The apostle Peter ends his letter with a statement of its significance, “This is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it” (1 Pet. 5:12 TNIV). For two thousand years, believers around the world have read the letter Peter wrote to the Christians of first-century Asia Minor as God’s word. The apostle explains the significance of Jesus’ suffering and how those who follow him must live out their faith. Some have accurately described 1 Peter as “the most condensed New Testament résumé of the Christian faith and of the conduct that it inspires” (Clowney 1988: 15). Martin Luther describes it as “one of the noblest books in the New Testament” and a “paragon of excellence” on par with even Romans and the Gospel of John (Pelikan 1967: 4, 9; Blevins 1982: 401). Luther believed it contained all that is necessary for a Christian to know (Achtemeier 1996: 64). Perhaps this letter’s universal relevance is due to its presentation of how the gospel of Jesus Christ is the foundational principle by which the Christian life is lived out within the larger unbelieving society.
The life of Jesus and the believer’s life are inseparable in Peter’s thought. In 1 Peter Jesus is not only the object of Christian faith; he is also the pattern of Christian destiny. Jesus’ resurrection is the source of the believer’s new life (1:3). His willingness to suffer unjustly to fulfill God’s purpose is the exemplar to which Christians are called as they live out their lives in faith, following in his footsteps (2:21).
For the original readers to whom Peter wrote, their identity as Christians was not only the source of great joy but ironically also the reason they suffered grief in various kinds of trials (1:6). Because of their Christian faith, they were being marginalized by their society, alienated in their relationships, and threatened with—if not experiencing—a loss of honor and socioeconomic standing (and possibly worse). Many Christians around the world throughout these last two thousand years have experienced a similar negative reaction to their faith by the societies in which they live. Even today there are those who live in peril because of their faith in Christ. For them, the words of the apostle speak directly to their situation, providing consolation, encouragement, and guidance.
But there are also many modern readers of 1 Peter who cannot relate directly to that situation, for we have been fortunate enough to live in societies where, generally speaking, Christian faith does not lower social standing, jeopardize livelihoods, or threaten life itself. What significance could this ancient letter have for Christians for whom social alienation and suffering for the faith are generally unfamiliar experiences? One Lutheran biblical scholar who has devoted most of his professional career to 1 Peter confesses, “The more I study it, the more alien it seems to the interests and projects of mainstream Christianity” (J. H. Elliott 1998: 179). Classroom discussion of 1 Peter has raised the suggestion that perhaps 1 Peter is for the church in another time and place and that its message of suffering is not necessarily applicable to the church today. The relative neglect of 1 Peter in sermons and Bible studies may attest to the truth of that thought in practice, if not in principle.
However, when viewed from a global perspective, North American Christianity occupies an increasingly receding place in Christendom. Writing about the emergence of large Christian populations around the world, P. Jenkins (2002: 218) observes,
For the average Western audience, New Testament passages about standing firm in the face of pagan persecution have little immediate relevance.... Millions of Christians around the world do in fact live in constant danger of persecution or forced conversion, either from governments or local vigilantes.... Ordinary believers are forced to understand why they are facing these sufferings, and repeatedly do so in the familiar language of the Bible and of the earliest Christianity.
Wherever Christians are a minority, the message of 1 Peter takes on renewed relevance. For instance, the apostle’s letter became a source of hope and encouragement to Christian students at the University of Halle in Soviet-dominated Germany after World War II (Boring 1999: 143). In former Yugoslavia and Muslim Indonesia, 1 Peter is said to be the most popular book among Christians (McKnight 1996: 35). E. Wendland (2000: 68-78) discusses the contemporary relevance of 1 Peter to the Bantu in Africa. Even within the United States, J. H. Elliott applies Peter’s principles to the sanctuary movement that shelters political refugees (1998).
The social ethos of the first-century Greco-Roman setting of 1 Peter is undoubtedly substantially different from that of those cultures today founded upon the Judeo-Christian ethic. Nevertheless, the principles upon which Peter offers his original readers consolation, encouragement, and guidance in their specific situation are applicable to all Christians at all times. The apostle wants his readers to recognize the sweeping scope of new life in Christ and the implications for how they view themselves now that they have been born again by the mercy of God the Father through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1:3). They must no longer think of themselves and their relationships to family and society in the same way they did in their former life (4:3). As S. McKnight (1996: 36) puts it, “Peter intends his readers to understand who they are before God so that they can be who they are in society.”
However, a Christian self-understanding based on the NT is christocentric and society is not. Herein lies the significance of 1 Peter for modern readers. Christians need to be transformed in their thinking about who they are in Christ and what that implies for relationships with other believers and with society, regardless of one’s historical moment or geographical location. First Peter applies principles of Christian conduct to a specific Christian community living out the faith in troubling times, and so this letter has something important to say about the engagement of Christians and culture. These concepts of Christian self-understanding and cultural engagement speak to the heart of the believer, whether babes in Christ or seniors in the faith.
First Peter encourages a transformed understanding of Christian self-identity that redefines how one is to live as a Christian in a world that is hostile to the basic principles of the gospel. Acknowledging that estrangement, Peter writes to those whom he addresses as “foreigners and resident aliens” (2:11) within the society in which they lived. He holds up Jesus Christ as the true outsider, coming into this world but being rejected and executed by it. Reflecting on the message of 1 Peter, M. Volf (1994: 17) writes, “The root of Christian self-understanding as aliens and sojourners lies not so much in the story of Abraham and Sarah and the nation of Israel as it does in the destiny of Jesus Christ, his mission and his rejection which ultimately brought him to the cross.” The example of Christ’s suffering in 1 Peter is the pattern that explains the experience of Christians who suffer for their faith. The relationship between Christ and the world defines the basic principle of Christian self-understanding and engagement with culture. Therefore, Peter exhorts Christians to engage the world as foreigners and resident aliens, having a healthy respect for the society and culture in which they live while at the same time maintaining an appropriate separation from it. It is as foreigners and resident aliens that Peter’s readers are to abstain from carnal desires that, even though perhaps socially acceptable, war against the soul, while at the same time living good lives among the Gentiles (2:11-12).
The relationship between the Christian and culture is an overarching theme of 1 Peter, as relevant now as it was when first penned. Using sociological methodology, J. H. Elliott (1981) argued that the author of 1 Peter was concerned to maintain the identity of the Christian community and to discourage accommodation to the surrounding culture. In the same year Balch (1981) approached the issue of the relationship of the Christian community to culture by considering the household codes in their sociohistorical setting (2:18-3:7). He concluded the opposite of Elliott, that the author of 1 Peter was in fact encouraging a level of accommodation to society in order to avoid undue alienation from it. Both positions reduce the complexity of 1 Peter on this point, which, as Volf (1994: 22) observes, calls for “the possibility of either rejecting or accommodating to particular aspects of the surrounding culture in a piece-meal fashion.” First Peter offers various examples of accommodating, rejecting, subverting, and transforming culture. A prime example is the so-called household code of 2:18-3:7, which discusses the relationship of members of the first-century household with each other but does so in view of apostolic concern with the relationship of the Christian community to the society in which it has taken root (see comments on 2:18-3:7). The principles of 1 Peter’s differentiated acceptance and rejection of first-century culture offer perhaps the letter’s most significant contribution to contemporary Christian thought of its time. Moreover, Peter’s principles remain significant for the church today, living in times when social values and structures are changing at a rapid pace. The epistle is especially relevant in the Third World, where Christianity is no longer a missionary religion but is becoming indigenous in cultures that were not formed by the Judeo-Christian tradition. First Peter’s emphasis on Christian engagement with society makes it a relevant and thought-provoking book for all times and places.
In addition to thoughtfully reflecting on the Christian’s relationship to society, 1 Peter raises a second related issue by presenting the challenging principle that it is better to suffer than to sin. Christians are to understand themselves as a people who are done with sin (see comments on 4:1), which means that one must be prepared to suffer the consequences of not sinning. The thought that suffering is a normal part of the Christian life (4:12) and within God’s will may be a startling thought, especially for those who became Christians with the idea that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It is easy to confuse vicarious atonement with vicarious suffering and think that because Jesus suffered, Christians do not have to. The place of suffering in God’s will was also confusing to Peter’s original readers. The apostle explains their experience in light of the example of Jesus and challenges the Christian to live out the gospel boldly by embracing suffering if it should come. In the face of pressure to conform to social expectations, Peter exhorts his readers to live good, godly lives, to accept consequential suffering, and to continue trusting God.
The Christians to whom Peter wrote were suffering because they were living by different priorities, values, and allegiances than their pagan neighbors. These differences were sufficiently visible to cause unbelievers to take note and in some cases to heap abuse on those living out faith in Christ. Are Christians today willing to suffer alienation from our society out of obedience to Christ? If statistics tell the true story, it would seem that most Christians today, even those who call themselves evangelicals, are in some important ways not very distinguishable from unbelievers. We divorce at the same rate. We have the same addictions. We seek the same forms of entertainment. We wear the same fashions. And so on. First Peter challenges Christians to reexamine our acceptance of society’s norms and to be willing to suffer the alienation of being a visiting foreigner in our own culture wherever its values conflict with those of Christ.
Even those Christians who do not suffer persecution for the faith are called to the suffering of self-denial. Sin is often thought of as being motivated by the temptation for pleasure. But perhaps the real power of sin lies in the avoidance of pain and suffering. It is better to suffer unfulfilled needs and desires than to sin. Is this not what self-denial means? Jesus linked self-denial with following in his footsteps when he said, “Those who would be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34 TNIV). For instance, isn’t the temptation to lie often an attempt to save face rather than face the consequences of the truth? Isn’t the temptation to cheat on an exam an unwillingness to suffer the loss of reputation or other consequences that failure might bring? Isn’t sexual sin often the alternative to suffering by living with deep emotional and physical needs unmet? According to Peter, the pain and suffering that self-denial brings is a godly suffering that is better than yielding to sin (1 Pet. 4:1-2).
The “foreignness” of Christians increases as modern society accepts values and legalizes principles that are inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Reflecting on tolerance as a highly esteemed modern virtue, S. Gaede (1993: 11) writes, “We live in strange times. Or the times we live in make strangers out of folks like me. I’m not sure which.” First Peter presents the Christian community as a colony in a strange land, an island of one culture in the midst of another. The new birth that gives Christians a new identity and a new citizenship in the kingdom of God makes us, in whatever culture we happen to live, visiting foreigners and resident aliens there.
The dual issues of when 1 Peter was written and who wrote it are so intertwined that they must be considered together. The most basic issue, of course, is whether the apostle Peter wrote the letter, since the text indisputably claims it is from him, or whether it was written pseudonymously sometime after his death (composed by an anonymous author who wrote in Peter’s name with unknown motives). A prevalent opinion today is that 1 Peter is a pseudonymous work written by someone of the Petrine group in Rome between AD 75 and 95 who was accurately representing the apostle Peter’s thoughts (e.g., J. H. Elliott 2000: 127-30). The presumption of a Petrine school is an attempt to preserve some semblance of Peter’s apostolic authority while allowing for a date of writing that places the book well beyond the apostle’s lifetime. J. H. Elliott believes the existence of a Petrine group was inevitable from a social and practical point of view. This may be plausible from a sociological viewpoint, but it does not address why such a group would write in the specific form and terms found in 1 Peter.
Are references to Peter, Mark, and Silvanus (1:1; 5:12-13) all part of a pseudonymous fiction? But if Silvanus were the true carrier of the letter, as J. H. Elliott (1980: 265-66) suggests, assuming he was aware that Peter had not in fact written it, how would he have represented the letter to the recipients he actually had to face? Furthermore, apart from the letter itself, there is no extant evidence from the first century that a Petrine group existed that could pseudonymously represent the apostle Peter with authority. Even if the Gospel of Mark is Peter’s testimony, its author does not presume to write in Peter’s name. Moreover, even if a Petrine group did exist, why would they be writing to the remotest areas of Asia Minor? The explanation J. H. Elliott (1980: 264-65) offers, that the Petrine group’s concern for Asia Minor confirms “the universal ethnic and geographical dimensions of the universal grace of which they write” and reflects a first attempt of the hegemony of the Roman church, does not explain their specific connection to the regions of Asia Minor addressed.
On the other hand, the theory that the letter was written by Peter using an amanuensis usually understands it to have been written during Peter’s lifetime and under his direction. But an amanuensis merely shades into a pseudonymous author if a close associate composed the letter shortly after Peter’s death. On this ground the letter is often claimed to be pseudonymous, yet bearing Peter’s apostolic authority.
The weightiest evidence that 1 Peter is a pseudonymous work has rested on four points: (1) the Greek of the epistle is just too good for a Galilean fisherman-turned-apostle to have written; (2) the book’s content suggests a situation both in church structure and in social hostility that reflects a time decades later than Peter’s lifetime; (3) 1 Peter exhibits a dependence on the so-called deuteropauline books and must therefore have been written after them, which would date 1 Peter to the late first century; and (4) Christianity could not have reached these remote areas of Asia Minor and become a target for persecution until a decade or more after Peter had died, at the earliest.
As for the first point, the Greek of 1 Peter does seem to be too good for Peter himself to have written it, in the opinion of scholars on both sides of the authorship question. Even those supporting a date within Peter’s lifetime propose that he used an amanuensis more highly skilled in Greek than himself. However, the quality of the Greek is a somewhat subjective judgment that must be evaluated on several levels. Recent scholarship has concluded that the overall structure of the letter does seem to follow the contours of formal Greek rhetoric (B. Campbell 1998; Thurén 1990; Thurén 1995; Tite 1997). However, even if such a rhetorical structure does organize 1 Peter, does it follow that its author was deliberately following the principles of formal rhetoric? Or was he simply presenting a well-structured argument consistent with general practice of the time? Assigning Latin rhetorical terms to various sections of the epistle does not prove that the author had a high level of formal training in Greek rhetoric. But beyond the overall rhetorical structure, it is argued that features such as its “polished Attic style, Classical vocabulary... and rhetorical quality... make it one of the more refined writings in the NT” (J. H. Elliott 2000: 120). First Peter does contain series of words with similar sounds, accumulation of synonyms, the use of anaphora, antithetic and synthetic parallelism, coordinate parallel expressions first negative and then positive, rhythmic structure, and the frequent use of conjunctive participles and relative clauses (Achtemeier 1996: 3). However, 1 Peter is not nearly as rhetorically ornamented as is, for instance, the book of Hebrews. And one could probably find examples of well-argued modern English discourse that follow the general contours of formal Greek rhetoric. The question remains, on the one hand, whether the traits displayed by 1 Peter would require an author formally trained in Greek rhetoric and, on the other hand, whether someone like the apostle Peter could have ever attained that level of proficiency, with or without formal training.
At the level of syntax, the Greek of 1 Peter arguably exhibits bilingual interference that is consistent with a Semitic author for whom Greek is a second language (see the excursus at the end of the book). This is perhaps the most telling feature of the Greek of 1 Peter, for a letter’s syntax flows almost subconsciously from an author’s proficiency with the language, unlike the deliberate structure, content, and ornamentation of a discourse. Schutter has also observed certain Semitic tendencies in the Greek of 1 Peter (1989: 83). A comparison of 1 Peter with Josephus and Polybius clearly shows that its syntax is not nearly as “good” as the classical writer Polybius, or even as good as the Palestinian Jewish writer Josephus, if “good” is defined as the Greek style and syntax of a native proficient writer. Syntax criticism (see excursus) shows that the author of 1 Peter had not attained the same mastery of Greek that Josephus had in at least four areas: (a) the use of prepositions, which are notoriously difficult to master in any second language; (b) the use of the genitive personal pronoun; (c) the position of attributive adjectives; and (d) the use of the dative case with the preposition ἐν (en). And so, regardless of the level of rhetorical achievement, the author of 1 Peter may well have been a Semitic speaker for whom Greek was a second language. Since Semitic languages were limited to Palestine and adjoining areas in the first century, the author of 1 Peter was probably not a Greek- or Latin-speaking Roman or a Christian elder in Asia Minor, as has sometimes been proposed. The issue of whether Peter wrote the letter himself cannot be so summarily dismissed by appeals to the quality of the epistle’s Greek without further critical investigation of several key questions.
The three remaining arguments claim, in general terms, that 1 Peter reflects a Sitz im Leben most consistent with a time in the development of the Christian church that is much later than Peter’s lifetime. This argument is usually based on three points: (1) the persecution reflected in the book is consistent with that of the last decades of the first century and the opening decades of the second; (2) the church structure reflects developments toward the end of the first century; (3) 1 Peter appears to be dependent on the Pauline writings.
Persecution in 1 Peter. Attempts have been made to date the book to the reign of one of the three Roman emperors known to have persecuted the church: Nero (AD 54-68), Domitian (81-96), or Trajan (98-117). More recently, however, interpreters have concluded that the nature of the persecution in view in 1 Peter is of no help in dating the book.
German scholars of a past generation argued that the “fiery ordeal” of 1 Pet. 4:12 signaled a time of actual persecution that was more serious than the potential persecution the letter had previously referenced (see “Literary Unity and Genre” below). This perceived increase in the severity of the persecution was tied up with a source-critical theory that understood the previous chapters of 1 Peter to have been written at an earlier time and eventually joined to the latter chapters, allowing time for the development of persecution to occur before the book reached its final redaction (Cross 1954; Perdelwitz 1911; Preisker 1951; Windisch 1930). The presumed combination of more than one source reflecting two different settings of lesser followed by greater persecution was then read against the background of Christian persecution in Bithynia during the reign of Trajan (Beare 1970: 32). That situation in Bithynia was reported by Pliny the Younger, a Roman official sent to Bithynia, who wrote about sixty letters in a three-year period (AD 109-11) to the emperor Trajan about many topics, among them how to deal with the persistent problem of Christians (Pliny, Letters 10.96-97). This construal of the book’s redaction led to the conclusion that the final form of 1 Peter dated from the time of Trajan.
More recently, however, the unity of 1 Peter has been sufficiently demonstrated to persuade most interpreters that it was not written in parts over a long period of time (see “Literary Unity and Genre” below). If so, the character of the persecution referred to throughout the book must then be representative of one period of time when the letter was written. In general, the specific persecution referred to throughout the book seems limited to verbal slander, malicious talk, and false accusations (1:6; 2:12, 15; 3:9, 16; 4:12, 16). While these problems would also be present in times of martyrdom, the situation in 1 Peter appears to reflect a time when the threat had not yet escalated to that point, which indicates an earlier time in Asia Minor than that indicated in Pliny’s letters. Pliny refers to Christians who had recanted even twenty-some years earlier, which would have been about AD 90 (Letters 10.96.6). If the situation in view in 1 Peter is less dire than that in Asia Minor about AD 90, then the letter would have been addressed to Christians living there in an earlier time, whose grief in “various trials” was in hindsight only the precursor of worse things to come.
What then of the “fiery ordeal” in 1 Pet. 4:12? Although the phrase has been read as an allusion to Nero’s horrific persecution against Christians in Rome (e.g., Robinson 1976: 159), it is more likely a thought along the lines of Seneca’s proverb Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes viros (Fire tests gold, affliction tests strong men; Ep., On Providence 5.10). The image of trials as a testing analogous to the smelting of gold is characteristic of 1 Peter. Therefore, the “fiery ordeal” is probably not a reference to physical persecution, such as Nero’s burning of Christians, but to trials faced by Christians that test the mettle of their faith (as also Best 1971: 162; Davids 1990: 164-65).
Since the time of Selwyn (1958), virtually all commentators understand the persecutions referred to in 1 Peter to be sporadic, personal, and unorganized social ostracism of Christians with varying intensity, probably reinforced at the local level by the increasing suspicions of Roman officials at all levels (Achtemeier 1996: 35-36; Best 1971: 42; J. H. Elliott 2000: 103; Kelly 1969: 10; Perkins 1995: 15-16; Richard 1986: 127; Robinson 1976: 153; Selwyn 1958: 55; Sleeper 1968: 271; van Unnik 1980: 113). Peter describes the suffering, and hence the persecution that caused it, as worldwide (5:9), suggesting a type of persecution that potentially threatens all Christians as Christians, and not the execution of official Roman policy in any one place. Achtemeier (1996: 35-36) describes the persecution referred to in 1 Peter as
due more to unofficial harassment than to official policy, more local than regional, and more at the initiation of the general populace as the result of a reaction against the lifestyle of the Christians than at the initiation of Roman officials because of some general policy of seeking out and punishing Christians. That does not rule out the possibility that persecutions occurred over large areas of the empire; they surely did, but they were spasmodic and broke out at different times in different places, the result of the flare-up of local hatreds rather than because Roman officials were engaged in the regular discharge of official policy.
This type of persecution may have started from the moment that the name “Christian” was given (Acts 11:26). There are many similar episodes of such hostilities in the early church: 1 Thess. 1:6 (cf. 1 Pet. 4:13); 1 Thess. 2:14-16 and 3:3 (cf. 1 Pet. 2:21); 1 Thess. 3:4-5 (cf. 1 Pet. 2:20); Acts 4:21 and 5:40-41 (cf. 1 Pet. 4:13-14); Matt. 10:16-20 (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15); Gal. 4:29 (cf. 1 Pet. 4:3-4) (Moule 1955-56: 7-9; Robinson 1976: 151). Given the apparent widespread scope, prolonged duration, and relatively mild nature of the persecution, it seems less likely the letter was written during a time of official state-sponsored persecution (Achtemeier 1996: 36; Best 1971: 42; Boring 1999: 33). If so, 1 Peter was written either before Nero’s torture of Christians (Bigg 1956: 33; Hillyer 1992: 5; Hort 1898: 3; Kelly 1969: 30) or during the period of relative peace and stability in Asia Minor before the persecution of Christians that Pliny documents, a perscution that had apparently gone on to some degree for two decades prior to his writing (Pliny, Letters 10.96.6). Most interpreters who hold to pseudonymous authorship date it after AD 70 but before the persecutions initiated by Domitian’s reign from 81 to 96 (Achtemeier 1996: 50; Best 1971: 63-64; Boring 1999: 33; Blevins 1982: 411; Brown and Meier 1983: 130; J. H. Elliott 2000: 138; cf. also Ramsay 1893: 282). Goppelt, however, considers 1 Pet. 4:15 to be evidence that Christians were being arrested as criminals simply for bearing the name, something that he argues could not have happened before Nero’s reign, and so he dates the book to between AD 65 and 90 (Goppelt 1993: 39, 43, 45).
In the end, because the situation in the letter cannot be associated with any of the three known officially sponsored persecutions but reflects a situation that pertained throughout the first two hundred years of Christianity, the persecutions are of no help in dating the letter.
Church structure in 1 Peter. The consideration of what period of ecclesiastical development 1 Peter reflects is a complicated issue but is no more conclusive for dating the letter. The use of the term ἐπισκοποῦντες (episkopountes, overseeing) in 5:2 has been construed as a reference to the office of the monarchical bishop of the second century. When the letter was being dated to the second century on other grounds, the ambiguity of this word was naturally resolved by its presumed second-century usage. However, the word had a long history of more general usage before it came to be adopted as the official term for a bishop (see comments on 5:2). Moreover, the participle describes the activity of what appears to be the then-highest level of authority, namely, the πρεσβύτεροι (presbyteroi, elders), who in the second century were clearly subordinate to the bishop. Furthermore, since 1 Peter is written not to one local body but to a large area that would have been the territory of probably more than one bishop, the term episkopountes is not likely to have had that later sense. In fact, the development of the office of the ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos, bishop) probably motivated the variant reading that omits the participle episkopountes in 1 Pet. 5:2, for it would then be somewhat redundant in the immediate context (see additional note on 5:2).
The consensus of current interpreters is that if 5:2 reflects the structure of the church in Asia Minor, it is a relatively undeveloped structure, consisting only of presbyteroi (elders), and is commensurate with the structure of the early churches of the Pauline missions as found in Acts. Goppelt (1993: 338) argues that “in the Pastorals a further stage of development is already seen,” but he nevertheless dates 1 Peter beyond the lifetime of Peter with the claim that this stage of organization, in which elders functioned as overseers, was “typical for the area from Rome to Asia Minor during the period AD 65-80.” Goppelt (1993: 47) believes that the church structure described in Acts reflects not the actual historical conditions of the church in its earliest decades but the much later time when Acts was written. However, even if Goppelt’s claim were true, it does not preclude this form of church ecclesiology from predating 65 and therefore does not provide a terminus a quo.
Achtemeier (1996: 37) agrees that the church order of 1 Pet. 5:2 reflects a time earlier rather than later in the development of church offices, and even Goppelt (1993: 46) considers 1 Peter the only post-Pauline book still recognizing charismatic forms of service, as in 4:10. All of this points to an early stage of development in the Christian church of northern Asia Minor, regardless of when that stage actually happened, for Christianity and its full-orbed ecclesiology did not appear in full form everywhere at the same time. If, however, all the churches in other areas of the empire had a highly developed episcopate at the time 1 Peter was written, it seems likely that the author of 1 Peter would have recommended that structure to his addressees as well. All things considered, the evidence of church structure once cited as supporting a later date for 1 Peter actually points in the opposite direction.
First Peter’s dependence on Paul. An earlier generation of German source critics in the first half of the twentieth century commonly argued that 1 Peter exhibits a distinct dependency on Pauline thought, if not an actual literary dependence, and could not have been written before Romans and Ephesians. Therefore, this dependency probably implies a pseudonymous author, not of the Petrine school but perhaps of the Pauline school.
However, if the content of 1 Peter is in fact so Pauline and if in fact it is also a pseudonymous letter written by a Pauline disciple, it is difficult to understand why the letter should have been attributed to Peter and not Paul. This tension is great enough to lead one scholar to propose that the apostolic name in 1:1 originally had been abbreviated ΠΣ (PS) for Paulus in the Greek but was later misread by scribes as Petros (cited in Boring 1999: 42). In the complete absence of supporting manuscript evidence and scribal motivation, that speculation has been rightly rejected, and the attribution to Peter remains a problem for this theory. Boring (1999: 43) sees 1 Peter representing an “amalgamation” of the Petrine and Pauline traditions where “much Pauline tradition is now set forth under the name of Peter,” who had come to be viewed as the primary apostle of Rome. Both Peter and Paul were revered by the Roman church, with Peter’s hegemony emerging much later. But this argument must assume that Petrine hegemony developed within twenty years of the apostles’ deaths if 1 Peter is to be dated not later than 80, the terminus ad quem of modern scholarship.
Not all scholars perceive a dependency of 1 Peter on Paul’s writings. In an appendix to Selwyn’s commentary, Daube (Selwyn 1958: 488) doubts the literary dependency of 1 Peter on Paul, asking, “Why... should I Peter, with its good Greek, have put imperative participles for Paul’s clearer imperatives proper?” Schlatter (1999: 64) finds Peter’s statements “antiquated” in comparison to the more highly developed theological reflection of Paul. First Peter contains no references to Paul or to his letters, and the similarities between the two are based on similarities in terms and themes that can be plausibly explained as both authors drawing on common Christian tradition, perhaps particularly the Christian tradition of Rome (Achtemeier 1996: 15-19; Best 1971: 34; Bigg 1956: 33; Davidson 1981: 318; J. H. Elliott 2000: 37; Goppelt 1993: 28-29; Hillyer, 1992: 8; Kelly 1969: 32; Michaels 1988: xlv; Perkins 1995: 48; Snodgrass 1977-78: 105). (For a detailed comparison of 1 Peter with the Pauline books, see Selwyn 1958: 365-466; Achtemeier 1996: 15-19; and J. H. Elliott 2000: 37-40.)
The affinity between Paul and 1 Peter is greatest in Romans. Brown argues that Christianity in Rome was originally developed by Jewish Christians who took a conservative stance toward Jewish tradition, but later the church in Rome accepted elements of Paul’s more liberal theology (Brown and Meier 1983: 135-36). Brown cites three particular strains of thought that join the two books, not in a literary dependence but in a synthesizing development of Christian thought: (1) the use of Jewish cultic language regarding atonement and sacrifice; (2) a similar submissive stance toward Roman rule; and (3) a similar perspective on the charismata as the basis of Christian service and office, in comparison to the perceived further development of church office in the Pastoral Epistles (Brown and Meier 1983: 137-39). While these features are offered as evidence for the synthesis of Pauline and Petrine thought by a pseudonymous writer after Peter’s death, all three of them also fit easily into the earlier days of the Christian tradition in the 40s and 50s. The alleged contrast between the earlier Paul, who made a sharp break with Judaism as reflected in Galatians, and the later Paul in Romans, who takes a more moderate stance toward the conservative Jewish Christian tradition, is probably overvalued by Brown (Brown and Meier 1983: 134-36). For it is not clear that Galatians and Romans reflect a substantial difference in Paul’s thought, especially since the situation in Galatia was quite different from that in Rome and called for a sharp demarcation between the truth of the gospel and the practices of Judaism.
Therefore, the nature of the affinities between 1 Peter and Paul’s writings does not compel the conclusion that 1 Peter is dependent on Paul’s writings, even if Peter knew of them (cf. 2 Pet. 3:15-16).
Two other considerations. In addition to the question of the quality of the Greek and to the three arguments related to the book’s Sitz im Leben, two other factors have contributed to a late-first-century date for 1 Peter. Unless Peter himself brought the gospel to Asia Minor (for which there is no compelling historical evidence), it is argued that the spread of the gospel from the Pauline churches to the remotest areas of Asia Minor would have taken decades. The even further time it would have taken for persecution of Christians to develop would place the setting for the letter well beyond Peter’s lifetime. Furthermore, it is argued that the code word “Babylon” in 5:13 suggests a date after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
The origin of Christianity in Asia Minor. In the absence of any historically grounded tradition associating any known apostle with the churches of remote Asia Minor, it has been assumed that Christianity spread only gradually to these remote areas through indigenous evangelization by unknown persons, probably from the Pauline churches in the south. This assumption has led to the inference that it would have taken a decade or more after the lifetimes of Peter or Paul for Christianity to have become adopted by enough people to attract the kind of social persecution that 1 Peter addresses (Beare 1970: 30; Goppelt 1993: 46).
Because Pliny’s correspondence (AD 109-111) to Trajan mentions that persecution of Christians in Bithynia had been going on for about twenty years, it is inferred that 1 Peter could not have been written much before 80. The gradual growth of the church in these regions over decades is usually presented as a conclusive argument for pseudonymous authorship. If, however, Christianity came relatively quickly to these regions through Roman colonization of Asia Minor, then that assumption is removed and an earlier date, even during Peter’s lifetime, becomes more plausible (see a detailed discussion of this theory under “Recipients” below).
Babylon in 1 Peter. The reference to Babylon in 5:13 is often read as the code word for Rome that is found in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings such as the NT book of Revelation. If so, this is offered as evidence for dating 1 Peter in that period of time when Rome had become such a threat that subversive writing must use an encoded reference to it, a time generally regarded as after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. This would place the letter beyond Peter’s lifetime and corroborate the theory of pseudonymous authorship (Brown and Meier 1983: 130). However, 1 Peter is not apocalyptic in genre and portrays Rome as neither a great threat nor a great evil. It could hardly be viewed as politically subversive, since it admonishes submission to the governors (2:13) and honor to the emperor (2:17).
The association of the code word “Babylon” with later apocalyptic literature has been confused with a different purpose for its presence in 1 Peter. The reference to Babylon is motivated by the Diaspora framing of the letter (1:1) and functions as the closing inclusio of that motif. Just as the Babylonian exile marginalized the religion of the Jews with respect to the dominant society, Roman society of Peter’s day was marginalizing the Christian faith (see comments on 5:13). Thus, Rome could have been referred to as “Babylon” at any time after it gained dominance over Palestine in 63 BC, and the terminus a quo of AD 70 is eliminated (Thiede 1986). A more personal reason may have involved Peter’s desire to avoid calling attention to his actual location, if Rome was in fact the “other place” to which he fled after being arrested in Jerusalem and narrowly escaping execution (Acts 12:17; see discussion under “Recipients” below).
If the evidence traditionally used to point to a late date and pseudonymous authorship is actually inconclusive because it could pertain to any period of the Christian church in the first century, then it becomes more difficult to avoid a more direct association of the letter with the apostle Peter himself. And there is substantial evidence that would point to a very close association of the apostle Peter with the letter.
First, the letter indisputably claims to be from the apostle Peter (1 Pet. 1:1). In today’s scholarly milieu, this may seem a naive point. But under the assumption that epistolary pseudonymity was frequently practiced and widely accepted in antiquity, the text’s own claim is sometimes not given its due in favor of inferred evidence of questionable weight. The insistence that the letter’s claim to be from the apostle Peter be given its due weight is not an appeal to inspiration and inerrancy. For those doctrines cannot rule out pseudonymous authorship a priori, since any legitimate literary form of the time must be allowed a biblical author when so moved by the Holy Spirit to adopt it. Therefore, the question of pseudonymity becomes a question of genre. What genre is 1 Peter, and was pseudonymity a legitimate characteristic of that genre? Specifically, was epistolary pseudonymity a recognized and accepted literary form at the time the NT was written?