Introduction to 2 Peter and Jude

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Statue of St. Peter in the Antwerp Cathedral
St. Peter with Keys, marble statue in the Antwerp Cathedral. Larger. 

I invite you to join me in a brief, six-lesson study of 2 Peter and Jude, two short letters near the end of the New Testament. They're not often the subject of sermons and may seem obscure to some. But here you'll find some gems of Christian teaching:

  • How to grow up in Christ, how to keep from falling.
  • The nature of Scriptural inspiration.
  • Why Christ's coming has been delayed.
  • The dangers of false teachers and bad doctrine.
  • God's awesome protection all around us.

Yes, you'll find some elements that seem kind of obscure, but we'll focus and meditate on those verses which provide nourishment for our souls.

Outline of 2 Peter and Jude

Here's the outline we'll follow over the next six weeks:

  1. Great and Precious Promises (2 Peter 1:1-4)
  2. Add to your Faith Goodness (2 Peter 1:5-11)
  3. Inspiration of Scripture (2 Peter 1:12-21)
  4. Beware of False Teachers (2 Peter 2:1-22; Jude 3-19)
  5. Not Willing that Any Should Perish (2 Peter 3:1-18)
  6. Able to Keep You From Falling (Jude 1-2, 20-25)

But before we begin, let's look into the background of these two short letters or epistles. Note: Some of this is pretty technical. Feel free to skip to the end and read the concluding paragraph.

Canonicity

Both 2 Peter and Jude were eventually accepted by the Church into the "canon" or list of accepted books of New Testament scripture -- but for 2 Peter it took a while.

The short letter of Jude was recognized as authoritative Christian scripture quite early. The early church believed it was written by Jude, the brother of James, Jesus' brother (Jude 1:1). In other words, St. Jude is the younger brother of Jesus. The Letter of Jude is found in the Muratorian Canon (second century), recognized by Tertullian,[1] Clement of Alexandria[2], and Origin[3]. It seems to have been cited by Athenagoras, Polycarp, and Barnabas early in the second century. While Jude gets little recognition today, it was highly regarded by the early church.

2 Peter had a much more difficult time finding full acceptance. It was quoted as scripture by Origin at the beginning of the third century, and may have been cited or referred to in 1 Clement (95 AD), 2 Clement (150 AD), Aristides (130 AD), Valentinus (130 AD), and Hippolytus (180 AD).

But 2 Peter was listed by Eusebius among the "contested" books[4] and Jerome notes hesitations about it because its style and grammar are so different from 1 Peter.[5] The early church also hesitated to accept 2 Peter because of the large number of obviously phony gospels and letters claiming to have been written by Peter (such as the Gospel of Peter). In addition, over the first two centuries, knowledge of 2 Peter was quite limited geographically.

2 Peter was questioned in Syria, but by the fourth century, it was accepted throughout most of the world. It was recognized as canonical by the Councils of Hippo and Carthage. After that, its position was unchallenged until the Reformation.

Contrast of 2 Peter with 1 Peter

While the doctrines and thoughts of 2 Peter find many parallels with 1 Peter, there are some marked differences that have perplexed scholars:

  1. Language. The Greek of 1 Peter is polished and dignified, among the best in the New Testament. By contrast, the Greek of 2 Peter is grandiose, pedantic, and cumbersome. Jerome explained the differences by hypothesizing that Peter used a different secretary or amanuensis, whom he allowed a large say in the form of composition.
  2. Thought. 1 Peter is written to Christians facing persecution, while 2 Peter addresses Christians facing false teaching.

Relationship of 2 Peter to Jude

Scholars have also been concerned since much of 2 Peter chapter 2 bears some kind of literary relationship to the Letter of Jude. Of the 25 verses in Jude, no less than 15 appear, in whole or in part, in 2 Peter. Perhaps both 2 Peter and Jude quoted from some pre-existing tract prepared to warn Christians about false teachers. However, Paul incorporates in his letters the writings of heathen poets, lists of Stoic virtues, and fragments of hymns. Why can't Peter?

Authorship of 2 Peter

The majority of New Testament scholars these days reject St. Peter as the author of 2 Peter. They do so for several reasons.

  1. 2 Peter's Hellenistic flavor and vocabulary.
  2. 2 Peter's teaching on the Second Coming of Christ. Critics see 2 Peter's explanation of the delay of Christ's return as a sign of the lateness of the date of the epistle.
  3. 2 Peter's teaching about Paul (3:15-16).

Certainly a strong case can be made against apostolic authorship, even by evangelical scholars.[6] However, each of the objections can be answered forthrightly. I've been especially impressed by Michael Green's defense of Peter's authorship.[7]

Pseudepigraphy

In spite of the difficulties in accepting Peter's authorship, for me the matter boils down to one chief issue: the acceptance of pseudepigraphic documents by the early church. Pseudepigraphy ("false writing") is a letter that claims to be by a person who is not its true author, usually claiming to be by a famous or prominent person.

Scholars who reject Peter's authorship of 2 Peter (as well as Paul's authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) make some claim as:

"It becomes possible to recognize an element of pseudepigraphy within the New Testament without any implication of deceit or fraud and without triggering the antithesis between pseudepigraphy and canonicity."[8]

Such scholars argue for this position in a variety of ways. Not all scholars adopt the same reasoning for their position. Typical arguments are:

  • Pseudepigraphy was an accepted literary device in the ancient world, not intended to deceive, in which a writer adopted the pseudonym of an ancient or symbolic figure from a previous epoch.
  • Pseudepigraphy is acceptable since the Spirit was the true author, thus the identity of the actual author doesn't matter.
  • Pseudepigraphy was a way of valuing antiquity -- a kind of noble falsehood.
  • Pseudepigraphy is a way to contemporize an authoritative tradition for the following generation.[9]

Some commentators find elements in 2 Peter 1:12-15 that cause them to place the letter among the literary genre of testaments or farewell speeches. Since all such testamental literature was pseudepigraphical, they argue, it is likely that 2 Peter is pseudepigraphical, too.[10]

I don't find these arguments convincing -- despite the fact that my position is held by a small minority of contemporary scholars. I've found that polling the majority is seldom a good way to determine truth. New Testament scholarship is ridden with short-lived fads -- what is generally accepted by one generation of scholars is quite often rejected by the next.

Michael Green argues, and I agree, that writers who urge the highest moral standards in their letters cannot stoop to the kind of deceit that would be required to convince the reader of apostolic authorship, if St. Peter didn't in fact write the letter. For example, in 2 Peter, the author identifies himself as "Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ" (1:1) and as an "eyewitness" (1:16) of Christ's transfiguration.

To assume that pseudepigraphy was considered acceptable in the apostolic age and the early church just isn't be supported by contemporary documents. Note that:

  • Paul opposed the practice (2 Thessalonians 2:2; 3:17).
  • The author of Acts of Paul and Thecla was deposed from his office as a presbyter for claiming Pauline authorship.[11]
  • Serapion, Bishop of Antioch about 180 AD, forbade the use of the spurious Gospel of Peter in his diocese with the word: "For our part, brethren, we both receive Peter and the other apostles as Christ, but the writings which falsely bear their names we reject, as men of experience, knowing that such were not handed down to us."[12]

Occasion and Date of 2 Peter

We know next to nothing about the date and intended recipients of 2 Peter. If we assume that St. Peter wrote the epistle, then the date is probably around 65 AD. If Peter is not the author, then 80 AD is probably the latest it was written.[13] It seems to be written to a church or churches that contained both Gentile and Jewish Christians. Where, we don't know, but Asia Minor is a good guess.

Occasion and Date of Jude

Assuming, as I do, that the Letter of Jude was written by St. Jude, a younger brother of Jesus and James, the date is probably between 60 and 80 AD. The recipients aren't clear in the text, but a destination of Antioch would provide a mixed Gentile and Jewish Christian community within the sphere of influence of St. Jude.

False Teaching in 2 Peter and Jude

As noted above, both 2 Peter and Jude use similar words to criticize false teachers that were undermining true Christian teaching. Just what heresy were they defending against? Earlier commentators saw this as a primitive form of Gnosticism. More recent scholars aren't so sure. The false teachers:

  • Denied the lordship of Jesus by the way they lived (2 Peter 2:1; Jude 4).
  • Defiled the love-feast (communion).
  • Were immoral themselves and encouraged immorality in others.
  • Minimized the place of law in the Christian life and emphasized freedom (2 Peter 2:10, 10ff, 18ff; Jude 4, 12).
  • Were plausible and crafty, fond of rhetoric, out for gain, and pandered to those from whom they hoped to gain some advantage (2 Peter 2:3, 12, 14, 15, 18; Jude 16).
  • Were arrogant and cynical of church leaders (2 Peter 2:1, 10, 11; Jude 8).
  • Posed as visionaries or prophets (2 Peter 2:1; Jude 8).
  • Were self-willed, divisive, and confident of their own superiority (2 Peter 2:2, 10, 18; Jude 19).

We see this kind of heresy in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:12-13, 18-20; chapter 15) and Colossae. A similar kind of heresy identified with the Nicolaitans is found in the Asian churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3.

Was this some kind of proto-Gnosticism which flowered into the full-blown gnosticism of the second and third centuries? We're not sure. The only features that the heresy combated in 2 Peter have in common with full Gnosticism are: (1) an eschatological skepticism and (2) moral libertinism. We don't see in 2 Peter the kind of dualism that tends to define Gnostic thought. Perhaps these weren't early Gnostics at all, but only backslidden Christians who "aimed to disencumber Christianity of elements that seemed to them an embarrassment in their pagan cultural context."[14]

2 Peter and Jude: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as an e-book in PDF or Kindle formats.

Conclusion

Where does all this leave us? As explained above, I see good reasons to accept St. Peter and St. Jude as the authors of their respective letters, written probably in the 60s AD, to mixed Jewish and Gentile communities.

References

  1. Tertullian, De cult. fem. 1:3.
  2. Clement of Alexandria, Paed. iii. 8. 44; Strom. iii. 2. 11; Adumbrations.
  3. Origin, Comm. in Rom. ii. 6; Comm. in Matth. xvii. 30; Jerome, De vir. ill. iv.
  4. Eusebius, Church History iii. 3. 1, 4 and iii. 25. 3, 4.
  5. Jerome, Script. Eccl. i; Ep. ad Hedib. cxx; ad Paul. liii.
  6. Some evangelical scholars who seem to doubt Peter's authorship of 2 Peter include: Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (Word Biblical Commentary, Word 1983), Ralph P. Martin, and others. See also Richard J. Bauckham, "2 Peter," Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments [DLNT] (editors: Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids; InterVarsity Press, 1997), pp. 923-927).
  7. Michael Green, The Second Epistle of Peter and the Epistle of Jude (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Eerdmans, Second Edition 1987). His introduction in the commentary is based on the considerable research presented in his monograph, E.M.B. Green, 2 Peter Reconsidered (Tyndale Monographs, London, 1961). I have drawn heavily on Green's commentary in my own introduction to 2 Peter and Jude.
  8. J.D.G. Dunn, "Pseudepigraphy," DLNT 981-984.
  9. Ibid., pp. 978-979.
  10. Green, pp. 36-38, questions Bauckham's "testament hypothesis" by noting that (1) the early church did not recognize 2 Peter as a pseudepigraphical testament, (2) other early orthodox works were excluded from the canon because they weren't from the pen of the apostles, (3) it isn't clear that all "testaments" must be fictional, and (4) 2 Peter may not be part of the testamentary genre after all.
  11. Tertullian, de Baptismo xvii.
  12. Serapion's story is cited in Eusebius, Church History vi. 12.
  13. Green, pp. 41-42.
  14. Bauckham, DLNT, p. 925.

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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