The right of II Peter to a place in the canon of the New Testament has been more widely disputed than that of any other book. No direct quotation from it can be found in the patristic literature prior to the beginning of the third century. Eusebius, in the fourth century (HE V, i, 36, 45, 55) classes it explicitly among the antilegomena or doubtful books rather than among those that were accepted as of apostolic origin.
External testimony to its Petrine origin, however, is not totally lacking. There are occasional allusions in the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140 A.D.), 1 Clement (95 A.D.), the pseudo II Clement (140 A.D.), and the Didache (c. 150 A.D.) which resemble it, although there is no convincing proof that any one of these is quoting II Peter directly. Eusebius quoted Origen (c. 220 A.D.) as saying: “Peter … has left one epistle undisputed. Suppose also the second one left by him, for on this there is some doubt” (HE VI, xxv, 8). Origen’s language does not exclude the Petrine authorship, but merely indicates that it was not universally acknowledged.
The internal evidence is stronger. The writer claims at the outset to be “Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1). He announces that the time has come for him “to put off this my tabernacle even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me” (1:14), a statement which accords with Jesus’ prediction that Peter would die a violent death (John 21:18). He claims to have been present at the Transfiguration when the “power and coming” of the Lord Jesus Christ was exemplified, and when the divine Voice said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (1:16, 17; cf. Mark 9:5–7; Matt. 17:4, 5). The words “decease” [Gr., exodus] and “tabernacle” (1:13–15) appear also in the accounts of the Transfiguration (see Luke 9:31, 33). He identifies himself as one of the apostles of the Lord (3:2). In speaking of the writings of Paul, he calls him “our beloved brother,” a title that would hardly have been used by anyone who did not know Paul personally, and as an equal.
The problem of authorship is further complicated by the relation of the second chapter of II Peter to the epistle of Jude. In content and in language there is a resemblance between the two that is too strong to be accidental, though there are marked differences as well. If one is dependent on the other, which is the original? Since Jude’s epistle is briefer and more compact, its priority is usually taken for granted. In that case, II Peter must be later than Jude, and therefore too late to belong to the apostolic writings of the first century.
Ernest F. Scott has stated the critical dilemma succinctly and boldly (The Literature of the New Testament, New York: Columbia University Press, 1936, p. 227): “Thus we have no choice but to regard II Peter either as a genuine writing of the Apostle, or as a later work which was deliberately composed in his name.” Scott and many others solve the dilemma by assigning II Peter to the subapostolic writings of the second century, but their conclusion is not the only possible answer to the problem. It seems incredible that so barefaced a forgery should have been foisted on the Church without any protest. This document has not simply taken Peter’s name, but it has professed to grow out of his experience. Even granting the fact that the apocryphal Gospel of Peter and Apocalypse of Peter bear some resemblance to the second epistle and were accepted by segments of the Church, they did not enjoy such wide acceptance, nor are they mentioned as equal candidates for a place in the canon.
If the internal evidence be taken at face value, it is plain that the epistle was written near the close of Peter’s life, when persecution was threatening both him and the churches to whom he wrote (cf. 1 Pet. 4:14–19). In writing his first letter he had the aid of Silvanus [Silas] (1 Pet. 5:12), who could smooth out his style, and who perhaps made several copies for general circulation, thereby insuring a wider knowledge of the epistle in the churches. The second epistle, if written without such aid, would show the cruder Greek style of a Galilean fisherman, and would have a narrower distribution.
The allusions to the life of Christ (1:14–18; 3:2) can best be explained by admitting that they are the testimony of an eyewitness. Peter was one of the three disciples present at the Transfiguration, and was deeply impressed by the phenomena that he observed. The Gospels say that he reacted immediately to the situation (Matt. 17:4; Mark 9:5; Luke 9:33), and it must have been stamped ineffaceably upon his memory.
One may account for the likeness to the book of Jude by reversing the theory stated above. Jude uses the Petrine phrase “put in remembrance” (Jude 5; 2 Pet. 1:13); he refers to “the words spoken by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (17) of whom the writer of II Peter claims to be one (2 Pet. 3:2), and he employs the very words of 2 Peter 3:3 in a quotation from them. Since Jude asserts that he is quoting from the apostles, while the writer of II Peter makes this statement as his own, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jude is quoting Peter rather than vice-versa. If so, Jude becomes an external witness for the early date of II Peter rather than making it a late reproduction of Jude.
If II Peter is genuine, it was probably written by Peter from Rome between 64 and 67 A.D. for some group of people who did not publicize the letter widely, perhaps because they were afraid to acknowledge the possession of it.
The second epistle of Peter claims to be a sequel to another epistle written to the same destination (3:1). If it can be rightly paired with I Peter, it was directed to the Christians of northern Asia Minor, among whom Peter had ministered at some previous time. Between the writing of the two epistles, a change had taken place in their circumstances. The first epistle was written to forestall the external danger of trial, probably by governmental oppression. The uncertainty of the Roman attitude toward the growing sect of the Christians, and the contempt in which they were held made them apprehensive of persecution (1 Pet. 1:7; 2:12–15, 20; 3:14–17; 4:3, 4, 12–16; 5:8–10). The warnings of the second epistle concern the internal danger of apostasy, which Peter feared more than the cruelties that might be inflicted by the jealous and ignorant heathen.
As the central theme of I Peter is suffering, so that of II Peter is knowledge. The words know and knowledge occur 16 times in three chapters, six of which refer to the knowledge of Christ. This knowledge is not academic, but is fundamentally spiritual, based on a growing experience with Christ (3:18). It is the source of peace and grace (1:2), the cause of fruitfulness (1:8), the means of liberation (2:20), and the sphere of Christian growth (3:18).
The epistle can be divided into three main sections. The first (1:1–21) deals with the nature and the ground of spiritual knowledge. The gift of the knowledge of Christ provides all that is needed for the attainment of glory and virtue, and the promises of God afford escape from the carnal lusts that would hinder progress (1:2–4). That knowledge increases by growth in experience, which promotes the addition of spiritual qualities to the mature believer and the assurance of entrance into the kingdom of Christ (1:5–11). The source of this knowledge is the personal manifestation of Christ which the apostles had witnessed, plus “the more sure word of prophecy” inspired by the Holy Spirit and recorded in the Scriptures (1:19–21).
The second division of the epistle contains a warning against apostasy (2:1–22). Peter predicted the rise of error within the ranks of believers. These false teachers are not pagans who invade the Church from without, but are traitors who bore from within with “feigned words” (2:3). Peter illustrated their judgment by the doom of the angels that sinned (2:4), by the overthrow of the antediluvian world (2:5), and by the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (2:6). Their error, which is essentially the repudiation of Christ’s lordship (2:1), is arrogant (2:10), wanton (2:13), adulterous (2:14), covetous (2:14), pretentious (2:17), boastful (2:18), and enslaving (2:19). The danger of their error is that it will lead them straight back into the spiritual bondage from which they had presumably escaped.
The last section of the epistle (3:1–18) refers the reader to the voice of prophecy as an antidote to apostasy. The threat of persecution and the influx of unbelief had aroused doubt as to whether the promises of the Lord’s coming would be fulfilled. Cynical persons, observing that the apostles were dying and that the signs of the Lord’s coming were not evident had begun to wonder whether he would come at all. They argued fallaciously that because nothing cataclysmic had happened since the creation, nothing would happen in the future. Peter reminded them that just as the flood was unannounced and sudden, so will the coming of the Lord be. Natural phenomena have not always followed a uniform course in the past, nor need they do so in the future. “The day of the Lord” will come suddenly; the material universe will pass away; and a new heaven and earth will take its place.
The challenge to new depths of experience, the threat of defection, and the impending consummation of all things are an incentive to holiness. “What manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness?” (3:11) is the supreme question, and the answer is: “… be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless” (3:14).
The second epistle of Peter offers some teaching that is not presented elsewhere with the same explicitness. The statement that “prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (1:21) is one of the most definitive passages on inspiration in the New Testament. It asserts unmistakably that the message of the Old Testament Scriptures is the authoritative voice of God which must be interpreted in the light of the total revelation.
The eschatological teaching of II Peter is an explanation of the seeming delay of the Lord’s return. Peter had been one of the group who questioned Jesus concerning the time of his coming (Mark 13:3, 4), and he had heard the answer which Jesus gave. The allusion to a thief in the night (3:10) is taken directly from Jesus’ own words (Luke 12:39, 40). Undoubtedly many of the second generation Christians were disappointed that the Lord did not come in their lifetime. Others were skeptical because they could not conceive of any interruption in the orderly process of nature. Peter answered their objections by pointing out that once before God had intervened by a flood which had made a sharp break in the uniform progress of the past. The delay of Christ’s return was not the result of a mistaken prediction, but was rather a sign of God’s desire to give man a longer opportunity to repent.
For a general introduction to II Peter, see Paton J. Gloag, Introduction to the Catholic Epistles (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1887). Among the better critical commentaries are C. Bigg, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude in the Inter-Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901); Joseph B. Mayor, The Epistle of Jude and the Second Epistle of Peter (London: Macmillan & Co., 1907); J. W. C. Wand, The General Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude (London: Methuen & Co., 1934). Some excellent biographical background and exposition are available in A. T. Robertson, Epochs in the Life of Simon Peter (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933) and W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Apostle Peter (Eerdmans, 1946).
MERRILL C. TENNEY
Graduate School of Theology
Wheaton College (Illinois)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more