Roman Empire in the Mid to Late 1st Century
The books of the New Testament were written nearly two thousand years ago in places and cultures totally foreign to us. In other words, it can be tough to figure out what's going on sometimes.
That's where Shmoop comes in.
Where Are We?
A lot of New Testament letters open by giving us some idea of whom the author is writing to. Maybe it's a letter addressed to the Romans? Or being sent express mail to the folks in Corinth? But these four epistles don't have much of that.
- James says he's writing to "the twelve tribes in the Dispersion" (James 1:1), but that could mean any Jewish-Christian community outside of Judea (in modern-day Israel).
- 1 Peter is addressed to "exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia." That's a pretty big chunk right there in modern-day Turkey. Peter mentions writing from "Babylon" (1 Peter 5:13), which is a code name for Rome.
- And 2 Peter and Jude are pretty much addressed to all Christians everywhere. We hope they put a lot of stamps on those.
When Are We?
So we can't be sure where these were written, but can we figure out when they were put down on parchment? Well, each of these epistles was written around a different time—we know that much—but it's still pretty hard to nail down an exact moment for each of them.
Scholars think that James could have been written as early as the mid-40s CE up or even after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE (source, 1256). Jude could have been written anytime up until 80 CE, though probably much earlier (source, 1284). 2 Peter, which uses passages from Jude, might have come out between 80-90 CE (source, 1271). 1 Peter probably wasn't written until at least 70 CE…or maybe it was around 100 CE (source, 1263)? It's kind of tough to tell, but we're dealing with the mid to late first century.
Basically, the folks who read and wrote these letters could have been living 10 to 70 years after Jesus died, anywhere in the Roman Empire where people believed in Jesus and spoke Greek.
Well, that narrows it down a little.
We don't know exactly where and when these letters were written down, but we can explore a little bit about the places they mention.
Clearly these early Christians are living on planet Earth. (Shmoop is proud to call it home.) But our authors don't think you should get too attached. According to them, "the world" is a yucky, terrible place full of yucky, terrible people:
- "Keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27)
- "Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish." (James 3:15)
- "Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God." (James 4:4)
- "Escape from the corruption that is in the world." (2 Peter 1:4)
- "Worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions." (Jude 1:19)
Being "worldly" or "earthly" in this context is not a good thing. If you're focused on what's going on here on Earth, you'll have a tough time living for God. The epistles are encouraging Christians to reject the way that the world is run and give themselves over to God. That sports car won't make you happy, no matter how fast it goes.
The Persecuted Ones
Another reason the world is a bummer? It's full of persecution. Our authors keep going on about how Christians need to stay firm in the face of suffering:
- "Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy." (James 1:2)
- "Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?" (James 2:6)
- "For a little while you have had to suffer various trials." (1 Peter 1:6)
- "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting." (1 Peter 3:15)
- "When you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame." (1 Peter 3:16)
- "Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you." (1 Peter 4:12)
- "Your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering." (1 Peter 5:9)
What was really going on?
Historically speaking, there weren't many Empire-wide persecutions of Christians until around 250 CE when the Emperor Diocletian really started to turn up the heat…by boiling people in oil. Before that, it was more not-so-random acts of violence: Stephen is stoned in Acts; Paul, Peter, and James all get killed for following Jesus.
But even if the violence wasn't off the charts, no one wants to get side eyes from their neighbors or be arrested and thrown in jail. Even if Christians weren't being tossed to the lions yet, our authors worried that social pressure from non-believers would make the faithful cave in and start going back to their ungodly ways.
Highway to Hell
Okay, so what happens if Christians live lives of love and obedience to God? Is there some kind of reward system or perks at the end? You bet. Pretty soon, say the authors, this world will be done for and Christians will get to hang out in the "new heavens and a new earth" (2 Peter 3:13). God has a whole kingdom (James 2:5) reserved for them.
But if you fall short? Well, you might not like that place much:
God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment [… The false teachers] are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the deepest darkness has been reserved. (2 Peter 2:4, 17)
Yup. Peter just mentioned a place called Hell.
The word that Peter uses for "Hell" is "Tartarus." According to Greek mythology, Tartarus was the lowest level in the entire world, surrounded by a river of flames. It's a place where sinners go to be judged and live out afterlives of eternal punishment. Virgil says that it's so bad that "not if [you] had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths, a voice of iron, could [you] tell all the forms of wickedness or spell out the names of every torment." (Source)
Living there are souls of the baddest of the bad. The Titans who tried to overthrow Mount Olympus. The fallen angels who betrayed God. And soon…the false teachers who knew about God but rejected him.
Peter clearly doesn't think this is a real place. He doesn't believe in Greek gods because, well, Jesus. But the image will do nicely. The idea is that these rebellious sinners will be spending eternity in a place that's terrible, horrifying, and devoid of any light whatsoever. They separated themselves from God in life, and they'll be spending their death like that, too—all while the folks who listened to God (and James, Peter, and Jude) are enjoying the sundae bar in the new Heavenly kingdom that God has made just for them.
Of course, that doesn't mean Peter thinks every run-of-the-mill sinner is going there when they die. He singles out the false teachers as especially terrible and deserving of the "deepest darkness." God will judge everyone, but who knows what he'll do with the folks who are borderline.
Maybe they get a partial sundae bar?