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The Authorship of the Petrine Epistles

I and II Peter clearly claims to be written by the apostle Peter himself. If this is true, this would constitute the writing of one of the major eyewitness to the events in Jesus life. The discussions below will show that here, again, Christian tradition has lied to us, Peter could not have written those epistles attributed to him.

  • The First Epistle of Peter
  • The Second Epistle of Peter

    The First Epistle of Peter

    The First Epistle of Peter obviously claimed for itself Petrine authorship:

    I Peter 1:1
    Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia

    The names mentioned above are provinces in Asia Minor (in modern Turkey). I Peter was written when the Christians in these provinces were undergoing persecution.

    I Peter 1:6
    ... now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials...

    I Peter 4:12
    Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you...

    There is a strong tradition that Peter died in the Neronian persecution around 64-67 CE. The persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero (37-68) was the first specific persecution against the Christians. However it was only confined to Rome, where Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire of Rome in 64 CE. Therein lies the problem: there was no persecution of Christians in Asia Minor during the lifetime of Peter.

    The earliest evidence we have of any non-local persecution of Christians was that which happened towards the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian (51 CE -96 CE). Domitian propagated the cult of the worship of the Roman emperor especially in Greece and Asia Minor. Thus if the epistle is not referring to fictitious scenarios, then the years 90-95 CE is the earliest time the communities addressed to could be experiencing such persecution. [a]

    Furthermore we do not even have evidence that there were Christian communities in some of the provinces mentioned in I Peter during the time of apostle. The earliest reference to Christians there come from Pliny the Younger (62-c.114), the Roman governor of Pontus-Bithynia who in 112 or 113 CE wrote to the Emperor Trajan (c.52-117) asking for a ruling on how to deal with Christians in his provinces. In his letter he implied that there were Christians there as early as twenty years before. This however, only brings us back to around 90 CE.

    Both cases, the evidence of systematic non-local persecution of Christians in Asia Minor and the presence of Christians in the areas addressed in I Peter, point to a period of about a quarter of a century after the death of Peter. Clearly Peter could not have written something a quarter of century after his own death! [1]

    We may add to this a psychological argument: is it believable that a human being (even an apostle!) undertaking the mindless and cruel persecution of Nero would ask the following rhetorical question?

    I Peter 3:13
    Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right?

    The answer to this, during Peter's lifetime, would have been obvious: Nero. [2]

    The most telling argument against Petrine authorship of this epistle is based on a simple consideration. I Peter is a work of an author who reveals an extensive knowledge of Greek, of Greek philosophy and rhetoric and of the Septuagint [the Greek translation of the Old Testament]. We know from the gospels (e.g. Mark 1:16) and Acts that Peter was a simple, uneducated Galilean fisherman whose mother tongue was Aramaic. (The Acts of the Apostles (4:13) called Peter and John, unschooled and ordinary men.) Based on this argument, it is even more improbable that I Peter could have been composed by the apostle of that name. [3]

    Some more conservative scholars have tried to defend the Greek of I Peter by proposing that since Capernaum was a trading route, Peter could have picked up Greek in his business. Yet picking up conversational or colloquial Greek by way of doing business in no way explains the polished literary Greek pregnant with Hellenistic philosophy and rhetoric we find in I Peter. [4]

    Still others have pointed to Silvanus who was mentioned in I Peter 5:12:

    I Peter 5:12
    Through Silvanus, 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.

    The phrase "through" Silvanus is taken by these apologists to mean that it was Silvanus who actually penned the letter - at the dictation of Peter. Perhaps this Silvanus, whom the apologists identify with a student of Paul called Silvanus/Silas (I Thessalonians 1:1, II Corinthians 1:9, Acts 15:22-32), was the one responsible for the polished Greek and the presence Hellenistic philosophy and rhetoric in the epistle. [5]

    Unfortunately there are many problems with this suggestion. Most importantly, as many scholars have pointed out, the Greek phrase - γραφειν δια τινος [to write through someone] - usually refers to the bearer of the letter, not the author or scribe. [6] In other words the evidence of the Greek tells us that more likely Silvanus is presented as the person who carried the letter to its destination, not the person who wrote it down.

    Even if we accept for the sake of argument that the term "through Silvanus" could mean that Silvanus was the scribe, the suggestion still does not work. Firstly it still does not explain the anachronism of persecutions of Christians in Asia Minor mentioned above which happened long after the death of Peter. Secondly most of the detailed interpretations and arguments in the epistle is heavily dependent upon the Septuagint or Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. This means that the arguments could not have been one which is translated from Hebrew or Aramaic. The ideas presented in I Peter had to start from someone who was already very familiar with the Septuagint - an unlikely scenario for an unschooled Aramaic speaking Galilean fisherman. Thus if Silvanus could not have been merely the scribe who wrote down Peter's ideas, the scribe had to be the originator of the concepts and arguments himself. Thus if Silvanus was the scribe, he was also the author! In this case, it does not make any sense to call Peter the author of the letter. [7]

    Okay, let's recap the main arguments that the apostle Peter could not be the author of I Peter:

    • There was no systematic persecution of Christians in Asia Minor during Peter's lifetime
    • The earliest non-local persecution of Christian in Asia Minor was that of Emperor Domitian around 90-95 CE.
    • The earliest recorded case of Christians in some of the provinces mentioned in I Peter was 90 CE or more than a quarter century after the death of Peter.
    • The rhetorical question in I Peter 3:13 could not be understood if it were placed during Peter's lifetime.
    • The sophisticated prose and ideas, which could not have originated from am unschooled Galilean peasant.
    • The complete reliance on the Septuagint instead of the scriptures in the original Hebrew could not have been expected of an Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jew.

    Now that we know Peter did not write I Peter, we need to find out when it was written. There is a rather straightforward way of attempting to determine the date of composition of I Peter. For the various provinces to have undergone persecution at the same time, as the epistle clearly implies, the persecution of Christians must have been a non-local and systematic exercise. As we have mentioned above, history tells us of such a systematic persecution during the first century CE. It was the persecution of the Jews, with which the Romans probably lumped the Christians together, under the Emperor Domitian around 95 CE. Thus the earliest possible date we can assign to I Peter would be around 95 CE, three decades after the death of the apostle. [8]

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    The Second Epistle of Peter

    The second epistle of Peter is an even later document than I Peter. There are many proofs of this, all of which adds to a compelling case both for its lateness and non-Petrine authorship.

    The first evidence involves the fact that it is later than I Peter for it calls itself the second epistle (II Peter 3:1).

    Secondly, the epistle is very closely related, both in style and content to the epistle of Jude, in itself a very late work, definitely written during the second century CE (probably around 125 CE). [9]

    A further evidence against Petrine authorship (and for its late date) is that the epistle refers to Paul's epistles as though they were already collected together and seems to consider them as scriptures (i.e., sacred writings):

    II Peter 3:15-16
    ... our dear brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him ... His letters contain certain things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

    Clearly the historical Peter could not have seen the collected letters of Paul and considered them in the same breath as the other Scriptures. [10]

    Another indication of the lateness of II Peter was the fact that some of the readers of his epistles have grown impatient waiting for the second coming that was endlessly delayed. The early Christians certainly expected the second coming of Jesus Christ to happen during their lifetime. [b] We find the author of this epistle twisting words out of their normal meanings to explain this delay: [11]

    II Peter 3:8
    ... one day is with the Lord as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his coming, as some men count slackness...

    Perhaps one of the strongest argument against Petrine authorship is that its authenticity was denied by many Christians down to the fourth century.[12]

    Thus II Peter could not have been written by Peter for the following reasons:

    • It was a later epistle than I Peter.
    • It is very similar in style and content to Jude, a known second century document.
    • It considered the Pauline epistles as scriptures, something that did not yet happened during Peter's lifetime.
    • It tried to explain the delay of the second coming by postponing it indefinitely. Something which is in direct contradiction to the Christians during the lifetime of Peter, who expected the second coming very soon.
    • The Petrine authorship was denied by Christians themselves until the fourth century.

    The dating of II Peter is pretty uncertain business. Some scholars date it as early as around the last decade of the first century. However the balance of evidence seems to favor a later date. II Peter was written when Christians were beginning to accept a "New Testament" along with the Old which they considered to be sacred scriptures. As far as we know, this attitude started to take hold around 150 CE. II Peter, which accepts the Pauline epistles as scripture was very probably written around this date. The important thing to note is that all these dates, from the earliest (c95 CE) to the latest (c150 CE), excludes the idea of Petrine authorship for Peter died in around 64-67 CE. [13]

    Clearly, the epistles of Peter could not have been written by the apostle himself. Such epistles, which pretend to be written by prophets or apostles, are called pseudepigrapha. They were written in such a way so as to give the epistles enhanced authority. Pseudepigrapha are very common in Judeo-Christian history. The correct modern name for pseudepigrapha is not ghost writers but impostors. Even the theologians Robert Davidson and A.R.C. Leaney referred to them (I & II Peter & Jude) as "fictitious testaments". [14]

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    Notes

    a.Some apologists, in their efforts to keep to a Petrine authorship of the letter, have tried to argue that the persecution is not a systematic one but merely reflect the local tensions between pagans and Christians. But as many scholars have pointed out, such arguments ignores the evidence from within the epistle itself. As Udo Schnelle, Professor of New Testament at Halle, (Wittenberg, Germany) noted in his textbook The History and Theology of The New Testament Writings (p404-405):

    A few passages in I Peter cannot be explained merely as reflections of social tensions. According to I Peter 4:15-16, Christians are brought before the courts merely “as Christians”, just as is the case of murderers, thieves and other criminals. A fiery ordeal is taking place among them (I Peter 4:12); they are to resist the devil, and this suffering is being experienced by Christians throughout the world (I Peter 5:8-9). In these texts the persecution clearly has a different perspective and quality, being more than a matter of local harassment. This points to the later period of Domitian’s administration, who propagated the Caesar cult especially in the provinces of Greece and Asia Minor. It is still not a matter of comprehensive measures directly organized by the state, but of actions supported by local authorities that lead to discrimination against and persecution of Christians.

    b.See for instance Mark 13:24-30, Matthew 24:29-34, Luke 19:11,I Thessalonians 4:15, I Corinthians 7:29.

    References

    1.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p316
    Riedel et.al., The Book of the Bible: p528
    Schenelle, The New Testament Writings: p404-405
    2.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p317
    3.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p316
    Ehrman, The New Testament: p400
    Koester, Introduction to the New Testament: Volume 2: p296
    Riedel et.al., The Book of the Bible: p528
    4.Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament: p718n35
    5.ibid: p718
    6.Boring, I Peter: p179 quoted in Wells, Can We Trust the New Testament?: p118-119
    Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament: p424
    Schenelle, The New Testament Writings: p401n70
    7. Ehrman, The New Testament: p400-401
    Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament: p423
    Schenelle, The New Testament Writings: p401
    8.Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p125
    9.ibid: p127
    Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p319
    10.Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p127
    Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p1165
    11.ibid: p1167
    Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p320
    12.Howell-Smith, In Search of the Real Bible: p85
    13.Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p1165
    Howell-Smith, In Search of the Real Bible: p85
    Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p127
    14.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p320

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