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?

22 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.

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    • 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.

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      • 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?

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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?

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    • 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.

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

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  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.

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    • 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.

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  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-

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  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.

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