2 Peter Introduction
Who wrote 2 Peter?
The writer leaves us in no doubt on the matter. He says he is ‘Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ’ (1:1). He was on the mount of Transfiguration with Jesus (1:16–18) where only Peter, James and John were with him (Mk. 9:2–12). He had written on a previous occasion to the recipients of this letter (3:1) and is on familiar terms with them (3:1, 8, 14, 17). Furthermore, he calls Paul ‘our dear brother’ (3:15), and at the time of writing he was expecting to die quite soon (1:14).
There is no evidence to suggest that any of these facts were later inserted into the letter to make people accept it. However, there is a popular modern theory that the letter is a ‘pseudepigraph’, i.e. a writing put out after the death of a great man, published under his name as containing the kind of things he would have said in that situation. Thus it would do him honour by being ascribed to him. Arguments to support this view are as follows.
First, it is claimed that the language and style are not similar to 1 Peter. In places we find complicated phrases in an exaggerated style. This is particularly true in ch. 2 where the writer gets carried along by his theme as he did in 1 Pet. 3:18–22. In any case, 1 Peter was written on different matters, and may have had some input from Silvanus (1 Pet. 5:12). In fact, there are strong resemblances between the letters. Some words and phrases occur only in these letters and nowhere else in the NT, e.g. ‘goodness’ used of God (2 Pet. 1:3; 1 Pet. 2:9 [tr. ‘praises’]); ‘putting aside’ (2 Pet. 1:14; 1 Pet. 3:21 [tr. ‘removal’]); ‘never stop sinning’ (2 Pet. 2:14; 1 Pet. 4:1 [tr. ‘is done with sin’]). Other words not common elsewhere are ‘brotherly kindness’ (2 Pet. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:22), the root of ‘eye-witnesses’ (2 Pet. 1:16; 1 Pet. 2:12; 3:2) and ‘add’ (2 Pet. 1:5; 1 Pet. 4:11). There are also similarities in the statements about prophecy (2 Pet. 1:20–21; 1 Pet. 1:10–12), about Christian liberty (2 Pet. 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:16) and about the last things (2 Pet. 3:3, 10; 1 Pet. 1:5).
Comparison of this letter with Peter’s speeches in the Acts shows a similar use of language: ‘godliness’ (2 Pet. 1:6; Acts 3:12); ‘lawless’ (2 Pet. 2:8; Acts 2:23 [tr. ‘wicked’]); ‘received’ (2 Pet. 1:1; Acts 1:17 [tr. ‘shared’]). Identical phrases can be found in 2 Pet. 2:13, 15 (‘paid back with harm for the harm they have done’, ‘the wages of wickedness’) and Acts 1:18 (‘the reward he got for his wickedness’). Both 2 Pet. 3:10 and Acts 2:20 draw on OT imagery of the ‘day of the Lord’ (Joel 2:31). More recent research has shown that objections based on the language have nothing like the evidence to support them that was once supposed (for further details see E. M. B. Green, 2 Peter and Jude [IVP, rev. edn. 1987], pp. 16–19).
Secondly, Peter’s authorship of the letter is also held to be in doubt by some because the early church seemed hesitant to receive it into the NT canon. The fact remains that they finally did so, and this happened at a time when Gnostic writers were circulating definitely bogus writings claiming Peter’s authorship.
Thirdly, because 2 Peter contains most of Jude many have assumed that Jude must have been the earlier writing. Had Peter written first, then there would have been no need for Jude to write. But, they argue, such a leading apostle as Peter would not have used material from a writer who, if he was the Lord’s brother, did not believe until after the resurrection (see Mk. 6:3; Jn. 7:5). This argument is far from conclusive. Jude could well have made a digest of Peter’s letter to send to churches who had not received it, and there is no reason why Peter should not have used another source. Both he and Jude might have drawn on other material being put out to combat false teachers.
Fourthly, others argue that the teaching of 2 Peter bears the mark of a late date. In fact, the seeds of the false teaching attacked in this letter were present, as far as doctrine is concerned, in Colossae (Col. 2:18) and, as far as morals are concerned, at Corinth (1 Cor. 5; 6:12–20). On the other hand, the teaching in 2 Peter about Christ’s return reflects (with 1 Peter) the hope of his coming held in the early days of the church. The godly are looking eagerly for it (3:12) and only the ‘scoffers’ are trying to dispose of it (3:4). This doctrine provides here the same motive for holy living as it does in the former letter (cf. 3:11–14 with 1 Pet. 1:7, 13, 17; 4:7, 13).
More recently, conservative scholars have drawn attention to the fact that the theory of pseudepigrapha raised a significant moral problem. False teachers in NT times had written under assumed names, and they had been denounced for doing so by Paul (2 Thes. 2:2; 3:17). Later generations in the church also condemned the practice. It is unbelievable that a sincere writer could have included the false personal references of 1:1, 16–18 and 3:1 in a letter which lays such stress on holiness and truth (1:3–4, 12; 3:11, 17). Such a deceit could not have been accepted in a church which called its members to such high standards in every respect.
When and where was the letter written?
According to 3:16 it seems that a number of Paul’s letters had already been published by the time Peter came to write. Some conclude from 1:12–17 that the gospels were by this time also in wide circulation and 3:4 is sometimes taken to imply that the first generation of Christians had already died by the time the letter was written.
References to 2 Peter in other writings show that, at the latest, it must have been written early in the second century. The heresy attacked in ch. 2 was still at a primitive stage, and this would argue for setting the date in the latter part of the first century. If we are prepared to accept Peter’s authorship, then a date shortly before the apostle’s death (1:14), somewhere in the sixties, seems most likely.
The letter gives us no clues as to where it was written. If we accept that Peter wrote it, and that he wrote his first letter in Rome (see the Introduction to 1 Peter), then this letter could also have well been written there.
To whom was the letter written?
From 3:1 it could be concluded that the letter was written to the same groups of Christians as 1 Peter. Otherwise, 1:1 suggests it was written for a wider readership, which would have included those who received the first letter and to whom 3:1 would then refer.
Those addressed are obviously Christian churches beginning to be undermined by the Gnostic heresy, and we know that this spread early in Asia Minor (see Colossians). These churches would have contained both Jewish and Gentile believers (see the Introduction to 1 Peter). Arguments about the recipients based on odd phrases in the letter are as inconclusive here as in the earlier letter, e.g. if 1:1 suggests Gentile readers, 3:2 can be used to argue for Jewish ones.
Is the letter a unity?
Suggestions have recently been made that the letter originally consisted of chs. 1 and 3, with ch. 2 inserted later. Others argue that each chapter circulated separately at first, with ch. 1 being the earlier letter referred to in 3:1, ch. 3 the reminder promised in 1:13, and ch. 2, again, a later addition. Another approach has been to attempt to isolate sections of the letter which are thought to be genuinely by Peter, and claim that other material was added by a later editor.
There are two strong arguments against these theories: no MS evidence supports the idea of any part of the letter at any time circulating on its own and all three chapters display a marked unity of style.
Why was the letter written?
Three main thoughts dominate the letter. First, the writer has not long to live in this world, and has a pastoral concern that his Christian friends should keep on growing in their discipleship; secondly, false teaching is getting abroad which could prevent this growth, and so must be denounced; and thirdly, the return of the Lord Jesus is certain, and his people must be ready for that. Peter touched on the first and last of these themes in his earlier letter. The second seems to be a major reason for writing 2 Peter, but is best placed in the perspective of Christian growth and destiny.
Is 2 Peter like other NT writings?
It takes only a casual reading to discover that 2 Peter contains most of Jude 4–18. This fact has given rise to the following theories.
Some say that Jude was written first. This is because Peter adds so much to Jude. If 2 Peter had been written first, then Jude would have added only a few verses to what was already in circulation. Jude could, however, have shortened Peter’s letter to meet the needs of churches to which it had not originally been sent. Others who support the priority of Jude suggest that Peter softened the harsh tones of Jude, tele-scoped his metaphors and cut out his references to the Apocrypha. These arguments could be turned in reverse to say that Jude felt he had to rewrite 2 Peter to make the language more harsh, develop an obscure metaphor, and back the arguments with apocryphal references.
Others say that 2 Peter was written first, and they cite the arguments above which can be turned either way. Some point out that a man of Peter’s standing is unlikely to have quoted from an obscure person like Jude. It is also argued that dangers foreseen by Peter as in the future (2:1) have been present for some time in Jude (4). But Peter is not consistent in his use of tenses, and in 2:10b–19 he speaks of these dangerous teachers as having already begun their work.
Others suggest there was a common source behind both 2 Peter and Jude. This alternative has been offered because of the problems with both the above theories. While solving some of them, it still does not explain why Jude bothered to write if he was merely repeating so much of the original source. It is far more likely that he abridged 2 Peter to meet his own needs.
In all fairness it must be admitted that there is no final answer to this question of priority. 2 Peter also shows marked resemblances to other parts of the NT, and these are noted in the commentary below.
What does Peter say to his readers?
1 Peter was written to strengthen scattered groups of Christians being called on to face sporadic outbursts of suffering. 2 Peter was written to encourage Christians beset by two dangers: seducers (2:1) who were spreading false teaching, which would lead to immoral behaviour (2:2, 13–15; cf. Rev. 2:14–15, 20–24; Col. 2:8–3:17), and scoffers using the fact that Christ had not returned as an excuse for immorality (3:3).
Peter is firm to resist both groups by positive teaching. Just as the first letter emphasized the example of the Lord Jesus, this one underlines the facts of Jesus’ life (1:16–18), the Christian faith as the way of truth (2:2) and the certainty of Jesus’ return (3:10). In the light of this it is important for Christians to grow (1:5–8; 3:18) and to be preparing for his return (3:11–14). Evil desires are a snare (1:4; 2:10, 18; 3:5); by contrast the Christian is to be zealous for God’s purposes (1:5, 10, 15; 3:14 all use variants of the root word for ‘zeal’). We look for a new heaven and a new earth in which evil desires will be replaced by God’s righteousness (3:13). In 3:1 Peter expresses his aim as being to stimulate wholesome thinking and he does this by summarizing the pattern of Christian growth in 1:5–8. His words in 1:10–11 give us the keynote of the letter. It is Christ-centred thinking, leading to God-directed living, which reassures us of our calling by God, and enables us to maintain an unbroken relationship with him. That spurs us towards the ultimate goal of the welcome into Christ’s kingdom at his return.
These truths are just as important for the contemporary Christian, facing the pressures of a multi-faith society or the seductive teachings of the so-called New Age, as they were for those to whom Peter originally wrote.
See also the article Reading the letters.
NT New Testament
OT Old Testament
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (2 P 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.