Authorship, Date, and Provenance of 1 Peter

Introduction

In the case of 1 Peter the issues of authorship, date, and provenance are inter-related. A decision on one item can influence one’s decision on another item. The traditional view is that the apostle Peter wrote the epistle in Rome prior to his martyrdom, which occured around AD 65 (Tertullian, Scorp. 15; Origen in Eusebius, Hist eccl. 3.1.2; Lactantius, Mort. 2; Macarius Magnus, Unigenitus 3.22, 4.4; Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2.25.5-8). However, the traditional view is challenged by many modern scholars who believe the epistle to be pseudonymous, meaning the epistle was written in the name of Peter but by someone other than Peter.

Provenance

According to 1 Peter 5:13 the epistle was written from “Babylon.” At first we might suppose that the epistle was written from a place literally called Babylon; either Babylon in Mesopotamia or Babylon in Egypt. Closer inspection reveals that neither candidate is plausible. Babylon, the former capital of the Babylonian Empire, was a shadow of its former self and was nearly desolate by the time of Trajan’s visit in AD 115 (Philo, Legat. 282; Josephus, Ant. 15.14, 39; Pliny, Nat. 6.121-122; Dio Cass., Hist. Rom. 68.30.1; Strabo, Geogr. 16.739). There is no evidence of any connection of Peter, Silvanus, or Mark with Mesopotamia. A military stronghold on the Nile Delta, near Memphis, was also called Babylon (Josephus, Ant. 2.315; Strabo, Geogr. 17.1.30). While a later tradition links Mark to Alexandria in Egypt (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2.16.1) there is no evidence linking Peter or Silvanus to Egypt. In fact neither of these Babylons were associated with Christian communities in general.

A more fruitful approach is to realize that “Babylon” was used as a reference to Rome in Jewish and Christian literature (2 Bar. 11:1; 67:7; 77:12, 17, 19; 79:1; 80:4; 4 Ezra 3:1-5:20; 10:19-48; 11:1-12:51; 15:43-63; 16:1-34; Sib. Or. 3:63-74, 303-313; 5:137-178; Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21). Peter, Mark, and the epistle itself were linked to Rome in subsequent early tradition (Col 4:10; Phlm 24; 2 Tim 4:11; 1 Clem. 5:1-7; Ignatius, Rom. 4:3; Irenaeus, Haer. 3.1.5; Origen, Comm. Matt. 1; Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2.14.6; 2.15.2; 2.25.1-8; 3.39.14-15). There is no competing tradition to suggest the epistle was written in any other location. A Roman location also explains similarities of thought between 1 Peter and other writings from Rome (e.g., Romans, Hebrews, Mark, Luke-Acts, 1 Clement, Hermas). Therefore I agree with the vast majority of scholars that 1 Peter was written in Rome.

Date

No explicit date for when the letter was written is provided in 1 Peter itself. Other forms of evidence allow us to provide a window in which the epistle was written. This evidence suggests the epistle was written before about AD 65:

  • Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, written in about AD 112-114, clearly alludes to 1 Peter (Schreiner 22).
  • The description of charisms (4:10-11) and church order (5:1-5) are too vague to be precise but they are a better fit for the first century than the second century.
  • By the time Revelation was written, in about AD 95, the conditions of Christians in Asia Minor had deteriorated from what they were when 1 Peter was written. Some believers had been put to death (Rev 2:13; 6:9-10; 16:6; 18:24; 19:2) and the depiction of Rome is very negative (Rev 12-18). On the other hand, 1 Peter refers to verbal harassment and takes a neutral view towards Rome (2:13-17).
  • Pliny the Younger (Ep. 10.97), writing around AD 111-112 about the Christians in Asia Minor, notes that a Christian had renounced his faith 20 years ago (ca. AD 90). 1 Peter does not mention anyone renouncing the faith despite knowledge of harassment and suffering.
  • Knowledge of Peter’s death would have been known to the letter’s recipients. Therefore, even if 1 Peter was written by someone other than Peter, it is difficult to see how it could have been passed off as Petrine if it was written after the apostle’s death around AD 65.

Determining the lower bound of the date range is more difficult:

  • The close and numerous correspondences between 1 Peter and Romans suggests to some scholars that 1 Peter had knowledge of Romans (this is not to say that 1 Peter was literarily dependent on Romans). If these scholars are correct then 1 Peter must have been written after Romans, which was written around AD 56-58 (Elliott 136-137). But it is also possible the similarities reflect early Christian themes in general.
  • As noted above, the term “Babylon” in 5:13 is a reference to Rome. Since this usage is only attested in documents written after AD 70, when Rome destroyed Jerusalem like Babylon had in 587 BC, many scholars consider this a strong indication that 1 Peter was written after AD 70. However, the above writings were politically subversive apocalyptic literature while 1 Peter is an epistle containing nothing subversive (2:13-17). As noted in the commentary, the reference to Babylon forms an inclusio with “disapora” in 1:1 and functions to identify both author and reader as “exiles.” These differences prevent the reference to “Babylon” from requiring a date after Peter’s death.

It is not known when, exactly, Peter arrived in Rome. That would establish the earliest possible date of the letter. I favor a date between AD 60 and AD 65.

Authorship

The author explicitly identifies himself as the apostle Peter in 1:1. This identification was unanimously agreed upon by the early church (2 Pet 3:1; Irenaeus, Haer. 4.9.2; 4.16.5; 5.7.2; Tertullian, Scorp. 12; Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.3.4; 3.4.2; 3.25.2; 3.39.16; 4.14.9; 6.25.5; 6.25.8). It wasn’t until the 19th century that scholars began to question the authorship of the letter (Robinson 164). Peter (Acts 2:9-11; Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.1; Epiphanius, Pan. 27.7; Jerome Vir. ill. 1; Acts of Peter and Andrew [Peter and Andrew in Cappadocia and Pontus]), Silvanus (Acts 15:40-18:22; 2 Cor 1:19; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1), and Mark (Acts 12:25-14:28) had early contact with people from Asia Minor. This is consistent with the letter’s addressees (1:1) and the lack of information about these figures as if they were already known to the recipients.

Despite the unanimous witness of our earliest sources many modern scholars doubt 1 Peter was written by the apostle Peter. The primary reason for this doubt is the high literary quality of the Greek in the epistle. This suggests to them that the author had a good education (Achtemeier 2ff., Elliott 120), the kind of education the apostle Peter did not have. Acts 4:13 calls Peter unschooled but this merely means he did not have a formal rabbinic education. The strongest evidence that Peter did not have the required education in Greek is the later tradition which notes Mark acted as Peter’s interpreter in composing the Gospel of Mark (Irenaeus, Haer. 3.1.1; Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.15).

But this is not as decisive an objection to Petrine authorship as it first appears. In New Testament times, writers sometimes used a secretary (amanuensis) to write a letter (Rom 16:22; 1 Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; Phlm 19; Pliny, Ep. 9.36). If Peter wrote the epistle with the assistance of a secretary this explains both the early tradition attributing the letter to Peter and the quality of the Greek. While it is tempting to believe Silvanus was Peter’s secretary, the language in 5:12 indicates only that Silvanus delivered the letter, not that he composed it.

A related objection notes that the Old Testament quotations are from the Greek LXX, not the Hebrew or Aramaic text. But this can be explained by the fact that the letter’s recipients probably used the LXX and its use would make the text more understandable to them.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I agree with nearly all scholars that 1 Peter was written in Rome. However, I follow the traditional view that the epistle was written by Peter (with the help of a secretary) between AD 60 and 65. The arguments against Petrine authorship do not overcome the clear testimony from the earliest sources.

Bibliography

Achtemeier, Paul J. 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter. Minneapolis Minn.: Fortress Press, 1996.

Elliott, John H. 1 Peter. Yale University Press, 2001.

Freedman, D. N. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Jobes, Karen H. 1 Peter. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic & Brazos Press, 2005.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1 Peter. Waco: Thomas Nelson, 1988.

Robinson, John A. T. Redating the New Testament. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2001.

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. Holman Reference, 2003.

3 thoughts on “Authorship, Date, and Provenance of 1 Peter

  1. Pingback: Authorship and Date of 2 Peter and Jude « Biblical Scholarship

  2. Pingback: By any other name … | Dr. Gerry Lewis

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