Album art of The Beatles’ Hey JudeHey, Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better.

Ahhh…probably my favorite Beatles song, and actually one of my favorite of all the New Testament texts. In the comments to a post some time ago, a loyal reader and visitor to the Aedificium (alas, may peace be upon his blog) noted to me his appreciation for interpretive posts here that “get below the surface and to a deeper place.” And so, in the spirit of Lennon and McCartney, I thought I would toss up some thoughts here that try to get under the skin of one of the least known texts in the entire Christian canon to begin to make better an appreciation of it. Which is really just a way of saying “here are some of my notes and thoughts from Sunday morning’s Bible study that I was conscripted into leading at the last possible minute.”

(N.B.: If you’ve arrived at this blog looking for the sensational live concert video of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” welcome. I won’t keep you from your true objective! You’ll find the Youtube video of the performance at the bottom of this post.)

One question I am regularly asked is “How come some books are in the Bible when nobody even knows what they say, let alone actually sit and read them? How come hardly anyone ever preaches from Leviticus or Obadiah or Jude?” Indeed! While I have occasionally heard a sermon or two from Leviticus, I can’t say that I have ever, in any church or denomination I have ever been in, heard one from Jude. I have never even been part of a Bible study or Sunday School class that focused on Jude. Even in college and university textbook surveys of the Bible or the New Testament, Jude is usually lumped in with the Peter letters at best and sometimes just in the “general letters” category. So, when on Friday evening at a social function a member of our Sunday morning study group wanted to do a few short studies for the last several weeks of the Sunday “Academic Year,” I suggested that we focus on some short prophetic books or NT Letters that no one ever reads that we could maybe bang out in a week or two for each book. Enter Jude.

Hey, Jude! Don’t let her down
You have found her, now go and get her
Remember, to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better.

Yeah, baby. So anyway, two questions: Why is it Scripture if no one reads it or, if people do read it, uses it? and Why don’t people read it or use it? It’s certainly short enough; Philemon gets read and preached from and studies, so how come poor Jude gets the short end of the stick?

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that at one point in time, Jude enjoyed enough currency among its 2nd Temple Jewish-Christian recipients that the letter circulated among other Jewish-Christian congregations in the eastern Mediterranean. But as these congregations were gradually “replaced” by Byzantine and/or Roman and/or Alexandrian and/or more “eastern” versions of Christianity (like Manichaean or Syriac or Mandaean) the book’s extensive imagery from the 2nd Temple Jewish period was simply not understood anymore. Despite having been admitted to the canon of Christian Scripture in the Eastern and Western churches, once the terrific images of Jude were no longer understood, the book was effectively lost. But, as Lennon and McCartney note, I think we can find Jude again and we can go and get it, and let it into our hearts.

So what’s going on here? The book, as I see it, depends on a thorough realization that it is very much a Jewish text with fairly minimal gentile Christian overlay. It won’t do to try to shoehorn standard Christian interpretations of all the explicitly Jewish imagery; 1500 years of trying to do exactly this has turned the book into a “sad song” waiting to be made better again. In fact, some of the earliest manuscript traditions even bear witness to attempts to make it more conforming to what would eventually become orthodox Christology by changing the word for Lord in vs. 5 to Jesus himself, effectively making it absolutely clear, at least to those who followed these variants, that Jesus himself led Israel out of Egypt, not Yhwh elohim. Be that as it may, the appeal to the Exodus as God’s/Jesus’ act of salvation for the people “Israel” (a contested identity by the second century, and perhaps reflected here in Jude) out of bondage in Egypt is not the only, or even the primary, Jewish allusion in the book. Ergo, a “cheat sheet” of how a 2nd Temple Jewish-Christian community might have received this letter.

  • The image of “Cain.” Christians have long interpreted Cain as the archetype for murder and violence, and academics have added their two cents to this interpretation by pointing out that murder and violence in urban, domesticated settings is represented by Cain in Genesis 4. But, Jewish interpreters of Cain in the 2nd Temple period, such as Philo and Josephus (as well as the Rabbis in the classical rabbinic period), understood Cain less as an archetypal murderer and symbol for urban violence (though he was that) and more as the quintessential example of defiance to God’s authority, disobedience, and envy. Although this particular understanding of the Cainite semiotic gave way to the Christian one fairly early on, the author of Jude could no doubt have counted on his Jewish recipients to know what he meant.
  • Jude is mostly concerned about infiltrators to his community of Christians that have dared to “deny the Master,” as he puts it in verse 4. It so happens that in Jewish tradition, denial of the authority of God or his representatives is one of the gravest sins that a community or an individual can participate in. Jude uses a bunch of the most common Jewish examples of this, taken from the Old Testament and from more legendary embellishments of the canonical stories: 1) The “angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling” – v. 6. Has nothing to do with the fall of Satan. (Sorry, John Milton.) But it does have to do with the legend of the sons of God leaving their heavenly abode to fool around with the daughters of men, whom they apparently found more attractive and interesting than heavenly counterparts, in Genesis 6. This story has had a very long shelf life in the legends and tales of the Jewish people, and part of this cycle is preserved in the book of 1 Enoch, which was apparently dear to Jude’s heart. Result of this denial of God’s appointed place for these Jewish Titans: chained up in the deepest darkness for eventual judgment on “the day.” 2) Jude appeals to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Christian interpretation has long understood this verse to be talking about any number of sexual sins. But this is, again, only incidental to the story, according to Jewish interpreters of the age. Instead, the bigger problem is that the men of Sodom have insulted God’s honor by lusting after other flesh, specifically that of God’s angels. Result of this offense? Well, you know the story. And so did Jude’s addressees. 3) Michael’s disputation with the devil, in vs. 8, refers to an old Jewish apocryphal story about how the devil slanders Moses as a murderer and tells off God, via Michael, for even suggesting that Moses should be given a proper burial. Michael, though, refuses to treat with the devil and tells him to get lost. The point here is that not even an archangel will dare to take God’s place as judge; I think Jude is warning his community not to usurp the role of God even with the intruders they are dealing with, lest they incur God’s wrath like Korah did, like Cain did, and like Balaam did.
  • The stories of Korah and Balaam are, of course, in the Bible. Korah meets an untimely end for trying to upstage Moses and Aaron and claim God’s authority for himself, and ends up being eaten by the earth itself. Balaam is executed by Israel for attempting to induce Israel to idolatry, which is traditionally understood in Jewish metaphor in terms of sexual sins and infidelity to the Lord. Again, Jude is telling his audience not to treat with those who have infiltrated their community; they will meet their end soon enough.
  • The quotation from 1 Enoch in vs. 14-15. Here we have a fascinating situation where a non-canonical book is quoted in a canonical book, thus becoming scripture to future readers. The verse in Jude, quoted from 1 Enoch 1.9, reinforces Jude’s point with an apparently scriptural proof-text that God will come with his holy ones to judge and convict the folks who are getting under the skin of Jude and Jude’s community as “grumblers and malcontents” who indulge in “their own lusts” (whatever they are) and who are “bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage” (Jude 16).

So the bulk of the letter, as well as its entire rhetorical argument from vv. 5-16, is absolutely dependent on its audience knowing not only the particular stories from Hebrew scripture but also how these stories were used and interpreted by 2nd Temple Jewish communities who have adopted Jesus as their expected Messiah. The end of the letter reflects more-or-less standard Messianic expectations of the 2nd Temple Period, which is a bit surprising considering the community’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah. But it is entirely consistent with the expectation of the Messiah’s return in the Gospels, in Paul, and in the Book of Revelation. Jude adopts the eschatology of the apocalyptic literature of the Jewish tradition and reinscribes it with the expectation of the return of Jesus during the “end” or “last time.” He interprets the presence of the intruders of v. 4 as proof of the inevitable fulfillment of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ who predicted that these folks would show up during the “last time.” But instead of usurping God’s prerogative to judge these “scoffers” and “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions” (v. 19), which Jude had just spent some 10 verses warning against, he admonishes his community to simply hold each other up in prayer and in the love of God and to “have mercy on those who are wavering” and save whomever they can.

So what is the deal here? Can we read this today with profit? Of course we can. The issues Jude faced then are issues we face now, whether we try to force a gentile Christian interpretation on the letter or whether we let its authentic Jewish-Christian voice speak to us. I’m particularly smitten with the description of those in Jude’s community who are “grumblers and malcontents” and “bombastic in speech” who “flatter people for their own advantage.” I don’t care what church you’re involved in. This could have been written Sunday after the service, and it certainly could be written of so many religious figures who promote malcontent and who are bombastic in speech in their pontificating about the moral state of the world, the failures of the family and loss of “family values” and the necessity of preemptive war or the foolishness of global warming and environmental crises. Even for those of us who reject the bombastic foolishness of the rhetoric of these folks, Jude warns us not to take matters of judgment in our own hands. In an age where the very earth threatens to swallow us up today, as it did to Korah, this seems like eminently sensible advice.

Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

If you’ve slogged through this entire post, reward yourself by clicking on the fabulous performance below.