The First Epistle of St. Peter is one of those books of the New Testament whose authorship is disputed.
Since the time of the early Church there has been a strong consensus that it was written by the apostle Peter.
There was less consensus in the early Church about 2 Peter, but the consensus about 1 Peter was strong, and it remained so until the rise of modern biblical criticism.
Modern critics, using a methodology of systematic doubt, have viewed the traditional authorship of the epistle with suspicion, some arguing that the work could not have been written by St. Peter.
Pope Benedict on 1 Peter
Just before his retirement, Pope Benedict XVI gave an address to a group of seminarians in which he offered his own thoughts on the authorship of the epistle:
Peter the Apostle is speaking but the exegetes tell us: It is impossible for this Letter to have been written by Peter because the Greek is so good that it cannot be the Greek of a fisherman from the Sea of Galilee.
And it is not only the language—the syntax is excellent—but also the thought, which is already quite mature, there are actual formulas in which the faith and the reflection of the Church are summed up.
These exegetes say, therefore: it had already reached a degree of development that cannot be Peter’s.
How does one respond?
Here Pope Benedict identifies two grounds on which the authorship of the epistle is challenged: (1) the high quality of the Greek and (2) the maturity of the thought in the letter.
Arguments from Style
Personally, I have never been that impressed by arguments concerning literary style.
One reason is that a person’s literary style can change over time. As Peter interacted with more Greek speakers, his Greek naturally would have improved.
If Peter’s ministry lasted from around A.D. 30 to A.D. 67, that’s more than thirty years of dealing with Greek-speaking Christians (and others) to polish the Greek he likely had as an inhabitant of Galilee (an area with a significant Greek-speaking population).
Another reason that arguments from style are unimpressive is that authorship in the ancient world, like today, is a more complex phenomenon than is generally appreciated.
Authors today employ everyone from proofreaders and copy editors to outright ghost writers, and people in the ancient world did, too.
How much of the style of an author’s helpers ended up in the final text depended on the amount of liberty the author gave them.
In the case of 1 Peter we even know who may have helped Peter in writing the letter, because toward the end of the epistle, he writes:
By [Greek, dia] Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God; stand fast in it [1 Pet. 5:12].
Silvanus (aka “Silas”) was one of Paul’s traveling companions who apparently was in Rome at the same time 1 Peter was being written.
Pope Benedict on the Role of Sylvanus
Pope Benedict picks up on this verse and explains:
There are two important positions: First, Peter himself—that is, the Letter—gives us a clue, for at the end of the writing he says I write to you: “By Silvanus… dia Silvanus”.
This “by” [dia] could mean various things.
It may mean that he [Silvanus] brings or transmits; it may mean that Silvanus helped him write it; it may mean that in practice it was really Silvanus who wrote it.
In any case, we may conclude that the Letter itself points out to us that Peter was not alone in writing this Letter but it expresses the faith of a Church, which is already on a journey of faith, a faith increasingly mature.
He does not write alone, as an isolated individual; he writes with the assistance of the Church, of people who help him to deepen the faith, to enter into the depths of his thought, of his rationality, of his profundity.
Pope Benedict thus identifies different possible roles that Sylvanis may have played regarding the epistle:
- He may have been the messenger who carried it to its recipients.
- He may have served as the secretary or editor of the letter who polished Peter’s Greek for him.
- He may have served as Peter’s agent in writing the letter on his behalf.
Pope Benedict seems to gravitate toward the latter two possibilities. In any event, he concludes that Peter “does not write alone” in composing the epistle but “writes with the assistance of the Church.”
Pope Benedict on the Argument from Maturity
Pope Benedict does not devote as much space to the charge that the thought in the letter is too mature for Peter’s day.
He does, though, note that the thought of the Church was “increasingly mature” and that interaction with others helped him “enter into the depths of his thought.”
Arguments from Maturity and the New Testament
To my mind, arguments based on the maturity of thought at a certain period in the first century are, if anything, even weaker than arguments from style.
Those who would say that 1 Peter was written after the apostles’ death are, at most, dating it a few decades later.
But at a remove of almost twenty centuries, it is impossible to reconstruct the precise dates at which given concepts and institutions entered the life of the Church.
We are only dealing with a matter of decades here.
The fact that 1 Peter mentions a particular thing thought to be a sign of “maturity” compared with where the Church was in A.D. 33, could equally serve as evidence that 1 Peter was written after the death of the apostle . . . or that the alleged sign of maturity was actually present in the Church before the apostle’s death.
I know which option I’d go with.