Biblical Studies (NT)/The Epistles of Peter: Persecution and Heresy
THE EPISTLES OF PETER
Persecution and Heresy
Authorship of 1 Peter
The first of Peter’s two epistles opens with this greeting, which states both the name of the writer and those to whom he is writing: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pet 1:1). The second opens in a similar vein: “Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained like precious faith with us” (2 Pet 1:1). Nevertheless, a few scholars have asserted that these epistles were written by unknown persons who used Peter’s name to gain acceptance.
In the case of the first epistle, the major arguments put forth against Peter’s authorship are:
- 1) The style of the Greek is too sophisticated for a first-century Galilean fisherman.
- 2) The letter indicates persecutions which were more severe than those which occurred in Peter’s lifetime.
With regard to the first argument, Acts does indeed say, “When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled” (Acts 4:13). However, by the time of this epistle, more than thirty years had elapsed since then. During this time, Peter had been engaged in full-time ministry and undoubtedly had acquired some sophistication as a writer and speaker. Also, when Peter wrote the epistle, he had the secretarial assistance of Sylvanus, a Greek-speaking Christian: “By Sylvanus, our faithful brother as I consider him, I have written to you briefly” (1 Pet 5:12). The argument with regard to style, therefore, is significant, but in itself is not conclusive.
The second argument, that the letter indicates persecutions which were more severe than those which occurred in Peter’s lifetime, is unconvincing, however. We see in the Gospels and in Acts that the Jews persecuted Christians from the very beginning. The Romans also began to persecute Christians under Nero after 64 A.D. Peter himself was martyred in about 67 A.D., an event which in itself refutes the argument that there was no real persecution in Peter’s day.
The arguments in favor of the apostle’s authorship of 1 Peter are as follows:
- 1) The writer introduces himself as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:1).
- 2) He was “a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet 5:1).
- 3) There is a similarity between the style of the epistle and Peter’s speeches in Acts.
- 4) The early church fathers, who were historically much closer to the events of the time, testify to Peter’s authorship. It is quoted by Polycarp (c. 69-155 AD) and also by Irenaeus (c. 130-200 AD).
Authorship of 2 Peter
Scholars who question Peter’s authorship of the second epistle argue that:
- 1) It is not known to have been quoted by any of the church fathers before Origen (185-254 AD).
- 2) The style and quality of the Greek are different from Peter’s first epistle.
- 3) There are similarities to Jude’s epistle, indicating that the author made use of that epistle for source material (compare 2 Pet 2:1-17 with Jude, verses 3-13).
The first of these arguments, that there are no recorded references to 2 Peter before Origen, is important, but others have used the same evidence to argue that such an early example of a church historian giving credit to Peter leans heavily in favor of the epistle's authenticity, so that in the end it is a matter of how we, as individuals, personally interpret the evidence.
The second argument, that there is a difference in the style and language to that of 1 Peter, is probably the most significant. As noted above, one possible explanation is that Peter had the secretarial assistance of Sylvanus on the first epistle (1 Pet 5:12).
The third point, that there are similarities with the epistle of Jude, is undeniable, and it is clear that either Peter or Jude made use of the other's material. This does not necessarily affect the issue of authorship, however. The real question here is who made use of the other, Jude or Peter? The issue can be argued both ways and there is no conclusive answer. The fact that one made use of the other is not exceptional in itself. Authors have made use of each other's material throughout history and still do so today. The difference now is that we would be expected to cite the source, but first century standards regarding plagiarism were not so strict, and methods of citation were not codified. There is no doubt that Peter and Jude knew each other and it is quite possible that whoever wrote first was aware of the use of his material by the other. It is also possible that the one who borrowed the other's material did so in the knowledge that his use of it would be recognized, given that copies of all of the New Testament epistles are believed to have been circulated among the churches.
Some of the arguments in favor of Peter’s authorship of the second epistle are:
- 1) The author introduces himself as “Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ.”
- 2) If this person were a deceiver, it is unlikely that he would write a letter to warn people against deception, as this letter does.
- 3) The author alludes accurately to events in Peter’s life:
- a) He mentions Jesus’ prophecy of Peter’s martyrdom, which was impending at the time of writing (1:14).
- b) He mentions the Transfiguration (1:17), at which Peter was present.
- c) He refers to his previous epistle (3:1).
- d) He refers to Paul in a way that suggests that he knew him personally (3:15).
Peter’s first epistle is addressed to “the pilgrims scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pet 1:1). The second epistle is believed to have been written to the same churches as the first, due to a reference in the epistle itself in which Peter says, “Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle, in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder” (2 Pet 3:1). These regions together roughly form the area which we know today as Asia Minor, or the western half of the modern nation of Turkey. The churches which Peter addressed were relatively young churches which had been mostly founded within the previous twenty years by Paul on his missionary journeys. It is likely that Peter had visited these churches, perhaps on several occasions. In particular, it is probable that he had spent some time in the province known then as Asia. It was the location of the city of Ephesus, which was an important commercial center, and by the time that these epistles were written, had become the main center of Christianity, surpassing Syrian Antioch and Jerusalem in importance as the church took another step in its gradual move toward the west.
Location and Date of Writing
In the conclusion of his first epistle, Peter writes, “She who is in Babylon, elect together with you, greets you; and so does Mark my son” (1 Pet 5:13). It is unlikely, however, that Peter was really in Babylon. It is more likely that Babylon in this case is referring to Rome; firstly, because there is no evidence that Peter was ever in Babylon, and secondly, the information we have about Peter’s life, as well as the theme of the letter, point to his having been in Rome at the time of writing. Why then did Peter say that he was in Babylon? Since the letter was written in times of persecution, it has been suggested that Christians used this name as a measure of prudence, to avoid potential conflict with the ruling authorities when speaking of Rome. It is more likely, however, that the name “Babylon” was used as an epithet for Rome because Babylon is a symbol of worldly influence and power, particularly when that power is in opposition to God’s people, as Rome was at the time.
If, as is commonly believed, the epistle was written during Nero’s persecution of the church following the Great Fire of Rome, it would have been written between 64 A.D., when the persecution began, and 67 A.D., when Peter was executed.
In the second epistle, Peter does not state his location, but he indicates that his martyrdom is very near. Therefore, the epistle was probably written in Rome in about 67 A.D.
Nero Persecutes the Church
When Peter wrote his epistles, the church had existed for more than thirty years and had become fairly well-established over a large portion of the Roman Empire. We know that there were Christian communities in Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, some of the Mediterranean islands, and possibly in places farther afield also, so the church was by no means a local affair. This growth had, in large part, been made possible by the existence of the Roman Empire, which had provided unity, stability, transportation and communication throughout the Mediterranean regions.
However, the same empire which had enabled such rapid growth was now threatening the church with extinction. The trouble began after the Great Fire of Rome, which occurred in 64 A.D. One rumour has it that Nero, who became increasingly insane in the years before his death, started the fire so that he could build a new, more beautiful Rome. According to later accounts which have never been proven, when it was suspected that Nero was responsible, he used the Christian community as a scapegoat. Christianity was a new and unusual sect which was looked upon suspiciously by much of the population, and it would have been easy to pass the blame to them. Whether Nero was responsible or not, a tragic persecution of Christians ensued which lasted for several years and in which untold numbers were tortured and killed in the most cruel ways. They were crucified or fed to wild beasts, sometimes for entertainment in arenas filled with thousands of people. Tacitus, who claimed that Nero did not start the fire, admitted that Nero took pleasure in the persecution of Christians, and that he used Christians as human torches at night by covering them in pitch and setting them alight.
That 1 Peter was written to comfort and reassure a church under persecution becomes evident early on in the epistle. Peter writes, “In this [salvation] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Pet 1:6-7). Peter then speaks of the great reward which awaits the faithful, showing how the present sufferings are nothing compared to the destiny which God has in store for those who love him. The believers are reminded that they were not redeemed with silver or gold, but with the blood of Jesus, and they are urged to be faithful to their calling.
Even in the face of persecution, the believers are called to be law-abiding and respectful of authority. Peter writes, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Pet 2:13-14). They should accept their undeserved suffering with the same love and humility with which the innocent Christ suffered, who, “When he was reviled, did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2:23).
Peter continues, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Pet 4:15-16). If we suffer as a result of our own wrongdoing, we have no one to blame but ourselves and we deserve our punishment. But if we suffer innocently, we are undeserving of our punishment and have nothing of which to be ashamed. Peter concludes his first epistle with a note of comfort and reassurance: “The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Pet 5:10).
Peter places great emphasis on suffering in his epistles, urging the church to be strong in the face of it, as though it were an inevitability. He writes, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you, but rejoice, insofar as you are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, that when his glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (1 Pet 4:12-13). It is interesting to see this strong and brave Peter, the same individual who once denied three times, in the courtyard of the high priest, that he even knew Christ. Even in the face of death, he continues to encourage the believers, urging them to be steadfast, pure, and full of faith.
In his second epistle, knowing that he is about to be put to death, he writes, “I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me. Moreover I will endeavor that you always may be able to have a reminder of these things after my decease” (2 Pet 1:13-15). The same man who was once too frightened to admit that he even knew Jesus, now sacrifices his life for him and urges others to be strong and steadfast under the same trials. We are reminded of an incident in Acts, where Peter and the other apostles had been imprisoned and beaten for preaching Christ in Jerusalem. Luke writes, “They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41).
In the conclusion of his first epistle, Peter writes, “By Sylvanus, our faithful brother as I consider him, I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God in which you stand” (1 Pet 5:12). The name Sylvanus is a Latin form of Silas. The Sylvanus of 1 Peter and the Silas of Acts are probably one and the same person. If this is so, Sylvanus was in a position of leadership in the Jerusalem church and was a prophet. Luke writes, “It pleased the apostles and elders to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas, who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. Now Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them” (Acts 15:22,32). Clearly, Sylvanus was more than just a letter-carrier for Peter, but was himself a gifted individual.
In addition to going with Paul to Antioch after the Jerusalem Council, Silas was also with Paul on his second missionary journey. He shared in the beating Paul received at Philippi after casting out a fortune-telling demon from a slave girl. The girl’s fortune-telling had made much money for her master, who complained to the authorities, resulting in Paul and Silas being whipped and imprisoned (Acts 16:23). During this incident, a comment of Paul’s tells us one of the few things we know about Sylvanus: “They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison” (Acts 16:37). From this, we know that Sylvanus was a Roman citizen. Beyond this, however, we know nothing of his background.
The special emphasis of Peter’s second epistle is to warn believers against what he believed were false teachers who had found their way into the church. These were individuals who had no real faith or understanding, but had twisted the Gospel message for personal gain. With Paul dead and Peter’s own martyrdom fast approaching, the leadership of the church would be greatly weakened. Under these circumstances, Peter sought to warn the church against these individuals, urging the believers to hold fast to what they had been taught and not allow themselves to be led astray by greedy and immoral deceivers.
As an eyewitness of the events described in the Gospels, Peter reassures his readers of the authenticity of the Gospel message and the true identity of Jesus: Son of God and prophesied Messiah. He warns that those who bring destructive heresies into the church will not succeed in leading the true believers astray, but will only bring destruction on themselves. Illustrating his point with examples from the Hebrew scriptures, he warns, “The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Pet 2:9). The teachers of whom he spoke were saying that it was acceptable for the believers to engage in licentiousness. While promising freedom, they were slaves of corruption. Peter writes, “If, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning” (2 Pet 2:20).
The Last Days
In the third and last chapter of his second epistle, Peter turns to the future, warning of scoffers that will come in the last days, who will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet 3:4). Peter’s response is that the Lord “is not slack concerning his promise, but is longsuffering toward us, not desiring that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” Furthermore, he says that the day of the Lord “will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Pet 3:9-10). The end of the world, according to Peter, will come at a time when we are least expecting it.
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