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2 Peter

Despite questions about its authorship and date, 2 Peter is an important witness to concepts of apostolic authority and tradition in the early Christian church.

Jusepe de Ribera
Peter’s prominent role as Jesus’ chief apostle led many early Christian authors to compose writings in his name. Despite persistent doubts about its authenticity and its secondary status to a very popular text called the Apocalypse of Peter, 2 Peter eventually landed a place in the New Testament. In fact, we have no explicit mention of 2 Peter until the early third century C.E., and doubts about its authenticity lingered for centuries.  That ancient Christians gave 2 Peter a tepid reception is just one of the reasons modern scholars have often considered 2 Peter to be the latest of all the New Testament writings, likely penned by someone other than Peter. How late is “latest”? It’s difficult to say, but perhaps the end of the first century or even well into the second century—a considerable time after the real Peter lived. Despite these concerns, 2 Peter is an important witness to concepts of apostolic authority and tradition in the early Christian church. It also makes innovative use of the language of Hellenistic philosophy and religion in its effort to defend core elements of Christian belief. Although 2 Peter is pseudonymous, the persona of Peter is prominent. Aware of his impending death, “Peter” writes his “second letter” because he wants to offer final words of wisdom to believers so they will remember the traditional apostolic teaching (2Pet 3:1-2). Warnings about false teachers loom large, and the author makes ample use of language from another brief New Testament letter, the Epistle of Jude, in formulating his charges against them. It is hard to say who these opponents were. What is clear is that 2 Peter’s most sustained and substantial arguments address doubts that Christ would return quickly and usher in a cataclysmic end of the world. First, the writer had to account for the delay of Christ’s return. To the “scoffers’” derisive question, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2Pet 3:3-4), 2 Peter notes God’s long view of time (Ps 90:4) and argues that God’s slowness is actually a patient hope for repentance (2Pet 3:8-9). Second, 2 Peter had to address widespread skepticism that this world would be destroyed. Some philosophers argued that the world was indestructible, and 2 Peter’s opponents noted that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” (2Pet 3:4). In reply, 2 Peter points out that God had already destroyed the world once in the great flood (Gen 6) and that only God’s sustaining word held the world together. Further, 2 Peter recasts the language of a fiery and cataclysmic “day of the Lord” in the more philosophically palatable language of the Stoics, who taught of a cosmic conflagration in which the elements resolved into fire (2Pet 3:10-12). Other Christian apologists of the second century made similar appeals to Stoic teaching in an effort to minimize the novelty—and scandal—of Christian language about a fiery judgment.

  • Jeremy F. Hultin

    Jeremy F. Hultin is lecturer of New Testament at Murdoch University (Perth, Australia). He is author of The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment (Brill 2008).