The Recipients of Second Peter

The past couple months, we have been studying the book of Second Peter on Wednesday evenings.  A commentary will, Lord willing, be arriving in the near future as a result.  But we would like to share with you some of the fruits of this studying of Peter’s final epistle.

Today’s topic: who did Peter write the letter to?

We hope you find it interesting and perhaps even challenging.

The Recipients of Second Peter

The apostle Peter, according to the inspired Paul, agreed to limit his ministry to the Jews (Galatians 2:7-9). This doesn’t mean that he never spoke to or evangelized Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-12), but that his primary work was in preaching and teaching Jews. Therefore, unless it is proven otherwise by clear evidence, it should be assumed that his letters were written primarily to Jewish Christians.

Frequently throughout his two letters, Peter makes reference to the Old Testament—something that would be meaningful to a Jewish audience, but not so to a Gentile audience. 1 Peter 1:10-12, 15-16, 24-25, 2:3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 22, 24, and 25 are all either references to, or quotations from, the Old Testament. And that is just the first two chapters of the first letter. It is because of the constant references to the Old Testament that we know Matthew was written to a Jewish audience. It is because of the focus on the Old Testament that we know the book of Hebrews was written to the Hebrews [Jews]. Therefore, since Peter makes continuous references to the Old Testament writings, his audience is primarily Jewish.

The Gentiles are mentioned as a different group than the original readers (1 Peter 2:12). Therefore, the original readers were primarily Jewish.

Peter calls his readers “sojourners” (1 Peter 1:1). The Greek word means someone who is living away from their native land. If the audience is Jewish, as the above evidence indicates, then this makes perfect sense. It was written to Jews who lived outside of the Promised Land.

He says that they are of the “scattered” (1 Peter 1:1). The ASV says “the Dispersion” [capitalized in the original]. The Greek word was a specific term for Jews living outside of the Promised Land. It appears three times in the Bible: 1 Peter 1:1, James 1:1, and John 7:35. James wrote to a Jewish audience (He agreed to work with the Jews in Galatians 2:7-9). In John, Jesus had just told the Jews that “where I am, ye cannot come.” Their response was to ask “Whither will this man go, that we cannot find him? Will he go unto the Dispersion among the Greeks; and teach the Greeks?”[1] [2] (ASV, capitalized in the original). This word proves that the original recipients were primarily Jewish.

B.W. Johnson, in his The People’s New Testament with Notes (AKA “Johnson’s Notes”), said the following about Peter’s letter:

It was directed to “the Sojourners of the Dispersion,” who lived in five provinces of the Roman Empire, all of which had been evangelized by the apostle Paul. See 1 Peter, chapter 1. The Dispersion was a term applied to the Jewish race in lands outside of Judea. Hence, not forgetful of his apostleship to the circumcision (Gal. 2:8) he addressed himself to Jews, but Jewish Christians, “the elect.”

N.T. Caton, in his Commentary on the Minor Epistles said this about the original recipients:

To those Jews who had embraced the faith of the gospel, then residing in certain provinces of Asia Minor, in the Epistle enumerated, was this letter written primarily. [Bold font added for emphasis].

Lange’s Commentary shows that it was the almost-universal belief of ancient writers that Peter wrote his letters to Jewish Christians. It also shows that the stance that it was written mainly to Gentile Christians is relatively recent [Bold font and bracketed material added]:

The believers, to whom the Epistle is addressed (1 Peter 1:1), were scattered over almost the entire peninsula of Asia Minor. The ancient fathers, with the exception of Augustine and Cassiodorus,[3] thought that the ἐκλεκτοῖς related to Jewish Christians. This opinion was prevalent until modern times: several commentators added only the modification that those Churches contained also Gentile Christians, who were, however, in the minority. On the other hand, Steiger, followed by Wiesinger, tried to prove, in his commentary, that the majority in those churches were, at all events, Gentiles. Weiss produces, however, convincing arguments that the Epistle was intended for Jewish Christians; he justly affirms:

  1. That διασπορά [Diaspora, “Dispersion”] (1 Peter 1:1) is a terminus technicus [Latin for “technical term”], and denotes the totality of Jews outside of Palestine, scattered through heathen countries (James 1:1; 2 Maccabees 1:27; Judit 5:19), and cannot be taken metaphorically.

  2. That the Epistle is entirely permeated by views taken from the Old Testament; it contains numerous Old Testament figures and termini technici [Latin for “technical terms”], allusions to the religious institutions and the history of the Old Covenant. Compare 1 Peter 1:10-12; 3:5-6; 3:20. Peter frequently intertwines quotations from the Old Testament into his language, without designating them as such, and mostly in connections where it is of essential importance that they should be recognized as Scripture (1 Peter 1:24; 2:7, 9-10, and other passages). No portion of the New Testament is so thoroughly interwoven with quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament. (It contains, in 105 verses, twenty-three quotations, while the Epistle to the Ephesians has only seven, and that to the Galatians, only thirteen).

  3. This peculiarity agrees entirely with the fact that it was Peter’s vocation to be the Apostle of the circumcision. The mode of speech which he took from the Old Testament, must have particularly recommended him to Jewish Christians. The passages quoted in favor of Gentile Christians, prove just the opposite, e.g. 1 Pet3:6; 1:14, 18; 2:9-10. See the Commentary on these passages. The same holds good of 1 Peter 4:3. It would be curious, indeed, that Peter should reproach former Gentiles with having done the will of the Gentiles. The expression ἀθεμίτοις εἰδωλολατρείαις only seems to relate to Gentiles; but this presents no obstacle on the supposition that those Churches contained individual Gentile Christians. The Jewish Christians formed, doubtless, the substance and main stem of those Churches (cf. Acts 2:9; 11:19), until after the third missionary journey of the Apostle, the element of Gentile Christians became more important in those parts of Asia Minor. (Weiss, p. 115, 116).

According to 2 Peter 3:1, the original readers of his second epistle were the same ones he sent his first letter to. Therefore, we have Peter’s word for it that the original readers of Second Peter were primarily Jewish Christians.

[1] A.T. Robertson’s Word Pictures says the following: “Unto the Dispersion among the Greeks (eis tēn diasporan tōn Hellēnōn). Objective genitive tōn Hellēnōn (of the Greeks) translated here “among,” because it is the Dispersion of Jews among the Greeks. Diaspora is from diaspeirō, to scatter apart (Acts 8:1,4). It occurs in Plutarch and is common in the lxx, in the N.T. only here, James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1. There were millions of these scattered Jews. (Underlining added for emphasis).”

[2] Vincent’s Word Studies says it this way: “The Jews who remained in foreign lands after the return from the Captivity were called by two names: (1). The Captivity, which was expressed in Greek by three words, viz., ἀποικία, a settlement far from home, which does not occur in the New Testament; μετοικεσία, change of abode, which is found in Matthew 1:11, 12, 17, and always of the carrying into Babylon; αἰχμαλωσία, a taking at the point of the spear; Eph. 4:8; Rev. 13:10. (2). The Dispersion (διασπορά). See on 1 Peter 1:1; see on James 1:1. The first name marks their relation to their own land; the second to the strange lands.”

[3] Augustine thought everything in the Bible was to be “spiritualized” instead of taken as actual historical fact. Cassiodorus who was known to alter historical facts and theological stances in order to avoid persecution. These two men are not very credible witnesses.

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