2 Peter and Pseudepigraphy

Second Peter is something of a textbook case for Pseudepigraphy. Outside of conservative circles, few accept the idea historical Peter was the author of the book. As J. N. D. Kelly said in 1969, “scarcely anyone nowadays doubts that 2 Peter is pseudonymous.” Despite several excellent commentaries in recent years (Neyrey, Bauckham), there has been little change in this consensus. Bart Erhman deals with this issue in his popular book Forged, drawing attention in the media to the possibility the traditional authors of many of the books in the New Testament are not likely the real authors.

In fact, questions about 2 Peter appear very early in church history, Eusebius said “Peter has left behind one acknowledged epistle, and perhaps a second; for it is questioned” (Hist. Eccl. 6.25.11). Despite this reservation, Eusebius reports that the church did in fact accept 2 Peter as an authentic letter and therefore included it in the canon.

Michael Kruger makes an excellent point in his 1999 article on the authenticity of 2 Peter. He points out that in the second and third centuries a great deal of pseudegraphic literature appear which centered on Peter. Both the Gospel of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter were rejected by the church because they were not authentic. If there was a possibility Peter was not authentic, it would have been treated the same as other spurious documents.

Is the case against an authentic 2 Peter as strong as Kelly (and others) state it? It is true that the second letter of Peter is very different than the first, although these differences can be accounted for in ways other than different authorship. Remember, “authorship” in the Greco-Roman world did not have to mean that the author literally wrote – an different amanuensis might account for the differences, especially if the amanuensis was given a more free hand in one letter than the other. And as Kruger points out, there enough similarities to make the case the two letters are related. Statistical analysis on two short samples is a serious problem for either side in this argument.

There are several personal references in the letter that seem to come from a “historical Peter.” In 1:17-18 there is an allusion to the transfiguration, an event that Peter witnessed. Again, Kruger does an excellent job pointing out the verbal similarities between this verse and Matthew 17:5 and Luke 9:31. And again, this evidence cuts both ways. Peter might have referred to the transfiguration in his writing (I certainly would have!) But if I were creating a letter in order to “sound like” Peter, I would include these details to give the letter the “ring of truth.” In fact, it is odd the is to Matthew when Peter was associated with Mark. The same observation is true for Peter’s reference to the letters of Paul. This allusions sounds is too suspicious, as if someone was creating more unity between Peter and Paul than Galatians 2 might imply. Still, there is evidence for either side of the discussion.

Theology, on the other hand, is a more serious problem for the traditional view. As Käsemann, observed, the Cross is not a particularly prominent theme in the letter, although 1 Peter mentions the crucifixion and resurrection several times. This is a serious charge, but I think Kruger is correct to point out the purpose of the letter is not soteriology, but dealing with a threat from false teachers. The problem with these particular teachers is not the Cross, but ethical and moral concerns.

Would a pseudepigrapic 2 Peter be less authoritative? Suppose someone did in fact create a letter in Peter’s name at the end of the first century which reflected Peter’s response to declining morals in the church. Perhaps a writer was simply using Peter as a literary device to deal with important issues in the late first century. Does this make it less worthy of the canon? J. D. Charles (Faithful to the End, 129f) would say that it does indeed matter. If we now know for sure Peter is not really the author of the letter, then it has no more claim to authority than 1 Clement, a letter written about the same time for approximately the same reasons. What is more, most scholars are confident there was a “historical Clement” who wrote 1 Clement. If 1 Clement is authentic and 2 Peter is not, why not treat the teachings of Clement as authoritative?


Michael J. Kruger, “The Authenticity Of 2 Peter,” JETS 42 (1999): 645-71.
Ernst Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM, 1971) 183-184.

Pseudepigraphy and Jewish Christian Literature

Karen Jobes deals with the issue of pseudepigraphal authorship in her recent Letters to the Churches (Zondervan, 2011).  As she defines it, a document is pseudepigraphical if the author intentionally uses another name rather than his own (page 6).  This is different than a pen name (she cites Samuel Clemens, more commonly known as Mark Twain), and it is also different than using an amanuensis, or scribe, to compose a letter.  If a person was not “officially commissioned” to write a document then it should be considered pseudepigraphic.

Here is the problem for evangelicals with a commitment to inerrancy.  If Second Peter says Peter wrote it, then that means Peter wrote it (or commissioned a scribe to write what he intended).  Many scholars consider 2 Peter to be written well after Peter’s death by a well-meaning disciple of Peter, but without Peter’s direct authorization.  That 2 Peter is a “pious forgery” is almost axiomatic in NT studies.

I agree that the way in which most American evangelicals define inerrancy requires the “historical Peter” to be the author of 2 Peter.  Not only is the name attached to the first verse, but there are several clear hints that Peter is the author in the book.  On the other hand, if I were forging 2 Peter, I would include these very things.   So yes, Justin is correct.  A pseudepigraphical author of  any New Testament book would be contrary to inerrancy.

But what if the definition of inerrancy was expanded to include pseudepigraphy as a literary genre in the first century?  Here’s what I am thinking: those of us who hold to inerrancy would never say that there was a real, historical “prodigal son” behind Jesus’ parable in Luke 15.  In the genre of Parable, the characters are by definition a fiction.  That Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son is true, but that there was a prodigal son is not true.  That part is a story.  I would say the same for Jotham’s fable in Judges 9.  Inerrancy must be broadly defined to include genres such as a parable or illustration.

Can you argue that the genre of Testament literature allows for the use of a pseudonym? No one really thought the Testament of Levi was written by Levi, it was fairly clear that it was not.  One might argue the same about 2 Peter – it is really a “Testament of Peter,” using the literary conventions of the first century.

I am not sure that I agree with this line of argument, but it would allow for an evangelical to teach that Peter is a pseudonym still hold to inerrancy.

On the other hand, it is difficult to accept that letters which claim to be from eye-witnesses of Jesus and “teaching the truth” as opposed to falsehood would themselves be foundation on a lie, even if that was a culturally acceptable literary genre.