Here is a thorny question that Christians seldom consider, but it is pretty important: How do we know if the Apostle Peter actually wrote 2 Peter? Let us take a deep dive into exploring the answer.
Christians have long believed that there is an authoritative New Testament “canon”, or rule, by which the teachings of the church can be measured. Protestant scholars speak of the “self-authenticating” nature of Scripture, and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox scholars speak of the magisterial authority of popes and bishops that have received the twenty-seven books that we have in our New Testament canon.
However, many Christians wrongly assume that the table of contents in their Bibles were somehow dropped down out of heaven, like the tablets of Moses at Mount Sinai. Rather, the development of the New Testament canon was a process that happened over many decades during the history of the early church. The 2nd century heretic, Marcion, had first developed his own list of authoritative New Testament books, but others in the church believed that Marcion’s list was far too restrictive. Others proposed that certain popular books read in church could be included within the New Testament canon, but doubts arose as some questioned the apostolic authenticity of those certain books. It was not until the last quarter of the 4th century C.E. when the church across the Roman empire finally received our list of twenty-seven books.
How then was a book received into the New Testament canon? Generally, a New Testament book needed to conform to the “rule of faith,” a common body of teaching that could be traced back to the early apostles of the Christian movement. Furthermore, a New Testament book must have been authored by one of those early apostles, or someone who moved within that early circle of apostles.
Hebrews, Revelation, and Our Friend, 2 Peter
Two of the last books to make it into the canon were the Book of Hebrews and the Book of Revelation. Some Christians in the West had their doubts about the Book of Hebrews, as there is no author specified within the text of Hebrews. But Christians in the East were united in affirming that some unnamed apostle, or close associate, such as perhaps Paul or Luke, wrote Hebrews. Some Christians in the East had their doubts about the Book of Revelation, noting that the heavy metaphorical content of the book might lead some astray. But Christians in the West were united in affirming the apostolic nature of Revelation, as having been truly written by John. Eventually, both books were accepted as fully authoritative New Testaments texts.
The other main oddball, that had a difficult time finding its way into the New Testament canon, was 2 Peter. In fact, more than any of book in the New Testament, 2 Peter has been under the fire the most, with respect to its place within the canon. The rise of “historical criticism” or “higher criticism” of the Bible in the 19th century revived interest in the controversy.
The letter claims to have been written by the Apostle Paul, as someone who had personally witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus (2 Peter 1:1, 16-18). For centuries, this claim has largely settled the matter. After all, if the early church got the story of Christ’s Resurrection right, why would we not also have the confidence that the early church got the books of the New Testament right?
If you pick up a conservative evangelical translation of the Bible, you might notice that the sense of this being a “settled matter” is evident for many, if not most, believers. After all, the Christian tradition regarding the apostolic origin of 2 Peter has withstood the test of time for nearly 2,000 years. With that track record, there is good reason to trust the Christian tradition, so what compelling counter-reason could be presented to cause Christians to think otherwise? Those who challenge the tradition bear the burden of proof, do they not?
Nevertheless, we live in age of skepticism. It is worth giving honest answers to honest inquirers as to the trustworthiness of the Bible. The credibility of the Christian faith does rest on the credibility of the earliest followers of Jesus, specifically those who witnessed the Resurrection, and who moved within those circles. So a careful look at how the New Testament canon came about, focusing here on the debate about its most widely contested book, 2 Peter, is vital. Now, many Christians who buy a “study Bible” will often skip over the introductory part of a book to be studied. But in doing so, they miss out out on some of the most hotly discussed issues among scholars today.
The Controversy Over 2 Peter
For example, in the Zondervan NIV Study Bible, the section on “Author” includes this peculiar and provocative statement, “Many scholars deny that Peter wrote this letter.” After surveying a number of scholarly arguments, the NIV Study Bible concludes with, “Since the arguments against Peter’s authorship are not convincing, we conclude that the letter was written by the apostle and that it deserves its long-held place in Scripture.” It makes a lot of Christians, who actually bother to read the introduction, wonder who these “many scholars” are, and why they have such a beef with 2 Peter.
However, doubts about the authenticity of 2 Peter surfaced in the early church and lingered well into the 4th century C.E. The early church historian Eusebius listed 2 Peter as being among one of the books of disputed origin. Furthermore, we have no mention in the available historical record of 2 Peter existing until the early third century, when the early church father Origen wrote about it.
Even well-known conservative evangelical New Testament scholars, such as N.T. Wright and Michael Bird, in their The New Testament and Its World An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians, a hefty yet accessible tome, acknowledge that the vast majority of scholars today do not believe 2 Peter to having been written by Peter, citing the following additional doubts regarding 2 Peter’s authenticity. Most of these concerns have been raised by various scholars, since the 19th century:1
- 2 Peter affirms that Paul’s letters were indeed part of “Scripture”, and that the author castigates those who question Paul’s literary legacy (2 Peter 3:16), a view that many scholars believe did not emerge until the mid-2nd century, which would make Peter’s authorship of the letter impossible (church tradition teaches that Peter died in Rome, during the 60’s C.E.).
- 2 Peter 2 has a good chunk of the Book of Jude in it, which might suggest that 2 Peter was written later than Jude.
- 2 Peter appears to draw on the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration and the Gospel of John’s account of Peter’s martyrdom, yet many scholars believe that both Gospels were written after Peter’s death.
- Peter’s name in 2 Peter is spelled “Symeon” as opposed to the normal “Simon.” The spelling of “Symeon” can only be found otherwise in Acts 15.
- The literary style of Greek found in 2 Peter is an extremely highly polished kind of Greek, that would be unusual for a Palestinian fisherman to use when writing a letter.
- 2 Peter differs a lot from 1 Peter, in terms of style and vocabulary used. Interestingly, 2 Peter uses language associated with sanctification like being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and the Greek word “Tartarus” (2 Peter 2:4) to refer to “hell”, which is the only time this particular Greek word is used in the entire New Testament. Such ideas have been perceived by many scholars to be later theological developments within the Christian tradition, that do not extend back to the first century.
Most disturbingly, Wright and Bird state that “postulating the apostle Peter as the author of this letter feels to us like pushing a big rock up a steep hill; the indications of post-Petrine authorship appear overwhelming” (p.764).
Pushing a Big Rock Up a Steep Hill?
Pushing a big rock up a steep hill? Wow…. That does not sound like a high degree of confidence…. Remember, these are conservative evangelical scholars writing this!
However, in fairness, Wright and Bird would not ascribe 2 Peter to the category of forgery, as there are alternative ways of thinking about the authorship of 2 Peter, that are more amenable to historic Christian orthodoxy (discussed below).
On the other hand, the popularly well-known skeptic of Christianity, and scholarly advocate for the “higher criticism” of the Bible, Bart Ehrman, flatly states that 2 Peter is nothing more than a work of forgery, an attempt to use the established name of Peter to write something that could not possibly be attributed to him. In other words, Bart Ehrman concludes that the early church failed to properly vett 2 Peter, and erred in allowing a work of deception to enter into the New Testament canon.
That is a pretty serious charge.
The most obvious criticism against Peter being the author of 2 Peter is that a Palestinian fisherman, as Peter was, could not have written 2 Peter because Peter was most probably illiterate. Most people living in the Roman Empire, in the days of Jesus, were illiterate, and a poor fisherman like Peter, living in the backwater of the Roman Empire, would likely not have been able to obtain a literary education.
Are the “Scholars” Correct about 2 Peter?
Well, what are we to conclude from this? Does the sheer probability of arguments against Peter’s authorship of 2 Peter completely overcome the mere possibility of Peter still being the author of 2 Peter, and therefore deny 2 Peter as being a legitimate part of the New Testament canon?
Not so fast.
Upon taking a closer look at each objection, an historic, orthodox Christian response to such challenges is still viable and sound. True, there is no “smoking gun” that removes all doubt, but a cumulative case can be made, to substantiate 2 Peter’s place within the canon of the New Testament, just as many evangelical study Bibles suggest. For example, even though Petrine authorship for 2 Peter was disputed in the early church, there were plenty of other early church Christians who believed that 2 Peter was indeed authored by Peter himself.
Furthermore, citing Peter’s illiteracy is not a convincing argument since ancient writers of letters often employed professional scribes, who were trained in letter writing, to compose such ancient documents. Using papyrus for writing letters was available, but it was expensive and required an uncommon level of skill, for that time period and culture. The ease at which I am able to write this digital blog post, on a 21st century computer, would not have been an realistic option for contemporaries of Jesus.
Even the Apostle Paul, whom all scholars recognize as being extremely literate, did not even write most of his own letters. His most important letter, the Book of Romans, specifically tells us that a man named “Tertius” wrote Paul’s letter for him (Romans 16:22). In other words, it is more than likely that if Peter had “written” a letter, he most probably would have made use of a secretary to record it, just as Paul did.
Other objections, such as questions about spelling, style or vocabulary, could be easily explained by Peter’s interaction with a secretary in the creation of that letter. As long as the content found in the letter reflects the thought of Peter, then it would be reasonable to assume that Peter might have given a secretary a fair amount of leeway when it comes to spelling, style, or vocabulary. Even the claim that Peter’s endorsement of Paul’s letter as being “Scripture” could easily be understood as being an early witness to Paul’s apostolic authority, from a source outside of Paul’s known writings.
We also know that the early church took the question of possible forgery seriously, and that the early church rejected even popular writings as being authentic, if there were strong indications that such writings were not written by the person claiming be to their author. For example, the apocryphal Gospel of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter were clearly known to many within the early church, and were read at some corporate Christian gatherings. However, both documents were ultimately rejected as being not being authentically written by Peter, and therefore inappropriate candidates for being part of New Testament Scripture, even though both documents explicitly say that they were written by Peter himself. It would seem very, very strange then that the early church would accept 2 Peter as being authentic, while still rejecting the Gospel of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter, if it was truly believed that all three documents were forgeries.
The Problem of Pseudepigraphy… It is Quite a Mouthful!!
Note also that Wright and Bird above resist the cynical urge to label 2 Peter as a “forgery.” In the scholarly guild, using the name of a famous person attached to a document falls under the category of pseudonymity. However, scholars argue with one another as to what exactly constitutes a pseudepigraphal, or “falsely attributed work.”
The great 16th century Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, and stalwart defender of biblical inerrancy, also had his own reservations about the authorship of 2 Peter. Calvin suggested that there might be a more positive way of thinking about how 2 Peter came to be written:
So then I conclude, that if the Epistle be deemed worthy of credit, it must have proceeded from Peter; not that he himself wrote it, but that some one of his disciples set forth in writing, by his command, those things which the necessity of the times required. For it is probable that he was now in extreme old age, for he says, that he was near his end. And it may have been that at the request of the godly, he allowed this testimony of his mind to be recorded shortly before his death, because it might have somewhat availed, when he was dead, to support the good, and to repress the wicked. Doubtless, as in every part of the Epistle the majesty of the Spirit of Christ appears, to repudiate it is what I dread, though I do not here recognize the language of Peter. But since it is not quite evident as to the author, I shall allow myself the liberty of using the word Peter or Apostle indiscriminately.
Many would consider a John Calvin to be a predecessor to today’s narrow brand of fundamentalist Christianity, but this hardly sounds like a wooden, anti-intellectual assertion.
In other words, it is quite possible that Peter, perhaps being in prison prior to his execution in Rome, was unable to give his full attention to composing a letter, even with the aid of a secretary. However, Peter could have instructed a disciple to compose such a letter, on his behalf, with the stamp of his full authority behind it, thus acknowledging that such a letter could have actually been set forth eventually on papyrus after Peter’s death.
Some scholars would categorize this type of solution to the Petrine authorship difficulty as an example of allonymity, whereby an author’s name can be attached to a particular writing, without the well-known “author” being present, but acknowledging that the content within the letter consists of actual teaching known to have come from that well-known “author.” In other words, a disciple of Peter could have used authentic teaching of the Apostle Peter to compose 2 Peter, even after Peter’s death.
Not every scholar finds such a solution to be convincing. This then raises a hard set of questions, even a worse-case scenario, if you will: What if it turns out that 2 Peter really was not associated with the famous apostle? Was the early church wrong in accepting 2 Peter to be part of the New Testament canon? How is it possible that the earliest Christians would have accepted a type of “forgery” to be collected as part of the New Testament? Has the Bible been deceiving us all along, as many critics of the Bible suggest?
From the perspective of a believing Christian, several things need to be considered when thinking about this most undesirable possible outcome.
- First, it is really impossible to achieve absolute certainty in saying that 2 Peter could not have been written by Peter. We do not possess sufficient evidence to conclusively rule out Petrine authorship for 2 Peter. In fact, we probably will never be able to arrive at definitive proof either way on the matter (but this does not mean that we can not arrive at some level of confidence, regarding the status of 2 Peter, as I will argue below).
- Even if 2 Peter is shown to be not really associated with the authentic Peter, it only reflects poorly on 2 Peter, and not on the New Testament as a whole. Doubts about one book do not necessarily lead to doubts about any other book.
- There is nothing substantial in 2 Peter enough to say that its exclusion from the New Testament would severely undercut any significant doctrinal teaching within New Testament Christianity. Much of the themes found in 2 Peter are repeated elsewhere in the New Testament.
- In his first letter, Peter acknowledges having help from Silas to write that letter (1 Peter 5:12). Though some may also doubt the authenticity of 1 Peter as well, it is still quite possible that the use of a secretary, such as Silas, could explain many of these acknowledged problems.
The biggest stumbling block towards accepting Petrine authorship of 2 Peter is in the area of theological content.
Here is what we have so far: Nothing in 2 Peter contradicts whatever else we know about Peter himself and his teaching, so that is a positive thing. The real issue is being able to reliably date the theological content of Peter’s teaching. Are the ideas expressed in 2 Peter grounded within the lifetime of the apostle, or were they developed later in the history of the church? If the teaching content in 2 Peter is really second century in origin, as many critics suggest, then accepting Petrine authorship is improbable. On the other hand, if we can find a solid component of 2 Peter’s teaching as being located within Peter’s lifetime, then this changes the situation dramatically.
An Easier Way to Push that Big Rock Over That Hill? : Hang Onto Your Hats Folks!!
There is a significant argument, based on a set of evidence, that may shift the balance from being “like pushing a big rock up a steep hill,” over towards a more probable acceptance of 2 Peter as having been written within the lifetime of the great apostle, and therefore, truly from Peter himself. The catch is that the solution requires many Christians to rethink how they think about the “End Times,” in order to adopt a more confident solution in favor of Petrine authorship of 2 Peter. Allow me to explain what this means.
2 Peter 3 deals with one of the most perplexing problems faced in the New Testament, the delay of the Second Coming of Jesus. The letter specifically singles out scoffers who will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (1 Peter 3:4). Evidently, enough of the earliest Christians had died prior to the writing of this letter, and Jesus had not yet returned, thus inviting cynicism among some in the church.
2 Peter assures readers that this delay in what many believe to be Christ’s return is a cause for neither alarm nor cynicism:
“….the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:7-10).
The vast majority of Christians assume that what 2 Peter 3 is talking about here is the final return of Christ to judge the earth, and bring about the resurrection of the dead. Given the passage of time, this would put this return of Christ to judge at roughly 2,000 years into the future, if not longer. But there are some reasons set forward below that suggest that this situation is overly simplistic.
First, the general scholarly critical consensus regarding the history of early Christianity suggests that the earliest Christian witnesses were completely convinced that this final return of Christ would come within the lifetime of those disciples of Jesus who witnessed his crucifixion. For example, Matthew 16:18 has Jesus telling his trusted disciples this, prior to his death: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Albert Schweitzer, Bertrand Russell, and the Supposed Failure of Jesus’ Apocalyptic Vision
Those who follow this line of scholarly thinking, are following the path pioneered by Albert Schweitzer, the influential early 20th century French-German biblical scholar, who in his 1906 landmark study, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, described Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet. In other words, Schweitzer argued that Jesus believed that God would bring about a great catastrophic end to the world, within the lifetime of at least some of his earliest disciples. When the end of the world did not come, this showed Jesus to be a failed apocalyptic prophet.2
Upon arriving at this conclusion, Schweitzer still considered himself to be a Christian, though he eventually gave up his theological career to become a medical missionary in Africa, in an effort live out the ethical life patterned by Jesus. Others sympathetic with Schweitzer’s thought concluded that the failed apocalyptic vision of Jesus was sufficient enough reason to reject theism altogether. The famous 20th century British atheist and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, acknowledged that Jesus’ failure to predict the apocalyptic end of the world accurately was a significant reason as to why Russell himself did not accept Christianity to be true, and thus why he was not a Christian.
But what if both the scholarly expectation of the apocalyptic “end of the world”, as well as the common futurist assumption among many conservative Christians, that Jesus’ return was to expected to be some 2,000 years into the future, are both the wrong way to read a passage like 2 Peter 3?
I am indebted to the following biblical interpretation of New Testament prophecy offered by the late founder and principal teacher associated with Ligonier Ministries, R.C. Sproul, which possibly offers a better way to understand the multi-faceted dimensions of the “coming of the Son of Man,” which can aid the Christian in making a more confident defense in the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter.3
Understanding How “Typology” Works in the Bible
It is well understood that Jewish understandings of Old Testament prophecy, including Jewish Christian approaches, often treated certain Old Testament prophetic expectations as part of a typological pattern of interpreting Scripture. For example, the Apostle Paul himself explicitly described Adam as a “type” of Christ, pointing to the one who was to come in Jesus of Nazareth, in Romans 5:14, giving us a direct example of how this typological approach to reading Scripture worked, among many first century Jews.
Essentially, with a great deal of biblical prophecy, you have “a type” that then points towards “the real thing.” Another well-known example, cited by many Christians during the Advent season that leads up to Christmas, is when the Gospel of Matthew uses a passage from the Book of Hosea to reveal this “type” pointing towards the “real thing,” regarding the first coming of Jesus as Messiah. Hosea 11:1 compares the nation of Israel being brought out of Egypt to be a type of “God’s Son” that then points to the real thing revealed in the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, associated with the baby Jesus returning with his family from Egypt back to Israel, following the death of Herod (Matthew 2:15). To restate this, Israel’s coming out of Egyptian slavery is a type that anticipates the coming of Jesus, as the true Israel, and fulfillment of messianic expectations, as THE Christ.
What makes this so strange for modern readers of the Bible to comprehend is that the prophet Hosea was not using this verse in any particular future-predictive sense. For Hosea, Israel’s coming out of Egyptian slavery was a historical event. Nevertheless, this New Testament typological understanding pointing towards the coming of the Messiah was how the Gospel writer of Matthew was using it, which was a method of reading Scripture perfectly consistent with first-century Jewish ways of thinking.
Some Christians might be disturbed by how Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 actually works in the New Testament. For some, this observation might even become a trigger for doubting one’s faith. But as New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg says, the exact opposite is true. “The existence of typology in biblical prophecy is hardly something to lose one’s faith over! On the contrary, these kinds of providential connections are meant to strengthen our faith, as we see God’s sovereign hand weaving patterns into human history.”
Both a Past Typological AND Future Final Fulfillment of the “Day of the Lord”
Following this line of thinking, it might very well be that “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” and “the day of the Lord” language associated with 2 Peter 3 is really a reference to a type of prophecy fulfillment in the 1st century that points towards the real thing destined to come nearly at least 2,000 years later, sometime in our current day or later.
In support of this interpretation of 2 Peter 3, it can be argued that “the day of the Lord” language in the Old Testament often points to a localized form of God’s judgment, against a particular people group, at a particular point of historical time, as opposed to a great cataclysmic “end of the world” at the end of all time for this present earth. For example, many scholars understand that “the day of the Lord” language refers to a localized judgment of national Israel in Amos 5:18-20, fulfilled as a type of great judgment against Israel by some foreign power, which was first realized by the Assyrian conquest of Israel around 721 BCE, and even more definitively, by the Babylonian exile, a little over a century later.
For those who are still skeptical about the typological nature of “the day of the Lord,” it might be helpful to consider this: the validity of a prophet’s message in Old Testament times was determined if indeed the prophecy given actually became fulfilled. It hardly makes sense for Amos to have been regarded as a true prophet, if the only sense of “the day of the Lord” was confined to predicting the “end of the world” some 2700 years (and counting!) off into the future! Instead, the message of Amos proved to be true, by identifying a pattern of localized judgment that first had a typological fulfillment in Amos’ day, that would be repeated later on into the future, even into our our own day.
Another example comes from Obadiah 1:15, where we read that “For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.” The historical context of Obadiah is concerned about the Edomite severe treatment of the Jews who were fleeing the Babylonians. The “day of the Lord” prophecy here suggests that not only will Judah be judged by God for their disobedience, but that the neighboring nations, Obadiah’s “all the nations“, such as the Edomites, will suffer God’s judgment as well. Many scholars conclude that God raised up the Babylonians as the instrument of his judgment; therefore, the Babylonian conquest of all of these peoples fits within that sense fulfilling this “day of the Lord.”
“The day of the Lord” language is repeated several times throughout the Old Testament, and it is even associated with events surround the first coming of Jesus. For example, the event of Pentecost, following Jesus’ ascension whereby the Holy Spirit comes upon the church gathering in Jerusalem in Acts 2, is spoken of by Peter himself as being a fulfillment of “the day of the Lord” described by the Old Testament prophet in Joel 2:28-32.
Of course, this begs the following question: What might then be “the day of the Lord” associated with 2 Peter 3, if not the final “day of the Lord” that has yet to come, when Jesus will judge, not simply with some localized form of judgment, but rather, with a universal judgment, and thereby bring about the final resurrection from the dead?
The most obvious candidate event, within the lifetime of Jesus’ earliest disciples, would be the conflict between the Romans and the Jews, that culminated with the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, in 70 A.D. While the language of “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved” may not have the same literalist picture associated with popular presentations of “the Rapture” found in movies and books from The Left Behind series, it is worth considering how a metaphorical use of such language, which we find repeatedly used in Old Testament experiences of localized judgment, might be applied to the destruction of Jerusalem.
Being twenty centuries away from the first century, and being so distant from the culture of the Palestinian Judaism in Jesus’, Paul’s, and our friend, Peter’s day, it is really difficult for us to comprehensively appreciate the absolute catastrophe of Jerusalem being destroyed, for both the Jews and early Christians. The idea of the Temple being set on fire, the ultimate symbol of Old Testament Jewish religion, is not the same as “End of the World,” but it probably sure felt like it for Jewish Christians like Peter.
The Jerusalem Temple was THE center for Jewish worship. To lose its physical presence would have been a serious, mind-numbing blow to the Jews. Josephus, the great ancient Jewish historian, tells us that many thousands of Jews perished under the onslaught of the Roman forces, led by Titus. Here is just a sample of what the Roman entrance into the city was like, from Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews: Book 6, Chapter 8:
(404) But when they went in numbers into the lanes of the city, with their swords drawn, they slew those whom they overtook, without mercy, and set fire to the houses wither the Jews were fled, and burnt every soul in them, and laid waste a great many of the rest; (405) and when they were come to the houses to plunder them, they found in them entire families of dead men, and the upper rooms full of dead corpses, that is of such as died by the famine; they then stood in a horror at this sight, and went out without touching anything. (406) But although they had this commiseration for such as were destroyed in that manner, yet had they not the same for those that were still alive, but they ran every one through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many of the houses was quenched with these men’s blood. (407) And truly so it happened, that though the slayers left off at the evening, yet did the fire greatly prevail in the night, and as all was burning, came that eighth day of the month Gorpieus [Elul] upon Jerusalem; (408) a city that had been liable to so many miseries during the siege, that, had it always enjoyed as much happiness from its first foundation, it would certainly have been the envy of the world.
For a Christian like the Apostle Peter, who likely did not live to see this destruction, or much less hear about it, such an event could easily fit into the category of “the day of the Lord.” as prophesied by Jesus himself in Matthew 24. In fact, Matthew 24 has an explicit reference to the destruction of the Temple, so it is contextually impossible to push off all of Jesus’ prophecy regarding “the day of the Lord” off to some 2,000 years in the future.
For Peter, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple would have been a typological fulfillment of God’s judgment against the Jews, for not fully embracing the Christian message of the Gospel. In other words, while this was not “the end of the world,” it was “the end of the old covenant.” Without a Temple, the sacrifices associated with the Temple would be no more. But with Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice, who died once and for all, the Temple sacrifices would be no longer necessary. Like other Jewish Christians, Peter could have envisioned a catastrophic event like this, a bold, localized judgment against the Jews, as being “a type” that points towards “the real thing,” the final judgment, the final “day of the Lord,” whereby Jesus would ultimately return to judge the whole world.
How This Interpretation Helps Us to More Confidently Accept 2 Peter as Being Written By Peter
So, how does all of this relate to the topic at hand, regarding the authorship of 2 Peter? The scholars who believe that 2 Peter was not written until the late 1st century, or even into the second century, base their conclusions on the assumption that Peter was speaking of the final coming of Jesus in 2 Peter 3, that obviously had not yet happened.4
However, if 2 Peter 3 instead is about the coming typological fulfillment of “the day of the Lord,” that had yet to happen, then 2 Peter as a whole could not have been written after the year 70 A.D., when the destruction of Jerusalem occurred. Furthermore, if Peter was martyred in Rome, under the persecution of Nero, in the 60’s A.D., then having a letter authored by Peter, prior to his death, or perhaps completed by a disciple shortly after his death makes perfect sense.
Assuming that this interpretation of 2 Peter holds, defending the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter becomes less a matter of “pushing a big rock up a steep hill” and more of a confident stroll down a hill in affirming that the early church did indeed get it right when it came to accepting 2 Peter into the canon of New Testament Scripture.
If there is a “big rock” to try to move upwards to deal with, it is more along the lines of convincing Christians that this particular interpretation of 2 Peter 3 is the more correct way of viewing the text. This particular interpretation is associated with the “partial preterist” or “orthodox preterist” school of eschatological thought. The word “preterist” is derived from the meaning of “past,” that is, suggesting that many (but not all!!) of the “End Times” prophecies described in the New Testament were indeed fulfilled in the first century, through the Roman conflict with the Jews, culminating in Jerusalem’s horrible destruction.
In contrast, for good or for worse, many Christians adopt more futuristic views of Biblical prophecy, that tend to push the vast bulk of references to “the day of the Lord,” etc., off into the distant future, thus making it more difficult to defend a robust understanding of Scripture, in the eyes of well-informed skeptics and critics of the Christian faith. In other words, most Christians today believe that 2 Peter 3 is indeed talking about “the end of the world,” and not just “the end of the old covenant.”
My conclusion is along the lines of that famous adage, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” We have very good evidence pointing towards a partial preterist view of the Scriptural text, already in our hands. Why would you reject that in favor of speculating on futurist interpretations of prophecy, that remain highly elusive, that easily get shot at by skeptics of the Bible?
The history of the Christian movement, extending even back into the earliest years, has often been riddled with a multiplicity of viewpoints about “the End Times,” that have continued to cause confusion and conflict among believers. We do not necessarily need to settle on a dogmatic conclusion here regarding the topic of “the End Times.” But the advantage of the church adopting a partial preterist view of 2 Peter 3 is that it can bolster the confidence of believers, when faced with the challenges presented by critical scholars, who might otherwise conclude that 2 Peter was a forgery.
While this blog post is far from settling the matter, it at least gives open-minded thinkers something to consider when thinking about such thorny issues as 2 Peter’s placement in the canon of Scripture.
For a more comprehensive look at how the New Testament canon was formed, you might the following 18-minute teaching from Michael Licona to be helpful:
1. I have not fully read Wright and Bird’s The New Testament and Its World An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians, but I became aware of the section in the book discussing the authorship of 2 Peter from Paul Williams, a blogger at BloggingTheology.com. Contemporary criticism against Petrine authorship of 2 Peter come not only from secular critics, but also from other directions. Paul Williams describes himself not as a Christian, but still as a theist. I have not read his blog thoroughly enough, but my sense is that Paul has either converted from Christianity to Islam, or he is deeply considering doing so. Many of his followers describe Paul as an apologist for Islam. Paul includes screenshots from Wright and Bird’s book in his blog post. I would direct the Veracity reader to read the comments by Samuel Green, in Paul Williams’ post. Paul Williams first caught my eye with his YouTube video, Lies in the Name of God: Biblical Forgeries. For an excellent treatment summarizing the story of how 2 Peter finally became accepted as canonical Scripture, even with the additional scrutiny it received, Darian Lockett has a helpful article about the story at the Text & Canon Institute. Similar arguments against the authenticity of certain letters written by the Apostle Paul, such as 2 Thessalonians, have been made as well. The counter-argument being made in this blog post is also applicable to certain so-called “disputed” letters of Paul. ↩
2. The work of Albert Schweitzer regarding the so-called “Quest for the Historical Jesus” has dominated scholarship for well over 100 years, though obviously many conservative evangelical scholars do not draw the same conclusion that Schweitzer did, along with his contemporary followers in academia, even to this day. Schweitzer’s book was assigned reading in my sophomore “Jesus of Nazareth” class in college, which more that adequately summarizes the best research in “historical Jesus” studies, during the 19th century. If you are unfamiliar with this academic approach to the eschatology of Jesus, you might want consider the work of Tim O’Neill, at HistoryForAtheists. O’Neill is an atheist, but he came on my radar as he offers and excellent critique of so-called “Jesus Mythicism,” that suggests that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. O’Neill did an interview on the MythVision YouTube podcast on the apocalyptic vision of Jesus, in sync with Schweitzer’s views, and O’Neill has a long article on his website explaining this development in the work of critical scholarship. ↩
3. The late R.C. Sproul, and founder of Ligonier Ministries, has an excellent teaching series explaining this view of Christian eschatology, or the New Testament teaching on “the End Times.” I reviewed this teaching series a few years ago on Veracity. A newer “take” on partial preterism (otherwise known as orthodox preterism) is found in the popular writings of filmmaker Brian Godawa. I reviewed Godawa’s book End Times Bible Prophecy: It’s Not What They Told You., a few years ago on Veracity. For an in-depth, verse-by-verse exposition of 2 Peter 3, that explores this interpretation in detail, you might want to view this YouTube interview with Brian Godawa. ↩
4. A persistent problem in New Testament scholarship is the assumption that with the exception of the “undisputed” letters of Paul, the bulk of the New Testament had to have been written AFTER the 70 C.E. destruction of the Temple. But as John A. T. Robinson shows in The Redating of the New Testament, the only reason why the majority of scholars arrive at that conclusion is because of a prejudice, and not because of firm evidence. What makes John A. T. Robinson’s thesis most irritating to the rest of the scholarly guild is that Robinson was one of best New Testament scholars during the 20th century era, and quite a liberal, theological modernist, to boot. You could not accuse Robinson of being a “stick-your-head-in-the-sand” knee-jerk fundamentalist! ↩