The Petrine Epistles

This post is part of my classroom lectures

First Peter

Audience

  • “To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1)
  • Should the term “exiles” be taken to mean that the Christian audience is metaphorically depicted as strangers on earth whose true homeland is in heaven or as literally marginalized and socially displaced persons (cf. John Elliott)?

Author: the Apostle Peter or a later follower writing in his name

  • “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:1)
  • Could a Galilean fisherman who was judged to be “without letters” (ἀγράμματος) (Acts 4:13) attain the literacy skills to write in polished Greek, demonstrate fine rhetorical skills, and extensively engage with the Septuagint? This leads to larger questions about the extent of Hellenization and the use of the Greek language in Galilee, the literacy rates in the ancient world and first-century Palestine specifically, and the question of whether Acts 4:13 implies that Peter was illiterate or merely an untrained religious layperson (ἰδιώτης).
  • Some scholars appeal to the use of a scribal assistant in composing the letter and 1 Peter 5:12 notes that διὰ Σιλουανοῦ . . . ἔγραφα (through Silvanus . . . I wrote). However, this may be an idiomatic expression to identify Silvanus as the mail-carrier who delivers the letter (cf. Ignatius’s Epistles to the Smyrnaeans 12:1, Philadelphians 11:1, Magnesians 15:1, and Romans 10:1).
  • The use of his Greek nickname “Peter” (Πέτρος) rather than the Aramaic Cephas, along with the lack of personal memories of his time with Jesus or discussion about the debates over Torah-observance (cf. Galatians 2:9-14), is striking.
  • The arguments for a later date count against Petrine authorship. However, this may be mitigated if one does not accept the tradition of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome around 64 CE as part of Nero’s persecution of Roman Christians as a scapegoat to blame for the fire in Rome (John 21:18-19 [?]; 2 Peter 1:14 [?]; 1 Clement 5:4 [?]; Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans 4.2-3; Dionysius of Corinth in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.26; Acts of Peter 36-39; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3).

Date: between 60-110 CE based on the decisions on the points below

  • 1 Peter is referenced in 2 Peter 3:1, Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians (1:3; 2:1; 8:1), and the lost text of Papias of Hierapolis (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.15.2; 3.39.17).
  • The Christian movement has spread throughout Asia Minor (cf. 1 Peter 1:1) and the label “Christian” (Χριστιανός) is now applied to the group in distinction from the Jews (4:16; cf. Acts 11:26; 26:28).
  • The coded reference to “Babylon” (=Rome) may presuppose the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Alternatively, “Babylon” may be part of the metaphorical imagery of living in exile.
  • Past commentators correlated the “fiery trial” that the Christians were undergoing with the correspondence between the governor of Bithynia-Pontus Pliny the Younger and the Roman emperor Trajan on how to deal with the Christians. More recently, scholars have pointed out that the persecution in 2 Peter largely involves local harassment and social ostracism rather than official state suppression.
  • 1 Peter appears to have access to a variety of sources including creeds, sayings of Jesus, extended scriptural exegesis (cf. Isaiah 53), parenetic material (similarities with Paul and James), and possibly some Pauline Epistles (e.g., Romans [?]) (cf. David G. Horrell).

Purpose:

  • To encourage Christians in the midst of their persecution and loss of social ties for their abandonment of their traditional gods and cultic practices, since they are following in Christ’s example of suffering.
  • To reinforce a new collective identity as a “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [and] God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9).
  • To implore Christians to be otherwise law-abiding citizens who honor the emperor and obey household codes.
  • To model a united front against opposition, the epistle itself harmonizes diverse streams of tradition.

Second Peter

Audience:

  • Uncertain. This “second letter” seems to be familiar with the earlier epistle in Peter’s name, unless this is a reference to some other unknown Petrine writing (cf. 2 Pet 3:1), and may imply that the audience is the same as 1 Peter.

Author: Peter or a later follower writing in his name

  • “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). The use of the Semitic “Simeon” is paralleled in Acts 15:14 where it is places on the lips of Jesus’ brother and the Jerusalem leader James.
  • 2 Peter faces the same questions about whether the author’s facility in Greek and rhetorical skill matches the Galilean preacher Cephas. Further, the grandiose “Asiatic” Greek style and the allusions to Old Testament narratives rather than direct citations is quite different from the style of the author of 1 Peter. The Church Fathers recognized the different style of the two epistles, leading to debates over the apostolic authorship and canonicity of 2 Peter (cf. Ecclesiastical History 3.25.3).
  • 2 Peter 1:12-15 has elements that characterize other fictional “testaments” or farewell speeches including the protagonist’s predictions of his/her death and of what the future holds along with other ethical exhortations to the survivors (cf. Richard Bauckham). For example, check out The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.

Date: between 64-150 CE based on scholarly decisions on these points.

  • 2 Peter 1:14 presupposes Peter’s death unless it is a prediction of the author. There also seems to be a tense shift in which the implied author’s predictions of future false teachers becomes a present reality for the community.
  • The “fathers” have died (2 Peter 3:4); either the past Christian generation or the patriarchs in Genesis are the referent.
  • 2 Peter 2:1:22 extensively parallels Jude 3-19 in wording and order, though it adds a few examples (Noah, Lot) and drops others (1 Enoch, Assumption of Moses). Although a few scholars have argued that Jude borrowed from 2 Peter or that both writings have a common source, the majority view is that the epistle of Jude has been almost totally incorporated into the later epistle of 2 Peter.
  • 2 Peter 3:1 shows that the letter must date after 1 Peter and depends on the dating of the latter.
  • Certain doubters criticize the expectation of Christ’s imminent “coming” (παρουσία) (2 Peter 3:4) and the author responds that a thousand years is like a day to the Lord (3:8), so the reader must not give up hope for the second coming even if it seems to have been delayed.
  • 2 Peter 3:15-16 appears to know a collection of Pauline Epistles that have been placed on par with the other “scriptures.”
  • 2 Peter may have access to the Gospel of Matthew (cf. 2 Peter 1:17-18; 2:20), while the references to the other canonical Gospels are more debatable [note: I have a chapter in a edited Mohr Siebeck volume on the relationship of 2 Peter to the Synoptic Gospels forthcoming].
  • The scholar Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-254) offers the earliest explicit reference to 2 Peter (Homilies on Joshua 7.1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.25.8), though other commentators argue for allusions to 2 Peter in earlier church authorities. The literary relationship of 2 Peter with the Apocalypse of Peter and the Acts of Peter is also debated.

Purpose:

  • The text wishes to defend the apostolically “Petrine” witness that Jesus will return against certain antinomian “scoffers” who both deny that Christ will return in the final judgment and are accused by the author of using this as an excuse to lead immoral lives.
  • The text combines Jewish apocalyptic with a Hellenistic ethos from its list of virtues that enable the reader to take on the “divine nature” or immortality (2 Peter 1:3-11) to its possible contacts with Epicurean philosophy (cf. Jerome H. Neyrey).

6 Responses to The Petrine Epistles

  1. Brian Lopez says:

    It’s interesting (and overwhelming/exhaustive) how the dating and authorship of one book can affect others, since they allude to or cite prior works. It’s a lot of work to sort through all this stuff. I command scholars who take an objective, critical path in doing so without any significant bias or presuppositions towards anything one personally believes (e.g. inspiration/innerancy).

  2. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Excellent piece!

  3. Ron Price says:

    You appear to be sitting on the fence on the authorship of 1 and 2 Peter. Won’t this confuse your students? Wouldn’t it be better to help them to distinguish between cogent scholarly arguments and the wishful thinking of many conservative commentators? Also your notes seem to imply that the purpose of an epistle is independent of whether it is deemed to be genuine or pseudonymous. Is this necessarily so?

  4. Thanks Ron. When I teach, I prefer that students hear all sides of the argument so that they can make an informed critical judgment rather than simply adopt my own position. I do not shy away from presenting my own opinion, which is that the letters are most likely pseudonymous, though the traditional arguments for 1 Peter are much stronger than those for 2 Peter. As for the second question, I think the purpose of each letter (to encourage the recipients in their suffering and bestow on them a unified “Christian” identity, to respond to criticism of the imminent parousia) would be largely the same whether authored by Peter or a later follower, but I suppose the latter author might be seen as trying to defend what the author sees as the apostolic legacy in a new crisis situation.

  5. David Booth says:

    Dear Michael, do you have any handouts on the actual,content of 1 Peter please? I am hoping to look at 1 Peter in our home fellowship group, and any exegetical help and commentary notes would be of great help. Anyway, just thought it was worth asking 😉
    Cheers
    David
    David@sdphotos.com.au

  6. Hi David, you might find what you are looking for at either http://www.ntgateway.com/hebrews-to-jude/1-peter/ under “Introductory and General” or http://www.textweek.com/epistlesrevelation/1peter.htm, though some of the links no longer work and some links are better than others. One of the best things you can do is find yourself a good commentary on 1 Peter that is reader-friendly and that the group could go through together. A list of some of the (conservative) commentaries can be found at http://www.ligonier.org/blog/top-5-commentaries-on-the-book-of-1-peter/.

%d bloggers like this: