First Peter – Authorship, Date, Audience, and Themes

The author claims to be “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1) who also calls himself a “fellow elder and witness of [or, to] the sufferings of Christ” (5:1). 

The Greek style of First Peter has engendered doubt that the letter was written by the disciple Peter who followed Jesus. Further, Peter is also indicated to have been an uneducated, common man (Acts 4:13), which makes one wonder if he could have authored this letter. One cannot, however, dismiss the possibility of Petrine authorship. Peter would likely have had regular contact with Greek-speaking Gentiles of the Decapolis and the surrounding regions through business and other transactions, so the issue of language and style is not decisive. Further, First Peter could have been dictated to a secretary who was fluent in Greek. But we simply do not know.

The author sends greetings from the “fellow-elect sister” in “Babylon” (5:13), which likely refers to the church at Rome (cf. Rev. 17:1, 5). With the author, there is someone called Mark, who he calls “my son” (5:13). It is not clear who this Mark is given this name was one of the most common at the time. He is writing “through Silvanus” (5:12) and he presents his epistle as one that “exhorts and bears witness that this is the true grace of God” (5:12). Silvanus we learn from other New Testament texts was a companion of the Apostle Paul (Acts 15:40) and a delegate of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:22-24) who also spent time with Timothy (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5). Silvanus assisted in efforts to evangelize Corinth (2 Cor. 1:19).

The letter begins with a greeting and then a blessing (1:3-9) followed by a statement (1:10-12) and then the main body (1:13). Because of First Peter’s heavy use of baptismal imagery, some scholars think the letter originated as a paschal liturgy or a baptismal ritual. Some have considered it a homily on Psalm 34 preached on the occasion of baptism. At the very least, First Peter represents a genuine piece of epistolary correspondence. The greeting in 1:1-2 addressees “exiles of the Dispersion [Diaspora]” and the “elect” living in the provinces of Pontus, Cappadocia, Galatia, Bithynia, and Asia. The letter is thus addressed to a broad group of early Christian communities and lacks reference to local circumstances of specific churches. 

The Readers/Audience of First Peter

The author writes to his readers in a way that hints at them coming from a pagan background: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance” (1:14); “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers” (1:18); and “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker” (4:15). Clearly, such an audience is not considered observers of the Torah. The author wants his readers to change and to “no longer live by human desires… The time is past for doing what the Gentiles like to do… They are surprised that you do not now join them in the same wild profligacy” (4:2-4). These statements lead to the conclusion that the readership and community consisted of gentile converts from paganism.

The believers themselves seem to be experiencing suffering. We read that “Various trials” are testing their faith (1:6), that they are “spoken against” as evildoers (2:12), “endure pain while suffering unjustly” (2:19), and are abused (3:16). The author instructs them not to return “evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless…” (3:9). If the faithful suffer for righteousness’ sake, they will be blessed (3:14). They should not be surprised at what they experiencing (4:12) and must “share Christ’s sufferings” (4:13), being “reproached for the name of Christ” (4:14) and suffering “as a Christian” (4:16).

The suffering here is likely that of social ostracism. In most cases, First Peter uses terms suggestive of verbal rather than physical attacks: “speaking against” or “slandering” (2:12; 3:16), “insulting” (3:16), “reproaching” (4:14), and “reviling” (2:23; 3:9). Mob action, which was experienced by the early Christians (Acts 18:12-17; 19:23-40; 1 Thess. 2:14), cannot be ruled out as a possibility. Most likely this is a conflict between the Christians and the larger cultural and social ethos. However, there is no trace in the letter of apocalypticism, namely the eager anticipation of the end of the suffering through God’s cataclysmic intervention. Instead, the author instructs Christians to avoid conflict by maintaining exemplary behavior (2:12) that will put opponents “to shame” (3:16). He also says that Christians must be ready to offer a reasoned account (apologia) of their convictions, with gentleness and reverence (3:15). 

Hope in God

An opening prayer attempts to remind Christians of their community identity. The author says that the Christians have a “living hope” and do not share the fantasies of idol worshipers. Christian hope rests in a “living God” as proved “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). Christians also have an “inheritance” that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1:4).

Thirdly, their new life has a goal: the “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:5). Thus, the Christians, between their “already” (rebirth) and their “not yet” (salvation), live in hope. The author writes that the trials of the believers (1:6), like those of the Messiah (1:11), will lead to the “salvation of their souls” (1:9) through the “refinement” of their faith. First Peter exhibits confidence that what has been given is secure and what is hoped for is certain. What is hoped for is certain in light of the power of God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus: “Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1:21–22).

Jesus Christ in First Peter

First Peter affirms a love for Jesus: “Without having seen him you love him; though you do not see him, you believe in him with unutterable and exalted joy” (1:8). Jesus is also often presented as one who suffers (1:11, 19; 3:18; 4:1), which means that when Christians suffer for their faith, they share in his suffering (4:13). In suffering they “follow in his footsteps” (2:21) and are “called” to this (2:21). Christians are not called to replicate Jesus’ death but rather to imitate the manner of his endurance before his death. Christians suffer like Jesus because they have done nothing wrong (2:19). Like Jesus, suffering Christians should not revile those who revile them; instead, they are to bless others (3:9) and place their trust in God (1:21). 

The author states that what happened in Jesus extends to all Christians: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (2:24). However, one will suffer just as Christ suffered, but Christians await a time of their vindication and glorification (1:7; 4:7; 3:13). The suffering and death of Jesus have brought people back to God: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” (3:18).

The Church in First Peter

There are several details concerning the church in First Peter. Ministries of speech and service are exercised according to the “gift of God” (4:9-11) and elders are instructed to “tend their flock” willingly (5:1) and be an example to them (5:3). The image of the flock is delivered in several places; according to 5:4: “When the chief shepherd is manifested you will receive the unfading crown of glory” and in 2:25: “You were straying like sheep but have now returned to the shepherd and guardian [bishop] of your souls”. This continues the biblical tradition of the flock being identified with the people of Israel (2 Sam. 5:2; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:12; Isa. 40:11). The author identifies gentile believers with Israel. They are called “exiles of the Diaspora” and “elect” (1:1) who are to conduct their lives in fear “throughout the time of exile” (1:17).

The author views the gentile Christians as the spiritual equivalent of the Jewish Diaspora. Wherever the gentile Christians live, they are not “at home” because they are fundamentally defined by their relationship to God. Their inheritance is “kept in heaven for them” (1:4). The Christian community appropriates the image of the temple: it is a “house of the Spirit” where “spiritual offerings” are made to God (2:4-5) and prayers are offered to God “through Jesus Christ” (2:5). The church is presented as a living place of worship built upon the “cornerstone” of Jesus. Jesus is the “living stone” from God (2:4, 7-8).

The author focuses on the attitudes of slaves (2:18-25) but has no exhortation for masters. This could point to the social status of many of the believers of the time, but it could also be due to the author’s intent for everyone in the community, through following in the footsteps of Jesus, to cultivate the attitudes of domestic servants within the “household of God.” Women are to prefer internal to external adornment and obey their husbands, and husbands are to regard their wives as “fellow sharers in the gift of life” (3:5-7). The pattern of Christ is to dictate the pattern of the church, household, and family relations.

References

Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1999. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 479-491. 

One comment

  1. You write: “However, there is no trace in the letter of apocalypticism, namely the eager anticipation of the end of the suffering through God’s cataclysmic intervention.”

    As I see that, there is more than a trace of apocalypticism in 1Peter. I think it would be fair to say that it is a consistent theme throughout:

    [you] who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time…so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1:5, 7)

    Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. (1:13)

    [Christ] was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. (1:20)

    Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. (2:12)

    The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. (4:7)

    But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. (4:13)

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