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Advocating for a Lost Cause: St. Jude's Place in Scripture

Saint Jude the brother of Jesus Christ

“Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” (Matthew 13:55)

Jesus' Brothers

For some strange reason, many Christians are surprised to learn that Jesus had brothers. Maybe it’s because early church leaders like Saint Jerome taught that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Still, I have always found the surprise of Christians — in this regard — confounding. The Bible is quite explicit on this point: Jesus had siblings. What is more, the brother of Jesus that is spoken of the most is James, who became the church’s leader upon Christ’s death (A full explanation of Saint James is an essay for another day). The point I am trying to make here is that we have this major fact of Jesus’ life that is too often overlooked. Furthermore, if you are one of Jesus’ overlooked brothers, and you are not James, then you are thus overlooked even further. Now imagine, you are one of Jesus’ (more) overlooked brothers, and you just so happen to have the same name as the apostle who became known for betraying Jesus (i.e. Judas). The extent to which you would be disregarded and overlooked grows exponentially. Enter Saint Jude.

A Lost Cause

Saint Jude has been marginalized by history, and his identity is veiled under many layers of obscurity via multiple books of scripture. For instance, in Matthew’s Gospel, he is referred to as Judas at one moment, and as Thaddeus another. In Luke’s Gospel, in the Revised Standard Version and the New International version, he is referred to as “Judas the son of James,” whereas in the King James Version he is referred to as “Judas the brother of James,” which seems more aligned with Matthew’s Gospel (in every version) which names Judas as one of Jesus’ and James’ brothers (and not as James’ son, a timeline of which would not make any sense). Whatever the case may be, one thing seems apparent and that is that Saint Jude — sometimes Judas sometimes Thaddeus sometimes the son of James sometimes the brother of James — is difficult to pinpoint exactly. Or to put it another way, Jude is seemingly lost in the text and as a result lost to history. This is perhaps the reason why Saint Jude is known today as the patron saint of lost causes. He was, for all intents and purposes, lost himself.

I remember being at church one time, a long time ago, and I overheard the maintenance crew in the votive candle room making jokes about what they called “trash” that was always being left by the statue of Saint Jude. You see, there was this candle room on the left side of the church as one entered and it was filled with a dozen or so saint statues, each about three feet in height. They were all lined up on a shelf against the wall, and in front of them were kneelers for praying, and a candle rack with a wooden box attached where one was expected to leave some money in exchange for the lighting of a candle — an action which represented a prayer offering. What I deduced from the conversation I overheard was that there would often be these letters, amulets, and other such things that “drug-addicts” and “bums” (as the crew so eloquently called these poor suffering souls) left behind at the foot of the Saint Jude statue as a kind of offering to this patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. Many Catholics believe that Saint Jude will step in on one’s behalf and petition God for a miracle.

The Epistle of Saint Jude

It seems fitting that one as marginalized as Saint Jude would be the one with his name attached to one of the shortest books in the New Testament. Nonetheless, the epistle of Saint Jude maybe short, but it is quite powerful in nature.

Before we get into the contents of Saint Jude’s Letter, I want us to be aware of the moment in time in which the letter appears on the proverbial scene. Some Biblical scholars, such as Edgar J. Goodspeed, believe that Saint Jude’s Epistle was written in the early second century, over seventy five years removed from the crucifixion of Christ. This date would most certainly mean that it wasn’t written by the same Jude who is Jesus’ brother. Fortunately for believes, Goodspeed’s argument in this regard is rather unconvincing. Saint Jude’s letter begins with the author identifying himself: “I, Jude a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” (Jude 1:1). Goodspeed argues that the moniker “brother of James” was “probably added to his name by some later copiers.” That seems like quite the intellectual leap to make. Rather than just accepting that the same man, who is spoken of multiple other times in scripture — in much the same language — is who he actually says he is, Goodspeed would rather use words like “probably” and attribute the words of Holy Scripture to some unidentifiable and audacious nefarious scribes, which to me seems to be poor and reductive Biblical scholarship.

It is this writer’s opinion, that the date for the epistle is when “Jude... brother of James” would have been most likely to write it. Rose Publishing’s Bible Overview points out that “Some scholars suggest that Jude wrote his letter prior to AD 62 because if he wrote it after AD 62 when James was martyred, Jude would have used a word like ‘blessed,’ ‘good,’ or ‘just’ to describe his brother James, which was a customary way to describe martyrs” (259). Placing the epistle in the fifties or early sixties AD, places Jude alongside most of Paul’s letters, and perhaps one or two of the Gospels. In other words, Jude the apostle wrote contemporaneously with other apostles. This logic seems to make much more sense. Especially when you see that the purpose of Jude's letter is of the same spirit and character as many of Paul’s letters, in that, it exhorts its readers/hearers to ignore false teachers of the faith.

Saint Jude Continues to be Overlooked and Disregarded

In Goodspeed's defense, it seems hardly out of character with what we know about Jude, for people to attempt to obscure who he is and act as if he wasn’t who or where he was. Furthermore, it should also seem like hardly a surprise that Jude’s letter contains references to books of scripture that have also been lost and/or disregarded by history and circumstances. That is to say, the Epistle of St. Jude contains a reference to a non-extant scriptural passage from The Assumption of Moses where Michael the Archangel and Satan contend over the body of Moses.

Saint Jude’s letter also contains a reference to the Book of Enoch, which is a book of scripture that is the epitome of being overlooked. Enoch was once widely accepted by many believers, but when it came to being included in the official Christian canon it was completely disregarded. Fittingly, however, Saint Jude the patron saint of lost causes, worked a miracle in his letter and helped to save the Book of Enoch from obscurity by including the following reference:

“It was of these also that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied saying, ‘Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, to execute judgment on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’” (Jude 1:14-15)

Jude’s Epistle, with the purpose of dissuading followers from following false teaching, while simultaneously featuring references to lost, overlooked and disregarded scriptural sources has a two-fold lost-cause-advocating effect. One, it disuades followers who are sincerely looking for the correct path to follow from following the influence of those who are already lost. And two, it resurrects scriptural books that have been overlooked or disregarded, and gives them a place within the scriptural canon that has otherwise been denied to them for one reason or another.

Saint Jude and His Brother Jesus

We read at different points in the Gospels that Jesus was disregarded by his brothers. For instance, in John's Gosepel we read explicitly: “even his brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5). Or to put this another way, to them Jesus was a lost cause. In the twelfth chapter of Matthew we see Jesus’ response to being seen by his brothers in such a way:

While [Jesus] was still speaking to the people, behold his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak with him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother. And who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother’” (Matthew 12:46-50).

What are we to make of this?

Saint Jude is truly an enigma. His life is surrounded by paradox. The Bible says that during Jesus’ life his brothers didn’t believe in him; however, Jude as one of Jesus’ apostles, was ostensibly a believer; so much so in fact, he was present at Pentecost when Jesus’ bestowed the Holy Spirit onto his closest followers (See Acts 2). The proof that Saint Jude was there at that monumental moment in church history is represented by the flame (which represents the Holy Spirit) that is always depicted above his head in all the religious icons, imagery and statues of him -- such as the one I remember in the votive candle room in church all those years ago where the ne’er do wells would leave their offerings.

In short, the Bible says that Jude was one of Jesus’ brothers, and that Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in him during his life, Nevertheless, Jude did in fact believe in him. So does that mean that Jude wasn’t his brother? Or was it perhaps that Jude was not actually an apostle? The evidence seems to suggest that he was in fact both — brother and apostle. In the end, it doesn't really matter. To be a follower of Jesus and a brother of Jesus were actually one and the same. This becomes obvious once we take Jesus’ aforementioned words to heart — “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother.” In other words, for Jesus to consider you his brother (or sister) all you have to do is follow him. That should not, however, be a reason that Christians use (in a misguided attempt) to try to argue away the fact that Jesus had biological siblings -- Jude, James and others.

Understanding: A Lost Cause

All that being said, one thing is clear and that is to pinpoint exactly who Saint Jude is (e.g. Judas, Thaddeus, Son of James, brother of James) and what contributions he may or may not have made to our faith (e.g. epistle writer or not) is no easy feat. Perhaps I should petition him for help, because in a certain sense, understanding exactly who Saint Jude is and the role he played in the early church can, at times, feel like a lost cause.


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