An American Commentary on the New Testament

Edited by Hovey, Alvah

Introduction to the First Epistle of Peter


Peter, whose original name was Simon (see on 2 Pet. 1:1), though a native of Bethsaida, became a resident of Capernaum. His father bore the name of Jonas, or, according to some Greek manuscripts, John. See John 21:15, 16, 17, where, in the thrice-repeated question, the Revisers have, in accordance with the Greek of Westcott and Hort, Simon, son of John. In Matt. 16:17 are the names Simon Bar-jona (Bar-Jonah, "in the Revision). Some would translate the Greek, Simon son of Jonah. Others take Bar-Jonah as a patronymic, like Bar Abbas, and Bar Timaeus. According to Dr. Schaff, Bar-Jona is a contraction for Bar-Joanna (Chaldaic) — i. e., son of John. As to the name Peter, see on the first verse of the First Epistle. Our apostle had a brother who was called Andrew, and that he married is clear from Matt. 8:14, where it is said that his wife's mother was sick. His wife must have been then living; for in 1 Cor. 9:5 Paul makes distinct allusion to her as traveling with Peter. This was as late as A. D. 57, long after the sickness reported by Matthew.

Peter, in company with his father and brother, followed the business of fishing. He was not rich, yet he seems not to have been poor. He was not versed in Greek learning, nor in the learning of Rabbinic schools; yet there is no reason to doubt that he had a respectable share of such knowledge as prevailed among the people. Illiteracy, as known in the United States, in this year of grace, 1888, was not known in Palestine in the times of Christ and the apostles. In Acts he is indeed spoken of — and John not less — as unlearned and ignorant, "illiterate and obscure." This is what the rulers and elders and scribes " perceived." These having been educated in Rabbinic schools, were so far superior to Peter; but unlearned must not be so explained as to imply that the apostle had enjoyed none of the common opportunities of education. His social position, unlike, for example, that of Nicodemus, or that of Joseph of Arimathaea, was not among the aristocracy of Palestine; he was a plebeian. Amid the perils and toils of his daily life, he inclined to the service of God; for no sooner had John the Baptist made his public appearance, than Peter became interested in his mission, and this prepared him to take a step forward. He became a disciple of him of whom John was but the forerunner. One of the Twelve, he was One of the Three; for with James and John he shared the special confidence of Christ, and received special instruction. The "close companionship" of men so unlike as John and Peter in natural qualities is worthy of notice. See Mark 9:2; Luke 22:8; John 18:15; 20:2-8; Acts 3:1; 4:13. Each of the apostles had a distinctive temperament, and a distinctive cast of mind; but not one of them stands out in the Gospels with such clearness of outline, and such fullness of detail as does Peter; and, till Paul appears in Acts, no one even in that book is so prominent. It is impossible to mistake him for any other. But his prominence is not that of rank, or of office, but that of spiritual activity. Though he introduced the first Gentile into the Christian Church, and may have been the means of introducing others, yet, acting with Paul upon the principle of a division of labor, he wrought, chiefly, for the spiritual good of Jews.

Of the latter part of Peter's life little is known. He disappears from the history in Acts after the Council in Jerusalem (15:7-11) A. D. 50 or 51. Thus, if we reckon from Pentecost, A. D. 33, he is kept before us seventeen years. Paul appears A. D. 36, fourteen or fifteen years before the disappearance of Peter, and remains before us till A. D. 63 or 64, the historian abruptly closing with the report of his activity in preaching while a prisoner in Rome. While, then, it is approximately correct that the former half of Acts is chiefly a record of Peter's labors, and the latter half a record of Paul's, it is an interesting fact that the two apostles, as is clear in the history itself, came into intimate Christian relations, and, contrary to what some have affirmed, lovingly wrought for the same spiritual end. Though Peter is seen no more in Acts after the Council, yet we catch glimpses of him in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, and in his First Epistle to the Corinthians; and though, as Farrar says, " From his own epistles we learn almost nothing about his biography," we do learn much of his innermost spirit. Tradition makes him to have gone very early to Rome, and to have founded the Roman Church; but, if well sifted, the tradition is found to be chaff". That he went to Rome near the close of life, after the Roman Church was founded, and after the death of Paul, is strongly attested. He suffered martyrdom, and probably about A. D. 67.

The natural and spiritual characteristics of Peter are not less worthy of study than Paul's. His temperament, though not like Paul's, the best, was such as to make him capable of great activity and endurance. It was not the best, for it was such as to expose him to sudden and needless, sometimes very sinful, flashes of feeling; and these reported themselves in explosives of startling force. He was not given to logical thinking, and was therefore not accustomed to draw conclusions. A blow hastily originated, and as hastily aimed, was his common way; yet in most cases he meant well. His Divine Master was sincerely and warmly loved; but failure to see the higher nature of his Master's mission caused him to speak sometimes in words which were more unseemly than the spirit which lay behind them. Of one terrible exception no one needs to be reminded. What may charitably be considered as only faults growing out of his temperament, culminated at last in —

..." the deep disgrace
Of weakness."

As Longfellow continues —

"We shall he sifted till the strength
Of self-conceit he changed at length
        To meekness."

The flashy nature of the apostle became a miracle of continuous energy and boldness, clothed, as shown in his First Epistle, in tenderness and persuasiveness scarcely inferior to John's. After the ascension, one instance of inconsistency with his own principles, and only one, occurred; and, what must be considered as a striking interposition on behalf of the new faith, that did not occur till God had brought into the church one who was quick to see, and bold to resist Peter's vacillation. See Gal. 2:11-14. In view of our apostle's natural characteristics, it must be said that his spiritual life became such, under the teachings of Christ, followed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, as to afford scarcely less proof of his supernatural endowment than is given of Paul's by Paul's conversion and life.

This sketch of Peter's life would be incomplete without allusion to the apostle's influence in the writing of the Gospel of Mark. The belief that he had something to do in the preparation of that gospel is well founded; but precisely what he did is uncertain, and probably can never be determined. See a discussion of the question in Dr. W. N. Clarke's Commentary on Mark, belonging to the present series— Introduction, "The relation of Peter to this Gospel," pp. 10-12. What proportion of the remarkable vivacity of the gospel is due to Mark, and what proportion to Peter, it would be equally impossible to decide. Little, however, is hazarded in saying that the gospel, compared with the two epistles, and viewed in the light of Peter's characteristics, bears in a marked degree the imprint of Peter's mind.


This is given in 5:12. It was both hortatory and confirmatory. If persecution by the civil power had not yet fallen upon the Churches of Asia Minor, yet there was reason to believe that the danger was not far off; and it is clear that the Christians of that region were suffering from the tongues of those among whom they lived. They needed patience to bear the revilings of the wicked, and faith to meet the coming storm of governmental power. They also needed new assurance that the religion of Christ was divine. The exhortations are enforced by the fact that they had been called by the grace of God, by the fact of the sufferings of Christ, by the nearness of Christ's coming, and by the glory which awaits them in heaven.


The plan is not obvious, and therefore is not easily given. The thought advances, but not so consecutively as in some of Paul's epistles. This is less surprising, as doctrinal teaching, which requires argument, and therefore more orderly and condensed thinking, was not a part of the apostle's design. The introduction may be considered as embraced in the first twelve verses, and the conclusion in the last five. Between these parts occur three series of exhortations: the first, pertaining to their own individual life (1:13-2:10); the second, to their relations to others — servants in their relations to masters, wives in their relations to husbands, husbands in their relations to wives, and all in their relations to people of the world (2:11-4:6); the third, to their own individual life again (4:7-5:9). In the last is a commingling of the consolatory. In concluding, the apostle expresses the divine purpose in the form of a promise (see upon 5:10), gives utterance to a doxology, expresses the object of writing the Epistle, sends greetings, and pronounces the customary benediction.


These are not in accordance with the characteristics of Paul or of John. Peter's traits of character and peculiarities of mind are everywhere visible. It is not impossible that such an epistle could have been written by Peter, even if Peter's experience during the Lord's ministry had been different; but it is certain that the Epistle is colored by his experience as it actually was. Illustrations of this will be cited in the Notes.1 Yet it is a striking proof of his present greater breadth of religious views and stronger faith in the unseen and eternal. It is characterized by little less originality than the epistles of Paul. Some of the thoughts are found in no other part of the Scriptures, and some are as "hard to be understood" (2 Pet. 3:16) as anything in the writings of that profoundest of all the inspired writers. While distinctly evangelical, and so far in union with the teachings of Christ and Paul, it is permeated, like the Gospel of Matthew, with the spirit of the Old Testament, as seen in its very numerous quotations. In no respect does it teach views opposed to those taught by Paul While there were some in that early age of Christianity who said "I am of Paul," and some who said "I am of Peter," neither the one apostle nor the other allowed himself to be the head of a party. The doctrines which Paul taught directly and fully Peter taught indirectly and in part. The exhortations of the Epistle imply all the great doctrines of the Christian faith. The Epistle contains not a trace of assumption of rank over the other apostles. It is simply the Epistle of Peter an apostle, and he seems almost to foretell the bold assumption of the papal power; for, in addressing the elders, he calls himself a co-elder. See on 5:1. Too much has been made of the admitted similarity existing between some parts of this Epistle and some parts of the Epistle to the Romans, and of that to the Ephesians. Similarities between our Epistle and that of James have also been noticed. The early Christians, not excepting the apostles themselves, would as naturally fall into similar forms of language in expressing the more common thoughts as Christians of our own times. There is nothing improbable, however, in the supposition that Peter had become so familiar with some of Paul's forms of expression as either purposely or unconsciously to use them. Such imitations, conscious or unconscious, may be seen by com- paring Mic. 4:1-3 with Isa. 2:2-4, and Ezek. 31:14-18; 32:18-32 with Isa. 14:9-19. See the article "Isaiah," in Smith's "Dictionary of the Bible," pp. 1151, 1164. Isaiah and Micah were contemporaneous, and may have heard each other.


That Peter was the author is undoubted. Many of the writers who followed the apostles, as Polycarp, a disciple of John; Papias, who wrote about A. D. 140-150; the Shepherd of Hermas, second century; the Peshito Version, before A. D. 150; the Old Latin Version, before A. D. 170; Basilides, a heretic of the earlier part of the second century; the churches in Vienne and Lyons in a letter written about A. D. 177; Tertullian, born in the latter half of the second century; Origen, A. D. 186-253; and Eusebius, A. D. 270-340 — all awaken the belief, and some give positive proof by quotations, that they were acquainted with the Epistle, and knew it to be the work of Peter.


The persons to whom the Epistle was sent are believed by some to have been Gentile Christians, but it contains strong evidence that they were chiefly Jewish Christians. That some were Gentiles is not improbable. The time, as judged by many, was A. D. 66. It might have been a little earlier. The place in which it was written was Babylon in Chaldea.



1) Horĉ Pelrinĉ, by Dean Howson, though, as the writer himself remarks, fragmentary, and its subject matter capable of fuller treatment, is an interesting view of the point referred to.