Saint Peter with Christ and the Apostles above Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In our series of tutorial group studies of heroes of the Bible and the faith, we have looked in recent weeks at Saint John the Divine, Ananias of Damascus, the Prophet Elijah, the Prophet Daniel, and Rahab, who features in the Book of Joshua (see Joshua 2: 1-22, 6: 15-25), and who is also mentioned three times in the New Testament.
This morning we are looking at the Apostle Peter, and I want to add some discussion of the two New Testament letters (epistles) that bear his name, I Peter and II Peter, for the attribution of their authorship to the Apostle Peter has been challenged by many commentators and critics in recent years.
I Peter: structure and content:
We could outline this structure for I Peter:
1, Greeting (1: 1-2)
2, Praise to God (1: 3-12)
3, Being God’s Holy People (1: 13 to 2: 10)
4, Living a life in exile (2: 11 to 4: 11)
5, Being steadfast in the Faith (4: 12 to 5: 11)
6, Final Greeting (5: 12-14).
I Peter is addressed, with a Trinitarian invocation, to the “exiles of the Dispersion” scattered throughout “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” five Roman provinces in Asia Minor (see I Peter 1: 1).
The order in which these provinces are listed may reflect the route for the messenger delivering the circular letter. The sequence of provincial boundaries mentioned in I Peter 1: 1 was set out by Emperor Vespasian in AD 72. The recipients lived in the eastern and central regions of Asia Minor, and regions bordering the Black Sea.
They are urged to “live in reverent fear during the time of your exile" (1: 17). Are they “exiles” (1:1) because as Christians they are longing for their home in heaven? Or, are they literal “exiles” (NRSV) or “strangers” (NIV), outsiders who have come to live in this region?
They have faced oppression and hostility from local people, but Peter advises them to maintain loyalty to their religion and to the Roman Empire (I Peter 2: 17).
The author advises them to be steadfast and to persevere under persecution (1: 1 to 2: 10); and to attend to the practical duties of a holy life (2: 11 to 3: 13). He points to the example of Christ. He urges patience and holiness (3: 14 to 4:19); and he concludes with advice to pastors and people (I Peter 5).
Why were the Christians who first received this letter experiencing opposition and persecution? The exhortations to live blameless lives (2: 15; 3: 9, 13, 16) may suggest they were accused of immoral behaviour. The exhortations to civil obedience (2: 13-17) may imply they were accused of disloyalty to the civil authorities. Did they suffer social discrimination, such as verbal derision, or were they the victims of violent persecution?
The author urges them to respect authority (2: 13), and even: “Honour the emperor” (2: 17), suggesting they were not suffering official Roman persecution. The first official worldwide persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire did not occur until the year 250 in the reign of Decius.
Nevertheless, Christians were brought before the courts and even faced executions. The aggressive claims to divinity by the Emperor Domitian would have been rejected and resisted by Christians, even though there was no official policy targeted specifically at Christians.
I Peter: authorship and dating:
The first internal evidence in I Peter that Saint Peter the Apostle is the author is provided by the opening greeting: “Peter an apostle of Jesus Christ…” (I Peter 1: 1). Similar claims are found in the concluding words: (I Peter 5: 12-14). I Peter was known to the early patristic writers but they do not describe it as Petrine. So, is there any evidence, internal or external, that the Saint Peter of the Gospels, who we have been looking at this morning, is the author of these two epistles?
The author of I Peter presents himself as Saint Peter the Apostle, and the epistle was traditionally said to have been written while he was either Bishop of Rome or Bishop of Antioch. However, these titles are not used in the epistle.
The author describes himself as ἀπόστολος (apostolos, apostle) (I Peter 1: 1) and as συμπρεσβύτερος (sympresbyteros, fellow priest) (see I Peter 5: 1), a title that appears a little later in the development of early ecclesiology.
But then, Saint Peter lived his early life in Bethsaida, which was granted city status under Philip the Tetrarch. Philip was a Helleniser or advocate of Greek culture, and Bethsaida probably had a large Greek speaking population.
There is general consensus, because of an internal reference to “Babylon” (see I Peter 5. 13), that the epistle was written from Rome.
Those who favour the Petrine authorship date the letter to sometime shortly before Saint Peter’s martyrdom, which may have been as late as AD 68. The reference to Silvanus at the end of the letter may indicate a date following Saint Paul’s arrival in Rome, and it may then date from as early as AD 63-64.
The language, dating, style, and structure of this letter have led many scholars to conclude that I Peter letter is pseudonymous. They see evidence that the author had a formal education in rhetoric and philosophy, advanced knowledge of Greek, along with geometry, arithmetic and music, and a reading of classical authors such as Homer.
Some say it is most likely that I Peter was written during the reign of Domitian in the year 81, when the persecution of Christian became widespread – a date that is long after the death of Peter. On the other hand, the persecutions described in this letter do not need a time period outside of the Saint Peter’s lifespan.
Other scholars doubt the letter’s Petrine authorship. They say I Peter is dependent on the Pauline epistles – especially Ephesians, Colossians and the Pastoral Letters (I and II Timothy and Titus) – and so it was written after Saint Paul’s ministry. Yet others argue that it makes little sense to attribute the work to Saint Peter when it could have been ascribed to Saint Paul.
One theory supporting the Petrine authorship is the “secretarial hypothesis,” which suggests that I Peter was dictated by Peter and was written in Greek by his “faithful brother” or secretary, Silvanus (see I Peter 5: 12). However, we could ask whether Silvanus was not the secretary, but the courier or bearer of I Peter?
Some scholars believe the language, dating, literary style and structure of the letter make it implausible to conclude that I Peter is the work of Saint Peter. They say I Peter is a pseudonymous letter, written later by one of Saint Peter’s disciples in his honour.
Yet there are similarities with Saint Peter's speeches in the Acts of the Apostles, and the earliest attestation of Peter as author comes from II Peter (see II Peter 3: 1) and the letters of Clement.
One possible context for I Peter is by provided the trials and executions of Christians in the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus under Pliny the Younger. In a letter to Emperor Trajan, written in AD 112, Pliny asks Trajan if the accused Christians should be punished for the name ‘Christian’ alone, or for crimes associated with the name (for the use of the word ‘name,’ see I Peter 4:14-16). But this theory is rejected by those who argue the suffering in I Peter is caused by social, rather than official, discrimination.
The Harrowing of Hell
The Harrowing of Hell ... The author of I Peter refers to Christ, after his death, proclaiming to spirits in prison (3: 18-20)
The author of I Peter refers to Christ, after his death, proclaiming to spirits in prison (3: 18-20). The passage says: Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is eight people were saved through water.” (I Peter 3:19–20).
In the original Greek: “ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν, ἀπειθήσασίν ποτε ὅτε ἀπεξεδέχετο ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ μακροθυμία ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε ...”
Later, he says: “For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (I Peter 4: 6); “εἰς τοῦτο γὰρ καὶ νεκροῖς εὐηγγελίσθη …”
This passage (see also Matthew 27: 52 and Luke 23: 43) provides the basis for the description in the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed of Christ’s descent into hell, but it is not mentioned in the Nicene Creed. This event is known to the Orthodox as “the harrowing of hell.”
Between the time of his Crucifixion and Resurrection, Christ visits the “the spirits in prison” or the souls of pre-Christian people waiting for the Gospel.
The Greek wording in the Apostles’ Creed is κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα (katelthonta eis ta katôtata), and in Latin descendit ad inferos. The Greek τὰ κατώτατα (ta katôtata, “the lowest”) and the Latin inferos (“those below”) may also be translated as “underworld,” “netherworld,” or “abode of the dead.”
The term Harrowing of Hell refers not merely to the idea that Christ descended into Hell, as in the Creed, but to the rich tradition that developed later, asserting that he triumphed over inferos, releasing Hell’s captives, particularly Adam and Eve, and the righteous men and women of the Old Testament period.
The Early Church taught that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall. The Harrowing of Hell is intimately bound up with the Resurrection, the Raising from the Dead, for as Christ is raised from the dead he also plummets the depths to bring up, to raise up, those who are dead, no matter where that may be in time and in space. The Harrowing of Hell carries us into the gap in time between Christ’s death and his resurrection.
In icons of the Harrowing of Hell, Christ stands on the shattered doors of Hell. Sometimes, two angels are seen in the pit binding Satan. And we see Christ pulling out of Hell Adam and Eve, imprisoned there since their deaths, imprisoned along with all humanity because of sin. Christ breaks down the doors of Hell and leads the souls of the lost into Heaven. It is the most radical reversal we can imagine. Death does not have the last word, we need not live our lives buried in fear. If Adam and Eve are forgiven, and the Sin of Adam is annulled and destroyed, who is beyond forgiveness?
In discussing the “Descent into Hell,” Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that if Christ’s mission did not result in the successful application of God’s love to every intended soul, how then can we think of it as a success? He emphasises Christ’s descent into the fullness of death, so as to be “Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 5).
However, in her book Light in Darkness, Alyssa Lyra Pitstick says Christ did not descend into the lowest depths of Hell, that he only stayed in the top levels. She cannot agree that Christ’s descent into Hell entails experiencing the fullness of alienation, sin and death, which he then absorbs, transfigures, and defeats through the Resurrection. Instead, she says, Christ descends only to the “limbo of the Fathers” in which the righteous, justified dead of the Old Testament waited for his coming.
And so her argument robs the Harrowing of Hell of its soteriological significance. For her, Christ does not descend into Hell and experience there the depths of alienation between God and humanity opened up by sin. She leaves us with a Christ visiting an already-redeemed and justified collection of Old Testament saints to let them know that he has defeated death – as though he is merely ringing on the doorbell for those ready to come out.
However, Archbishop Rowan Williams has written beautifully, in The Indwelling of Light, on the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is the new Adam who rescues humanity from its past, and who starts history anew. “The resurrection … is an introduction – to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbours, to our physical world.”
He says: “Adam and Eve stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal began … [This] icon declares that wherever that lost moment was or is – Christ [is] there to implant the possibility … of another future.” [Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ, p. 38.]
I ask myself: what is the difference between the top levels of Hell and the bottom levels of Hell? Is my Hell in my heart of my own creation? In my mind, in my home, where I live and I work, in my society, in this world? Is hell the nightmares from the past I cannot shake off, or the fears for the future when it looks gloomy and desolate for the planet? But is anything too hard for Lord?
The icon of the Harrowing of Hell tells us that there are no limits to God’s ability to search us out and to know us. Where are the depths of my heart and my soul, where darkness prevails, where I feel even Christ can find no welcome? Those crevices even I am afraid to think about, let alone contemplate, may be beyond my reach. I cannot produce or manufacture my own salvation from that deep, interior hell, hidden from others, and often hidden from myself.
But Christ breaks down the gates of Hell. He rips all of sinful humanity from the clutches of death. He descends into the depths of our sin and alienation from God. Plummeting the depths of Hell, he suffuses all that is lost and sinful with the radiance of divine goodness, joy and light.
Hell is where God is not; Christ is God, and his decent into Hell pushes back Hell’s boundaries. In his descent into Hell, Christ reclaims this zone for life, pushing back the gates of death, where God is not, to the farthest limits possible. Christ plummets even those deepest depths, and his love and mercy can raise us again to new life.
II Peter: content and structure:
The second letter, II Peter, is the first book in the New Testament to regard other New Testament writings as scripture (see II Peter 3: 15-16).
The letter is addressed to the churches in general. II Peter is written to warn Christians about false teachers and to exhort them to grow in their faith in and knowledge of Christ.
The letter is usually outlined as follows:
1, Address (II Peter 1: 1-2)
2, Exhortation to Christian Virtue (II Peter 1: 3-21)
3, Condemnation of the False Teachers (II Peter 2: 1-22)
4, The Delay of the Second Coming (II Peter 3: 1-16)
5, Final Exhortation and Doxology (II Peter 3: 17-18).
II Peter opens with greeting: “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (II Peter 1: 1).
II Peter is ascribed by some scholars to Saint Peter, and the letter says that it is written shortly before the apostle’s death (II Peter 1: 14), and that it is Peter’s second letter (see II Peter 3: 1).
According to the letter, it was composed by the Apostle Peter, an eyewitness to Christ’s ministry. It criticises “false teachers” who distort the authentic, apostolic tradition, and predicts judgment for them.
II Peter explains that God has delayed the Second Coming of Christ so that more people will have the chance to reject evil and find salvation. It calls on Christians to wait patiently for the παρουσία (parousia), for the new heaven and the new earth (καινοὺς δὲ οὐρανοὺς καὶ γῆν καινὴν, see Revelation 21: 1) and to study scripture.
In both content and style, this letter is very different from I Peter. While I Peter is written to teach about handling persecution (trials from without), II Peter is written to teach about dealing with heresy (trials from within).
The letter is important theologically for it identifies Christ with God, and addresses a threatening heresy about the anticipated Second Coming.
II Peter contains eleven references to the Old Testament. The letter also shows some knowledge, albeit, perhaps, second-hand knowledge of marginal apocryphal books: Tartaros (Ταρταρός) is mentioned in II Peter 2: 4 as the place where certain fallen angels have cast into and are held in chains. This place-name is missing in many English translations, including the KJV, NRSV and NIV, where it is translated as hell. But it is named again in the Greek of Jude 6, where there is a clear reference to the Book of Enoch.
II Peter also refers to many of Saint Paul’s letters (II Peter 3: 15) and specifically (II Peter 3: 15, 16) to one letters (see I Thessalonians 4: 13 to 5: 11).
Most noticeably, though, II Peter quotes from Jude and adapts from that letter extensively, sharing a number of passages with the Epistle of Jude:
● 1: 5 (Jude 3);
● 1: 12 (Jude 5);
● 2: 1 (Jude 4);
● 2: 4 (Jude 6);
● 2: 5 (Jude 5);
● 2: 6 (Jude 7);
● 2: 10-11 (Jude 8-9);
● 2: 12 (Jude 10);
● 2: 13-17 (Jude 11-13);
● 2: 18 (Jude 16);
● 3: 2f (Jude 17 f);
● 3: 3 (Jude 18);
● 3: 14 (Jude 24);
● 3: 18 (Jude 25).
Because the Epistle of Jude is much shorter than II Peter, and because of various stylistic details, the scholarly consensus is that Jude is the source for similar passages in II Peter.
II Peter: authorship and dating
When was II Peter written? Commentaries vary, placing the letter in almost every decade between 60 and 160.
II Peter says it is the work of “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ” (see II Peter 1: 1), and the author says he personally knew Christ (see II Peter 1: 14). However, most biblical scholars conclude Saint Peter is not the author and they regard the letter as pseudepigraphical. Their reasons include linguistic differences with I Peter, its apparent use of Jude, possible allusions to second-century gnosticism, encouragement in the wake of a delayed parousia, and weak external support.
Many scholars say the epistle was written between ca 100 and 150. On the other hand, Richard Bauckham opts for an earlier date between 80 and 90 AD. He suggests that II Peter 2: 4 is partially dependent on Jude 6 but is independently drawing on tradition that also lies behind Jude 5-7.
II Peter was not accepted into the Biblical canon without some difficulty, but doubts about the letter’s authorship were never used for definitive rejection. By the time of Jerome (c. 346-420) it had been mostly accepted as canonical.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 20 November 2013.