Why do some scholars say that Peter didn’t write Second Peter?

Q.  The authorship of 1st and 2nd Peter has been a long debated question.  Who do you think was the author? More importantly, the bigger question is, why do these conundrums exist? I would like to think I can trust every jot and tittle in God’s Holy Word, but many people, much smarter than me, have debated over inconsistencies in the Bible ad nauseam. My faith rests on Jesus Christ and the Word of God! Why isn’t it crystal clear?

To answer the authorship question first, my personal belief is that the apostle Peter wrote both of the New Testament epistles that bear his name.

Some people dispute that he wrote Second Peter because, in marked contrast with the simpler Greek of First Peter, the Greek language in that epistle is highly refined and complex.  (For that reason, Second Peter is a favorite text for seminary courses in intermediate Greek.)  The argument goes that Peter, whose first language was Aramaic, would have been capable of writing only simpler Greek at best (as First Peter supposedly demonstrates), and so someone else must have written Second Peter.

I believe that the solution to this problem, however, can be found within Peter’s letters themselves.  Near the end of his first letter, he acknowledges that “with the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you.”  In the ancient world, someone who wanted to “write” a letter would typically speak it out loud and engage someone else to write it down.  (The person who served in this role for Paul’s letter to the Romans actually includes his own greetings at the end of that epistle:  “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.”)

We need to appreciate that the services these scribes performed could range from simply writing down the words that were actually spoken aloud to “putting into words” what the sender wanted to say—something like the “ghostwriter” of a speech or article today.  Peter acknowledges that Silas helped him write his first letter, likely by putting his thoughts into words in simple but articulate Greek, which was probably even better Greek than he was capable of composing himself.  While Peter doesn’t similarly name or acknowledge the person who helped him write his second letter (perhaps because this person would not be known to the recipients the way Silas was), we can deduce that this was an accomplished writer with an even stronger command of the language.

We should not see this as “plagiarism” or the use of a “paper mill,” as we might think of it today.  Rather, it was an established and assumed practice in the ancient world where only limited numbers of people were capable of reading and writing, and even fewer had a stylistic command of the language suitable for composing letters with as wide an intended audience as Second Peter.

As for why these conundrums exist in the Bible in the first place, I believe it’s because the biblical books were composed within the flux of human history and culture, not dropped out of heaven inscribed on golden tablets.  Because cultural practices, such as the use of scribes, change over time, people in later cultures like ours can become confused by them—as when we see letters written at two very different levels of a language attributed to the same author.

But this just provides an occasion for us to dig deeper into the background of the Bible.  When we do, not only do we resolve the so-called “inconsistencies,” we get a better window into the biblical world and appreciate more about how the Bible was created for us.  We can even admire, in a way we could not before, the contributions of unnamed people like the scribe behind Second Peter who also used their gifts to help bring us the word of God.

Second Peter in the Bodmer Papyrus (Vatican Library), the oldest known manuscript of the letter. Its elegant Greek has raised questions about whether the apostle Peter could have written it, but a scribe likely helped to compose it, in keeping with ancient practices.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

5 thoughts on “Why do some scholars say that Peter didn’t write Second Peter?”

  1. It is actually the marginalia depicted in the image above that brought me here. Do you know what purpose they serve here specifically? If I knew what passage is displayed that might explain a lot. Thanks!

    1. Here’s a link to the page where I got the image. It should help answer your questions. At the bottom of the page there are a number of references listed that should provide even further information. Hope this is helpful!

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