I 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:
- 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.
- 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.