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Introductory Notes to

The Acts of the Apostles

and

Apostolic Letters in the New Testament


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by

Msgr. Juan Straubinger [1883 - 1956]

Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Müenster, Germany


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Acts of Apostles


The book of Acts does not attempt to narrate what each of the apostles did, but takes, as did the evangelists, the principal facts that the Holy Spirit has suggested to the author for the nourishment of our faith (cf. Luke 1:4; John 20:31). God shows us here, with an incomparable historical and dramatic interest, what was the life and apostolate of the Church in the first decades (years 30-63 of the birth of Christ), and the role in them played by the Princes of the Apostles, St. Peter (chap. 1-12) and St. Paul (chap. 13-28). The largest part is therefore dedicated to the journeys, works and triumphs of this Gentile Apostle, until his first captivity in Rome. With this the author stops almost unexpectedly, giving the impression that he intended to write another treatise later.

There is no doubt that this author is the same person who wrote the third Gospel. At the end of the third Gospel, St. Luke takes up the thread of the narrative and composes the book of Acts (see 1,1), which he dedicates to Theophilus himself (Luke 1,1 ff.), the Holy Fathers, mainly St. Polycarp, St. Clement Roman, St. Ignatius Martyr, St. Irenaeus, St. Justin, etc. as well as modern critics, testify and unanimously recognize that this is a work of Luke, a native Syrian antiochenus, doctor, companion and collaborator of St. Paul, with whom he presents himself in many passages of his story (16, 10, 17; 20, 5-15; 21, 1-18; 27, 1-28, 16). He wrote, in Greek, the current language at the time, from the original of which the present version comes; but its language also contains aramaisms denouncing the nationality of the author.

The composition dates from Rome around the year 63, shortly before the end of the first prison, remana of St. Paul, that is, five years before his death and also before the terrible destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.), that is, when the life and worship of Israel continued normally.

The object of St. Luke in this writing is, as in his Gospel (Luke 1:4), to confirm us in the faith and to teach the universality of the health brought by Christ, which is manifested first among the Jews of Jerusalem, then Palestine, and finally among the Gentiles.

Today's Christian, often ignorant in this matter, thus understands much better, thanks to this Book, the true character of the Church and its intimate connection with the Old Testament and with the chosen people of Israel, seeing that, as Fillion observes, before coming to Rome with the apostles, the Church had its first stage in Jerusalem, where it was born (1, 1-8, 3); in its second stage it extended from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria (8, 4-11, 18); it had a third stage in the East with headquarters in Antioch of Syria (11, 19-13, 35), and finally it was established in the pagan world and in its capital Rome (13, 1-28, 31), thus fulfilling the words of Jesus to the apostles, when these gathered together questioned him believing that he would immediately restore the kingdom to Israel: "It is not for you to know the times and moments which the Father has set by his power. But when the Holy Spirit descends upon you, you will receive virtue and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (1:7ff). This testimony of the Holy Spirit and of the apostles had been announced by Jesus (John 15:26) and ratified by St. Peter (1:22; 2:32; 5:32, etc.).

The admirable Book, whose perfect unity recognizes even the most adverse criticism, could also be called the "Acts of the Risen Christ". "Without him, apart from some features scattered in the Epistles of St. Paul, in the Catholic Epistles and in the rare fragments that remain of the first ecclesiastical writers, we would know nothing of the origin of the Church" (Fillion).

S. Jerome summarizes, in the letter to the presbyter Pauline, his judgment on this divine Book in the following words: "The book of the deeds of the Apostles seems to tell a simple story and weave the childhood of the nascent Church. But, knowing that its author is Luke, the doctor, "whose praise is in the Gospel" (II Cor 8:18), we will see that all his words are, at the same time as history, medicine for the sick soul".

Letters from St. Paul


Saul, who after being converted called Paul - that is, "little" - was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, perhaps in the same year as Jesus, although he did not know him while the Lord was alive. His parents, Jews of the tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11:1; Philip. 3:5), educated him in the love of the Law, handing him over to one of the most famous doctors, Gamaliel, in whose school the fervent disciple interpenetrated himself with the doctrines of the scribes and Pharisees, whose ideals he defended with sincere passion while ignoring the mystery of Christ. Not content with his training in the disciplines of the Law, he also learned the trade of weaver, to earn a living with his own hands. The book of Acts recounts how during his apostolic journeys he worked on it "day and night" as he himself proclaimed several times as an example and proof that he was not a burden for the church (see Acts 18, 3 and note).

The human traditions of his home and school, and the Pharisaic zeal for the Law, made Paul a passionate sectarian, who believed himself obliged to give himself in person to persecute the disciples of Jesus. Not only did he actively witness the stoning of St. Stephen, but, burning with fanaticism, he set out for Damascus, where he organized the persecution against the Christian name. But on the road to Damascus the divine grace awaited him to make him the most faithful champion and doctor of that grace which had so worked in him. It was Jesus himself, the Pilgrim, who - showing him that he was stronger than he was - tamed his unbridled zeal and transformed him into an unparalleled instrument for the preaching of the Gospel and the propagation of the Kingdom of God as "Light revealed to the Gentiles".

From Damascus Paul went to the Arabian desert (Gal 1:17) to prepare himself, in solitude, for that apostolic mission. He returned to Damascus, and after having made contact in Jerusalem with the prince of the apostles, he returned to his homeland until his companion Barnabas led him to Antioch, where he had the opportunity to show his fervor in the cause of the Gentiles and the doctrine of the New Law "of the Spirit of life" brought by Jesus Christ to free us from the slavery of the old Law. Henceforth he made three great apostolic journeys, which his disciple St. Luke refers to in the "Acts" and which served as the basis for the conquest of an entire world.

After the third trip, he was imprisoned and taken to Rome, where he undoubtedly regained his freedom around the year 63, although since then the last four years of his life are in darkness. Apparently, he traveled to Spain (Rom.15, 24 and 28) and made another trip to the east. He died in Rome, beheaded by the executioners of Nero, in the year 67, on the same day as the martyrdom of St. Peter. His remains rest in St. Paul's Basilica in Rome.

The Pauline writings are exclusively letters, but of as much doctrinal value and supernatural depth as a Gospel. The teachings of the Epistles to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Ephesians, and others, constitute, as St. John Chrysostom says, an inexhaustible mine of gold, to which we have to go in all circumstances of life, having to frequent them very much until we become familiar with their language, because their reading -as St. Jerome says- reminds us rather of thunder than the sound of words.

Through his letters St. Paul gives us an immense knowledge of Christ. Not a systematic knowledge, but a spiritual knowledge that is what matters. He is above all the Doctor of Grace, the one who deals with the ever-present themes of sin and justification, of the Mystical Body, of Law and freedom, of faith and works, of flesh and spirit, of predestination and reprobation, of the Kingdom of Christ and his Second Coming. Rationalist writers or Jews like Klausner, who in good faith find a difference between the Master's Message and the apostle's interpretation, have not seen well the immense transcendence of the synagogue's rejection of Christ, sent first and foremost "to the lost sheep of Israel" (Mat. 15, 24), in the time of the Gospel, and of the new rejection by the Jewish people of the dispersion of the apostolic preaching that renewed in the risen Christ the promises of the ancient Prophets; rejection that brought the rupture with Israel and brought about the passage from health to gentility, followed very soon by the tremendous destruction of the Temple, just as the Lord had announced (Matt. 24).

We must not forget, then, that St. Paul was chosen by God to be the Apostle of the Gentiles (Acts 13, 2 and 47; 26, 17 ff; Rom 1,5 ), that is, of us, sons of pagans, formerly "separated from the society of Israel, strangers to the covenants, without hope in the promise and without God in this world" (Eph. 2:12), and that we enter into salvation because of Israel's unbelief (see Rom. 11:11 ff; cf. Acts 28:23 ff. and notes), being called into the new and great mystery of the Mystical Body (Eph. 1:22 ff.; 3:4-9; Col. 1:26). Hence Paul is also for us the great and infallible interpreter of the ancient Scriptures, especially of the Psalms and Prophets, quoted by him at every step. There are Psalms whose disputed meaning is fixed thanks to the quotations that St. Paul makes of them; for example, Psalm 44, of which the apostle teaches us that it is nothing less than the lyrical praise of Christ triumphant, made through the mouth of the divine Father (see Hebr. 1:8 s). The same can be said of S. 2, 7; 109, 4, etc.

In canon it contains 14 Epistles bearing the name of the great apostle of the Gentiles, including the one destined for the Hebrews. Some others seem to have been lost (I Cor. 5:9; Col. 4:16).

The succession of the Pauline Epistles in the canon does not obey the chronological order, but rather the importance and prestige of their addressees. That of the Hebrews, as Chaine says, was added at the end of Paul and not among the "Catholics", because of its origin, but this does not necessarily imply that it is later than the others.

As for the dates and place of the composition of each one, we refer the reader to the indications we give in the initial notes.



Letter of the Apostle St. James


Jame's letter is the first of the seven non-Pauline Epistles that, for not indicating several of them a special addressee, have been called generically Catholic or universal, although strictly speaking most of them are addressed to Christianity of Jewish origin, and the last two Epistles of St. John have an even more limited heading. St. Jerome characterizes them by saying that "they are as rich in mysteries as they are succinct, as brief in words as they are long in sentences".

The author, who gives himself the name "James, servant of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ," is the Apostle we usually call James the Lesser, son of Alphaeus or Cleophas (Matt. 10:3) and of Mary (Matt. 27:56), "sister" (or relative) of the Virgin. He is, therefore, of the family of Jesus and called "brother of the Lord" ( Gal. 1, 19; cf. Matt. 13, 55 and Marc 6, 3).

St. James is mentioned by St. Paul among the "pillars" or apostles who enjoyed the greatest authority in the Church (Gal. 2:9). Through his faithful observance of the Law, he had a great influence, especially on the Jews, since among them he exercised his ministry as Bishop of Jerusalem. He died a martyr in 62 A.D.

He wrote this letter not long before suffering martyrdom and with the special purpose of strengthening the Christians of Judaism who, because of persecution, were in danger of losing their faith (cf. the introduction to the Epistle to the Hebrews). Turn, therefore, to "the twelve tribes which are in the dispersion" (cf. 1:1 and note), that is, to all the Hebrew-Christians1, within and without Palestine (cf. Rom. 10:18 and note).

They are of Christian profession, because they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ of Glory (2, 1). They await the Parousia in which they will receive the prize (5, 7-9), they have been begotten into new life (1, 18) under the new law of freedom (1, 25; 2, 12), and the anointing of the sick is recommended to them (5, 14 ff).

The non-allusion to pagans is seen in the fact that James omits to refer to what St. Paul usually fights against in these: idolatry, impudence, drunkenness (cf. I Cor. 6:9 ff; Gal. 5:19 ff). On the other hand, the Epistle insists strongly against vain talk and the faith of pure formula (1, 22 ff; 2, 14 ff.), against slander and the ravages of the tongue (3, 2 ff; 4, 2 ff; 5, 9), against false doctors (3, 1), bitter zeal (3, 13 ff.), easy oaths (5, 12).

The style is concise, judgmental and extraordinarily rich in images, with the eloquent ones dedicated to the language in chapter 3 and to the rich in chapter 5 and their parallel with the humble in chapter 2 being classic. More than in the supernatural mysteries of grace with which St. Paul usually illustrates us, especially in the Epistles of captivity, the present one is a vigorous meditation on conduct before one's neighbor and that is why it has sometimes been called the social Gospel.


Letters from St. Peter


Simon Bar Jona (son of Jonah), who was to be St. Peter (Acts 15, 14; II Peter 1, 1), was called to the apostolate in the first days of the Lord's public life, who gave him the name Cephas (in Aramaic Kefa), that is, "stone", from where the Greek Petros, Peter (John 1, 42). We see in Matt. 16:17-19 how Jesus distinguished him among the other disciples, making him "Prince of the Apostles" (John 21:15 ff.). Paul tells us that Jesus, as the Apostle of the Gentiles, had directly entrusted to him (Gal 1:11 f.) the evangelization of the Gentiles, while Peter, like James and John, had the evangelization of the circumcised or Israelites (Gal 2:7-9; cf. Jas 1:1 and note). From Pentecost Peter preached in Jerusalem and Palestine but around the year 42 he moved to "another place" (Acts 12, 17 and note), not without first admitting the pagan Cornelius to baptism (Acts 10), as the deacon Philip had done with the Ethiopian "proselyte" (Acts 8, 26 ff.). A few years later we find him again in Jerusalem, presiding over the Council of Apostles (Acts 15) and then in Antioch. Scripture does not give more information about him, but tradition assures us that he died a martyr in Rome in the year 67, the same day as St. Paul.

His first Letter is considered to have been written shortly before the persecution of Nerón broke out, that is, around the year 63 (cf. II Peter 1, 1 and note), from Rome to what he calls Babylon because of the corruption of its pagan environment (5, 13). Its purpose is to console mainly the dispersed Christian Hebrews (1, 1) who, living also in a pagan world, ran the risk of losing their faith. However, several passages testify that his teaching also extends to converts of gentility (cf. 2, 10 and note). To the same addressees (II Peter 3, 1), but extending it "to all who have attained the faith" (1, 1) is addressed the second Letter, which the Apostle wrote, as he says, shortly before his martyrdom (II Peter 1, 14), from which his date is calculated by the years 64-67. "From this it can be deduced as probable that the author wrote of Rome", perhaps from prison. In the forsaken Christian communities false doctors had already been introduced who despised the Scriptures, abused the flock and, sustaining a perverse concept of Christian freedom, also said that Jesus would never return. against those and against the many imitators that he will have in all times until the end, the Head of the Twelve raises his voice, to warn the present and future Churches, being the verbs in the future, Judas, its parallel, already refers to this problem as present and pressing (Judas 3 s; cf. II Peter 3, 17 and note).

In these brief letters - the only two "Encyclicals" of the prince of the apostles - filled with the most precious doctrine and prophecy, we see the admirable work of the Holy Spirit, who transformed Peter after Pentecost. That ignorant, restless and cowardly fisherman and denier of Christ is here the apostle full of charity, gentleness and humble wisdom, who (like Paul in II Tim. 4:6) announces to us the nearness of his own death that Christ himself had foretold for him (John 21:28). St. Peter sets before us, from the beginning of the first Epistle to the end of the second, the mystery of the future return of our Lord Jesus Christ as the theme of meditation par excellence to transform our souls into faith, love and hope (cf. Jude 20 and notes). The main dogmatic teaching of the Second Peter," Pirote says, "undoubtedly consists in the certainty of the Parousia and, consequently, of the retributions that will accompany it (1, 11 and 19; 3, 4-5). It is according to this expectation that the alternative between Christian virtue and the license of the "mockers" should be understood (2, 1-2 and 19). The guarantees of this faith are: the oracles of the prophets, and the teaching of the apostles, witnesses of God and messengers of Christ (1, 4 and 16-21; 3, 2). The Gospel is already the realization of a first cycle of prophecies, and this realization increases all the more our confidence in the fulfillment of subsequent prophecies" (cf. 1:19). This is what the Risen Jesus himself, having already fulfilled the prophecies of his Passion, his Death and his Resurrection, reiterated about the future announcements of "his glories" (I Peter 1:11), saying: "All that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, in the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44).

Little could be promised of the faith of those Christians who, calling themselves sons of the Church, and proclaiming that Christ is where Peter is, resign themselves to spend their entire life without worrying about what this Peter and this Paul said, in their brief letters, in order to be able, as the Liturgy says, "to follow in all the precept of those for whom religion began. (Collection from the Mass of St. Peter).

Letters from St. John

The three Letters bearing the name of Saint John - one more general, very important, and the other very brief - have been written by the same author of the fourth Gospel (see its introductory note). This is, says the Office of St. John, that disciple whom Jesus loved (John 21, 7) and to whom the secrets of heaven were revealed; the one who reclined at the Supper on the Lord's breast (John 21, 20) and who drank there, in the fountain of the Sacred Chest, streams of wisdom that he enclosed in his Gospel.

The first Epistle lacks a headline, which led some to doubt its authenticity. But despite the absence of the author's name, there is a unanimous and constant tradition that this incomparably sublime Letter is to be attributed, like the two that follow it and the Apocalypse, to the Apostle John, made Zebedee and brother of James the Elder, and this was confirmed by the Tridentine Council in pointing out the canon of the Sacred Scriptures. The lack of a title at the beginning and of a greeting at the end will be explained, according to the common opinion, by its intimate relationship with the fourth Gospel, to which it serves as an introduction (cf. 1:3), and also as a corollary, since it has been rightly said that if the Gospel of St. John makes us cross the threshold of the Father's house, this intimately familiar Epistle makes us feel like "little children" in our own house.

It is calculated that it dates from the end of the first century and is considered to be addressed, like the Apocalypse, to the churches of proconsular Asia - and not only to those seven of the Apocalypse (cf. 1, 4 and note) - of which, although they were not founded by him, the Apostle would have taken charge after his exile in Patmos, where he wrote his great prophetic vision. The motive of this Letter was to indoctrinate the faithful in the secrets of the spiritual life in order to warn them mainly against pregnosticism and the advances of the Nicolaitans who polluted the vineyard of Christ. And so the occasion to write it was probably the one that the same author points out in 2, 18 s, as also happened with Judas (Judas 3s).

We would see John, although "Apostle of circumcision" (Gal. 2:9), installed in Ephesus and teaching - thirty years after the apostle of the Gentiles and almost as much after the destruction of Jerusalem - not only Christians of Israelite origin but also those same Gentiles to whom St. Paul had written the highest Epistles of his captivity in Rome. Paul pointed to the doctrinal position of sons of the Father. John shows them the intimate spiritual life as such.

It is not noted in the Epistle marked division; but yes, as in the Gospel of St. John, the great guiding ideas: "light, life and love", presented again and again under the newest and richest aspects, undoubtedly constituting the highest document of supernatural spirituality that has been given to men. He insists on the divinity of Jesus Christ as Son of the Father and on the reality of Redemption and Parousia, attacked by heretics. It also warns against these "antichrists" and inculcates in a singular way the distinction between the divine Persons, the divine filiation of the believer, the life of faith and trust founded on the love with which God loves us, and fraternal charity as inseparable from the love of God.

In the other two Epistles St. John calls himself "the elder" (in Greek presbyter), a title which is also given to St. Peter making it extensive to the heads of Christian communities (I Peter 5, 1) and which was undoubtedly given to the apostles, as presumed by the declaration of Popes, bishop of Hierapolis, when he referred to how he had been informed of what had been said "the elders Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, John". Father Bonsirven, who brings these data, also tells us that the doubts about the authenticity of these two Letters of St. John "began to arise at the end of the second century when various authors began to condemn millenarianism; discovering milleranism in the Apocalypse, they resisted attributing it to the Apostle John and declared it, consequently, the work of that presbyter John of which Papias speaks, and so, by countercoup, the presbyter John was placed by several in possession of the two small Epistles. Pirot also notes that "in order to deny the apocalypse John's authenticity, Dionysius of Alexandria also denies it to our two little letters". The second Epistle is addressed "to the lady elect and her children", that is to say, as it is understood by the aforementioned and other modern commentators, to a community or Church and not to a lady (cf. II John 1, 13 and notes), who, moreover, in the Christian language were not usually called ladies (Eph. 5, 22 ff; cf. John 2, 4; 19, 26).

The third Letter is more of a personal nature, but in both the holy apostle shows us, as in the first, both the importance and value of fraternal love - which constituted, according to a well-known tradition, the permanent theme of his exhortations until his most advanced old age - and the need to abide by the primitive teachings in order to defend oneself against all those who wanted to go "beyond" the Words of Jesus Christ (II John 9), either by adding to them or by taking something away from them (Apoc. 5:4). 22, 18), or wanting to give to God in another way than he had taught (cf. Wis 9, 10; Is. 1, 11 ff), or abusing the pastoral office for his own benefit as Diotrephes (III John 9). Pirot notes that "the Apocalypse denounced the presence in Pergamum of Nicolaitans against whom resistance was dangerously insufficient (Rev. 2:14-16)". Therefore, given that the Apostolic Constitutions mention Gaius as the addressee of this Letter, at the head of this church (like Demetrius in Philadelphia), it would be appropriate to suppose that it was the church entrusted to Diotrephes and that he had been replaced shortly afterwards by that faithful friend of John..


Letters from St. Jude

St. Jude, brother of James the Lesser, wrote this letter between the years 62 and 67, in order to strengthen the faith of the Jewish Christians and warn them against the doctrine of false doctors. On this common concern in all apostolic writings, see II Pet. 3, 17 and note. In many passages this Letter bears a notorious resemblance to II Peter 2, cf, v, 17 f. and note.

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Translation of the original texts in Spanish accomplished by DeepL Translation Services


A brief History of the Biblical translations authored by Msgr. Juan Straubinger

Brief background on the four Evangelists

Introductory Notes to the Book of the Apocalypse


Published on December 12th, 2019

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