A second excerpt from the letter we know as 1 Peter is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (1 Peter 1:17–23). We explored the letter as a whole through the first lectionary offering in this blog:
The recipients of this letter that is attributed to Peter appeared to reside in no less than five Roman provinces (1 Pet 1:1), indicating that the letter must have been composed as a general letter for a wide audience. It is not sent to a specific local community (as with Paul’s authentic letters) but is written for a generalised audience of believers (as with James, and probably also Ephesians).
The recipients are initially identified as “the exiles of the dispersion” (1:1) and later as “aliens and exiles” (2:11). “Dispersion” is a term drawn from Hebrew scripture (Ps 106:27; Isa 11:12; Jer 25:34; Ezek 12:15; 20:23; 22:15; 29:12; 30:23, 26; 36:19; Tob 4:4), as is the phrase “aliens and exiles” (Gen 23:4; each noun appears individually many times in scripture). This language has a primary reference to Jews living as non-citizens in a foreign land; there were many such individuals in many nations of the eastern Mediterranean in the first century.
Other terms used reflect the common Jewish discourse shared by author and recipients, such as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9), and “living stones…a spiritual house…a holy priesthood” who offer “spiritual sacrifices” (2:5). Holiness, sacrifice, priesthood, royalty, and a spiritual house are all ideas found often in Hebrew Scripture. The description of the community of believers as “living stones” is supported by a string of scripture citations (Isa 28:16; Ps 117:22; Isa 8:14; quoted at 2:6–8), whilst the appellation of “God’s own people” is explained by a poetic allusion to the prophet Hosea (Hos 1:6, 9; 2:25; at 1 Pet 2:10).
This Jewish scriptural focus is a prominent feature of this letter, which indicates a reverence for “the living and enduring word of God” (1:23). For the nominal author, Peter (and possibly also for his colleague, Silvanus; see 5:12), this must refer to the Hebrew Scriptures. The letter includes other scripture citations and scriptural imagery. The early focus of the letter on holy living, for instance, is supported by reference to Lev 11:44–45; 19:2 (quoted at 1:16). The role of “the word of God” is indicated by Isa 40:6–8 (quoted at 1:24–25).
The sacrificial suffering of Jesus is interpreted with reference to the fourth servant hymn of Isaiah 53. The direct citation of Isa 53:9 at 1 Pet 2:22 introduces a series of intertextual connections weaving together the death of Jesus with the servant song (2:23–25 refers to Isa 53:4, 5, 6 and 12).
The contrast between good and evil is expounded at one point by a long Psalm citation (Ps 34:13–17, quoted at 3:10–12) and later by drawing on a proverb (Prov 11:31, quoted at 4:18). Likewise, a proverb contrasting the proud and the humble is quoted as a justification for the exhortation, “humble yourselves” (5:5–6, citing Prov 3:34).
Other scriptural elements include an allusion to the “day of visitation” (2:12, referring to Isa 10:3); a proverbial phrase (4:8 quotes some words from Prov 10:12); a reference to the spirit of God (4:14 alludes to Isa 11:2); and a Christologically-expanded interpretation of the story of Noah and the flood (3:18–20, in reference to Gen 7). As this letter regularly intertwines Hebrew scripture with guidance about the way of Jesus, it surely reflects a continuing Jewish presence in the Jesus movement.
However, the key words “aliens and exiles” (2:11) also carry symbolic significance. They both derive from scriptural usage in the scrolls of Hebrew Scripture, collected into the books of the Old Testament. The purpose of the letter is to reinforce the identity of the community of believers as “aliens and exiles”, an especially important process because of the pressures which are being experienced by those members from the society in which they lived.
The language which is applied to them ought not to be taken purely at the literal level, for it is often metaphorical. This is obvious with regard to references to “newborn infants” and “spiritual milk” (2:2), “living stones” and the “spiritual house” (2:5), and being “born anew” (1:23). It applies also to the references to “aliens and exiles”; we cannot assume that all believers addressed were literally living in a foreign country. Rather, the force of the image is to describe the alienation that has taken place between the wider society and the group of believers who follow the way of Jesus.
Indeed, there are various indications that the recipients of the letter had previously been Gentiles living in sinful and idolatrous ways, but now were striving to live by standards which set them apart from others, and may at times have caused them intense difficulties. The author hints that they were “going astray like sheep” (2:25) and followed “futile ways” (1:18) which were characterised by “desires that you formerly had in ignorance” (1:14). These are spelled out as “malice…guile, insincerity, envy…slander” (2:1) and “living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry” (4:3).
Coming to faith in Jesus was like being called out of darkness (2:9), being raised from the dead (1:21), being born anew (1:23). Such believers are to stand in a different relationship to the customs and practices in which they were raised: “now that you have purified your souls” (1:22), “do not be conformed” (1:14), “abstain from the desires of the flesh” (2:11), “live no longer by human desires” (4:2). People addressed in these terms by a Jew (such as Peter, the nominal author of the letter) could not have been Jews; they must have been Gentiles. Perhaps some of them were Godfearers, such as are identified in Acts?
At any rate, the language and ideas of Hebrew Scripture permeates this letter and undergirds its key ideas, whether the recipients were Jews, Godfearers, Gentiles, or a combination of all three. It is an enticing mixture, to be sure.