First Peter Overview

Author

The authorship of 1 Peter has traditionally been attributed to the Apostle Peter because it bears his name and identifies him as its author (1:1). Although the text identifies Peter as its author the language, dating, style, and structure of this letter has led many scholars to conclude that this letter is pseudonymous.4

Simon Peter

Simon, also known as Peter or Cephas, was a native of Bethsaida, a small village in the province of Galilee on the Sea of Galilee, the son of Jonas or John. With his father and his brother Andrew he carried on trade as a fisherman at Capernaum, his subsequent place of abode.6

Peter was married (tradition represents his wife’s name as Concordia or Perpetua), as indicated in the Gospels by Jesus healing his mother-in-law from a fever.

He was brought to Jesus by his brother Andrew, who had been a disciple of John the Baptist (John 1:29).6

Jesus gave him the name by which chiefly he is known, indicative of his subsequent character and work in the Church, “Peter” (Greek) or “Cephas” (Aramaic), which means “a stone.”6

Peter played a strong leadership role among the disciples, and is the most quoted of the Twelve in the gospels. He was in Jesus’ “inner circle” along with John and his brother Andrew, and bore witness to a few incidents that no other disciples witnessed (such as the transfiguration). He was first to confess Jesus as the Messiah, walked on water, denied Christ on the eve of his crucifixion and was among the first see the resurrected Christ.

Peter was also as an extremely important figure within the early Christian community. He lead the selection of Judas’ replacement among the Twelve, delivered a significant open-air sermon during Pentecost. He was twice arraigned, with John, before the Sanhedrin and directly defied them. He undertook missionary journeys to Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea, and became the first to evangelize the Gentiles by converting Cornelius. He was put in prison by King Herod, and subsequently rescued by an angel, and at the Council of Jerusalem (c. 50AD) he played an important role in preventing Gentile from having to convert to Judaism to be Christians.7

According to Christian tradition, Peter was crucified in Rome under Emperor Nero. It is traditionally held that he was crucified upside down at his own request, since he saw himself unworthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus.7

Two general epistles in the New Testament are ascribed to Peter, and the Gospel of Mark was traditionally thought to be based on Peter’s preaching and eyewitness memories.7

Peter is often depicted as zealous, pious, and ardently attached to the Lord, but at the same time impulsive in feeling, rather than calmly and continuously steadfast.6

An author other than Peter

Modern scholars have listed several reasons for doubting that 1 Peter was not authored by Peter as the text states.

First is that it is not listed in the Muratorian Fragment, an early list of canonical books compiled in Rome between a.d. 180 and 200.2

Secondly, the Greek that the letter is written in is good, polished Koine Greek, which is considered surprising from an “uneducated”  Galilean fisherman.It ranks, in terms of vocabulary and syntactical subtleties, just below Hebrews and Acts. Further, the author uses the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) when citing Scripture, rather than translating from the Hebrew, as an “uneducated” Jew like Peter would be expected to do.3

Another argument is that the letter sounds too much like Paul’s writings in Romans and Ephesians. It is thought that Peter would not have been so strongly influenced by Paul’s letters.2

Additionally, many scholars think the letter’s description of persecution better fits a later date (Domitian 81-96 AD, and/or Trajan – 97 – 117AD).2

Lastly, if the letter came from Peter, a disciple who was very close to the historical Jesus, it is surprising in it’s lack of personal details concerning Christ.4

Peter as the author

Many modern scholars, and throughout the majority of history, the authorship of the book has been attributed to Peter. Several arguments support these claims.

Though it is not listed in the Muratorian Fragment, the early church uniformly affirmed Peter as the author. There are parallels to the text in the writings of the early church fathers, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Barnabas, and Shepherd of Hermas. Polycarp quotes directly from it, though he does not identify the quoted material as coming from Peter. Irenaeus quotes from it, and regards it as a genuine work of Peter. From the later part of the second century on, this letter is frequently regarded as Petrine, and is cited by Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Theophilus of Antioch.There was little debate about Peter’s authorship until the advent of biblical criticism in the 18th century.4

Secondly, Peter was not necessarily uneducated, but considered untrained in a recognized rabbinical school. Also, the thirty years between Peter’s trial before the Sanhedrin (where he is labeled “uneducated”), and the writing of this letter (generally thought to be c. 60-64AD) provided ample time for him to become more educated.

The skilled writing the the parallels to Paul’s works are also thought to be connected through Peter’s use of Silas (Silvanus) as a scribe (5:12). Silas was one of Paul’s travel companions and may have helped bring Peter’s thoughts and Paul’s together in the work.

Lastly, the types of persecution Peter discusses in his work do not necessarily seem systematic or mandated by the Roman government, as later persecutions under later emperors were. Peter would, himself, have been experiencing persecution under Nero, and regional persecutions of Christians led by local governments, Jews and tradesmen were not uncommon in the first century.

Date and Location

The date of the letter is obviously related to authorship. Tradition links Peter’s and Paul’s deaths in Rome under Nero, probably 65AD. If so, then 1 Peter had to have been written about 60-64AD.2

Scholars who think 1 Peter was written by another author favor a date during the reign of Domitian (81-96AD).

The author is most often considered to have written the work from Rome based on the mention at the end of the book of greeting from “she who is in Babylon” (5:13). This phrase is taken to mean the church in Rome. Many scholars suggest that this type of cryptogram was used as a security measure to protect the Roman church in case the letter fell into the wrong hands during Nero’s persecution. “Babylon” was a term used as a symbol of the Christian’s exile in the world.3

Audience

The book is written to “those who reside as aliens scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” These Roman provinces are located in northern modern Turkey. These areas are apparently places that Paul did not evangelize (cf. Acts 16:6) nor did Peter (cf. 1 Pet. 1:12). Possibly these churches originated from Jewish converts who returned home after Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:9-11).2

The existence of Christian communities in the five provinces witnesses to the extent of unrecorded mission-work in the Apostolic age. The foundation of the Churches in Galatia and Asia is, of course, traceable to Paul (Acts 16:6; Acts 19:10); those in Pontus may possibly have been due to the labours of Aquila, who was a native of that region (Acts 18:2). Bithynia had once been contemplated by Paul as a field for his labours (Acts 16:7), but we do not read of his actually working either there or in Cappadocia.5

The order in which the provinces are listed may reflect the route to be taken by the messenger who delivered the circular letter. 4

Many think that Peter wrote this letter partially because Paul had recently died, and wrote to people who were secondary converts of Paul. Further, he wrote it to encourage them in the faith in light of persecutions. Certainly one of the nagging doubts that all of Paul’s converts would have would be the genuineness of their faith. Paul, after all, was not one of the original Twelve. After he died, this doubt would increase, and it is quite probable that false teachers would exploit it. But if a letter from Peter—the very man Paul had rebuked at Antioch, and had written the Galatians about—confirmed their faith and told them not to give up, this would indeed be great encouragement. Peter would tacitly be affirming both Paul’s doctrine and the Gentile mission.3

The audience seems to be both Jewish and Gentile in composition.

The audience is presumed Jewish based on (1) the Jewish overtones of 1:1 (“elect strangers of the dispersion”), (2) the heavy use of the OT by the author, and (3) that the gospel was typically shared with Jews first in their synagog, then Gentile second.3

The audience is also considered by be Gentile based on phrases in the book such as: (1) “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers”; (2) “once you were no people, but now you are the people of God”; (3) “let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles like to do”; and (4) “they are surprised that you do not now join them in the same wild profligacy.”3

Historical Context

The author writes of his addressees undergoing “various trials” (1:6), being “tested by fire” (1:7), maligned “as evildoers” (2:12) and suffering “for doing good” (3:17). Based on such internal evidence, the addressees’ situation appears to be that of undeserved suffering.4

Exhortations in the letter to live blameless lives (2:15; 3:9, 13, 16) may suggest that the Christian addressees were accused of immoral behavior, and exhortations to civil obedience (2:13–17) perhaps imply that they were accused of disloyalty to governing powers.4

Some scholars believe that the sufferings the epistle’s addressees were experiencing were social in nature, specifically in the form of verbal derision. Internal evidence for this includes the use of words like “malign” (2:12; 3:16), and “reviled” (4:14). It is significant that the author notes that “your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering” (5:9), indicating suffering that persecution is widespread.4

A possible context for 1 Peter is the trials and executions of Christians in the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus under Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia who wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan around 112 AD and asked for counsel on dealing with Christians. In Pliny’s letter, he asks the emperor Trajan if the accused Christians brought before him should be punished based on the name ‘Christian’ alone, or for crimes associated with the name. Generally, this theory is rejected mainly by scholars who read the suffering in 1 Peter to be caused by social, rather than official, discrimination.4

Major Theme

Suffering

The major issue discussed throughout the book is suffering and persecution. This is done in two ways: (1) Jesus is presented as the ultimate example of suffering and rejection (cf. 1 Pet. 1:11; 2:21,23; 3:18; 4:1,13; 5:1), and (2) Jesus’ followers are called on to emulate His pattern and attitude (cf. 1 Pet. 1:6-7; 2:19; 3:13-17; 4:1,12-19; 5:9-10).2

The theme of 1 Peter is experiencing God’s grace in the midst of suffering.3

1 Peter is sometimes seen as a midrash (both an interpretation and application) of Isaiah 53, the narrative that tells the story of the Suffering Servant, identified by Christians as Jesus and his saving actions for humanity on the cross.3

Discussion

  • Why do you think Peter wrote a letter to a bunch of churches he didn’t know personally? Do you think that the letter was well recieved by these churches?
  • If Peter didn’t write this book, would you think of it any differently? The authorship of several New Testament books is suspect, and most of the Old Testament has no authors or editors names attached to them. How big of a deal is it to know the author? Is the credibility lessened? What makes a book divinely inspired and worthy of being included in the Bible?
  • Why do you think the early church respected Peter so much? What was it about his story that was so compelling?
  • Why do you think there is suffering in the world? What do you think God’s role in it is? Is there a purpose to it? Is it brought on intentionally by God? Why? Why not?

References

  1. Coffman’s commentary
  2. Utley’s commentary
  3. Wallace’s commentary
  4. First Epistle of Peter
  5. Cambridge commentary
  6. Jamieson commentary
  7. Saint Peter
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