> COMPANION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT - The New English Bible. By A E Harvey. - © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press, The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press. 1970. - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2014.


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Bodmer papyrus P72 of 2 Peter.


In the course of this letter, extensive use is made of phrases and ideas which appear in the Letter of Jude; there is a reference to the letters of Paul, which seems to presuppose that there existed already a collection of them, bearing the authority of Scripture (3.15-16); and the apostles are referred to as 'your apostles' (3.2), as if they were figures already remote from the circle of the writer. All this (quite apart from the general style of the letter) would have been barely conceivable in the lifetime of Peter the apostle. There can be little doubt that the letter is one of those which appear to have been written after the death of their supposed authors, and which supported their claim on the attention of Christians by invoking the authority of one of the apostles. It was referred to by no ancient writer before the third century A.D., and was only hesitantly accepted by the church into the canon of the New Testament. It may well have been written as late as the first half of the second century A.D.

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Chapter 1.

From Simeon Peter (1). The apostle was usually called Simon, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew or Aramaic name Simeon. By using the form Simeon, the writer may have wished to give a particularly Palestinian flavour to the opening. But there may also have been another reason. Simeon was one of the original patriarchs of Israel; and a popular form of Jewish writing since about the end of the second century B.C. seems to have consisted of "testaments", or farewell discourses, attributed to a patriarch just before his death, but containing moral instruction appropriate to the time of writing. This was evidently one of the sources of inspiration for our author. Peter is represented as being about to die very soon (14); and just as in Jewish works of this kind the patriarch was made to recall some of the events of his life (recorded in the Old Testament) before proceeding to the message he had to give, so Peter is represented as harking back to a significant moment in his own life (recorded in the New Testament), his presence on the sacred mountain when Jesus was transfigured (Matthew 17.1-8). Formally, the document begins as a letter; but the convention is not kept up: there are no personal greetings and no salutation at the end. The model the writer had before him was not so much a "letter" as a "testament"; and he may have felt it particularly appropriate to introduce Peter as Simeon, the name also borne by one of the patriarchs.

Nevertheless, if the literary model was Jewish, the language reflects a culture shaped more by Greek religion. There is no longer the diffidence which a purely Jewish writer might have felt in calling Jesus God (1) alongside the one true God, or in giving him the title of Saviour, which was borne both by pagan gods and by rulers (see above on 2 Timothy 1.10); faith is no longer something imparted by God and active in believers, but is a privilege which an apostle could say that he shared with his fellow-Christians; phrases
like divine power, true religion, splendour and might (3), belong to the vocabulary of Hellenistic religious thought; and the process of escaping corruption and coming to share in the very being of God (4) was recognized to be the object of many philosophies in the Greek-speaking world. The chain of virtues in verses 5-7 is a rhetorical device found in both Jewish and Greek literature. In short, the style is that which might be expected of an educated Hellenistic Jew.

As for this writer's understanding of Christianity, it has already a certain conventional rigidity compared with that of the first generation of Christians. For him, the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (11) evidently means a blessed state in the future, to which Christians may qualify for admission by the cultivation of a certain kind of behaviour: a Paul or a John would hardly have described the distinctive elements of Christian living in terms merely of an expectation of better things to come in the after-life. Again, he seems no longer to share the exhilaration of the early church in its discovery that Old Testament prophecies were now fulfilled in the person and destiny of Christ. For him (and this is a point to which he returns at the end), Scripture, including what we should now call the New Testament, may have been one of the sources of the church's faith, but was also dangerous material in the hands of undisciplined interpreters: no one can interpret any prophecy of Scripture by himself (20). To his mind, the significance of the Transfiguration lay not in its implications for understanding the nature and earthly activity of Christ, but in the dogmatic pronouncement given on that occasion by a voice from heaven (17-18) that Jesus was God's Son (Matthew 17.5). In the face of heretics who were inclined to belittle the status of Jesus, he appealed to what he took to be a fully authoritative statement, proceeding from the sublime Presence.

Chapter 2.

But Israel had false prophets (1). When the church found itself confronted with the problem of false prophets (see above on Matthew 7.15), it was guided, not only by the predictions which Jesus had made on the subject, but by precedents in the Old Testament. It suited this writer's purpose to see false teachers as part of the same predestined ordeal which the church was bound to have to face. Having thus identified the enemy, he proceeded to attack it in a way characteristic of the later books of the New Testament, that is to say, not by arguing with his opponents, but by representing them as such a serious danger to Christianity that his readers must cease to have anything to do with them. This technique makes it impossible for us to gain any clear picture of these false teachers. The writer is not afraid to exaggerate and to generalize; he accuses them of being dissolute, mercenary and insubordinate—but these accusations were so commonly levelled at heretics that they do not much help us. The situation is complicated by the fact that throughout this chapter the writer seems to have had before him the Letter of Jude. ← This is of course not certain: Jude may have copied 2 Peter. But some literary dependence is undeniable, and it is on the whole easier to imagine the author of 2 Peter expanding and generalizing what he found in Jude, than the author of Jude sharpening the point of what he found in 2 Peter. [katapi ed: read more about the relationship between these 2 epistles HERE.] Many of the phrases used there appear again here, and most of the Old Testament examples are the same. The only specific charges against the heretics concerning their teaching which are made in the whole chapter are taken verbatim from Jude: disowning the ... Master, they flout authority and insult celestial beings (1, 10) (on which see below on Jude 8). Even these charges, therefore, must have been of a fairly general nature, if more than one writer could take them up and use them in a letter intended generally for the support of his fellow-Christians.

Having identified the heretics as the predicted diabolical enemies of the church, it was not difficult to find traditional colours in which to paint their inevitable retribution. For his first example, he follows Jude in quoting the myth of fallen angels (4); but like the author of 1 Peter (3.18-20) he adds that of the flood, and draws a contrast between the world of old and Noah (5), preacher of righteousness. The traditional object-lesson (6) of Sodom and Gomorrah again comes from Jude, but the contrast with Lot, who was a good man (7), is another of his own additions (and to us a surprising one, since the natural inference to be drawn from the story in Genesis 19 is that Lot was far from good, and that it was only Abraham's intercession which saved him; but Lot was another of the Old Testament figures whom later tradition included in a list of the righteous). The clearest case of dependence on Jude is in verses 10-11: the language is almost the same, but this writer, just as he drops all reference to the Book of Enoch, also leaves out the (perhaps, to his mind, not sufficiently well-attested) story of Michael's restraint when disputing with the devil over Moses' body (Jude 8-9). Without that story, it is hard for the reader to make any sense of the statement that angels ... employ no insults (11). His last example, that of Balaam (15), is an expansion of the reference in Jude, based on the story in Numbers 22.

Apart from these examples, the language is mainly a more lurid version of the attack in Jude. To carouse in broad daylight (13) represented a degree of profligacy which deeply shocked an oriental. Exactly what the misdemeanour at table amounted to is impossible to tell with certainty, though it is tempting to accept the alternative reading recorded in the NEB footnote, and to see here, as in Jude 12, some allusion to irreverent behaviour at Christian 'love-feasts'.

The writer ends the section with two proverbs (22) which, if taken strictly, suggest that he thought there was something inevitable about the apostasy of these heretics. These proverbs usually illustrated the truism that whatever you do to nature it reverts to its old self. The heretics (he seems to be saying) were originally such slaves of corruption (19) that it was almost inevitable they should have returned to their old ways.

Chapter 3.

This is now my second letter (1). Possibly the writer had composed a previous treatise which is now lost; possibly he had read 1 Peter (though he makes no other allusion to it). Or possibly the phrase (like that in Jude 3) was simply meant as a conventional apology for not covering the whole of the subject. In any case, it was characteristic of the style of a "testament", not to propound new teaching, but to recall to its readers what you already know, and to remind them of commands already given (2). For a Christian writer, this meant an appeal, first to God's own prophets of the Old Testament, and secondly to the tradition handed down by the apostles (from whom, despite his opening claim to be writing as an apostle himself, this writer feels himself so far removed as to call them your apostles).

In the last days there will come men who scoff at religion and live self-indulgent lives (3). That the church would have to contend with an intensification of both heresy and immorality was accepted by Christians as a necessary part of the divine purpose; the ordeal was a pre-ordained element of the last days, the period in which the church now believed itself to be living. To this extent, the statement simply echoes others which occur elsewhere in the New Testament (see especially 1 Timothy 4.1). But here, the writer sees an important connection between heresy and immorality. One of the arguments most commonly invoked for moral and sober behaviour among Christians was the imminence of the Last Judgement, the coming of the Lord, and the end of the world. "The Lord is at hand ... therefore be sober, be vigilant" (11, 14) is a recurrent theme in the New Testament, and is reiterated here. It followed that any who doubted or denied the imminence of the end lacked an important moral motive and were particularly liable to live self-indulgent lives (3). The scoffing question, 'Where now is the promise of his coming?' (4) had to be dealt with, not just as a doctrinal error, but as a source of moral recidivism.

The promise of his coming suggests to a Christian reader the glorious return of Jesus Christ. This had apparently been predicted by Jesus himself, and was earnestly expected by his followers to take place within their own lifetime. But now, a whole generation of Christians had been laid to their rest. What could be more natural than that people should scoff at a religion which made such promises, and regard the new faith as discredited when they were not fulfilled?

And yet, so far as we can tell, this is not how it worked out. The books of the New Testament were written during a period which covers nearly the first century of the church's existence. Paul's earliest letters show that he confidently expected the end within his own lifetime; yet there is little evidence in those books which were written, say, fifty years later that its unexpected delay seriously troubled the faith of Christian people. They still believed in an imminent consummation of history; but they seem to have been so conscious of the new dimension which their religion added to their lives in the present world order, that they were able to accept without flinching the apparent extension of the time during which that world order was to continue. Indeed, this is the only place in the New Testament where the question, 'Where now is the promise of his coming?' is explicitly raised.

It may be that in the second or third generation of the church the question did indeed become acute for some people, and that we ought not to be surprised to find it discussed in a letter which probably belongs to a comparatively late period. But it remains strange that the writer does not attempt to answer it by appealing to the promise of Jesus himself, or to the consistent expectation of the church. On the contrary, his answer is in very general terms; and in fact it is possible that the question was itself a more general one. His coming is a phrase which was certainly used of the return of Christ; but it could also mean the coming of the Day of God (12), that is, the Last Judgement and the end of the world. Our fathers, again, could certainly have meant the previous generation of Christians; but in any Jewish environment it was a technical term for the patriarchs of the Old Testament. In which case, the scoffers' question may have been a general attack on the basic view of history which is presupposed in the Old Testament and in all subsequent Jewish and Christian thinking. History, in that culture, was always pictured as one great and developing movement leading towards the final judgement of God and the establishment of a new age. It may have been this whole conception which the scoffers, influenced perhaps by Greek philosophical thinking, intended to call into question when they pointed to the huge span of Israel's history and observed that still everything continues exactly as it has always been since the world began (4).

If so, this writer's counter-arguments become more comprehensible. He points out, first, that the scoffers had a false view of the historical facts recorded in the Bible itself. The water of the deluge (6) represented a preliminary (and nearly decisive) judgement on the world by God, by which he allowed it to revert to the element out of which it had been created. This near-destruction of the world was a clear warning that a still more drastic act of God lay in the future. True, there existed an assurance by God's word (5) that there would be no second flood (Genesis 9.11). But this only meant that the end would take place, not by water, but by burning (7). To a Jew, this "burning" naturally represented the day of judgement when the godless will be destroyed. But it was a widely held belief, both in eastern religions and in western philosophy, that the universe would ultimately be destroyed by water and fire. One half of this popular prediction had already been fulfilled by the flood. It followed that destruction by fire must still lie in the future. The elements will disintegrate in flames (10) ... that day will set the heavens ablaze (12)—these propositions were accepted by many thinkers who reflected on the probable end of the world. The scoffers were factually incorrect when they said that everything continues exactly as it always has been since the world began (4). They had overlooked the fact that the first stage of the destruction of the world had already taken place in the time of Noah.

The second argument sounds more philosophical: with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. To us, this seems self-evident. God's time-scale, we say, is not ours. In the measureless span of eternity, the few thousand years of human history have little significance. It is possible that this was what the writer meant here. It was absurd, he may have been saying, to complain that the end had not come after only a few centuries, when by God's reckoning only a few days had passed. But if this is what he meant, it would have taken much of the force out of his injunction to look eagerly for the coming of the Day of God (12). If one might have to reckon with tens of thousands of years of history still to come, it would be difficult to look forward to the end (14) with such intensity that it ii kept one's life devout and dedicated (11). In fact, few people in antiquity, and certainly no one with any Jewish education, would have contemplated anything of the kind. History, it seemed to them, had lasted some three or four thousand years. How much longer would it continue? The question was often pondered, whether by philosophers, religious men or astrologers, and the answer given usually presupposed a total duration for world history (or at least this cycle of it) of not more than about seven thousand years. The answer depended upon what unit, so to speak, God used in imposing his arithmetic upon history. Many Jewish thinkers found the clue in Psalm 90.4, which could be taken to mean, in Greek or Hebrew, "In thy sight a thousand years are like one day" (8). From this the inference could be drawn (as it appears to be drawn here, even though it is stated in the same breath as the verse from the psalm) that God's unit, God's "day", is a thousand years: with the Lord one day is like a thousand years. How many "days" did God's plan allow for? The answer to this could be read off from the account of the creation in Genesis. There could be no doubt that creation was based on a seven-day "week". Seven thousand years was therefore the absolute maximum for world history. But seven thousand years seemed a long time. History had hardly been running for as long as that. There was certainly no cause for "scoffing" that the end had not yet come. At the same time, there was no justification for banking on a further delay. At some stage God might 'cut short the time' (Mark 13.20). In view of this, it was perfectly possible that the end might come tomorrow—unexpected as a thief (10), as Christ himself had said (Matthew 24.43-4; 1 Thessalonians 5.2).

For a Jew, the question could never be academic: the end, with its traditional mise-en-scène of fiery chaos among the heavenly bodies, meant judgement. Still less could it be so for a Christian, who now could see new substance in God's age-old promise to his people (13), and could look forward to the inauguration, through Christ, of new heavens and a new earth, the home of justice. The end was an object of faith and hope, and the longer one had to wait for it, the more natural it became to complain that the Lord is slow in fulfilling his promise (9). The complaint was as old as Habakkuk (2.1-5), who had replied to it by simply stressing the need for faith. Another answer, which could also be found in the Old Testament, was that the delay was nothing but God's patience (15), allowing time for more people to repent before the day of judgement. This answer—that our Lord's patience with us is our salvation—was in fact used by Paul, as this writer points out (Romans 2.4). Moreover, a third answer was becoming popular in Jewish circles around this time: the end was delayed because not enough people were living god-fearing lives, so that it was possible to hasten it on (12) by keeping one's own conduct irreproachable.

We might agree that Paul's letters contain some obscure passages (16), and our reaction would probably be to wish that he had expressed himself more clearly. But until the rise of a critical approach to Scripture in recent centuries, an obscurity was not necessarily regarded as a defect. On the contrary, it might be a sign that the passage contained a particularly rich and subtle meaning, which it was the task and privilege of the qualified interpreter to unravel. This was the positive side. But here, the writer is more concerned with the danger of heretical teachers interpreting these passages in such a way as to support their own doctrine. Instead of finding salvation there, they would misinterpret to their own ruin.