Thursday, October 15, 2009

Explanatory Notes: 1 Peter 1:1

Alas, more than once I intended to do at least a little more in James, but the exam has come and gone and 1 Peter is nigh. So James goes into the queue of unfinished notes to be finished another day. Here is 1 Peter 1:1
1:1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to chosen aliens of the Diaspora in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,
The Peter in question is certainly Simon Peter, the disciple. We do of course encounter the same questions of authorship with 1 Peter that we do the other General Epistles. How likely is it that a Galilean fisherman would write this well in Greek? The thought at some points, such as even the designation of Peter as "an apostle of Jesus Christ," seems very much like Paul's letters. Indeed, the mention of Silas in 5:12 is a little surprising, since Silas was Paul's coworker rather than Peter's.

Even more striking is the thinly veiled reference to Rome as "Babylon" in 5:13. We know of other Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem who connected Rome with Babylon. Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, its temple, and took its intelligensia captive. In AD70 Rome destroyed Jerusalem, its temple, and took its intelligensia back to Rome where they were crucified. It is thus no suprise that Revelation and the Sibylline Oracles use Babylon as a code word for Rome.

But according to tradition, Peter died at the hands of Nero, who committed suicide in AD68. If Jews did not call Rome "Babylon" until after the destruction of Jerusalem, then either Peter did not write 1 Peter as we have it or, as some suggest, it might have literally been written from Babylon. It is of course possible that Jews saw the writing on the wall well before Rome actually destroyed Jerusalem. The Jewish War began in AD66, two years before Nero died. If we think of Peter as the literal author, perhaps we should date 1 Peter to the years AD66-68.

The statement that Peter wrote this letter in some way "through Silas" has brought its own debates (5:12). Are we perhaps to think of Silas as the one who delivered this letter to its varied destinations throughout Asia Minor? Or perhaps Silas helped translate or even formulate Peter's basic thoughts in Greek for him. If Silas in some way was a co-writer in a more significant way than usual, that would explain some of the apparent similarities to Paul's thought. Finally, if 1 Peter was pseudonymous--written under the authority of Peter's name after his death to convey his voice to a later context--then one might suggest that perhaps it was Silas himself who composed the letter in toto.

Peter identifies the audience as "chosen aliens of the Diaspora." Since the audience likely consisted primarily of Gentiles (cf. 2:10), the reference to the Diaspora would seem to be slightly figurative, except insofar as the audience does seem spread out over the rather large region of Asia Minor: Pontus at the top on the Black Sea, Galatia up and down the middle, Cappadocia to the east of Galatia and north of Paul's native Cilicia, Asia on the western end, and Bithynia to the northwest. Paul ministered at one point or another in many of these regions, except we have no record of him in Pontus or Bithynia.

The idea that the audience is "chosen" or "elect" is a theme that appears throughout 1 Peter. It is probably important not to read later understandings of election into such statements. In the mystery of God, only a small percentage of the Mediterranean world believed in Jesus as messiah at the time, and it was natural for this minority to recognize themselves as a special group out of everyone in the world. Such references implied that they stood in a special relationship with God. They probably did not imply that God had decided not to save those who did not believe or that those who currently believed were destined to be saved no matter what. It was "phenomenological" language, language that described how things appeared, language that recognized the special status of believers within the broader, unbelieving world without the later sense of a rigid underlying cause and effect on God's part.

The reference to the audience as "aliens," "strangers," "foreigners," has also given rise to a good deal of speculation. For example, some think that the audience were literally exiles for whom Asia Minor was not their native homeland. Such studies are very edifying in their modern application, and they accurately describe the social situation of a certain group within the ancient world.

However, we find this suggestion highly implausible when it comes to the original audience of 1 Peter, not least because Peter speaks of the audience of aliens in the context of abstaining from fleshly desires (2:11). Such language puts such imagery into a spiritual context (cf. Heb. 11:13-16). Although the NIV adds the words "in the world" to this verse (they're not there in Greek), the addition would seem to capture well the most likely sense. The audience are "aliens" in the world because they belong to a different kingdom, a spiritual rather than a fleshly one.

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