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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

1 Peter

- 1 Peter

by Charles John Ellicott

THE EPISTLES GENERAL OF
PETER.

The First Epistle of St. Peter.
BY
THE REV. A. J. MASON, M.A., D.D.

INTRODUCTION
TO
THE FIRST EPISTLE GENERAL OF
PETER.

I. The Author.—The authorship of this Epistle can hardly be called a matter of question. If it be not St. Peter’s own, we have no choice but to set it down as an impudent forgery. It claims directly, and in the simplest form, to be the writing of the chief Apostle of our Lord (1 Peter 1:1). The author asserts himself to be a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 5:1), and yet does it so modestly and with such absence of detail as would be inconceivable in a forger acquainted with St. Peter’s history. The enthusiastic and impassioned style of the Letter corresponds with the character of St. Peter as we find it recorded in history; and in several marked points not only the doctrinal statements, but even the literary style and turn of the sentences, recalls the style of St. Peter’s speeches in the Acts. The fact that the Letter was written in Greek (for the adjectives alone are sufficient disproof of the theory that it is a translation from an Aramaic original) is no objection to the Petrine authorship. Galilee was a half-Greek country, studded with Greek cities; St. Peter’s brother bore a Greek name. No Galilean of the middle classes (to which St. Peter evidently belonged) could have been ignorant of the language; indeed, there is sufficient evidence that Greek was as much used in Galilee as Aramaic.

It seems that no question was entertained until the nineteenth century with regard to the genuineness of the Epistle by any church, or by any individual, whether orthodox or heretical. The Epistle was, indeed, rejected by Marcion, but distinctly on the ground that it was St. Peter’s. Origen speaks of it as one of the books whose authority had never been disputed. The Second Epistle of St. Peter, which, even if not genuine, cannot be dated later than the early part of the second century, refers back to it, and refers to it expressly as the work of St. Peter. St. Clement of Rome, writing (probably) A.D. 95, though he does not directly quote from it with marks of citation, has expressions such as “His marvellous light,” and several others less marked, which seem certainly to indicate his acquaintance with it. St. Polycarp (about 115 A.D.), bishop of one of the churches to which the Epistle was addressed, within the compass of one short letter to the Philippians, cites it again and again—e.g., “In whom, though ye never saw Him, ye believe, and believing ye rejoice;” “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing;” and many other passages. St. Polycarp’s friend Papias (according to Eusebius) made use of this Epistle too, and seems to have made special comments on the connection between St. Peter and St. Mark. Besides traces of the use of it to be found in Hermas, Theophilus, and others, it is freely quoted, and by name, by Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and all subsequent writers. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine stronger external evidence in its favour. M. Renan, to take one example of an historical critic whose theology is not that of St. Peter, writes: “If, as we are happy to believe, this Epistle is really Peter’s, it does honour to his good sense, his straightforwardness, and his simplicity;” and he gives many good reasons for his belief.

There is but one argument against the genuineness of the Epistle to which any weight at all can be assigned, and even this loses all its force when it is examined. “As for the eclectic and conciliatory tendencies observed in the Epistle of Peter,” writes M. Renan (Antéchrist, p. ix.), “they constitute no objection to any but those who, like Christian Baur and his disciples, imagine the difference between Peter and Paul to have been one of absolute opposition. Had the hatred between the two parties of primitive Christianity been as profound as is thought by that school, the reconciliation would never have been made. Peter was not an obstinate Jew like James.” Without necessarily agreeing in this description of James, we may well accept the statement that St. Peter was a man peculiarly susceptible of impressions, and (even putting out of view the two Epistles in our Canon) his admiration, and indeed his awe of St. Paul are visible to any reader of the Acts and the Epistle to the Galatians. No writer recognises them more frankly than M. Renan (Saint Paul, pp. 85, 86). Now, on the one hand, it is very easy to exaggerate the Pauline character of this Epistle. It contains no one doctrine, such as Justification by Faith, which is essentially bound up with the name of St. Paul. On the matter of the free admission of Gentiles into the Church (which indirectly forms a large element in this Epistle) St. Peter had made up his mind long years before he came much under the influence of St. Paul (Acts 10:34; Acts 11:17; Acts 15:11). But on the other hand, there were special reasons why, in this Epistle, all St. Peter’s sympathy for his co-Apostle should come out. He was using, either as his secretary or as his letter-bearer—perhaps in both capacities—that liberal-minded Silas (1 Peter 5:12), who, after being chosen by the Church of Jerusalem as their own exponent to the Gentiles of Antioch, had attached himself to St. Paul, accompanied him in the most momentous of his missionary travels, and had (apparently) devoted himself to the edification and extension of those Asiatic churches which the two had founded together. St. Mark, too, dear to St. Peter as his own “son” in the faith (1 Peter 5:13), had been but recently again (after early misunderstandings) a chosen companion of St. Paul, and was probably not very long returned from a mission on which that Apostle had despatched him into Asia Minor (Colossians 4:10). And, moreover, all St. Peter’s chivalrous nature would be aroused by the manner in which the churches of all that region, or any rate the Jewish element in them, were beginning to revolt (as at Corinth also) against their founder when his back was turned.

II. The Place, Time, and Occasion of the Epistle.—The place from which the Letter was written was, we may say without any hesitation, Rome. If this be not the case, we must understand the “Babylon” of 1 Peter 5:13 to mean the Eastern Babylon; and it is neither very probable in itself that St. Peter should have visited that city, and there have been met by St. Silas and St. Mark, nor is there any trace of a tradition, however meagre, that he ever travelled in those parts. On the other hand, were it not for the abuse made of the fact by the supporters of the Papacy, no one would ever have questioned the universal and well-authenticated tradition which affirms that St. Peter was, along with St. Paul, co-founder of the Church of Rome. The whole subject has been, of late years, sifted to the bottom by various German and other writers, especially by Dr. Hilgenfeld in repeated articles between 1872 and 1877 in his Zeitschrift. Though every conceivable difference may be found between these authors respecting the dates and duration of St. Peter’s sojourn at Rome, very few are so hardily sceptical as to reject altogether evidence as strong, early, and wide, as that on which we believe that Hannibal invaded Italy. This fact being then certain, the only question is whether Eusebius is right—or St. Clement of Alexandria, and even Papias, whom he appears to be quoting—in suggesting that “Babylon” in this Epistle meant Rome.[15]

[15] The words occur in a passage describing the origin of the Gospel of St. Mark, which ends thus, “and that [St. Peter] ratified the book for the churches to study (Clement, in the sixth of his Hypotyposes, has put the story in our hands, and his account is substantiated also by the Bishop of Hierapolis named Papias), and that Peter mentions Mark in his former Epistle, which also they say that he composed at Rome itself, and that he means this when he calls the city in a figurative kind of way ‘Babylon,’ in these words, The co-elect one in Babylon greeteth you, and Mark my son”—(Eus. Hist. Eccl. II. xv. 2.)

About this there can be no difficulty. Not only is Rome so styled in the Apocalypse, and some few years later in the Jewish Sibylline Oracles, but M. Renan quotes passages from various Rabbinical writings where the same name occurs with the same meaning. The Jews delighted in substituting symbolical names and epithets even in plain prose speech (e.g., Jerub-besheth for Jerub-baal, Haman the Agagite; St. Peter himself, if the Second Epistle be his, seems to do the same when he calls Balaam “the son of Bosor”); and the detestation of Rome, natural to a Jew at all times, and heightened by Christianity when once the persecution began, found vent for itself in all manner of names culled from the Old Testament, such as Nineveh and Edom, as well as Babylon.

If, then, Rome be the place from which St. Peter wrote, how can we find approximately the time? It cannot be put earlier than the year 64, for two reasons especially: (1) because it shows a deep acquaintance with the Epistle (so-named) to the Ephesians,[16] the date of which Isaiah 62:0 or 63; (2) because direct persecution had broken out against the Christians as Christians, and this did not take place until after the great fire at Rome in July, 64. The phenomena of the letter will not bear interpreting by the theory of simple disaffection, however deep and spiteful, of the populace against the Christians. They are liable at any moment, even away in Asia, to be called upon to give an account for their faith in the law courts (1 Peter 3:15). If any of them is proved to be a Christian, he will very likely “suffer”—suffer capital punishment—for that crime (1 Peter 4:16). The whole piece is burdened with persecution of a most systematic kind on every side. There is, however, one side-question which causes some difficulty. St. Paul is not mentioned as joining in the salutation to the churches which he had founded. Why so? No more probable conjecture can be made than that, shortly after writing his Epistles to the Asiatic Churches, St. Paul was tried and liberated, and made that journey into the far West on which he had long set his heart, and which St. Clement of Rome, who must have known well, says that he took. By this journey he escaped death in the outbreak of Nero’s persecution; and St. Peter, arriving at Rome about the same time, finds him gone, and Silas and Mark just coming back to headquarters from their work in Asia, with reports of division and disorder which required immediate attention. Accordingly St. Peter issues this circular letter which we have before us.

[16] Compare 1 Peter 1:1-2 with Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:3 with Ephesians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:4-5 with Ephesians 1:11; Ephesians 1:18; 1 Peter 1:12 with Ephesians 3:10; 1 Peter 1:14 with Ephesians 2:2-3; 1 Peter 2:5 with Ephesians 2:20-22; 1 Peter 2:18 with Ephesians 6:5; 1 Peter 3:1 with Ephesians 5:22; 1 Peter 3:22 with Ephesians 1:20-21; 1 Peter 4:3 with Ephesians 2:2; and other passages. The connection with Silvanus, and with Mark, is sufficient to explain St. Peter’s close familiarity with an Epistle which had been destined (largely) for the same readers as his own. His deep knowledge of the Epistle to the Romans (which is traceable in very many passages is a strong argument in favour of the identification of “Babylon” with Rome. There are some indications also of an acquaintance with the Epistles to the Thessalonians, again perhaps through Silvanus. It is noteworthy, as showing the position which St. Peter held amidst conflicting parties, that the document which, next after the Epistles to the Romans and Ephesians, has most influenced this Letter, is the Epistle of St. James; for instance, compare 1 Peter 1:6-7 with James 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:24 with James 1:10-11; 1 Peter 4:8 with James 5:20; 1 Peter 5:5-9 with James 4:6-10; et al.

Opinions are much divided as to whether the Letter was addressed primarily to Jewish or to Gentile Christians, or to both indifferently. Either answer is beset with difficulties, but the question will be found fully discussed in the Notes on the chief passages (1 Peter 1:1; 1 Peter 1:14; 1 Peter 1:17-18; 1 Peter 2:9-10; 1 Peter 4:3, et al.), in which it will be seen that the annotator adheres to the usually received opinion that St. Peter keeps to his original intention of going to the circumcision only. The pact between the Apostles was, indeed, not of that rigid nature which would preclude the possibility of his writing to the Gentiles, even as St. Paul wrote to Jews; still, it seems more natural on the whole to suppose that he adhered to the pact. The letter is throughout exactly what the author describes it as being (1 Peter 5:12). He “exhorts and testifies that this is God’s true grace.” That is, he insists upon the Jewish Christians recognising fully that St. Paul’s gospel was all that it ought to be (1 Peter 1:12; 1 Peter 1:25), and exhorts them to consequent unity and brotherly love. The presence of persecution both increases the temptation to fall away and also heightens the heinousness of such desertion, therefore every warning and every encouragement is pointed by the mention of sufferings and of the reward that is coming when Christ returns. The analysis of the Letter, which is somewhat hard to make, may be seen in the marginal notes.

In the preparation, of the Notes, the writer has not only had the usual printed commentaries and books of reference, but every now and then has had the advantage of manuscript notes of lectures (such as will scarcely be heard in Cambridge again) by Bishop Lightfoot.