Is 1 Peter Addressed to Jewish or Gentile Christians?

Peter at CapernaeumLike 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?

36 thoughts on “Is 1 Peter Addressed to Jewish or Gentile Christians?

  1. Hi Phil, I’m reassured by your post here, as I just can’t see that 1 Peter was addressed to a mostly Gentile church. I also speculate that 1 Peter was written shortly after the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem (cf 1 Peter 2:5). But that’s another story.

    • Thanks, Marg. A “mostly Jewish-Christian” readership becomes obvious if we can set aside the classic Christian metaphor for the Christian life as “strangers and aliens.” Songs like “This World is Not My Home” co-opt the way many Jews thought of themselves in the first century and (in my view) we miss the richness of 1 Peter as a result.

      I think the tide is turning on this, Karen Jobes’s commentary on 1 Peter is a welcome exception to the usual interpretation.

      • Thank you for this discussion, very helpful! I agree with what you and Marg say here, and I really like Karen Jobes’ commentary as well. Yet I’ve also found the “foreigners in a land not our own” worldview helpful for thinking about how I should navigate political engagement here in the States as a Christian. I definitely see how that “foreigners and exiles” worldview is misleading in eschatological terms, but is there still a place for it in terms of how Christians should understand themselves as citizens of heaven yet residents of other nations now, awaiting the city that is to come?

  2. Jobes says, “rather than understanding parepidemoi as describing believers’ transitory life on this earth as a journey toward their heavenly home, it should be understood as primarily defining the relationship between Christians and unbelieving society.” I think the difference that we would see if we read 1 Peter as addressing Diaspora Jewish Christians is that the references to being “strangers and aliens” is because the Jewish Christians were now contrary to society in their beliefs. Peter wanted his readers to see that their values and standards now come from another place besides society and culture as Jobes pointed out. If the audience was really Jewish Christians, then they would need encouragement in this area as they get used to the suffering and persecution of living a very different life, and being outcasts of society.

  3. When the letter begins it is clearly speaking to the Israelites, God’s chosen people. More so it is not referring to people who do not yet believe but specifically addressing the people who already believe in God and most likely are asking why the hardships. He repeats that they and those of the recent past did not know what was to come until God revealed it to them and that they like the ones before them should stay and await God’s big reveal. After that he speaks of the holy spirit entering them and allowing them to be born again. Restating this is for Jewish Christians not for anyone else. He is calling them all to again become righteous and to shed the evil ways that they have come to. Just like all throughout Judges, again this the Jews would have understood but anyone outside of Judaism would have had trouble understanding the reasoning for the process he speaks of.
    Like in Judges he is calling for a renewal through their new leader, that leader being Jesus who is God. He is calling them to come together like a house, and Israel is known as a House, “The House of Israel”. He speaks of them as being chosen again Israel and that they have turned away and now he is asking for their return to God. Again this screams out with allusions back to the book of Judges and Exodus. He speaks of the law as a Jews would and tells them how to fulfill the law. He even Alludes back to Sarah and Abraham as examples. Which is a way Jews remind each other of who things should be done. Then He speaks again to God’s spirit being on you, baptism in the Holy spirit which is the noticeable thing to do for both Jews and Christians. Last 1 Peter is addressed to Silas in a traditional Jewish manner.
    I could be wrong but I do not see how this could be addressing the gentiles.

  4. I have never really seen the evidence that points to an audience other than gentile believers in the book until now. The argument is quite convincing. However, if I might play the devil’s advocate here for a second, it would be that Peter was referring to his gentile audience as the elect because Jesus’ death made the new covenant available to gentiles and sort of made it so we were adopted into God’s chosen people group. Maybe scattered because they were fleeing persecution and where no longer living as a congregational body of believers. Of course, this is all speculation, but still could be something to examine.

    However, assuming that most who agree that the letter is written to a gentile audience are wrong, this still shouldn’t change the way the book is read in the eyes of a modern believer. Sure it may help in Bible study and whatnot, but as far as receiving from God’s word and drawing substance out of it for spiritual nourishment’s sake, whom the letter was written to should be of little importance.

  5. This is a very insightful post (and I’m not just saying that for brownie points). I think that these are the kinds of questions that God wants us to be asking when we study the Bible. The context throughout scripture is very relevant to our time now. And while we may not know without a doubt who Peter was talking to at the time, I think God is pleased by our desire to fully understand his word. Overall, it does not matter to whom Peter was talking to because we need to apply the scripture to our lives. However, I do think that knowing the details of the Bible will help us better understand the meaning behind it. After all, the word is God (John 1:1) and there is only gain from learning information like this. The main themes according to Jobes are Christology and the spiritual development of a Christian’s identity (Jobes, 283). In order for us to learn these things, we need to fully understand the context surrounding Peter and not just the words. I like to see it as reading SparkNotes instead of a book. We have the opportunity to learn about the Bible in ways that could not be done in previous generations. If we only read the words without considering its original meaning, it is as if we are reading the SparkNotes of a book without actually reading said book.

  6. I can’t in good conscience type a developed conclusion to this question as I am reading through 1 Peter. However, reading the book in light of a more jewish audience gives the book a more modern day spin. I think that for whatever reason, the idea of a very Diaspora Jewish New Testament (as opposed to Hellenistic Jewish) gives the Bible a bit more of an eastern appearance. What I mean to say, is that because millenials are so intrigued by eastern religion that the reading of 1 Peter in a more Jewish light gives the book a more attractive packaging for some reason. Kent Dobson recently published a version of the NIV called the “First-Century Study Bible.” This Bible is one particular example where the writer of the commentary reads a heavily Jewish audience into the NT. I don’t mean to say that as if it is a bad thing, but it is interesting to me the sorts of connections that I see between the Jewish perspective and more Greco-Roman perspective as they relate to conclusions of interpretation in modern theology.

  7. With the intro to the elect scattered and the references to the Old Testament, I don’t see how it would make sense that this letter was gentile believers. I think it’s interesting that it says where the elect are scattered. That means this letter was written and then passed around to these different areas. It would be interesting to see the distance of these areas (and I may do that soon). The audience does have the “foreknowledge of God” according to the introduction of the passage. I don’t know how much it should change the interpretation, though. It is interesting though that just as these elect were scattered believers are scattered today as well. It’s still the same idea of showing your faith in the context of your own culture.

  8. I can’t believe Peter would lie and I don’t believe Babylon was a code name for Rome.
    If people would read carefully the account of Acts 2:5-11, it plainly states there in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every NATION under heaven.
    We are all familiar with the diaspora aren’t we?
    Now let’s look at the roster of where these what the Bible called ‘devout men’ were from; verse 9. There were Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in MESOPOTAMIA, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome ( And Luke didn’t seem to have a problem there), both Jews and proselytes.
    The Bible states emphatically ‘Jerusalem Jews, devout from every nation.
    My question is; why has 1 Peter 5:13 become such a conundrum when God has already given the answer?
    Peter truthfully was speaking of a group of believers in Babylon who brought back the gospel to that part of the world. Is that too difficult for God to do?

    • Thanks for the comment Jennifer. I grew up in the greater Los Angeles area and moved to West Michigan. Turns out people here refer to southern California as ‘La-La Land” and their own state as “the Mitten.” Neither are literally true names for those locations and my friends are not lying (even if they are annoying). These clear metaphors understood by everyone in this particular culture. Peter is not lying, but using an accepted metaphor for an evil world empire like Rome.

      Since there is plenty of evidence Babylon is a regular metaphor for Rome, I would need to see counter evidence that Peter ever went to Babylon or that there was any kind of Christian Community there before AD 65, when Peter died in Rome.

  9. Peter remembers our Lord describing the Tribulation to come on the Jews in Matthew 24 and is trying to prepare them for it.

  10. I don’t think that it would make a difference in reading 1 Peter with the knowledge that it was addressed to Hellenistic, Diaspora Jewish Christians. I know context is important when it comes to studying the Bible, and it will help us to better understand the meaning behind it. But I think when you are able to read scripture and find areas where it can be applied to your life is just as beneficial as knowing the purpose as to why it was written and who it was written for. In Jobes, she addresses main themes, they are Christology and the spiritual development of a Christian’s identity (Jobes, 283). However, in order to obtain these themes, we have to be able to understand the context surrounding the book of Peter not just the words on the page. To gain spiritual development one needs to be digging into the context of the scripture to get the bones of what the passage is trying to relay.

    • I think that it is important to know who 1 Peter is written to, so that we may have a better idea of who his audience is. Knowing who the audience of 1 Peter is gives us a better understanding reading it as to who the book or letter was actually written to. As you pointed out in your blog, if 1 Peter was written to Gentiles they would have to take it and understand it as a metaphor, whereas Jews who have been scattered could read it as more literal. I personally have never really looked into the book of 1 Peter, so I have never really considered who it may be written to. I think that 1 Peter whether written to Gentiles or to the Jewish people, have important thoughts and implications that either group could use for encouragement and guidance in how to deal with things and events in life.

  11. The book, “The Letters to the Church,” by Karen Jobes explains the purpose of 1 Peter. First, 1 Peter 5:12 says, “This is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.” Jobes suggests that this is the purpose. She says, “The two parts of this statement reflect, first, Peter’s intent to present truth about God’s grace extended in Jesus Christ and, second, his exhortation that his readers might embrace that grace and stand firm by continuing to live faithfully for the Lord, despite their challenging circumstances” (Jobes, 2011, pg. 283). Now, understanding the context of scripture is always important when trying to apply something to one’s life. Many misinterpretations come when we apply scripture out of context. This is all understood, but I am not so sure that knowing the exact audience for 1 Peter in this case is going to change the meaning of 1 Peter for us as readers today. The purpose of 1 Peter is the truth of God’s grace. It is to encourage readers to stand firm in faith. This is a central idea no matter who is being addressed. Whether someone takes this literally or metaphorically, maybe in my ignorance, I do not see an issue in applying this to one’s life.
    -McKenzie McCord-

  12. “What difference would reading 1 Peter as addressed to Hellenistic, Diaspora Jewish Christians make as we read the text of 1 Peter?” => Replacement theology. The dividing line between believing Jews and believing non-Jews will be blurred definitely. The dividing line which we basically never saw in church history.

  13. P. Long’s blog post regarding the issue of the identity of those receiving the letter we call 1 Peter is extremely interesting. Growing up and previous to this blog, I thought I was commonly thought that 1 Peter was written to Jewish Christians. However, I can see where a logical thought process may give the conclusion that 1 Peter is to Gentile Christian and or a mixture of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Jobes points out that Peter found himself in leadership of the church alongside both James and Paul, and cites Acts 10:9-16 of Peter’s dream of how God is now dealing with the Gentiles (Pg. 275). However, I would still align myself with P. Long in the thinking that 1 Peter is to mostly Jewish Christians. Overall, when reading the Biblical narrative, we see Peter deals mostly with Jewish Christians and is a leader within the (mostly) Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. When we read Scripture it is important to read it normally, as in not to place metaphors and analogies where none are. This is likely what we do when we interpret diaspora referring to Gentile Christians which is contrary to the most common meaning diaspora within the Biblical context.

  14. The book of 1 Peter has always created questions that someone wants to ask. As P. Long specifically looks at the debate between whether the letter of 1 Peter was written to Jewish Christians or Gentiles, we begin to realize the objectivity that needs to take place when having such a discussion. Although Peter was involved with the Gentile church, it should not be assumed that this letter was written to them specifically (Jobes, 275)

    From the reading of 1 Peter alone there are many clues to a largely, if not completely, Jewish audience. Some of the most notable of these clues are in 1:1 which refers to the readers as “exiles”, 1:19 which explains Christ was the “lamb without blemish or defect”, and a heavy usage of passages from Isaiah in chapter 2. Each of these has a deep and important meaning to someone who is ethnically Jewish and would impact their view of who Christ is. To a Gentile reader, they would not have been an “exile”, nor would this term have any importance to them because it was used to refer to the Jewish people who were taken away during the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions of Israel and Judah. In reference to Christ as the “lamb without blemish or defect”, Jewish Christians would have found meaning in this because of the requirements of the Law. Gentiles who had previously been pagans would have sacrificed almost anything to their gods so a reference to a specific animal would not have been as meaningful. Lastly, the entirety of chapter 2 relies heavily on Isaiah to help the readers understand how they should live. Peter assumes the readers know the passages in the way he writes this passage. Gentiles would have had the LXX, however, the large majority would have not memorized it unless they were converts to Judaism.

    The evidence is overwhelming that this letter was to Jewish Christians. Although the argument can be made otherwise, there are many assumptions by Peter that his readers knew and understood the Law and other teachings of the Jewish Bible.

  15. In Jobes chapter 9 she stated this, “in Roman society, today it is fine to believe in Jesus, but it is offensive to many if he preached as the only way to God (267),” most likely 1 Peter introduces the strategy of approach with truth and clarity regardless of the society during this time, perhaps this introduction were for believers of their true home in the new world that is coming (EVSB 2405). I thought Dr. long made a good point about the Gentiles having the appreciation towards Judaism during that time. Jobes also mentioned about the values have shifted in our modern time. I say for this who know the truth and walk in the truth should remain in the truth until the great day of the Lord. even if we have to go through trials that test our faith and our status in regards to our relationship with Christ Jesus.

  16. Determining whether the recipients of Peter’s epistle were Jewish or Gentile is immaterial for this reason:
    1) Peter used texts from the Old Testament which had been directly addressed to “the children of Israel (Exodus 19:6),” but applied them to a “Church of God” consisting of Jewish and Gentile believers (“the new man”)–without distinction.
    2) Paul emphasized the significance of this ‘non-distinction’: “And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him: where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all (Colossians 3:10,11; cf. Galatians 3:28).”

  17. Good comments B.A., I heard Les Feldick this morning say 1Peter was written to Jewish C hristians only. He has a hyper dispensational theology.

  18. I must emphasize the point again that Peter was the Apostle to the Jewish Christians and the Apostle Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles Christians. This was the agreement made by James, John, and Peter at the Jerusalem Council. (Galations 2:9) Why would Peter be writing to Gentile Christians? Compare (Exodus 19:5-6) with (1st Peter 2: 9-10) He is quoting the Old Testament verse to the Christian Jews who were familiar with Old Testament scripture.

  19. How about 1Pet 2:10, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” That’s similar to Pauline theme which usually refers to Gentile christians.

  20. This is an interesting concept to consider. In Jobes book she writes that in 1 Peter, the author manipulates the “language and moral vision” in a way that is acceptable and applicable for both Jewish and Gentile recipients. Jobes continues that this is probably why it is so difficult for scholars to come into agreement as to whom this book was written for. I believe it is important to find the context of the books in the Bible to fully interpret what they mean, but if it’s not completely clear who it is written to, it is not going to devalue the book. In this case we may not know 100% if this book was intended for Jews or gentiles, but we can see the more important message that the author is trying to portray. The author wanted the reader of that time to be able to follow Christ as an example. The author emphasized that it is more important to follow Jesus than it is to be comfortable. So, whether this was for people literally living outside of their homeland, or just felt like this place is not their home, either way they are called to suffer rather than to fall in to the example of the people around them and fall into sin.

  21. Clearly Peter was writing to Jewish Christians with Gentile exceptions. 1st Peter 1:1 (To the elect who are exiles of the Dispersion) The Jews were the ones dispersed not the Gentiles.

  22. As P long mentioned in his post and uses his resources that some scholars believe it is written to Jewish Christians and others think it is addressed to Gentile Christians. As everyone as different opinions on this based off different evidence and research, personally to me I believe that it is more about a relationship with God rather than what type of Christian it was written too. If you consider yourself a believer and a Christian, then I personally think there shouldn’t be an argument or a debate about who the audience appears to be because in the end those who are Christians don’t go to different places based on if they are Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians. I have had many conversations with my dad who used to be a youth pastor about this because I believe that it is more about the relationship with God then the religion. In the end religion doesn’t matter it depends more how your relationship with God is and what you believe. In 1 Peter 1:1 in the ESVSB notes, it says that “Believers, both Jews and Gentiles, are God’s “elect exiles”. They are his chosen people, just as Israel was God’s chosen people in the Old Testament” (ESVSB, 1671). Therefore, I believe that if it is more about a religion than a relationship then I personally think something needs to be looked at differently. In Jobes she talks about how “the epistles in the New Testament each were originally written to a Christian audience facing a different situation and needing different issues to be addressed” (Jobes, 704). That being said it supports my point that it was originally written to a Christian audience. So my answer to the question of “Is 1 Peter addressed to Jewish or Gentile Christians” is yes.

  23. Another thread tied to the book of Peter being addressed to a primarily Jewish audience is their ability to understand Peter’s references to the Old Testament. The illustration of Christ as a sacrificial lamb, for instance. Which is taken out of Old Testament sacrificial practices and applied to Jesus in a way that would have clearly illustrated Jesus’s role as both being made to suffer and glorified. Many modern readers are already going to have a familiarity with these sacrificial laws thanks to Sunday-schools and more widespread access to the Bible. However the original readers would not have that same knowledge unless they had a background in Judaism.

  24. Yes, but this could also evidence a Jewish audience. Before God made a covenant with Abraham, there was no “God’s people”. When God made Abraham the father of the nation of Israel, God blessed Abraham and his descendants. This institution of Israel as a distinct nation along with the subsequent blessing (“I will bless those who bless you and persecute those who persecute you”) could be what Peter is referring to here in 1 Peter.

  25. Most scholars argue that the recipients of Peter’s first letter were mainly Gentiles. However, there are several pieces of evidence throughout Peter’s letter that support the argument of Jewish Christian congregations being the recipients of his letter. Peter addresses the letter to “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces” (! Peter 1:1). This addressing points to a Jewish audience. The Jews were God’s chosen people and the “’Elect’ is a common self-designation in Judaism” (Long). “Scattered” refers to the Diaspora which is used to describe Jews who are living outside of the Promise Land. Scholars who argue that Peter was writing to Gentiles must see these descriptions as metaphors. The church is seen as the New Israel and when Peter uses language that is commonly used to refer to the Jewish Diaspora, he is re-applying it to the church. I think that the purpose and main themes of 1 Peter, Christology and the spiritual development of Christian identity are understandable and applicable to the church today without knowing for a fact who the original audience was. However, knowing whether it was originally written to Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians would help to determine whether Peter talking to Israel or whether he is using metaphors to refer to the spiritual church as the new Israel.

  26. This question of whether 1 Peter is being written to a Jewish or gentile audience is an excellent one. It’s an important one to consider as it is easy for us as modern readers to forget just how interesting a time it was for the early Christians- many of them were messianic jews and as Peter and eventually, Paul went on their missionary journeys, several gentiles were led to Christ as well. It is easy to look at this letter and come to the conclusion that it was intended for a gentile audience. However, upon further examination, we find several instances where Peter is addressing Jewish believers, such as verse 1 of 1 Peter 1 where Peter refers to the God’s elect “exiles scattered”- the Jewish people were in fact those were dispersed. This goes back to the common idea of the church being the New Israel as well, as we find introduced very early on in the book of Acts. Despite this pressing question of just who this book was specifically addressed to, we can rest knowing that it contains a wealth of information for all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, for they are all one in Christ Jesus.

Leave a Reply