The Epistle of First Peter
The Early Church’s View of This Epistle
There are clear parallels to First Peter in Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians (written about A.D. 95.) Clement’s reference to the blood of Christ as being “precious” is strikingly similar to Peter’s statement in 1:19. By the time of Polycarp (A.D. 69-156) there is much evidence that the Epistle of First Peter was known and used by the Church. For example, in his Epistle to the Philippians Polycarp incorporates 1 Peter 2:22,24, even using the same word for “tree” as did Peter (E. Harrison, p. 372.) Toward the end of the second century, writing in about A.D. 185, Irenaeus not only quotes 1 Peter 1:8 but also introduces the quotation with the words, “and Peter says in his epistle.” In the next century, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian quote Peter’s epistle and refer to the apostle by name. The church historian Eusebius (A.D. 264-340) notes that Papias, who had been bishop of Asia Minor around A.D. 125, “used quotations from the first Epistle of John and likewise also from that of Peter” (S. Kistemaker, p. 6.) Thus, there is clear and ample evidence that the early Church received this epistle as authentic and apostolic.
Having said this, it must be pointed out that neither this epistle nor the Epistle of Second Peter are mentioned in the Muratorian Fragment (the earliest extant listing of canonical books.) Some scholars have supposed that this could only mean that the church at Rome toward the close of the second century did not regard these epistles as canonical. However, it must be noted that the Muratorian Fragment is just that, a fragment. The clearly corrupted state of the text makes any certain inferences from omissions precarious. Furthermore, this apparent omission, (which in all likelihood should be attributed to the corrupted state of the Muratorian Fragment,) can hardly offset the widespread authority that the Epistle of First Peter enjoyed (as noted from its citations and acceptance by the church fathers mentioned above.) Although this epistle may not have been used as freely in the West as in the East, (since it was addressed to the churches of the East, note 1 Peter 1:1), there is no evidence that it was ever disputed (D. Guthrie, p. 773.)
Challenges to Petrine Authorship Addressed
According to S. Motyer (p. 163), First Peter is one of the finest examples of Greek prose in the New Testament. Therein lies the problem. Numerous scholars have found it difficult to accept the Petrine authorship of this epistle on the ground that the language and style are correct Greek and the form is too idiomatic to be the work of and “unlettered and ignorant” Galilean fisherman (as Peter is described in Acts 4:13) to whom Greek was a foreign language (A. NcNab, p. 1129.)
The rebuttal to this criticism is to be found in Peter’s own testimony: “By Silvanus, our faithful brother … I have written to you” (5:12.) Though Peter claims to have written the epistle, he says that it was “through” Silvanus that he did so. (Note: Scholars are in general agreement that Silvanus is none other than Silas, the associate of the Apostle Paul whom we meet in the Book of Acts.) Peter adds the comment that Silvanus is a faithful, or trustworthy, brother. T. Zahn doubts that Peter would use such language merely to state the technical competence of Silvanus as a secretary who faithfully recorded the words dictated to him. Zahn (quoted by E. Harrison, pp. 381-382) goes on to say, “The only alternative that remains is … that Silvanus’ part in the composition [of the epistle] was so important and so large that its performance required a considerable degree of trustworthiness.”
With regard to Silvanus’ (Silas’) role in the composition of First Peter, it is of great interest to note that Paul not only joins Silvanus with himself as in some sense responsible for the Thessalonian Epistles (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1), but uses the first person plural very liberally in the text of those epistles. This seems to suggest something approaching joint authorship (under apostolic authority.) From his study of the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15, the Epistles of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and 1 Peter, E.G. Selwyn concluded that Silas was not merely a messenger of the Apostolic Council, but helped to shape the language of the document issued by that council (Selwyn especially calls attention to the Greek text of Acts 15:23.) Selwyn asserts that certain similarities appear in all three of these literary units (The Apostolic Decree, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and 1 Peter) that help strengthen the case that Silvanus did more than merely write down the text of 1 Peter as it was dictated to him. Likely, the thoughts of Peter are pressed into the mold of the language of Silvanus, at least to a considerable degree (E. Harrison, p. 382.) Note: We must always bear in mind, in accordance with the Apostle Peter’s own testimony (2 Pet. 1:21),that this whole process was under the absolute control of the Holy Spirit.
Another objection raised against the Petrine authorship of First Peter is the situation of the churches to whom the epistle is addressed. The author is writing to persecuted Christians (1:6; 2:12,15; 4:12, 14-16; 5:8-9), and he particularly mentions the reproach they are suffering for the name of Christ. It is therefore assumed (by those who question or deny Petrine authorship) that Christianity had by the time of the writing of this epistle become a crime in itself, as distinct from the mere social nuisance it was considered to be at an earlier time. It is further pointed out that the persecution that occurred during the reign of Nero was directed against Christians in Rome; there is no evidence that such persecution spread to the eastern provinces where were located the churches to whom this epistle is addressed. Therefore, it is maintained, if the Neronian persecution is ruled out, this epistle must be alluding to the persecution that broke out against the Church either in the time of Domitian or that of Trajan. Whichever the case, this would rule out Petrine authorship, since, according to tradition, Peter was martyred in the time of Nero (D. Guthrie, p. 775.)
In answer to this objection it must be pointed out that the assertion that the Neronian persecution was limited to Rome and failed to extend to the provinces remains doubtful (S. Kistemaker, p. 7.) Even if it did not officially extend to the eastern provinces, the pernicious influence of the Neronian persecution could well have had an impact on those distant provinces. As D. Guthrie notes (pp.782-783), “the savage nature of Nero’s treatment of [Christians] must have been widely known throughout the provinces.” Zealous or sycophantic governors could have taken a cue from Rome and implemented their own local persecution of the Christian church. Opponents of Christianity, upon hearing the report of Rome’s treatment of its Christian community, may have become emboldened to aggressively vent their hatred against the local church.
Furthermore, the actual character of the “persecution” referred to in 1 Peter seems to be non-official. That is to say, Peter does not appear to be alluding to any State-instigated persecution directed against the Church, the type of persecution experienced by the churches in Smyrna (Rev. 2:10) and Pergamum (Rev. 2:13) at a later date. On the contrary, as E. Harrison observes (p. 384), the persecution suffered by the churches to whom Peter writes appears to have been that of personal attack made by individuals or groups of private citizens who were incensed at (and convicted by) the separatist tendencies of the Christian community, namely, their refusal to any longer engage in the moral wantonness and depravity of their unconverted neighbors (4:1-4.) It should also be noted that the term “persecution” does not occur in the epistle; Peter consistently uses the more general term “sufferings.” The sufferings experienced by these churches are said to be of the same kind as that experienced by their brethren throughout the world (5:9.) Also, the trials mentioned in 1 Peter 1:6 include the whole gamut of the Christian’s encounter with and struggle against the flesh, the devil, and the world. Finally, from the very inception of the Church, Christians have suffered specifically for the name of Christ. Jesus Himself foretold this (“You shall be hated by all men for the sake of my name,” Matt. 10:22) and the apostles rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name (Acts 5:41.) Facing opposition and suffering for the name of Christ hardly need be taken as an indication of a late first century setting, at which time the Church had become an official outlaw in the eyes of the blasphemous Roman State.
On the more positive side, there is evidence within the Epistle itself that bears testimony to its Petrine authorship. Certain autobiographical touches in the Epistle can readily be linked with items of information about Peter contained in the Gospels. For instance, Peter’s own severe testing of faith (Lk. 22:31-32) accords with his reference to the proving of his readers’ faith (1 Pet. 1:7), and the Lord’s prediction that Peter would thereafter be able to strengthen his brethren meshes with the thrust of the epistle as a whole (note, especially, 5:10.) Jesus’ conversation with Peter in Galilee after the resurrection (Jn. 21) seems to be reflected in the writer’s description of believers as sheep (2:25; 5:2-3.) The injunction to be clothed with humility (5:5) causes us to recall the scene in the upper room (recorded in John 13) where Jesus girded Himself with a towel and washed the disciples’ feet (E. Harrison, pp. 380-381.)
The Purpose of This Epistle
Christianity grew up within Judaism, which was a religio licita; that is to say, a religion permitted and protected by the Roman State (M. Tenney, p. 344.) But then the martyrdom of James, our Lord’s brother, took place in A.D. 62 (according to the Jewish historian Josephus.) It was this martyrdom that made the separation between Christianity and Judaism inevitable and opened the way for the storm of persecution that would occur in the subsequent decades. Within two years of the death of James, privileges hitherto enjoyed were withdrawn from the Church and Christianity came to be regarded as an illegal order. Roman historians (Tacitus and Suetonius) give clear indication of the growth of anti-Christian sentiment in Roman in A.D. 64 (A. Mc Nab, pp. 1129-1130.) In this climate of popular hostility against the Church, and with the lose of official State protection, it was relatively easy for Nero to put the blame on Christians for the great fire that devastated Rome and instigate a persecution of the Church. As noted earlier, the savage nature of Nero’s treatment of Christians must have been widely known throughout the provinces. Consequently, zealous or sycophantic governors could have taken a cue from Rome and implemented their own localized attacks against the Church. Or they may have looked the other way, allowing the opponents of Christianity to become emboldened to aggressively vent their hatred against the local church. It is in this spiritual and social climate and against this backdrop that Peter sends his epistle to the churches. The Epistle was probably written from Rome (“Babylon” being a cryptic name for that imperial city), perhaps in A.D. 64-65, when persecution had already broken out in Rome and was likely to be a serious threat to the churches in the eastern provinces as well.
Indeed, the ominous shadow of persecution (as well as the ever-present hostility of the world against Christ and His church, note John 15:18-19) was the occasion for this epistle. Suffering is one of the keynotes of the letter, being mentioned no less than sixteen times (M. Tenney, p. 347.) In this epistle Peter presents the Christian perspective on suffering. Suffering, in all of its various manifestations, is intended to test and verify the Christian’s faith; and when, by the grace of God, that suffering is faithfully endured, it shall result in “praise and glory” (to God) and “honor” for the believer (1:6-7.) The Christian should not think it strange when he encounters suffering; on the contrary, he must recognize that he is partaking in the sufferings of Christ (4:12-13.) For this reason he should rejoice, because the experience of (and the endurance of) suffering indicate that he indeed shares in the life and, therefore, the salvation of Christ. The Christian who is suffering should be conscious of God’s faithful watchfulness (2:19) and devote himself to his faithful Creator by continuing to live a consistent Christian life (4:19.) The Christian must remember that Christ our Savior also suffered, leaving us an example: He endured His sufferings; He did not retaliate; He committed Himself to the One who is the righteous Judge, even God His Father (2:21-23.) Peter also gives to the suffering Christian the assurance that after he has suffered a little while, the God of all grace shall personally “restore, establish, and strengthen you” (5:10.)
Despite the emphasis on suffering, the Epistle of First Peter is essentially the Epistle of hope, a living hope founded on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (A. Mc Nab, p. 1130.) Christ’s resurrection carries with it the assurance of a glorious inheritance that is described by Peter as being incorruptible, undefiled and unfading. It is an inheritance reserved in heaven for the Christian, who in turn is being preserved by God (1:3-5.) Peter presents this blessed truth concerning the Christian’s living hope and glorious inheritance at the very outset of his epistle in order to encourage his fellow believers as they encounter the manifold, and sometimes fiery, trials in this present world.
Before drawing this segment of our article to a close, we should note the Apostle Peter’s own statement of purpose as it appears at the end of the epistle (5:12.) Not only has his intention been to exhort these congregations to stand steadfast in the midst of their present trials by focusing on the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and the glorious inheritance He has secured for us; Peter has also written to assure the Church that “this is the true grace of God.” In other words, the gospel, together with all Jesus has taught and commanded through His apostles, are the doctrines that introduce us to the grace of God and allow us to partake of it. Peter is hereby commending to the Church the apostolic teaching in distinction from whatever spurious claims may be presented by any false teachers who may seek to deceive the Church and lead it to destruction. This is the theme Peter will develop in his second epistle.
The Epistle of Second Peter
The Early Church’s View of This Epistle
“No one of the [General] Epistles, nor any book of the entire New Testament for that matter, has been more strenuously debated as to its authorship and its place in early Christianity than this second epistle attributed to Peter” (E. Harrison, p. 386.)
In the beginning of the third century, Origen is the first writer who, by quoting 2 Peter six times, calls the epistle Scripture. Even then, the church historian Eusebius informs us that Origen expressed some reservation. According to Eusebius, Origen maintained, “Peter … has left one acknowledged epistle, and, it may be, a second also; for it is doubted.” About A.D. 325, Eusebius classified 2 Peter with the so-called controversial writings and refused to include this epistle in the Canon. Toward the end of the fourth century, Jerome acknowledged that Simon Peter composed two epistles that were called General Epistles (i.e.; intended for wider circulation as opposed to being addressed to one individual church.) But, Jerome added, many people doubt the authenticity of 2 Peter. Eventually, the universal Church accepted 2 Peter as canonical; the Council of Laodicea (A.D. 360) and the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) placed 2 Peter among the accepted apostolic writings. Nevertheless, doubts concerning the canonicity of 2 Peter still lingered (S. Kistemaker, p. 231.) It is noteworthy that even as late as the Reformation era this Epistle was questioned: whereas Martin Luther acknowledged its genuineness, John Calvin felt some hesitancy in accepting it (A. Mc Nab, p. 1143.)
Before moving on to consider the reason for suspicions about 2 Peter, it needs to be pointed out that there is no evidence from any part of the early Church that this Epistle was ever rejected as spurious, in spite of the hesitancy that existed over its reception (D. Guthrie, p. 819.)
Challenges to Petrine Authorship Addressed
The main hesitation in according Second Peter its rightful place in the canon is the difference in literary style between it and First Peter. Jerome had written, “The second of Peter’s epistles is denied by very many to be his on account of dissonance of style with the first” (E. Harrison, p. 389.) In 1 Peter the manner of presentation is smooth and polished. This is not true of Peter’s second Epistle. The second Epistle features a style that is abrupt and the wording is stilted. In Greek, the usual connecting particles that link sentences and clauses are missing. Then, too, there is an extensive amount of words (fifty-seven) that are unique to this epistle, being found neither in 1 Peter nor in any other New Testament book (S. Kistemaker, p. 217.)
This is the chief reason for the hesitancy to immediately accept 2 Peter as canonical without reservation. However, a satisfactory explanation that accounts for the divergence in style is readily available. One must remember that Peter, by his own testimony, had made use (we may even say, extensive use) of Silvanus’ writing skills in the composition of his first Epistle (note 1 Pet. 5:12 and the discussion above.) Second Peter may have been written by Peter’s own hand. Another explanation to account for the difference in style was originally proposed by Jerome, namely, that when composing his second Epistle Peter made use of an amanuensis (i.e.; a secretary) other than Silvanus (D. Guthrie, p. 840.)
Another objection has to do with the reference to “the fathers” in 2 Peter 3:4. In that passage the false teachers are quoted as saying, “from the day that the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were.” Critics maintain that this statement suggests that the first generation of Christians is now past. “Since the fathers fell asleep” would seem to suggest a second or third generation dating of the Epistle, which would put it well beyond the apostolic period.
This criticism, however, is based on the assumption that “the fathers” are the first generation of Christians, including the apostles. But this interpretation is highly unlikely. Nowhere else in the New Testament, nor in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, is the term “the fathers” used in reference to Christian “patriarchs.” It is far more natural to interpret the term as a reference to the Jewish patriarchs of the Old Testament. This is all the more evident when one takes into account the fact that Peter quotes the false teachers as looking beyond these fathers to the beginning of the creation: “from the day that the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation” (D. Guthrie, pp. 836-837.)
On the positive side, there is good internal testimony to the Petrine authorship of this epistle. Throughout the Epistle Peter alludes to incidents that are known from the Gospels; but, as he does so, his wording is considerably different from that of the Gospels (S. Kistemaker, pp. 214-215.) This is an indication that the writer is relying on personal remembrances and relaying those remembrances in his own words, as opposed to repeating the events as they appear in the Gospels in an attempt to convince his readers that he is the Apostle Peter. One example of this is Peter’s recollection of Jesus’ prediction concerning his death (compare 2 Pet. 1:14 with Jn. 21:18.) Another example is Peter’s recollection of the events that transpired on the Mount of Transfiguration; again, Peter’s own personal account is consistent with, but distinct from, the Gospels (compare 2 Peter 1:16-18 with Matt. 17:1-8; Mk. 9:2-8; Lk. 9:28-36.)
In closing, we may note D. Guthrie’s remark as to what may account for the hesitancy in granting the Epistle of Second Peter unconditional acceptance as a canonical book. If 2 Peter was sent to a restricted destination, it is not difficult to imagine that many churches may not have received it in the earlier history of the Canon. When it did begin to circulate it may well have been received with some suspicion, particularly if by this time some spurious Petrine books were beginning to circulate (D. Guthrie, p. 847.) Then, too, being that it is a General Epistle (as opposed to being addressed to one specific church) addressing one specific topic (the pernicious activity of false teachers), it may be that no single church took the initiative in testifying to its apostolicity and urging its place in the canon.
The Purpose and Theme of This Epistle
As noted in our discussion of First Peter, at the end of that epistle Peter set forth his purpose in writing; namely, to exhort his readers to stand fast in the midst of their suffering and to assure them that the teaching they received from the apostles is “the true grace of God” (1 Pet. 5:12.) Peter was commending to the churches the apostolic teaching in distinction from whatever spurious claims might be presented by any false teachers who might seek to deceive the church and lead it to destruction. This is the theme that Peter now develops in his second Epistle.
D. Guthrie (p. 850) comments that this second epistle has about it such an air of urgency that it must be supposed that some definite threat of an infiltration of false teachers had arisen. Apparently, the threat Peter foresaw and against which he cautioned the churches had become a potentially serious matter. But, continues Guthrie, since the future tense is mainly used (note 2 Pet. 2:1-ff.), it must be further supposed that this epistle was intended as a preventative measure. The threat is very real, but it has not yet worked its destructiveness in the churches.
What exactly was the threat posed by the false teachers of whom Peter warns the churches? It was anti-nomianism. The false conclusion that since the Christian is saved by grace he is therefore free to indulge the old sinful nature with impunity. (Note: This is the same error the Apostle Paul addresses in Romans 6.) Peter describes these teachers in the following terms: they are “denying the Master who bought them,” (i.e.; they refuse to submit to the Lordship of Christ); Peter speaks of “their licentious conduct;” they “live for the flesh with it corrupting passion;” “they consider it to be a pleasure to engage in self-indulgence;” “they revel in their lusts.”
In countering this challenge to the purity of the Church, indeed, this challenge to the whole purpose of our salvation (note Titus 2:13-14), the Apostle Peter calls upon the Christian to lead a life of holiness and godliness (3:11.) Such a lifestyle is mandatory both because of the righteous judgment of God that will surely be visited upon this present world as well as the fact that the new creation, (which is the Christian’s inheritance,) will be characterized by righteousness (3:11-13.) In closing his epistle, Peter gives the very practical exhortation that the Christian must continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18.) As the twentieth-century British preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones expressed it: The only way to avoid falling in the Christian life is to advance. The only way to avoid slipping back is to go forward. There is no such thing as being static in the Christian life.
Baker, William H.; “2 Peter,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989.
Guthrie, Donald; New Testament Introduction; Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, Eighth American Printing, January 1979.
Harrison, Everett F.; Introduction to the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1964 (Third printing, October 1968.)
Kistemaker, Simon J.; “Peter and Jude,” New Testament Commentary; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1987.
Mc Nab, Andrew; “1 and 2 Peter,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, 1953 (Reprinted, October 1967.)
Motyer, Stephen; “1 Peter,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989.
Tenney, Merrill C.; New Testament Survey; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; Grand Rapids, MI, 1961 (Eighth printing, February 1967.)