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New Testament: 2 Peter

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Peter, Peter Paul Rubens

An early Christian teacher turns his attention to what he views as alarming trends in the church: skepticism over the return of Christ, moral laxity, divisiveness, claims of unique spiritual insight, and denial of the final judgment. The tenor of the letter is at the same time tenacious in its colorful use of rhetoric and relentlessly pastoral in its single-minded concern for the well-being and authenticity of the church and its witness.

So What?

Our reading of history reminds us of the strains and stress points that invariably appear when changes are afoot in the life of the church, changes that may show themselves in doctrinal controversies, political upheavals, realignments in ecclesiastical authority, and so on. This letter can be meaningfully read as a testament to one of the earliest of these shifts. Even if we accept that 2 Peter is not from the hand of the Apostle Peter, it consciously aligns itself with the spirit of that apostle and the things that he cared most about. In vivid and at times even alarming ways, it takes us inside an environment where the foundations are being challenged, even shaken, and where the pastor's challenge is to remain uncompromising on truth and doctrine while striving for grace and compassion in ethics and lifestyle.

Where Do I Find It?

The Second Letter of Peter is the twenty-second book in the New Testament. It is situated among the books typically referred to as the "Catholic Letters" (James through Jude).

Who Wrote It?

Arguments based on genre, language and style, and doctrinal concerns prompt a majority of scholars to conclude that an unknown author wrote this book sometime after the Apostle Peter's death. Others argue that Peter wrote it or that someone else wrote it during Peter's lifetime.

When Was It Written?

The belief that the letter's teachings reflect a setting after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and a context in which the original apostles had all died leads many scholars to suggest a date between 80 C.E. and 90 C.E. Some suggest a much later date, in the first half of the second century.

What's It About?

As the early church seeks to regroup in the aftermath of the death of the last of the apostles, a teacher in the lineage of Peter brings words of warning: stay close to the apostolic teaching, do not be shaken from hope in Christ's return, and live in compassion and integrity.

How Do I Read It?

Scholars are not in complete agreement concerning what combination of "epistle" and "testament" this book represents. Perhaps it does not fit neatly into either category. As a letter, the book conveys something of the personal and heartfelt nature of pastoral correspondence. As a testament, it captures the author's resolve to keep the life and health of the church aligned closely to the teaching of its founder, the Apostle Peter.

AUTHOR: David Stewart, Director of Library Services

1. Greeting and Address (2 Peter 1:1-2)
The author identifies himself as "Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle" and addresses his audience.

2. Thematic Overview (2 Peter 1:3-11)
Readers are reassured that Jesus Christ has provided the church with all that it needs to thrive and endure in a world that is both corrupt and corrupting. There is a continuous need for vigilance, charity, and fortitude in the approach of the kingdom of God.

3. Situation and Occasion of the Letter (2 Peter 1:12-15)
The recipients are assumed to have heard from the author on a previous occasion; this letter comes as a follow-up, a reminder intended to equip readers further for the travails and challenges of their time.

4. The Letter's Argument (2 Peter 1:16-3:13)
As an essentially corrective correspondence, the bulk of the letter consists of a series of warnings and responses.

A. The Return of Christ (2 Peter 1:16-18)
Warnings are issued to those who deny Christ's return.

B. The Scriptures (2 Peter 1:19-21)
Warnings are issued to those who denigrate the authority of the Scriptures.

C. False Teachers (2 Peter 2:1-10a)
Warnings are issued against teachers whose motives and teachings are false and against teachers who flout authority and responsibility.

D. Unrighteousness (2 Peter 2:10b-22)
Those who spread unrighteousness are the targets of a scathing denunciation.

E. The Lord's Judgment (2 Peter 3:1-13)
Warnings are issued against those who deny that Christ will return as judge.

5. Concluding Exhortations (2 Peter 3:14-18)
The author concludes by exhorting readers to live wisely and purposefully in a time of spiritual peril.

AUTHOR: David Stewart, Director of Library Services

No portion of the New Testament canon has had its legitimacy debated and challenged more than this book. The arguments against its having been written by the Apostle Peter are much more fully developed than those mounted in its favor. These contrary positions are complicated, but they appeal to vocabulary, modes of expression, the issues which seem at or below the surface, and the letter's dependence on the Letter of Jude, which is usually judged to be more consistent and convincing as a document reflecting the time of the apostles. Wherever the Second Letter of Peter came from, and whenever it was written, it can be read as a spirited summons delivered to the church during a transitional period, when the last of the apostles had passed away and Christians were having to adjust to new realities.

AUTHOR: David Stewart, Director of Library Services

Authorship. If the arguments against Petrine authorship are in fact conclusive, this provokes questions about who may have written 2 Peter and about the letter's place and contribution to canon and to tradition. The option of reading it "as though it had been written by Peter" seems somewhat facile if the arguments of the letter's discontinuity from 1 Peter are to be taken seriously.

Christian faith in a transitional period. Many suggest that the letter reflects a culture where the shifts from a Jewish to a Hellenistic atmosphere and from an apostolic to a postapostolic culture were being felt. If this is the case, interpreters need to evaluate how 2 Peter should be read against other, subsequent cultural shifts. One rightly asks, for example, whether the letter's posture of retrenchment or caution is too pronounced.

Reading 2 Peter as a "testament" of the Apostle Peter. Some interpreters identify the genre of 2 Peter as a testament, the final words and exhortations of a revered figure. This becomes impossible, of course, if one accepts the view that the letter was not written by Peter, but by someone else, perhaps even decades after the apostle's death.

References to other texts. The letter directly refers to the writings of Paul in 3:15-16, and it also alludes to familiar biblical themes and motifs. These are intriguing but do not combine to provide a clear idea of what the author's sources might have been. Recognized affinities to other early Christian literature are also not conclusive to most readers in suggesting a date or setting.

The relationship between 2 Peter and Jude. Neither Jude nor the author of 2 Peter provides any specific details regarding the errors of false teachers, and we do not know enough to be able to identify these teachers with any of the gnostic sects known to us. Parallel passages include: Jude 4 // 2 Peter 2:1; Jude 6-7 // 2 Peter 2:4-10a; Jude 8-9 // 2 Peter 2:10b-11; Jude 10, 12 // 2 Peter 2:12-13; Jude 11 // 2 Peter 2:15-16; Jude 12-13, 16 // 2 Peter 2: 17-18; Jude 17-18 // 2 Peter 3:1-3; Jude 24-25 // 2 Peter 3:18. In the judgment of a majority of scholars, 2 Peter quotes Jude, rather than vice versa.

Tartaros. This Greek term, translated as "hell" in many English versions, appears in 2 Peter 2:4 as the place into which God cast the rebellious angels. It is taken from Greek and Roman mythology, denoting a place of abandonment and torment. Its use here instead of "Hades" may be one small indicator of the letter's non-Jewish audience.

AUTHOR: David Stewart, Director of Library Services

Character and conduct. Nothing in this book is more vivid and memorable than the author's no-holds-barred commitment to soundness of doctrine. But his insistence on the kind of behavior that is consistent with the truth is just as strong (see 3:11).

Consequences of ideas. As an insightful pastor, the writer of 2 Peter understands the allure of setting aside the belief in Christ as the coming judge. Certainly the delay of Jesus' coming (parousia in Greek) and the force of hostile circumstances heightened the temptation to see the gospel as no more than an ethical framework for this world alone, with no eschatological dimension. But the author will have none of this; judgment is sure to come, and its effects will be all the more severe for those whose skepticism leaves them unprepared.

The witness of tradition. The author argues strenuously that the apostolic message is not only unassailable (whether by critics or by changing events and circumstances) but remains the only foundation for faithful teaching, ethics, and witness.

AUTHOR: David Stewart, Director of Library Services