Although the letter purports to be written by “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,” there is perhaps no letter in the New Testament which is more given to complicated issues of author, date, and genre than this one. Among some of these issues are: (1) the author’s use of unique vocabulary, showing different styles and varying words and syntax, including some 565 different Greek forms, 57 of which are not found in the New Testament; (2) the influence of Greco-Roman concepts, of which 2 Peter is the only New Testament book to mention Tartarus, the Greek mythological underworld where the Titans had been cast; there is also the idea of the believer’s participation in the divine nature, which is not found elsewhere in the New Testament; (3) the familiarity with Paul’s letters, which some take to show the letter as a work of pseudonymous authorship by referencing “an established canon;” (4) the nature of the heresy with which Peter is warning his readers. Most likely, Peter wrote to warn of heresy leading to an immoral lifestyle. Many of these issues can be explained however, by considering a more nuanced approach to the circumstances.
In regard to genre considerations, it is widely known that the early church rejected pseudonymous narratives such as the Gospel of Peter as forgeries. If this is the case, it is logical that using another’s name in personal correspondence, such as in 2 Peter would be seen as a forgery as well. In addition, scholars have longed pointed out that the apostles used an amanuensis to compose some of their letters, which could explain differences of vocabulary, syntax, style, and rhetoric. Other scholars who posit that a Galilean fisherman could not possibly have written in the rhetorical style, using this variety of terms fail to credit Peter with the intellectual capacities to learn and grow.
While the theory of 2 Peter as a testament – a Jewish genre which documented the final words of a hero of the faith, including ethical exhortations for the audience to follow after the hero’s impending death – is one of the most cogent ways of understanding the letter, some scholars believe that the rhetorical features of 2 Peter show that it possibly began as an oral sermon. The missing thanksgiving, as well as the absent destination make this even more ‘general’ than other epistles. However, Peter later writes that this is the second letter he has written to his audience. In other words, Peter knew the audience to which he wrote because he had previously written to them. This would also support the pastoral tone with which he wrote, warning his readers about impending heresies which would come into the church when he passed away.
Conservative scholarship places the dating for 2 Peter to somewhere between the Great Fire in Rome (AD 64) until the death of Emperor Nero (AD 68). Many critical scholars note that this heresy seems to be a type of Gnosticism, a second-century heretical movement in the Church which did not come into being until well after the traditional date of Peter’s martyrdom which occurred in Rome under Nero between the years 64-68 AD. Such scholars therefore believe in a later date for the writing of the letter, and most hold to pseudonymous authorship. Other scholars believe that Peter’s comments about Paul’s letters show and obvious familiarity with a completed canon. The canon was not finalized for hundreds of years, until subsequent councils, they say. For this reason, some scholars argue for a later date, and pseudonymous authorship. However, Peter’s comment only shows that he was at least familiar with some of Paul’s writings.
While Gnosticism could not be the heresy which Peter wrote against, what is clear from the text is that the opponents denied that Christ would come again to judge the world (3:4). They believed instead that God’s “slowness” (3:9) was the primary argument speaking against divine judgment. In reality, God’s slowness does not highlight his indifference or inability, but rather his patience. We waits for sinners to repent, sinners like you and me. Sinners like the false teachers who had been denying the truth of God’s word.
The theology of 2 Peter shows a robust doctrine of the Trinitarian God, with the Christology itself tied to that in 1 Peter; the Suffering Servant who conquered death and ascended into glory. In 3:1, when Peter mentions another letter he has written, the authorship debate and the content of the letters themselves are linked thematically. This means that as we read 2 Peter, we can assume to same contours of the Christology we encountered in 1 Peter. The Holy Spirit is himself mentioned as “carrying along the prophets (1:21), while the end times are illuminated as the “heavens and the heavenly bodies” being “burned up and dissolved,” thereby exposing “the earth and the works done on it” (3:10). All of this shows the author’s immensely practical focus in writing this letter, as well as the future-oriented scope. What we do today has eternal significance. What Christ has done in the past should make us live differently today. Thus, a practical testamentary epistle, grounded in the theology of 1 Peter, designed to help the readers live faithfully in light of the coming of Christ.
When reading Jude and 2 Peter side by side, one can see many overlapping words, thoughts, and concepts. There are currently three explanations offered by Biblical scholars for this overlap. (1) Jude used 2 Peter. Why doesn’t Jude mention any of the material in 2 Peter 1, and only some of 2 Peter 3? This view is possible, but might not make the most sense out of the differences. (2) Both Jude and 2 Peter were dependent on a common source. Unfortunately, there is no such source extant today. If they had shared a common document, it has been lost. (3) 2 Peter used Jude; the most satisfactory view by scholars. This view makes sense by pointing to the editing of Jude by 2 Peter, adding more information in places, omitting information in others, specifically direct references to 1 Enoch and the Testament of Moses. 2 Peter also describes a different heresy than that of Jude. Jude mentions a people who “relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones” (Jude 8), relying on their own “instincts” (Jude 10). Peter describes the false teachers as those who deny the second coming of Jesus as heretics, then leading into his own description of the Parousia.
Richard J. Bauckham. Jude, 2 Peter. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX. Word Books, 1983.
Peter H. Davids. The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI. Eerdmans, 2006.
Karen H. Jobes. Letters to the Church, A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan, 2011.
Thomas R. Schreiner. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. New American Commentary. Nashville, TN. Broadman & Holman, 2003.