Richard Bauckham writes in the HarperCollins Bible Commentary:
2 Peter belongs not only to the literary genre of the letter, but also to that of "testament"... In Jewish usage the testament was a fictional genre... It is therefore likely that 2 Peter is also a pseudonymous work, attributed to Peter after his death... These literary considerations and the probable date of 2 Peter... make authorship by Peter himself very improbable.Scot McKnight, writing in the Eerdmans Commentary notes that 2 Peter
was probably composed within two decades after his death. No book in the Bible had more difficulty establishing itself in the canon. As late as Eusebius (d. 371) some did not consider 2 Peter to be from the Apostle or part of the canon... doubts continued for centuries (e.g., Calvin and Luther)McKnight adds:
There is clear evidence that 2 Peter is either dependent on Jude or on a later revision of a tradition used by the author of Jude and then by the author of 2 Peter... The letter probably emerges from a Hellenistic Jewish context, probably in Asia.Neither Bauckham nor McKnight can be regarded as skeptics, both are firmly within the conservative Christian tent. Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, isn't. He notes that
whoever wrote 2 Peter, it was not Simon Peter the disciple of Jesus. Unlike 1 Peter, the letter of 2 Peter was not widely accepted, or even known, in the early church. The first time any author makes a definite reference to the book is around 220 CE, that is 150 years after it was allegedly written. It was finally admitted into the canon somewhat grudgingly, as church leaders of the later third and fourth centuries came to believe that it was written by Peter himself. But it almost certainly was not... As scholars have long recognized, much of the invective is borrowed, virtually wholesale, from another book that found its way into the New Testament, the epistle of Jude. This is one of the reasons for dating the letter itself somewhat later... it is dependent on another letter that appears to have been written near the end of the first century.Sadly, none of this prevents apologists from playing fast and loose with the text. A Church of God writer has asserted (apparently with a straight face) that 2 Peter 1:12-15 proves ol' Pete himself was a prime mover in the creation of the canon! Even worse are these downright deceptive notes provided in a copy of the simply awful ESV Bible.
Peter probably wrote this letter from a Roman prison about A.D. 67-68, shortly before his death... Recalling his firsthand experience of Christ's glory at the Transfiguration (1:17-18), Peter explains the "more sure" truth of the gospel as an antidote to heresy. (ESV, NT book introductions, 2 Peter.)Total rubbish. "Peter probably" did no such thing. This is whistling in the dark, hoping the peons in the pews won't dig beyond shallow reassurances. Ignorance is bliss. Way back in 1981 James Barr wrote:
[I]t can be said, and should and must be said, that in some at least of the new 'evangelical' translations the Bible itself has been doctored to make it say the sort of thing that modern revivalist fundamentalists say...
[F]undamentalism is not basically concerned with the Bible and what it says, but with the achievement of dominance for the evangelical tradition of religion and way of life. (1981 foreword to "Fundamentalism".)It's not that there was merely an innocent misidentification of 2 Peter's authorship, the forger deliberately misrepresented himself as Peter. How do we know this?
16 We didn’t repeat crafty myths when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary, we witnessed his majesty with our own eyes. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when a voice came to him from the magnificent glory, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.To put no too fine a point on it, the author is telling blatant, in-your-face porkies. He witnessed nothing with his own eyes, heard no voice from heaven and was not with Jesus on any holy mountain. Bob Price pulls no punches:
2 Peter is thus a double fraud: it is not a Petrine writing, and its author is baldly lying about being an eyewitness to the Transfiguration.So what do we do with 2 Peter? Can it even be scripture in any meaningful sense of that word? And if it can be, why not the Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel of Thomas or the Book of Mormon?
Given these issues, what are we left with?
2 Peter is pseudonymous. Whoever wrote it, it wasn't Peter. The fingerprints of forgery and/or fiction are all over it.
2 Peter was admitted to the canon with difficulty. The problem was recognized long ago, but conveniently sidelined and ultimately ignored. The 2008 edition of the evangelical NIV Study Bible, no friend of biblical criticism, notes that "it was not ascribed to Peter until Origen's time (185-253), and he seems to reflect some doubt concerning it. Eusebius (265-340) placed it among the questioned books, though he admits that most accept it as from Peter."
2 Peter claims to be written by Peter. The writer explicitly says so: "1 From Simon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ." And a few verses later he claims to have been tweeting at the Transfiguration (chapter 1: 16-18, quoted above).
2 Peter is still claimed for Peter by many commentators and 'authorities'. Evangelical sources generally nod toward the difficulties, and then airbrush them away with comforting coos of reassurance. No dear reader, worry not your silly little head about such things for we can indeed explain it away at a stretch, given a large enough rubber band. Thus the NIV Study Bible, the awful NLT Study Bible, the Orthodox Study Bible... In fact 2 Peter makes a great litmus test when you're thinking of acquiring a Study Bible.
2 Peter as a creative piece of canonical fiction is modern construct. This seems to be the view of moderate commentators, those who shun fundamentalism, but still want to assert a kind of canonical exceptionalism. Yes, 2 Peter is fictive, but that's okay. All we need to do is grasp the subtleties of genre and the problem disappears.
Many scholars believe the letter was written some years after Peter's death, by someone who wrote in his name. This was an accepted practice in ancient times. The references to Peter... would have been understood by the original readers as literary devices used in this type of writing. (Augsburg Fortress Lutheran Study Bible.)Convinced? Not really. Who exactly were "the original readers"? In a largely pre-literate society I'd suggest the best term would be "original hearers", and that by and large they were sucked right in. It's a tad easier to buy the genre defence with Jonah, for example, and even the apocalypticism of Daniel. Fair enough. But the Epistles?
If the people who forged the New Testament letters of, say, Peter and Paul had "no intention to decieve" and did "not in fact" deceive anyone, we again are left with the problem of why everyone (for many, many centuries) was in fact deceived. Bart Ehrman, Forged, p.126.And where is the evidence that the early church indeed regarded 2 Peter as a trendy piece of inspired fiction? Such did exist - the much loved Shepherd of Hermas for example, and the marvelously inventive Acts of Paul (and Thecla). But did either make the canonical cut? And was it really "an accepted practice in ancient times"?
2 Peter is a forgery, and forgeries were condemned in the ancient world. Bart Ehrman devotes a full chapter in his book Forged to all the various excuses that have been hauled out to justify or explain away pseudonymous writings. One of the slickest is called, with an appropriate nod to academic jargon, "reactualizing the tradition", the brainchild of David Meade. Ehrman's response is well worth reading in full. Bald claims like those in the Lutheran Study Bible are quickly put to the sword; there is little or no evidence to back up such sweeping assertions.
They state it as a fact. And why do they think it's a fact? For most New Testament scholars it is thought to be a fact because, well, so many New Testament scholars have said so! But ask someone who makes this claim what her ancient source of information is or what ancient philosopher actually states that this was a common practice. More often than not you'll be met with a blank stare. Bart Ehrman, Forged, p.130.There is another problem here too. If 2 Peter is pseudonymous and fictive, but it says what we need it to say, then it's all hunky dory. If the Acts of Paul and Thecla is pseudonymous and fictive, but it says things we don't like (perhaps a strong female character portrayed in the strapping Thecla), then it's another matter entirely. Where's the justification in that?
There's a useful summary in Ehrman's The New Testament: An Historical Introduction. Forgery was commonplace in the ancient world, and it did have a legitimate place, but only as a classroom exercise in rhetorics. There were lots of attempts to lard up the canon with such documents (3 Corinthians anyone?) Some, like 2 Peter, got through anyway. Despite the pious finessing of the apologists, forgery was almost universally condemned at the time. And why is it that those scholars who would sooner wash their mouths out with soap and water than talk about forgeries in the New Testament, usually have no such compunction when it comes to so labelling documents outside the New Testament.
Frankly, even with truckloads of both sophistication and sophistry, it's a mess.
So, what do we do with 2 Peter. I suppose there are more than three options, but let's assume that we regard the scriptures as authoritative in our heritage, and that we wish to deal honestly with them. One option is to do a Luther. The reformer consigned Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to the fringes of the canon - a sort of appendix to the New Testament - on theological grounds (one can only wish Revelation, in particular, had stayed there), so the precedent definitely exists. The problem would be, I guess, once you started down this road - where would one stop? 2 Peter might be the most egregious example, but there are others not far behind (see Luther's list just for starters!)
A second option is, as we've already seen, to concede the problem but then boldly declare that it doesn't matter. "So there are fictitious accounts in the New Testament? So what? We just need a more sophisticated reading." Sophisticated and sophistry come from the same root. This will hardly convince the fundamentalists, nor most evangelicals. Liberal non-Catholics (we used to call them Protestants) might be comfortable with this stratagem but it's hard to see bright-eyed, bushy-tailed missionaries heading off to convert the heathen when they have to admit that the source of their enthusiasm for the Water of Life is a such a muddied puddle. So yes, I think it does matter when we have cuckoos in the nest like 2 Peter and no, there is unlikely to be any amount of clever sophistry that will provide a palliative.
Option three is to accept the New Testament for what it is, and yes it matters. The Bible is authoritative in the same limited sense that a denomination's confessional documents are (for example the Westminster and Augsburg confessions). It marks the way along which we came and a shared history. It's a rough and weedy path and we've stumbled more than a few times, cursing the potholes and thorns. But it's only a means to an end, our eyes are on a more distant horizon. The Bible has a functional value. Pilgrims don't worship the ground they walk on en route (at least most don't), they strive to reach toward something that always lies beyond. This option shares many of the same problems as the second, but at least affirms that 'honesty is the best policy'.
None of these options are likely satisfy true believers, but there's no going back. 2 Peter is a junk epistle, worthless for proof texting, dubious for devotional purposes, our own little Book of Mormon within the Good Book. Strong words maybe, but again, it was Luther who called James "an epistle of straw". Are we dealing with intentional fiction? That's surely flattering the situation. You can say that about some biblical books, Jonah for example, but they are obviously a very different genre of literature, and unlikely to have been written with duplicitous intent. It's hard to be as forgiving when we get to 2 Peter. We may be stuck with it, but we don't have to like it, lie about it or deny that a problem exists.
Originally posted in 2 parts here in 2012, with a later follow-up. The text has been edited slightly.