The revelation of Jesus: a quick narrative-historical reading of 1 Peter

Behind every letter in the New Testament there is a story. Behind Romans, for example, there is the story of communities of Gentile Christians called in Christ to be living sacrifices for the sake of the eventual victory of Israel’s God over the gods and powers of the pagan world. That’s how I read it, at least. Behind the Letter to the Hebrews there is the story of a Jewish-Christian community somewhere that has faced severe persecution and is likely to encounter worse in the near future, but has grown weary of the struggle to remain faithful.

These concrete historical narratives, moreover, are not of merely incidental background interest. They account for the shape of the theological content of the letters. In Gadamer’s terms—sorry, I’ve been reading too much hermeneutic theory recently—the theology has been developed to address “questions that arise” in particular historical situations rather than “problems” in abstraction from real life.

It is important to note also that the “questions that arise” in the New Testament are large-scale political-religious ones about the future of God’s people in the ancient world. The narrative is made up of the memories of communities, their immediate circumstances, and their imagined futures. The theology deals with what it means to get caught up in that narrative.

Justification by faith in Romans, for example, cannot be understood apart from the projected narrative of the eventual public vindication of churches called to risk suffering for the sake of the “good news” that God has appointed Jesus judge of the Greek-Roman world. Justification is not so much a soteriological as an apocalyptic concept.

The elevated christology of Hebrews 1-2 is addressed to a community that desperately needed to believe that the Jesus whom they had once joyfully followed down a path of suffering really had been given authority over his enemies.

A similar story lies behind 1 Peter, and I want to argue here that it determines the meaning of the phrase “at the revelation of Jesus Christ”, which occurs twice in the Letter (1:7, 11). That is, I want to show how a narrative-historical reading of the Letter—a reading that is sympathetic to its historical situatedness—sets the realistic bounds of its eschatology. We traditionally construct our eschatology in absolute and final terms. I suggest, however, that New Testament eschatology is constructed, for the most part, historically.

To the elect exiles of the dispersion

Peter addresses his readers as Jewish Christians who are part of the Jewish diaspora in Asia Minor. There is no hint in the Letter that they have had to integrate Gentiles into their community, though it would not greatly affect what follows if it were shown to be otherwise. They have been chosen “for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1:1-2). They have been “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers… with the precious blood of Christ” (1:18-19).

Like Peter, they have been “born again… through the resurrection of Jesus”, and they believe that they will receive “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you”; even though they have never seen Jesus, they love him and wait for a salvation that will be “revealed in the last time”, at the “revelation of Jesus” (1:3-4, 8-9, 13).

It is clear, already, that the identity of this group is determined by a Jewish background narrative about redemption from an old way of Judaism and a radical commitment to a new and future inheritance as the people of God.

The call to suffer

These Jewish believers rejoice in the foreseen salvation, but “for a little while” they are having to endure severe persecution (1:6). Indeed, they have been called to suffer for the sake of what is right and good, and in doing so, they emulate Christ:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (2:21)

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. (4:1)

In view of these difficult circumstances Peter enjoins them to conduct themselves appropriately “throughout the time of your exile”. They have to be prepared—mentally, spiritually, morally, communally—for what lies ahead; they must set their minds on the coming salvation; they must remain obedient to their calling (1:13-17); they must love one another, be hospitable to one another, serve one another (4:10-11). In Pauline terms, they have to be communities constructed of non-flammable materials that will survive the coming day of fire (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

This is not generic human suffering. It is part of a particular story about the destiny of a group of people. It is eschatological suffering. it is theologically significant.

Judgment begins with the household of God

So a “fiery trial” of persecution will come upon them, but the “end of all things is at hand” (4:7, 12-13). Judgment is coming. It will be a judgment of those who “do not obey the gospel”—that is a judgment of disobedient Israel. This is a thoroughly Jewish Letter.

But judgment will begin with the “household of God”—and not least with the “elect exiles of the diaspora” (4:17). This must mean that Peter understood the coming persecution to be an intrinsic part of the impending judgment or wrath of God. Their “salvation”, therefore, would come as the culmination to this eschatological crisis, when Jesus would be revealed, when they would share in the “glory that is going to be revealed”, when the “chief Shepherd” of this suffering flock would be revealed, and they would “receive the unfading crown of glory” (5:1-4).

They are urged to live honourably amongst the pagan Gentiles, which includes being subject “to every human institution”, from the emperor down, so that “when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (2:12).

This “day of visitation (episkopēs)” is the day when God delivers his people from those who oppress and persecute them: “in the time of their visitation (episkopēs) they will shine out, and as sparks through the stubble, they will run about” (Wis. 3:7; cf. Dan. 12:2-3). Jesus warns that Jerusalem will be torn down by its enemies because the Jews did not recognize the day of their visitation (episkopēs) (Lk. 19:43-44). It is the day when God will judge the idolatrous nations:

Therefore there will be a visitation (episkopē) also upon the idols of the nations, because, though part of the divine creation, they have become an abomination, a stumbling–block for the lives of human beings and a trap for the feet of the foolish. (Wis. 14:11)

Their exceptional status as reformist Jewish believers is summed up in the image of a new temple and priesthood in 1 Peter 2:4-6, established on the “cornerstone” which was rejected, which has become a “stone of stumbling, and rock of offence”. The stone, of course, is Jesus, but the context of the two passages in Isaiah from which the quotations are taken makes it clear that Jesus was understood as a sign of judgment against Jerusalem (Is. 8:14; 28:16). Jews who “disobey the word” will stumble, but Peter’s readers will be honoured for their belief that God has made Jesus the foundation of a new people.

This is a tightly integrated narrative and should not be pulled apart simply because we are having to make sense of it from a very different place in history. Peter expects the “revelation of Jesus” to come as the climax to a sequence of events that consisted of the persecution of these Jewish-Christian communities and judgment on disobedient Israel. The revelation of Jesus is the apocalyptically conceived moment when Jesus is shown publicly to be right and those who have suffered for his sake are vindicated and honoured.

Summary

So to summarize, these Jewish-Christian communities have been chosen by God to participate actively in a narrative of divine judgment and renewal. The nature of their participation has been defined by Jesus. They can expect to be persecuted for their belief that God has made Jesus both a stone of offence in Israel and the cornerstone of a renewed people—indeed, that was the essence of their calling.

But the period of persecution will not last indefinitely. They can see the light of salvation at the end of the tunnel; the end is at hand—a day when Jesus will be revealed to Israel and eventually to the world, when the Gentiles who speak evil of the churches of Jesus will “give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (4:4-5).

Comments

Thanks for this--but I am curious as to why you describe the recipients as Jewish Christians rather than Christians to whOm Jewish promises are applied.

Yes, that point was rather lacking in substantiation. I don’t rule out the possibility that these communities included Gentiles. But I feel that there is a hermeneutical principle at issue here. Is it necessarily right to read 1 Peter in the light of our knowledge of the development of the church? Or even in the light of our familiarity with Paul? We have Paul’s explicit testimony that he was an apostle to the Gentiles while Peter was an apostle to the circumcised (Gal. 2:7).

So why not start from the historically plausible position that Peter is presenting a thoroughly Jewish argument to a Jewish community—it is not just a few transferred promises; it is a whole way of thinking?

The Letter itself gives us no reason to suppose that the Jewish language and argument should not be taken literally. It is only by bringing to it the presumption that he is addressing Gentiles that we are likely to imagine that the phrase “elect exiles of the dispersion” is intended (partly) metaphorically. But historically speaking the presumption is unnecessary, and even if Peter also has Gentiles in mind, he is addressing them as though they had become part of reconstituted Israel.

In fact, I would turn the whole issue upside down. I would argue that Paul’s argument in Romans, for example, is much more like Peter’s here than the other way round. Paul has extended the normative Jewish perspective to include Gentiles. A Jewish 1 Peter is not a subtraction from a normative Pauline position.

I agree with your narrative about the letter, but how do you account for the fact that the author thought the apocalypse was around the corner and it didn't happen? He actually said "the end of all things is near." I think is fairly obvious that he thought the kingdom of god was going to be established on earth via some miraculous intervention from God during the lives of his readers. That makes it tough for us to extract lessons, I believe.

In fact, someone else had to write another letter to explain away the timing problem. In what we know as 2 Peter, the author responds to those who heeded 1 Peter and says to stop scoffing because "a day with the Lord is like 1000 years."

Also, the persecutors of the followers of Jesus in this epistle are obviously Romans. Why did God choose to punish the Jews and not the Romans?

And what are your thoughts about authorship? An unschooled Jewish Aramaic-speaking fisherman almost certainly could not compose such a letter in Greek. And the persecutions in question probably post-date the life of the apostle Peter.

Well, that’s one way of reading the Letter. I don’t think, however, that Peter or “Peter” was speaking about the sort of supernatural intervention you have in mind. My view is that the apocalyptic language points to a plausible historical transformation, a dramatic sea-change in the ancient world, that would result in this messianic Jewish movement, into which Gentiles were being incorporated in great number, inheriting the empire that had for so long oppressed them. Prophetic language is naturally poetic and overstated.

Quite what the author actually believed or imagined would happen is difficult to say. But in the Old Testament and in other writings just this sort of language is used quite clearly to describe things that happen in the course of relatively normal history. Peter has in view simply whatever it would take for persecution to be brought to an end and Jesus to be confessed as Lord across the empire.

That would still take a long time—much longer than the persecuted churches would have liked. Hence the need to address the problem of a delay.

It may also not have been clear in people’s minds how judgment on Israel and judgment on Rome would be connected temporally. Paul does not attempt to explain how wrath against the Greek will follow wrath against the Jew. he just knows that they are connected in important ways.

I’m not so sure that the persecutors of the followers of Jesus in this Letter were pagan. Acts 17:5 is evidence that Jewish Christians suffered persecution from the Jews, and we can assume that their eventual formal expulsion from the synagogues was often accompanied by violence.

But I would suggest that the Jews were punished fundamentally for their long-standing rebellion against YHWH. From the Christian point of view this culminated in the conspiracy against Jesus and the refusal to hear the announcement about the coming kingdom. But I think that in a broad historical sense the narrative of divine wrath has reference to a long period of turmoil that would bring about a massive change of fortunes across the empire.

An unschooled Jewish Aramaic-speaking fisherman almost certainly could not compose such a letter in Greek.

So he got his mate to write it for him. Why not? I imagine it was common practice.

And the persecutions in question probably post-date the life of the apostle Peter.

Because?

I don't think getting a mate to write a letter in another language would be quite as simple as it sounds. Much more simple and likely that a Greek-speaking person wrote it in the name of Peter, as it was fairly common for people to write books in the names of the apostles. (BTW, I'm just some schmoe on the internet, but you are a serious author, you should be able to back that up with more than what you imagine.)

I also don't think it is that difficult to imagine the author's intent. Although there were various iterations, the idea of a righteous earthly kingdom ruled by some form of messiah/priest combination was fairly common among religious Jews. "The end of all things is near" is pretty straightforward and hard to reinterpret. That doesn't sound like he is thinking about a long process of mass conversion, especially since the idea of imminent kingdom was a common idea preached by Jesus, Paul and others.

Furthermore, how can you "assume" violence by Jews kicking people out of the temple? That's not something attested to in history, unlike the well-attested violence against the Jesus movement by the Romans. Jews had a long history of religious conflict completely devoid of violence against each other. One real act of violence, the stoning of James in 62 AD, Jews (not christians) sent a delegation to Rome that prompted the Romans to remove the high priest responsible. You should rethink that idea unless you have some actual evidence.

In fact, 1 Peter is usually dated after 70AD, when the temple had been destroyed and Jews were in no position to kick anybody out of anything (and Peter was probably dead).

What's more, Jews didn't refuse to hear the announcement about the coming kingdom. All evidence is that many were fanatical about it (the exception would be the Saducees). The kingdom was the focus of the Pharisees, Zealots, Essenes and others. They just didn't identify Jesus as the messiah because he didn't fulfill the scriptural description. But for the kingdom they were willing to die (and tens or hundreds of thousands did in the most painful of ways).

 

 

Non Jewish recipients of the letter: 1:18, 2:10, 4:3?

As I said before, I don’t regard a Jewish-Christian audience as certain, but I think it is likely. Moreover, the presence of some Gentiles in the communities would not affect the basic argument about the narrative-historical framework. It would simply align 1 Peter more closely with Romans.

…knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold (1:18)

I’m not sure this proves much either way. “Ransomed” is a very Jewish notion; Paul describes quarrels about the Law as “futile” (Tit. 3:9); the word patroparodotos (‘inherited from your forefathers’) is Hellenistic, certainly, but rare. The verse may indicate that Peter is thinking of Gentiles, but equally the language could be adapted to a Hellenistic Jewish community.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (2:10)

On the face of it, this points quite emphatically to a Jewish-Christian readership. The quotation is from Hosea. It speaks of the redemption of sinful Israel:

When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the LORD said, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.” Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hos. 1:8-10)

Of course, it could be argued, as Ian Paul does, that this has been transferred to the Gentiles. But I simply question whether that should be the assumed starting point. We have an apostle to the circumcision writing in very Jewish manner to an elect group from the diaspora, making no comment on Jewish-Gentile relations within the communities, as Paul so often does. Perhaps he writes in a generalised Hellenistic fashion in order to include Gentiles in his argument, but I’m not sure we are compelled to accept this conclusion.

For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. (4:3)

Given Paul’s argument in Romans that the Jews of the empire were not better than the pagans as regards their behaviour, there is no reason to think that this verse necessarily points to a Gentile readership. Indeed, Peter’s point would be precisely that these believing Jews were chosen out of Judaism precisely for the purpose of establishing a new people that was genuinely different from the world around.

Further to this, J. Ramsey Michaels writes that everything in the Letter points to a Jewish-Christian audience except for the description of their former ways of life (1:14, 18; 4:3-5). He concludes: “The best explanation of the data is that 1 Peter wa written primarily to Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, but that the author, for his own reasons, has chosen to address them as if they were Jews” (1 Peter, xlvi).

I’m not convinced. One of the implications of this argument is that Peter is writing either to Jewish to Jewish Christians or to Gentile converts. The latter might make more sense at a much later stage, which would be that 1 Peter is pseudonymous. But it seems to me just as likely that the author is addressing Jews as though they had once been “Gentiles” as that he is addressing Gentiles as though they were now Jews.

But if Michaels is right, it suggests that the rhetorical strategy would have been to draw these Gentile believers into a thoroughly Jewish narrative. So the general argument about the narrative-historical setting of the Letter remains valid.

"Most commentators agree . . . ." - no, you haven't said this Andrew. I'd like to be in a position to say this (about the ethnic make-up of the communities 1 Peter is addressing), but I don't collect commentaries, and I don't have the biblical software.

Mulling these thoughts over, as I tend to do, I was coming back to the keyboard to respond to the idea that Peter as apostle to the Jews, Galatians 2:8, was therefore writing  to Jewish Christian communities, while Paul addressed Gentile communities. Had I imagined it? Nowhere in the original post or any of the comments could I find this idea, though I was convinced it had been there when I first read the post.

I was also going to comment on the thought that references to the pagan behaviour of the letter's recipients could apply to Jews, because this is how Paul also describes Jews in Romans 1:18ff. I couldn't find that either in the comment thread (though it may well be there somewhere), but anyway I don't think it is quite what Paul is saying in Romans. His argument does include Jews, but in a much more subtle, allusive and historical way. I think it is highly unlikely that Jews would have been indulging in the pagan behaviour described of the recipients' former way of life in 1 Peter.

This is, in one sense, not a major issue, as the narrative underlying the letter is the issue - the background narrative of Israel. However, in another sense it is a major issue, since Andrew's narrative tends to suggest a greater continuity of the OT story than many would accept. The emphasis of the NT is that new believing communities were no longer defined by their ethnic background, though they had many problems to do with their ethnic background to work through in coming to this new position. Peter and Paul did not have ethnic distinctions in their minds when they set about addressing new believing communties. In Christ, such distinctions were abolished and a major thrust of NT thinking and argument is to press the need for understanding this abolition.

What strikes me about 1 Peter is that the terms in which the recipients of the letter are addressed both contrast with and conform to a "thoroughly Jewish narrative". The terms of "election" as defined in 1:2 are as true for Gentile believers as Jews. The "foreknowledge" of election takes us back to the worldwide promises of Abraham, realised when Israel the promise bearer had fulfilled her purpose through Jesus, the "seed". The promises were of a family far exceeding the natural offspring of Israel, and subsequently even the supernatural offspring of Israel among ethnic Israel.

On the other hand, the narrative through which this "election" was fulfilled is a thoroughly Jewish narrative. I take this to be Peter's aim in the letter - to show especially to Gentile believers that they have come into an inheritance which was passed down historically through Israel. "A Jewish gospel for a Gentile world", as N.T. Wright puts it.

I'm also struck by the way in which the letter focuses on Christ - both as example, and as penal substitute and sin-bearer. There is no doubt that Christ is the main character and object of devotion in the letter (eg 1 Peter 1:8-9, Jesus being the object of devotion, not a separate "God"). The letter is contributing to and forming a narrative, not simply reflecting a narrative.

Finally, I'm struck by persecution and suffering having already begun for these believers, 1:6, 4:13, 16, 19. The thought in 4:19 follows directly from the reference to judgement having already begun at the household of God. It would seem therefore that Peter is saying that persecution and suffering, which have already begun, and before AD 70, perform the function of judgement in testing the quality of a person's faith. The letter is not describing a particular coming judgement, but the effect of suffering through persecution, probably that of Nero, which had already started, and would also be descriptive of any such suffering in the future, to the present times.

So I think there is a narrative historical interpretation of the letter, Andrew. I just don't think it is necessarily confined to the interpretation you are providing.

P.S. Historically, the churches we know about in the areas described in the letter in 1:1, were mixed ethnic communities, and some, eg Iconium, more Gentile than Jewish.