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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

2 Peter

- 2 Peter

by Various Authors

THE SECOND LETTER OF PETER

INTRODUCTION

Composition and Style of the Letter

As a literary form Second Peter approaches Hebrews and Ephesians more nearly than any other of the writings of the New Testament. All are essentially "essays" or "sermons." If it were not for the fact that in 2 Peter 1:1-2 and 2 Peter 3:1-2 the suggestion is made by the author that he is in fact writing a letter which is addressed to the Church, we should never have suspected that this little piece of literature was other than either essay or homily. Probably, therefore, we should think of it as originally composed by its author to serve as an address to be delivered to a particular congregation. Thereafter, either he or another may have superimposed upon it the letter form which it now assumes.

The style of this letter or essay is quite unlike that of its sister epistle. First Peter. First Peter was written by one who knew good vernacular Greek and who could probably speak and think in the Greek language, the lingua franca of the day. Second Peter is written in the artificial, stilted manner of one who is endeavoring to copy the literary or semi-literary fashion of his contemporaries. The vocabulary of Second Peter is as remarkable as its style, consisting to some extent of high-sounding words, 57 of which are not found elsewhere in the New Testament. On the whole, the author produces the impression of one who was not well acquainted with the Greek language or who may have learned it rather late in life from reading rather than as a medium for speaking.

Closely related to the matter of style, and by no means to be divorced from it, is the fact that Second Peter employed portions of other New Testament writings, altering them considerably to conform to his artificial literary style. There can be no doubt, for example, that he has used First Peter and Jude in this way, and possibly also the Gospel of Luke or the tradition lying behind it (see comment on 1:18), as well as Romans and Hebrews (see comment on 2:19-22).

Again related to matters of style and composition is the fact that Second Peter makes no use of the Greek Old Testament, a phenomenon remarkable in itself among New Testament writings. The one quotation is at 2:22 (see Prov, 26:11), and this quotation approximates more nearly to the Hebrew than to the Greek translation. In addition, there are five citations of Old Testament incidents (see 2:4, 5, 6, 7, 15-16), but none of these contains an actual quotation from either the Hebrew or the Greek, and all five occur in the passage taken over almost bodily from Jude.

Circumstances, Message, and Date of the Letter

Circumstances

Though we have no certain way of knowing who the hearers were for whom this essay or sermon was prepared, or who the readers were to whom it was addressed, the circumstances in which they find themselves are clear. They are being brought under the influence of "false teachers" (2:1), who are delivering themselves of "destructive heresies" and whose lives are characterized by "licentiousness" (2 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 2:13-16).

The sort of teaching which the letter warns against follows roughly the pattern of what is called for want of a better name "Gnosticism." The term stands for a loosely organized type of religious belief which in the early centuries drew to itself both oriental and occidental elements. It was constantly in a state of flux and did not develop into rigid forms until the third and fourth centuries. But it represents a type of philosophical and religious thinking which has perennially proved attractive to a certain type of mind. The word itself derives from the Greek word for "knowledge," and it is no doubt significant that Second Peter makes much of a Christian type of "knowledge" which may be thought to stand over against that paraded by the "false teachers" (see 1:2, 3, 5, 6, 8; 2:20; 3:18).

In the above-mentioned respects, the "false teachers" of Second Peter were generally like those against whom Jude wrote. Their "licentiousness" and arrogance were due to the fact that they pretended to possess an esoteric knowledge in spiritual matters which placed them above the necessity of living true moral lives. It was characteristic of Gnosticism of every sort to separate religion and morals, as having no necessary connection the one with the other. This was because the Gnostics believed that only soul or spirit was made up of fine elements which could be saved, while matter and body were so crudely formed as to be unworthy and incapable of salvation. In consequence some boasted of the ability to indulge in "licentious passions of the flesh" without endangering the spirit’s salvation (2 Peter 2:18; see Judges 1:8).

Unlike the false teachers of Jude’s time, however, those discussed in Second Peter scoff particularly at the thought of the "coming" of Jesus Christ and of "the day of judgment" which will succeed it (2 Peter 3:3-7).

Message

The message of Second Peter is based upon "the prophetic word" (2 Peter 1:19) and "the predictions of the holy prophets" (2 Peter 3:2), as these find support in the apostolic witness (2 Peter 1:12-18; 2 Peter 3:2). The content of this message is "the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord" (2 Peter 1:2), which enables Christians to escape from "the corruption that is in the world because of passion" and to become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4), and which flowers in a type of genuine ethical living quite other than the licentiousness which characterized the current Gnosticism (2 Peter 1:5-11).

This unique Christian "knowledge of God" gives the author a standard by which he may condemn the "false teachers" (2 Peter 2:1-22) . On the basis of such "knowledge of God" as the Christian possesses (see comment on 3:1-13) he is also able to reply to their scoffing at the idea of the coming of our Lord and the Judgment. He rounds out his essay-letter with an exhortation to right ethical living (2 Peter 3:14-18).

Date

The date of writing of Second Peter is by no means easy to determine. As is shown in the comment, the author seems to have been acquainted with the teaching of Romans and Hebrews (2 Peter 2:19-22) and with the collection of Paul’s letters generally (3:15- 16), with the Gospel of Luke (1:16-18) and possibly with that of Matthew (1:17), and with Jude (2:1-18; 3:2-3). Accordingly, it is obvious that the letter’s date is later than those assigned to the other writings.

Further, the author clearly places himself and his readers in a period succeeding the passing away of at least the first generation of Christians (3:4). Then, too, there is little if any evidence of Second Peter’s having been used by Christian writers before the middle or third quarter of the second century. For these reasons most interpreters of the letter date it sometime after the beginning or even in the middle of the second century.

The arguments advanced for this late date are not entirely conclusive. Since the discovery of the Qumran Scrolls there is a rather general tendency to assign an earlier date than previously to some of the key writings of the New Testament. This tendency has already affected the problem of dating some of the writings mentioned above and may eventually affect all of them. In consequence, it is less certain than appeared to be the case some years ago, that we need assign to this letter a date after a.d. 70.

Authorship of the Letter

It is almost universally held among interpreters of Second Peter that its author was not the Apostle Peter. Most would probably agree that the letter is an example of the pseudonymous literature which arose about his name and was given his authority from the middle of the second century onward. As a comparison of First Peter with Second Peter shows abundantly, the Greek style, nature of composition of the two letters, and their respective messages differ radically.

If it be agreed that Silvanus did the major work in composing First Peter as its coauthor (see Introduction to First Peter), then it may be allowed that there are certain factors (though these are admittedly not entirely conclusive) favoring the Petrine authorship of Second Peter. For example, in 1:1 the author writes as a Jewish Christian might well write to Gentile Christians (note "ours" and "those"). This observation accords with the fact that in the only quotation made from the Old Testament in the letter (2:22), the author appears to be translating directly from the Hebrew of Proverbs 26:11, rather than employing the common Greek translation. This may suggest that he was better acquainted with the Old Testament in Hebrew than in Greek. Further, his use of Jude and his reference to the Pauline letters might be argued as in favor of the author’s being the Apostle Peter rather than another. It is unlikely that a Galilean fisherman would know much about the contemporary Gnostic teaching, and it should not surprise us that in answering such teaching he should lean upon others as the author apparently does. Furthermore, the author’s humility, as shown in his attitude toward the Pauline letters, is what one might expect from the genuine Peter (3:15-16; see Galatians 2:11-14). Again, expressions like "the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord" (1:2), "the way of righteousness," and "the holy commandment" (2:21) are what one might well expect from a Jewish Christian such as the Apostle Peter. Finally, it is to be observed that we lack criteria (other than such passages from Jesus’ teaching as Luke 12:39-40 and from Paul’s at 1 Thessalonians 5:2-11) for knowing what the earliest disciples may have thought on the subject of the Second Coming. And inasmuch as at this point Second Peter agrees with such teachings (see 3:8-10), this would seem to argue in favor of the apostolic authorship of the letter. In view of these considerations, the possibility of the Petrine authorship of Second Peter cannot be denied, any more than can the possibility of its early date. For these reasons it is best to leave the matter of authorship and date open, in the hope that future discoveries may throw more light upon the problem.

OUTLINE

Salutation. (2 Peter 1:1-2)

The Knowledge of God. (2 Peter 1:3 to 2 Peter 3:13)

The Knowledge of God in Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:3-11)

Sources of the Knowledge of God (2 Peter 1:12-21)

Denial of the Knowledge of God (2 Peter 2:1 to 2 Peter 3:13)

Exhortation to Righteous Living. (2 Peter 3:14-18)