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Friday, 5 April 2013

Was Peter's first epistle written to deported Roman colonists?


The First Epistle of Peter opens with these words: "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia," (1 Pet. 1:1 NASB). These areas spanned several provinces of the Roman Empire within the region known as Asia Minor which forms part of modern Turkey (see map here).


Just who were these people to whom Peter wrote his epistle? Were they Jews, Gentiles or a mixture of both? And what particular relationship did they have with Peter that caused him to write them a letter?

New Testament scholars have proposed a number of different theories. A tradition dating back to antiquity has it that Peter wrote the letter to Jewish Christians. In support of this is Paul's statement that Peter was the apostle to the circumcised (Gal. 2:8), as well as the use of the Greek word diaspora in 1 Pet. 1:1, which was (and still is) used of the dispersion of Jews throughout the world.

Recent commentators have proposed that the letter was written to mixed Jewish-Gentile congregations (so Grudem) or even primarily Gentile congregations (so Schreiner). Schreiner points out that phrases such as "the futile ways inherited from your forefathers" (1 Pet. 1:18) and "Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people" (1 Pet. 2:10) are easily applicable to Gentile converts but not to Jews. Under this theory, the reference to "scattered exiles" in 1 Pet. 1:1 refers figuratively to the spiritual status of Christians as God's people living in a pagan world rather than their literal political status.

However, even if we resolve the issue of ethnicity we still need to explain how these congregations of Christians were known to Peter. It has been suggested that Peter made a missionary journey through these areas, and indeed that the reason the Spirit prevented Paul from preaching in Asia and Bithynia (Acts 16:6-7) is that Peter was already at work there. However, there is no direct evidence that Peter ever preached in these areas. In light of this, other suggestions have been proposed.

One suggestion has it that Jewish pilgrims in the audience at Peter's Pentecost sermon (which was attended by people from Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia - Acts 2:9) believed in Jesus Christ, then returned home and planted churches. These churches would have seen Peter as their spiritual father and thus he wrote the letter to encourage them. This idea is interesting but again, there is little evidence to support it.

A very intriguing suggestion, argued in great detail by Jobes, has it that the audience of the epistle consisted of Christians who had been under Peter's guidance in Rome but were subsequently expelled from Rome and resettled in new colonies within Asia Minor. Jobes summarizes her argument as follows:
"The theory is based on several points of historical evidence: (1) Claudius, and perhaps only Claudius, established colonies in every one of the five regions to which 1 Peter is addressed. (2) Colonies were typically populated by deportations from Rome and other urban centers. (3) There is the historical evidence of Roman writers of the first and second centuries that Claudius did expel people associated in some way with 'Chrestus' [thought to be a corruption of Christus, i.e. Christ]. (4) Peter is the stated author of 1 Peter. (5) The ancient tradition that places Peter in Rome during the reign of Claudius continues to be cogently argued...Even if Peter wrote in the 60s, the colonization of Roman Christians still provides a motivation for a letter to these remote regions" (Jobes, p. 39).
While the New Testament does not explicitly describe a trip to Rome by Peter, the reference to "Babylon" in 1 Pet. 5:13 is taken by most commentators (ancient and modern) to mean Peter wrote the letter from Rome. Jobes further notes that the word parepedimos (translated 'exiles' in 1 Pet. 1:1) is equivalent to the Latin word peregrinos, which was used to refer to non-citizens of the Roman Empire. This class of free non-citizens were frequently the target of expulsions from Rome.

It is impossible to know with any certainty whether Jobes' theory is correct (and, unless you have a keen interest in early Christian history, it probably doesn't matter to you!) However, while there is no direct biblical evidence for this theory, there is historical evidence to support it, and it has good explanatory power. It provides a clear reason why Christians in these remote areas of the empire - not known to have been evangelized by Peter - should receive a letter from the apostle encouraging them in the midst of very trying circumstances. It also explains why Peter shows no evidence of familiarity with the areas to which he is writing, or the specific situations faced by the readers. 

Finally, if this theory is true we can see God's providential hand at work in these events. If Christians expelled from Rome by Claudius resettled in Asia Minor, not only would they have evangelized these areas, but their expulsion likely saved them from the persecution of Roman Christians that occurred in the 60s under Claudius' successor, Nero.

References:
Grudem, Wayne. 1988. 1 Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Jobes, Karen H. 2005. 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker Academic.

Schreiner, Thomas. 2003. 1, 2 Peter and Jude, New American Commentary. Nashville:
Broadman & Holman.

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