Epistle of St. Jude. Because of the great depth of St. Paul’s epistles, plus their popularity and sheer volume, the Catholic Epistles tend to get overlooked. Because of this, I thought it would be good for us to spend the next few months studying them. Why is it important to study the Catholic Epistles? What contributions to they make to the Church’s theology and practice? And what do they tell us about how to live the Christian life? These are topics that I will explore in the next several posts.