Perhaps it is the ambiance of viewing the Mass in my own home that I find myself keying in on the Scriptures with more intensity. For one thing, since I own the remote control, I control the volume, no small consideration when you hear with only one ear. But more to the point, I have come away with a greater appreciation of the writing of 1 Peter. I wrote in the last post how 1 Peter, proclaimed at Mass on the Sunday after Easter, was probably an instruction to the newly baptized, and as such, is a particularly good example of post-Apostolic catechesis. I was not aware last month that 1 Peter was the designated source for all the second readings Sundays of Easter in the A Cycle. If you live in dioceses that celebrate the Feast of the Ascension on Thursday this week, you will hear yet another selection from 1 Peter next week.
2 Peter is not, I repeat, is not a continuation of the book you have heard proclaimed over the past weekends of Easter, nor does it share the same author. If 1 Peter shares the Christian’s wisdom of the baptismal change of the newly concerted, 2 Peter is a general letter to all Christians in local communities to root themselves in the unspeakable glory, wisdom, and love of God with his divine Son, while at the same time decrying the evils in the world and the treachery of false teachers from within their midst.
Neither 1 Peter nor 2 Peter were written by that Peter, the senior of the Twelve, but rather by two later teachers and leaders who adopted the pseudonym of the great Peter, a common practice in antiquity. In the Paulist Biblical Commentary, scholar Sherri Brown observes that the letter may have originated in Rome [hence the pseudonym Peter] or in Asia Minor, as the author makes multiple allusions to the theology of St. Paul’s writings. The author’s dependence upon the Gospels and the Letter of Jude make clear that the letter was written long after St. Peter’s death and belongs to a collection of pastoral instructions to churches that were gathered in the early second century.
The “canonicity” of 2 Peter [i.e., whether it belonged in the canon or collection of inspired books of revelation we know as the New Testament] was a matter of considerable debate. The first Church historian, Eusebius, questioned the letter’s inspiration in 324 A.D. Despite that, the letter remained in the Scripture through the present day, though as Brown discusses in a “special issues” segment, modern scholarship has not always been kind to the book. It has been called “a weak minor epistle” or even—and this is harsh— “the ugly stepchild of the New Testament.” [p. 1546]
I found the text both inspiring and intriguing. Chapter One focuses on the glory of God and the unspeakable promise that “you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.” He goes on into a litany that is both instructional and poetic. “For this reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue//virtue with knowledge//knowledge with self-control//self-control with endurance//endurance with devotion//devotion with mutual affection//mutual affection with love.” [1:5-7] This summation of a godly life is the kind of thing you tape to your bathroom mirror as a daily offering of focus, an act of faith and a rule of conduct. In 1:16ff the author recounts his life in the faith as he apparently believes he close to death. He argues that Christians receive faith not by “cleverly devised myths” but by the very testimony of God on behalf of his Son, Jesus, when the Father declared “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This quote is borrowed from the Gospels’ Transfiguration witness on a high mountain.
The author is clearly disturbed that certain individuals, probably in places of authority in the local churches, are seriously distorting the basic heart of the Christian message, and he reminds the community that the Spirit, and not imaginative individuals, are the source of truthful teaching. But it is in Chapter Two that we learn about these troublesome figures; they are “false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will introduce destructive heresies and even deny the Master who ransomed them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.” As this chapter unfolds, we get the picture that the challenge comes from within the churches, as noted above, and from an amoral Roman society. There is no indication of persecution here, but a conflict to capture the thoughts and conduct of a believing mind.
The bulk of Chapter two is a history of unfaithfulness, evil teaching, and perversion, and how God punished in response. Most of the examples are drawn from the Hebrew Scripture—the fallen angels, Noah’s countrymen, Sodom and Gomorrah. But the internal “heretics” are his primary targets, speaking of those who “revile things they do not understand.” [2:12] He gives equal attention to libertines and heretics. The closing lines of Chapter Two certainly hold attention: “What is expressed in the true proverb has happened to them, ‘the dog returns to its own vomit’ and ‘a bathed sow returns to wallowing in the mire.’” [2:22]
The Third Chapter unveils what might also have touched off turmoil in the churches, specifically the delay in the Second Coming. The “scoffers” as the author calls them are harassing the faithful for awaiting an event that was long expected and has yet to arrive. Part of the problem is the primitive nature of sacramental theology to that time; St. Luke’s Gospel, for example, addresses this problem by explaining that the Lord Jesus remains in the breaking of the bread. [See Luke 24: 13-35.] Without compromising his belief that the judgment at Christ’s coming will be an awful thing to experience, the author explains that if God is delaying, it is because he “is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” [3:9] This is an insightful piece of advice. He returns in the final paragraph to an exhortation to holiness, to the apocalyptic style we are familiar seeing at the end of the Catholic Church Year in late November.
Brown observes that this and several other brief New Testament letters form a useful collection that circled through the general Church at the beginning of the second century. In varying styles these letters buttress the solemn revelation of the Gospels for the diverse Christian churches stretching from the Middle East through Asia Minor and of course the Roman peninsula. If their context is understood, most of these letters—including 2 Peter—have an enduring capacity to cut to the chase on the heart of Christian living.