Reviews of

Letters from the Pillar Apostles

In 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Canon, Catholic Epistles, Darian LOCKETT, James, Johannine Epistles, Jude, Kelsie Rodenbiker, Pickwick on July 18, 2017 at 5:32 pm


2017.07.14 | Darian R. Lockett. Letters from the Pillar Apostles: The Formation of the Catholic Epistles as a Canonical Collection. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017. ISBN: 9781620327562.

Reviewed by Kelsie Rodenbiker, Durham University, UK.

In Letters from the Pillar Apostles, Lockett is concerned to establish the early legitimacy of the Catholic Epistles (CE) as a historically and hermeneutically plausible canonical collection and thus an equal New Testament (NT) sub-corpus alongside the fourfold Gospel and Pauline epistles (pp. xvii, xviii). Noting an oft-assumed discontinuity, Lockett states, “[r]ather than emphasizing composition (usually associated with the historical-critical approach) or canonization (associated with subsequent, ecclesial, and theological judgments) at the expense of the other, this project considers both in dialectical relationship” in order to demonstrate “that the process of editing, collecting, and arranging of these seven texts is neither anachronistic to their meaning nor antagonistic to their very composition” (p. xvi).

Chapter one surveys various approaches to the CE as a canonical collection: (1) Davids (pp. 1–3); (2) Niebuhr (pp. 3–7); (3) Nienhuis and Wall (pp. 7–11); (4) Newman (pp. 11–14); and (5) Childs (pp. 14–18). Lockett addresses canon as use (particularly in light of the work of Nienhuis and Wall) and the Rule of Faith, stressing that “canon” can maintain uniquely the balance between history and theology (p. 27). Chapter two details Lockett’s assumptions and methodology. He defines crucial terminology for the project, including notions of canon as both narrow (a fixed, authoritative list) and broad (an inherent textual quality; pp. 36–40). Lockett proceeds with a broad view, which he argues best holds together the concepts of canon and scripture, over against a view of canon as defined primarily according to use (pp. 50–51). A key concept in this chapter is the term “collection consciousness” and its relation to canonical development, as Lockett contends both for an inherent canonical quality to the CE and that, “[t]o varying degrees, authors, editors, and compilers were aware of the canonical process in which they participated” (p. 51). Chapter three traces the development and canonization of the CE according to their citation and use in the early church. He defines the title “Catholic Epistle” as a terminus technicus, as reflected in the writings of Eusebius (pp. 65–70), Origen (pp. 71–73), Clement of Alexandria (pp. 73–75), Tertullian (pp. 75–76), the Muratorian Fragment (pp. 75–78), Irenaeus (pp. 78–79), and Papias (pp. 79).  The manuscript tradition follows (pp. 80–86). He concludes that the CE as an early, “discrete canonical collection is not merely theologically permissible, but also…enjoys early historical support” (p. 90). Chapter four presents paratextual evidence of collection consciousness in the Catholic Epistles, such as collection and arrangement within larger codices (particularly the association of the CE with Acts), titles, chapter divisions, reading aids such as nomina sacra, author bios, hypothesis, and kephalaia, and colophons. These are “hermeneutically significant” as evidence of reading practices, despite not originating from the compositional author, and indicative of an “intentional collection consciousness” (pp. 93, 95).

Chapter five offers compositional evidence of collection consciousness in the CE, considering “catchwords and phrases that draw connections between texts of the Catholic Epistles,” with special attention to OT tradition. When two or more CE make use of the same text, “this is taken as an implicit indication of canon-consciousness” (p. 139). The focus is not on the original author, however, but rather the perception of later compilers who “may have arranged books in a given sequence to highlight preexisting material, thus intending a connection between…books without it being the work of redaction or literary dependence” (p. 137, quoting Stone). He concludes that catchword connection, “suggests collection consciousness because in several cases the appeal to tradition is unique” (pp. 185, 186). Chapter six considers further compositional evidence for collection consciousness, this time through framing devices and themes. The CE are framed by James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus (p. 188), and the individual epistles are shown to share similar content in their introductions and conclusions, with particular attention to adjacent books (pp. 189–96). After a brief word on other approaches to themes in the CE, thematic connections are addressed: the love command (pp. 201–209), the association of “word,” “law,” and “commandment” (pp. 209–19), enduring trial (pp. 220–23), incompatible allegiances to God and the world (pp. 223–26), and faith and works (pp. 226–29). Lockett asserts that while thematic connection alone cannot prove collection consciousness, taken along with the other paratextual and compositional evidence he has provided, “this thematic cohesiveness corroborates the collection consciousness discernable in the collection” (p. 230). Locket concludes with the “hermeneutics of reading the Catholic Epistles as a coherent collection” (p. 231). He restates his purpose to demonstrate that collection consciousness, despite being outside the purview of the original authors, “is neither anachronistic to the meaning of the letters nor antagonistic to their composition” (p. 231). The essence of his study, he argues, has been to trace the canonical development of the CE into a sub-corpus, which, “is not an external force imposed upon the text by institutional powers, but rather, was driven along by recognition of pressures within the texts themselves” (p. 237). That is, the collection consciousness of the CE as demonstrated by compositional, paratextual, Patristic, and intertextual evidence signifies an inherent canonical coherence.

Overall, the book presents a rich bibliography and some compelling reasoning for interpreting the CE as a collection, particularly the third- and fourth-century paratextual evidence of gradual collectedness. However, while I am sympathetic to Lockett’s general objective, it is questionable whether he accomplishes his goal to take seriously the CE as a canonical collection from a synthesized historical-theological approach. While he claims “canon” can uniquely maintain this connection between history and theology, the theological conviction that the canonical process is one of recognizing texts imbued with innate canonicity renders the canonical process as inevitable rather than contingent on historical factors beyond the text itself, such as usage, authority, and available technology. For this reason, Lockett’s approach fundamentally favors a theological conception of canon over a historical one, which is evident in the incomplete presentation of historical evidence.

Early on, it is asserted that composition and canonization will be considered in dialectical relationship, but Lockett never actually addresses compositional issues (e.g., authorship, dating, literary dependence, sources) at all. In fact, he later stresses his argument is based on “suggestive” compositional features recognized by later compilers (p. 238). This is an argument from reception rather than composition, while the latter is considered only in light of later compilation – an odd move considering the insistence that canonicity is inherent in composition, rather than shown by later usage. Moreover, without a more substantial exploration of early Jesus tradition, parabiblical literature, and parallels with Pauline literature, the argument especially for unique OT tradition shared within the CE remains incomplete. Additionally, Lockett’s coined term “collection consciousness,” while perhaps consistent with the view that the CE are inherently canonical, is ineffective: true canonical consciousness is incomprehensible apart from a discussion of both dating and literary dependence, though canonical possibility may be present.

There is also a significant dependence on “indirect evidence” (p. 90) and plausibility (pp. 185, 229, 239), particularly in identifying subsets of CE that predate the seven-letter collection. P72, the only definitive evidence for the combination of any CE prior to Codex Sinaiticus, proves to be an inconsistency. While P72 does indeed represent one subset of CE, Lockett states as fact that none of the CE “were ever associated in collection with other letters, in early canon lists, or in the manuscript tradition” (p. 100). This is simply not true. P72 provides evidence both that Jude and 1–2 Peter inhabited the same codex (though not in consecutive order) and that they were combined with other Christian literature – including a supposed third correspondence between Paul and the Corinthians. Furthermore, since he cannot definitively argue on the basis of extant manuscripts, Lockett’s claim that the CE circulated in subsets prior to Eusebius stands on the shaky foundation of the use of the term καθολική to describe only the CE. At least two of the Patristic writers on whom Lockett depends refer to no such discrete collection: Origen cites Barnabas as a “catholic epistle” (Contra Celsum 1.63.9) while Clement of Alexandria refers to the “catholic epistle of all the apostles” (τὴν ἐπιστολὴν τὴν καθολικὴν τῶν ἀποστόλων ἀπάντων), meaning the letter sent from Jerusalem to Antioch in Acts 15 (Stromata; Acts 15:22–30). Prior to Eusebius, it remains impossible to conclude that the CE existed in distinct, consistent form, though it is certainly possible to speak of the Muratorian Fragment, P72, and Patristic usage as preconditions for the CE collection. That the CE comprise a legitimate collection I do not question; that they are an inherently canonical collection in an inevitably canonical NT I do.

Despite our differences, especially in regard to the nature of canon, I am nevertheless grateful for this contribution to the larger discussion on the Catholic Epistle collection. Lockett ends his study with the hope that it will encourage further work attending to the collective interpretation of the CE (p. 239); on this account I can confirm the book is a success, and I look forward to continued conversation.

Kelsie Rodenbiker
Durham University
kelsie.rodenbiker [at]


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