The First Letter of Peter - Introduction
The First Letter of Peter presents itself as a pastoral letter written by the apostle Peter from “Babylon,” where he is accompanied by Silvanus (= Silas) and Mark (5.12–13), to churches in five provinces of Asia Minor ( 1.1 ). Some scholars continue to understand this as a literal description, with Silvanus often regarded as the actual writer at Peter's behest. The situation indirectly described by the letter, however, points to a time after Peter's death. The language, style, content, and thought world seem inappropriate to Peter the Galilean fisherman and missionary to the Jews (Gal 2.9 ). The excellent and sophisticated Greek, the lack of references to the life and teaching of the earthly Jesus, the christological emphasis on the cosmic Christ, and the address to Gentile Christians who had previously lived a sinful, idolatrous life ( 1.14,18,21; 2.1,9–11,25; 4.3 ) point to a disciple of Peter writing in the name of the revered apostle. Thus most critical scholars interpret the document as a letter from the last decade of the first century CE, written in Peter's name in order to claim that its teaching represented the apostolic faith. The letter itself indicates it was written by a presbyter (elder; 5.1 ) of the Roman church—the “Babylon” of 5.13 was a common cryptogram for Rome at the end of the first century (see, for instance, Rev 17.5,9; 18.2,10,21 ). The references to Silvanus and Mark, both known companions of Paul (1 Thess 1.1; Philem 24 ), are part of the fictive literary picture that combines elements of Pauline tradition with the figure of Peter, as is the Pauline letter form itself adopted by 1 Peter. The letter thus represents the combination of Pauline and Petrine traditions in the church of Rome at the end of the first century, set forth in Peter's name as a pastoral letter to churches struggling in a difficult social situation.
First Peter is a real letter, a united composition. It is not, as has often been thought, a baptismal homily or liturgy to which epistolary elements have been added secondarily. The letter addresses a critical situation in the lives of the addressees, who once participated in the social and cultural life of their communities, but since their conversion to Christ have become marginalized and abused. The society to which they once belonged now considers them an unwelcome, even dangerous sectarian movement (as in Acts 28.22 —“the sect everywhere spoken against”). While Christians are called to suffer “for the name” ( 4.15–16 ), the abuse is mostly verbal ( 2.22–23; 3.9–12,16 ). The positive attitude toward the state ( 2.13–17 ) indicates there is as yet no overt government persecution, except perhaps for occasional arbitrary acts by subordinate officials. First Peter offers realistic encouragement and instruction to Christians attempting to live faithfully in such a situation.
The author does not present a theological essay, but the instructions he gives are based on deep theological reflection, expressed indirectly by the narrative world the letter projects: God created the world ( 4.19 ); God chose an elect people ( 2.9–10 ); God sent the Christ who was rejected by humans but exalted by God ( 2.4 ); God sent the Spirit and Christian evangelists who established a new people of God and converted the addressees ( 1.12 ); and God will send Christ in the near future to conduct the final judgment ( 1.7,13; 4.7 ). Christians live their lives in the time between Christ's resurrection and return. The christological pattern of suffering and exaltation is foundational for the ethic he commends: Just as Christ was misunderstood and suffered unjustly for the sake of others, so Christians are now called to follow “in his steps” ( 2.21 ). Just as all Christians are instructed to respect the government authorities ( 2.13–17 ), so the most vulnerable Christians, slaves of unbelieving masters and wives of unbelieving husbands, are instructed to fit uncomplainingly into the given structures of society as a testimony to the faith ( 2.18–3.6 ). Such behavior may convert the oppressor ( 3.1–2 ), but if not it is still following the example set by Christ and will be vindicated at the last judgment that is soon to come ( 4.5–7 ).
The structure of First Peter represents an adaptation of the Pauline letter form: epistolary greeting ( 1.1–2 ); thanksgiving ( 1.3–12 ); the body of the letter ( 1.13–5.11 ) portraying the new identity of the people of God ( 1.13–2.10 ), Christian conduct in the given structures of society ( 2.11–3.12 ), and responsible suffering in the face of society ( 3.13–5.11 ); epistolary conclusion ( 5.12–14 ).