Bible Commentary on the First Letter of Peter: Background
The First Letter of Peter
The first letter of Peter is considered a “General Epistle.” This letter is included with James, 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude in this category. It is referred to as a “general” epistle as it is not addressed to any specific congregation. Instead, the first letter of Peter is addressed to multiple congregations in Asia Minor. It is also referred to as a “non-Pauline” letter. This is obviously due to it having not been authored by Paul and it being included in the New Testament where Paul’s letters are more numerous.
Date of the Letter
The dating of the letter is based upon certain verses which refer to certain degrees of suffering that the recipients were experiencing. This suffering must have been made known to Peter prior to his writing the letter given the focus on this subject. Given other sources of events during the life of Peter, it is accepted that this letter was likely written prior to the Neronian persecution beginning in AD 64. There does not appear to be any suggestion of martyrdom (in the letter) having already occurred, but that there was a growing hatred being displayed against believers in these areas. It is logical to conclude that prior to violent persecution there would be a gradual increase from lighter sufferings, such as insults, belittling, and lighter punishments, to things such as beatings, forceful rejection, and even death. Therefore, it is generally accepted that the first letter of Peter was written about AD 63 (Keathley, Hampton, J.).
The author is indeed Peter, an apostle of the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus the Christ). The internal evidence consists of the introductory section of the letter (1 Peter 1:1) and includes additional evidence such as literary style, vocabulary, and key phraseology. The external evidence of Peter’s authorship includes confirmation of his authorship by various early church fathers including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. The previously mentioned internal evidence is supported externally by comparisons to what is attested to in the book of Acts and the Second Letter of Peter (Keathley, Hampton, J.).
Challenges to Peter’s authorship are grounded on the presupposed belief that a Galilean Fisherman of the time could not have such elegance in his writing to have written the letter. What negates this point is that though Peter was a fisherman, he did spend three years traveling with Jesus throughout his ministry. He then went on to spread the Gospel message for up to 30 years thereafter. It is unreasonable to conclude that it is not possible for a man to learn how to speak in another language effectively and eloquently given the length of time spent speaking and writing the language while immersed in the culture and society in which it dominated. Considering this particular letter was written after that period of time spent spreading the gospel and articulating it against heavy criticism from many sides, it is quite reasonable to accept Peter as the author.
The intended recipients of Peter’s first letter are congregations (or churches) located in what is modern day Turkey. He provides a list of these congregations in 1 Peter 1:1 as follows: Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. The demographic makeup of these groups is likely a combination of Jews and Gentiles who had already come to faith in Jesus. Throughout the letter, there are many terms utilized that would suggest both a Jewish audience and a Gentile audience of believers. However, it is clear that these groups had been living the Christian life in such a manner that their surrounding culture and society was beginning to reject them. This rejection included sufferings that appear to include ridicule, slander and accusations of wrong doing, beatings, and being subjected to charges of criminal behavior. These Christians were struggling with living the true Christian life among those whom they may have been drawn out from (having once lived as they did). In response to what was likely a letter written to Peter or to the Apostles in general, Peter chose to respond in a manner that would speak to a people who are struggling internally and externally with adapting a new lifestyle that would be foreign to those among whom they are living.
Peter was likely in Rome at the time he wrote this letter. In the closing, 1 Peter 5:13 includes mention of “Babylon,” which is considered a reference to Rome. Nero came to power in A.D. 54 until his later suicide in A.D. 68. The early church was growing thanks to the efforts of the Apostles, notably Peter and Paul. Christianity became well known across the empire, even to the knowledge of the emperor. In A.D. 64, Nero is believed to have started a fire in Rome which provided him with opportunity to build his palace, and he blamed it on Christians (Brisco, Thomas V. p. 237). That was where his brutal persecution of Christians began, and it is believed Peter and Paul fell victim to it.
Prior to this persecution was a growth in the vanity and delusions of deity held by Nero. While he ruled with tyranny and terror across Rome, he kept favor with the people by providing them with entertainments across the city. There was a dramatic increase in the debauchery and savagery of the Roman people. This would result in new believers having dramatic changes to their character and behavior that would likely result in berating insults and complete detachment from friends and loved ones. The list of ill behaviors given in 1 Peter 4:3 included “sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries.” This cultural context can aid in understanding much of the letter, especially given much of the behaviors of “modern” man today and the struggle of Christians to live according to Christ’s example.
This period of 60 to 70 A.D. was quite tumultuous for the region of Palestine and Rome as a whole. Nero’s reign started from a relatively stable period to a slow and steady decline resulting in an overall environment that more than likely resembled what one might expect of the world’s ending. With the growth of the early church emerging in such times, it proves to be quite astonishing that such a movement of people, following a man who was killed on a cross, would have ever come out of these dark times. In Palestine, the procurators set in power by Nero were proving to be corrupt and insensitive to the needs of the people (Brisco, Thomas V. p. 247). Christians faced persecutions in Jerusalem and abroad, and a famine in the land made matters more difficult. As Peter considered the words received from the congregations listed in his letter, it would have had quite the impact on his soul.
During the time about which the First Letter of Peter was written, Paul had conducted his several missionary journeys across the empire, many meetings had occurred, and great successes and miracles had been witnessed. The hope remained strong in Peter, and that can be clearly felt in the letter. Peter is considered traditionally to have been a man of great strength and authority, and is often viewed as the leader of the twelve. Outside of Paul’s presence and preaching in the many lands, it is sure that many had great respect for Peter as they learned about him from the early spread of the Gospels. It is clear that Peter’s demeanor from his early days while walking with Jesus had changed. While his letter offers many directions on behavior, there is a great deal of compassion that can be gleaned from his words. The letter was no doubt received by those suffering Christians with great reverence and acceptance, and likely brought them great comfort to know that “the rock,” with the authority that comes from his reputation, was writing to them about their concerns.
Keathley, Hampton, J. (2005). Concise New Testament Survey, 5. The Non-Pauline Epistles, Section on First Peter. Bible.org. Retrieved from: https://bible.org/seriespage/5-non-pauline-epistles.
Brisco, Thomas V. (1998). Holeman Bible Atlas. Broadman & Holeman Publishers: Nashville, TN.
There are additional sources contained on the bible.org link among a variety of other sources which discuss these subjects available at biblestudytools.com, biblehub.com, and other online sources of Bible Study references.