On Reading 1 Peter

This is a brief letter, but it packs a powerful punch.

It comes to us as a communication between Peter, one of the Twelve, and Christians (“elect exiles”) scattered throughout what is now western and northern Turkey (1 Peter 1:1).

Peter is in “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13), which is a cryptic and common Jewish way of referring to Rome in the first century. Peter writes to “exiles” from “Babylon.” This association, which appears in the beginning and close of the letter, highlights an important theme in the letter; that is, Christians are a socially dislocated minority within Roman culture. They are aliens who have a different way of life than their surrounding culture.

There is a strong and ancient tradition that both Peter and Paul died in Rome. Consequently, it is most natural to read “Babylon” as Rome given that tradition and the apocalyptic use of the term within Judaism (as well as Revelation 17). It also accounts for why Peter might take up his pen to write to Roman provinces in what we now call Turkey. Perhaps Peter had previously visited that region at an earlier period, but there is no explicit evidence for that. Whatever the reason Peter addresses these scattered Christians, there is no reason to doubt Peter’s presence in Rome (other than some old Protestant polemics against Roman Catholicism).

Peter, writing from the center of Roman power and wealth—the origin of Roman culture, addresses the social location of Christians within the empire. They are aliens or foreigners; they are homeless within the empire. They live as exiles or refugees.

This offers the most significant key for reading 1 Peter as the author addresses his letter to the “elect exiles of the Diaspora.”

While some think—and not without some good reasons—Peter’s audience is primarily Jewish because the Diaspora refers to Jews living outside their Palestinian homeland, I think it better to read this as Christians who are not at home in Roman imperial culture. Christians are outsiders to Roman power; they do not belong. Christians are scattered throughout Roman culture and its provinces, but they live as aliens within that culture.

Consequently, one of the better ways to think about 1 Peter’s genre (literary form) is to categorize it as a “Diaspora Letter,” which was prominent within Judaism. Some of this genre’s best examples are Jeremiah 29, 2 Maccabees 1:10-2:18, and Elephantine letters 21 & 30.

These letters address Jewish communities displaced from the Jewish homeland. They encourage living well within cultures to which they do not belong and which are often hostile to their presence.

This is exactly what 1 Peter does. “I have written you this brief letter,” Peter says, “to encourage you and to testify that this is the true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12). The letter is an exhortation—it encourages and testifies. Distressed in their uncertain circumstances as exiles and foreigners (“strangers in a strange land”), Peter encourages them to live faithfully in the grace of God.

The letter is apparently a circular one; that is, it is intended to circulate among congregations throughout the regions of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. We might suppose, as Peter hints in 1 Peter 5:12, that Silas (Silvanus) carried the letter to various churches where it was read to the assembly and probably copied. In other words, the letter was orally performed. It is a sermon or exhortation for these distressed and suffering communities, an encouragement to people living in hostile environments.

Peter does this with three major moves in the letter. First, he stresses their identity as God’s chosen people whom God has loved from the foundation of the world (1:13-2:10). Second, he encourages them to live out that identity despite their difficult circumstances as witnesses to the grace of God in the world (2:11-4:11). Lastly, he commends their suffering for the sake of Christ, which is their greatest witness (4:12-5:11).

Peter addresses the “diaspora” of God’s elect living among Roman provinces whose faith is regularly tested by the hostility of the surrounding culture in which it lives. Their lives, Peter believes, will bear witness to the grace of God as they follow Christ in his suffering. In this way, they suffer as Christians rather thieves or murderers.

Our contemporary western culture has shifted. Christianity is no longer privileged (and it should never have been). Our culture is now post-Christian, even if it ever was “Christian.” In our present setting, Christianity is increasingly dismissed, treated as irrelevant, and sometimes hated.

Our world is becoming increasingly like Peter’s world. As a result, Peter’s letter is becoming even more relevant as Christians learn to live in a post-Christian culture.

So, we read 1 Peter—like its first readers read it—as aliens. We read it to understand our identity, seek encouragement in our way of life, and endure suffering as followers of Christ.

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