From the days of its first reception through twenty centuries of Christian history, the First Epistle of Peter (1 Peter) has been cherished in the church as a moving expression of Christian hope and joy in the face of adversity, and of faith in the God who “sets the solitary in families.” Already at the turn of the first century CE, Clement of Rome and the bishop Polycarp of Smyrna were inspired by its words. In the following centuries it was received universally by Christians in the east and the west as an indisputable canonical norm of the church’s teaching, practice, and faith. When in the sixteenth century Martin Luther’s translation of the sacred Scriptures into the vernacular was to usher in a new age of biblical meditation and study, it was 1 Peter, along with Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Gospel of John, that Luther singled out as “the true kernel and marrow” of all the sacred books. “For here you find depicted in masterly fashion how faith in Christ overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness and salvation” (“Prefaces to the New Testament,” 1522). Especially in times of national calamity, social upheaval, and personal tragedy—those acute moments of alienation, estrangement, and disorientation—countless Christians have found comfort and consolation in these words once addressed to society’s “strangers and aliens.”
The estimation of 1 Peter in modern biblical research might seem to belie the significance which the letter has held in the mind and hearts of the faithful. Attention to the Gospels and the writings of Paul has tended to dominate the scholarly scene. The issues which preoccupied modern biblical theologians—such as the quest for the historical Jesus, the history and forms of the biblical traditions, and the great contribution of the apostle Paul—have left 1 Peter and other New Testament writings in a kind of canonical “twilight zone,” where it is treated as an exegetical stepchild. It has even been proposed, quite arbitrarily, that the letter is the second-rate product of a “Paulinist” that lacks the kerygmatic vision and power of the earlier Pauline writings.
In most recent times, however, the tide has begun to change. Studies of the variety of traditions which 1 Peter has incorporated, of the unique features of its literary composition and theological message, and of its extraordinary social perspective are leading to a fresh appreciation of its contribution to the struggles and consolidation of the early Jesus movement.
There are several features of 1 Peter which characterize its importance for Christian worship as well as Christian theology. First Peter is, in a sense, an Easter letter. The basis for the hope it celebrates, and the impetus for the creation of the distinctive community it describes, are grounded in God’s resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the regeneration of those who confess him as Lord. “By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3). It is most appropriate, therefore, that it is 1 Peter to which the church listens in its liturgical celebration of the Sundays of the Easter season.
First Peter is also important as the first of a large body of literature associated with the Apostle Peter in the early church (including 2 Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Peter, the Passion of Peter, and the Clementine writings). This literature along with the Petrine tradition of the New Testament not only attests the prominent role of Peter in the organization and history of the ancient church. It also figures significantly in the reassessment of Peter’s role in the development of ecclesiastical ministry and order, the focus of numerous ecumenical dialogue groups.
For its own time the letter is also important for still another reason. It is the first document of the New Testament that systematically addresses the issue of the messianic community’s relation to, and place within, the larger society. The response which 1 Peter makes to the predicament of the social and religious estrangement of the Jesus movement within a hostile environment becomes in many ways a harbinger of the course which the church subsequently follows in the period prior to Constantine. In 1 Peter we meet for the first time those aspects of community which it is said eventually account for the church’s ultimate ascendancy and consolidation within the Roman Empire: the distinctive communal identity of the Jesus movement, its solidarity in suffering, its radical promotion of social cohesion and fraternal love, and its offer of human dignity and place of belonging to society’s dislocated strangers.
As we turn now to 1 Peter itself and its time and place in history, it will be such aspects of the letter that deserve our close attention. In this eloquent expression of the church’s kerygma (“proclamation”), how does an appealing vision of human community become “good news” for strangers and aliens in Asia Minor society? In view of the diversity of opinion concerning virtually every detail of 1 Peter’s composition, a reliable interpretation would do well to base itself as much as possible on the actual form, content, and information of the document itself. Let us start, therefore, with the overall features of its literary composition and then turn to the more specific questions concerning its origin and destination, the situation of the addressees, and the substance and strategy of the Petrine response.
The form or literary genre of 1 Peter is that of a genuine letter. This is indicated by its (a) epistolary salutation (1:1–2), (b) communication proper (1:3—5:11), and (c) closing personal commendation and greetings “from our house to yours” (5:12–14). Thus it resembles most closely that type of personal communication of which there are innumerable examples in antiquity and that form of communication within the Jesus movement of which the letters of Paul are the closest example. This feature of 1 Peter is important in that it not only determines the structure of the content but also its impact on the recipients. As a letter, 1 Peter expresses or establishes a personal bond between author and addressees as co-sharers of a common faith and co-members of a single community. The explicit mention of specific names (Peter, 1:1; Silvanus and Mark, 5:12–13) implies that the senders were known personally or at least by reputation to the recipients, and that this letter was intended to affirm or enhance that personal tie. This formal implication of intimate association is fully explicated in the content of the letter that stresses repeatedly the solidarity of the universal brotherhood of faith. There is thus in 1 Peter an integral relationship between its form and its content. The former sets the stage and provides the social framework for comprehending the latter. The medium, in other words, is already part of the message.
In contrast to the letters of Paul, 1 Peter is addressed to a far wider expanse of believing communities who are located not in a single city but throughout several provinces of Asia Minor (1:1). For this reason it is referred to as a “general” or “catholic” letter. This, in turn, has important implications for the date of the letter and the situation which it addresses. The large amount of territory embraced by the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia—approximately 129,000 square miles—indicates expansion of the messianic mission in Asia Minor that could have occurred only subsequent to the activities of Paul. In addition, sufficient time must be allowed for the social conflict between Jesus-followers and their neighbors mentioned in 1 Peter to have developed generally throughout these Roman provinces. These developments require at least a time span of no less than a decade or two following the conclusion of Paul’s Asia Minor activities (ca. 58–60 CE), especially in view of the fact that for Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia, that is, the majority of the territory addressed, there is no record of Pauline mission work whatsoever. Thus the address of this letter as well as the situation that it reflects point to a date no earlier than 70 or 75 CE.
Even though 1 Peter manifests all the essential ingredients of a genuine letter, certain factors concerning its internal integrity have led some scholars to question whether this was its original form. Does the transition, for instance, between vv. 11 and 12 of chapter 4 perhaps indicate a “major break” in the document? Do not these verses signal a radical change in situation as well as a shift in thought? Following what appears to be a formal concluding doxology in 4:11, does the section introduced by 4:12 perhaps suggest that the situation of potential suffering of the believers presupposed in 1:3—4:11 has at this point become a “fiery” reality? If so, might this indicate that different sections of the document were formulated at different times, under different circumstances, for different purposes, perhaps even by different authors?
Might the term “baptism” in 3:21 and the several instances of imagery typical of baptismal tradition (for example, rebirth, 1:3, 23; 2:2; sanctification, 1:2, 15–16, 22; 2:5, 9; 3:5, 15; Exodus and redemption, 1:13, 18–19) and exhortation (1:14–16, 22–23; 2:1–3; 4:1) suggest that one section of 1 Peter (1:3—4:11) was originally a baptismal homily which was later expanded into the present letter? Or do additional liturgical elements—such as the benediction (“Blessed be . . .”) in 1:3, the doxologies and “amens” of 4:11 and 5:10–11, the hymnic or creedal fragments in 1:20; 2:21–24; and 3:18–22, and the kiss of love in 5:14 perhaps—even suggest that 1 Peter incorporates an early liturgy of the Jesus movement? Might the many occurrences of the Greek term paschein (11/12 times in 1 Peter, more than in any other New Testament writing, and usually translated “to suffer”) suggest that this “liturgy” was in fact designed for the celebration of the Pasch among believers, that is, at the feast of resurrection? Or if the liturgical hypotheses are somewhat extreme, is it not possible that 1 Peter was at least a combination of two separate letters written on different occasions?
The answer to all such imaginative but unsupported speculations must be a negative one. For none of them satisfactorily accounts for all the evidence; and several create more problems than they purport to solve. On the other hand, the features to which these theories have pointed can be adequately explained in consonance with the original integrity of 1 Peter as a single genuine letter.
There are several literary features which illustrate the coherency, consistency and unity of the letter. Many terms or images are repeated throughout the several sections of the letter such as:
Additionally, one finds images of the messianic community such as the “flock of God,” or the “household / family / brotherhood / children of God.” Parallel patterns of composition are evident, as in the similar structures of 2:18–21; 3:1–6, 13–17; 4:12–19 and 1:13–16, 2:13–17, 3:8–9; 4:1–6; or in the consistent contrasts between negative/positive elements (e.g., 1:14/15, 18/19; 3:9; 4:15/16; 5:2–3, etc.), or in the repeated use of terms to mark the beginning (e.g., “exhort,” 2:11; 4:12; 5:12) or conclusion (e.g., “good news,” 1:12, 25; 4:6, 17) of subsections. So-called link-words are frequently used to effect combinations and continuity of thought, for example:
The compositional technique of inclusion (repetition of terms or motifs to demarcate the beginning and end of sections) is used not only to mark and integrate smaller sections (such as 1:13–21 [hope] or 1:3—2:10 [mercy]) but also to unite and frame the letter as a whole. Such inclusions indicate not only the internal structure and integrity of the document but also some of its major accents. Thus at both the outset and close of the letter the paradoxical relation of suffering and glory (1:6–8; 5:10) is stressed; peace is enjoined (1:1; 5:14); the grace of God (1:2) is explicitly stated as a focal point of the letter (5:12; see also 1:10, 13; 2:19, 20; 3:7; 4:10; 5:5, 10); and the common condition (diaspora, 1:1; Babylon, 5:13), familial unity (5:12–14), and divine election (1:1; 5:13) of both the senders and recipients of the letter are emphasized.
Unity, in other words, is a characteristic not only of the letter’s composition but also of the two communities who are its senders and intended recipients. Within this unified composition, elements of a broad stream of common liturgical, catechetical, and hortatory tradition of the Jesus movement have been included. The use or adaptation of liturgical tradition, however, must not be confused with the structure of the document itself. The presence of liturgical elements in 1 Peter no more make of this letter a liturgy or a homily than the presence of a “thanks be to God” or an allusion to an article of faith makes of a letter a hymnal or a catechism. Appeal to common tradition, however, does underline the bonds of faith and practice that unite the authors of this letter and their Asia Minor addressees.
Furthermore, the Greek verb paschein (“to suffer”) in 1 Peter clearly refers not to a liturgical ceremony but to a social and existential reality. It describes the result of the believers’ interaction and conflict with a hostile society. It, too, is one of the several experiences that unite the senders and recipients of 1 Peter with each other and with their one suffering Lord.
Finally, 4:12 and its following verses constitute not a sudden shift in perspective or situation but rather a further stage in an advancing and climaxing line of thought. These verses only spell out explicitly and climactically what has already been introduced and implied earlier on. Thus, vv. 4:12–19 explicate the specific causes and results of the innocent suffering of believers, first mentioned in 1:6–8. Suffering of the innocent is not only an occasion of the divine testing of the believers’ faith (as in 1:6–7 and again in 4:12) but ultimately a signal of divine judgment and the punishment of the unfaithful (4:17–19). Those who are declared to be the elect and holy household of God in 2:4–10 are, according to 4:17, the same household of God with whom the divine judgment begins. Likewise the faithful reception of the good news which, according to 1:10–12 (and vv. 22–25), constitutes the means of rebirth is, according to 4:17–18, a basic mark of distinction between the household of God and the unbelievers, the saved and the sinners who perish. In general, 4:12–19 presume (and elaborate the ultimate implications of) the same situation reflected in 3:13–17.
In structure, content, and accent the letter of 1 Peter reveals a coherent and integrated line of thought from its opening to its close. Central to this line of thought, as we shall see in detail below, is the correlation between the believers’ social predicament and their divine vocation, their situation as “strangers and aliens” and their identity as the “household of God.” The following outline—in paraphrase—may serve to reflect both the structure of the letter and its central underlying theme.
1:1–2 Epistolary Prescript: The apostle Peter to the elect homeless believers in the diaspora of Asia Minor
5:12–14 Epistolary Postscript: Greetings from the associates of Peter in Babylon (especially Silvanus his faithful brother, Mark his son, and the co-elect brother[and sister]hood).
The tension between the addressees’ homelessness in society and “at-home-ness” in the household of God is a theme that runs through 1 Peter like a golden thread. An examination of the factors pertaining to the destination and origin of the letter will enable us to analyze this tension in closer detail.
The addresees of 1 Peter, according to 1:1, are “the elect temporary visitors of the diaspora living in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” These names refer in all probability to the Roman provinces which had been formed of the majority of Anatolian territories, which since 133 BCE had gradually come under Roman control through bequest or annexation. A conglomeration of previously isolated geographical regions with populations of different ethnic origins, distinctive languages, and independent patterns of government, culture, and religion, these provinces, even under Roman rule, achieved little homogeneity and retained a certain degree of local jurisdictional independence. Except for the province of Asia, the coastal areas of Bithynia and Pontus, and a few cities inland, the great cultural and political movements of Hellenization, Romanization, and urbanization had made little headway in these areas.
In addition to lumbering and mining, the chief industries of the predominantly rural population were agriculture and grazing, with their subsidiary occupations of wine production, wool making, linen weaving, cloth dyeing, parchment manufacture, and the like. In the rural areas large independent households (comprising immediate and extended family, workers, slaves, and all land and personal property) composed the chief unit of social, economic, and religious organization. In the cities and in the country, natives and foreigners, citizens and non-citizen resident aliens, the freeborn and the freedmen, slaves attached to a household, and unattached day laborers were all distinguished into social classes that differentiated degrees of political, legal, economic and social advantage and disadvantage. The formation of particular social groupings—“associations” of people of the same trade, land of origin, or religion—in such a mixed culture, illustrates the vulnerability that many of the displaced and deprived of society felt, and their desire for some communal experience of social acceptance, belonging, and security. This is an especially important aspect of the situation to which 1 Peter is addressed. For it is precisely to “resident aliens and temporary visitors” (1:1; 2:11) that the letter is written; and it is a distinctive form of social and religious community that the letter claims to be the concrete manifestation of messianic hope.
The addressees themselves were undoubtedly converts from both Israel and Greco-Roman society, with the latter in predominance. Through deportation or voluntary emigration, Israelites had been living throughout Asia Minor for more than two centuries. According to one estimate, of a total Asia Minor population of approximately four million, the number of resident Israelites was no less than 250,000. While these figures remained relatively constant throughout the first century CE, the number of Christ-followers, it is estimated, increased rapidly from a population of approximately 5,000 prior to the Judean–Roman war of 66–70 CE to some 80,000 by the turn of the century.
The Jesus movement in Asia Minor, as elsewhere, involved the conversion of both Israelites and non-Israelites from the outset. There is no evidence of the formation of exclusive ethnic communities. The content of 1 Peter itself, moreover, with its reference to both Israelite tradition (frequent citations of Israel’s scriptures; contrast with its prophets, 1:10–12; appropriation of its honorific titles, 2:4–10; mention of its models of faith, 3:5–6, 20) and former Gentile patterns of behavior (1:14, 18; 4:3–4) appears specifically designed for an audience of mixed ethnic background.
It is possible that some of the addressees in Galatia and Asia joined the Jesus movement as a result of the missions of Paul and Silvanus/Silas (see Acts 16:6; 18:19–21; 19:1–41; 20:17–35; Galatians; Ephesians; and Colossians). It is impossible, however, to think of all the provinces addressed in 1 Pet 1:1 as exclusively “Pauline” territory. There is no evidence whatsoever that Paul had any contact with the provinces of Bithynia, Pontus, or Cappadocia. Thus there is no substance to the theory that 1 Peter must be a “Pauline” document because it is written to “Pauline congregations.” Nor does its address to an audience including Gentiles prove its non-Petrine authorship on the assumption that Peter would not have written to, or “interfered with,” Pauline communities. Such a premise rests on a credulous acceptance of a statement in Gal 2:7–9 concerning a supposed division of the messianic mission into Israelite and Gentile wings, a tactic that was neither historically actuated nor even strategically feasible. Already at Caesarea in Palestine, according to Acts 10–11, it was Peter who was instrumental in the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius. And later at the summit meeting in Jerusalem it was this same Peter who was the first to step forward and affirm the universality of God’s grace and his support of the Gentile mission (Acts 15:7–11).
Whereas Jesus-followers in three of these provinces (Pontus, Cappadocia, Bithynia) had no apparent contact with Paul, it is possible that some of them had once met or had at least heard of the Apostle Peter. The only other mention of Pontus and Cappadocia in the entire New Testament apart from 1 Pet 1:1 occurs in Acts 2:9, which relates that “residents of . . . Cappadocia, Pontus” were among those present at the first Pentecost after Jesus’s death (Acts 2). Pontians and Cappadocians (as well as Asians, 2:9) were thus among the witnesses not only of the great outpouring of the Spirit but also of the eloquent proclamation and leadership of the Apostle Peter (Acts 2:14–42; 3:1—5:42). Whether they were also among the host of those baptized that day, and whether they spread the word further upon their return to Asia Minor, can only be left a possibility. If this was the case, however, it would account not only for the origin of the Jesus movement in these remote areas but also for the regard and esteem with which Peter may have been held. This, in turn, could have been part of the personal contact upon which the letter of 1 Peter was building.
Whatever the earlier history of the addressees may have been, it is clear that by the time of the composition of 1 Peter, their position within Asia Minor society is characterized chiefly by tension and conflict. Social stress and tension, of course, was nothing new to either Asia Minor or the followers of Jesus. Friction between the rich and the poor, the slaves and the free, the city sophisticates and the rural yokels, the natives and the foreigners was a regular feature of ancient life. Cities such as Smyrna and Ephesus in Asia or Nicaea in Bithynia were constantly contending for the honor of first place in their provinces. Suspicion and animosity also prevailed between, on the one hand, local temples and religious practices that were an essential part of local politics and culture and, on the other hand, the more mobile, restless assortment of cults and sects. The latter competed for adherents and were suspected of undermining the stability of society (read: the dominance of the ruling class that was often an alliance of politicians, priests, and the wealthy).
It was strange “superstitions” (i.e., those beliefs and practices that differ from our own), from the east that were the particular object of resentment and scorn: the animal worshippers from Egypt, the long-dressed Persians, the Syrians and Judeans with their loyalties to Judea, Jerusalem and its temple. These aliens and strangers were under constant suspicion of being disloyal to the local communities and their gods and being up to no good. Unrelenting pressure was brought upon these foreigners to conform and assimilate to “acceptable” local standards of “proper” behavior and loyalty. Israelites of the diaspora, called “Judeans” by their Gentile hosts, had faced this problem for centuries. They could tolerate a certain degree of accommodation and harmonious coexistence because of at least two factors that preserved their specific identity and security: Israel was not a novel religious movement but an ancient people with a noble history. Furthermore, because of the special privileges granted it by Julius Caesar and reaffirmed by his successors, Israel enjoyed the favor and protection of Rome. Things were fundamentally different for the messianic sect of Israel eventually labeled “Christian” by its detractors. This movement claimed allegiance to an Israelite from Nazareth named Jesus, who was crucified by the Romans. It could claim no such antiquity, it repudiated all ethnic distinctiveness, and it enjoyed no special toleration by Rome. For this fledgling movement to survive, its members, residing in households dispersed over thousands of miles of Asia Minor territory, needed a sense of all that bound them together as a distinctive and honorable community, and a resolve to maintain that community however great the cost.
As we can see in 1 Peter, hostility directed against the followers of Jesus from outsiders had become a critical problem that threatened the very continuation, let alone the growth, of the Jesus movement in Asia Minor. The Jesus-followers were strangers and aliens in a double sense. On the one hand, their ranks were composed of “resident aliens” and “temporary visitors” who lived in an estranged relationship with their local neighbors. The first of these terms in the Greek text is paroikos (1 Pet 2:11; also paroikia in 1:17). Etymologically the term refers to someone who is “away from home” (oikos), living in a land and “alongside” (par-) people who are not kith and kin to whom one does not naturally belong. Thus in the Old Testament and New Testament it describes the status of Abraham and Sarah as resident aliens among the Hittites (Gen 23:4, 26:3; Heb 11:8–9), or Moses as a resident alien in the land of Midian (Exod 2:22; Acts 7:29), or the Israelites as resident aliens in Egypt (Gen 15:13; Acts 7:6), living in a foreign “house of bondage” (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6), or the later Israelite settlement in Ptolemaic Egypt (3 Macc 7:19).
Whereas its accompanying term parepidēmos (1 Pet 2:11, see 1:1; Gen 23:4; Ps 38 :13) refers to one who is a “temporary visitor passing by,” the word paroikos (“resident alien”) in the Greek and Roman world was a technical term with specific legal and social implications. It designated those whose legal, economic, and social rights were limited because they were foreigners. Restriction on such aliens included those whom they could marry, the types of business they could conduct, the holding of land and the succession of property, voting, and the forming of associations. They had no political rights; they paid higher taxes and tribute; they were excluded from popular assemblies and were susceptible to severer forms of civil punishment. In 1 Peter the term “resident aliens” does not identify the addressees as “exiles” or “pilgrims” as many biblical translations misleadingly suggest. It certainly does not imply a “pilgrimage on earth; “earth” does not appear in the original Greek text. Like the official term “resident alien” in the national codes of law, the word in 1 Peter refers to a specific segment of the population who, because of foreign origin and allegiances, has limited political, legal, and social rights. Such limitations, then as now, frequently engender and are accompanied by “unofficial” or everyday expressions of discrimination, hostility, and abuse.
In addition to such alien social status, the Christ-followers of Asia Minor were also strangers from a religious point of view. Rather than sharing in the pantheistic and syncretistic spirit of the times, they intolerantly forbade any allegiance and worship other than to the God proclaimed by Jesus the Christ. These “Christians” (1 Pet 4:16, a term of scorn applied to the believers by outsiders, with the connotation of “Christ-lackeys”) were thus regarded as antisocial purveyors of a strange, competitive religion and as a potentially disloyal disruptive element in the body politic. The pressure exerted upon them, as upon all “aliens,” insisted on religious as well as social conformity. Nonconformity, insistence on their distinctiveness, and worship of their God alone, with no devotion to the local protective deities, would result only in alienation and attempts at their extermination on the part of the natives.
This is the situation that appears to have prompted the composition and dispatch of 1 Peter. Suspicion on the part of the natives, nurtured by ignorance and fear of these strangers, was followed by slanderous accusations of wrongdoing and other forms of mockery and verbal abuse. Slander and contempt caused undeserved suffering on the part of the Christ-followers, and suffering, in turn, threatened to undermine their faith, hope, communal unity, and commitment. These followers of Jesus the Christ were singled out and mocked with a discriminatory label, “Christians” (4:16). They were reviled (3:9) by ignorant nonbelievers (2:15, 3:15; see 1:14) and unjustly slandered (2:12, 3:16) as immoral or criminal wrongdoers (2:12, 14; 3:17; 4:15). They were threatened with harm (3:13), called to account (3:15), and reproached for their allegiance to Jesus the Christ (4:14). They and their God were blasphemed as a result of their termination of previous social associations and ways of behavior (4:3–4). Instead of an improvement in their condition and lot in life, which they had expected their adherence to the Jesus movement to bring about, they seem to have been “blessed” only with grief, sorrow, and suffering (1:6; 2:19–20; 3:14, 17; 4:1, 15, 19). With minority and sectarian groups like the Petrine community, hostile pressures from outside the group can have a debilitating effect upon self-confidence, harmony, and cohesion within the community. Suffering too can have not only a personal but also a social effect. The suffering experienced by the recipients of 1 Peter may have led not only to individual disillusionment and despair but also to in-group friction (2:1), disorder (2:11—3:12) and an everyone-for-him-or-herself kind of attitude (5:1–5).
One alternative to this state of affairs was for the Christ-followers to yield to the pressures of social conformity. The urgency that characterizes the exhortation of 1 Peter suggests an awareness or fear that some had already begun to take this option. The end effect of such a step upon this still nascent sectarian movement, however, would have spelled disaster. For it would have entailed the sacrifice of those very religious and social features that made the believing community what it distinctively was: a community of people shaped by a common experience of God’s universal grace manifested in Jesus the Christ and united in a common faith, an exclusive obedience, and an uncompromising commitment to the brotherhood.
The letter of 1 Peter proposed a different course: Stand firm and fight! Resist and win! Remember who and what you are by God’s grace—his elect and holy household. Close the ranks of your households and live such attractive, honorable, and God-pleasing lives that even your detractors will one day join you in the glorification of God (2:11–12).
Before we study the details of this response and the social-religious strategy which it reflects, there is one more aspect of the letter’s origin to consider; namely, its authorship and its place and date of composition.
The question of the authorship of 1 Peter has stimulated more debate than has any other feature of the document. This is unfortunate because this has generated numerous useless theories which have only confused the picture and distracted attention from more significant issues. According to its opening words, the letter is from “Peter an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1). This does not imply that Peter himself actually wrote down the words but only that he was the chief source of the letter’s content. As Paul in writing to the Romans used the scribal services of Tertius (Rom 16:22), so the letter of 1 Peter may well have been written by some unknown hand. Some scholars, on the basis of 1 Pet 5:12, think that the secretary was not unknown but actually named: “By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him I have written to you . . .” The formula employed in the Greek (dia Silouanou), however, identifies Silvanus not as the writer of the letter but as the courier or emissary through whom the letter was to be delivered. In Acts 15, Silvanus (or “Silas” as he is called in the Aramaic form of his name) plays a similar role. There he is described as being sent with Judas Barsabbas to deliver a letter containing the decision of the Jerusalem Apostolic Council to the “brothers” in Antioch (15:22–34). This passage of Acts is of even further significance. It records not only the personal association of Peter and Silvanus in Jerusalem and the crucial role which both leading figures assumed in the furtherance of the Gentile mission. It also suggests Jerusalem as the place where both persons also had contact with Mark, who is mentioned in 1 Pet 5:13 as “my [Peter’s] son.” It was to the home of John Mark that Peter had fled after his escape from prison according to Acts 12:12. From Acts 13:13 we may deduce that John Mark also was present in Jerusalem at the time of the Council. Thus the three persons named explicitly in 1 Peter are the same three who most likely had made contact in Jerusalem. Together they represent prominent proponents of a universal gospel, supporters and agents of a Gentile mission, and a personal bridge of the Jesus movement from Jerusalem to Antioch, Asia Minor and “Babylon.”
The explicit mention of these three names indicates that 1 Peter is the communication not so much of an individual as of a group. The manual composition of the letter is of less importance than the fact that it expresses the shared concerns of a group in “Babylon” and its bond with fellow brothers and sisters in Asia Minor. The attribution of the letter to Peter indicates that he is the leading figure of the group and the chief inspirer of the letter’s content.
The precise location of this Petrine group is difficult to establish with certainty. However, the certain presence of Peter in Rome and his death there ca. 64–67 CE; the traditional association of Mark with Peter and Rome; and the similarities shared by 1 Peter, Paul’s earlier Letter to the Romans, and the later letter of 1 Clement of Rome all suggest that 1 Peter originated in Rome. “Babylon” is best taken as a figurative reference to Rome, symbolizing this capital of the Roman empire as another place of paroikia (alien residence) of the brotherhood corresponding to the paroikia of those living in Asia Minor (1:1). “Babylon” would signify, as it did in the Old Testament and Israel’s history of yore (e.g., Isaiah 13; 43:14; Jer 50:29; 51:1–58; Psalm 137; Daniel), the powerful capital of the forces of godlessness and worldwide domination, the place of Israel’s dislocated presence. Thus “Babylon” constitutes another of many well-chosen terms or images to express either the common social predicament or the vigorous hope of both the senders and recipients of 1 Peter.
The circumstances that the letter presupposes provide a probable, although not absolutely certain, basis for determining its date. (1) Subsequent to the Pauline mission (ca. 60 CE and following years), the Jesus movement had spread throughout a vast extent of Asia Minor territory. (2) It had been recognized as a discernible sect of Israel (bearing the name “Christian,” follower of the Messiah/Christ) that had been slandered by the natives as strangers implicated in wrongdoing. (3) The neutral attitude expressed toward the Roman government in 1 Pet 2:13–17 (contrasts with the positive view of Rom 13:1–7, on the one hand, and the demonizing view of the Revelation of John, on the other) coincides with the neutral attitude of the Flavian emperors toward the Jesus movement, particularly in Asia Minor (Vespasian [69–79 CE], Titus [79–81 CE], Domitian [81–96 CE]). The term peirasmos (1:6; 4:12) denotes not an official state “persecution” undertaken by Rome. The first such worldwide persecution by Rome was undertaken only by emperor Decius in 251 CE. Peirasmos rather interprets suffering as a means of divine “testing” of faith. The date that best accords with these circumstances is the period between 73 and 92 CE. If 1 Peter was written at this time, it means that Peter was already dead. The most reliable tradition attests to his death in Rome following the great fire in Rome (64 CE) and Nero’s scapegoating the Christians as arsonists who set the blaze. Peter’s death most probably occurred soon thereafter (64–67 CE), and tradition (historical, archaeological, literary) has linked the Apostle (and Mark) with Rome ever since.
Under these circumstances, 1 Peter then represents the theological heritage and social vision of the great apostle-martyr, Peter. Formulated by the circle of his most intimate associates in Rome, the letter was sent in his name along with their greetings and personal representation to the suffering brothers and sisters of the believing brotherhood and household of God in Asia Minor. In response to a situation of conflict and suffering afflicting the brotherhood abroad as well as that in Rome, the Petrine community in Rome sent to the sisters and brothers in Asia Minor an eloquent fraternal letter of consolation and exhortation. This letter is more than a mere repository of Petrine reminiscences. It is a compelling encouragement of steadfastness, solidarity, and patient endurance in the present and a vibrant voice of hope for the future.
What are the features of 1 Peter that make it such a graphic example of messianic social-religious consciousness? In what manner has early church tradition been used to respond with sensitivity and creativity to the predicament of suffering and estrangement? What is “good” about the “good news” which 1 Peter proclaims? Put differently, how is 1 Peter an expression of the Christian gospel? Why does the image of the believing community as the “household of God” play such a comprehensive role here? How does 1 Peter illustrate the fact that every ecclesiology (i.e., conception of the community of the faithful) is not only a theological but also a sociological matter? How is it evident in 1 Peter that the early Jesus movement involved not the mere propagation of theological ideas but the creation of human community? How does 1 Peter show the concern for the correlation of human predicament and evangelical promise, the experience of life and the aspirations of faith? To such questions a consideration of the social and religious strategy of 1 Peter promises to hold some answers.
First Peter is not a general formulation of theological ideas or “truths.” The letter is rather a direct response to a specific situation. The message which it proclaims is “good” news, gospel, because it addresses and is designed to improve a particularly “bad” or dangerous situation. The formulation of this good news therefore is to be studied in its literary, theological, and social dimensions.
The situation described by the letter, as we have already seen, is one of social conflict and tension. Jesus-followers residing in Asia Minor as transient strangers, resident aliens, and displaced persons have been discriminated against, unjustly maligned, and caused to suffer, particularly as adherents of a foreign “Christian” sect of Israel, a group of persons committed to Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s Messiah or Christ. This messianic sect that emerges in Syria Palestine had spread to provinces of Asia Minor and was particularly attractive to displaced persons, resident aliens, and all lacking a permanent place of belonging. Their position as aliens, made even more precarious by their severance of previous social and religious ties upon their joining the Jesus movement, had been judged by the locals as socially divisive and dangerous to public well-being and the favor of the gods. Abuse had led to innocent suffering. For the believers to yield to external pressure urging conformity to local customs and standards of conduct as a way of avoiding increased harassment and suffering, however, would have threatened the very existence of the fledgling movement in Asia Minor, let alone its future growth.
To confront this situation, 1 Peter presents a three-pronged response: (1) It assures followers in households dispersed across Asia Minor that they are all members of one unified community of faith, one brotherhood or family with a common experience of innocent suffering and a common collective identity as the covenant people of God. (2) The letter underlines the need for solidarity and social cohesion so as to resist external pressures urging conformity and assimilation. (3) It calls for continued unqualified commitment to Jesus Christ, God, and fellow believers throughout the world. For innocent suffering to have meaning and for resistance to have purpose, the letter grounds its call for doing what is right in the saving action of a gracious God and the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s obedient servant/slave. It sounds a double note of consolation and encouragement designed to address the seeming discrepancy between social condition and divine vocation, depressing experience and joyful hope.
The letter is a fraternal expression of sympathy and support offered by the Roman branch of the messianic brotherhood to their suffering brothers and sisters in Asia Minor. It is a call for sanctity, solidarity, and steadfastness that is made possible by the certainty of the believers’ special calling by God and God’s sure vindication of the righteous. By giving confirming witness to the “true grace of God,” the letter exhorts its readers to “resist” the aggression of the adversary (5:8–9) and to “stand fast” in God’s grace (5:12). Followers of Jesus can remain steadfast as strangers and aliens (paroikoi) in society, because of the community they enjoy as the household of God (oikos tou theou). In the believing community they have found a home for the homeless.
This description and exhortation, consolation and confirmation of the believers as “the household of God” is the basic integrating element in the response of 1 Peter to the situation of the addressees. The tension between “strangerhood” and community, which characterizes the predicament of the believers in Asia Minor as in Rome, and which 1 Peter alludes to in a variety of ways, is most succinctly epitomized in the correlation and tension between the terms paroikoi (paroikia) and oikos, “homelessness” in society and “at-homeness” in the family of God. Before directing attention to the elements and function of this communal image in particular, let us first survey the letter’s movement of thought in general. The terminology and imagery that were selected, the arrangement of content, and the particular emphases that were made are all important indications of the underlying social and religious strategy according to which the letter was composed. To understand the strategy behind the letter is to grasp both its principles of composition and its intended effect upon its recipients. In tracing the general movement of thought we will be following the outline of the letter as given above.
The first major section of the letter (I. 1:3—2:10) affirms the distinctive communal identity of the addressees. It thereby provides the foundation upon which the subsequent exhortation (II.–IV., 2:11—5:11) builds.
The first literary unit (I.A. 1:3–12) opens the letter on a positive and perhaps liturgically familiar note (cf. 2 Cor 1:3, Eph 1:3). God is blessed as the divine Father whose lavish mercy is the source of the distinctive benefits and honor of the new community to which he has given birth (1:3). Through their receptive hearing of the good news (v. 12), the senders and recipients of the letter together (“we,” v. 3) have been reborn to a living hope (v. 3), a permanent inheritance (v. 4) and a salvation soon to be revealed in this last time (v. 5). Therefore, the believers have a reason for rejoicing even in the face of possible suffering since suffering tests and purifies faith and since the result of a constant faith will surely be praise, glory, honor, and salvation at the revelation of Jesus Christ (vv. 6–9). As their “rebirth” implies a preceding death and termination of old associations and allegiances (social and religious), so the gospel of the sufferings and glory of Christ, which was shared exclusively with them by the Holy Spirit, distinguishes and exalts them above even the prophets of old and angels (vv. 10–12).
The following units (I.B.–D., 1:13—2:3) expand further upon the distinctions of God’s children and introduce implications of this distinctiveness for their conduct. They are a people characterized by hope and holiness, reverence and obedience. Their holiness, like their election (1:1), requires a separation from former ungodly ways of behavior (1:14), being holy as God is holy (1:15–16) and obedient awe and reverence of God alone as strangers in society (v. 17). For they have been liberated from futile inherited ways by the precious blood of Christ, the holy lamb (vv. 18–20) through whom they now have faith and hope in God (v. 21). As obedient children of God, they have been united as brothers and sisters and therefore are to practice sincere brotherly love (vv. 22–23) and to avoid internal dissension (2:1). The word of the good news by which they have been born anew is the word of the Lord upon which they are constantly to draw for nourishment and growth toward salvation (1:23–25; 2:2–3).
An elaborately constructed statement on the believers’ communal distinctiveness, unity with Christ, and dignity before God (2:4–10) provides an emphatic conclusion to this first section of the letter. Strangers in society though they are, in God’s sight they are the elect and holy household of the Spirit. Here one of the largest combinations of Old Testament texts to be found in the New Testament is used to affirm the unity which faith creates and the dignity it confers. Faith in Jesus Christ as the messianic “stone” (vv. 4, 6–8 referring to Isa 28:16; Ps 118:22; Isa 8:14) distinguishes those who have been honored by God (v. 7a) from the rejecting, stumbling unbelievers (vv. 4a, 7b–8). As faith separates, so it is also “the tie which binds” rejected believers with their once-rejected but now-living Lord. As he was a “stone rejected by humans” but then raised and exalted by God (v. 4; see also 1:3, 21; 3:18, 22), so rejected believers also are “living stones” (v. 5a). As he was “elect and precious in God’s sight” (v. 4b), so they who believe in him have become the “elect” and “holy” covenant “people” of God (vv. 9–10). The unique honor that once belonged to the house of Israel (Exod 19:3–8) has now been claimed by those of every people who through faith have membership in the “household of the Spirit” (v. 5 anticipating and interpreting vv. 9–10).
Having established the distinctive communal identity of those who have been reborn through acceptance of the good news, the authors next turn to the issue of the God-given responsibilities of the household of God within an alien society (II.–IV., 2:11—5:11). Verses 11–12 of chapter 2 provide the transition from a consideration of who the believers are to how they are to behave within the community and vis-à-vis society. At this point the stress on external distinctiveness and internal solidarity becomes more pronounced. New points and images are introduced while others, such as the household character of the believing community, are continued and extended. As “resident aliens and temporary visitors” (a more accurate translation than “aliens and exiles”), the readers are to “keep a distance” from the selfish desires which typify the ways of the “Gentiles” (that is, the totality of nonbelievers). Accommodation to the dissolute ways of the Gentiles is contrary to the will of God (4:2–4; cf. 1:14, 18–19). The conflict is described in terms of a “war” (v. 11) as later it is symbolized as a contest with a ravenous lion (5:8–9). Those who are hostile to the Christ-followers are opposed also to God and are in league with the devil. These opponents are to be resisted. Not, however, by wrongdoing, but rather by overcoming evil with good (2:12; see 2:18–25; 3:2, 9, 10–12, 15–17, 18; 4:14–16, 19). Only by steadfastly leading a god-pleasing, honorable, and attractive way of life will the believers overcome the suspicions of their detractors and lead even them to the goal of all humanity: the glorification of God on the day of visitation (2:12; see 3:1–2).
In order to illustrate the roles, relationships, and responsibilities of the household of God, an ancient and traditional pattern of household moral instruction has been adopted and adapted in the following section (II.B. 2:13—3:12; see also 5:1–5). Order within the household and society is necessary and is maintained through the willingness to “be subordinate” (2:13, 18; 3:1, 5; 5:5). For ultimately all creatures, authorities, and powers are subordinate to the Creator (4:19) and the exalted Christ (3:22). Thus the household of God can be subordinate to the laws of the household of Caesar, whose function is limited by 1 Peter to punishing wrongdoers and rewarding those doing what is right (2:13b–17). Respect is due all persons, including the emperor; however, love is reserved for the brotherhood, and awe and reverence for God alone (2:17).
Household servants/slaves are to be subordinate to their owners by doing what is right, even if suffering unjustly (2:18–20). For they above all others exemplify the new dignity and demands of God’s calling. Like these household servants, Christ suffered as a servant faithful to God’s will and established a pattern of innocent obedience for all the household to follow (2:21–25 echoing the Servant Song of Isa 52:13—53:12). Through subordination, believing wives, with their “gentle and quiet spirit,” may win for the faith their yet unbelieving husbands (3:1–5). Believing husbands, on the other hand, are to “live in household harmony” with their wives and respect them as “co-heirs of the grace of life” (3:7). All members of the household are to maintain the unity of the community by living humbly, harmoniously, and practicing brotherly [and sisterly] love, and renouncing retaliation (v. 8). The calling of Christ-followers is to avoid doing what is wrong and to do what is right (vv. 9, 10–12).
If the household of faith possesses the internal cohesion and strength that comes from the common performance of God’s will, then “who is there to harm you” even if you are accused of being “zealots [i.e., fanatics] for what is right?” (3:13). This question introduces the main two sections responding to the problem of innocent suffering that has been caused by outsider Gentile hostility (II.C. 3:13—4:6; and III. 4:12–19). Here the line of demarcation is clearly drawn between the abusers and the abused (3:13–17), those who oppose the will of God and those who obey it (4:1–4; see 3:19; 4:17), the sinners and the righteous (4:18; see 4:1, 8), the Gentiles who mock the “fanatics” (3:13) and “Christ-lackeys” (4:14–16) and those who bear the name of Christ with innocence (4:15–16) and suffer for doing what is right (3:17), those outside the household of God who will be condemned and the household itself that will be vindicated (4:5–6, 17–19). Here too the suffering of the righteous receives its theological rationale. Innocent suffering is a means of reverencing Christ as Lord (3:14–15) and following his example (3:18; 4:1; see 2:21). It is a “test of fire” (4:12), as in 1:6, which proves the genuineness of faith. It brings communion with the suffering Christ, divine blessing, and the glorious presence of the Spirit of God and so is a cause for joy now and in the future (4:12–14; cf. 1:7). As an experience blessed by the presence of God, it is a sign of being honored by God (4:14; cf. 3:14). Suffering for being scorned as a “Christian” is not a cause for feeling shamed but an occasion for glorifying God (4:16). This suffering is a sign of the divine judgment commencing with the household of God (“us,” 4:17) and of the nearness of the end and salvation (4:18). Its acceptance is a means by which the household of God signifies its trust in its faithful (Pro-)creator (4:19).
Remaining steadfast in obedience to God alone (3:13–17), Christ-followers are to assiduously avoid entangling alliances with Gentiles (4:1–6). They are to promote the solidarity of the household as “household stewards of God’s varied grace” (4:7–11). Because of this grace and their union in suffering with the suffering Christ, they can confidently trust in their ultimate salvation by God (4:12–19). For Christ-followers share not only in the suffering but also in the vindication of their exalted Lord (3:18–22).
In the final section of the body of the letter (IV. 5:1–11), leaders (“elders,” 5:1–4), recent converts (“you that are younger,” i.e., younger in the faith and community membership, v. 5a), and then all the addressees of the letter (vv. 5b–11) are urged to maintain the unity of the “brother[and sister]hood” (v. 9, see 2:17). This is accomplished when leaders set an example of humility to be followed (5:2–4), recent converts respect the authority of their superiors (5:5a), and all believers are humble toward one another (5:5b), trust in God (5:6-7) and resist the devilish adversary (vv. 8–9). As the letter opens with a divine benediction (1:3), so it closes with a blessing and doxology of the God who calls, restores, establishes, and strengthens his household (vv. 10–11).
In the exhortation of 5:1–5, terms reflecting traditional roles within the household (“elders” or “parental figures,” “younger people” or “children”) are united with similarly traditional imagery for the people of God and its leaders (“flock,” v. 2; “shepherding” or “tending,” v. 2; Christ as “chief shepherd,” v. 4; see also 2:25). The exhortation itself, like that which follows in vv. 6–11, emphasizes the importance of harmony, selfless humility, and cohesion within the Asia Minor and worldwide brother[and sister]hood. The extraordinary term “co-elder” (occurring nowhere else in the New Testament) serves a related purpose. Along with the rest of the statement in 5:1, it stresses the unity of fellowship and the commonality of responsibility that, together with the fellowship in suffering and coming glory, unites the one in whose name the Roman community has written (namely, Peter) with the suffering members of the brotherhood in Asia Minor. This same stress on familial solidarity within an alien society is sounded by the familial language of the letter’s closing greetings: “By Silvanus, a faithful brother . . . the co-elect [brother-and-sisterhood] in Babylon . . . Mark, my son; greet one another with the [familial] kiss of love; peace to all of you that are in Christ” (5:12–14, my emphasis).
Throughout the whole of the letter it is clear that the tension between estrangement and community is reflected and addressed in various yet related ways. For the expression of this tension the authors have used a rich assortment of implicit imagery as well as explicit statement, indicatives and imperatives, comparisons and contrasts, metaphors and models. The image of rebirth (1:3, 23; 2:2), for instance, expresses implicitly both the separation from the former and futile mode of life and the solidarity of the new family of the reborn that other passages (such as 1:14–15, 17; 2:1, 11; 4:1–6; and 1:22–25; 2:2–3; 3:8–9; 4:7–11, etc.) call for explicitly. The same is true of the communal metaphor of the “flock of God” (5:2), which once was scattered (2:25a) but now is gathered and exclusively shepherded by Jesus Christ, the chief shepherd (2:25; 5:4), and his undershepherd elders (2:25; 5:2–4). Likewise, 2:11—5:11 explicitly urges the communion, cohesion, and constancy that the description of the community in 1:3—2:10 implies.
The social and religious tension between those outside the household of God and those within, moreover, is variously expressed in numerous antitheses and contrasts drawn between the “before” and “after” phases of baptism and coming to faith: death to an old, idolatrous, sinful, and humanly inherited mode of living versus rebirth to a new, holy, and hope-filled way of life (1:3–21); separation from the perishable versus union with the imperishable (1:18, 23–25); rejection and denigration by humans versus acceptance, sanctification, election, and exaltation by God; behavior in accord with human standards or in accord with the will of God; doing what is wrong versus doing what is right; guile versus guilelessness, nonfaith and disobedience versus faith and obedience; human reproach and shame versus divine blessing and honor; condemnation of those outside the household of God versus salvation and vindication for those within.
As the first half of these antitheses synonymously portray features of Gentile existence, the second parts contribute to a composite picture of the distinctiveness of the Christ-followers. As alienation from God, disobedience, evil, sin, slander and hostility against the innocent, shame and divine condemnation, impermanence and death characterize the futility of Gentile society, so union with God, holiness, honorable behavior, hope, humility, familial love, renunciation of retaliation, generous hospitality, joy in innocent suffering, the certainty of salvation, and the blessing of peace are the hallmarks of the household of God.
Such contrasts and associations not only indicate the distinguishing characteristics of the two contending communities. They also support the fundamental imperatives of the letter which call for the believers’ distinctive behavior, solidarity within the community, and steadfastness of commitment in the face of suffering.
In addition to these aspects of the letter’s strategy we might also note how an outsider Gentile perception of the Christ-followers is countered and inverted by an interpretation of the “true” (see 1:22; 5:12) state of affairs. The Gentiles might demean and denigrate the believers as aliens “up to no good,” “fanatics,” shameful “Christ-lackeys,” troublemakers lacking in dignity and loyalty, antisocial and cliquish. First Peter responds by urging an avoidance of all wronging, a respect for order and authority when this does not compromise an obedience to God, and a holiness of conduct that puts the lie to unfounded slander (2:12, 13–16, 18–20; 3:4, 9–12, 13–17; 4:1–3, 14–16, 19).
In addition, the supposed “vices” of which the addressees are accused are declared to be in reality God-pleasing “virtues” characteristic of their life “in Christ.” Zeal in doing what is right, bearing the name of reproach (“Christian”) as a badge of honor, following in the footsteps of the crucified Christ, mutual humility, and abstention from Gentile immorality are in truth signs of faithful obedience of the Father’s will. It is subordination to this divine will which alone determines the destiny of all humanity (4:5, 17–19; 5:11). It is this will alone that is the real measure of right and wrong. Within the community of those bound by this will there is a reversal of values and status. Servants/slaves, last in status, are the first addressed in the household and the first linked with the suffering Christ (2:18–25). Wives are declared “co-heirs” with their husbands in the grace of life (3:7). Slaves and wives are presented as models for the entire community (2:18–20; 3:1–7). All members are recipients and “household stewards of God’s varied grace” (4:10; cf. 1:3). Humility is not the lot of those on the lowest rungs of the societal ladder but is a community-forging attitude of all household members (3:8; 5:5b–6). In God’s economy, the arrogant are opposed and the humble exalted. Self-giving and suffering are embraced as a means for overcoming evil with good (2:18–25; 3:9). Lowly service is a means for strengthening brotherhood (4:10). Death to sin is a phase in the rebirth to life in its fullness. In such a community the rejected of society are accepted, the lowly are exalted, and the strangers find a home.
This emphasis upon the distinctiveness and superiority of the messianic community over against “the Gentiles” is made with Israelites as well as Greeks and Romans in mind. The term “Gentiles” (2:12; 4:3) identifies, as it does in Israel, all those outside the people of God, “them” as demarcated from “us.” In 1 Peter’s sectarian messianic perspective, however, “Gentile” now identifies all those outside the messianic community—Israelites, Greeks, and Romans alike. In contrast to Israel, it is the followers of Jesus Christ who are declared to be the privileged recipients of a gospel to which even the venerable prophets and angels of God had no such access (1:10–12). Those who have rejected God’s precious stone, Messiah Jesus, have forfeited their precious heritage (2:4–8; see Mark 12:10–11 par.; Acts 4:8–12). The most cherished titles and dignities of Israel and its unique covenant with God have now been appropriated by the new family born through the gospel and united in faith with Jesus Christ (2:9–10). They are an elect and holy people bound in faith to an elect and holy Messiah.
Such, then, are some of the notable aspects of 1 Peter’s strategy. Comparisons, contrasts, word associations, inversions of meaning, appropriation of honorific predicates are all techniques which have been employed to formulate a response to the specific needs of a specific audience: to reaffirm its actual prestige and status before God, to reinforce its communal consciousness and social cohesion, and to provide a compelling social and religious rationale for its constancy in faith and brotherly love.
Taken together with the details of the situation of the addressees, this strategy reveals the purpose of the letter. First Peter is not a “defense of the faith” addressed to outsiders, as claimed by some, but a fraternal letter of consolation and encouragement meant for believing “insiders” (5:12). It is designed not as an abstract exposition of doctrines but as an urgent plea for concrete and concerted action. Its intention is not to suggest ways of eliminating conflict or avoiding suffering or promoting “withdrawal from society.” To the contrary, the positive, community-building force of suffering is stressed, the conflict between Gentile and Christian styles of life is accentuated, and believers are instructed not to isolate themselves but to stand fast and resist. The conflict is not with a Roman state that had instigated an official empire-wide persecution but rather with a conformity-conscious society insisting on the Christ-followers’ abiding by native customs and rules and not severing their social connections (4:4). This society, in league with the devil, was intent on “devouring” (i.e. socially absorbing) the believing brotherhood (5:8).
The purpose of 1 Peter is not to urge conformity to the larger society, as some scholars have proposed, but to warn against it. On the other hand, the letter is no brief for spiritual escapism either. Its purpose is not to console suffering believers with a “pie-in-the sky” notion that they are “pilgrims on earth” heading for a future “home in heaven.” Its message is to stand fast in the faith here and now (5:9, 12). Followers of Jesus Christ are not strangers on earth but in society. Strangerhood in society is not a condition to be avoided but a status to be maintained. It is not to be accepted with resignation but embraced with confidence and joy. Only by remaining as strangers in society can the believing community retain its distinctive holy identity and its exclusive allegiance to God and the Lord. Only so can it continue to lead that distinctive holy way of life to which all the world is to be attracted. This ultimately, then, is the purpose of 1 Peter: to mobilize the resources of faith and action which will enable the beleaguered addressees to stand firm and persevere as the community of God in a society from which they are estranged.
In the response and strategy of 1 Peter, the stress upon community is a major one. In fact, even though the term ekklēsia (“assembly,” “church”) itself is not used in 1 Peter, this letter is one of the most ecclesiological writings of the New Testament. One outstanding feature of this ecclesiology deserves particular attention. It illustrates not only the great degree to which community has been stressed in the letter but also the manner in which, according to 1 Peter, Christian community is a response to social estrangement.
As we have been observing, the letter of 1 Peter is replete with exhortations calling for communal consciousness and community cohesion. In support of this exhortation several communal images have been used. The familiar metaphor of a “flock” of sheep and its shepherd(s) occurs twice (2:25; 5:2–4) and illustrates several important points. The believing community as a flock belongs to God alone (5:2). Once scattered, this flock is being saved through being gathered by its (chief-) Shepherd and Guardian, Jesus Christ (2:25; 5:4)—surely a significant image of salvation to believers “scattered” (cf. diaspora, 1:1) across Asia Minor. Within this one flock, the leaders (elders) as “undershepherds,” are to go before it and set the proper example for the people to follow (5:2–3). Another set of related images appears in 2:9–10. As the culmination of a description of the elect and holy people of God, an entire series of traditional communal epithets is applied to the new inclusive covenant community. This community is “an elect stock, a royal residence (of God the king), a priestly community, God’s own people.” Once these persons were “Not My People” (2:10, recalling Hosea’s portrayal of an Israel alienated from YHWH, Hos 1:9, 10). Once, they were, like Hosea’s daughter, “Without Mercy” (cf. Hos 1:6). Through divine election and the response of faith, however, believers have become “The People of God” and “The Ones Shown Mercy” (2:10; see Hos 1:7; 2:1, 23). Their status has been reversed through entrance to the messianic community and a noble dignity has been conferred. Those once alienated from God are now the very children of God and household of God.
Among all these images of community, there is one in particular that dominates the letter from beginning to end. This is the portrayal and exhortation of the believing community as the “household” or “family” of God, God’s “children,” a “brotherhood” of believing and loving sisters and brothers.
The development of this communal image and the manner in which it coordinates many independent but related religious metaphors is evident at numerous points. Often these connections are more obvious in the original Greek text than in modern translations. In two key passages of the letter, 2:4–10 and 4:12–19, the community is explicitly called the “household of the Spirit” (oikos pneumatikos, 2:5) or “the household of God” (oikos tou theou, 4:17). In the former passage, the unique communal identity of the believers is stressed; and in the latter, its union with God and Christ and its fidelity to God’s will. In addition, specific terminology related to oikos (“house, household”) also depicts the readers. The verb associated with “house/household” (oikos) in Greek is oikodomeō, “to build up.” The readers are told that they are being “built up together” by God (2:5) and at the letter’s conclusion this metaphor of construction and consolidation is repeated (5:10). The servant/slaves are identified not with the customary term for slaves (i.e., douloi; see, e.g., Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; Tit 2:9) but with the noun “household servants” (oiketai, 2:18). In its only New Testament occurrence, the word synoikein is used in the admonition of believing husbands to “live considerately in household harmony (synoikein) with their wives” (3:7). In the exhortation of 4:7–11, all the believers together are declared to be “household stewards (oikonomoi) of God’s varied grace” (4:10).
In conjunction with these linguistically related terms of household vocabulary, related imagery is also used. The process of repentance and salvation is pictured as a “rebirth” (1:3, 23) initiated by God, the Father of the new human family (1:2, 3, 17). Those who have been reborn have become God’s “children” (1:14; 2:2), subject to his will and protected by his paternal power and care (4:19; 5:6–7, 10). The first major section of the letter (1:3—2:10), in fact, traces the course of the believers from their rebirth (1:3, 23) as God’s obedient children (1:14) to their brotherly [and sisterly] love (1:22), to their constant feeding as “newborn babies” on the “milk of the word” (2:2–3) by which they were born (1:23—3:3), to their consolidation as the “household of the Spirit” and family of God (2:5). Oikos (2:5) as collective metaphor aptly serves to combine the image of believers as “stones” constructed into a building with their depiction as “infants” drawn together into a family.
This process of “infamilialization,” so to speak, makes of all believers “brothers” and sisters (5:12,13). They compose a “brother[and sister]hood” (2:17; 5:9—the only New Testament occurrence of this term) whose cohesion is to be maintained through the practice of unceasing “brotherly [and sisterly] love” (1:22; 3:8; see 4:8) and expressed through the familial “kiss of love” (5:14). The roles, relationships and responsibilities within the community are discussed in terms of, and in contrast to, conventional household management (2:13—3:9; 5:1-5). The mutual service of one another is portrayed as that of humble household servants (diakonein, 4:10, 11).
The depiction of the worldwide messianic community as the household or family of God, fraternity of the elect and reborn in Christ, functions as the most integrating concept of the entire letter. It serves a basic metaphor for uniting various images for the people of God and their conduct, for combining independent units of kerygmatic, liturgical, and hortatory tradition, for relating symbolical language for salvation to terminology for messianic community, for integrating exhortation concerning the ethos of the community with a description of its identity (the latter serving as the basis of the former), and, finally, for correlating the entire response of the letter most effectively with the situation and needs of its audience.
The significance of the portrayal of the believing community as a household/family of God extends even beyond its function of literary integration. Furthermore it corresponds to the actual households which served as the locus, basis, and focus of the Jesus movement and its worldwide mission.
As the New Testament abundantly attests, it was the gaining of households that was the starting point and focus of the messianic missionary movement (Luke 19:9; John 4:46–53; Acts 10–11; 16:15, 31–34; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:14, 16; 16:15). Households provided the base of operations, places of worship and centers for support and mutual aid (Acts 2:26; 5:42; 12:12; Philemon 2). It was the hospitality of households (see 1 Pet 4:9) that enabled the very mobility of missionaries and thus the expansion of the movement. The unity of this movement with its network of households is expressed in the New Testament by the frequent epistolary greetings “from our house to yours” (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 1 Pet 5:12–14). It is only a logical extension of this social reality when the messianic community as a whole then sees itself akin to a household with God as its paterfamilias (Gal 6:10; Eph 2:19–21; 1 Tim 3:5, 15; cf. Tit 1:7; Heb 3:1–6; 10:21; 1 Peter).
In Greco-Roman society as well as in the history of Israel, the household or family was viewed as the fundamental form and model of other types of social, political, and religious organization. It is with reference to the house of Abraham, of Jacob, of Israel, of David, and of the new household of Jesus (Mark 3:21–35 par.) that the history of salvation has been written. The variety of its connotations has allowed the term “house (hold)” to serve as a pregnant metaphor for the community among whom God dwells as Liberator, King, and Father.
In view of the church’s own practical beginnings, its ancient roots, the symbols of its sacred traditions, and the new human unity it has found in Christ, “household – family – brotherhood” is a most apt image for expressing the incorporating power of divine grace and salvation. It serves in 1 Peter as an eloquent and evocative expression of distinctive communal identity, fraternal solidarity, and union with God and Christ.
The psychological, social, and religious connotations of “house and home,” finally, make this image of community a most compelling answer to the problem of societal estrangement. With this communal metaphor the letter addresses most directly the situation and condition of its intended recipients. Once again this is more readily apparent in the original Greek text. To the paroikoi (resident aliens) of Asia Minor 1 Peter affirms the good news (and draws implications from the fact) that they are the oikos (household) of God. Strangerhood need not be deplored as a bane; to the contrary it can be a blessing in disguise. Existence as society’s strangers has ever been the history of God’s people. For God is especially the God of the rejected, despised, and displaced of this world. The paradox of God’s graceful power is that, as a lowly yet exalted woman once said, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree” (from the Magnificat of Mary, Luke 1:46–55; cf. 1 Pet 5:6–7). God seeks out and gathers these strangers of low degree into a sanctified, elect, and peculiar community of the redeemed. How strange of God to love the estranged.
The strangeness and estrangement that Christ-followers experience in society they are to relish rather than relinquish. Indeed they are subject to the indignities of the ignorant. But such indignity is to be borne with patience and courage because through union with Christ they already possess the more glorious dignity of the people of God. Indeed, their strangeness may be suspected as a symptom of wrongdoing. Christ-followers, however, are to celebrate their distinctiveness and turn potential shame into actual honor. The sanctity of Christian strangeness is to be manifested in the power of righteous behavior overcoming the strategies of the unrighteous. In a society intoxicated with power, domination, and conformity, the followers of the crucified Christ indeed are homeless and are called to lead lives of holy nonconformity. As those who have found peace and union in Christ, they can endure such estrangement with fortitude and hope. For in the family of the faithful, the homeless of society have a home in the family of God.