The first papal encyclical? 1 Peter

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

My title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Historically, Rome seems not to have had a single monarchical bishop until well into the second century. Nonetheless, there is a sense that, in looking back to Peter as the first pope, church tradition reflects his calling to be first among the apostles, the rather wobbly rock on which Jesus chooses to start building his church, as well as his clear association with Rome, from where this letter appears to be written. More accurately, calling it an encyclical picks up the way in which it is written to a circle of churches rather than a single congregation.

Peter’s first letter is read mainly on the Sundays of Easter during year A. This reflects the way in which it begins with a celebration of the resurrection which remains the frame for the rest of the letter. There are a number of overlaps with some of the letters of Paul, in language and theology. First Peter also shares an expectation with the later Pauline letters that women and slaves should seek to commend their faith by accepting the cultural restrictions their status imposes on them.

The need to urge this household respectability seems to suggest both that the early church was developing a widespread acceptance of accommodation towards basic household norms, and that there were enough Christians who flouted those norms in the name of their new faith for leaders to perceive it as a problem. Normally, repeated condemnation of particular behaviour is evidence that people are behaving in a way the writer or preacher disapproves of.

A considerable number of scholars don’t think the letter was written by Peter, partly because it’s so close to Paul in places, partly because of the guidance to households, partly because it’s addressed to churches in Asia Minor, and partly because it’s written in good Greek.1 None of this substantially affects the meaning of the letter when you are reading it to others. Throughout this series, and generally, questions of authorship are less important to me than questions of meaning, but I tend to continue to think of Peter as the author.

I think proposed divisions between Peter and Paul are overdone: Paul has his own reasons for stressing his calling to Gentiles as unique (Gal 2:9). It’s not obvious that James and Peter shared his interpretation of their conversation. It’s quite possible that the Silvanus who helps Peter write this letter (1 Pet 5:12) is the same person as the Silvanus who helps Paul write the letters to the Thessalonians. (1 Thess 1:1, 2 Thess 1:1) When we see glimpses of Peter, whether in Acts at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10), or in Antioch eating with Gentiles (Gal 2:12) we see him apparently at ease with Greek speakers.2

The other feature (a contrast as we shall see with 2 Peter) is the very understated way the letter treats its author. Would any later writer, seeking to teach under Peter’s authority, not want to claim a higher status for him? But the letter comes simply from “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:1)” and he describes himself simply as “a fellow-elder and a witness to Christ’s sufferings (1 Pet 5:1 REB)”.

One other topic that often comes up in discussion of the author and date of the letter is that of suffering and persecution, which seems to be mentioned a number of times. The recipients have to “suffer various trials” (1 Pet 1:6); people “malign [them] as evildoers” (1 Pet 2:12); they may have to “suffer for doing what is right” (1 Pet 3:14, 17); they should take the example of Christ who “suffered in the flesh” (1 Pet 4:1); they are experiencing a “fiery ordeal” (1 Pet 4:12), and they need to remember that their “brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering (1 Pet 5:9).

Detail of the Martydom of Peter, traditionally crucified upside down. Painting by Michelangelo, in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, from the mid-16th century.

It is clear this letter is written to encourage Christians who are finding life hard; it is less clear why they are finding it hard. There is a very common picture of the early church which sees it constantly under imperial persecution. However, most persecution was local, casual and sporadic; it was not systematic, and may have been as much about the settling of feuds, community disputes and economic conflicts as about the content of the faith. The first really systematic persecutions come in the mid third century.

When we read of persecution in this letter, therefore, we should probably think more in terms of the kind of violent disputes portrayed in Acts than anything officially organised by Roman authorities. Equally, if the location Peter writes from, Babylon (1 Pet 5:13), is, as most people think, a codeword for Rome, then we have already seen Paul trying to calm tensions between Jew and Gentile in that city in the previous decade. Peter may well also be picking up on some growing prejudice against Christians that made it so easy for Nero to blame them for the great fire some suspect he started. We might then choose to read this letter as very nearly Peter’s last communication, if as tradition says, he perished in the reprisals which followed that fire.

There is one difficult passage which crops up once in the Lectionary for Mass and twice in the Revised Common Lectionary.3 The problem verses are 1 Pet 3:18-22, and particularly the earlier verses in that reading. There’s a long tradition of relating both the idea of “preaching to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19) with the Christian story of the harrowing of hell, the rescue from the underworld of all the people of God who had died before Christ, from Adam and Eve onwards. That is probably not Peter’s meaning in this context.4

It seems more likely, given the very specific reference to the days of Noah, that Peter is drawing on a Jewish tradition also found in the (non-biblical) book of Enoch. This offers an interpretation of the introduction to the flood story:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.

Gen 6:1-2

A Jewish tradition, which Peter apparently knows, explains these “sons of God” as angels, who in a version of the Prometheus myth, impart knowledge, but also lead humanity into such a state of corruption that God chooses to send the great flood. The fallen angels are then imprisoned by God until the day of judgement, and the earth is cleansed in the waters of the flood.

The Christians to whom Peter writes are those who have passed safely through the cleansing waters like those of the flood in their baptism. The imprisoned spirits are those fallen angels who now have their final sentence – Christ’s triumphant victory over evil – pronounced. Peter does not say what that judgement was. It may be their annihilation, but perhaps it is that, rather than leading humanity astray, they now have to submit to the divine human, Jesus Christ, along with all “angels, authorities and powers (1 Pet 3:22)”.

Whatever else it includes, the proclamation of the gospel in the New Testament, is always about the victory of God over sin, evil and death, revealed by the resurrection of Jesus.


  1. See the comments I made in a previous post on the quality of Greek in the letter of James.
  2. The argument about the household organisation is the most complicated one. It crops up in the discussion of whether Colossians and Ephesians are by Paul or not, never mind the Pastoral letters. I have only mentioned it briefly there and here. There is a great deal of chicken and egg about it. If people think these letters are later than Paul’s lifetime, then they will date this type of organisation, as the church settles down in Roman culture, towards the end of the first or even beginning of the second century. If they date this type of organisation to the end of the first, or start of the second century, they will naturally think that letters which reflect it are late. It is all about competing reconstructions of a whole picture of the early church, in which scholars move backwards and forwards from the details to the bigger picture, trying to work out where each particular tree fits into the forest. Sometimes a fresh understanding of an individual tree will significantly change the overall picture of the wood.
  3. Lent 1, Year B is the same in both lectionaries – 1 Pet 3:18-22, and in RCL Easter 6, Year A is a longer reading than the Roman Lectionary also including the same verses: 1 Pet 3:13-22.
  4. To say this is not Peter’s meaning is not to say anything about that doctrine, far less to attack it. The most decisive contribution arguing for a different view was written by a Jesuit, William Dalton (Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirit’s in Prison: a Study of 1 Peter 3:18 – 4:6 Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1965)

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