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.

Book Review (part 20 of 20: Conclusions of Research) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

coverneitherHaving finished the book and given myself a few hours to let the data ‘sink in’ I am now ready to offer my final recap/response. What is likely the final publication of James Dunn’s career of ground-breaking scholarship and scriptural insights shows that he is at the top of his game, both mentally and theologically. Chapter fifty of Nether Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity gives Dunn the opportunity to synthesize his historical findings and offer up some concluding thoughts.

The inquiry which he set out to examine regards tracing the trajectories of Jesus traditions from the year 70 CE on into the middle of the second century. He highlights the striking find (which needs serious pondering among modern theologians and preachers alike) that the gospel message “came to include the story of Jesus’ mission and teachings, and not just the account of his death and resurrection and their corollaries.” He also notes the observation that the Jesus traditions as exhibited within the Synoptic Gospels tell the same story with different details and emphases. Even John’s Gospel, which followed Mark’s structure of a written Gospel without actually possessing literary dependence, confirms the transmission of the Jesus material. Thomas chose instead to divorce Jesus’ teachings from his death/resurrection in addition to setting them forth in a non-narrative format (thus calling into question its label as a ‘Gospel’). Dunn also reminds his readers that the second-century sources continued to demonstrate that the Jesus traditions were spreading orally, despite many Apologists acknowledging the four written Gospels. As the second century progressed so did the shift from using the oral teachings of Jesus toward relying upon the four written Gospels. Although other ‘Gospels’ were in circulation there is little evidence that they were revered at the level of the four canonical Gospels.

Dunn has reopened the question regarding how interpreters assess James the Just, arguing that he was the most direct line to the Jewish Jesus. Although the apostle Paul is largely responsible for the massive expansion of the Jewish sect of Jesus-followers into the Gentile world he is perhaps to blame for many awkward and embarrassing questions regarding the incorporation of these two social and religious spheres. Peter too is to be further appreciated as the leader of Jesus’ disciples, as a witness of the resurrection, and Matthew’s insistence that Jesus would build his church upon this ‘rock.’ John’s influence upon early Christianity hardly needs to be argued for, but his Logos theology provided a way for Christians to insist on a line of continuity between the creator and the created order in the face of Gnostic voices which sought to distance the two.

Dunn observes that the contest over Christianity’s identity proved to be much more complex then Eusebius was willing to admit. While Eusebius focused on the pillars of the ecclesiastical system, a New Testament defined by apostles, and a definitive rule of faith Dunn challenges these three in light of his research. Instead, he argues that ‘Jesus as the Christ risen from the dead’ was clearly the defining center of the movement and the one from whom the traditions sprung. Furthermore, he stresses that the ecclesiology is not uniform throughout the NT, pointing to Paul as one who never appointed elders or leaders, the Pastorals which came in with a qualified list for overseers, and the teaching of the ‘priesthood of believers’ in 1 Peter and Revelation. This gives Dunn the opportunity to stress a point which he has already published on previously: the unity in diversity within early Christianity. In fact, the fact that these diverse forms (and others) were canonized should have disturbed the catholic Christianity which itself stressed the religion’s uniformity.

In regard to a rule of faith Dunn rightly observes that christology became a much strong and more emphasized driving force than Jesus’ death and resurrection  for salvation and forgiveness of sins. These led to the seemingly unavoidable path of the developed creeds defined in Nicaea and Chalcedon. On this point, Dunn boldly suggests that,

the NT canon invites those who find the developed creeds as confusing as definitive (that is, not at all clear as to what the definition affirms), to return to the basic insights of the first century: that God is invisible, but Jesus has made visible the invisible God.

The rule of faith which was intended by many early Christians to hold together both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus was never achieved with any long-term success. Dunn chalks this up to the overall loss of regard for Christianity’s Jewishness, and this absence “remains a feature of Christianity to this day.” His closing words urge readers, theologians, and historians alike to take seriously the undeniable feat that Jesus was a Jew and that the God he revealed was the God of Israel, and that the one God whom Jesus affirmed was also the Creator of all things.

dunnMy overall impressions of this book is that it presents a lot of persuasive data in a very organized manner. Dunn’s overarching inquiry is clearly examined with every source available without sounding like you are reading a dry dictionary. He is regularly succinct in his writing while balancing his thorough approach. Readers may quibble with a detail here and there, but it is hard to not be moved and impressed with the conclusions drawn from such a grand scope of study, especially if you have read the previous two volumes (Jesus Remembered and Beginning from Jerusalem). This current volume will easily become a classic staple for those interested in the development of Christianity on into the second century and for historians of the oral Jesus traditions alike. I personally am currently considering how I can incorporate parts of this volume into required readings for college undergraduates in biblical studies. James D.G. Dunn is one of the world’s finest NT scholars alive and should be emulated in his thorough approach to the text, historical data, and methodology.


Book Review (part 16: How Jewish were the Writings of the New Testament?) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

Christians-vs-jewsAs we continue through my recap/review of James Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek we turn to the chapter entitled ‘Jewish Christianity.’ This section attempts to survey the manner in which early expressions of Christ-devotion were either characterized as Jewish or self-identified as a continuation of the Judaic heritage. Although this chapter has a lot of weighty arguments regarding how more emphasis needs to be placed upon the influence of James the Just in the Jerusalem Church and the various Jewish-Christian ‘sects’ existing in the second century CE, I wanted to highlight in particular Dunn’s inquiry into determining in what sense the NT documents themselves stressed their ‘Jewishness’ (section 45.4). Since the following chapter in the book deals with the ‘Parting of the Ways,’ it is significant to lay the groundwork regarding in what sense Judaism and Christianity were intertwined prior to their unfortunate divorce. Furthermore, it is common stock in some of the more popular discussions about the Christian faith to regard Judaism and its scriptures (the Hebrew Bible/OT) as passe or old hat. It is therefore prudent to examine in what sense did the NT documents regard themselves as Jewish.


The New Testament Gospels

Mark Dunn regards the Gospel as Mark as the least Jewish of the four canonical Gospels. However, it opens up with pivotal quotations from Exod. 23:20 and Isa. 40:3. It focuses on the Judaean region and Galilee in particular. The climax of Jesus’ ministry is depicted as Peter’s confession regarding the Messiah of Israel’s hopes. Furthermore, Jesus is regarded as the Son of David and the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Jesus honors the Shema of Deut. 6:4-5 as the greatest commandment and selects Lev. 19:18 as the next most important priority. Overall, Mark does not attempt to exonerate Jesus from his context or deny the Jewish character of his mission.

Luke –  The Gentile orientation of Luke-Acts is readily visible. Nevertheless, Luke makes a considerable effort to ensure that the Jewishness of Jesus’ mission and purpose is evident. The opening songs in Luke chs. 1-2 depict the Jewish hope now fulfilled in the respective births of John and Jesus. Luke alone mentions how the young Jesus was circumcised and how the offering for purification was given in accordance with the Law. Jesus himself regards his ministry as a fulfillment of Isa. 61:1-2. He promises his disciples that they will rule over the twelve tribes of Israel. Even after his resurrection Jesus claims that everything written about him in the Law and the Prophets was to be fulfilled in him. In sum, Luke takes for granted the Jewish character of Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew – It should go without saying that Matthew’s Gospel is thoroughly Jewish. It commences with its argument that Jesus is born as the climax of the promises to David and Abraham, tracing his genealogy with some forty Israelite/Jewish persons. Jesus himself insists that he came to preach to the lost sheep of Israel. In the famous Sermon on the Mount Jesus regards the nature of his teachings to be raised higher than those of the Pharisees. It is almost certain that Matthew depicts Jesus as the ‘new Moses’ and the one who reorganizes Israel around himself. Principally, Matthew is deeply-rooted and interested in depicting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

John – Although it is common to regard John as something theologically less-Jewish that its Synoptic counterparts, even it expresses a commitment to Israel’s heritage. John’s Gospel is, in fact, the only of the four to call Jesus “Messiah” (1:41; 4:25-26). Along the same lines, it is also the only Gospel to regard Jesus as the [Passover] lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world. It makes reference to Jewish imagery, such as Moses’ bronze serpent and the water from Jacob’s well, and interprets Jesus through the lens of these Jewish symbols. Jesus states that Moses wrote about him, thus arguing for continuity between the Torah and the climactic ministry of Jesus. Although John expresses a deep schism between the local Ephesian synagogue and the Johannine community, it nevertheless regards the Jesus-movement to be the proper fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams.


The ‘Paulines’

The Undisputed Seven Letters – Dunn chose to not deal with these documents in this section, presumably because the scope of his book is limited to the period between 70 and the middle of the second century CE.

Ephesians – Some might be surprised that Ephesians is steeped in Jewish characteristics. It highlights the need to take the Jewish gospel to non-Jews. Its recipients, whomever they were, are regarded twice as “saints” in the opening few verses. In fact, Ephesians regards its audience with the title “saints” more times than any other Pauline epistle. Regular Jewish phrases like, “Blessed are you,” “chosen,” “the beloved,” “the mystery of his will,” and “God’s possession” appear within Ephesians. Although the citations are from the LXX there exist over twenty quotes from the Torah, Prophets, and the Writings. Its audience is comforted by regarding them, not as aliens and strangers, but as fellow-citizens and heirs of the kingdom of God and Christ.

The Pastoral Epistles – In contrast to Ephesians the Pastoral epistles exhibit a lesser degree of Jewish material. The focus seems to be primarily on Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles. The Jewish Law is still regarded as “good,” “the Law for the lawless,” etc. 1 Timothy speaks of Adam and Eve as common characters familiar with the audience in Ephesus, alludes to Genesis (1:31 and 9:3), and cites explicitly from Deuteronomy (19:15 and 25:4). 2 Timothy in particular regards the Jewish scriptures as inspired/God-breathed and authoritative for life and practice. Titus shows some conflict with Jewish themes (“Jewish myths,” “quarrels relating to the Law,” “those of the circumcision”). However, Dunn suggests that a conflict between Titus’ community and the local synagogue might be the best explanation for these markers.


The Rest of the New Testament

Hebrews – It is hardly necessary to argue for the Jewish character in Hebrew, as it is plainly obvious with its nearly forty references and quotations from the OT/LXX. It arguably regards Jesus as the expression of Lady Wisdom in its opening verses. It depicts Jesus as one who is superior to the angels with an argument built on Jewish references. It possessed an clear interest in the priesthood, sacrifices, the Sabbath rest, the holy of holies, the sanctuary, and the elusive Melchizedek. Chapter 11 of Hebrews paints many of the famous figures from the Old Testament (and come from the intertestimental period) as heroes of faith. Hebrews, overall, is arguably one of the most Jewish text in the NT.

James – Dunn summarizes his arguments from Beginning from Jerusalem where James is depicted as an anthology of Jewish wisdom tradition. Particularly, the Book of Proverbs serves as the foundation for the thought and theme of James. A positive attitude towards the Jewish Law is maintained throughout James. Those who cherished the Book of James certainly valued its Jewish heritage.

1 Peter – Although 1 Peter is written to Gentile believers in the eastern part of the Roman empire, it nevertheless regards the identity of its recipients as ‘Jewish identity.’ It makes a strong claim that Christ is the fulfillment of Israel’s prophecies (1:10-11) and scatters  a variety of allusions to the Torah, Prophets, and Writings in all five of its chapters.

Jude – All of Jude’s warnings are based upon the foundation of particular Jewish warnings, with over a dozen examples cited by Dunn. Furthermore, Jude was certainly influenced by 1 Enoch (seven references noted by Dunn). Jude also makes the claim that he is the brother of James, the former head of the Jerusalem Church.

2 Peter – Dunn follows the majority of scholars in seeing 2 Peter as dependent upon Jude. This means that it carries with it Jude’s Jewish character. Furthermore, 2 Peter chapter three exhibits a thoroughly-Jewish farewell speech, drawing upon Isa. 65. It is also, apart from the Synoptics, the only reference to Jesus’ transfiguration vision.

Johannine Writings – The stress on Jewish themes is quieter in these three documents. There is an insistence on confessing Jesus as ‘the Christ.’ Christ, as a title, is still expressed in these late documents. Jesus is also remembered as “the righteous one.”

Revelation – Like Matthew and Hebrews, the Book of Revelation hardly needs to be argued for its Jewish character. It draws heavily on Ezekiel and Daniel, particularly for its christological expressions of the risen and exalted Jesus.  Jesus is further described as the Lion from the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, and the Lamb. Dunn interestingly regards Revelation as “a new Ezekiel” in light of its indebtedness to its visions and symbols.


After reading Dunn’s summary I was surprised at the measure of continuity between the Jewish/Hebrew Bible and the NT writings. I always had a strong feeling of connection between the testaments, but Dunn demonstrates that it is stronger than I had originally appreciated. Dunn offers the following summary of his inquiry into the Jewishness of the NT documents:

The core founding documents of what became catholic Christianity were also Jewish through and through, deeply rooted in Jewish scriptures, faith and ethics, so much so that it is not inaccurate to describe mainstream Christianity as directly continuous with Second Temple Judaism, and catholic Christianity itself as Jewish Christianity, since the Jewish character of Christianity in integral to its identity.

What do you think of Dunn’s assessment regarding how Jewish the NT documents were? Be sure to ‘Like,’ share, and subscribe for further updates. Have a safe and happy New Years.