2 Peter

Most of 2 Peter was written by Peter the Apostle. However, there is an intrusion in chapter 2 from the second century, which itself leans upon the book of Jude.

Many scholars consider 2 Peter to be pseudo-graphical, which is to say, it was written in Peter’s name, but it was not written by Peter. However, it is argued here that this position does not reflect the complexity of the origins of this work.

Close examination of the text will show that 2 Peter is a work of two parts, a main part and a condemnation part. The latter is found in the section from the second half verse 3 of chapter 2, and goes until the end of the chapter. Whereas the main part can be easily attributed to Peter the Apostle, the condemnation part can be considered to be a second-century addition. Most New Testament works suffered from editorial intrusions of this kind, but the difficulty with 2 Peter is that we do not have early recensions of this work to help us establish the original text. As a result, identification of this “intrusion” in the text can only be done by literary analysis. In fact, this is not difficult, since the tense change in the opening verse of the condemnation part is the initial pointer; the fact that the intruding section breaks the flow of the rest of the work is the next pointer; and the difference in tone between the two parts completes the task.

2 Peter is not well attested in ancient writers. It appears that the work only became more widely distributed after the condemnation part was added, possibly as part of an anti-Gnostic push. The false teachers attacked in the condemnation part of 2 Peter seem to have taught a doctrine like that taught by the Alexandrian, Carpocrates, against whom the later 2nd century writer, Irenaeus, wrote in his Against Knowledge Falsely So Called.  If Irenaeus’ description of the teachings of this sect, and Clement of Alexandria’s reference to their licentiousness at the Agape meal, are correct, it is not surprising that the condemnation part of 2 Peter treats this group as if they belong to an almost irredeemable “other,” and that these teachers were presenting a gross distortion of Christian teachings.

It can be shown that the main part of 2 Peter was constructed as a chiasmus (χ – chai – chiasmus). This represents a method of structuring an  argument to ensure that both speaker and listener can focus on the main points to be made. It involves starting and ending at the same point, with the central point of the argument occupying the central point in the rhetorical structure.

Indeed, the main part of 2 Peter is structured in exactly this way, as can be seen as follows:

  • A  Exhortation to a live a godly life (1:3-11).
    • B   True teachings (1:12-18).
      • C   OT prophets (1:19-21).
      • C’  False prophets & teachers (2:1-3a).
    • B’ True teachings (3:1-7).
  • A’ Exhortation to live a godly life (3:8-18).

The identification of the chiasmus in 2 Peter is vitally important in arriving at a correct understanding of this work, since the structure of a chiasmus indicates its purpose. Generally the overarching purpose of a chiasmus is set out in the opening statement, with the argument branching from this opening statement reaching its climax in the central section of the chiasmus. On this basis, the main purpose of the chiasmus in 2 Peter is the exhortation to live a godly life. The climax of the argument is twofold: firstly there is the command to accept the prophecies of the Old Testament; secondly there is the command to reject the false teachers who would come.

In the minds of many modern commentators, the condemnation part so overshadows the whole work that the entire letter is thought to be about false teachers, whereas this chiasmus indicates that the main purpose of the letter is an exhortation to live a godly life.

In the main part of 2 Peter, the writer covers only a limited number of topics. They do not appear to constitute a complete set of instructions, but rather appear as responses to individual points at issue. The writer had in mind some other work in which his teachings were completely expounded. He looked back on this work, together with the current work, declaring that he wanted to pass on his teachings before he died. This implied reference to an earlier work becomes explicit in the second “true teachings” section of the chiasmus, in which the writer says, “In both of my letters I am rousing your sincere mind, by way of a reminder, to remember the words previously spoken by the holy prophets and the command of your apostles, from the Lord and Saviour.” He was referring to 1 Peter, which meets the requirement, implied in 2 Peter, that there is another document that represents an exposition of Peter’s doctrine of Jesus Christ.

It is believed that the prima facie case for Peter’s authorship of 1 Peter and 2 Peter is difficult to refute, although one can assume that the claims that both of these works are pseudo-graphical will continue to hold the field for some years to come.