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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6 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.

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