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.

24 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?

  6. Hi
    Just wanted to add that in Rom9:25. Paul quotes hosea verse as referring to gentiles. And uses a lot of Isaiah text yo refer to jews. However the elect in Romans8:33 are primarily the Jews1st and also the Gentiles.Rom1:16,Rom9:23(vessels of mercy) the “called” of verse 24.
    The elect are also the present remnant of Rom11:5(which is made up of Jews ) Rom11:1and vs4… leading to vs5…But the Elect are also the Gentiles Rom11:11, grafted in to the Jewish remnant rom11:24.

    So! I say all that because I agree with you the Peters letter is to a Jewish audience of believers primarily, but it includes Gentiles whom are part of the Elect.

    Its similar to the church of Rome. Made up of both believers, but emphasis on jewish audience, till you get to Rom11:13 the audience becomes more gentile focused

    There’s also a thought/evidence that Peter was a main founder or contributor in establishing the church of Rome, and that Paul added to strengthen that church(hence the letter/book of Romans). Which would if accurate would help to understand that Peters letter could be directed to Rome (aswell) in earlier stage, which was highly Jewish believers

    Going back to the hosea verse in 1Peter, it could be seen as a confirmation of prophecy that reveals that, though Hosea was talking to Jews but it was also a prophetic verse that the gentiles would be the greater fulfilment of that verse, in that the promise to Abraham with regards how many children he would have (included gentiles) and would be counted as seed, and be counted as part of “Isreal”/children of God.

  7. I looked up this question.”Was 1 Peter written to Jews or Gentiles?”, and found this article which was very helpful. I was thinking it was written for Jews. The verse that troubled me was 1 Peter 2:8.
    I am against Calvinism and the word, “appointed”, bothered me but if it was to the Jews,that would be less troublesome because they were blinded and some still blinded for a time for the grafting of the Gentiles. But this will only be for a time, and many Jews have had their eyes open already. Such was a pastor we had before we moved. He was a wonderful, kind man and a great teacher.
    Thank you for this article. I also believe that it is important for us to know who these books are written to because it does change certain factors but it does not change who God is to each of us as born again believers and what we can learn about our Father and His love for all of us.
    ❤2nd Timothy 3:21 Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter,(Wood/clay/ dishonor) he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful to the master, prepared for every good work.

    1. Hi Lori

      Here’s the result of a study I did on that verse as it used to bother me too!

      7Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient [not allowing oneself to be persuaded]
      , the stone which the builders disallowed
      [ disapprove, reject]
      , the same is made the head of the corner,

      8And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient [not allow oneself to be persuaded, refuse to believe ie obey]
      : whereunto [ is grammatically referring to the word ‘stumble”] also they were appointed.
      Meaning that the disobedient are appointed to stumble. And these are the Jews/Isreal of
      Rom9:31-33,Rom10:21, Rom11:7,11;20,25,31&32.
      All on the basis of choosing to “refuse to be persuaded”

  8. It would appear that 1Peter 2:9 is referring to Jews. Why would Peter use almost the same wording for Gentiles that was used for Jews in Exodus 19:6?

  9. Just a word of appreciation for keeping this open as well as for those who continue to add to this topic from personal thoughts and published articles.

  10. Only when i googled 1Peter written to the Jews that i saw your and other articles available. I had been preparing some expository lessons and and did not like the way things were working. I concluded a Jewish audience. None of the standard sources did any real analysis. They did a lot of assumption , guesswork, and explaining away. I thought I was nuts until I saw your article.

    Personal salvation is clear in 1:3,4 but 1Pet 1:5-13 makes more sense from a Jewish perspective. Salvation in an OT sense of deliverance is more fitting to the abundance of references to Day of the Lord restoration of Israel especially in Minor Prophets. (Which salvation they prophesied at the appearance of Christ).

    There is no trouble applying anything to Christians of any sort, but application is not interpretation. Thank you for your article, wish I had seen it before racking my brain. I wish I knew of a commentary that put everything together.

  11. Here are some hints Peter was writing to a Jewish audience that I got from my own reading.

    1) v1:4, Peter speaks of an “inheritance”
    2) v1:18, Peter refers to their “forefathers”
    3) v3:6, Peter uses the example of Abraham’s wife (Sarah) to address the wives (why use Abraham?)

  12. I would argue that both gentiles and Jews are called out in view here. Notice that promises made to the northern kingdom in Hosea are referenced here to the congregations, just as Paul did in Romans 9. Peter and Paul were informed enough as Jews to know what they were doing and that they weren’t being careless. Hosea was addressed to the northern kingdom Israelites in the 8th century who were going to be exiled and made gentiles “not my people.” I’m not aware of anywhere in the prophets where such stark covenant-reversal language was applied to the southern kingdom of Judah. God did bring them, the Jews, back from their exile in Babylon and the prophets promise a return from the greater exile that fell upon the Jews (Judah) in the first century. There is a clear difference in the nature, scope and plan God destined for Ephraim and Judah. Ephraim would be joined to the nations, Judah would be preserved set apart as a people from the nations. Paul saw in the promises to lost Ephraim who were “not my people” to one day be made “my people” to be a bridge for which gentiles could be called into the Olive Tree of Israel. I would be shocked if Peter didn’t also similarly have that in mind when he applied the same promises to his recipients. “Not my people” was language prophetically used for gentiles. Torah Observant Jews were never called that and to do that would’ve implied they were gentiles, and they are never consider as such anywhere in the OT or NT.

    1. Ref: KJV, 1Peter is written to Jewish believers because in 1Peter 1:1 the book refers to the “strangers scattered”. The Jews were scattered because of persecution. The gentiles never were. The bible never refers to the gentiles as scattered people. Another indication is in 1Peter 2:12 the conversation is as if the gentiles were not present. Thus the conversation is just for the Jewish believers. The King James Bible trumps all other translations because it is the most accurate. We study the whole bible because it has truth and understanding for all believers.

  13. The King James Bible is the most accurate bible God provided for us. The other bibles (NIV, NKJV, ESV, etc.) are confusing and contradict one another. With a good KJV study bible it will take a little longer but it is well worth the time.

  14. In his second letter Peter mentions that Paul has also written to these scattered strangers. I believe Peter is referring to The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s