Monday, January 02, 2006

The Authorship of the Epistles of Peter

In my recent introductory New Testament class, my professor had students grapple with issues of NT authorship. I was tangentally aware that these debates, but had not addressed them in any sort of depth.

It could prove frustrating. There seems to be a school of thought which says, "This epistle claims to be written by Paul, fits easily into known Pauline theology, and was recognized by the early church as authentically Pauline, therefore it could not have been written by Paul." Even by the standards of secular scholarship many of the doubts of NT authorship seemed flaky.

Many call into question the ability of semi-literate Galilean fishermen to compose elegant Greek prose. From a secular point of view, this is a reasonable concern. From a Christian point of view, it is not, since it doubts the ability of the Holy Spirit to work beyond the intellectual confines of the man with the quill in his hand.

Today, in my daily reading, I encountered a verse which would support my understanding of the Holy Spirit in this process of Biblical composition. Early in Acts, Peter heals a lame man, for which he and John are hauled before a Temple court to answer for the crime. Peter gives an eloquent defense of their actions, to which the priests are surprised:

Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.

UPDATE: In the comments, Greg Hazelrig brings up a common argument for the legitimacy of pseudonymous NT works:

I was taught that (and this was in a Gospel of John class) sometimes the disciples of an apostle would write in that apostle's name as a tribute to the apostle. So in other words, it was not seen to be fraudulent, but instead in honor of the apostle.

If this was a common practice, then we would have pagan works from the same period that reflected it: a work written by the spiritual successors to a revered but dead leader to an audience that knew that it was not written by the ascribed leader, but still accepted as legitimate scripture.

To my knowledge, there are no such works. When I asked my NT professor, who advanced the argument, if he could name one, he could not. Unless scholars can find such pagan works, this argument is groundless speculation.


Greg Hazelrig said...

There's no doubt that Peter was changed after Pentecost.

Michael said...


After a similar class in Course of Study, I was forced to ask the instructor that if he was absolutely certain that there was "no way" Matthew could have written the Gospel according to Matthew, how could he tell me who did actually write it? His only response: we only know who DIDN'T write it.

More importantly, as we question the authorship, we also question the ultimate perspective that is being offered. If Paul did not actually write the pastoral epistles, for instance, but someone instead who was pretending to be Paul or writing in his behalf for lack of any of his own credibility, then the whole writing itself becomes questionable as having been written and perhaps presented by deception.

All I got out of the class was a headache (although I did get an "A"!).

Jeff the Baptist said...

I agree. I also think the rhetorical differences between Peter's epistles (Petrine works?) point to a different instructional upbringing.

Paul tends to have a very structured topical presentation in his epistles. It's all very logical and very Greek, which makes sense coming from an educated Grecian Jew from Tarsus.

On the other hand Peter and John's epistles tend to go round and round and end up where they started. This is a more untrained rhetorical form.

It is my understanding that Peter may have used scribes to help out his greek and supply translation. Some people think that the Gospel of Mark is essentially Mark writing down what Peter preached or passed on to him.

Keith Taylor said...


All I can say to you is God bless you and anyone else who is training to be a pastor in a formal seminary. I can only pray for you and all in this process that the Holy Spirit and Christ, himself, will trump the majority of the mindless crap that is spewed from the many of the instructors y'all will encounter.

I have often heard from pastors that I well respect and admire that half the seminaries in the country are populated by some of the most atheistic professors teaching theological issues you will ever hear or learn from. I hope that is not the case.

I can hardly wait to hear what they teach you when you cover the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

rev-ed said...

One of the reasonings I have always heard is that Peter's writing style is much less polished than Paul's and it is evident in 1 & 2 Peter. Now, I'm no Greek scholar (I don't even play one on TV) so I can't vouch for this, but it's interesting that I've heard it brought up from this perspective on numerous occasions.

healing man said...

From the different gospel they have a different way how they write it in the life of jesus. From the birth to the died of christ and resurrection of christ.

DannyG said...

The use of a scribe, or multiple scribes should come as no supprise. I am working on putting my father's history of our family onto the computer. It is very hard for me to not adjust the language and prose style. I have had a hard time limiting my editing to punctuation, spelling, and the occasional obvious typo. And this is all in english. Never mind having to go thru one or more languages. (especially if notes were taken in dictation then translated into the final language... it would be hard for a scribe not to "polish" the effort a bit...same thought(s) just said a bit better in the language they are going into.)

Keith Taylor said...

Is it not true that Paul pretty much states in the letter to the Galatians Chapter 6:11 that he uses a scribe. He writes "(Gal. Ch 6:11) Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand. "

This pretty much tell us that Paul uses a scribe and in this letter to Galatians, he takes the stylus or quill from his scribe and finishes the letter in his own personal handwritting. Thus his comment.

M Lewis said...

I accept both 1st and 2d Peter as members of the canon of scripture. Discussions about authorship - while interesting - don't really matter in the end. It's impossible to know whether Peter penned these documents himself, dictated them, loosely supervised their writing, authorized someone to write in his name, or knew nothing about them because he was dead when they were written. Conjecture about where or when or under what circumstances the epistles were written is purely that - conjecture. It appears to me that 1st and 2d Peter are from different authors, but who knows.

Petrine authorship is not a faith-issue for me, but the authority of the text is. Given our lack of knowledge about authorship, it's best not to pin our interpretation of the epistles on events in Peter's life or on thoughts about his personality. Rather, each epistle should be allowed to speak its own message. Each epistle's internal scheme of rhetoric -understood in the general context of the life of the early church - is the key to interpretation.

John said...

I do consider the authorship of these documents to be a faith issue. From what I have read and explored, it was common in the 1st Century AD to write documents in the name of a revered spiritual leader, but that this practice, while common, was considered fraudulent.

If a document says, "I, Paul, write this with my own hand. This is how I sign my name" and the original statement was not written by Paul himself, the no amount of rhetorical gymnastics will delay the unavoidable conclusion: that the early church was hoodwinked by charlatans into accepting a forgery into the canon of the NT.

Fortunately, from what I have examined, the attacks upon NT authorship appear to be deliberate, calculated, and silly. The scholars first determine the conclusion that the NT is fake and then go seek out proof to support the claim.

I was a history major as an undergrad, and I read hundreds Roman and Medieval documents, many in the original Latin. Never did I find such strenous efforts by ancient and medieval scholars to force a conclusion of fraudulent authorship. Never did I read anyone who said, "This document claims to be written by Cicero, resembles Ciceronian thought, and is traditionally been attributed to Cicero, therefore it could not have possibly been written by Cicero." Only in the field of Biblical studies have I witnessed such a passion among scholars to find doubts about document authenticity.

Keith -- thank you for your concerns. I am glad that I am going to Asbury, where my faith is not under incessant attack from all corners. In Dr. Jenney's defense, I think that he was trying to compel his students to argue effectively on behalf of their truth of the Bible. Dr. Jenney is typical of Asbury professors: he has a authentic faith accompanied by strong scholarship.

Elizabeth said...

I was taught in seminary and undergrad that it is possible and even likely in some cases that some epistles were written by other authors, based on language studies, probable timelines, content, etc. I was also taught that the practice of writing this way was common, to show you were "in the school of" so and so. It never really bothered me. I'm not sure what difference it makes to my faith who wrote it. I was never given the impression by faculty that authors who wrote under another name were trying to be deceitful, or that others would not necessarily know that they were not written by paul himself. If the scriptures are God's word, then who wrote them shouldn't be a big issue that makes us doubtful of what we're reading. But if we are dealing with more than one author, it can help us to understand more about paul, more about peter, etc., who they were and what they believed. To me, that's very interesting stuff. Just wanted to get some crazy liberal thoughts in here ;)

M Lewis said...

John, I have no interest in disproving the Petrine (or Pauline) authorship of any document, but I don't hang my acceptance of the document as the word of God on the issue of authorship either. If God wanted to communicate with his church through a pseudonymous work, who am I to tell him that he can't do that? I guess I would only think that the church got "hoodwinked" if Peter's or Paul's epistles were not in fact the word of God.

An earlier generation of scholars overestimated its ability to discern the pre-history of the texts. The contemporary Jesus Seminar movement is equally flawed, along with most scholarly approaches that involve a hyphen and the suffix "".

You are also correct that the study of Plato, for example, does not involve the same degree of critical conjecture found in contemporary Biblical studies.

That said, I've found the tools of modern scholarship have given me an even deeper appreciation of the sciptures as the objective self-revelation of God.

Paul Maier is a classical historian, for example, who looks at the gospels and comes away with a very uncritical understanding of Jesus' birth and death (In the Fullness of Time). I find Maier's work much less interesting, however, than, say, that of Raymond Brown. It's not that I think Brown is always right, but that Brown has engaged the text on a more significant level.

I''ll take conservative scholarship from Leon Morris or John Stott over that of J.D. Crossan, Robert Funk or Elaine Pagels any day. On the other hand, scholars like N.T. Wright, I. Howard Marshall and our own Ben Witherington have found a way, I think, to represent God's word faithfully without reverting to a pre-critical undestanding of the scriptures. I think they have something valuable to say to the church.

Perhaps we will agree to disagree.

Respectfully ...

Greg Hazelrig said...

I was taught that (and this was in a Gospel of John class) sometimes the disciples of an apostle would write in that apostle's name as a tribute to the apostle. So in other words, it was not seen to be fraudulent, but instead in honor of the apostle.

This came up in our discussion on who wrote the Gospel of John. One of the theories was that it was one of John's disciples who wrote down what John had taught (maybe during his time and maybe after his death - dunno). As I said, that is a theory. But the important thing is that if this idea is true, then it doesn't matter to me if it were John or his disciple who did the writing. Just as I am not concerned that Jesus never wrote a gospel. The fact still remains that it is the Word and Truth of God cannonized by the Early Church under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Greg Hazelrig said...

I'll accept your argument about it not being done with pagan works. Actually, I am no scholar on authorship and figure that what I was taught came from some book.

And I still stand by my first post that Peter was changed after Pentecost, which may have included him being given the gift of writing. If he could speak in other languages and heal people, surely it's possible that he could write well.

But the fact remains that no matter if the argument about others writing in the name of Apostles is legitimate or not. The true issue is legitimacy of the cannonized Bible that has stood the test of time. I believe that it is God's Truth no matter who wrote it. I believe that the writings not included like the Gospel of Thomas have extreme enough flaws that God made sure they did not.

Just my opinion of course.