Did Peter write 1 Peter?

April 21, 2017

If you’re unfamiliar with the world of critical scholarship, which takes for granted that the author of 1 and 2 Peter writes pseudonymously, this question may seem ridiculous. But for people like me, a late convert to theologically conservative evangelicalism, who holds the authority of scripture in highest esteem, I feel compelled to grapple with it. After all, I no longer believe that pseudonymous writing was ethically O.K. in the ancient world. (Skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman is right to hammer his progressive Christian colleagues on this point!)

But once you ask on what basis critical scholars believe that Peter didn’t write the letters attributed to him (as you may ask about the disputed letters of Paul, viz. Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus), the evidence is unconvincing.

Remember: From the earliest time, the Church believed that these letters were written by Peter. His authorship was never disputed. Why do we know so much more than the Church Fathers did? They were no dummies (to say the least). For all we know about the Greek language and the Greco-Roman world, any educated person living within a few generations of Jesus knew much more.

Not to mention that most of what we clergy know about the Greek language and Greco-Roman culture is second- or third-hand, anyway. Most of us can’t read Greek. Even if we can, we haven’t done any original research. Yet we’re confident that we know—on the basis of nuances of Greek language and Greco-Roman culture—that Peter didn’t write his letters, or Paul didn’t write some of his! It’s laughable, when you think about it!

Not to mention that the Church Fathers either knew the apostles or knew people who knew them. They had access to living memories of the apostles in a way that modern scholars don’t.

I had a professor of church history who made this point: He argued that most of us can reach back in time about 200 years through the memories of people we know. For example, my grandmother—my mother’s mother—died in 1987. She was born around the turn of the century. If I had the foresight, I could have interviewed my grandmother about memories of her grandmother, who could have shared with my grandmother memories of her grandmother—who was born in the middle of the 18th century. So even though I was born in 1970, I could have, with a little effort, accessed memories from 1770.

(While we’re on the subject, did you know that grandchildren of John Tyler, the tenth president of the United States, are still living? That blows my mind!)

My point is, we have every reason to trust that the Church Fathers were correct in believing that Peter wrote the two letters attributed to him. They knew more about it than we do today! Otherwise, how are we not falling victim to chronological snobbery?

Regardless, Peter Davids, author of Eerdmans’s New International Commentary on 1 Peter, wrote some helpful words on the subject that don’t depend on the authority of the Fathers. One reason, he says, that many scholars reject Petrine authorship is that the author sounds too much like Paul. “Peter” (forgive the scare quotes) uses phrases that Paul uses. “Peter” emphasizes themes that Paul emphasizes. “Peter” writes to churches with which Paul was better acquainted. To this, Davids writes the following:

If this work is so Pauline and if the area of the recipients was so Pauline, why would a pseudonymous author not attribute it to Paul? After all, Paul, unlike Peter, was known for his letter writing. Furthermore, many of the same scholars who reject the Petrine authorship of 1 Peter point to the Pastoral Epistles and other Pauline works as being pseudonymous. If Pauline pseudepigrapha was this common, since 1 Peter has such a Pauline tone one must justify why such an author would not attribute his work to Paul.[1]

Besides, one good reason for the similarity to Paul is Peter’s reference in 1 Peter 5:12 to Silvanus, a known associate of Paul:

[T]he reference to Silvanus in 1 Pet. 5:12 may be the best clue we have, for he is probably the same associate of Paul mentioned elsewhere (2 Cor. 1:19; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1). If Peter were indeed in Rome, one could well imagine his hearing of localized persecution in the provinces, in areas in which he may or may not have traveled. Peter may have been in prison by that time, or have seen the storm clouds gather about him in Rome. It is quite possible that he received the news, not through his own contacts, but though Silvanus and his contacts. In any case, the letter suggests that he authorized Silvanus to write in his name…

How much Peter personally had to do with the letter is unknown. For example, if he were in prison, he may not have had the freedom to write and receive guests that Paul did, for Paul was able to live in a hired house (Acts 28:16, 30). He may simply have been moved by compassion and apostolic insight to request Silvanus to send an encouraging letter to a group of suffering Christians about whom he had heard, mentioning to them those Christians in Rome such as Mark, whose names would presumably mean something to the believers in Asia Minor. He may have given detailed instructions and later reviewed the letter (perhaps even writing the closing paragraph with his own hand, as was normal Greek custom, 2 Thess. 3:17), or he may have never seen it, having given only the briefest of instructions. But the letter was written, written in the style in which Silvanus was accustomed to writing, that is, Paul’s, written with whatever he knew of Peter’s teaching and ideas, and attributed to Peter as it should have been.[2]

Granted, there’s much speculation here. But unless you’re already predisposed to doubt the inspiration of scripture, this speculation seems far more reasonable than believing that an inspired author of documents that (we believe) the Holy Spirit preserved in what is now our New Testament was lying.

1. Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 5.

2. Ibid., 6-7.

5 Responses to “Did Peter write 1 Peter?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    People “moved by the Spirit” to write scripture would hardly lie about who they were! Also, I don’t think too much should be made about Silvanus. I think the authorship of Peter’s epistles are just as much Petrine as Paul’s are Pauline! Similarities may be attributed to both writing to similarly situated audiences about similar subject matter. Also, as to which Pauline letters are Peter’s supposed to be so similar, given that Paul’s style varied to such a degree that detractors say he did not write all the letters attributed to him either!

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    My understanding is that the Pauline letters were written a decade or so before the Petrine letter, and the Johine letter a decade or more after that. Therefore, it is to be expected that each subsequent writer would have read the earlier works, and would to some extent have been influenced by them.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Good point, especially given Peter’s reference to Paul’s writings, in which there are some things difficult to understand.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Exactly. Paul was by far the most advanced writer (technically) of the group. His works had to be considered foundational. And, I think that John felt moved by the Holy Spirit to address the spiritual nature of Christ (in his Gospel) and the spiritual activities of the Church (in his letters). Peter was a preacher.

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    Order in which NT books were written:

    James – 50 A.D.
    First Thessalonians – 52-53.
    Second Thessalonians – 52-53.
    Galatians – 55.
    First Corinthians – 57.
    Second Corinthians – 57.
    Romans – 57-58.
    Philippians – 62-63.
    Colossians – 62-63.
    Philemon – 62-63.
    Ephesians – 62-63.
    Luke – 63.
    Acts – 64.
    First Timothy – 65.
    Titus – 65.
    Second Timothy – 66.
    Mark – 66.
    Matthew – 67.
    Hebrews – 67.
    First Peter – 67-68.
    Second Peter – 68.
    Jude – 68.
    Apocalypse – 68.
    John – c. 85.
    Epistles of John – 90-95.

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