Introduction to the First Letter of Peter

thumbnail41Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ….

So begins St. Peter’s first letter in Holy Scripture to the exiles of the Dispersion… The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture,  (First and Second Peter and Jude, by Daniel Keating) which is one of the resources I will be using for this online study, says, “The recipients of this letter are Christians resident in five Roman provinces of Asia Minor:  Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithinyia…The order in which the five provinces are listed possibly reflects the circular travel route that would have been taken by the bearer of the letter, who would have delivered it to each province in turn.  Given Peter’s emphasis on suffering throughout the letter, it is evident that the Christians he is writing to are experiencing trials and persecutions.  It is possible that these Christians were undergoing formal trials in Roman courts, but it seems more likely that Peter is referring to the ongoing, daily abuse and criticism that Christians were receiving from their pagan neighbors.”  -CCSS, pp.19-20 (Also, see Sources and Resources on our homepage.)

Because Peter is writing to Christians in such circumstances, we will find in this letter some of the most strengthening and encouraging passages in the New Testament.  For example, when we get to chapter 3 we will ponder the beautiful verses 13-15:  Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right?  But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence… (I am quoting from the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, of the Holy Bible, published by Ignatius Press, or from the New American Standard Bible, J.B. Lippincott Co., and will do so throughout the study, unless I indicate that I am using another translation from time to time.)

There has been some debate by scholars in recent years concerning the authorship of this letter, so it is worthwhile at the beginning to quote a passage from the Catholic Commentary which deals with this issue so that we can rest assured as we study it that we can receive it truly as a “papal encyclical” from the heart and mind of the apostle and friend to whom the risen Lord said, “Feed My sheep.” (John 21:17):  “Until recently the unanimous judgment of the Christian tradition was that I Peter was written by the apostle Peter in Rome during the final years of his life, sometime in the early 60s.  We find probable allusions to I Peter already in the First Letter of Clement (dated to 95) and citations in Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians (dated 108-25).  Irenaeus of Lyons, writing about the year 180, is the first to confirm Peter’s authorship of the letter.  This judgment is endorsed by Tertullian (c.200), Clement of Alexandria (c.220), and the early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c.325), among others.

“Doubts about Peter’s authorship arose in the early modern period with the rise of historical-critical biblical scholarship.  For a time, the predominant view among scholars was that I Peter actually came from the Pauline school and was dependent upon Paul’s teaching.  This view no longer commands the field.  The present consensus among those who do not accept Peter’s direct authorship is that the author is one of Peter’s disciples in Rome, writing after Peter’s death sometime between the years 70 and 95.  Still, a set of contemporary scholars make the case for Peter’s authorship and argue that the evidence against Peter as author is not as compelling as many scholars have claimed.”  At this point, on pp. 18-19 of the CCSS, Keating goes into greater detail concerning the controversies; if anyone following this study wants more detail, I suggest you purchase the Commentary by Daniel Keating (Baker Academic Publishers, 2011) and fill in the gaps that are most important to you.  Meanwhile, the section on Peter’s authorship ends, “The issue of authorship remains open and contested, but we can safely conclude that the author is either Peter himself or someone from his  close circle of disciples in Rome writing in his name shortly after his death.  While I recognize the force of some of the arguments against Peter’s direct authorship, I believe the stronger case still remains for Peter as author, and I will assume his authorship in the course of the commentary. [As will I, throughout the course of this online study–jc] Whether or not Peter is the author, I Peter remains an inspired and canonical book of the Bible.”

Concerning this last statement of Keating, it will be good to recall Section 21 of Dei Verbum  (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, one of the Vatican II documents, 1965):  “The Church has always venerated the divine scriptures as it has venerated the Body of the Lord, in that it never ceases, above all in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the one table of the word of God and the Body of Christ.  It has always regarded and continues to regard the scriptures, taken together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of its faith.  For, since they are inspired by God and committed to writing once and for all time, they present God’s own word in an unalterable form, and they make the voice of the holy Spirit sound again and again in the words of the prophets and apostles.  It follows that all the preaching of the Church, as indeed the entire Christian religion, should be nourished and ruled by sacred scripture.  In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them.  And such is the force and power of the word of God that it is the Church’s support and strength, imparting robustness to the faith of its daughters and sons and providing food for their souls.  It is a pure and unfailing fount of spiritual life.  It is eminently true of holy scripture that: ‘The word of God is living and active’ (Hebrew 4:12), and ‘is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified’ (Acts 20:32; see I Thessalonians 2:13).”

As we begin studying and pondering the letters of St. Peter in the New Testament, it is well to keep these marvelous truths and mysteries in mind, remembering that we are embarking upon a path which can take us, if we are receptive, into the very Heart of the Father and Son through the Holy Spirit’s powerful and often unexpected working.

Blessings this coming week,  JC