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Who did Peter write to?

Peter speaks to the “elect that are of the Diaspora.” Taking it at face value there’s no doubt that he wrote to Jews that lived outside Palestine. But 1:1 tells us that these Jews believed in Jesus the Christ. Eusebius the 3rd/4th century church historian takes it as it sits and says Peter wrote to Hebrews, Christian Hebrews in Asia Minor. It’s a fairly modern view (but nearly a consensus now) that he didn’t write to Jews—he wrote to Gentiles! This now established view is based on internal considerations.

J. Ramsey Michaels represents it well and he makes his points clear. After giving some reasons for thinking the book was written to Gentiles even though the address (and other things) points to Jews, thus generating what he says is “mixed signals,” he says this. “The best explanation of the data is that 1 Peter was 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.”

Is there any compelling reason for believing that Peter’s audience is anything other than Diaspora Jews? A number of points are offered but maybe I’m just not able to appreciate them. (It wouldn’t be the first time that that has happened.) It seems to me that what Michaels admits should be allowed to stand. Though he doesn’t believe the clear impression he says, “The clear impression is that the readers of the epistle are Jewish Christians.”


What suggests that they are Gentiles?


Various points are offered to support the Gentile audience view. The reader might think they are rather weak but she or he might think that a number of weaker arguments, taken together, might make the case. Perhaps, but then again, six weak arguments don’t really make one strong argument. They make six weak arguments.


They’re thought to be Gentiles because they believed in God through Jesus Christ rather than through the Torah or ancestral religion (1:21). The point being that if they had been Jews they would have come to faith in God through the Torah and ancestral religion. But NT writers would insist that it was precisely because Israel didn’t know God through Jesus Christ that they missed true faith in God.

In fact Acts 3:6-26 could easily be the development of the richness of 1:21. In that section Peter drives home to fellow-Jews that they shouldn’t be astonished at what they’ve seen and heard (3:12-13). They needed to know that it was the work of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His fellows would have found it hard to believe because on their view their God wouldn’t have vindicated Jesus Christ, which in fact is what he did when raising him from the dead and glorifying him (3:15). And what’s more, it was through Jesus that the healed man had faith in and praised the God of Abraham in the temple (3:8,16). Peter goes on to call them to repent toward God and turn to him. Peter could easily insist to his fellow Jews that the only way to know God is through Jesus Christ. In fact, I would have thought that that was a central claim of Jesus himself when speaking to the Jews; that if they didn’t come to know the Father through him they didn’t come to know him at all. Why then would it surprise us if 1 Peter 1:21 is addressed to Jews?

They’re thought to be Gentiles because their past lives were vain and handed down (1:18). One might have thought that that might be as Jewish as Gentile. In Isaiah 29:13 God characterized the nation as one that worshiped him in vain because the teaching the leaders handed down were human structures. Christ made use of that text in Matthew 15:3-9 concerning the handed down teachings (traditions, 15:3) of the Elders that made worship vain. And was that the kind of thing the Hebrew writer in 9:14 was getting at—“dead works”? Peter reminds them that they had been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ rather than silver or gold. Might he not have been reminding them of the redemption teaching and practice under the Old Testament structure? See, for example, Exodus 30:11-16, Numbers 18:15-16 and Jeremiah 32:1-15. I think it’s as easy to see Jews in all this as it is to see Gentiles. Maybe there’s more in this point than I’m granting but it doesn’t seem nearly strong enough to offset a plain address that marks the letter: to Diaspora Jews.

They're thought to be Gentiles because they were once ignorant and driven by impulses and that sounds like Gentiles (1:14). Perhaps, but then Gentiles didn’t have a monopoly on ignorance or evil impulses. Romans 6:12,17,19 and 7:7 aren’t addressed only to Gentiles. And when it comes to ignorance Luke 23:34 is as surely directed at the Jews as at Gentiles. Peter himself tells his national leaders that it was out of ignorance that they slew the Messiah (Acts 3:17, and see Paul in Acts 13:27). Paul speaks of Israel’s ignorance in Romans 10:1-3 and in pointed sarcasm he implies a moral ignorance in Romans 2:17-24. You understand I’m not saying 1 Peter is written to Jews because it’s possible to cite such passages as these. I’m saying that maybe we should just let the 1:1 address stand as it is unless we have compelling reasons to do otherwise.

They are thought to be Gentiles because Peter says to them that once they were not God’s people but now in Jesus Christ they are (2:10). The background to this text is Hosea chapters 1 through 3, al of which should be read. Hosea, a prophet to the North, speaks God’s word concerning Israel in particular. There’s not a Gentile in sight. Because Israel has rejected God he has rejected her and says she is not his people. But the day would come when he would woo her and bring her back to himself under the rule of his servant “David”. The section is Jewish throughout and if Peter used it to speak to Jews it would be no surprise at all. In fact, so thoroughly Jewish is it that some have criticized Paul for using it of both Jew and Gentile in Romans 9:24-25

It looks like Paul applies these Hosea texts to both Jews and Gentiles in Romans 9:24-25. I say it “looks like” he does because I think there’s another option. But I don’t wish to take the discussion down another road so let’s take it for now that he does. We “know” Paul included Gentiles in his use of the text because he says so in 9:24. But what reason do we have for saying Peter excluded Jews?

They are thought to be Gentiles because they were called out of darkness. It’s true that Gentiles lived in darkness but are we to suppose Israel wasn’t called out of darkness? Why isn’t it reasonable to think of the darkness in Isaiah 8:19—9:2 out of which Jesus called Israel (see Matthew 4:15-16)? See Luke 1:79, Acts 26:18,23 and Romans 11:10 where God’s judgement on Israel is described as bringing them into darkness. Again, the point here is not that we can match Jewish darkness with Gentile darkness therefore Peter wrote to Jews. No, Peter says he wrote to Jews and talk of darkness should not offset that.

They are thought to be Gentiles because the description in 4:3-4 couldn’t possibly be of Jews. I think this is by far the strongest argument in favor of a Gentile audience and maybe it should be sufficient to make the case. The text says, “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you to not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.”

But there are things to be said even here. Two things at least. In the Greek text Peter doesn’t say to his readers, “You have spent enough time living like Gentiles.” Many versions (there are a number of exceptions) read as if he had done just that. Now maybe that’s what he meant but it’s not quite what he said. The truth is, in 4:3 Peter said something like: “The years that have gone by are more than enough time for the kind of life that Gentiles purposed and have lived.” The Greek text doesn’t come out and say, “The years that have gone by are more than enough time for you to have lived out the purpose of the Gentiles.” (Personal pronouns are absent from the Greek text of these verses as Michaels himself reminds us.)

What if Peter is thinking of his fellow-Jewish Christians, an island of troubled saints in an ocean of pagan ungodliness, tempted to give way to bitterness, reprisals and envy? Might he not say by way of admonition and encouragement that the years had seen enough of that and that they had been called to something different? It could easily sound like an old man’s  summary of the wicked world. Bigg, in the ICC says, “One idea haunts the whole Epistle; to the author, as to the patriarch Jacob, life is a pilgrimage; it is essentially an old man’s view.”

[He goes on to say (4:4) that the Gentiles abused them because they wouldn’t run with them in the same excesses. It’s possible that Peter is saying that the Gentiles are shaking their heads that his readers are “no longer” running with them. Some versions render it that way. It might be the correct interpretation but there’s nothing in the actual text that says this.]

Let me summarize on 4:3-4 at this point. I’m suggesting that Peter doesn’t say his readers had lived like Gentiles in the past and that they called a halt to it. I’m saying that he might be admonishing his readers in a Gentile environment by saying that the passing (past) years had witnessed enough corruption lived out by Gentiles and that they should continue to resist it whether or not that means they suffer abuse.

But secondly, let’s take it that Peter is saying that his readers had in the past engaged in this ungodliness and excess but had called it to a halt. Would that prove his readers were Gentiles? Michaels thinks that no one would have spoken of Jews in the terms we find in 1 Peter 4:3. I find that surprising. Paul in Romans 3: 9-19 has a collage of scriptures that shows how wicked the Jewish people could become. In 3:9 he insists that Jews are no better morally than the Gentiles he has earlier described. Hosea and Amos are a scorching condemnation of a people that have sunk to drunken orgies, widespread sexual immorality, idolatry and the like. Yes, I recognize that some changes occurred after the Exile but idolatry and outrage continued after the Return, as Ezra and Nehemiah make clear. The Jewish corruption under Antiochus IV shows they were capable of much evil.

The book of James is written to Jewish readers, Christians and non-Christians. Chapter 4:1-4 is anything but praise! And 5:1-6 is a blunt condemnation of Diaspora Jews in their self-indulgence, cruelty and injustice. In Ephesians 2:1-3 Paul includes the Jews in the pursuit of evil lusts, following the world spirit. Here’s what the text says. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.”

All of that to say this, if 4:3 was a Peter’s description of his readers’ past life that still wouldn’t prove they were Gentiles.


1 Peter as addressed to Messianic Jews


I think Peter wrote to Jewish Christians who had been born again (compare John 3:3-5 and James 1:18 with 1 Peter 1:18—2:1)? They might have been, as many scholars have suggested, recently baptized believers who have “now” turned to Jesus Christ. If in their past they had been going along with the Gentiles those days are definitively gone and none too soon.

I think his use of Old Testament categories to describe them is right on target since these Jewish believers are the true Israel (compare Romans 9:6-7) because they received the Messiah as the precious cornerstone. They are contrasted with their leaders who rejected Christ (1 Peter 2:6-8 and Acts 4:10-11 where Peter uses the same text to the Jewish leaders). And it was the same Peter who in Acts 3:22-23 quotes Deuteronomy 18:15-19 saying that those who reject the coming Prophet will be “cut off from among the people.” Peter, like Paul, sees the true Israel as those who rejoice in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The rest are cut off from among “the people”. That is, they are not classed as part of the true People of God.

When he likens their suffering to the suffering of the Servant Christ from Isaiah 53 could he not be including them with the concept of the “servant” as Paul certainly did in Acts 13:47 (the Lord commanded “us”)? Might that notion not be strengthened by Peter’s remark in 4:13 that their sufferings are “the suffering of Christ”?

Finally, in 4:3 Peter contrasts his readers with Gentiles. In light of 1:1 that should lead us to think they are Jewish. Michaels confesses that this is “striking” and goes on to speak of Peter’s “strong conviction that his Gentile Christian readers are actually Jews in God's sight.” So why not allow them to actually be Jews? (You might be interested in reading the comments on whether NT writers thought of Gentile Christians as “Jews”. Click here.)





Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan