Monday, 18 January 2016

Was 2 Peter written "much later" than Peter's death?

I have been of late thinking through the date of 2 Peter, and thus it was with interest that I read this recent post regarding 2 Peter as forgery and fiction. Much of the post is concerned with how to define the canon, or more precisely how we might have to rethink the canon if we discover that a text therein was not written by its putative author. That is an interesting question, and one that I will not speak to as it really falls quite outside my primary range of expertise. As I am slowly working on a monograph that seeks to evaluate the dates of the New Testament I do feel competent to discuss matters that relate to that particular issue with regard to 2 Peter.

Whilst there is much that I agree upon in the above-cited post (for instance, his rejection of the idea that early Christians were perfectly content to accept known forgeries into their canon) I begin to part company with my fellow blogger from the second line of his post, in which we are informed that since 2 Peter is pseudonymous "it wasn't written by Peter but by someone else and much later." I agree that it wasn't composed by Peter, but I'm not convinced that it follows that it was written "much later" (presumably the blogger means "much later than Peter's lifetime," although this is not specified). I am not entirely convinced that this need follow from the judgment that it was not composed by Peter. There is no reason in principle that a text attributed to but not composed by Peter could not have circulated during his lifetime. What, then, are the reasons for dating 2 Peter subsequent to Peter's death, and are they sufficient for that judgment?

The main arguments for a post-Petrine providence seem to be as follows. One, that in 2 Peter 3:16 the writer refers to Pauline letters, and thus must post-date Paul's life and perhaps even supposes the existence of a collection of letters. Again, I am not certain if this follows. All that 3:16 demonstrably supposes is that two or more of Paul's letters have circulated and have been interpreted in ways that some might find objectionable. Such conditions certainly attained by the mid-50s, as demonstrated by the Corinthian correspondence. I see nothing in 3:16 that necessitates a date later than that time.

Two, that 2 Peter uses Jude, and since Jude must be dated later than Peter's life so must 2 Peter. This argument is really exceptionally weak, on at least two grounds. Yes, 2 Peter and Jude are clearly related, but it is far from self-evident that 2 Peter is dependent upon Jude. The opposite seems just as probable, and that does not begin to consider alternative hypotheses (such as John Robinson's argument that Jude wrote both letters). But even if we grant that 2 Peter is dependent upon Jude does it follow that we must adopt a post-Petrine providence? For that we would have to look at Jude, and I see nothing in Jude that requires a date subsequent to Peter's death.

Three, it is often noted that no one demonstrably references 2 Peter prior to Origen's life. In the interest of full disclosure I haven't yet done the full amount of work necessary to validate this claim, but again I'm not convinced that it would follow that 2 Peter was written long after Peter's life. All that tells us is that 2 Peter was written sometime prior to Origen's reference to the letter. It establishes a terminus ante quem but not a terminus post quem. In fact, this argument is really just an argument from silence, and thus no more strong than such an argument ever can be.

Fourth, it is sometimes argued that 2 Peter knows about and responds to second-century gnostic teachings. Such arguments are notoriously slippery. 2 Peter simply does not provide enough detail on its rhetorical targets to allow us to infer that they must or were even likely to have been second-century gnostics. The fact that 2 Peter could be referring to second-century gnostics does not demonstrate that he is. I see nothing that makes that more probable than first-century targets, even targets current in Peter's lifetime.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that 2 Peter was written during Peter's lifetime, and I am certainly not arguing that it was composed by Peter. In fact, the entire discussion above is negative, asking whether there is sufficient grounds to exclude a date during Peter's lifetime. No positive argument is advanced, because I have not yet reached a point wherein I am confident advancing such an argument with regards to 2 Peter. I am quite simply still thinking through the date of this text. Yet part of that thinking is to consider exactly what constitutes sound reasons for assigning a text to a certain period, and I have become convinced that the judgment that something is pseudonymous is not sufficient to date it subsequent to the attributed author's life. And that doesn't even get into the complexity of ancient authorship (for instance, it seems to be the case that someone might not be the one who composed a given text yet be reckoned as its author, much as occurs today in the practice of ghost-writing. In such a case, the judgment that Peter did not compose 2 Peter might not actually be synonymous with the judgment that it is pseudonymous and non-Petrine).