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An Introduction to Peter’s First Letter

1 Peter Bible Study Notes, Week 1

  1. Give yourself plenty of time and read the entire letter in one sitting.  It should only take you 20-30 minutes.
  2. Imagine that you are among the original recipients of the letter.  Imagine what it would have been like to receive this letter from Peter.  What were some of Peter’s instructions? What did you learn?
  3. Read 1 Peter again and highlight, or write down, repeated words or concepts.  What are the keywords in this letter?

It would be very helpful to record your findings, insights and questions in a notebook. You don’t have to be clever, eloquent or detailed; no one needs to read it but you.

Things to think about

Who was Peter?  What do you know about him?  What are some words that describe Peter’s character?  What is your favourite story in the gospels about Peter?
Who are the people Peter’s letter is addressed to?
What are the major themes of 1 Peter? What are some of the repeated, keywords used in 1 Peter?
What do you know about Nero? What do you know about the Roman persecution of Christians?

Who was Peter?

Like all letters of this time, this letter begins with a brief acknowledgement of the sender. This letter makes the claim to have been written by the apostle Peter. Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and along with James and John, he was one of the inner group of Jesus’ closest friends and followers.  Peter is often portrayed in the gospels as someone with an exuberant faith and devotion to Jesus. He was the one, for example, who was willing to step out of the boat and walk on the water with Jesus.

Peter appears to have been the spokesman for Jesus’ twelve disciples. And while we may think he was sometimes impulsive or slow-witted because of some of the statements he made, Peter was probably just stating aloud what the other disciples were also thinking.

Peter was the first to openly state that Jesus was the Messiah (Matt. 16:16-19; Mark 8:27-33). It was also Peter who denied Jesus. (See Luke 22:31-34, 54-71.) But he was later lovingly restored by Jesus and given a special commission (John 21:15-19). When the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, it was Peter, again, who was the chief spokesman. Peter, with John at his side, became the leader of the very first Christian church in Jerusalem.

Peter was mainly an apostle to the Jews. Yet after a vision, followed by a visit to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Acts 10), Peter understood that the Gospel was for all people: Jews and Gentiles. When Peter went on his missionary travels with his wife (1 Cor. 9:5), James, the brother of Jesus, took over the leadership of the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17). [More information about Peter here.]

Did Peter really write 1 Peter?

“It is not always realised how intensely—and how necessarily—the Christians of the early centuries were concerned with questions of authorship and apostolicity.” (Stibbs 1983:15) From the earliest days of Christianity, false teachers were attempting to corrupt the true message of the gospel. Some of these false teachers wrote letters using the names of the apostles. Even some Christian writers, with good intentions, attributed their works to the apostles. The Gospel of Peter, The Acts of Peter and The Apocalypse of Peter are just a few surviving ancient documents that falsely claim to have been written by Peter or contain stories about Peter not found in the New Testament.

In the 4th century, church historian Eusebius recorded some of the debate and decisions made by church leaders about whether 1 Peter was really written by the apostle Peter.[1] “Eusebius explicitly states that ‘the ancient elders’ made free use of [1 Peter. Furthermore], echoes of it have been found in Clement of Rome (c. AD 96) and in Ignatius, Barnabus and Hermes, writings emanating from diverse areas and all belonging to the earlier second century . . . and there can be no doubt whatsoever that Polycarp, another second-century writer makes frequent use of it.” (Stibbs 1983:15)  This early and widespread use may be an indication that 1 Peter was truly authored by the apostle Peter.

But a question still remains. 1 Peter is carefully and beautifully written. The style, syntax and vocabulary are those of a writer who used the Greek language with skill, fluency and ease. Peter’s home town was Bethsaida which had a strong Greek influence; however, Peter was not well educated. How could a fisherman from Galilee write a letter using such fine Greek? The answer to this question may be found near the end of Peter’s letter. In 1 Peter 5:12 Peter acknowledged that Silas (Silvanus) had helped him in writing the letter.  It was a very common practice for letters to be dictated to secretaries, and often these secretaries had a lot of freedom to compose the author’s thoughts in their own style. Silas may have been very influential in both the contents and style of Peter’s letter.[2]

Nevertheless, several New Testament scholars believe that 1 Peter is a pseudonymous work; that is, the letter was written by unknown author, writing in the name and memory of the apostle Peter, probably around the early 90s.

The Recipients of 1 Peter: Jews or Gentiles?

There are many indications in 1 Peter that suggest Peter’s readers may have been predominantly Christian Jews who had settled in cities in the various provinces of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The city of Sardis and other cities in Asia Minor were home to large Jewish communities. The word translated as “scattered” in 1 Peter 1:1, diaspora, is practically a technical term that refers to the dispersion of the Jews in foreign lands away from their homeland, Israel.[3] Peter uses several Jewish terms in his letter, plus numerous allusions and quotations of Old Testament Scriptures. These terms and Scriptures would have been readily understood by a Jewish audience. (See especially 1 Peter 2:9a.)

Most theologians, however, believe that Peter wrote his letter to Gentile Christians with a pagan background.[4] If this is the case, perhaps Peter, whose ministry was mainly to the Jews, had simply become accustomed to explaining Christianity within a Hebrew frame of reference. Certainly, Christianity has its roots in Judaism.

Many theologians claim that the following four verses in 1 Peter are unlikely to refer to Jewish Christians.

  • 1 Peter 1:14, where it says that the recipients of the letter had previously lived in ignorance;
  • 1 Peter 1:18, where it says that they had inherited a futile way of life handed down by their forefathers;
  • 1 Peter 2:10, where it says that they were formerly not God’s people; and
  • 1 Peter 4:2-4, which alludes to the former gentile lifestyle of Peter’s audience.

I believe that these verses do apply to Jewish Christians and I will attempt to show this in later sessions of this study. However, if 1 Peter was in fact written to Gentile Christians, it is interesting that Peter writes to these Christians as though they were Jewish. In Galatians 6:15-16, Paul wrote that neither being circumcised (Jewish) or uncircumcised (Gentile) means anything, but a new creation: The Israel of God.

Peter addressed his letter to Christians who lived in the northern and western provinces of Asia Minor.  It has been suggested that the order of the names of the provinces represent the route the letter’s messenger (possibly Silas) would have taken to deliver the letter. This letter would then have been copied by local scribes for use within the different Christian communities.

Map used with the kind permission of Luther Seminary © 2011

Where was Peter writing from?

It is implied that Peter was writing from a place he referred to as “Babylon” (1 Pet. 5:13). Some take “Babylon” literally. The Jews had been exiled in Babylon in the 6th century BC and only a few returned to Jerusalem when the 70-year exile was over.  In Peter’s day, Babylon had become “a centre of pure and uncompromising Judaism, [which] might conceivably have a claim of the apostle of the circumcision [Jews].” (Stibbs 1983:65) Most Bible scholars, however, take “Babylon” as metaphorically referring to Rome, as it does in the book of Revelation.  

Was Peter writing to Paul’s  Churches?

The apostle Paul had travelled several times to Asia Minor and established many congregations there. Paul would have had a special influence on the churches he had founded. This is true of the churches in Galatia in Asia Minor. Was Peter writing to churches that Paul had pioneered?[5]  And if so, why?

Many Bible scholars suggest that 1 Peter was written during the reign of Nero. (Nero ruled the Roman Empire between the 13th of  October, AD 54, and  the 9th June, AD 68.) It is widely believed, though we have no evidence, that Paul was martyred in Rome during the reign of Nero. Some believe that Peter was also martyred in Rome under Nero’s reign, a couple of years after Paul’s execution.[6] Perhaps Peter is writing this letter to the churches after the death of their beloved apostle Paul in order to encourage them despite present persecution, with worse on the way. Suffering and persecution are prominent themes in this letter.

If Paul had been executed for his faith at this time, it would explain why Mark and Silas (Silvanus) were now with Peter (instead of Paul) and helping Peter in his ministry. Silas was a prophet and an experienced and faithful ministry colleague of Paul (Acts 15:22, 32, 40). But here he is helping Peter to write this letter (1 Pet. 5:12). Mark, who is mentioned very briefly in 1 Peter 5:13b, wrote his Gospel of Jesus’ ministry almost as Peter’s biographer.[7]

I am inclined to give a slightly later date to Peter’s letter. I tentatively suggest that it was written shortly after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple which occurred in 70 AD. This later date makes certain passages, such as 1 Peter 2:3-10, all the more significant.[8] (If Peter wrote this letter after 70 AD, it means that Peter’s execution happened a few years later than is traditionally believed.)

Major Themes and Keywords in 1 Peter

Peter’s major intent in his letter is to encourage the Christians of Asia Minor and instruct them on how to live and behave in a pagan society where they were misunderstood and insulted for their faith. Peter gives the example of Jesus, and his sufferings, as an example to follow. And he gives them hope.

Peter reminded his audience that they were exiles, refugees or foreigners—that is, temporary residents—in their present society and in this present world (1 Pet. 1:1, 17; 2:11), but that the end of the age was imminent (1 Pet. 4:7). Peter taught that Jesus Christ would soon be revealed, and with his coming he would inaugurate the final stage of Salvation (1 Pet. 1:5 cf. 1:9). Peter speaks of Salvation as an ongoing process (1 Pet. 1:3-5, 9; 2:2) culminating with the glorious revelation of Jesus Christ at the end of the age.

There are several words that Peter uses repeatedly in his letter. He used the Greek word anastrophē, which can be translated as “way of life”, “conduct” or “behaviour”, seven times in his letter, in 1 Peter 1:15, 17, 18; 2:12; 3:1, 2, 16. BDAG (p73) defines anastrophē as: “conduct expressed according to certain principles way of life, conduct, behaviour. . .”  “[Peter] used the word paschō, which means “suffer”, twelve times.  He used the word hupotassō, “submit”, six times; and agathopoieō, “do good”, four times. (Blum 1981:215) Peter also refers to “glory” ten times. These are all key terms in his letter.

Roman Persecution of Christians

At the time of Peter’s writing, the Christians in Asia Minor were experiencing insults, slanders and harmful rumours against them (1 Pet. 2:11-15; 3:13-18; 4:12-19). Physical torture by Roman authorities was rare, localised and sporadic at this stage.[9] Peter truly believed that by doing good, and by being law-abiding and submissive to those who were in positions of authority, the Christians could escape the worst of the persecution (1 Pet. 2:12,15; 3:13, 16).  This was sound advice for that time.

Some Romans, however, were becoming uneasy and increasingly suspicious about the new religion of Christianity. Some behaviours of the Christians appeared odd and suspect to their neighbours. Slanders and insults against Christians would escalate in the second and third centuries, and persecution would include confiscation of property, torture and sometimes even execution.

As already stated, it is traditionally believed that both Peter and Paul were martyred during Nero’s persecutions. The persecutions followed a fire that destroyed much of Rome. The fire began on the 19th of July 64. Nero is thought to have started the blaze, however he publicly blamed the fire on the Christians.[10] His persecution of Christians ended with his suicide in 68.

After Nero, later Roman emperors persecuted, tortured and murdered Christians in more sustained and brutal campaigns. When these later persecutions became severe, the author of the Revelation told Christians to resist and not to submit to the evil Roman regime that was perpetrating this violence against the Christians (cf. 1 Pet. 2:13-14).

Athenagoras (133-190 AD)

A few decades after 1 Peter was written, Athenagorus, in his A Plea for Christians, wrote to the Roman Emperors to defend the Christians who by this time were experiencing severe persecution.[11] The Christian religion had become very much misunderstood by some. This misunderstanding led to the early Christians being accused of three things: atheism, cannibalism and incest.

The Christians were accused of being atheists because they did not worship any of the recognised gods of the vast Greek or Roman pantheon. And Christians would not follow local customs or participate in festivals that were grounded in the pagan religions of their neighbours. As well as this, the Christian faith had none of the visible iconography, shrines, altars or idols which usually accompanied recognised religious worship. Christianity did not appear to be a true religious faith to the Greco-Romans, so Christians were suspected of being atheists. Atheism was considered to be a threat to the Roman way of life.

The early Christians often met at night in homes where they commemorated the Lord’s Supper. Rumours circulated that, instead of consuming bread and wine which represented the body and blood of Christ, the early Christians were actually involved in “Thyestean feasts” where real human flesh was eaten. Furthermore, the close and loving relationships between the early Christian men and women, who called themselves “brothers” and “sisters”, were misconstrued as being immoral and incestuous, involving “Oedipodean intercourse”.

These accusations, which may sound ridiculous to us, were based on hearsay, and yet in the second and third centuries it would result in severe persecution including martyrdom. Athenagoras, and others,[12] argued that the Christians were guiltless and that they were being persecuted simply because they were called “Christians”.


1 Peter is one of the few places in the New Testament where the word “Christian” is used.[13]

However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 1 Peter 4:16.

Many Christians were tortured and killed simply because they were called “Christians”. In a now famous letter, Pliny the younger, the governor of Pontus and Bithynia[14] from 111 to 113 AD, asked emperor Trajan, “. . . whether the name “Christian” itself, even without offences, or only the offences associated with the name are to be punished.”

Today, more so than ever before, Christians all around the world are still being misunderstood, slandered, beaten, imprisoned, tortured and killed simply because they bear the name of Christ. For suffering Christians in every time and place, the contents of 1 Peter is indeed “good news for bad times”. (Marc Kolden)  


[1] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical, History Book IV, chapter 14, verse 9.   See also VI. 12.3;  III. 3.1; III. 39.17

[2] The Greek of 1 Peter and of 1 Thessalonians share some stylistic features (e.g., alliteration and the use of three adjectives). And Silas (or Silvanus) was instrumental in both (1 Pet. 5:12; 1 Thess. 1:1)

[3] The Jews experienced several episodes of dispersion when they fled to, or were forcibly removed from the Holy Land and taken to, foreign lands with foreign cultures  (John 7:35; Jas 1:1).

[4] I cannot get away from the fact that 1 Peter sounds so Jewish. I believe many of the churches that received Peter’s first letter may have previously been Jewish synagogues where everyone (or most people) had converted to Christianity, and subsequently, the newly Christian congregation attracted Gentile converts also.  (Luke wrote in the book of Acts that the apostle Paul, whenever he entered a town, always went to the local synagogue first to tell his Jewish brothers and sisters the good news about the Messiah Jesus. Paul did this even though his ministry was mainly to the Gentiles.)
Scot McKnight acknowledges the “Jewishness” of 1 Peter. However, he is persuaded that the recipients of 1 Peter were Gentile converts to Christianity that may have had previous associations with the Jewish synagogues; and that is why Peter writes to them using Jewish terminology. (McKnight 1996:23) 

[5] It may be that Paul concentrated his ministry in the southern and western regions of Asia Minor and Peter the northern regions of Asia Minor.  Or perhaps Paul concentrated on bringing the gospel to predominantly Gentile communities in Asia Minor, whereas Peter, the apostle to the Jews concentrated on bringing the gospel to the Jewish communities there.

[6] It is stated by some that 1 Clement chapter 5 implies that Peter was martyred in the same campaign of persecution that had previously claimed the life of Paul.  (I have read 1 Clement 5 and do not see this implication.) The spurious and non-Biblical document entitled The Acts of Peter asserts that Peter was crucified upside down.  We really do not know when, where, or how Paul and Peter were killed. But they had both been killed before 1 Clement was written in around AD 95.

[7] “Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.” Papias (Fragment VI)

[8] In Spring of 66 AD, some Jews in Jerusalem began an uprising against the Romans. For four years Jewish revolutionaries fought and resisted the Romans, until the Romans prevailed and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Many Jews, including Jewish Christians, left Israel at that time. Some may have joined Jewish Christian communities already long settled in Asia Minor. Peter may be writing with these recently displaced Jewish Christians in mind.

[9] The Roman military might was certainly powerful and could be brutal; however the Romans desired peace, and many of their policies were considerate of the local customs of the peoples they had conquered. The Pax Romana (Roman Peace) enabled travel and trade to flourish throughout the Roman Empire with increased safety and improved roads. It also allowed the gospel to spread relatively easily following the trade routes and renowned Roman roads.

[10] Nero is infamous for having used the bodies of captured Christians as torches to illuminate his garden at night.

[11] “A Plea for the Christians” was written by the philosopher and Christian, Athenagoras approximately 177AD. It is a lengthy apologetic (defense) addressed to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180 AD) and Lucius Aurelius Commodus (161-192 AD).

[12] Justin Martyr argues similarly in his First Apology that it is unjust to persecute Christians simply because of a name, and not a crime.

[13] The word “Christian” is also used in Acts 11:26 and Acts 26:28.

[14] The churches at Pontus and Bithynia, where Pliny the younger was governor, were among the recipients of Peter’s first letter.

Week 2: Peter’s Greetings – 1 Peter 1:1-3

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The Apostle Peter
An Introduction to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians
An Introduction to John’s Gospel

1 thought on “An Introduction to Peter’s First Letter

  1. […] there is a good deal of commentary about who would actually have written this letter, and when, and to whom – in particular, whether to an earlier or later audience, and whether of mainly gentile or Jewish Christians. [A long, careful introduction by Marg Mowczko and a short, summary one by Joel Green address these issues.] […]

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