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First Letter of Peter

PETER, FIRST LETTER OF. The keynote of the First Letter of Peter is suffering and the Christian method of meeting it. The writer endeavored to convey a message of hope to Christians who had been undergoing persecution and who were succumbing to discouragement because they could find no redress. He brings an exhortation of Christian truth calculated to strengthen believers.

I. Authorship. Of the two letters that bear the name of Peter, the first is better attested. Echoes of its phraseology appear as early as the Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians (c. a.d. 125), the Letter of Barnabas (c. 135), and the writings of Justin Martyr (c. 150). The Second Letter of Peter refers to a former letter, probably meaning this one (2Pet.3.1). It was unanimously accepted as a letter of Peter by all of the church fathers, who mention it by name, beginning with Irenaeus (c. 170).

The internal structure reflects Peter’s mind and life. The first main paragraph, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1Pet.1.3), expresses the joy that Peter felt after the risen Christ forgave him for his denial. The injunction to “be shepherds of God’s flock” (1Pet.5.2) is almost identical in language with Jesus’ commission to him at the lake of Galilee (John.21.16). “Clothe yourselves with humility” may be a reminiscence of the Last Supper, when Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the disciples’ feet (John.13.4-John.13.5).

There are also some remarkable agreements between the vocabulary of 1 Peter and the speeches of Peter in Acts—1Pet.1.17, Acts.10.34; 1Pet.1.21, Acts.2.32, Acts.10.40-Acts.10.41; 1Pet.2.7-1Pet.2.8, Acts.4.10-Acts.4.11).

II. Destination. The letter was directed to members of the Dispersion located in the northern Roman provinces of Asia Minor, which Paul did not visit and which may have been evangelized by Peter between the Council of Jerusalem (a.d. 48) and the Neronian persecution at Rome (64). There is some question whether the “Dispersion” should be taken literally as applying strictly to Jews or whether it may be used figuratively of Gentile Christians who were scattered abroad. In favor of the former conclusion are one or two passages that seemingly indicate that the recipients were Jews (1Pet.2.12; 1Pet.3.6); on the other hand, “Gentiles” may be equivalent to “brethren,” and the references to the ungodly past of these people (1Pet.1.14; 1Pet.4.3) do not seem to agree with the hypotheses that they were of Jewish descent. If Peter wrote this letter from Rome, he may have been writing to refugees from the Neronian persecution who were converts from Judaism or proselytes who turned from Judaism to Christianity.

The place of writing is closely connected with the date. “Babylon” (1Pet.5.13) may refer to the ancient city on the Euphrates, where there was a large Jewish settlement in Peter’s day, or to a town in Egypt near Alexandria, where Mark traditionally ministered, or figuratively to Rome as the center of the pagan world (Rev.17.5; Rev.18.10). The second alternative need not be considered seriously, for the Egyptian Babylon was only a border fort. Opinion among commentators is divided between the other two opinions. In the absence of any strong tradition that Peter ever visited in the literal Babylon, it seems more likely that he wrote this letter from Rome shortly before his martyrdom. He would have had opportunity to find some of Paul’s writings there and to have met Silas and Mark, both of whom were familiar to Paul.

Those who deny Peter’s authorship place the letter in the early second century under the reign of Trajan (a.d. 96-117). Sir William Ramsay assigned it to the time of Domitian (87-96), conceding that Peter might have been executed in the time of Vespasian or Domitian (c. 80).

IV. Structure and Content. In general arrangement 1 Peter closely resembles the letters of Paul, with a salutation, body, and conclusion. Its main subject is the Christian’s behavior under the pressure of suffering. Its key is the salvation that is to be revealed at the last time (Rev.1.5). The letter may be outlined as follows:

I. Introduction (1:1-2)

II. The Nature of Salvation (1:3-12)

III. The Experience of Salvation (1:13-25)

IV. The Obligations of Salvation (2:1-10)

V. The Ethics of Salvation (2:11-3:12)

VI. The Confidence of Salvation (3:13-4:11)

VII. The Behavior of the Saved Under Suffering (4:12-5:11)

VIII. Concluding Salutations (5:12-14)

Bibliography: E. G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of Peter, 1946 (on the Greek text); F. W. Beare, The First Epistle of Peter, 1959 (on the Greek text); B. Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude (AB), 1964; J. N. D. Kelly, The Epistles of Peter and of Jude (HNTC), 1969; E. Best, The First Epistle of Peter (NCB), 1971.——MCT