The Glossary of Terms

1 Peter


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Peter, the First Letter of, first Letter attributed to the apostle Peter in the nt canon and one of the seven catholic or general Letters in the nt. Interpretations of 1 Peter have traditionally focused on three topics: baptism, suffering, and traditional exhortation. Although baptism is important (1:3, 23; 3:20-21), 1 Peter does not record a baptismal liturgy; despite the many references to suffering (1:6-7; 2:18-25; 3:8-17; 4:12-19), it does not reflect a Roman persecution of Christians. Rather the Letter is a summary of Christian exhortation, telling newly baptized converts of their new dignity in Christ, detailing the new way of life befitting this holy conversion, and situating the new Christian life in terms of the pattern of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. The Letter aims at socializing new converts by presenting a coherent view of their new life in terms of the Christian story and symbols.


The First Letter of Peter

1 Peter is formally shaped as a typical letter, with an opening greeting and address (1:1-2) and a thanksgiving (1:3-9). The letter body contains the central exhortation (chaps. 2-5). It concludes with notice of a secretary (5:12) and with final greetings (5:13-14).

Conversion as ‘a New Birth’: 1 Peter highlights conversion as ‘a new birth.’ By numerous contrasts, the author stresses that a radical change has taken place in the lives of converts by joining God’s covenant. They have moved from

Their conversion was both radical and beneficial. How fortunate they are!

Yet this conversion entailed considerable suffering. For with the new allegiance to the Christian God, old allegiances to local family or city gods were abandoned. This shift in loyalties signaled to outsiders that old ties to family, clan, and municipality were weakened. As a result Christianity and its converts were suspected of destroying the social fabric. After all, conversion could result in loss of family ties, family wealth, and social position (see Mark 10:29). This is the context for understanding the references to suffering in 1 Peter.

If Christians are ‘aliens’ in terms of family or municipality (1:1, 17), they are nevertheless members of a new commonwealth (1:2), even God’s own household (1:3-5). The new identity of converts is given special attention in 2:1-10, verses describing the new Christian order of things and the Christian’s place in that order. Two parallel stories are told, that of Jesus and that of the church. Jesus is described as a Chosen Stone: God chose Jesus (2:6) and established him as the cornerstone of a new temple (2:7). This stone is precious to God, yet rejected by humans (2:8). Likewise, Christians are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ (2:9). Like Jesus, they are ‘living stones…built into a [new] spiritual house’ (2:5). Like Jesus, they are precious to God, even if hated by their neighbors.

Jesus’ story socializes converts in terms of their new identity and history. Jesus’ story continues in chaps. 2-3 as the pattern for interpreting the lives of converts. Slaves may be a ‘royal priesthood’ in the church, but they could still suffer from their old masters. They should find the true meaning of their negative experience by looking to Jesus and imitating him (2:21). Suffering comes even to the elect. They should not return evil for evil (3:9), but call this a ‘blessing’ (3:15). If converts have to suffer, they should suffer as innocent persons (3:16-17). The basis for all this is the foundation story of Jesus in 3:18-22, which tells of his suffering as well as his resurrection and enthronement in heaven. Jesus’ story is model and pattern for the lives and destinies of all converts.

Finally, converts are exhorted to be a new and loyal household. Typical of nt exhortations is a code of household duties for masters and slaves, parents and children, and husbands and wives (Eph. 5:21-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1). 1 Peter expands this to cover the whole household of God’s church; all Christians are exhorted (2:11-17; 3:8-22); then slaves (2:18-25), wives (3:1-6), husbands (3:7), and elders (5:1-6). In substance the converts are told to ‘be holy, for I [God] am holy’ (1:16), that is, to live a holy life worthy of one ‘born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus’ (1:3). They are to conform their lives and values according to the basic Jesus story as it is told in 3:18-22.

Authorship and Date: While the Letter claims to come from the apostle Peter, the Greek style bespeaks an education a fisherman like Peter would be unlikely to have had. The similarity of language and phrases in 1 Peter and the Letters of Paul do not argue for dependence of 1 Peter on them, but rather is to be accounted for by understanding that both authors drew from a common stock of early Christian traditions. While 1 Peter thus stands in the mainstream of early Christian thought, it was probably written in the late years of the first century by a follower of Peter who wished to address a new situation in Asia Minor in the spirit of the Peter he had followed. The suggestion that Peter gave authority to Silvanus (5:12) to write the Letter in Peter’s name may also merit consideration, although the situation presumed in Asia Minor (see 1:12 and 4:12, which presume a time late in the first century) would argue for a date subsequent to the traditional date of Peter’s martyrdom in 64. The ‘Babylon’ mentioned in 5:13 may be the place of origin, and is probably to be understood as a cryptic reference to Rome (see also Rev. 17:5-6).

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