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 would reading 1 Peter as addressed to Hellenistic, Diaspora Jewish Christians make as we read the text of 1 Peter?

11 thoughts on “Peter and Diaspora Jewish Christians

  1. 1 Peter’s emphasis on suffering for one’s faith would come across more clearly as it more directly concerns the Diaspora. Since persecution of Jews was heavy at the time, and since Christianity was only seen as a branch of Judaism, it would only make sense that the primarily Jewish congregations in modern day Turkey would receive the same fate. Both Jews and Jewish Christians were suffering alongside one another. I find especially interesting the “holy nation” of 1 Peter 2:9. The chosen people (Deut. 7:6; 14:2), royal priesthood (Ex. 29:9; 40:15), and holy nation (Ex. 19:6) were titles originally given to Israel. Since mercy had been recently received (v. 10), these titles now applied to the Jewish Christians Peter was addressing. He used these terms because they made the most sense to them.

  2. Once again, Sean, you have beat me to the punch! However, I whole heartedly agree with your take on understanding this letter being addressed to the Diaspora Jewish Christian Church. I would highlight the language used in 1 Peter 4:12-19. The author makes several references to “suffering for Christ”. Statements such as “… do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you… But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ” reflect a similar message found in the opening of the Letter of James to “consider it pure joy… whenever you face trails of many kinds”. I particularly find 1 Peter 4:16 quite compelling as it states, “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name”.

  3. In my opinion, 1 Peter is a book that doesn’t show much leaning toward Jewish Christians or Gentiles, other than the obvious keywords. As Professor
    Long and Sean point out, words like “exiles” are used in the book, which shows that the book does directly concern the Diaspora. The content of the book, however, is neutral to me, as it talks about things like suffering for faith and living holy lives. These things are of concern to anyone who believes in Jesus Christ, Jewish or not. Having said that, I do think that there are some differences when reading 1 Peter as addressed to Jewish Christians. I think that the Scripture quoted fro Isaiah would be appealing to Jewish Christians, as it is something they are familiar with. I also agree that Jewish Christians were the majority in that time, and there would be an element of personal touch in the writing for them.

  4. As i read 1 Peter, I was moved by how relevant and applicable it was to my own life. There is not any overt Jewish language (as we find in Hebrews), and yet we may have some subtle clues as to the original audience of the book, whether it is was written to Jewish Christians, or God-fearing Gentiles as well. As we start in 1 Peter 1:1, you see the descriptor of the audience given as “elect exiles of the dispersion.” The argument can be made that this was simply spiritual language in regards to all of the church and believers. But it would ask, “Did the author meant to be understood?” Of course! Any author uses language (and yes, symbolism and allusions in that) which his audience will understand and react too. You can argue that his audience would know that this was symbolism, and yet any other places that i look this refers to Jews who were exiled from Jerusalem. Why would Peter used a phrase that has always referred to Jews in exile, to Gentiles? It would seem to me that Peter, as a Jew, would know that language and use it as it has always been used.

    Jumping to Chapter 2:9, we see Peter saying that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” Again, this can be referred to as Gentiles (a stronger case for this given in verse 10), but i would like to point out the Jewishness of these phrases. The Jews where always a chosen people, who had a royal priesthood and considered a holy nation… so why change language to incorporate Gentiles who have never been these things, and wouldn’t grasp what it truly meant. We see some inclusion of the Gentiles as a people or nation in Ephesians 2:11-22, but Paul clearly lays out the Jew Gentiles relations here in light of the mystery (Jew-Gentile equality). Again this language seems to be directed at the Jews as they would identify with this nation and priesthood language.

    The last use of language i want to refer to is in 1 Peter 2:11-12. In Jobes book, she says “The sense of the Greek word is “foreigners” and traditional interpretation has understood this to mean that, because Christian’s eternal home is in heaven, as long as they are in this world, they are foreigners away from home… But given the way Peter develops this image throughout the letter… it should be understood primarily as defining the relationship between Christians and unbelieving society” (Jobes* 288). But why should we assume that this is referring to all Christians? Jews outside of Israel have always been known as these things and as we look at verse 12, this theory runs into potentially complicating language. It reads, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable…” When writing to a group of Gentile Christians, why would you tell them to keep their conduct honorable among themselves? This word has been used often to the world, but wouldn’t Peter say the world if he was talking to Gentiles? It would certainly simplify the situation if he actually was referring to Gentiles.

  5. I have to agree with Chris on this one, 1 Peter does not appear to be taking one side or the other, it is working as a mediator between the gentile converts and the Jewish Christians. This seems clear to me since it shows keywords that would be understand just by the Gentiles and others that would only be understood by the Christians. 1 Peter is trying to be the best of both worlds, but Peters writing seems a bit more of a Jewish style, this probably came without him even trying to force it with things such as quotes from the Old Testament. But it is still helpful for both parties.

  6. It is somewhat strange that in 1 Peter we see in the very first verse of the very first chapter, a statement that addresses Jewish people pretty directly. However, we also see in vs. 14 a command to not “conform to the evil desire you had when you lived in ignorance”, which, at least to me, seems to imply a more Gentile audience, than assumed before. But then again, in the first chapter, the author quotes Isaiah, a pretty typical way of writing to Jewish audiences. Then, the author tells the readers that “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” (1 Peter 2:10). This statement basically makes the book look as though it sort of flips back and forth from audience to audience. However, if we think of this audience as a mixture of God-fearing (and now Jesus-following) gentiles, along with their Jewish-Christian brothers, it makes sense to use these metaphors almost to connect the audience to each other. I would say that the reason there are quite a few Jewish-seeming references in the book is for the purpose of helping the Jewish Christians relate to the Gentile Christians that they are starting to gather with.

  7. It would make more sense that 1 Peter was targeted towards the Jewish- Christians of the Diaspora, because its talking about sufferings, and if it wasn’t written to them the fact that he was talking about suffering wouldn’t make sense, because the Jews at this time were suffering from being kicked out of Rome, and the Jewish- Christians were being persecuted because they were seen as being part of Judaism.

  8. Of course, the audience that it is written to makes a big difference. Peter writing to Diaspora Jews is the obvious first suspicion because of all the language such as ‘elect exiles’ (1:1), “a chosen race, a royal priesthood’ (2:9), and ‘sojourners and exiles’ (2:11). But, theoretically, if this was to Gentiles, I think that reading through 1 Peter would be really choppy. It seems to be incredibly practical in some places that leave no option but to read it literally. But then spread throughout the book are Jewish words, and if it were to read metaphorically, it would be confusing to jump back and forth between the literal and metaphorical.
    Therefore, I think it is easiest, and most likely to read it thinking of Diaspora Jews as the audience. And because of this, one of Peter’s main themes is Christology. “Peter’s theology is very Christ-centered, but his Christology is grounded in a Trinitarian understanding of God’s relationship to the Christian believer” (Jobes 283). He wants the Jews to see Christ as the true Son of God, who was the suffering servant, which would have been a very relevant and comforting thing for the Diaspora Jews.

  9. Reading 1 Peter as addressed to Diaspora Jews would make it easier to understand and place the various Jewish references and overtones we get from the book. As Zac mentioned in one of his posts, the verse referring to “the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors” (1:18) does not present a problem if taken to mean the dry and legalistic traditions that developed over the years as the Israelites drifted away from God. And like others have mentioned, the book refers to prophets, the priesthood, a holy nation, respect for national leaders (which would have been an especially touchy subject for Jews), and eschatological themes, all of which are high on the Jewish priority list. Even the words from 2:9, “called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” bring to mind Isaiah’s prophecy that the book of Matthew uses to begin the telling of Jesus’ ministry. But when read with a “Jewish lens”, other parts of 1st Peter seem confusing, like the statement right after verse 9 in verse 10, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God…” This seems more like something Paul would say to Gentile Christians, like in his address to them in Ephesians 2. Overall, there are problems with reading 1st Peter explicitly one way or the other.

  10. Like Josh said, the language really seems to be pointed at Jewish Christians. I think that this just makes more sense and is a lot more practical. The language would not have been used in this way if Peter wasn’t writing to a Jewish audience. I don’t think that it would have made much sense for this book to be written to a gentile audience.

  11. Reading 1 Peter as addressed to Hellenistic, Diaspora Jewish Christians would make reading the text of 1 Peter more coherent. When you read 1 Peter through a Jewish lens, it flows well and the metaphors and allusion make great sense. However, there are greater implications to reading 1 Peter as addressed to a Hellenistic Diaspora Jewish Christian audience. Dispensationally speaking, you could view the text of 1 Peter as speaking to a transitional audience as the Body of Christ came to realization and the nation of Israel phased out as they were being set aside. With this in mind, we must view what we read in 1 Peter with some caution. For example in 1 Peter 2:9, Peter writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession…” Can these same words be directly applied to a Gentile audience? Are Gentile Christians and today’s Christians to be a royal priesthood and a chosen race? Are we to be a holy nation? Perhaps, but the Jewish understanding of these ideas may be far from what Gentiles and 21st Century Christians can fully understand. Perhaps we need to approach 1 Peter with more diligence instead of viewing the content of the book as neutral despite the audience.

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