Is 1 Peter Written to Jewish or Gentile Believers?

St-Peter-Stained-GlassI am planning my opening lecture on the First Epistle of Peter. I am a firm believer that it is both important and necessary to wrestle with introductory issues before attempting to exegete the text of any ancient document, thus attempting to frame the interpretive issues appropriately. I had always assumed that 1 Peter was directed to Gentile Christians living in the NE regions of the Roman Empire. However, I recently ran across some evidence which has caused me to rethink my assumptions regarding the intended audience of this document.

In particular, two lines of argumentation seem to suggest, on the surface at least, that the letter was probably written primarily for Jewish believers in Christ:

  1. It is addressed “to the scattered elect people of the Diaspora” (ἐκλεκτοῖς παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς) – to those sojourning as aliens (1:17; 2:11). This makes good sense when one identifies the recipients as Jews dispersed into the Diaspora but makes little sense for Gentiles, for whom the ‘exiled in the Diaspora’ fits awkwardly. The words “alien” and “stranger” only occur together in the LXX in Gen. 23:4 as a description of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people.
  2. The recipients are described with distinctively Jewish terms, such as the title “[the] elect” (1:1; 2:4, 9), being recipients of the grace foretold by the prophets (1:10), they possess the responsibility which God laid upon Israel (1:15-16), and the description drawn from Exod. 19:6 in 1 Peter 2:9 – “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”

Now, one could take the route many have and allegorize all of this data to refer to the Church as the new Israel (cf. Gal. 6:16; Phil. 3:3; Rom. 11:26). In other words, one could say that, just as Paul has demonstrated, that these ‘Israel’ references have been transferred to the believing, pan-ethnic community in Christ. And this may indeed be the case with 1 Peter.

However, there are a few reasons to pump the breaks on this line of interpretation. First of all, 1 Peter considered his audience to be aliens in the midst of Gentiles (2:12), a remark which makes better sense from the perspective of Jews living in the Diaspora. The Gentiles here sound like the ‘wholly other’ category, an argument which resounds closely with the Jewish worldview. Furthermore, if we are to take seriously the agreement depicted in Gal. 2:1-10, then Peter had dedicated himself to the Jewish mission while Paul focused on the Gentile mission. So if Peter was primarily interested in reaching fellow Jews for Christ Jesus, why would he write a letter to Gentile believers?

It is also easy to see the language of the former lives of the recipients prior to their conversion as an indicator that they were Gentiles. Such language includes “desires of their ignorance” (1:14), being “called out of darkness” (2:9), and “going away like sheep” (2:25). However, 1 Peter 2:10 draws upon Hosea 1:10 and 2:25 to describes them as formerly “not a people/not received mercy” but now they are “the people of God/have received mercy.” Since Hosea the prophet originally spoke these words to the children of Israel, it seems that those persons could lose covenant status through disobedience, thus leading to the “not my people” language and description. Furthermore, the reference to “straying like sheep” in 2:25 is drawn from Isa. 53:6, a reference to the suffering servant of Israel, not of Gentiles.

TL;DR – a good case can be made that 1 Peter was originally written primarily to Jewish believers in Jesus rather than to Gentile Christians. Now I do not want to suggest that no converted Gentiles are in view in 1 Peter. I just see how the letter can be, perhaps more persuasively, reckoned against the backdrop of a Jewish believing audience.

What do you all think? Let me know if there is any other evidence worth considering.

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9 thoughts on “Is 1 Peter Written to Jewish or Gentile Believers?

  1. Justin, RE: “I recently ran across SOME EVIDENCE which has caused me to rethink my assumptions…” seems vacuous since there is none cited. Rather, it appears that you have spent additional time reexamining the written record and now feel more comfortable adopting a different set of assumptions. I trust this appears more critical than criticizing. Do elements within the Epistle to the Hebrews – language or themes – strengthen or weaken your old vs new assumptions?

    1. I was attempting to focus on the evidence rather than the persons who made such arguments. In regard to Hebrews, it does seem that the author is addressing a Gentile community.

      I was not attempting to take any position in regard to 1 Peter. I just wanted to test an argument in hopes to see if it stands critical scrutiny.

  2. Justin, if I may… looking at Hebrews – since you looked fully at 1 Peter) by way of verses and phrases and concluded that 1 Peter is more Jewish focused than Gentile. By that methodology, would not Hebrews have also to be more Jewish focused than Gentile given ” our forefathers, prophets, Moses, Melchizedek, Abraham, Joshua, priests, high priests, and use of Psalms. I am not challenging your conclusions. I am, looking to better understand the process, the methodology that is being used. Thanks for responding previously. If time permits, I would appreciate a final response.
    This is not a challenge to your column or conclusion(s). It is an appeal to better understand the basis, the process, used to reach the conclusion: it is more Jewish than Gentile. I trust those who hear your lecture will

    1. I do not think that it is fair to summarize my argument (which isn’t mine in the first place) as “Jewish focused.” I pointed out that Peter dedicated himself to the Jews in contrast to Paul’s Gentile mission. I also looked at key phrases and asked if they made better sense in the ears of Jewish believers or Gentile believers. Furthermore, I examined the Greek text and asked how this should most appropriately be understood by recipients in the second half of the first century in NE regions of the Roman Empire.

      So my methodology would be taking clues from other writers, playing the historian, and trial & error.

      I think Hebrews needs to be studied as its own document and we must reserve judgment on how it should be read until we have fully explored all of the introductory issues. All of those figures and books you mentioned are indeed present in Hebrews, but the cone from the LXX rather than from a Hebrew text. And the LXX was the preferred text of Greek-speaking Christian communities, rather than Aramaic-speaking Jewish believers. I’m sure you’re aware that the title of Hebrews was not originally penned on the document.

  3. I totally agree that the original recipient of Peter’s letters were the Jewish believers. I think it is the Calvinistic point of view that influenced Christians everywhere to view Peter’s letters were intended for both Jewish believers and gentile believers. They were the elect and chosen ones or the natural branch and gentile believers are the grafted-in wild olive shoot (Romans 11:17). We are not the chosen race in the context of Peter’s letters, but once grafted in, we share in all the promises of God and the future inheritance along with all Jewish believers. Therefore, in essence, Peter’s letters are also for gentile believers.

    1. “All the Bible is for you, but it isn’t all to you and it isn’t all about you”, was the answer to my question when I asked if the”Diaspora “was adaptable to the “Body of Christ”. ? 2 Timothy 3-16,17.

  4. I think 1 Peter can, without a doubt, be interpeted as being written to the jews primarily. I think you did an excellent job. I’d say the burden of proof lies on anyone who disagrees. It seems incredibly clear if you read it carefully. Peter also refers to the audience as being seperate from the gentiles, though they are among them. 1 Peter 2:12 “having your conversation honest among the gentiles…” Also 1 Peter 4:3 “…may suffice us to have wrought the will of the gentiles…” These are two seperate statements identifying the recipient of the letter as a seperate group from the gentiles. It could be argued that the audience was gentile, and when Peter said, have your conversation honest among the gentiles, he is just saying, “among yourselves”. But the word “gentile” was used to refer to anybody who wasn’t a Jew. So if Paul was speaking to gentiles about having your conversation honest among the gentiles, then he would effectively be saying to have your conversation honest with the anyone but the jews. Or else why would he single them out by only mentioning Gentiles, meaning anyone but a jew? And this wouldn’t apply if he was speaking to the Jews, because he is addressing them as a people, distinct from every other non-jew. So it would be perfectly acceptable for him to say to “have your conversation honest among the gentiles” to the Jews, but logically and morally impossible for him to be saying that to the Gentiles. I hope that makes sense. I know the idea is solid but my writing isn’t super clear.

    Also, in 1 Peter 2:9 it says, you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people…

    Peter is refering to Exodus 19:5-6

    “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.”

    I think it’s sufficently clear that 1 Peter is directed primarily to the Jews. Which is actually really interesting, and a lot can be deduced from this simple fact. For example, when he says that the Jews are a holy nation in 1 Peter 2:9, that is, they are a still a holy nation, even after Christ. Their promise land is still promised to them, even though they may not inhabit or posses the land itself. Many people deny this under the idea that Christ fulfilled the old testement promises and that heaven is that promise land and that we “have no continuing city”. But I believe 1 Peter, along side many other passages, prove otherwise. And that, even after Christ, the Jews are a still holy nation. And the original promise to Abraham for the land of the Canaanites will be fulfilled. If not, why would Peter call them a holy nation? If they were called a holy nation in exodus, why would the meaning of those words change? Especially when Peter is referencing a scripture that is speaking directly about an actual, real, earthly nation. But this is just food for thought and I’ll leave it at that. Thanks again for the article it was very well done. Cheers

  5. I think the best evidence worth considering in trying to understand 1 Peter is the reference to “Babylon” (or Rome) and “Mark” (1 Peter 5:13).

    My guess is it was written in Rome in the early 60’s by a sophisticated Greek writer — a real follower of the apostle Peter. Q. Who knows how redacted is the form we know the letter in now? A. Nobody. But the original letter probably comes from the place and time just before Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, just as tradition tells us they were. When dictating the letter to his secretary, Peter did not care about it being for Jewish or Gentile believers. The man was about to be martyred for Christ’s sake!

    The reference to Mark is the same Mark who wrote Mark’s gospel! Q. Who knows how redacted is the form we know the gospel of Mark in now? A. Nobody. But the original gospel emphasized a Christ suffering theology, just a 1 Peter does!

    When we read 1 Peter,, we are getting in redacted form, one of the earliest documents in the NT, not 80 to 110 C.E. as most scholars suggest, but early 60’s C.E., just before Peter was martyred. It is a great letter illuminating Mark’s theology and Paul’s theology. It is one of the earliest theologies to arise after 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians.

    What do you think?

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