Bible Study Guide: 1 Peter

Audience: Adult Youth Individuals Format: Web

What makes 1 Peter special?

Although it appears on the surface that 1 Peter addresses suffering and persecution, the letter is, in fact, addressing the issue of Christian identity. It was written in a period when Christianity was just beginning to come of age and to imagine itself in a particular way in relation to Judaism, the Roman Empire, and other elements of the religious, cultural, and political environment of which it was a part. It was not very popular or socially acceptable to be Christian. Believers were struggling against various forms of opposition and pressure from those around them, and thus were forced, in their response to that environment, to negotiate between positions of resistance and rejection on the one hand, and acculturation on the other.

Why was 1 Peter written?

The rhetorical situation of the letter is one of persecution. Whether or to what extent that persecution is real or imagined remains a matter of debate. A number of questions persist: What sort of persecution is reflected in the letter? Was it due to Roman policy? Or was it of a more unofficial nature? Either way, when did it occur? Roman policies and attitudes toward non-Roman religions and toward volunteer groups (collegia) in general was typically one of tolerance, provided such practices did not threaten Roman power and authority. Nevertheless, there was distaste for Jewish religious practices, which often translated into official policy, and which often carried over to Christians. Support for the argument that the suffering undergone by the readers of 1 Peter was due to official persecution is drawn principally from two references-3:15 and 5:9. Most interpreters have tried to locate such official persecution with the reigns of Nero (54-68 CE), Domitian (81-96 CE), or Trajan (97-117 CE), depending in part on when one dates the composition of the letter. There is little evidence to suggest any state-wide persecution in this period. Hence, if the author had in mind any official persecution, it was most likely localized and limited. The persecutions faced by the letter’s audience probably had more to do with unofficial harassment than sanctioned policy. It was probably instigated by the hoi polloi in reaction against the Christians’ lifestyle rather than by Roman officials as a matter of policy aimed at seeking out and punishing Christians.

What’s the story behind the scene?

Traditionally, the author of 1 Peter has been identified with Simon Peter the Apostle. Those that support Petrine authorship argue that his faith and personality are reflected in the letter and therefore attempt to show similarities between the letter, the speeches of Peter in Acts, and depictions of the Apostle in the Gospels. Unfortunately, general similarities like an emphasis on baptism and resurrection also characterize the rest of the New Testament. Furthermore, it should be noted that the speeches in Acts and characterizations of Peter in the Gospels are just that-characterizations. They are literary constructions of the authors of Luke-Acts and the other Gospels. Consequently, they are of virtually no value for determining the authorship of 1 Peter. Alternative suggestions regarding authorship have rarely been put forward and most are altogether unpersuasive. As a result, authorship remains one of the major literary problems of the text. The nature of the letter, its destination, and its content only serve to further complicate the issue. For instance, the polished rhetoric of the letter and the level of its Greek, its dependence on the Septuagint, the letter’s lack of references to events in the life of Jesus, the strongly Pauline flavor of the letter in both language and content (see e.g., Romans and Ephesians), evidence that the author made use of other early Christian traditions (e.g., Qumran materials), and the fact that the situation reflected in the letter (viz., references to persecution and the internal structures of ecclesiastical organization) appears to suggest a period in Asia Minor later than one could assume Peter lived through, all seem to argue against Petrine authorship.

First Peter weaves together church community and Christology, and ethics follow closely. Note, for instance, the way the author interprets Scripture (cf. Hebrews) and describes the community in terms drawn from the Old Testament. Christ as the rejected stone foreshadows and parallels the fate of the church. The letter’s Christology is built around emphasis on the suffering of Jesus as a necessary prelude to his exaltation. Whereas God is absolute ruler over all creation, lordship is exercised exclusively through Christ, who occupies a position superior to all other powers. In bearing our sins on the cross, he became the pioneer and perfecter of faith and the forerunner of salvation for those who obey him (1:3—2:25; 4:1-11). The notion of the church as a body of priests (2:5 and 9) hints at something even more developed than what we find in the writings of Paul, which most scholars believe were written four or five decades earlier. The basic ethical imperative of 1 Peter is expressed as being holy because God is holy. Christ himself is the model for the Christian way of life. The risen Christ ushers in a new reality, and God’s saving grace brings into being a distinctive way of life. The Christian’s life in society manifests God’s presence. Thus, in 1 Peter, Christians are not called to reform the social order but to exhibit true goodness within it, because carrying out one’s responsibilities toward society in obedience to God’s will is understood as an act of Christian worship.

Biblical scholar Steven Bechtler uses the work of ritual theorist, Victor Turner, to explore the nature of Christian identity depicted in the text. According to Turner, the characteristic symbolism of liminality is that of paradox, simultaneously “being both this and that” (and hence neither fully one nor the other) in the moment of transition. Bechtler draws on this to speak of the liminality of the Christian life, particularly with respect to a context of suffering and social disgrace. Bechtler argues that 1 Peter offers readers a “liminal self-identity,” which is neither assimilationist nor sectarian, neither fully embedded within the larger society nor completely removed from it. For Bechtler, 1 Peter’s ambiguous statements and images together construct an identity that is itself ambiguous with respect to the larger society. The implied readers of the letter are marginalized, both literally and figuratively. They are referred to as “children” and “newborn babies.” Conversion and initiation into the Christian community is viewed as “birth.” The author regards them as “free persons” “but slaves of God” (2:16). Despite the fact that their true identity lies elsewhere, they are admonished to uphold the laws of state, social conventions, and so forth. Is this then a form of cultural adaptation or a means of subtle resistance?

How is 1 Peter constructed?

  • Greetings (1:1-2)
  • The Salvation of God in Christ (1:3—2:10)
  • God’s salvation is a source of immutable hope (1:3-12)
  • God’s salvation sets us apart (1:13-25)
  • Excursus: Jesus the cornerstone of God’s chosen people (2:1-10)
  • Christians in a Hostile World (2:11—4:11)
  • Living as aliens and exiles and suffering as Christ suffered (2:11-25)
  • Family life (3:1-7)
  • Suffering for the sake of righteousness (3:8-22)
  • Living as ambassadors of God’s grace (4:1-11)
  • Encouragement for Those Who Suffer (4:12—5:11)
  • Personal Greetings (5:12-14)

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