Chapter 17: The First Epistle of Peter

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 17: The First Epistle of Peter


The epistle is written in Peter’s name to the elect who are sojourners of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1:1) from Babylon (5:13) by the hand of Silvanus (5:12). It was quoted by Polycarp and Papias in Asia Minor in the early years of the second century, and its authenticity was undisputed in the early church, although Babylon was generally understood as a cryptic reference to Rome.

The attribution to Peter has been widely challenged in modern times on a number of grounds. We know that at least three writings were in circulation in the second century which were falsely attributed to Peter, the epistle which is included in the New Testament as the Second Epistle of Peter, an Apocalypse of Peter, and a Gospel of Peter. Some features of this epistle too have led critics to regard it as also being a forgery, dating from the end of the first century or the very beginning of the second century.

The epistle is written in fluent and idiomatic Greek, much better than that of Paul, and the Biblical quotations show an intimate knowledge of the Septuagint; this is hard to understand if the epistle is really the work of an Aramaic speaking and illiterate fisherman (Mt. 26:73, Acts 4:13). There are numerous echoes of both the language and ideas of the Pauline epistles, notably of Romans, and some critics have interpreted the general theological tone of the epistle as reflecting a ‘central’ churchmanship more compatible with a post-apostolic stage of development, when Paul’s epistles were more widely known, than with an earlier period. The references to persecution, especially the possibility of suffering ‘as a Christian’ (4:16), are sometimes taken to imply a date in the time of Trajan (A.D. 98-117) whose letters to Pliny (A.D. 112) furnish the first certain evidence that Christianity was regarded as of itself a crime against the state. It has been suggested, in pursuance of these arguments, that the main part of the epistle (1:3-4:11) consists of a sermon to newly-baptised converts; this has been incorporated in a letter written to meet a crisis of persecution by a Christian who introduced Peter’s name in an endeavour to give his words of exhortation an official and apostolic authority.

The weight of this attack on the Petrine authorship cannot be denied, but the ascription can still be defended with some confidence, especially if the Silvanus of the epistle is, as there is no reason to doubt, Silas, the companion of Paul on his second missionary journey. The case for Peter’s authorisation of the epistle, paradoxical as it may seem, is strengthened by the probability that he did not himself have a ready command of the Greek language. It is expressly stated at the close of the epistle that Peter has written ‘by the hand of Silvanus’. If Peter could not himself speak Greek and wished to send a letter to Greek-speaking Gentiles in Asia Minor, he could either have dictated a letter in Aramaic for subsequent translation into Greek or have had a Greek letter composed for him by someone he could trust. There is nothing improbable in his adopting the latter course, and there are two curious pieces of evidence in its favour. Silvanus is called ‘our faithful brother, as I account him’ (5:12), a description which gains special point if he had actually drafted the letter for Peter in a language which Peter only imperfectly understood. We know, too, from Acts that, when the decree of the Council of Jerusalem was sent to Antioch, the apostles and elders wrote ‘by the hand of ’ Judas and Silas, a phrase which suggests that Silas had a part in the drafting of the pastoral letter in which the decree was incorporated (Acts 15:23)

This explanation of the composition of the epistle fully meets the difficulties both of language and of ‘Paulinism’. Silas’ selection as one of the delegates from the Council of Jerusalem to Antioch was probably due in part to the fact that he spoke Greek well and could explain the decrees to the Gentile Christians there (Acts 15: 32), and his intimate connection with Paul on the second missionary journey would account for the affinities of language and thought between this epistle and those of Paul. Nor is it necessary to assume that the ‘fiery trial’ (4:12) and the possibility of suffering ‘as a Christian’ (4:16) imply a persecution essentially different in kind from that which Paul and Silas had undergone in their travels.

The part played by Silvanus in the writing of the epistle helps us also to understand the circumstances in which it was written. The identification of ‘Babylon’ with Rome fits in with the general later tradition of Peter’s presence at Rome, and although many scholars dispute the historical value of this tradition which they hold to be ultimately derived from the misinterpretation of this very verse in I Peter, a Roman origin for the epistle cannot be ruled completely out of court. Yet there is a real difficulty in accepting the identification. Quite apart from the absence of any intelligible reason for Peter using such a cryptic term for Rome in an epistle in which he bids his readers honour the Emperor (2:17), no convincing evidence has so far been adduced for Rome being called Babylon before the Jewish War of A.D. 70 had fanned the flames of Jewish hatred.

There is nothing inherently improbable, on the other hand, in Peter having worked in Babylon and its neighbourhood, where we know from Josephus (Ant. 15:2, 3) there were large communities of Jews. The absence of any tradition connecting Peter with Babylon is explicable by the great break between the Christian communities of East and West that followed upon the disasters of A.D. 70 and the subsequent misfortunes of Christianity in Palestine and elsewhere. We know next to nothing of the early spread of Christianity in directions other than that North-West mission whose progress Luke has so faithfully recorded.

We know next to nothing of the coming of Christianity to the provinces of Asia Minor named in the epistle other than Galatia and Asia, but it is not rash to see in the evangelisation of Northern Asia Minor the results of the same impetus that led Paul through Southern Asia Minor. Whether Silas himself had played a part in this further spread of the Gospel, or whether his role is to be envisaged as that of liaison between the apostles and the actual missionaries, we can never know. He is last mentioned in Acts as being summoned by Paul to come to him at Athens (Acts 17:15), and Paul mentions him with Timothy as a joint author of his epistles to the Thessalonians in A.D. 49, probably at Corinth (cf. II Cor. 1:19). It seems reasonable to assume that he continued to be interested in, possibly to share in, missionary journeys to parts of Asia Minor in the years that followed, and that the first epistle of Peter is a message of instruction and encouragement from the apostle through Silvanus to some of the new and predominantly Gentile (cf. 4:3-4) churches which had been e founded. The encyclical nature of the epistle and the lack of greetings to individuals suggest that Peter had not himself visited these areas, and that the epistle may in fact have been a kind of official recognition of the churches in a new mission-field, possibly to be carried round by Silvanus on a tour of inspection and confirmation.

The date of the epistle can only be conjectured. If the tradition of Peter’s martyrdom at Rome under Nero is accepted, it cannot be later than the early sixties. A dozen years may sound a short time for churches to have sprung up over so wide an area, but the rapidity with which Paul established churches on his missionary journeys indicates that such a swift expansion elsewhere was not impossible.

The Teaching of The Epistle

The epistle falls roughly into three sections, 1:1-2:10 the nature of the Christian calling and privileges, 2:11-4:11 instruction in the principles and duties of Christian life, 4:12-5:14 special exhortation and consolation for the dangers and difficulties of the present situation. The thought, however, is fluid and spontaneous rather than systematic, and these divisions are in no way watertight; ideas spill over from one to the other.

The most striking feature of the theological allusions and of the instruction on conduct is their ‘centrality’. The pattern of doctrinal teaching, which can be traced in its simplest form in the speeches in Acts, and which represents the fundamental core which Pau1 has overlaid with the results of his own speculations and experience, recurs substantially in I Peter. As Dr. Selwyn has pointed out in a comparison of the doctrinal teaching of this epistle with that of the speeches of Peter in Acts 1-10, ‘there is the same emphasis on the priority of the divine counsel, and on God’s initiative in the call of the Church and His impartiality in judgement; the same conception of Jesus as the "suffering servant" portrayed in Is. 53, a conception not found in St. Paul: the same idea of the Church as the Messianic community.’ (The First Epistle of St. Peter, p.75.) There are, as might be expected, differences of emphasis and additions. Thus there is comparatively little stress in the epistle on the work of the Holy Spirit. God’s love for men is never mentioned, and man’s attitude to God is written of as one of awe (1:17, 2:17) rather than of love, while in place of the simple reference of Peter at Pentecost to the fact that Christ was not ‘left in Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption’ (Acts 2:31) the epistle develops the conception of Christ’s preaching to the dead (3:19 f., 6:6).

The epistle is not, however, primarily theological, and the theological allusions are those of a practical man rather than a speculative thinker. The main body of the epistle consists rather of instruction on the nature of the Christian life and the duties of Christian living. Here, too, the first impression is one of ‘centrality’, and of the following of a common pattern of teaching such as can be discerned in the other, and notably the Pauline, epistles. The form of this pattern, which is further discussed in connection with I and II Thessalonians, includes teaching on the holiness of the Christian calling as the new Israel and people of God (1:15, 2:9), the repudiation of pagan vices (1:14, 2:1, 4:3), the law of charity and social obligation (passim), the nearness of the end and the need for soberness and watchfulness (4:7, 5:8-10), emphasis on church order (5:1-6), and possibly the duty of obedience to the state (2:13), for which Romans (13:1) and the epistle to Titus (3:1) offer parallels.

Particular points are stressed, e.g. the privilege of suffering (2:19), the subjection of wives to their husbands (3:1-6), and the deference due from the young to the old (5:5), and the epistle bears the marks of being written by one who expected obedience to his authority. After calling himself an apostle in the first verse Peter begins his final admonitions as a fellow-elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ (5:1); these allusions, natural in an apostle, are at once in character with the real Peter, whose authority was universally accepted, and too modest and reticent for a forger not to have embroidered (cf. the claims of the author of II Pet. 1:14-18) .

The Significance of The Epistle

While the epistle remains a work of great spiritual power and lasting value, whoever was the author, its especial historical significance is bound up with the connection with Peter. Considered as a pseudonymous writing of the end of the first century, the epistle would furnish additional evidence for the spreading influence of a diluted Paulinism, and a few clues as to the problems of Christian life in Asia Minor in the sub-apostolic age. Taken as written by Peter, or even as composed by Silvanus and approved by Peter, it becomes at once an invaluable piece of evidence for the apostolic approval and support of the main lines of Paul’s teaching. Although we have Paul’s own word for this (Gal. 2:9) it has often been challenged. The Petrine authorship of this epistle carries with it the acknowledgement that Peter, after disagreement (Gal. 2:14) and conversion (Acts 15: 9-11) on one major issue at least, shared the same fundamental views as Paul, though without many of Paul’s individual interpretations and developments.