Noah the evangelist and the dating of 2 Peter

My friend Travis Jacobs recently mentioned on a podcast the fact that despite popular Sunday School renditions, the actual Genesis account of Noah never mentions his evangelistic efforts, nor even so much as a warning to his fellow men of the impending cataclysm. (Travis also noted ironically that one source for the Flood story that does feature an evangelistic Moses is the Q’uran.)

I suppose a possible contributor to the near canonization of this portrait of Noah as spurned evangelist is the later Jewish and Christian ethic that views judgment as contingent upon spurned chances for repentance (cf. especially the Book of Jonah). Yet it appears from the Genesis account taken purely on its own terms that God had already chosen who was going to survive, and that was that; the door was effectively sealed shut before the ark was even constructed, so why should Noah have wasted his time? (Compare the unconvincing justifications for the reasoning behind evangelism coming from the Reformed — and don’t miss the role Noah’s righteousness played in his election! But that’s beside the point.)

The tradition underlying Matthew 24.36-42 shows Jesus citing specifically the sudden, unexpected nature of the Flood: “And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away. It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man” (v. 39).

Surely the most influential contributor to the Noah the Evangelist tradition is one obscure passage in the NT: 2 Peter 2.5 refers to Noah as a “preacher of righteousness”. Now, whence the tradition underlying that remark? As I already noted, it’s certainly not in the text of Genesis, nor does it appear to be present during the time the Gospels were written. Could it have just been, as many evangelicals would prefer to think, a divine revelation to the Apostle Peter?

This is exceptionally unlikely. The authorship of 2 Peter has long been contested. In fact, it was routinely omitted from canon lists as late as Origin and the Muratorian Fragment up until Athanasius included it in his apparently influential canon. Far from bearing the weight and authority of the Apostle whose name it bears, it stoops so low as to quote Jude, which itself quotes an obviously spurious Enoch. It is regarded by most scholarship to be among the very last — if not the last — of the books of the NT to be written.

I speculate that this particular Noah tradition in 2 Peter is yet another evidence for a late, post-apostolic date for this book. Barring 2 Peter from the discussion, our first evidence for the tradition is in Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer, a work of aggadic midrash dating from the early second century. Aggadah is a component of the midrashic Jewish commentaries that reflects folklore and legend, and in particular the Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer gives us our earliest attestation of a few Jewish traditions. So was Rabbi Eliezar’s account of Noah’s unheeded warnings an indication of an earlier tradition?

Perhaps, but it is nonetheless interesting that this tradition was apparently obscure enough to escape the notice of Matthew’s Jesus and (ostensibly) that Gospel’s target audience, which was almost certainly thoroughly Jewish. Even if this tradition were extant in the apostolic period in which Matthew was first distributed, the off-handed allusion 2 Peter makes to Noah the “preacher of righteousness” implies a much more widespread familiarity with the tradition than we find in Matthew. If, as I suspect, Rabbi Eliezer was among the earliest influential teachers to paint this picture of Noah, then 2 Peter would date sometime after this tradition’s general acceptance and saturation, a period certainly postdating the Apostle Peter’s death in the mid-first century and probably not predating the early to mid-second century.

But that’s just me. Does anyone know of any related research?

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  • Travis Jacobs

    I'm such an inspiration.

  • Travis Jacobs

    Also, very interesting. I like how you pulled so many elements together here.