We are studying 2 Peter 1:1-15 for Sunday, November 24: the opening greeting and words from Peter (or, the Author) to the unspecified churches who would have received this “general” letter. [Study questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book is titled 2 Peter, so we might think the text is written by the same Peter who wrote 1 Peter, the apostle who appears in the gospels as one of “the twelve.” But we have some good reasons to doubt this: (1) the text must have been written after some other benchmark texts (after the book of Jude; after at least some of the letters of Paul are being treated as “Scripture”), so probably not any earlier than 100 CE, more likely around 130 CE; this makes 2 Peter one of the latest books of the New Testament. (2) 2 Peter is way different in style from 1 Peter, which might really have been written by Peter, or at least by someone taking direction from him; in particular, it doesn’t quote nearly as much Hebrew Scripture (which is a striking feature of 1 Peter).
This matters for us because of the date issue. The late date, which probably forces us to think the Author is someone other than “that Peter,” also means we need to understand the text in light of its context in the early 2nd century. It addresses the church-ly concerns of its day, which are different from the concerns of the earliest Christians. Here’s Raymond Brown on that:
If in the 2d century the Jewish Christians of the *Pseudo-Clementine* literature were exalting James over against Paul who did harm, and if Marcion was exalting Paul as the only apostle and rejecting the Jewish heritage, the Simeon Peter who gives instructions in II Peter is a bridge figure seeking to hold together the various heritages. In that sense this is a very ‘Catholic Epistle.’” (761-2)
[I say: Way to go, Author of 2 Peter!]
In fact, the circumstance of the church still “being here” in the first decades of the 2nd century is itself one of these church-ly concerns: Why ARE we still here, and not somewhere else, like heaven? What should Christians do now, in a “meantime” that looks like it will be longer than previously expected? Both of these questions are on 2 Peter’s agenda. One way to read the text [following the editors of the Access study Bible] is as a direct response to false accusations about the Lord’s return. That would make our portion of the text the lead-in and set-up to that response.
The text opens like an ancient letter, with “from” and “to” and “grace and peace to you” statements; most commentators refer to it as a letter. Brown, however, points out that “the opening formula … is II Peter’s only substantial gesture toward a letter format” (762). In substance, it is more like a sermon. It also functions as a “farewell address” or “last will and testament,” in light of the announcement of the Author’s imminent death, which occurs in our part of the text (2 Peter 1:13-14).
This opening text is another one of the things we’d never know about the Bible if all we know is the lectionary. I think we would be missing out.
CLOSER READING: The text begins with the name Simeon Peter, a rare form, and a “Semitic” one that highlights the figure’s Jewish roots. A servant or slave may not be a nobody: it depends who you serve. This Author serves Jesus Christ. The addressees have received, literally, an equally precious faith, using a word that reminds us of iso-bars and iso-sceles triangles and other words with the Greek prefix “iso-” or “equal.”
[I think this means: there’s one and only one faith; there are no bronze, silver and gold levels of faith; the Author’s or the apostles’ faith is not some better one than the faith these Christians have.]
All the “yous” in the text are you-alls. Nevertheless, although this instruction is being given to a community, much of it would seem to apply to individuals. Or perhaps that’s my WEIRD (western educated individualist rational democratic) reflex kicking in, I don’t know.
We might want to notice that v1 refers to “our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Here this sounds like a reference to one divinity, not two, which is interesting because it means the Author is explicitly identifying Jesus with God. But then in the next verse, the Author seems to distinguish the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as the knowledge of distinct characters. [Contemporary Trinitarian Christians do that kind of thing, too, we might add.]
Starting with v2, knowledge, specifically the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord puts in a repeated appearance. This is the gnosis kind of knowledge, which can be more personal, immediate, and experiential than the episteme kind, which is more logical and deductive, and which carries a different sense from the oida kind, which is more like seeing or being aware of something. That kind of knowledge shows up in v12, by the way. On the other hand, gnosis is a common word, and I have seen it described as “factual knowledge,” too. In any case, this knowledge plays a huge role in this text, showing up in vv2, 3, 5, 6, 8. Faith and growth are associated with knowledge.
The divine power that gives the readers everything necessary for life and piety/godliness and enables the readers [us?] to become “participants” or “partakers” in the divine nature is given to people through knowledge. Here in v3, this is specifically knowledge of a person, of “him who called us”.
“The corruption [literally, decay] that is in the world because of desire” will remind us of last week because of the “decay” word. The Author pointedly contrasts a way of life that comes through knowledge of Jesus Christ, and a way of death (decay) that is associated with the desires of, or for, the world – by implication, the world that does not know Christ, that desires … only things that will only die and decay. The readers are escaping this realm of death and decay for a realm of life.
[Warning: if we let this vision of the world sink in, we’ll be overcome with a sense that many of the people around us are in miserable mortal danger, and will long to do something about that.]
“For this very reason”, that is, because the way of escape comes through the personal knowledge of Jesus Christ our Lord which is faith and which conveys divine power, the readers must “make every effort”, literally something like “having brought in alongside all earnestness or diligence”, to set out to assemble the things on the list in verses 5-7.
The word translated “support” in v5, and “provided” in v11, are forms of the Greek verb epichorēgeō. That word has a specific cultural history. In classical Greece – in the days of the Athenian democracy, well before the 2nd century CE – the role of the “choregos” was essential to the performances of Greek drama, which were in effect religious performances. The task of the choregos was to outfit the chorus, and in essence to produce the dramatic work. The choregos commissioned the sets, costumes, and masks, hired the director and musicians, hosted the cast party if the team won the competition, etc. etc. The choregos had to be rich enough to pull this off, and a good choregos would go all out, would spare no expense and would aim to provide the best of everything. This ancient practice seems relevant to our understanding of verses 5-11, even though my guess is that the role of the choregos had to have changed between the 4th or 3rd century BCE world of “ancient Greece” and the early 2nd century CE of 2 Peter, so I wonder how, precisely, that word would have struck our Author’s first readers.
[A little more on the ancient choregos: A brief entry on the role of the choregos at “Theatre of Ancient Greece”; an discussion at Oxford Reference that includes financial estimates. Production practices in the Roman Empire had to have been different, but I haven’t found a source that deals with that – to be honest, though, I haven’t looked.]
The list in verses 5-7 of what these Christians [again – us?] need to be laying in is impressive. The word translated “goodness” in v5 is aretē, which will make all the Hellenophiles swoon because it is the central Greek value of “excellence” or “virtue” that is embodied in those perfect classical statues of athletes. Knowledge again. “Self-control” we probably think of as what we have when we don’t eat that 2nd cupcake, but for the Greeks, again, it would have been a more comprehensive character trait; “self-mastery” would characterize a person’s whole way of being in the world. “Endurance”, is more than just not quitting, it incorporates elements of cheerfulness or good humor, of steadfastness, of going the distance with grace.
“Godliness” we might want to think of as being appropriately oriented towards God at all times. [There is a piece of a hadith in which the Angel Gabriel asks Muhammad “what is beautiful?” and Muhammad answers “Beautiful is to do everything as if you see God, because God surely sees you.” Although it’s anachronistic, that attitude is, I think, what’s wrapped up in eusebeia, “godliness” or “piety,” here.]
And then love: “mutual affection” or “brotherly love,” and then the agapē kind of unconditional love.
And then in v8 we have knowledge again, in which we do not want to be “ineffective” [literally, idle, useless] and “unfruitful.” That is, this knowledge of Jesus Christ is supposed to be … alive, growing, doing things, mattering.
V9 introduces the notion of “forgetfulness”, which will be contrasted with remembering in verses 12-15. Truth itself, in v12, is the opposite of forgetting or being oblivious, and here it is “present” and the readers are already turned in its direction or standing firm in it. The word presence associated with this truth is one we sometimes associate with the “second coming” (the word parousia); here, especially considering what is coming up in chapter 3, it suggests that even in the absence of that “coming” these Christians already enjoy a real presence that is life-giving and effective.
What NRSV translates in v13 as “body” and in v14 as “death” (instead of the Author’s “putting off of this tabernacle”) is the Greek word for “tabernacle”, which probably ought to remind us of the Israelites in the wilderness, and the role played by the tabernacle in that story.
V11 refers to “entry into the eternal kingdom,” which will be contrasted with the Author’s imminent “departure” in v15.
All in all, this passage makes a strong rhetorical impression: there are two ways, a way of life and a way of death. Don’t forget which is which. Which you won’t, as long as you know and keep knowing and work at knowing ever better the Lord of Life and Savior Jesus Christ.
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. Doubleday, 1997.