Sunday, 4 December 2016

"The Petrine Epistles and Jude," Pt. 1

I'm currently working my way through Robinson's sixty-page chapter on the dates of 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude. This is his longest chapter, exceeding by five pages that in which he treats the whole of the Pauline corpus. If the number of pages devoted to these three small epistles (Jude is just one chapter) seems disproportionate to their size, that is because they are proportionate to the critical difficulties surrounding efforts to situate especially 2 Peter and Jude in time and place. Generally absent from the letters are the wealth of details regarding itineraries, plans, etc., in Paul's letters, which combined with the Acts data allow us to situate the majority of these letters within, at most, a ten year period, and in some cases a period extending only a couple years. In fact, we are left with very little material that would explicitly peg these letters to a relatively narrow time range. In this post, I'll address just 1 Peter, leaving 2 Peter and Jude to another post (the latter two need to be treated together, given their obvious source relationship). Indeed, the critical matters are complicated enough that, even at 60 pages, one is struck as much by what Robinson does not address as what he does.

Robinson argues our 1 Peter was written in Rome (cf. the reference to "Babylon" in 5:13, which is almost certainly a coded reference to Rome), during the spring of 65: after the Roman fire of July 64, in a context where the rumours that the Christians were responsible were beginning to circulate, but before an outbreak of the Neronian persecution proper (which he argues began in summer of 65).
This argument has a number of strengths over the view that might place it later. These strengths also create certain liabilities for his argument. For instance, as Robinson notes, the tendency to place NT texts such as 1 Peter in the 80s and 90s developed during the course of the 19th century, which developed the idea that 1) that there was a significant anti-Christian persecution under Domitian, and 2) that any reference to persecution in the New Testament could be associated with this Domitianic persecution (this latter supposition is rarely stated explicitly, But it is a clear tendency in certain sectors of NT studies). Robinson rightly notes that the evidence does not generally support the first supposition, and that even if it did we must reckon with the reality that not every reference to persecution in the NT will be to an identifiable or even specific occurrence. A difficulty that I identify in Robinson's work generally, and it's very much on display in this chapter, is that he's replaced this Domitianic "dumping ground" with an Neronian one. Virtually any time that other scholars say "This reference to persecution must be a reference to Domitian" Robinson says "No, it's a reference to Nero." Although this is perhaps an improvement in that at least he is on stronger grounds for thinking that there were significant anti-Christian actions under Nero, I nonetheless suspect that his Nero might be too big.

This weakness recurs in another strength of Robinson's position. A date for 1 Peter during the Neronian persecution permits us to posit 1 Peter originating in Rome at precisely a time when we know that Peter himself was in the city. This is a strength because, frankly, there is really no good reason to dispute 1 Peter's Petrine authorship. In fact, I would argue that the evidence for Petrine authorship of 1 Peter is approximately comparable in strength to the evidence for Pauline authorship of Romans. The data is such that any judgment which doesn't have the letter being written in Rome, by Peter and company (cf. the references to Silas and Mark in 5:12-13) is probably going to have to swim in the pools of inchoate skepticism. But if we've already reason to suspect that Robinson's Nero is too big, might we not have reason to suspect that he has too quickly supposed that the letter had to be written during Peter's mid-60s Roman sojourn? Even though there is very good reason to think that Peter was in Rome during the early-40s, and some reason to think that he was also there during the mid-50s (I'm much more persuaded of the earlier visit than the later), Robinson does not even consider the possibility that 1 Peter could have originated at these times.

As a thought experiment, let us imagine that 1 Peter originated when Peter was (on my judgment) likely in Rome around 42 or 43. There are some definite advantages. 1 Peter's "primitive" character is generally recognized as being not far off from that of James's, and indeed there is no clear evidence that the letter has much awareness of or interest in a Gentile mission (I am aware that the letter is sometimes thought to be written to a Gentile audience, and while the data allows this as a possible reading I don't think it is a necessary one). Related, we have a cluster of data which suggests that from the late-40s onwards both Silas and to a lesser extent Mark were increasingly associated Paul and his missionary activity. We wouldn't lose anything. For instance, in this reading, one would have had Peter fleeing Jerusalem during the Agrippan persecution of 41 or 42 (I think 41 more likely), and thus still have the letter written in a context related to an identifiable persecution (although, as noted, I'm less than persuaded that this is a desideratum of a reasonable account of Peter's origins). This persecution by all accounts did not spread beyond the holy city, and thus we can account for why Peter can tell Christians in Anatolia that they have not yet endured such things.

Really, about the only datum that I can imagine which could exclude this hypothesis is the use of the term "Christian" in 4:16. This datum is often cited as evidence that 1 Peter must be post-Petrine. Nowhere else is this term attested during Peter's life, and therefore must be later. The first limb of that statement is questionable, and the second a non sequitur. The first limb is questionable because of Acts (cf. 11:26), which as we noted a venerable minority, including a luminary no less than the late Harnack, have dated to c. 62-63. Moreover, Acts 11:26 gives us notice that the believers were first called "Christians" in the midst of the discussions of the events of c. 40 or 41. Indeed, interesting enough, this notice is given immediately before Luke's transitional passage that leads to his narration of the Agrippan persecution. Might this be more than a coincidence? In any case, even if we disregard the data from Acts entirely and date that text later than Peter's life, we are still left with nothing but an argument from silence, and in fact are simply speculating about when the term originated. I am not sure that is enough to carry a counter-argument.

I am not arguing that 1 Peter was written in the early 40s. A full exploration would want to consider the evidence that Peter was in Rome in the mid-50s, and consider that as a possibility. It would want to weigh the three proposals: 1 Peter during the apostle's probable first visit to the capital, 1 Peter during his possible second visit, and 1 Peter during his final sojourn. I see such queries as filling in a lacuna in Robinson's account, as his Nero fixation blinds him to the possibility of alternative proposals.

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