Authorship Questions in 2 Peter: Debunking the Forgery Claim

The authenticity of the second letter of Peter has sparked debates since ancient times. While the early church embraced it as genuine, most modern scholars firmly label it as a forgery. On this point, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman is quite emphatic: “There is less debate among scholars of the New Testament about the authorship of 2 Peter than for any of the other books sometimes considered forgeries. Whoever wrote 2 Peter, it was not Simon Peter.” (Forged: Writing in the Name of God, pg.80)

The issues stem from several reasons: first, it lacks significant references from early church fathers, unlike many other books. Second, its writing style differs notably from Peter’s first epistle and shares striking similarities with the book of Jude. These similarities raise questions about its authorship and authenticity. Additionally, its theological themes seem more in line with concerns of the second century rather than Peter’s time. The claim of authorship by Peter in the beginning of the letter raises a challenge for Christians, leaving a puzzling question about how God’s “inspired Word” can be straight-up dishonest.

A lack of early attestation?

First, let’s look at some of the external evidence. The church historian Eusebius (c. 265–339) expressed doubts about 2 Peter, noting that the letter wasn’t cited by the “ancient presbyters” (Hist. eccl. 3.3.1). He classified 2 Peter, along with James, 2–3 John, and Jude, among the “disputed books”, while acknowledging that these texts were “nevertheless … known to most” (Hist. eccl. 3.25.1–4). However, later Church Fathers like Jerome, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Augustine affirmed the canonicity of 2 Peter.

Before Eusebius, Origen, who wrote around 220-230 AD, is the first known to explicitly mention 2 Peter by name, quoting it six times. He acknowledges doubts about the letter’s authorship, stating, “Peter left one accepted letter, maybe a second, which is debated” (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.11). Despite these uncertainties, Origen seems to view 2 Peter as equally authoritative as 1 Peter, noting that while some doubted its authenticity, he ultimately didn’t question its place in the canon (Origen, Hom. In Josh. 7.1).

In approximately 232-269 AD, Firmilian, the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, wrote to Cyprian, accusing the bishop of Rome of misusing the teachings of the holy Apostles, Peter and Paul, who, in their Epistles, condemned heretics and warned us to avoid them. This reference to Peter specifically brings our thoughts to this particular Epistle. Firmilian’s testimony from Cappadocia is crucial for this writing, given the first letter of Peter was addressed in part to the Cappadocians. Even if it wasn’t as widespread as other New Testament books, the main thing is if we have enough evidence about its existence and authorship. Inside the text, it says it was written by Peter, and the Christians from that area agree with this claim.

Even though there’s disagreement, some claim that the line “with the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” from 2 Peter 3:8 appears in writings by Irenaeus (around 180–200 AD). They say the way Irenaeus wrote it (in Haer. 5.23.2) is more similar to 2 Peter 3:8 than to Psalms 90:4 in the Greek Septuagint.

In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr (c. 150 AD) makes a strong hint to 2 Peter 2:1. He says, “Just as there were false prophets (ψευδοπροφῆται) during your holy prophets’ time [referring to the Jews], now there are many false teachers (ψευδοδιδάσκαλοι) among us, as our Lord warned us.” 2 Peter 2:1 says something similar: “There were false prophets (ψευδοπροφῆται) among the people [the Jews], and there will be false teachers (ψευδοδιδάσκαλοι) among you.”

In his commentary on Jude and 2 Peter, Richard Bauckham notes that this comparison between false prophets in the Old Testament and false teachers in the church is rare in early Christian writings, appearing mainly in these two passages. Also, the term ψευδοδιδάσκαλοι is found only in these two places in literature until Justin’s time. Therefore, Justin Martyr’s likely reference to 2 Peter hints at its acceptance in the early second century, prompting us to even consider its origins in the first century.

New Testament scholar Michael J. Kruger points out that the evidence strongly suggests that the Apocalypse of Peter, dated around 110, drew significantly from 2 Peter in its creation. In his commentary on Jude and 2 Peter, Joseph Mayor outlines numerous literary and structural connections between the two texts, supporting the idea that 2 Peter was foundational to the Apocalypse. (pg. 130–134) Moreover, the general consensus recognizes 2 Peter as the superior work in both literary and spiritual aspects. It’s improbable that a lower-quality work would inspire a higher-quality one, as imitations usually decline in quality over time. Therefore, granting 2 Peter literary precedence seems reasonable. If this analysis holds, it suggests that 2 Peter could be dated back to the first century, compelling a reconsideration of its authorship.

In 1 Clement 23:3, a text is quoted without specifying from where, saying, “Wretched are the double-minded, those who doubt in their soul and say, ‘We have heard these things even in our Father’s times, and, see, we have grown old and none of them has happened to us.’” A similar idea appears in 2 Peter 3:4, where it talks about mockers saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” Even though the words are different, there’s a similar theme in both passages, suggesting a shared context. Furthermore, Clement writes: “On account of hospitality and godliness, Lot was delivered from Sodom when all the neighboring region faced condemnation with fire and brimstone. The Lord showed that He does not abandon those who trust in Him, but those who choose other paths are assigned punishment and suffering” (1 Clement 11:1-2). The connection in words and thoughts suggests that Clement had 2 Peter 2:6-9 in mind. Clement wrote in the latter half of the first century.

Why did 2 Peter face such skepticism and not gain immediate acceptance despite being known from the first century? It could be due to the many fake writings attributed to Peter floating around. Some heretical groups used Peter’s name to support their wrong ideas. This made the early church extra wary about writings claiming to be from Peter. However, the fact that Church Fathers eventually accepted 2 Peter while rejecting other works claiming to be Peter’s suggests that 2 Peter was much different from the rest.

Consider also that our view of 2 Peter’s evidence is influenced by comparing it to well-supported books in the New Testament. Maybe it seems lacking only because we’re comparing it to the heavy hitters. When we look at it in the context of what’s needed to authenticate writings from that time, 2 Peter holds up just fine.

Now let’s discuss some of the alleged internal problems raised against 2 Peter.

1. Did 2 Peter Copy Jude?

2 Peter and Jude share a lot of similar parts—almost like 2 Peter borrowed ideas from Jude. They match up in order and specific thoughts for about 20 verses. This is taken to suggest that the writer of 2 Peter might have used Jude’s writing, which challenges the notion of Peter being the direct author of 2 Peter, as it appears to have drawn more from Jude, and many scholars date Jude to long after Peter’s death.

In response to this, it’s plausible that Peter wrote a letter addressing false teachers in a specific community and shared its contents with Jude. Jude, encountering a similar false teaching issue, might have borrowed sections from 2 Peter relevant to his situation, rather than the other way around. For instance, comparing 2 Peter 3:3 and Jude 17–18 shows a striking similarity in the wording. But the similarity in content alone might not decide who wrote first. It’s tough to say which book influenced the other because their connection is complex. However they’re connected (and they likely are), their connection doesn’t mean Peter didn’t write his letter earlier. The dating of Jude is still debated, so even if 2 Peter borrowed from it, it doesn’t set the date for Peter’s letter.

2. Is 2 Peter too different from 1 Peter?

Let’s talk about how 1 Peter and 2 Peter are written differently. 1 Peter has 542 words, 2 Peter has 399, and they only share 153 words in common. Some say this means they were written by different people. But wait, there are other books with similar differences in the New Testament, like 1 Timothy and Titus, or 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, written by the same authors but showing similar differences in word use. So, differences in writing style don’t always mean different authors.

These two letters have different purposes too. 1 Peter is about supporting a church facing hard times, while 2 Peter deals with false teachings. Saying different people wrote them just because of how they’re written is tricky. For example, only the second verses in both letters match. Why would a forger copy just that part? Plus, the phrase “grace and peace be multiplied” is only in these two books in the whole New Testament. That’s something to think about when talking about who wrote them.

Furthermore, while critics have said that 1 and 2 Peter seem to have different theologies, the purposes of each letter is different and there is remarkable overlapping themes that seem to come from the same mind.

Themes Corresponding Scriptures – 1 Peter Corresponding Scriptures – 2 Peter
Second Coming of the Lord 1 Pet 1:5, 5:4, 4:7 2 Pet 2:9, 3:7, 3:12
Noah’s Salvation from the Flood 1 Pet 3:19–21 2 Pet 2:5, 3:6–7
Connection Between Noah and Christ’s Preaching 1 Pet 3:19 2 Pet 2:5
God’s Longsuffering and Repentance 1 Pet 3:20 2 Pet 3:9, 3:15
Concern with Prophecy 1 Pet 1:10–11 2 Pet 1:21

3. Is 2 Peter referring to 2nd century Gnostic heretics?

Another argument posits that the “false teachers” mentioned in 2 Peter 2 appear to mirror a second-century situation, suggesting that the author is referencing the Gnostics. These heretical beliefs didn’t really become a problem for the church until the second century.

But the argument that Peter didn’t write this because of a link to second-century Gnosticism is quite weak. The letter doesn’t show key Gnostic beliefs, like dualism or denying that Jesus came in the flesh. Some suggest it might be “early-stage Gnosticism,” but that doesn’t clarify things either. Another idea is that the false teachers were influenced by Epicureanism, a popular philosophy back then. Epicureans rejected divine judgment and life after death, matching what the false teachers deny in chapter 3. Their beliefs could lead to lawless behavior. These speculative theories reveal our lack of proof to confidently identify the false teachers in 2 Peter. Attempting to tie them to just one group might not be the right approach. In ancient times, like today, people encountered many ideas, so pinpointing exactly where the false teachers got their beliefs isn’t easy. In the middle of the first century, Paul had to deal with false believers who said “let us do evil that good may result.” (Rom 3:8) The evidence in 2 Peter is too limited to firmly connect it to second-century Gnosticism.

4. 2 Peter and the delay of Jesus’ return

Another doubt raised is about mentions of “our fathers” (thought to mean the earliest Christians), the importance of apostolic tradition (seen in 2 Peter 3:2, 16), and the idea that the Parousia (Jesus’ Second Coming) might be delayed (2 Peter 3:8). Some think these suggest a later date, when the hope for an immediate Parousia had faded and a stronger church authority had emerged.

Ehrman seems to think this is a knockdown argument. He says: “One of the reasons virtually all scholars agree that Peter did not actually write this letter is that the situation being presupposed appears to be of much later times. When Peter himself died—say, the year 64 under Nero—there was still eager expectation that Jesus would return soon; not even a full generation had passed since the crucifixion. It was only with the passing of time that the Christian claim that all would take place ‘within this generation’ (Mark 13:30) and before the disciples had ‘tasted death’ (Mark 9:1) started to ring hollow. By the time 2 Peter was written, Christians were having to defend themselves in the face of opponents who mocked their view that the end was supposed to be imminent. So ‘Peter’ has to explain that even if the end is thousands of years off, it is still right around the corner by God’s calendar; everything is still on schedule.” (Ibid, pg. 81)

Skeptics online really like to play this one up, but this particular argument isn’t nearly as invincible as it looks. Scholars such as Michael J. Kruger and D.A. Carson have pointed out that in both the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers, “our fathers” commonly refers to Jewish patriarchs, not the apostles. It fits perfectly with the context: scoffers denying the parousia by claiming an unchanging world since creation, even denying Noah’s flood. If they’re opposing Jesus’ Second Coming by referencing the start of time, mentioning Jewish patriarchs makes complete sense. If critics like Ehrman want to use this argument of delay to date 2 Peter to the early second century, consistency would require them to also date Matthew and Luke to the second century. Both Gospels contain parables attributed to Jesus warning the church to expect delay (See Matthew 24:45-51, 25:1-30; Luke 12:35-48).

5. Why would Peter call Paul’s letters ‘Scripture’?

Another complaint is that the author of 2 Peter calls Paul’s letters Scripture, something no one in the 60’s AD would say. Here’s Ehrman again: “….the author of 2 Peter is writing at a time when there was already a collection of Paul’s letters in circulation, and these letters were being considered on a par with the Old Testament “Scriptures” (3:16). This could not have been during Paul’s lifetime, and early church tradition indicates that both Peter and Paul were killed during the reign of Nero.” (Ibid, pg. 82)

In response, D.A. Carson protests, writing: “How early were New Testament books considered to be canonical? We cannot be sure. But we do know that the apostles considered their own words to carry an authority tantamount to Scripture (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:3; 2 Cor. 10:11; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:14). They thought of themselves as inspired by the same Spirit who inspired the prophets (1 Pet. 1:10–12). They expected their letters to be read in church along with the Old Testament (cf. Col. 4:16).17 Moreover, Paul can cite a word of Jesus as “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18—although, of course, many scholars consider this also to be a late work). Therefore, while somewhat unexpected, the description of Paul’s letters as “Scripture,” especially since the reference is allusive, is possible by the end of Peter’s life.” (Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 661)

Kruger also raises some interesting points in response. He argues that in 2 Peter 3:16, we don’t have to think of “all of Paul’s letters” as meaning anything more than all the letters of Paul that Peter knew at that time. It’s not entirely surprising that Peter saw Paul’s works as important as the Old Testament Scripture. Paul claimed divine authority for his own writing (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:37-38) and Peter, understanding the significance of the prophetic and apostolic witness as God’s revelation, would recognize this.

Although the Apostolic Fathers didn’t directly compare Paul’s works to the Old Testament, it makes sense that Peter understood Paul’s writings quicker. Paul was a beloved brother to Peter. Furthermore, it’s improbable that a false writer would depict Peter struggling to understand Paul’s letters. Typically, pseudonymous writers glorify their heroes rather than admitting weaknesses. Therefore, Peter’s self-criticism supports the authenticity of the letter. (“The Authenticity of 2 Peter”, Kruger, pg. 20)

6. Wasn’t Peter illiterate?

Bart Ehrman’s main objection to Petrine authorship is the old “Peter was an illiterate fisherman” routine. Ehrman writes: “According to Acts 4:13, both Peter and his companion John, who was also a fisherman, were described as agrammatoi, a Greek word meaning “unlettered” or “illiterate.” So, could Peter have written 1 and 2 Peter? There are convincing reasons to doubt he wrote 2 Peter, and some doubts about 1 Peter as well. However, it’s highly likely that Peter couldn’t write at all. It’s important to note that the book of 1 Peter is authored by someone highly educated, proficient in Greek, and deeply knowledgeable about the Jewish Scriptures in their Greek translation, the Septuagint. This portrayal doesn’t align with Peter’s capabilities.” (ibid, pg. 87)

Firstly, Acts 4:13 reports the opinions of snobbish scribes regarding Peter and his crew as a band of hick Galileans who were not formally trained. This does not necessarily reflect Luke’s viewpoint. It’s frustrating how skeptics often abuse this passage. Additionally, 1 Peter 5:12 explicitly states that Peter had help writing the letter from a scribe named Silvanus. Thus, the more polished language and style differences in 1 Peter are more a reflection of Silvanus than Peter. While no scribe is named in 2 Peter, as in 1 Peter, that doesn’t dismiss the possibility of someone else aiding Peter. Sometimes scribes’ names make it into letters, but often they don’t. (See Romans 16:22, c.f. Galatians 6:11)

Secondly, there’s a mistaken belief that individuals raised as fishermen are incapable of learning or being skilled when they transition to becoming an apostle. Carson writes: “While certainly distinctive, the Greek of 2 Peter is not as distinctive as many scholars have suggested. Several scholars note that the author may be consciously imitating the so-called “Asiatic” style, a form of rhetorical speech that was becoming popular at the time. Could not Peter, seeking to create as much common ground as possible with his readers, have adopted just such a style? The claim that a Galilean fisherman could not have written the Greek of the letter cannot stand without knowing much more than we do about how that Galilean fisherman spent the thirty or more years between abandoning his nets and the date of this letter. Ministry in Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome might very well have furnished Peter with a training in Greek, and even a rhetorical style, similar or even superior to that to be had in the classroom.” (Carson and Moo, Ibid, pg. 661)

While Ehrman acknowledges this as theoretically possible, he doesn’t find the idea that “Peter learned later in life” convincing. However, contrary to Ehrman’s view, there is compelling evidence that Peter did speak at least some Greek. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham notes, “Peter was surely able to speak Greek,” and adds, “In light of Peter’s early life in the dominantly Gentile context of Bethsaida, Markus Bockmuehl speaks of ‘a very strong likelihood that Peter grew up fully bilingual in a Jewish minority setting.’” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 229) However, Bauckham also mentions, “On the other hand, it is worth noting that Philip, also from Bethsaida, and Peter’s brother Andrew, rather than Peter himself, are regarded as the disciples most proficient in Greek in John 12:21-22,” where it is recorded, beginning in John 12:20, that some Greek speaking Jews wanted to see Jesus: “They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request,” indicating that he was known to them or referred to them as a Greek speaker.” (p. 263) It seems to me that this is readily explained by the fact that both Philip and Andrew are Greek names. The fact that Peter’s brother was named Andrew by their parents is suggestive in itself.

Furthermore, Acts 6 also suggests that within the Jerusalem community of believers, there were both Aramaic-speaking (or Hebrew-speaking) widows and Greek-speaking widows. However, it’s possible that Acts 6:1 might refer to Hellenized Jews rather than exclusively Greek-speaking individuals, although these Hellenized Jews likely spoke Greek. There’s a very strong possibility that Peter spoke some Greek and he also could have received substantial assistance from an amanuensis. We don’t know for sure, but I don’t see how this objection from Ehrman remotely disproves that 2 Peter derives from Peter.

7. Isn’t 2 Peter dependent on John 21, which was written after Peter’s death?

Finally, in 2 Peter 1:14, the writer talks about his death coming soon. Some say this is like what Jesus told Peter in John 21:18 about how he’d die, and John is believed to have been written well after Peter’s death. But just because 2 Peter mentions this doesn’t automatically mean it was written after the book of John. If the writer was Peter, he would’ve heard these words from Jesus firsthand, so it’s not unusual for him to refer to them. Also, the writer doesn’t go into detail about what Jesus said, he just makes a passing mention. This might be too subtle for someone writing under a false name because they’d likely include more details.

The arguments against Petrine authorship are overblown

Kruger also notices another weakness in the argument against 2 Peter: If 2 Peter were a pseudonymous work, it lacks a clear purpose or motive. Typically, pseudonymous writings aimed to advocate views that differed from accepted Christian beliefs. For instance, the Gospel of Peter pushed a docetic Christology, the Gospel of Thomas endorsed a Gnostic worldview, and the Apocalypse of Peter aimed to expand knowledge about the afterlife. Such writings are usually linked to heretical groups. In contrast, orthodox groups, aligned with the Church’s teachings, wouldn’t need to falsify such writings under an apostle’s name. (Kruger, Ibid 27)

2 Peter doesn’t seem to pursue any polemical agenda or heretical stance, nor does it resemble other writings attributed to Peter that have clear agendas. It also doesn’t engage in doctrinal controversies of the second century. If Peter were the source, the contents make perfect sense, but if it’s pseudonymous, its purpose remains unclear. We also don’t see the exaggerated miracles found in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, like a resurrected salted fish or a talking dog. Instead, we find a straightforward retelling of the Transfiguration.

Ultimately the early Christians accepted 2 Peter as a canonical book, showing they were confident Peter wrote it, even though there were doubts among some early church fathers. Given the numerous false writings attributed to Peter like the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Acts of Peter, their caution is understandable. The objections against Peter’s authorship within the text are all that convincing, and there’s no proof or compelling reason to believe the author is dishonest. The strong assertion in biblical scholarship regarding 2 Peter being an obvious forgery highlights some of the typical overreaching tendencies within biblical scholarship overall. Given the intense scrutiny this letter received by early believers, 2 Peter deserves our trust, and it serves as a healthy reminder that the Biblical canon didn’t descend from the skies on golden tablets but evolved through regular historical processes, which aren’t always neat and tidy.

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