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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Epistles of Peter

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The two books of the New Testament traditionally ascribed to the apostle Peter.

I Peter This epistle is addressed to "the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion [Diaspora] in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia." The "Diaspora" was the name generally given to the Jews who were "scattered abroad." This suggests that the letter was intended for Jewish Christians in the provinces mentioned. But i. 14,18; ii. 9, Io; iv. 3 point rather to Gentile Christians, and it is better to take this view, and interpret the "Diaspora" metaphorically as referring to the isolated position of Christians among the heathen. The general impression made by the epistle is that the central idea was to strengthen the courage of the recipients, who were likely to undergo per secution, and to enjoin on them conduct which would remove all reasonable excuse for thinking that Christianity ought to be regarded as a crime.

Ch. i. 3-12 is an introduction of praise to God that he had caused the recipients of the epistle to be born again to the living hope in a glorious salvation. The rest of the epistle may be divided into three parts: (a) i. 13-ii. 10, mainly hortatory injunctions to live holy lives in accordance with this new birth, and to grow up as God's people in communion with Christ; (l ) ii. I i-iv. 6, particular directions as to the line of conduct to be pursued towards the Gentiles and towards those in authority, with special reference to the relations of slaves to masters, of wives and husbands to each other, and of Christians to one another; to the first of these a passage is appended dealing with the sufferings of Christ as an example (ii. 21-25), and the whole is completed by an exhortation to meekness and patience in suffering, in the light of the sufferings of Christ and the blessings given by them both to the living and to the dead; (y) iv. 7-v. II, has less cohesion. It begins with exhortations not to forget prayer and love, then the believers are warned to be careful to suffer only as Christians, not as breakers of the laws. The elders and the younger men are reminded of their duties to the community and to one another. The whole is brought to a close with an exhortation to all to fight manfully against the devil and to trust in God.

1 Date and Authorship

2 The Provenance of the Epistle

3 Reception in the Canon

4 The Church Organization of 1 Peter

5 Authorship

6 Date

7 Place of Origin

8 Relation to other Early Christian Documents

9 Church Organization

10 Authorities

Date and Authorship

These two questions are so closely connected that they cannot be considered separately. The external evidence of tradition is that the epistle was written by St Peter. This can be traced back to Irenaeus (iv. 9, 2) and Clement of Alexandria (Strom. iii. 18, IIo), and it is thought by many writers that 2 Peter iii. 1, even if it be not itself Petrine, is good evidence that the writer regarded i Peter as apostolic. Evidence for its use, without mention of its name, may be found in Polycarp, but probably not in the other apostolic fathers (cf. The N.T. in the Apostolic Fathers, Oxford, 1905, p. 137). It is, however, possible that Papias made use of it. It is doubtful whether Justin Martyr used it, but probable that it was known to Theophilus of Antioch. It is not mentioned in the canon of Muratori. Thus external evidence, though unanimous in favour of the Petrine authorship, is not sufficient to settle the question. The internal evidence consists of (a) evidence bearing on the date in connexion with the persecution of Christians, (a) evidence establishing the relation of the epistle to other documents in early Christian history, and ( y ) evidence concerning St Peter personally.

(a) It is clear from I Peter i. 6, ii. 12, iv. 12-19, v. 9, that the epistle was written during a time of persecution. The question which is doubtful is to which persecution the description best applies. The traditional opinion was that the persecution referred to was that under Nero. But it has been argued that the Neroine persecution according to Tacitus (Ann. xv. 44) was not a persecution of Christians as such, but was rather the result of false accusation. Moreover there is no proof that there was any persecution of Christians at this time outside Rome, and I Peter alludes to persecution in the provinces of Asia Minor. Therefore many critics have felt obliged to bring the epistle into connexion with the epistle of Pliny to Trajan, written c. 112, and asking for advice as to the procedure to be followed in trials of Christians. This is the earliest evidence which implies organized persecution in the provinces in question, and therefore Holtzmann, Weizsacker and others regard this as fixing the date of the epistle in the beginning of the 2nd century, and excluding the Petrine authorship. Against this view it may be argued that the epistle describes the beginning of persecution. The writer still hopes that Christians will not be obliged. to suffer "for the name" and is clearly aware of false accusations of crime. On the other hand Pliny's letter implies a time when Christianity was in itself a crime and was recognized as such. Thus, it is urged, probably correctly, that the epistle belongs to the beginning of a period of which Pliny's letter marks a later development, and we can only say that c. 112 is the terminus ad quem. The terminus a quo is more difficult to find. We do not know with certainty when Christianity became a recognized offence, and scholars have supported various hypotheses. T. Mommsen, Hardy and Sanday think that even under Nero it was criminal to be a Christian;, Neumann thinks that this was first the case under Domitian; Sir W. M. Ramsay believes that this attitude was one of the results of the Jewish War of 70, and ascribes it to Vespasian. If the Domitianic date be adopted the Petrine authorship is almost excluded, and it is difficult to reconcile the traditional date of St Peter's martyrdom with Ramsay's theory.

(a) The relations of I Peter to other books in early Christian literature is shown in the following table: - From this table it is sufficiently plain that I Peter is closely connected with Romans, Ephesians, James and Polycarp. The majority of scholars are agreed that in the case of Romans the dependence is on the side of I Peter, and in the case of Polycarp on the side of Polycarp. There is less agreement as to Ephesians and James,, though in the former case the general opinion favours the dependence of I Peter, in the latter case its priority. In England, however, the priority of James has been supported by Mayor and Hort. In the light of the established use of Romans it is possible that I Peter also used other Pauline epistles and some scholars have seen special traces of the influence of i Cor. and Gal. (for a list of these cf.. Holtzmann, Einleitung in das N.T., 3, p. 314). It has been argued that the use of the Pauline epistles is improbable for Peter, but this is a subjective argument which is not decisive.

(y) According to tradition Peter was martyred in Rome, and it is probable that this was in the Neroine persecution. If this be so,. the year 64 is the terminus ad quem of the letter, if it be authentic. Ramsay, however, thinks that Peter may have survived this persecution and suffered at the beginning of the persecutions which, he thinks, were initiated by the Flavian emperors (see Peter, St: § 5, 4 and 6).

I Pet. Rom.

I Pet. Eph.

I Pet. Jas.

I Pet. Polycarp.

i. 14 - xii. 2

i. I seq. - i. 3seq.

i. I - i. I

i. 8 - i. 3

ii. 5 - xii. I

i. 14 - ii. 3

i. 6 seq. - i. 2 seq.

i. 13 - ii. I

ii. 6 -io - ix. 32

ii. 18 - vi. 5

i. 24 - i. IO

i. 21 - ii. I

ii. 43 - xiii. I

iii. I - V. 22

i. 23 - i. 18

ii. I I - V. 3

iii. 9 - xii. 17

iii. 22 - i. 20

iv. 8 - V. 20

ii. 12 - X. 2

iii. 22 - viii. 3 4

iv. 3 - xiii. II

iv. 7 - xiii. 12

iv. 9 - xiii. 13

iv. io - xii. 6

v. 5 - V. 21

V. 5 seq. - iv. 6,10

ii. 21 - viii. 1,2

iii. 9 - ii. 2

iv. 7 - vii. 2

iv. 16 - viii. 2

The whole question of authorship and date is thus a complex of smaller problems, many of which do not seem to admit of any definite answer. If St Paul's epistle to the Ephesians be genuine, and it were really known to the writer of I Peter, and if Peter were martyred in 64, the theory of Petrine authorship demands that it was written by Peter between 59 and 64. On the Petrine hypothesis this is the most probable view. The weak point is that it assumes a great spread of Christianity in the provinces of Asia Minor outside the activity of Paul, and that the official persecution of Christians as such began throughout the Roman Empire under Nero, for neither of which is there corroborative evidence. On the non-Petrine hypothesis a date is demanded some time before the letter of Pliny; this suits the internal evidence better than any possible on the Petrine hypothesis, but it fails to explain the really considerable and early evidence for the Petrine authorship, and necessitates some purely hypothetical suggestion, such as Harnack's view that the epistle was originally anonymous, and that the opening and closing sentences (i. 1 sqq., V. 12 sqq.) were added between A.D. 150 and 175, perhaps by the writer of 2 Peter.

The Provenance of the Epistle

This is defined in I Peter v. 13 as Babylon. It has sometimes been argued that this is Babylon in Mesopotamia, in which there were, until the time of the emperor Caius, many Jews; but no good tradition connects St Peter with the evangelization of Mesopotamia, and this district would have had little in common with the Graeco-Roman world

of Asia Minor. Another suggestion is that the Egyptian Babylon is meant (Old Cairo); but in the ist century this was probably merely a fortress. Thus there is an overwhelming weight of opinion in favour of the view that Rome, the Babylon of Apocalyptic literature, is intended. This also agrees with the tradition in 2 Tim. iv. 11, which (cf. i Pet. v. 13) suggests that St Mark was in Rome.

Reception in the Canon

i Peter seems to have been the earliest of the Catholic epistles to obtain recognition. By the year 200 it was accepted everywhere except in two places - the church of Edessa, which did not receive the Catholic epistles until the 5th century, and, if the canon of Muratori is to be trusted, the church of Rome. It should, however, be noted that Zahn emends the text of the Muratorianum (rather violently) so as to include the epistle (see also Bible: New Testament Canon.) The Theology of z Peter. - The simplicity of the theology is marked, and affords an argument for an early date. Jesus is the Messiah of whom the prophets had spoken, and the "Spirit of Christ" is identified with the spirit which was in them. His suffering for sin had rescued the elect, and was also an example for Christians to fc iow. After his death he preached to the "spirits in prison." The source of Christian life is on the one hand belief in God who raised the Messiah from the dead, and on the other hand baptism which "saves. .. through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." The members of the community are "a royal priesthood, a holy nation" - i.e. inherit the promises made to the Jews, but this inheritance is bound up with the strongly eschatological doctrine that Christians are strangers in the world, the end of which is at hand.

The Church Organization of 1 Peter

This also is very simple and primitive, and closely based on the Jewish model. The leaders are called presbyters or elders, and their duty is to act as shepherds to the flock. Beyond this there is no sign of a developed organization: each is to act in accordance with the gift (x6pta i la) which he has received. There is no trace of a specially set apart ministry either for the service of the community or for teaching, as to which the only limitation given is "If any man speak let him speak as the oracles of God," i.e. probably, in accordance with the Old Testament.

2 Peter This epistle may be divided into five parts. (I) The writer who describes himself as "Simon (var. lect. Symeon) Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ," exhorts his readers to become perfect in knowledge and virtue, so as to enter the kingdom of Christ (i. 3-11). (2) He then explains his desire once more to testify to the power of Jesus, and bases his testimony partly on his own experience in the Holy Mount (apparently a reference to the Transfiguration), and partly on the "word of prophecy" (i. 12-21). (3) The mention of prophecy leads him to deal with the question of false prophets, who are accused of false doctrine and immoral practices. In this section is incorporated almost the whole of the epistle of Jude (ii. 1-22). (4) He then discusses a special feature of the false teaching, viz. doubts thrown on the Parousia, the certainty of which for the future he defends (iii. 1-13). Finally he warns his hearers that they must be found spotless at the Parousia, and emphasizes the agreement of his teaching with St Paul's (iii. 14-18) .

The main object of the epistle is to be seen in the attack made on the false teachers, and in the defence of the certainty of the Parousia of the Lord.


The traditional view is that it was written by St Peter from Rome after i Peter. This view is however untenable for the following reasons. (I) The epistle is not quoted by any writer of the 2nd century, and Origen, who is the first to mention it as Petrine, admits that its authorship was disputed. (2) The style and language differ greatly from that of I Peter: this argument may however fairly be met by the suggestion that it is improbable that he wrote Greek with ease, and that he may have used a variety of amanuenses. (3) The growth of immorality and false teaching to which it witnesses seems irreconcilable with a very primitive period of church life.

(4) It has incorporated the greater part of Jude in a wholesale manner difficult to reconcile with apostolical authorship.

(5) It seems to attribute a position of scriptural authority to the Pauline epistles, and this is improbable either in the mouth of Peter, or during the ist century.

Any one of these arguments would be weighty by itself; in combination they form an irresistible cumulative argument against the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter.


If the Petrine authorship be abandoned, the terminus ad quem of the epistle is its use by Origen (or, just possibly, by Clement of Alexandria), and the terminus a quo is fixed by the following considerations: (I) the activity of an immoral Gnosticism; (2) the attainment by the Pauline epistles of great authority, and their perversion by heretics; (3) the use made of the epistle of Jude.

It is difficult to define the exact date to which these indications point, but there is a general agreement that it must be sought in the 2nd century, and perhaps the decades immediately before and after the year A.D. 150 are the most probable.

Place of Origin

There is hardly any evidence on this point: but the most probable place seems to be Egypt, as the letter has points of connexion with Philo, Clement of Alexandria and the Apocalypse of Peter, and seems first to have been used in the church of Alexandria. It should however be noted that Deissmann argues on lexical grounds in favour of Asia Minor (Bibel Stud. pp. 277-284).

Relation to other Early Christian Documents

The documents with which 2 Peter has the greatest affinities are the epistle of Jude, and the Apocalypse of Peter, of which a fragment was found in Akhmim in 1892 by M Bouriant. In each case the affinity is very close, and is capable of more than one explanation. Roughly speaking 2 Peter ii. reproduces Jude: it is possible therefore either that Jude is an epitome of 2 Peter or that the writer of 2 Peter used Jude. The former hypothesis has a few supporters, notably T. Zahn and Spitta, but most writers are emphatic in thinking that 2 Peter has incorporated Jude, and this view is almost certainly correct (see Jltde, Epistle Of). The connexion with the Apocalypse of Peter is more complicated: the evidence of a comparison between the two documents (which is made in full in F. H. Chase's article in Hastings's Dictionary of the Bible ) is to show that either one document is dependent on the other, or both were written by the same person, or both come from the same circle. Of these theories there is least to be said for the dependence of the Apocalypse on 2 Peter, and perhaps most for the dependence of 2 Peter on the Apocalypse.

Reception in the Canon. Peter was the last of the Catholic epistles to be accepted as canonical. It was first regarded as such in Alexandria, perhaps originally in connexion with the Apocalypse of Peter rather than with I Peter. Thence it passed into the canon used by the church of Constantinople, in the 4th century made its way into the Roman canon, and in the 6th was accepted last of all by the Syria church (see also Bible: New Testament Canon). The Theology of 2 Peter. - The theology of the epistle is specially marked by two characteristics - its high Christology and its eschatological character. Christ is referred to as "our God and Saviour," and the fatherhood of God is apparently only regarded as referring to the Divine Son. The work of Christ was the redemption of the elect, and this redemption awaits its consummation in the Parousia. This is the central point of the teaching of the epistle and is obviously directed against that of the false prophets. The writer looks forward to the destruction of the present world by fire, when the wicked, whether amgels or men, who have been reserved for judgment will be finally condemned, and a new era of happiness for the elect will begin.

Church Organization

There is very little in 2 Peter which throws light on church organization. From his silence it would appear that the monarchial episcopacy did not yet exist in the church to which the writer belonged, and perhaps the prophets were still the chief guides, but the argument from silence cannot be pressed. In any case the growth of false and immoral prophets, which ultimately led to the obsolescence and suppression of this order, was far advanced and was one of the reasons which led to the writing of the epistle.


- Besides the books and articles already mentioned the following are important: F. H. Chase, "Peter" and "Epistles of Peter" in Hastings's Dict. Bible; P. W. Schmiedel, "Simon Peter" in the Ency. Bib.; Lightfoot, S. Clement of Rome, I, 201-315 and II, 481-502; Harnack, Altchr. Litt. and Chronologie i (the relevant sections). The relevant sections in the Introductions of Holtzmann, T. Zahn, Jiilicher, Salmon, Weiss and Moffat. The commentaries of Bigg, Mayor, F. Spitta, Kuhl (in Meyer's Commentary ), von Soden (in Holtzmann's Commentary ), and Weiss.

(K. L.)

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Epistles of Peter'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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