Friday, August 24, 2007

The Questionable Authorship of Second Peter

The New Testament letter of Second Peter has traditionally been credited to Simon Peter, the apostle, as a follow-up to the letter that we know as First Peter. The letter itself states that the author is Simon Peter and that this is his “second letter.” But what is the evidence that Second Peter was actually written by Peter the apostle? There are a number of interesting clues, all of which lead to an almost unassailable conclusion that Second Peter could not possibly have been written by Peter the apostle, no matter what the Church tells us.

The first clue comes simply by analyzing the text. If we assume, for a moment, that First and Second Peter were written by the same author, we would expect to see a similar writing style in the two letters. Unfortunately (that is, unfortunately for those who argue that the two letters have the same author), the writing styles vary dramatically. First Peter is written in a gentle, loving, reserved style, and focuses on teaching its listeners how to live serene, peaceful, and Godly lives. It includes a suggestion that Christ’s return is very near at hand. Second Peter, on the other hand, is forceful, unforgiving, and has a hellfire and brimstone tone that would have made Jonathan Edwards proud. It has all the hallmarks, in fact, of Christian writings from the early 2nd century, which, of course, would make it about 50 years too late for Simon Peter, who most likely died in Rome during the persecutions of Nero in the mid-60’s C.E. It also does an about-face from First Peter in suggesting that Christ’s return isn’t so near after all. We’ll get into that more later.

Of course, writing styles alone can’t lead us to a definitive conclusion about authorship. So we move on to the second clue. This clue involves what we know of the historical Simon Peter. Born in rural Galilee, and living in Capernaum as a fisherman when he first met Jesus, Simon Peter most certainly came from a poor, uneducated family. Archaeological digs in the area of Capernaum – which sits on the Sea of Galilee – have found that it was little more than a one-road village with a few ramshackle huts. There are no structures remaining from the era in question, which leads to the logical conclusion that the homes were made of mud brick or wood, with thatched roofs. This would have been par for the course for rural villages in 1st century Galilee. Furthermore, there is no archaeological evidence that Capernaum had any synagogues or schools. It was literally just a little cluster of huts, populated by fishermen and laborers. Its population was less than 1,000. From this evidence, we can make the conclusion that Peter was an uneducated laborer from rural, backwater Galilee. Being uneducated, he would have most certainly been illiterate. He would have spoken Aramaic, and might have understood Hebrew, but he most probably would not have been able to read or write either language. He certainly wouldn’t have known Greek at all, as only the most educated scribes could read or speak Greek.

This brings up, of course, an interesting conundrum. How could an illiterate peasant from rural Galilee have written letters in fluent Greek? Furthermore, the writer of Second Peter is clearly an expert on the Hebrew bible, as he quotes it freely and accurately throughout his letter. Simon Peter, as illustrated above, would not have been able to read Hebrew. Therefore, he could only have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures through teachings at the synagogue. And, as we have seen, Capernaum had no synagogues, and no schools. Simon Peter would likely have had very little, if any, knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures – certainly not the kind of knowledge required to quote those scriptures so fluently, eloquently, and accurately, as the writer of Second Peter does. Is it possible that, following Jesus’s death, Peter took it upon himself to become a full time student, studying Greek and Hebrew in both speech and literature, familiarizing himself with the intricacies of the Hebrew scriptures and learning to write Greek with fluency and style? Possible? I suppose. Probable? Not on your life. If Peter was the missionary that he is portrayed to be throughout the New Testament, when would he have had time (not to mention money) for such study? Greek and Hebrew teachers weren’t exactly a dime a dozen in 1st century Palestine. Peter would have needed to spend literally years in Jerusalem studying with the best rabbis and scribes to have any hope of becoming the prolific and knowledgeable writer who wrote Second Peter (or First Peter, for that matter). Where would he have gotten the money for this, and why would he have spent such effort learning the Hebrew scriptures, when his focus was, presumably, on Jesus and his message? And how could he have done his missionary work if he was in Jerusalem for years on end becoming a prolific linguist and author?

The more reasonable counter-argument to this clue is that Peter simply used an interpreter/scribe to write his letters. There is no evidence of that in the letters themselves, however, and it seems unlikely that Peter could have afforded a personal scribe. However, it is possible that such a scribe might have offered his talents, supposing he was a converted Christian. Still, assuming the scribe would have been writing from Peter’s dictation, how did Peter become a man of such in-depth Hebrew scriptural knowledge, such that he could quote and reference the Hebrew scriptures so fluidly and accurately? Only rabbis and those who had devoted their entire lives to the study of Hebrew scriptures could quote and reference Hebrew scriptures so fluently. Furthermore, how did Simon Peter go from an uneducated peasant who probably couldn’t even write his name, to being able to dictate beautifully constructed letters that had all the elements of good structural prose?

From here, we move on to the next clue. A good portion of Second Peter deals with warnings of false prophets, and another section deals in depth with the second coming of Christ. As to the former, is it reasonable to assume that the issue of false prophets was a big one in the 60’s C.E., when Second Peter was supposedly written? In fact, we have almost no evidence to suggest this. Most of the New Testament and non-canonical texts in existence that deal with false teachers are late 1st century or 2nd century writings. As Christianity spread, a lot of new theologies spread along with it, and by the start of the 2nd century, many of these “unorthodox” views were prominent in many communities. So early in Christian history, it is hard to imagine that Peter would have been concerned with false prophets. His primary concern was spreading the message – there had not been enough time yet for false teachers to twist it into something unorthodox. Yet, in Second Peter, the writer even goes so far as to explain that prophecy is guided by the Holy Spirit, not by the prophet himself. 2 Peter 1:21 – “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” This seems a case of “protesting too much.” Would Simon Peter – Jesus’s right hand man and the leader of the Christian Church – have needed to include this caveat?

As to the sections of Second Peter that deal with Christ’s second coming, the writer goes out of his way to encourage his readers to be patient. He quotes common gripes of the time when he refers to those who say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” He encourages his readers to stay strong, but to recognize that to God a thousand years is like a day and a day is like a thousand years (which is one of his instances of quoting Hebrew scripture). Clearly, he was writing at a time when fear and impatience over Christ’s return were at the forefront of many Christian communities. Early on in Christian history, Christians had expected Christ’s return in their own lifetimes. This is evident, for instance, in the writings of Paul (who was a contemporary of Peter), from the 50’s and 60’s C.E. By the end of the 1st century, when Christ still hadn’t returned, a lot of people began to fear that he wasn’t coming back at all. This is evidenced in books like the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples to build the church first, in preparation for his return – that is, the gospel must be spread first, before Christ will return. This was a way that Matthew and his contemporaries explained the fact that Christ hadn’t come back yet. But as the years and decades passed, this anxiety only grew. So when you read Second Peter’s encouragement to stay the course, but to recognize that God’s time is different than man’s time, it can only fit reasonably into a later period, when these issues were at the forefront of Christian consciousness. If Peter was writing his letter in the same era as Paul (60’s C.E.), why were his listeners so concerned about the delay of the second coming? At that time, they were still in the first generation following Jesus’s death. It wasn’t an issue for Christians of that era, and, as alluded to above, this is evidenced by Paul’s own writings, where he makes it clear that he believes Jesus’s return is imminent. It was only after that generation that people began to worry. And don’t forget that in First Peter, the author seems serenely confident that Jesus is returning soon (“The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear-minded and self-controlled”). If we assume First Peter was written sometime in the 60’s C.E. (which is a big assumption to make, but we’ll make it for the sake of argument), why is there such a sudden change in perspective after only a few years? Surely it would have taken more than a couple of years with no Jesus for the Christian population to suddenly start asking “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?”

The fourth clue we turn to is a reference that the writer of Second Peter makes to Paul himself. At the end of the letter, he encourages his readers to study the words of “our dear brother Paul.” He then goes on to acknowledge that Paul’s letters are sometimes confusing, and that “ignorant and unstable people” distort them, as they do other scriptures. The first thing that raises an eyebrow in this passage is the loving reference to Paul, and the encouragement to stick closely to Paul’s teachings. If you read my blog on the rift between Peter and Paul, you know that many scholars have good reason for supposing Peter and Paul were as much competitors in early Christian theology as they were teammates. Considering that the two men evidently disagreed on some of the most central aspects of Christian theology, it seems unlikely that Peter would have heaped such flowery praise on Paul.

The second statement in this passage about Paul is the most intriguing. Indeed, it is the most important clue in our search for evidence of Second Peter’s author. It is the reference to Paul’s letters being in the possession of the target audience, and those letters being “scripture.” Scripture, of course, consists of collected religious writings, used and studied by communities to deepen their spirituality and their understanding of their god. Hebrew scriptures consisted of the Torah, the writings of the judges, and the prophetic writings. These had been collected over the course of many centuries, and had been read, studied, interpreted, and applied for many, many years. For Second Peter to call Paul’s writings “scripture,” it is clear that Paul’s letters had already been collected together, copied, and dispersed throughout the Christian communities. There is virtually no chance at all that this was the case during Paul’s own lifetime. Paul’s letters would not have been gathered together as “scripture” until many decades after his death. His letters, after all, were individual letters to individual Christian communities – not generalized tomes written for all people. It would have taken years for all his writings to be gathered into something that could be called “scripture,” and then dispersed around the Christian world. If the writer of Second Peter was writing to a community that already had copies of Paul’s letters, which they were studying and reading as “scripture,” then clearly it was a community that existed many decades after Paul’s (and thereby Peter’s) death. It would appear that, in his effort to secretly write in Peter’s name, the author of Second Peter openly gave away his own ruse.

When you add all these clues together, it paints a pretty convincing picture. It would be practically impossible to argue reasonably that Second Peter was written by the apostle Peter. Yet, this is precisely what the Church has done for 2,000 years. Academia, scholarship, and the scientific method be damned, apparently.

Despite the Church’s traditional stance on this issue, most every scholar agrees that not only was Second Peter not written by the apostle Peter, but it was, in fact, probably the last book of the New Testament to be written. It is dated as late as 120 C.E. This would mean its composition came later than some other Christian writings that are not in the canon – such as the Gospel of Thomas and perhaps several others.

If this is the case, what does it say for the validity of the teachings? That’s something that you will have to determine for yourself.

But in the meantime, why was Second Peter selected, but texts such as the Gospel of Thomas were not? Indeed, Second Peter was apparently included only grudgingly, and only after fierce debate over its authenticity.

But why did the ecumenical councils exclude the earlier Christian text known as the Gospel of Thomas? For that, you’ll have to read my next blog.


Anonymous said...

Mark who wrote the Gospel of Mark, was a disciple of Apostle Peter, and it was recorded by early Church Fathers that it was Mark who was Apostle Peter's scribe.

Scott said...

Write, that's the official version. Most scholars doubt it's true, however. In any case, thanks for reading and responding.

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