Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 2 Peter and Jude

Second Peter and Jude

Of all the New Testament writings thought to be pseudonymous by some commentators, the letter of 2 Peter is unique in that it is the only such writing about which doubts were expressed (regarding its stated authorship) in the early centuries. These doubts were based on clear differences in language and style between 1 and 2 Peter, together with the basic assumption that the Petrine authorship of 1 Peter was genuine. The author presents himself as an eye-witness to Jesus’ transfiguration in 1:16-18, but such a specific reference could just as well serve as an intentional pseudonymous detail meant to establish apostolic authorship (cf. also the apparent self-reference to 1 Peter in 3:1). Critical commentators would also point to the author’s mention of an early authoritative collection of Paul’s letters (3:16), and to the passing of the first generation of believers (3:4), as signs of a later date. On purely objective grounds, the arguments cannot be considered decisive, one way or the other.

If the letter is genuinely from Peter, then it must have been composed in the early-60’s A.D., not long after 1 Peter was written. If pseudonymous, then most likely it was composed nearer to the end of the first-century (c. 90 A.D.?). Regarding the eschatology of 2 Peter in particular, certain aspects do seem more consonant with a post-70 A.D. date; this will be discussed with the relevant passages below.

Commentators often treat the letter of Jude in tandem with 2 Peter, since the two letters share many similarities of subject matter, outlook, style, and emphasis (cp. Jude 2, 3, 5a, 5b-19, 24 with 2 Pet 1:2, 5, 12, 2:1-3:3, and 3:14, respectively). In terms of their eschatology, it also makes sense to discuss the letters together. The precise relationship between these two letters remains a matter of considerable debate among New Testament scholars. Perhaps the best explanation is that they stem from a common Tradition, much as we see with the Johannine writings, sharing a basic religious and theological approach, mode of expression, vocabulary, and so forth. Most critical commentators would date the letters to roughly the same period, c. 90 A.D. Some of the obvious parallels between 2 Peter and Jude, noted above, will be mentioned again in the notes below.

Second Peter

Chapter 1

The eschatological emphasis of 2 Peter can be seen already in the introduction (exordium), 1:3-11, if only brought out clearly in the final verses:

“Therefore (all the) more, brothers, you must act with speed to make secure your calling and gathering out [i.e. being chosen] (by God); for (in) making these (thing)s (secure) you shall (certainly) not ever fall. For so it shall be led round upon you, the way into the kingdom of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal kingdom] of our Lord and Savior Yeshua (the) Anointed.” (vv. 10-11)

In the following section (verses 12-21), the historical or autobiographical narration (narratio) and main proposition (propositio) of the letter are essentially combined, since they are wrapped up in the apostolic identity and authority of the author. The longstanding questions regarding the authorship of 2 Peter—whether pseudonymous or genuinely by Peter—were mentioned above. However one views the matter, there can be no doubt that in 1:12-21 the author purposely emphasizes the theme of apostolic authority; this is established in three parts:

    • Verses 12-15—The author, who identifies himself as Peter (v. 1), is nearing the end of his life, and feels it necessary to deliver one final message (as an inspired apostle) to believers. With regard to the critical view that the letter is pseudonymous, it may be worth noting that this sort of “last testament” setting is typical of many Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic writings (which tend to be pseudepigraphic).
    • Verses 16-18—Just as the author (as Peter) was eye-witness to Jesus’ manifestation in glory during the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8 par), so he is also a reliable (prophetic) witness to the glorious end-time appearance of Jesus.
    • Verses 19-21—The reliability of inspired prophecy is emphasized, and thus that the author’s own message (in the letter) is similarly inspired. The Prophets of the old Covenant and Apostles (missionaries) of the new Covenant were frequently joined together in early Christian thought—Luke 11:49; Eph 2:20; 3:5; Rev 18:20ff; cf. also Matt 5:12; 11:13; 23:29-37 par; Acts 10:41-43; 13:27, 31; Rom 16:26; 1 Thess 2:15; 1 Pet 1:10-12.

The central proposition is implicit, being alluded to most directly in verse 16, when the author indicates that his apostolic witness is reliable, and that “we made known to you our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed’s power and (his com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a]…”. The noun parousi/a was a well-established technical term in early Christianity for the end-time return of Jesus, as has been noted many times in this series. Thus, the author’s apostolic message (in the letter) is eschatological, referring to the end-time and the impending return of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 2

2 Peter 2:1-3

In chapter 2, the eschatological message takes the form of a warning against the “false teachers” (yeudodida/skaloi) who will appear at the end-time, implying that they are already present, but will become a more dangerous and pervasive force as the end draws nearer. This reflects a development in the eschatological tradition of the “false prophets” (yeudoprofh=tai) who will exert an influence over humankind during the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$), cf. Mark 13:22 par. This time of distress is marked by an increase in wickedness, that will include intense persecution and suffering by believers in Christ (Mark 13:9-13 par, etc); the faith of believers will be tested, with the danger that they might even be led astray by these “false prophets” and false Messiahs.

First Peter assumes this period of increasing wickedness and suffering/persecution among believers (cf. the previous article in this series), by which their faith will be tested, part of a fiery ordeal within the great end-time Judgment. Second Peter draws on the same basic tradition, but with a significant difference: in 1 Peter, the attacks come from the surrounding (pagan) population, while in 2 Peter they are from “false teachers” within the Christian Community itself. This may well reflect a somewhat later situation, corresponding to what we find in the Pauline Pastoral Letters and the Letters of John. Especially in 1 John (often dated c. 90 A.D.), the end-time “false prophets” are would-be fellow believers who hold (and teach) an erroneous view of Christ (2:18-19ff; 4:1-3ff). The idea of false teachers infiltrating the congregations is particularly prominent in the Pastorals (dated variously, 60-100 A.D., according to different views of authorship)—2 Tim 2:17-19; 3:1-9, 13; 4:3-4; 1 Tim 1:3-7; 4:1-5ff; 5:15; 6:3ff, 20-21; Titus 1:10-16; 3:9-11.

In the case of 2 Peter, it is clear that the author has in mind supposed Christians, since he tells his readers that such “false teachers” are (and will continue to be) “among you” (e)n u(mi=n), and that they have “brought in alongside”, i.e. surreptitiously, ruinous and destructive teachings, etc, by which they would lure others in the congregations to follow after them. This is the significance of the noun ai%resi$, preserved in English as a transliterated loanword (“heresy”). The word fundamentally means “taking hold” of something, figuratively in the sense of choosing to follow or trust in something, often with the partisan connotation of aligning oneself with a particular group or side. This is only such instance in the New Testament of this technical (negative) connotation which would become so prominent in early Christianity (cp. Acts 5:17; 15:5, etc; 1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20).

It is not clear precisely what these “false teachers” say and do, though at least a partial portrait emerges from the illustrations and expositions in the remainder of the chapter. Here, it is indicated that they are both greedy and deceptive in their speech, by which they would exploit and take advantage of believers (v. 3). Their actions are tantamount to denying the Lord (Jesus) himself, and are such that they would cause the “way of truth” to be defamed and insulted (v. 2). God’s end-time Judgment is very much in view when the author speaks of them “bringing ruin/destruction swiftly upon themselves” (v. 1). Even more explicit is the declaration in verse 3b:

“…these (person)s (for) whom the judgment of old is not idle (in coming), and their (final) ruin/destruction does not nod (off) [i.e. go to sleep].”

2 Peter 2:4-14

The eschatological warning of vv. 1-3 is developed by a pair of Scriptural illustrations (vv. 4-9, 15-17), each of which includes an exposition (vv. 10-14, 18-22) that applies it to the current situation, in the context of the coming Judgment. The first illustration brings together the two most famous episodes from the Old Testament which represent and depict the judgment of God upon the wickedness of humankind—the Great Flood (vv. 4-5) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (vv. 6-7). As it happens, each of these judgment-scenes came to serve as an illustrative type-pattern for the coming end-time Judgment. Jesus makes use of them together in an eschatological context (Luke 17:26-29; par Matt 24:37-38, where only Noah and the Flood is mentioned). Noah’s Flood is used in a similar fashion in 1 Peter (3:20ff, cf. the previous article). Of course, destruction by water and fire are the most common means by which the current Age is expected to come to an end, as seen in many eschatological traditions worldwide; this is a basic point of which the author was well aware (cf. below on 3:5-7).

Especially important are the figures of Noah and Lot, each of whom maintained his upright character in the face of the pervasive wickedness in the surrounding society, and, as a result, they were among the very few who were saved from the Judgment. The eschatological implications, and the application to believers (i.e. the readers of the letter), are obvious; these illustrations serve as an exhortation (and warning), vv. 8-9. Moreover, the wicked in the present day (from the standpoint of the letter) follow the pattern of those human beings (and Angels) who sinned in olden times, and are about to face a similarly destructive Judgment (vv. 10-14). The implication is that the “false teachers” are among this group of corrupt and evil persons, depicted so graphically (with some hyperbole) here; however, in this section, it is primarily the wickedness of society (humankind) as a whole that is in view.

2 Peter 2:15-22

The illustration in verses 15ff more properly relates to the false Christian teachers, utilizing the figure of Balaam from Old Testament and Israelite history (cf. similar references in Revelation 2:14 and Jude 11 [below]). Balaam, in the original matrix of traditions, is a complex character, featuring in chapters 22-24 of the book of Numbers. Ultimately, it was the negative aspect of this tradition—particularly, his apparent association with the incident at Peor (cf. Num 31:8, 16)—that came to dominate in subsequent Jewish tradition. Early Christians simply inherited Balaam as a representative figure for wickedness, idolatry, and false prophecy. Covetousness and greed is implied in this portrait (v. 15b), though it is not entirely clear how this relates specifically to the “false teachers”. The author caricatures them savagely, drawing upon the image of Balaam and his donkey (v. 16), and calling them

“fountains without (any) water, (cloud)s of fog being pushed under a storm-wind, for whom the gloom of darkness has been kept (waiting)” (v. 17)

In verses 18-19 we have the first real indication of what these persons may have taught, but it remains quite obscure (to us, at least). It may be that they were advocating social unrest among believers. If the letter was genuinely written by Peter, and/or written in the same setting and time-frame as 1 Peter, then it may reflect a situation of opposition and persecution by segments of the established (pagan) society in the region. Conceivably, these “false teachers” were giving the opposite advice of 1 Peter—instead of patience and humble, law-abiding behavior, they may have advocated a more aggressive approach, promising “freedom” and security by revolutionary means. On the other hand, this e)leuqeri/a (v. 19) could be understood more properly in moral/ethical terms, indicating a ‘false freedom’ that promoted corrupt and licentious behavior. Was the message political, social-ethical, or some combination of the two? What is certain is that these “false teachers” would consider themselves (and/or pretend to be) genuine Christians, and that they, whether intending to or not, would lead other believers away from the true faith (vv. 20-21). They face the same impending Judgment as do the wicked in the rest of society.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 forms the second part of the eschatological message. Alongside the warning of the “false teachers” of the end-time (chap. 2, cf. above), the author now assures his readers of the promise of Jesus’ return, that it is yet imminent.

2 Peter 3:3-7

After reiterating his main point—the reliability of the inspired apostolic witness (the author identifying himself as the apostle Peter, cf. above)—he proceeds to address the eschatological subject of the exalted Jesus’ return to earth. Verse 3 echoes the theme in chapter 2, of those wicked and deceptive “false teachers” who appear at the end-time, prior to Jesus’ return. Now they are turned (rhetorically) into mockers and skeptics who express doubt that Jesus will ever return, that this central Christian belief is itself foolish and misguided. The point as issue is set in their mouths as a question, followed by a taunt:

“Where is the (fulfillment of) the message about his (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a]? For, from the (time in) which the fathers laid down (to sleep), all (thing)s remain so throughout, (as they have) from (the) beginning of (the) formation (of the world)!” (v. 4)

The taunt in v. 4b actually serves to frame an apparently quite reasonable observation, and one which would only have had meaning for the early Christian Community. The central issue is the fact that, from the standpoint of the time when the letter was written, the first generation of believers (including the leading figures and apostles, “the fathers”) had passed away (“laid down [to sleep]”), and yet Jesus had still not returned. This reflects a concern over what is referred to by New Testament scholars as “the delay of the parousia” (on the term parousi/a, “[com]ing to be alongside”, cf. above).

As I have discussed throughout this series, virtually all Christians in the earliest period held an imminent eschatology—i.e., that the end, and the return of Jesus, was about to occur soon, generally within the lifetime of most believers. The idea that the first generation of believers would not (or might not) pass away until the end had come is expressed at several points in the Gospels and early Christian tradition, including the famous eschatological saying by Jesus in Mark 13:30 par. Concern over the passing of the generation of the apostles seems to underlie the tradition in John 21:22-23 as well. I discuss these passages in a separate note, as part of the study on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

The historical and/or literary setting of 2 Peter is centered around Peter’s (impending) death, much as the death of the ‘Beloved Disciple’ informs the appendix (chap. 21) of the Johannine Gospel. Most critical commentators recognize that the reference to the passing of the first generation (“the fathers”) is the mark a somewhat later date (post-70 A.D.), and thus the letter was likely not written by Peter. Traditional-conservative commentators would not be so quick to disregard the indications of Petrine authorship in chapter 1, and might explain the issue of the ‘delay of the parousia’ rather differently. Be that as it may, this sense of ‘delay’ is at the heart of the message in chapter 3. As a point of religious psychology, nearly all adherents—individuals and groups—with a strong eschatological orientation believe that they are the final generation, and that they will live to see the coming of the end. When that generation passes, when the expected moment comes and goes, it is then necessary to explain the apparent delay. We see this, for example, with the Community of the Qumran texts—cf. especially the commentary (pesher) on Habakkuk (1QpHab 7.6-14, commenting on Hab 2:3).

The explanation offered in 2 Peter to the problem follows in verses 8ff; however, it is preceded by a warning against all such doubts (i.e. that the return of Jesus may never come), aligning such skeptics with both the “false teachers” of chap. 2 and the earlier wicked generation that perished in the great Flood (2:4-5ff, cf. above), the implication being that they, too, will perish in the coming end-time Judgment. The author makes a clear parallel between the ancient destruction by water (the Flood) and the modern destruction by fire. This suggests an adaptation of the traditional cycle of Ages so common to the eschatology of the ancient world. At the very least, there is a sequence of two Ages: (1) the antediluvian world, destroyed by water, and (2) the current Age that followed, and still exists, which will be destroyed by fire. This is expressed quite clearly in verses 6-7. The idea that the current world would be consumed by fire was prominent, for example, in contemporary Stoicism, but it can be attested in many cultures and traditions of the period.

2 Peter 3:8-10

The author’s explanation of the ‘delay’ is rather simple, though many readers today would probably not find it particularly convincing. The first point, made in verse 8, draws upon the statement in Psalm 90:4:

“For a thousand years in your eyes (are) as (the) day before, for it passes over and (is as) a watch in the night.”

“But this one (thing) must not be hidden from you, (be)loved (one)s, that ‘a single day alongside (the) Lord (is) as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a single day’.” (v. 8)

In other words, God’s way of measuring time is very different from that of humans. The correspondence of “day” and “thousand years” was utilized in other apocalyptic/eschatological writings of the period, as a way of describing the time-frame of the current Age (and the Age to Come) according to the pattern of the seven days of Creation (cf. my recent article on the “thousand years” in Revelation 20). However, this does not seem to be in view here; rather, the comparison (day vs. thousand years) merely serves to open the possibility that the apparent delay is part of the wider plan of God, which we are not fully able to comprehend (cp. 1QpHab 7.7-8, 12-14).

The second explanation (v. 9) is more traditional (and ethical), based on the idea that God’s actions are aimed at giving humankind every opportunity to repent:

“For (the) Lord is not slow (regarding) the (fulfillment) of (His) messages about (the end), as some would lead (forth the idea) of slowness, but He is long in (His) impulse unto us, not wishing any(one) to go to ruin, but (rather) for all to make space [i.e. come over] into a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance].”

In spite of this apparent “slowness” (bradu/th$), the author maintains the imminence of Jesus’ return, emphasizing that it could yet occur at any moment:

“But the day of the Lord will arrive as (one) who steals [i.e. a thief], (a day) in which the heavens will go along [i.e. pass away] with a whir, and the (part)s of (its) arranged order will be loosened [i.e. dissolved], burning (with fire), and the earth, and the works in her, will be found (exposed).” (v. 10)

This is a graphic and colorful depiction of the end-time Judgment, though not without certain difficulties of vocabulary and syntax, using the imagery of the dissolution of the universe through fire, at the end of the current Age. The illustration of the day of the Lord coming unexpectedly, as a thief, is traditional, going back to the eschatological sayings of Jesus (Matt 24:43 par; cp. 1 Thess 5:2, 4; Rev 3:3; 16:15).

2 Peter 3:11-18

The message of vv. 1-10 leads into a closing exhortation, emphasizing again the coming Judgment and return of Jesus. The eschatological emphasis features in verses 11-14, transitioning from v. 10 with the opening phrase (v.11) that establishes the context of the exhortation: “All these (thing)s thus being loosened [i.e. dissolved]…”. In other words, with the end of the world still imminent, how are we to live as believers in Christ? In particular, Christians, in their thoughts and actions, should always be “looking toward (receiving)” (prosdokw=nta$) and “speeding oneself (toward)” (speudo/nta$) the return (parousi/a) of Jesus (v. 12). His return corresponds with the great Judgment and the dissolution of the universe, from which believers will be rescued. In turn, there is the promise of “a new heavens and a new earth” in which justice and righteousness dwells (v. 13). This is the coming New Age, described as a “new creation”, with an allusion to Isaiah 65:17; 66:22. What is mentioned briefly here is expounded in more precise visionary and symbolic detail in Revelation 21:1-22:5 (cf. the current notes on Revelation); but the basic eschatological concepts and traditions are the same.

The eschatological exhortation sharpens, reaching its climax in verse 14:

“Therefore, (be)loved (one)s, looking toward (receiving) these (thing)s, you must act with speed to be found without spot and without fault (before) Him, in peace.”

The verb speuda/zw, like the related speu/dw in v. 12, indicates the urgency for believers, in light of the impending return of Jesus (and end of the Age). It means acting with speed, or haste, but often connotes striving to accomplish something or to reach a particular goal; it may also reflect the eagerness with which we await the coming of Jesus.

The Letter of Jude

This short letter is said to have been written by one  )Iou/da$ (Heb. hd`Why+, Yehudah, “Judah, Juda[s]”); the intended person in question should probably be identified as the brother of Jesus (and James) mentioned in Mark 6:3 par, however, scholars debate whether this detail of verse 1 is authentic or a mark of pseudonymity (cf. on 2 Peter, above). The letter is quite similar in style, tone, and emphasis to 2 Peter—in particular, the bulk of Jude (vv. 5b-19) resembles chapter 2 (2:1-3:3) of 2 Peter. As noted above, the relationship between the two letters has been explained various ways; in my view, the best explanation is that they stem from a common line of tradition—here, primarily, an eschatological tradition regarding “false teachers” (= “false prophets”) who are to appear at the end-time, prior to Jesus’ return. As in 2 Peter, the implication is that they are already present among believers, having infiltrated the congregations; this, of course, serves as another sign (and reminder) that Jesus’ return and the end-time Judgment are imminent.

The eschatological orientation of the letter is indicated in the opening greeting (v. 1), as well as the closing doxology (vv. 24f). In verse 1, the description of believers as those “…having been kept watch over [i.e. guarded/preserved] in Yeshua (the) Anointed”, i.e. guarded until they are united with Jesus at his return. This is stated more clearly in the conclusion (v. 24):

“And to the (One) being able to guard you and to stand you in the sight of His splendor, without fault, in a leaping (for joy)…”

This is a depiction of believers standing before God at the Judgment, and able to pass through, delivered from the Judgment by our union with Jesus Christ and our participation in his saving work, i.e., “through Yeshua the Anointed our Lord”.

The idea of the “false teachers” is introduced in verse 4, being contrasted with “the trust [i.e. faith] (hav)ing been given along once to the holy (one)s” (v. 3)—that is, being received by the first witnesses, and passed down through a single, authentic and reliable chain of tradition. In 2 Peter, these “false teachers” are similarly contrasted with the inspired witness of Peter (and the other apostles), 1:16-21 (cf. above). The basic setting and premise (propositio) of the two letters is very similar, as is the expository development (probatio) that follows, in 2 Peter 2 and Jude 5ff, respectively. The Old Testament scenes of judgment—Israel in the wilderness, the Angels and the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah—serve as a type-pattern for the coming end-time Judgment (“the Judgment of the great Day”, v. 6); they also serve as a warning to God’s people today, of the need to remain faithful and alert, in the face of the increasing wickedness and deception in the last days.

The ‘false teachers’ are compared with those earlier wicked generations (v. 8). As in 2 Peter, we cannot be certain of exactly what they taught or did; the description is specific, but (to us) no longer clear; they are said to be:

“(one)s being (caught) in dreams—(on the one hand) they pollute the flesh, but (on the other) they set aside (the) honored (one)s and insult (them).”

Their lack of real knowledge, according to Jude, is declared harshly in verse 10. They are compared again with the wicked Angels, as well as key disobedient and rebellious figures from Old Testament and Israelite tradition—Cain, Balaam, Korah and his followers (verse 11, on Balaam, cf. above). They will be struck by the impending Judgment (vv. 12-13, note the similarity in thought and language with 2 Pet 2:17), the coming of which was prophesied already in the most ancient times, by Enoch (citing 1 Enoch 1:9, apparently, as authoritative Scripture). This is a common feature of apocalyptic literature of the period—events of the current time (or which are about to occur) are presented as prophecies made by famous figures of the past, i.e. as things which will take place in the distant future. Jude 14ff illustrates something of how such pseudepigrapha might develop.

The author (Jude) is more direct in his eschatological message, in verses 17-19:

“But you, (be)loved (one)s, you must remember the utterances, the (one)s having been spoken before(hand) under [i.e. by] the (one)s sent forth by [i.e. apostles of] our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, (the way) that they related to you [that] ‘Upon [i.e. in/at] the last time, there will be (the one)s acting as children in (all things), traveling (about) according to their own impulses (focused) upon (thing)s without reverence’. These are the (one)s marking themselves off (completely), (away) from (the truth), (one)s with (only) a soul, (but) not holding the Spirit.”

The sense of these ‘separatist’ Christians as false believers (“not holding the Spirit”) is reminiscent of the famous descriptions in 1 John (2:18-19; 4:1-3, etc). Though the situation in the two letters is no doubt quite different, they seem to share a common way of referring to other Christians whom they regard as having departed from the truth. The emphasis on preserving the common Tradition, and the danger from those who do not adhere to it (for whatever reason) is quite clear in these writings (as also in 2 Peter and the Pauline Pastoral letters). Most critical commentators would hold that Jude and 1 John, though stemming from different lines of tradition, were written at about same time (c. 90 A.D.).

The exhortation in verse 21 well summarizes the eschatological outlook of Jude, with its directive to “keep watch over [thrh/sate] yourselves”, and the emphasis on “looking toward (receiving) the mercy of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto the life of the Age[s]”. This points out once again how, for early Christians, their understanding of salvation (“our common salvation”, v. 3) is primarily (and fundamentally) eschatological. The end-time Judgment is likely in view in verse 23 as well, with the reference to “snatching out of the fire”, and the urgency surrounding the author’s exhortation. On the eschatological aspect of the closing doxology (vv. 24-25), cf. above; we should note, in particular, the important distinction made between “all the Age, even now” (i.e. the current Age), and the Age(s) to come (“into all the Ages”). Early Christians were quite cognizant of living on this threshold (“the last days/time/hour”) between the current Age and the Age to come—the coming Age being a “New Age” that opens into the fullness of eternal life.

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