"Knowledge" in 2 Peter

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

"Knowledge" (epignōsis) and related words are used several times in 2 Peter and are important to our understanding of the letter. Some have speculated that Peter is trying to counter some primitive form of the Gnostic heresy (gnōsis = "knowledge") that caused strife in the second and third century church. While I don't believe that Peter is opposing true Gnostics, here are the ways he uses the Greek words for "knowledge":

2 Peter
1:2

"... through the knowledge (epignōsis) of God and of Jesus our Lord."

1:3

"... through our knowledge (epignōsis) of him...."

1:5-6

"For this very reason, make every effort to add ... to goodness, knowledge (gnōsis)...."

1:8

"... keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge (epignōsis) of our Lord Jesus Christ."

1:12

"... even though you know (oida) them and are firmly established in the truth you now have."

1:14

"because I know (oida) that I will soon put [my body] aside...."

2:9

"The Lord knows (oida) how to rescue godly men...."

2:20

"If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing (epignōsis) our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ...."

2:21

"It would have been better for them not to have known (epiginōskō) the way of righteousness...."

3:17

"Since you already know (proginōskō) this, be on your guard...."

3:18

"But grow in the grace and knowledge (gnōsis) of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Jude
5

"Though you already know (oida) all this, I want to remind you...."

As you observe, three Greek words translated "know, knowledge" appear in 2 Peter. What do they mean and how do they differ from each other? Actually, they don't differ a great deal at all. Let me explain why.

The Greeks had a rather different understanding of "knowledge" than did the Hebrews. The Hebrew word yāda´ has a wide range of meaning, but knowledge suggests a familiarity or relationship with a thing or situation or person that is known, arising from personal encounter or experience. Thus, to know a woman could mean to have intimate sexual relations with her. To know God meant an intimate relationship, but always based on responding to God's revelation of himself.

The Greeks, on the other hand, thought of knowledge as a detached knowledge and speculative interest in the metaphysical nature of things. The writers of the New Testament, even though they wrote and often spoke in Greek, came from an Old Testament understanding of the concept of knowledge. (Eduard Schütz and Ernst Dieter Schmitz, "Knowledge," NIDNTT 2:-390-409.)

But in the Hellenistic world in which the apostles ministered, knowledge had religious implications. The "mystery religions" that were popular in the Greek world from the seventh century BC to the fourth century AD involved initiation into the cult which revealed certain hidden knowledge.

Later -- somewhat after the time 2 Peter was written -- a religious movement called "Gnosticism" developed, which involved esoteric knowledge, a strong dualism between matter and spirit, various intermediary beings, that saw man trapped within the physical body. The human spirit found salvation or was set free by recovering the knowledge (gnosis) of its true self or character as part of the Pleroma or ultimate God. (D.M. Scholer, "Gnosis, Gnosticism," DLNT 400-412.)

Your eyes have probably glazed over by now with all this philosophical stuff. My point is this: When Peter uses the word "know" or "knowledge" he is well aware of how Greeks understood the word in a religious context. But he is talking about knowing God in a sense that one is willing to repent of sin and pattern one's life after God. As we progress through 2 Peter, we'll see that the false teachers that both Jude and Peter were combating taught a compromise with the world, where one could involved himself or herself in sensual or sexual sin on an ongoing basis, for example, and still claim to be a Christian. That how we lived didn't have much to do with what we believed. (Does this sound familiar?)

Now let's look briefly at the words Peter uses for "know" and "knowledge."

  • gnōsis, ginōsko -- Noun, "knowledge." Verb "to know, understand, comprehend, perceive, recognize."
  • oida -- used synonymously with ginōsko.
  • epignōsis, epiginōsko -- Noun, "knowledge, recognition." Verb, "know, understand, recognize." (Schütz and Schmitz, NIDNTT 2:390-409. BDAG 369.)

Though scholars sometimes point to the force of the prefix epi-, "upon," as changing the meaning of epignōsis from gnōsis, in fact there seems to be no hard and fast distinction between the two words. Sometimes, perhaps, the prefix epi- seems to have an "inceptive force," that is, it sometimes means "coming" to know. (Bauckham, 169, citing Picirelli, Evangelical Quarterly 47 [1975], 91.)

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

In 2 Peter, by epignōsis Peter seems to mean "the decisive knowledge of God which is implied in conversion to the Christian religion." (Rudolf Bultmann, "gnōsis,", TDNT 1:707.) In 2 Peter the word always seems to refer to that fundamental saving knowledge on which the whole of the Christian life is based. On the other hand, gnōsis seems to refer in 2 Peter to knowledge which can be acquired and developed in the normal course of the Christian life. (Bauckham, 170.)

Copyright © 1985-2014, 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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