Was 1 Peter Written to Jews?—This Changes Everything!
The other day I began to read 1 Peter devotionally. I did not make it through the first verse before something that I had never seen jumped out at me. Do you see it?
Peter, an apostle of Jesus the Messiah. To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” (1 Pet. 1:1-2)
Elect, Exiles, Scattered, Chosen
He refers to God’s elect—a term that is frequently used for Israel. “Often in the Old Testament, Israel is designated as God’s chosen and elect people. Deut 4:37; 7:6–8; 10:15; 14:2; Ps 106:5; Isa 14:1; 41:8–18; 43:20; 45:4; 51:2; 65:9, 15, 23.”
And these elect are exiles who have been scattered. The prophets constantly refer to the Jews as those who were exiled (the word is found nearly 100 times in the prophets, almost exclusively referring to Judah going into exile) and scattered (roughly 30 times, mostly referring to the Jewish people being exiled). I always assumed that Peter was simply writing a general letter to all believers in that region. Yet this language is very similar to that of the prophets. Ezra and Nehemiah refer to the Jews who returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian deportation as exiles.
Ps. 147:2 says, “The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the exiles of Israel.”
Jeremiah prophesied, “He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.” (Jer. 31:10).
Indeed there were a large number of Jews living in the regions mentioned. “These provinces were primarily Gentile but with large numbers of Jews living in them.” And there is this: “When he says they are ‘dispersed abroad,’ the Greek term he uses is ‘diasporas,’ a term used to refer to the scattering of the Jewish people (from which we get the phrase ‘Diaspora Jews’).
As I dug in, I found that the view of most of the earliest interpreters was that he was writing to Jewish believers.
One debate is whether the recipients of the letter were mainly Jewish or Gentile. Most ancient interpreters (Origen, Eusebius, the Greek Fathers) tended to believe they were Jewish…The use of the Old Testament, the allusion to the readers as “exiles of the Dispersion” (1:1, RSV), and the Jewish flavor of several passages could point to Jewish provenance…
John Calvin also claimed that the dispersed in v. 1 could only apply to Israel. Yet, modern interpreters believe it was written to Gentile believers. Peter could simply be spiritualizing the term “exiles,” because our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Certainly, in 2:11, he is using the terms foreigners and exiles in the spiritual sense, not a Jewish national sense. On the other hand, v. 12 tells his readers to live “good lives among the Gentiles.” Gentile (ethnos) here could mean non-Jew, unbeliever, or both.
Why is this a big deal?
There is so much imagery from the Old Testament in 1 Peter that if we conclude he was writing to Gentiles, it strengthens the idea that the church has replaced Israel.
In 1 Peter 2:9, the readers are said to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession” — phrases pulled right out of the Hebrew Scriptures as descriptors of the nation of Israel. If Peter is applying this imagery to Gentiles, then as Scot McKnight claims, “There is no passage in the New Testament that more explicitly associates the Old Testament terms for Israel with the New Testament church than this one.”
But here is the problem with that. If the audience is Jewish, then there is no controversy. If this calling to be a royal priesthood and chosen nation was valid before coming to Messiah, how much more afterward. Paul says that the calling on Israel is irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). But if his audience is primarily Gentile, then these phrases are foreign to them. Remember, the Hebrew scriptures (the only Bible they had at the time) were only in the Jewish synagogue. The average Gentile believer was fairly ignorant of concepts from the Hebrew scriptures. While many of the New Testament books had been written by then, they were mostly letters to specific churches, and without a printing press, which would come 1500 years later, they were not widely circulated. How did these believers survive? On apostolic tradition and memorizing creeds—but that is another blog.
Another example is in Chapter 2, Peter quotes Ps. 118:22, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This would have great meaning to Jewish believers—a remnant who found Messiah, understanding that the leadership (builders) had rejected Yeshua. This meaning would have been lost on the non-Jewish believers. Like in Hebrews, a book clearly written to Jewish believers (my theory is that they were former Temple priests who had come to faith living in exile [see Acts 6:7]), he uses the imagery of the Temple priesthood and sacrifices to explain Messiah’s mission. Again, this would not have made since to a Gentile audience living in Asia in pre-64CE (Peter was martyred in 64CE). But it is wildly illuminating to the Jewish believers who now see themselves as “living stones” who are “being built into a spiritual house” (2:5) as opposed to the dead stones of the former house—the Temple.
One weakness in my hypothesis is in chapter 4:3, where he seems to be addressing former pagans: “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.” Good Jews would certainly not join in with pagans like this. However, notice he doesn’t say “other pagans,” but “what pagans choose to do.” The word translated pagan is ethne and is usually translated as nations or Gentiles.
Even the scholar Thomas Schreiner says it refers to Israel but then wrongly interprets Israel as the church. In other words, even those who wrongly believe “the Church is identified as the new Israel in Paul” admit that Peter is speaking to Israel—not pagans. Keep in mind many Jews were Hellenistic, meaning they had rejected Jewish culture for Greek; thus, they could have been those who once lived “in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, and detestable idolatry.” So, this problem verse actually supports the view that his audience was Jewish.
Throughout the book, Peter contrasts his readers with the ethne—the nations.
Those outside of the circle to whom Peter is writing are referred to as ‘Gentiles’ (ἐθνῶν). The pronouns are most significant: ‘You’ are not a part of ‘them’ and ‘they’ are surprised that ‘you’ do not run with ‘them,’ and therefore, ‘they’ malign ‘you.’ It would hardly be possible to draw a sharper contrast between the Gentiles and Peter’s audience. The clear implication is that his audience is comprised of Jewish believers. Since, however, it has been concluded that the audience, though Gentile, is being addressed as the ‘true Israel,’ then the word ‘Gentiles’ is reinterpreted as ‘unbelievers,’ or non-Christians.
One of the ways that we interpret scripture is to ask, “What is the clear meaning (as opposed to hidden meaning) of the passage?” Based on verse 1 and his allusion to chosen exiles who were scattered, it would lead to the assumption that he was writing to Jewish believers. And if you look at 2 Peter, he addresses differently: “To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours” (2 Pet. 1:1b). It clearly is addressed to a more general audience.
Two final questions: Why does the most recent scholarship believe Peter was writing to Christians in general? And, if he was writing exclusively to Messianic Jews, why? I believe the further we got away from the original Jewish congregation in Jerusalem, it became harder and harder for theologians to understand the unique role of Israel, a role that Paul says is still valid (Rom. 11:29). I believe the attitude became, “why would he be writing to Jews? It makes no sense.”
So why was he writing exclusively to Jewish believers? Because Jewish believers were being persecuted for their faith. Just as the writer of Hebrews around the same time is encouraging Jewish believers not to cave into persecution, Peter is seeking to encourage Jewish believers in their faith. He reminds them that they have found the cornerstone. Their lives have been redeemed by a perfect lamb—something every Jew who had eaten the Passover meal would understand. he is showing them that believing in Jesus as Messiah is completely consistent with the Hebrew scriptures, and thus draws in the sacred calling from Exodus 19 to be a chosen nation, a royal priesthood.
But here’s what he’s not doing. He is not making the case that the Jewish believer is above the Gentile believer. He is not making the case that the Jewish people are better in any way than Gentile believers. In the same way that Paul writes to churches in specific cities, Peter is writing to a specific segment of the ecclesia, with unique theological concerns and temptations to return to a Jesus-less Judaism, which he calls, their “empty way of life.”
 Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 50.  Grant R. Osborne, “1 Peter,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: James, 1–2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, ed. Philip W. Comfort, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011), 135.  Derek Demars, “Was 1 Peter Written to Jews or Gentiles? Why the Answer Matters More Than You Might Think,” Theology Pathfinder, September 28, 1019, https://derekdemars.com/2019/09/28/audience-of-1-peter-jews-or-gentiles/  Grant R. Osborne, “1 Peter,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: James, 1–2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, ed. Philip W. Comfort, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011), 135.  Demars, “Was 1 Peter written to Jews or Gentiles?...”  The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 1 Pe 2:7.  “Book review: Heirs of Promise: The Church as the New Israel in Romans,” Community Bible Church, accessed September 17, 2022, https://communitybible.org/book-review-heirs-of-promise-the-church-as-the-new-israel-in-romans.  Jim R. Sibley, “You Talkin’ to Me? 1 Peter 2:4-10 and a Theology of Israel,” Southwestern Journal of Theology, 59:1 (Fall 2016), 66. https://swbts.edu/sites/default/files/images/content/docs/journal/59_1/SWJT%2059.1_Sibley.pdf.