Tuesday, January 13, 2015

1 Peter: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

The letter of 1 Peter is written to Christian communities in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) at the end of the first century who are experiencing persecution.  Tradition holds that Peter wrote this letter from prison in Rome during the persecutions of the emperor Nero in the 60s C.E.  Nero had no love for Christians.  He was said to have used them as human torches to illuminate his garden, and as fodder for animals and gladiators at Roman “sporting” events.  Though the addressees of Peter’s letter in Asia Minor were probably not experiencing this level of persecution, the letter is definitely written in the context of Christian suffering.  The letter uses the words “suffer” or “suffering” 18 times.

Tradition holds that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome under emperor Nero.

Although there wasn’t empire-wide official persecution of Christians until the 3rd century, followers of this new religion were still subject to localized persecution and were viewed with hostility and suspicion by their pagan neighbors.  Because Christians refused to participate in ceremonies of emperor worship or pagan rituals, they were often viewed by their Roman neighbors as unpatriotic, anti-social, and even atheistic (because they didn’t believe in the pantheon of Roman gods).  Roman writings from this era stereotype Christians as immoral, secretive, and suspicious.  To give a modern example, Christians in this era were viewed something like Muslims were viewed in post-9/11 America.  This hatred was given added fury when emperor Nero blamed the Christians for a fire that burned much of Rome.


So how does the author of 1 Peter comfort these Christian communities living in such a difficult social climate?  He encourages them to be steadfast in their faith and to continue living humble, moral lives.  For the the author of 1 Peter, the way to counter negative stereotypes is not fighting back, but rather living a good life, characterized by love.  Let your life speak.  Christians are encouraged not to “repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” 

The author also reminds his audience of the richness and beauty of their religious heritage, and their real identity, not as marginalized communities, but rather as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  The writer is saying, in essence: Although most people despise you as powerless and insignificant, you are God’s beloved, the most important people on earth.  To make this point, the author draws direct parallels between the people of Israel and this new community of Christians.  He quotes extensively form the Hebrew scriptures, and creatively weaves quotes with his own words and ideas, in the style of Jewish midrash (commentary on Torah):

“Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
Once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles…
conduct yourselves honorably among the gentiles.”

The author of 1 Peter even refers to Rome as “Babylon,” recalling the historic Jewish experience of being defeated and forcibly exiled to Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E.  It’s important to remember that Peter, and the earliest apostles, were Jews first and foremost, and continued to see themselves in light of this tradition.  Drawing upon the richness of Jewish tradition, and adding the new element of Jesus (the messiah who suffered too), the author weaves together a powerful message of hope and solidarity amidst persecution.

Finally, the author reminds his audience that, according to their faith, this present unjust age is only temporary.  Ultimately, Jesus will return to set things right.  This belief in the imminent return of Jesus as righteous judge informs much of the New Testament, especially the apocalyptic book of Revelation.  Stay tuned!

The Roman emperor Nero persecuted Christians (and had a weird neck beard).

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