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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

1 Peter

- 1 Peter

by Various Authors

THE FIRST LETTER OF PETER

INTRODUCTION

Historical and Literary Problems

Authorship

There has been considerable doubt on the part of numerous New Testament interpreters concerning the identity of the author of the letter. This doubt has been strengthened by a study of the contents of First Peter itself. The Greek of the letter is of high quality, even classical in its expression at times. Its style, syntax, and extensive vocabulary (63 Greek words not found elsewhere in the New Testament) are those of a writer who used the Greek language with fluency and ease. Accordingly, the question arises whether a Galilean fisherman could have been the author of such a work. Admittedly, Galilee was a bilingual or even trilingual district to an extent, and Greek loan words have been found in the Palestinian Aramaic of the period. But this is far from saying that a Galilean fisherman could have written the smooth Greek of First Peter.

A further objection to the Petrine authorship occurs in connection with 4:16: "If one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God." This language, it is held by some, refers to the official Roman persecutions. Unofficial persecution, however, had always been a possibility with which the follower of Jesus had to reckon. To suffer under the name of "Christian" was possible at least as early as Acts 11:26; it became the actual experience of Paul and his associates. It is by no means clear that the readers of First Peter were suffering from an official persecution conducted by the state, rather than from the sort of occasional "hostility" such as was often stirred up against Christians by both Jewish and Gentile enemies (see Acts 5:41; Acts 9:16; Acts 15:26; Philippians 1:29).

On the other hand, as has frequently been pointed out, there are numerous subtle indications in First Peter that serve to identify its author with the Apostle of that name. First, although he generally quotes (with a fair degree of accuracy) from the Greek Old Testament (rather than from the Hebrew), this is merely what we should expect of one writing to churches in the Roman Empire whose Old Testament would ordinarily be the ancient Greek translation. What strikes one as most important in his quotations is the independence of the author’s judgment in his selections and the insight which he shows into the possible Christian use of Old Testament passages not otherwise quoted in the New Testament (compare, for example, 1:16 with Lev. 11:44-45 and 19:2; 2:24-25 with Isaiah 53:5-6; Isaiah 3:14-15 with Isa. 8:12-13; 4:18 with Proverbs 11:31; Proverbs 5:7 with Psalms 55:22). In a number of these and like passages he is not so much consciously quoting as merely articulating his thought with the language of the Old Testament, thereby indicating that he had deeply steeped himself in those Scriptures. Second, the author’s reference to himself as "a witness of the sufferings of Christ" (5:1) reflects the attitudes of an early period, when the Cross and Resurrection were the important themes of the Church’s preaching rather than the events of Jesus’ life and ministry (see Acts 2:22-36). Third, the injunction to "tend the flock of God" (5:2) may be a recollection of John 21:15-17, and similarly "clothe yourselves . . . with humility" (5:5) is possibly an allusion to John 13:4-5. Finally, there are numerous similarities between the teachings of the letter and those of Peter in the Book of Acts (see comment).

The problem of authorship is greatly relieved if we assume that "Silvanus" (5:12) was more than a mere messenger by whom Peter sent the letter to the churches addressed. In saying that "by Silvanus" he had "written briefly" to these churches, "exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God," Peter may wish to declare his colleague as coauthor of the letter. It had been Paul’s custom to indicate coauthorship at the beginning of his letters, and in fact he had thus associated Silvanus with himself in the writing of First and Second Thessalonians (see 1:1 in each case). This Silvanus is in all probability the "Silas" of Acts (see comment on 5:12). And if so, he was a man of considerable stature in the Christian community (Acts 15:22-40), and one who was of great assistance to Paul, who was, like himself, both a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37) and a man of culture who could deal with the intelligentsia (17:4).

This theory of coauthorship, particularly if it be assumed that Peter merely gave Silvanus a somewhat general briefing on what he wished to write and then allowed him considerable freedom both in the matter of particular ideas to be included and the general structure of the letter, would perhaps account for several other phenomena which are to be noted. These are: first, the numerous similarities in vocabulary and style between First Peter on the one hand, and First and Second Thessalonians on the other, second, Peter’s comprehensive injunction that Christians are to "be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution" (2:13), as well as his further elaboration of this idea in connection with the honoring of "the emperor" in 2:13, 17 (Silvanus and Paul as Roman citizens would naturally be sensitive on this point in a way that the Galilean disciples would not); third, Silvanus’ wide familiarity with both the Jewish and Greek cultures which prompted the Jerusalem church to appoint him as one of its two delegates to handle the delicate situation which had arisen in the church at Syrian Antioch (Acts 15:22; Acts 15:27; Acts 15:32-33) and which would admirably account for the many similarities to be noted between First Peter and Hebrews. These similarities reflect a wide knowledge of Christian doctrine and also of contemporary Jewish teaching. Although it is probable that the letter represents the joint labors of Peter and Silvanus, throughout the comment the author will be designated as "Peter" and singular pronouns will be employed.

Readers of the Letter and the Circumstances Involved

The readers are termed "exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1:1). The phrase "exiles of the Dispersion" relates, not to Jews, but rather to Christians generally (see comment on 1:1). Moreover, if we may assume that Silvanus joined Peter as coauthor, then there is no reason why the territory indicated should not include both Paul’s field of labor and that of his colleague, Peter, since Silvanus labored with Paul throughout this area (Acts 15:40 to Acts 18:5). Indeed, there is no assurance that Peter himself had preached to any great extent among the churches addressed (see 1 Peter 1:12). The Roman provinces named include practically the whole of Asia Minor, in any case the whole of the region lying north and west of the Taurus Mountains.

The order of the names suggests that the coauthors began with the provinces to the north and east, and then worked around clockwise in a circle to the more cultured and central ones to the west, and thus included the whole of Asia Minor.

Throughout the region specified there was a great mixture of races and cultures, including the old native peoples, as well as cultured Greeks and Orientals who, together with many Jews, had "infiltrated" the populous cities and towns. It was a region seething with heterogeneous elements, culturally, religiously, socially, and politically. Into this maelstrom of cultural elements came the Christian Church, brought there by those "who preached the good news" to all and sundry (1:12). It is quite likely that, as in other places in the Roman Empire, the Christian communities thus established were made up of all elements of the population, including Jews and Gentiles. That these Christian communities had been established not long before appears from the fact that the authors speak of them as "like newborn babes" and commend to them "the pure spiritual milk" which will lead them to "grow up to salvation." They were, however, already suffering persecution for their faith (1:6; 3:13-17; 4:12-19). Many Christians in the early period were actually slaves, and it is quite likely that the trials indicated were of a type such as Christian slaves might expect from pagan masters (see 2:18-23).

Date and Place of Writing

Those who believe that this letter contains distinct reference to a persecution conducted in the name of the Roman state, generally incline to the belief that it was written (1) about a.d. 67 and shortly after the Neronian persecution; or (2) if it be held that Peter was not the author, then during the Domitian persecution of A.D. 95; or (3) even at the time of the persecution under Trajan in A.D. 111-112. If, however, we accept the Peter-Silvanus authorship of the letter, we must settle on a date sometime before Peter’s death in the late 60’s. As it is generally agreed that Peter employed Paul’s Letter to the Romans (a.d. 56-58) and other of the Pauline letters, the date is brought within the narrow compass of some ten years. If further it is agreed that First Peter was acquainted with Hebrews (whose date we have placed at a.d. 65 or 66), then the extreme limits for the date of the letter are restricted between a.d. 66 and 70. The year a.d. 67 meets all the requirements.

It is rather generally agreed that the reference in 5:13 to the one "at Babylon" is to the church at Rome, and, in consequence, that the letter was written from the capital city.

The Message and Composition of the Letter

First Peter is directed to new converts (2:2), encouraging them to achieve the purification or sanctification which is demonstrated by the putting away of "the passions of the flesh," a course which the Christian community approved as "good conduct among the Gentiles" (2:11-12). It is likely that it incorporates a manual of catechetical instruction for such new converts (1:3-4:11), either prepared by the Church and adopted by the coauthors of the letter or else prepared by them and others for this purpose. The elements of this catechetical manual as presented in First Peter show many similarities to elements in First and Second Thessalonians and other Pauline letters, as well as in James. It is further suggested that two hymns have been incorporated into this catechetical manual, one at 2:4-10 and the other at 3:18-22 (see also 1 Timothy 3:16).

Assuming that readers have experienced the new birth at baptism and will acknowledge the power which is now at work within them, the authors arrange most of their materials in the form of an exhortation, presenting the doctrine of sanctification in a highly developed form. Such sanctification, they say, is the content of the good news, the "living hope" of "an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading" (1:3-4, 12). The holy life to which such sanctification naturally leads is one patterned after the nature of God (1:13-17) and is generated in the Christian by "the living and abiding word of God" (1:22-25). This holy life is incarnated in the Church or Christian community (2:4-10) and exhibits a kind of "good conduct" among the Gentiles which cannot be overlooked by them (2:11-12), as it issues in right social relationships in every direction (2:13-3:12). Furthermore, this sanctified living can withstand the fires of persecution, for it begins with making Christ the sole Lord of one’s life (3:13-17) and therefore is prepared to share his sufferings and glory (3:18-4:19).

Both Hebrews and First Peter were written by authors who for the moment at least were concerned to state the Christian doctrine of salvation against the background of cultic worship. Both speak of purification or sanctification, atoning sacrifice, priesthood, and "a spiritual house" for the true worship of God in which "spiritual sacrifices acceptable" to him may be offered. These many similarities between the two letters by no means require that we suppose their authors to have collaborated. They do, however, suggest a common interest and even possibly the use of one letter by the other writer.

OUTLINE

Salutation. 1 Peter 1:1-2

The Gospel and Sanctification. 1 Peter 1:3 to 1 Peter 5:11

The Gospel of an Incorruptible Heritage (1 Peter 1:3-12)

The Sanctification the Gospel Requires (1 Peter 1:13 to 1 Peter 2:10)

Behavior Reflecting the Sanctified Life (1 Peter 2:11 to 1 Peter 3:12)

Sanctification Under Fire: Persecution for Righteousness’ Sake (1 Peter 3:13—5:11)

Closing Greetings. 1 Peter 5:12-14