Peter and Diaspora Jewish Christians

Like James, Peter’s first letter appears to reflect a Jewish Christianity. Surprisingly, this is not the majority opinion. In his brief notes on 1 Peter in the ESV Study Bible, Thomas Schriener comments that “Most scholars are convinced that the recipients of 1 Peter were primarily Gentiles” (ESVSB 2402). Carson and Moo (Introduction, 647) assume a mixed congregation. Raymond Brown (Introduction, 720) also sees the target audience of 1 Peter as “Gentiles who have been heavily catechized with a strong appreciation of Judaism.”

There are several indications that Peter is addressed to Jewish Christians congregations, which may include God-Fearing Gentile converts, but I would prefer to see these primarily Jewish Christian churches.

1 Peter 1:1 addresses “the elect” who are “scatted” (1:1, NIV). Both words are significant in that they point to a Jewish audience. The “Elect” is a common self-designation in Judaism. They are the nation which God chose (via Abraham, or in the prophets, when he rescued the nation out of Egypt). “Scattered” is the Greek diaspora, the Diaspora. This was a word used frequently to describe Jews loving outside of the Land, including those regions addressed in 1 Peter 1:1.

These elect believers are described as being in exile (ESV). This word is better translated as “sojourners,” or “strangers.” The Greek parepidamos is rare in the New Testament, occurring here, 2:11 and Heb 11:13 referring to the children of Abraham (LXX Gen 23:24, LXX PS 38:13, 39:12 ET). The synonym paroikos appears in Acts 7:6 with a similar sense.

If one sees the addressees of 1 Peter as Gentile, then these descriptions must be taken as metaphors. It is assumed that the church is New Israel, and so Christians like Peter picked up on language once applied to the Jewish Diaspora and re-apply it spiritually to the Church (as Schreiner does in ESVSB 2405). If Peter, like James, is writing a letter to other Diaspora Jews, then there is no reason to take the language referring to anything other than Jewish believers.

There are several other examples of letters to Jews in the Diaspora. In Jer 29:4-23 a letter is sent to Jews living in Babylon. Similarly, 2 Baruch 78-87 imagines a similar letter sent from Baruch after the fall of Jerusalem. The first chapter of 2 Maccabees is a letter sent to Alexandrian Jews. James should also be included in this list, as well as the book of Hebrews, which is addressed to Jews living in Rome in the mid first century, although the word Diaspora does not appear there. It is therefore Peter stands in a tradition of Jewish writers and leaders writing to Jews in the Hellenistic world. to encourage them in their belief and practice.

What difference might this make for reading 1 Peter?  If the book was written to Diaspora Jewish Christians,

26 thoughts on “Peter and Diaspora Jewish Christians

  1. Based off of 1 Peter 2.10 I don’t think you can say that the audience was so strictly Jewish:
    “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

    Also in 5.1 he appeals to the ‘Elders among you’ which seems to be a universal church office (not only one held by Jewish Christians).

    “If one sees the addressees of 1 Peter as Gentile, then these descriptions must be taken as metaphors.” -Long
    I disagree, Christian (Gentile and Jewish) are literally in diaspora exile in the world until the return of Christ, for the “world does not know us” 1 John 3:1

    In the end, I don’t think it changes the interpretation/meaning/application of the text for us if the audience is Jewish xtians, Gentile xtians, or a mix of both.

    • Good points all, but mercy is “hesed,” the cornerstone of the theology of the Hebrew Bible. Read Hosea, they were “not my people” until God gave the hesed, mercy. Elders are Christian, but where do you think that Paul got the idea to appoint elders in churches, if not from the synagogues? In fact, the “elders of the people” is so common in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism that it is obvious that the Christian church “baptized” the title into the new faith.

      Citing 1 John 3:1 is not going to help here, since that is also a Jewish writer addressing Jews, although less certainly than 1 Peter or James – read the Gospel of John! That is so clearly Jewish in orientation that one has to close their eyes to what the text says to avoid it!

      I think that it will change the proper interpretation, but not the popular preaching of 1 Peter.

  2. Indeed years ago when I was young, most theologians, at least in the Anglican seminarian world, taught that 1 Peter was written to Gentile converts (1:14 ; 2:9-10), and the vices mentioned in chapter 4: 2-4, seem to indicate that the Apostle had Gentile converts chiefly in mind. However, perhaps it is simply best to consider the churches addressed as composed of converts from both classes; and there appears to be nothing in the epistle or letter which supposes that St. Peter was personally known to his readers.

    Also the Christians in these “provinces” were suffering trials of many kinds, 1:6, “for justice’s sake”, 3:14. And they were simply reproached for the name of Christ, and were being slandered as criminals, therein.. (4:14-15). Slaves suffered at the hands of their masters, 2:19, and wives from their husbands, 3:1. This does appear to be more of a Gentile aspect. The persecution was severe and widespread, but not yet offical or Roman alone, but certainly foremost in the Roman empire.

    Thus this Letter or Epistle, seems to use the whole backdrop of the Jewish Diaspora, but applied to all Christians, but especially Gentiles, but however also always Jews. This is the “election” of each Christian to the new covenant (Exod. 24:8) and involves the cooperation of Father, Spirit, and Son. This trinitarian reference (1:2) is expanded in 1:3-12. And thus the promises made to Israel are seen as fulfilled, and being so, in the Christian Church. Indeed here we have a fully “Christian” Church/churches and people! (1 Peter 1:4-5-6, etc. & 9) Here is a grand composite of the true People of God! Personally I see 1 Peter as one of he most profound NT Letters, outside of the Pauline! 1 Peter is truly and profoundly a “Catholic” (Universal) Letter.

    *I have taken this from some of my own notes from near 30 years ago! I wonder if they still apply? 😉

    • Phil: Of course I have read all the stuff and suppositions about 1 Peter and the Baptismal Homily (Selwyn, etc.). However, to my mind there is a real literary unity and pastoral purpose in the Letter. And Peter’s examples to the life and passion of Christ stands foremost! Indeed the Christian faith and confidence in persecution, to the salvific acts of Christ! Here is the Christian vocation itself, in or by Christ Jesus, Himself. (5:11).

      I have an old tendency to look thematic at the NT Letters (something one of my old professors drummed into me!) 😉

  3. Looking at things without thinking too hard it is rather easy to see some of the similarities between 1 Peter and James. Several have been pointed out already, but in looking at those presented ideas, it seems hard to think against the idea that 1 Peter was addressed to Jewish Christians. The thing that has been most interesting to me about all this in looking at James, and now 1 Peter is the concept I never really thought about before. These books were written to Jewish Christians. I always looked at things before as the stuff written to Christians was written to Christians. I never really made the connection that those Jews who believed that Jesus was messiah would look at things differently based upon their history. Looking at some of the things written to these people makes me look at things in a different perspective. These books were written in a different style and type of language (construction) that depended on previous knowledge to interpret the meanings and the references. The things that Paul writes seem to be more simple and universal to anybody to make sense of, however things like James and Peter contain references that someone without a Jewish background, or at least some historical knowledge, would not know. I feel as if these references can help us distinguish who the original audience was, but more importantly what they were facing at the time that the book was written.

  4. I agree with Curtis that I never really thought about thinking who books of the bible were written to, like the audience, and it never really seemed that important. It was the Bible therefore it was written to Christians, people like me, the people who believed what I believe now. But every book was written during a different time according to different situations with an audience going through these things. I think 1 Peter could be written to Jewish Christians considering 1 Peter 4:12-19 where it says in verse fourteen “If ou are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” which reminds me of the scattering within the Diaspora. Because the Jews were spread out and scattered, they all ended up with different “religions” or beliefs. Therefore if one of the groups were to come to Christ or someone from a group were to come to Christ, then clearly they would be looked down upon and insulted. 1 Peter 3:14-15 it says “’Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened’. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord”. Growing up learning one thing your whole life and then setting yourself apart and taking a different step that the other see as wrong, would be really scary and understandable to why these words were written to Jewish Christians.

  5. If the book of 1 Peter was made for Diaspora Jewish Christians, it would change the outlook of the intended audience for the book, but it will not change the message it gives to Christians now. When I read 1 Peter, I don’t get a sense that it was written just for Diaspora Jewish Christians. Based on Karen Jobes’ review of 1 Peter, I have full confidence that Jewish Christians in Diaspora were the intended people for this book. It still does not change the message of the book. After Peter’s greetings, the next three verses speak a universal message that applies to Jews, Gentiles, and Jewish Christians. 1 Peter 1: 3-5 says, “All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.” The first chapter, alone, goes on to speak on the hope of eternal life and the importance of holy living. 1 Peter gives a message, I believe that is meant to be heard for all people who believe. The book may have been written for Diaspora Jewish Christians but the message is meant for followers of Christ, Gentile and Jewish Christian alike.

  6. I honestly think that it is obvious that 1 Peter is written to the Jews. Chapter 1:1 clearly says “To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces…” I can see that this might be a metaphor for the gentiles. However, I truly believe that Peter is being literal in saying this. I think that Christians today have an idea that the Old Testament is for the Jews and the New testament is for the gentiles. I don’t understand why we have to go through so much trouble to prove that a letter is to the gentiles. There are some letters in the New Testament that are clearly written to the Jews and I don’t think that we need to try and turn it into a gentile book. We don’t need to be threatened by letters written to the Jews. Just because a letter is written to the Jews, doesn’t mean that we can’t apply it to our own lives as well. I can see why people may think that it might be written to the Jews, but it sounds, to me, like they are just trying fit the Bible to their own beliefs, instead of fitting their beliefs to what the Bible says. To me, 1 Peter, along with James, is a Jewish book.

  7. I believe the book of 1 Peter was addressed to both Jewish and Gentile Christians. The ESV states (as P. Long has pointed out) that, “most scholars are convinced that the recipients of 1 Peter were primarily Gentiles… the “former ignorance” and “the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” suggests a pagan past that would not fit the Jewish readers” Jobes (pg. 288) states, “Because of their new birth in Christ, they are children of God, citizens of the kingdom of God, and therefore they have become “foreigners” to the society in which they are living”. Jobes (pg. 288) says the Greek word “parepidemoi” describes a believers transitory life on this earth as a journey toward their heavenly home, “it (parepidemoi) should be understood primarily as defining the relationship between Christians and unbelieving society”. Hence with these comments it seems that 1 Peter was indeed written to Gentile Christians but, also Jewish Christians describing their conduct here on earth in the face of persecution but also looking to their heavenly home knowing that there is a much brighter future.

    • Yes, though when we finally settle.. the “Dispersion” is really a simple instance of the early Church’s habit of transferring to itself, as the new Israel, the language appropriate to the experience of the old. These are both Gentiles and Jews, but perhaps foremost Gentiles, and former ‘God-fearers’ also. Again to my mind, 1 Peter 2: 4-10, with noting verse 11 with verse 1:1, says mostly Gentiles! 🙂 I don’t see 1 Peter in connection with James myself, even if 1 Peter is Jewish-Christian? it moves well ahead of James.

  8. To be honest, I never really thought about who the books were addressed too, whether they were addressed to Jewish Christians or Christians, but the things that are said can be taken different ways to different people. I think that although there is one specific group whom it is directed too, I think anyone who his seeking can take things out from each book. But, if one is only looking for who it is supposed to be addressed too, then there will be no relation to the letter and that individual. It is hard to pin-point who exactly is 1 Peter pointed too, “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered…” (1:1). It also makes one wonder what other books of the bible is addressed to different groups of people, but, everyone takes things differently.

  9. I don’t think that the Bible was written to an exact group either. I feel like that it was written for all people no matter the culture they are. I wouldn’t like to think that there is only one group of people that the book applies to, rather I would like to think that the Bible was written to all people who want to read about the word of God. So thinking if it was written to a direct group like Jewish Christians is wrong to me, I feel as if it was written to all who want to learn about the word of God.

    • I suppose that it is true that the Bible as a whole is applicable to all peoples at all times, the issue here is that Peter is writing a letter to a specific people – who are they? Their location in time and space is important (say, AD 65 in northern Asia Minor), but more important is their social situation – in my view Jewish converts to Christianity struggling to live in a pagan / Roman world. That will effect the way I think about some aspects of the book, I would suggest Karen Jobes book, Letters to the Church, chapter 9 for why this is an important issue to discuss.

      • Btw, Philip, but just a question.. do you see 1 Peter, since you see it as specifically written to Jews, as also “dispensationally” oriented? Note I am close to the PD myself, though certainly Historic (Covenant) Pre-Mill. It is interesting that the Eastern Fathers generally, as too Eramus see your Jewish position of 1 Peter, but not so the Latin Fathers. As you can see, I am one that sees the early and ancient church as bound & modeled theologically by the Jewish Scriptures, and formated in and from it! And of course 2 Tim. 3:16, “All Scripture (is the Jewish Scripture)…literally “God-breathed”. And also even St. Paul stands centred here, Romans 1:2 ; 16:26.

        Just a note, but I still like JND Kelly’s commentary: The Epistles of Peter and of Jude (Blacks New Testament Commentaries). I have an old hardback first, 1969. Oh how I miss the Bookshop’s in London, and Blackwell’s also. But I have my share of books! 😉

      • Note Kelly’s cleanness…”Within the framework of these ideas it was easy and natural for Christianity to take up a Hellenistic term like regeneration and reinterpret it in its own sense. That this differed radically from the Hellenistic one is clear from the fact that its perspective was eschatological. Further, Christian rebirth in baptism contained no element of ecstasy, as was the mystery cults, nor was it the privilege of an elite, as was that of Gnosticism; it was effected by God’s word (1, 22), and was the response of His grace to the catechumen’s pledge (iii. 21).” (page 50)

        I would only follow this of course, as the Anglican Articles, with God’s Word & Sacrament, being a “sign and seal”. Even Luther was here too, as Calvin.

      • “dispensationally oriented?” That is a good question, and I am probably not lockstep with most dispensationalists on this one. I would not dispense with the book as “applicable” on the grounds that Peter wrote it, not Paul. That is the sort of thing you might find in older strains of Dispensational Theology, but it really distracts from the real issues.

        Nevertheless, I think that the book is clearly written to Jewish Christians and deals with issues that Jewish Christians faced in a specific situation (historically, culturally, etc.) Just as I want to read 1-2 Corinthians against the proper context of a Roman culture which prized honor and was driven by patron / client relationships, so too I want to read 1 Peter in the correct cultural context, specifically Jewish Christianity in the Diaspora. This will help “keep Paul out of Peter” and will enable me to hear the real voice of Peter in the book, not echoes of Paul.

      • Indeed finally when the Lordship and Person and Work of Christ is expressed, as in 1 Peter, both Jew and Gentiles are in the benefit, and the whole People of God come together! See, the connection with 1 Peter 2:11, with verse 1:1…all the redeemed and People of God are “strangers and pilgrims”!

        It is interesting however, how some scholars see that Peter might have known Ephesian’s? As perhaps the lines for the same ‘for slaves, for wifes, for husbands, as in Eph. 5:22-33 ; 6:5-8, also 1 Pet. 3:22 and Eph. 1:21. But this is perhaps just the same Apostolic doctrine and lifestyle? I don’t see this in a Pauline sense myself, here in 1 Peter.

      • That Peter knew Ephesians is possible, but most people (Following Selwyn) think there was a common body of teaching, a household code, which is reflected in Eph, Col, and 1 Peter. Similar to a Didache, this was a basic “house rule” for the early church.

  10. To answer the initial question, I don’t think that understanding the audience of 1 Peter as Jewish Christians will make that much of a difference in the reading of the letter, except in a few passages such as 2:9-10 and how one understands the relationship between Israel and the Christian communities in the letter. If the recipients were exclusively Jewish Christians one would have to follow a similar line of argumentation that is employed by Witherington in his commentary that these are Hellenized Jews that are highly acculturated to Greco-Roman society based on 1:18 and 4:2-4 (cf. Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1-2 Peter, vol. 2, 2007: 21-39).

    If these Jewish believers previously had lived si much like Gentiles, it seems that for the most part the theological as well as the paraenetic material in the letter would apply similarly to both those from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. Even 2:10 which contains allusions to Hosea could be taken as equally applying to those with Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. In Hosea God basically divorces his people so they become “not my people” (cf. Raymond Ortlund, God’s Unfaithful Wife : A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2002.)
    The language of Hos 1:9 reveals the negation of the covenant formula from Ex 6:7 (cf. Lev 26:12). Afterwards, Yahweh promises to restore the people and renew his covenant by showing them mercy and declaring that once again they are his people (Hos 2:23). (Remember also in Rom 9:25 Paul alludes to Hosea to make a similar point about the Gentile Christians as formerly not included in the people of God whereas now they are). Thus, if these were Jewish Christians, were they so Hellenized that they would be called “not a people” and “had not received mercy”? If so, once again, it seems it would make little difference in the reading of the letter if they were Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians.

    My take on 1 Peter is that even though it is highly Jewish in flavor, it was most likely written to a mixed audience of predominately Gentile Christians along with a smaller number of Jewish Christians. Though this thesis is carries its own problems, I believe it fits the evidence best as some parts of this catholic letter may address more from one background or the other at times, but the general character of the writing would typically hit both.

    A great question, though, and good food for thought as it seems that steam is picking up again for a Jewish Christian audience against the current consensus. Many thanks as these discussions drive us into the text!

    • Thanks for a very detailed response (with footnotes!)

      I realize that a wholly Jewish context is a minority opinion, and in the end I think I will agree that the congregations are mixed, since at that point in history congregations were shifting towards more Gentiles than Jews. I wonder, though, if the schisms in 1 Cor are a hint that some house churches were more Jewish, looking to Peter as a leader, rather than Gentile, looking to Paul as a leader. It is impossible to know for sure, but it is at least a possibility that sort of division (in the best sense possible) happened in other areas

  11. In Galatians Paul testifies that the Jerusalem Apostles and council covenanted with him that they would go and preach to the circumcision while they released Paul to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.
    It is easily seen by the continued history in Acts and the letters of the apostles that they maintained this agreed upon order.
    Clearly James, Peter, Jude and John wrote their letters to the Jewish audience while Paul’s continual focus was on the Gentiles.
    It is important to note when a letter was written. Hebrews clearly is an early letter, and if written by Paul as supposed by most, it was written before Act 13 when he was severed from the others to go and fulfill his calling to the gentiles. 1 and 2 Peter or later epistles after Paul’s preaching became better known and Peter clearly ascribes to Paul a viable revelation concerning the “Delay” of the Lord of which the Jews would be most concerned wanting to see the manifestation of their Kingdom on earth.

  12. 1 Peter 2:12 seems to be solid proof that Peter’s audience is in fact Jewish. They were admonished to be concerned about their lifestyle “before the Gentiles.” First off, Gentiles don’t call themselves that, Jews do. Second, Gentile believers had no reason to differentiate themselves from other Gentile believers. Furthermore, these particular believers are said to be “begotten again” of God. Only saved Jews can claim that.

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