Against the Flow: 1 Peter and Countercultural Christianity

Somehow I have just about preached through an entire sermon series and not made any corresponding blog posts. Shame on me. However, part of the reason for my negligence is the fact that this particular series has been tightly centered around a single theme: Christian faith and practice as countercultural. For this series I have turned to 1 Peter, one of the lesser known New Testament books. I will readily confess that 1 Peter is far from my area of expertise. Because it is short and near the end of the New Testament, I have generally been able to get by with just lightly touching it when teaching New Testament Survey courses. By the time we get that far, no one cares any more, and we are just waiting to get to Revelation (which is far more interesting to most people, including me). Still, there is a profound message in 1 Peter for contemporary Christians in the west who are grappling with the reality of living in a post-Christian culture that is sometimes hostile toward their faith. Navigating and negotiating with non-Christian culture is a central theme in 1 Peter, and western Christians have nothing on the type of opposition the early Christians addressed in this book experienced. In short, 1 Peter provides a helpful guide for walking the line between accommodation and culture war. 

First things first. 1 Peter is widely–but not universally–regarded as pseudonymous. Many date it after the death of Peter, perhaps significantly later, but others date it during or shortly after his death. In favor of Petrine authorship are not only the book’s own identification of its author as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:1), but also:

  1. Its heavy use of the Old Testament (as would be expected of Peter, who was Jewish)
  2. Its compatibility with very early Christian thought (eschatological focus, etc.)
  3. A relatively egalitarian and charismatic view of the church (e.g., 1 Peter 4:10-11)
  4. Its location of Peter in “Babylon”–a common cipher for Rome–which is unanimously regarded as Peter’s place of death in early Christian tradition
  5. Its fairly positive view of the Roman emperor (which may suggest a date before the Neronic persecutions)
  6. Its general lack of the sort of over-exertion that pseudonymous letters display in their attempts to impersonate (numerous references to personal experiences, acquaintances, etc.). 
  7. A general lack of dispute over the book’s authenticity in the early church, which cannot be said for other books, such as 2 Peter.

On the other side, arguments against Petrine authorship include:

  1. A higher level of Greek writing than might be expected of an uneducated Galilean fisherman.
  2. Its reliance on the LXX (Greek Old Testament) rather than the Hebrew Bible or Aramaic translations, which is surprising for a Galilean Jew.
  3. The book’s general lack of references to the teachings of Jesus or specific events in his life (other than his death and resurrection). 
  4. The book’s absence from the Muratorian Canon and other early canons
  5. Its use of “Babylon” as code for Rome suggests a date after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, for it was this event that made Rome the “new” Babylon
  6. Its lack of attention to the major concerns of [Jewish] Christianity in the 50’s and 60’s–Jew/Gentile relations, the status of the Torah, circumcision, dietary laws, etc.
  7. Its use of the word “Gentiles” to refer to non-Christians, rather than non-Jews (e.g., 1 Peter 2:12; 4:3).

There are other arguments on both sides, but these are some of the major points. A middle-ground position holds that Silvanus (cf. 1 Peter 5:12) was not merely the courier of the letter, but in fact the author. He may have written it as Peter’s scribe/secretary, or perhaps after Peter’s death, based on Peter’s teachings. While I am not an expert on 1 Peter–or the debates regarding pseudonymity in the New Testament in general–I do find a few of the arguments against Petrine authorship to be rather weak. Use of the LXX may just have been a matter of convenience. It is easier to use a pre-existing translation than it is to create one’s own translation, particularly if one is less skilled with the receptor language. I can more easily read a Greek or Hebrew text than I can translate into those languages from English. Thus, a Semitic-speaking Peter with limited capabilities in Greek would likely have had an easier time just using the LXX than trying to translate Hebrew into Greek. On the other hand, the book itself is written in relatively polished Greek. However, Silvanus (or someone else) may have actually written the book at Peter’s dictation or under his guidance (see above), so the book may reflect that writer’s abilities, while still being essentially Petrine. The lack of attention to inner-Jewish debates may simply indicate that these were non-issues for the book’s [Gentile] audience. On the reference to Rome as Babylon, I would point out that the Habakkuk Pesher from Qumran–which is definitely pre-70–also suggests an identification of Babylon with Rome when it reads the Chaldeans in Habakkuk as a referring to the Kittim (the Romans). Apocalyptic literature characteristically “updates” the evil empire according to who is in power at the time.

In the end, the authorship of 1 Peter is not a primary concern to me. That there was pseudonymous writing going on in early Judaism and Christianity is indisputable, and there is a high likelihood that a few pseudonymous books are included in the canon. The case for pseudonymity is much stronger for 2 Peter than for 1 Peter. But it matters not, because in the end these books were accepted as canonical, regardless of who wrote them and when. There is no going back and changing the canon now.

On to the matter of 1 Peter’s message. The book addresses Christians living in a context of marginalization and mistreatment, but probably not formal state persecution. In contrast to popular imagination, there were actually relatively few periods of intense state persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Christianity was technically illegal, but it was not generally a priority for Rome to round up Christians. There were a few exceptions, particularly in the 3rd and early 4th centuries, and to a somewhat lesser extent in the 90’s. There were also periods of localized persecution, such as the Neronic persecutions in Rome in the mid-60’s. Still, early Christians faced constant marginalization and stigma. A roman graffito depicts a Christian worshipping a donkey-headed man hanging on a cross, with the inscription “Alexamenos worships his god” (see the image above). Roman writers such as Tacitus and Pliny the Younger display an intense animosity toward Christians, though they are rather vague on exactly what is so bad about them. Tacitus accuses Christians of “hatred of humanity,” and Pliny calls them obstinate and stubborn and believes they should be punished accordingly. Early Christians were sometimes accused of having secret orgies (a misunderstanding of the agape meal) and of cannibalism (a misunderstanding of the eucharist). A more serious concern was that Christians were unpatriotic and seditious, since they refused to burn incense to the emperor or confess his lordship. Instead, the confessed another Lord–Christ. But overall, the problem with Christians was that they upset the status quo simply by being different. Evangelism hurt local economies by diminishing industries associated with pagan religion, such as artisans (cf. Acts 19:23-41). They were slandered and mocked as social deviants and weirdos.

How does 1 Peter advise Christians to live in a world that views them with such animosity, whether fairly or unfairly? I offer the following extrapolations:

  1. Accept and embrace the fact that you are “different.” This is the foundation of biblical holiness. The word “holy” literally means “set apart.” By invoking the Torah’s admonition to Israel to “be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16; cf. Leviticus 19:2), 1 Peter acknowledges that Christians are, in fact, different from the rest of the world. They dwell in the world as strangers “in a strange land” (1 Peter 1:17). Here 1 Peter rests firmly on the Old Testament theme of Israel as chosen by God and set apart from the nations as God’s special possession (1 Peter 2:9-10). Just as Israel was commanded to be holy (different), Christians are to be holy (different).
  2. Although Christians are inherently different from the world, they ought to conduct themselves, as much as possible, in ways that will bring honor to Christ. Insofar as they can without disobeying God, they ought to live as good citizens. This means they should submit to those in authority, including the emperor and other government officials. There is a household code in 1 Peter 2:18-3:7, which instructs slaves to submit to their masters (including masters who are cruel), wives to submit to their husbands (even if they are not Christians), and husbands to submit [to God?] by honoring their wives. Household codes are notoriously problematic for modern readers, since they are so closely tied to ancient social norms that different widely from ours. Without getting into it too deeply, let me just say directly: 1 Peter does not endorse slavery, abuse, or the inferior status of women. It simply recognizes that these were the reality in which early Christians (and everyone else) lived and recommended that Christians try and live within the culture in ways that would be seen as honorable. Given the fact that Christians were widely regarded as weird, antisocial deviants, 1 Peter seeks to counter the bad public image of Christians by having them try and live as “normally” as possible, even if it means the suffer injustice and mistreatment. Rather than justifying injustice, 1 Peter holds up Christ’s suffering at the hands of unjust and cruel people as a motivating example (1 Peter 2:19-25; 3:18; 4:1). By living honorably, even when suffering injustice, they may improve their reputation, win converts, and attain Christ-likeness (1 Peter 2:12, 15, 19-21; 3:1-6, 13-17).
  3. Be willing to suffer for doing what is right, but be sure not to do things that really are wrong and warrant punishment. This, of course, follows from points 1 and 2 above, but 1 Peter repeatedly states that if Christians are going to suffer or be slandered, it ought to be for doing good, not evil (1 Peter 2:14, 20; 3:9, 17; 4:14-19). Of particular note is the assertion that “the time has come for the judgment of God to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). In other words, Christians must live up to the highest standards possible, both by living within the broader culture as honorably as possible–insofar as they are able without disobeying God–and also by being willing to suffer unjustly for doing what is right in a world hostile to Christianity. 

For us, I see 1 Peter’s message as supporting neither Christian accommodation to a fallen, sinful world for the sake of acceptance, nor a culture war that seeks to impose Christianity (or a particular type of Christianity) on the world by force–as though 1 Peter’s audience could have done that anyway! Instead, we ought to recognize that we are supposed to be different. It shouldn’t be easy to be a Christian. That is the mistake of the Christian Right and its culture war. They believe the culture should be forced to accommodate Christians, so that Christianity (or, more specifically, conservative Protestantism) is the path of least resistance. This is Constantinianism. It doesn’t work. It replaces holiness with power. But neither does the Christian Left consistently adhere to the program laid out in 1 Peter. 1 Peter does draw lines that cannot be crossed in seeking honor among pagans. A Christianity that never offends non-Christians is foreign to 1 Peter, although there is the hope that some will be persuaded by Christians’ noble example. Instead, 1 Peter walks a fine line between these two errant approaches to Christianity and culture, and in so doing provides a model for 21st century Christians living, believing, worshipping, serving, and thinking in a post-Christian culture.

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