This epistle is addressed by Saint Peter to Christian communities of dispersed believers (see Acts 11:19) located in five provinces of Asia Minor, including areas evangelized by Paul (Acts 16:6-7; 18:23). He encourages Christians there to remain faithful to their standards of belief and conduct in spite of threats of persecution. Numerous statements in the letter suggest that the communities addressed were largely Gentile in membership (1 Peter 1:14, 18; 2:9-10; 4:3-4) even though abundant use is made of the Old Testament (1 Peter 1:24; 2:6-7, 9-10, 22; 3:10-12), which suggests also that they had become acquainted with the scriptures in their catechetical instructions before becoming committed Christians.
After the opening address the contents are intended to both inspire and admonish these "chosen sojourners" (1 Peter 1:1), who feel an alienation from their previous religious roots and the society around them even while seeking to live as God's people. Peter appeals to Christ's resurrection, and the confident expectation of future hope it provides (1 Peter 1:3-5), and to the experience of the new birth of baptism (1:3, 23-25; 3:21). The suffering and death of Christ can serve simultaneously as both source of salvation and example (1:19; 2:21-25). As a people who have received mercy and have a sacred duty to proclaim and live according to God's call (2:9-10), Christians are in Christ, and Peter repeatedly spells out for them what they are to be in him in all kinds of situations, in society (2:11-17), in work (even as slaves, 2:18-20), in the home (3:1-7), and in their general conduct (3:8-12; 4:1-11). But there remains the overall possibility of suffering as a Christian (3:13-17). In 1 Peter 4:12-19 he describes persecution as already occurring, so that some readers and exegetes have supposed that the letter was addressed both to places where such a "trial by fire" was already a reality and to places where such a trial might break out.
Peter's letter constantly mingles moral exhortation (Greek parakēsis) with its catechetical summaries of mercies in Christ. Encouragement to maintain firm fidelity in spite of suffering is based on a clear grasp of the meaning of Christian existence. His emphasis on baptism and his clearly evident allusions to various features of the baptismal liturgy suggest that he has incorporated into his exposition numerous homiletic, credal, hymnic, and sacramental elements of the baptismal rite that at an early date had already become traditional.
Christian tradition, from Irenaeus in the late second century until modern times, regarded Peter the Apostle as author of this document. Since according to tradition he was martyred at Rome during the persecution of Nero between A.D. 64 and 67, almost universally it was supposed that the letter was written from Rome shortly before his death. This is supposed by its reference to "the chosen one at Babylon" (1 Peter 5:13), commonly regarded as a code name for the corrupt harlot city of pagan Rome with its idols, temples and emperors declaring themselves to be God. The King James Bible does not offer a note at the end of the letter regarding where it was written.
Some liberal scholars, on the basis of a number of features they consider in their opinion to be incompatible with Petrine authenticity, regard 1 Peter as the work of a later Christian writer. Such features include the cultivated Greek in which it is written, a style difficult to ascribe to an uncultured Galilean fisherman, on the a priori assumption that he could never change and grow in understanding and be able, even with the grace of God, to improve in any way at all in his communication skills; also the letter's use of the Greek Septuagint translation in citing the Old Testment; the letter's similarity in thought and expression to the Pauline literature; and allusions to "widespread" persecution of Christians which they assert did not occur until at least the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96). According to this view the letter would date from the end of the first century or even the beginning of the second, when there is evidence for persecution of Christians in Asia Minor, for example, in the letter of Pliny the Younger to Trajan, A.D. 111-112.
Against this, other scholars assert that these objections can be met by appealing to the use of an amanuensis, a secretary, Silvanus, mentioned in 1 Peter 5:12. Such secretaries often as a matter of course, and as expected, gave literary expression to the author's thoughts in their own style and language. God as author, the Holy Spirit, moved both men to express what He wanted said. Also, the persecutions can refer to local areas and regions of harassment rather than to systematic repression by the state. With these wholly realistic considerations in view, there is nothing in the document incompatible in any way with Petrine authorship in the A.D. 60's.
It has been suggested that it is unlikely that Peter addressed a letter to the Gentile churches of Asia Minor while Paul was still alive, which proposes a period after the death of the two apostles, perhaps A.D. 70-90. The author would then be a disciple of Peter in Rome, representing a Petrine group that served as a bridge between the Palestinian origins of Christianity and its flowering in the Gentile world. The problem addressed would not be official persecution but the difficulty of living the Christian life in a hostile, secular environment that espoused different values and subjected the Christian minority to ridicule and oppression.
In answer it may be said that Peter, as an involved and concerned general leading pastor of the scattered Christians in Paul's area of ministry (see Acts 9:32; 15:6-11), during Paul's imprisonment in Caesarea and in Rome (Acts 22–24), when Paul was not able to minister to them, would have written to them and to their own local pastors (5:1-5) this letter of encouragement and admonition in language they would have come to expect from Paul as pastor and shepherd, assisted by Silvanus, whom Peter mentions (1 Peter 5:12), one of those who had traveled and ministered with Paul, and a man who knew him intimately.
The letter can be divided into five sections:
- Address (1:1-2)
- The Gift and Call of God in Baptism (1:3–2:10)
- The Christian in a Hostile World (2:11–4:11)
- Advice to the Persecuted (4:12–5:11)
- Conclusion (5:12-14)
Chapter 1 He gives thanks to God for the benefit of our being called to the true faith, and to eternal life; into which we are to enter by many tribulations. He exhorts to holiness of life; considering the holiness of God and our redemption by the blood of Christ.
Chapter 2 We are to lay aside all guile, and go to Christ the living stone; and as being now hos people, walk worthy of him, with submission to supervisors, and patience under sufferings.
Chapter 3 How wives are to behave to their husbands; what ornaments they are to seek. Exhortations to diverse virtues.
Chapter 4 Exhortations to cease from sin: to mutual charity: to do all for the glory of God: to be willing to suffer for Christ.
Chapter 5 He exhorts both presbyters and laity, to their respective duties, and recommends to all humility and watchfulness.
- The evidence for Peter in Rome is substantial. Nevertheless, many firmly assert that the evidence has not been firmly established as incontrovertible, that he was never there, apparently in opposition to the claims of the Catholic Church. An online search for Peter in Rome will present a multitude of articles pro and con. See Confirmation bias and Misrepresentation.