Words of a Fether

Opinions on Faith and Life

Grammar and Context: A Study in 1 Peter

The first letter of Peter is about how Christians should behave in an increasingly hostile world. The first chapter is more theological, up to verse 11 of the second chapter. Then he begins more practical instructions that flow from those basic teachings. But vs. 2:18 through 3:7 are a list of instructions to specific groups, after which he returns to generalities. It is that list which I will focus on today.

Peter specifies three main groups: servants, wives, and husbands. Notice first of all that he does not present these as pairings of master/slave and husband/wife; he addresses servants without addressing masters. The word servant is oiketes which means house servant or domestic, and the word for their masters is despotes which means owners or employers when contrasted with domestics. These domestics are to hupotasso their employers. This word is not about subservience to an overlord but support and identification with a person in some leading capacity.1

As for the word translated respect or fear, the Greek word is phobos. Like our English word fear, it can have a range of nuances: abject terror, a mild sense of foreboding, or a realistic caution. Which one of those it means depends of course on the context. And since Peter speaks of both kind and unkind employers, the nuance will change depending on which kind the domestic is dealing with. We might well ask what kind of fear an employee would have for a good and kind employer, but anyone who has ever held a job understands this kind. At the very least, we fear losing our jobs if we fail to satisfy the directives of the boss. So while one would certainly respect their employer, there is a separate element of fear as well, however mild it may be.

This may all seem very clear and simple, but the plot thickens when we look at the instructions to wives. But before we do, we must know that as in just about every language except English, Greek has what is called grammatical gender. It is the assigning of male or female pronouns or word affixes which are completely unrelated to biology. For example, in Hebrew the pronoun for the Spirit of God is feminine (she), and in Greek it is neuter (it). So the way we can tell which parts of a Greek sentence go together is by looking at the grammatical gender. This will prove critical to our understanding of what Peter says to Christian women.

1 Pet. 3:1 begins with likewise, so there is similarity (witness by behavior) between what Peter said to employees and what he will say to wives. As I’ve written in some of my books in studying the writings of Paul, there was a Roman law at the time called the marriage without hand wherein a woman’s allegiance was to her father for life, not to any husband. Her father could take her back at any time and give her to another man. So the instruction, both from Paul and Peter, is for Christian women to identify with their husbands instead.

But Peter adds the purpose for this instruction: to win over unbelieving husbands; remember the larger context of minding our behavior for the world to see. The phrase in Greek, if any are-being-stubborn [apeitheo] to-the word is always used in a context of rejecting the gospel message; it is not used in any context where the topic is backslidden believers (as far as I know; if anyone knows of evidence to the contrary, please let me know). It literally means to not be persuaded and is held in opposition to faith, not obedience.2 So it clearly refers to unbelievers and not backslidden or immature believers.

So rather than a general instruction to all Christian wives, Peter specifies here that his instructions are to Christian wives of non-Christian husbands. Theirs was a most difficult position to be in, since they could be divorced or killed by their husbands if they tried to convert them. They had little opportunity to speak to their husbands about religious or spiritual matters. That is why Peter leans so heavily here on behavior and depth of character, qualities the culture did not believe women possessed. Christian husbands, in contrast, had no right to silence their wives and no need to be converted. If they were sinning, they needed to repent, and their wives had every right in Christ to say so.

Continuing in verse 2, Peter shows exactly how this behavior will be a witness to the gospel. Here is the literal English rendering:

observing of-the in fear pure behavior of-you [pl.]

The blue words are grammatically masculine, and the red words are grammatically feminine. So we can easily see that it is not the women but the unbelieving men who will fear. This ties in with the phrase about being apeitheo to-the word, because the fear of God is what such people lack. And it is these unbelieving husbands who will observe the pure (not chaste, which denotes sexual purity whereas this word refers to the inner person) behavior of their Christian wives and thus fear this wordless gospel message.

Peter goes on to emphasize the inner strength of character a Christian woman must develop, which society did not think possible. But we encounter another debatable passage in vs. 5 and 6. Verse five is in the present tense, not the past as it is typically translated. And again we see the word hupotasso in conjunction with their own husbands. It is only verse 6 which has to be in the past tense because it refers to people who were long dead, Sarah and Abraham. But instead of hupotasso we have Sarah rendering hupakouo to Abraham, which means to attend to (same word as when a servant answered the door for Peter after his miraculous escape from prison in Acts 12:13).

But what of Sarah calling Abraham her ’lord’? And what does it have to do with women not being afraid or dismayed? The only recorded instance we have of Sarah calling Abraham ’lord’ is in Gen. 18:12 when she laughed to herself at the prospect of becoming pregnant by her very old husband. The times we see her doing what Abraham said are when he twice passed her off as his sister in order to save his own skin (Gen. 12:13, 26:9), and she also stood up to him regarding the slave woman Hagar (Gen. 21:10). Is it not this strong, fearless Sarah that Peter is telling Christian women to be like? Peter does not say they are like her if they call their husbands ’lord’, but if they do not fear and are not dismayed.

Now we can see why taking the traditional rendering of vs. 2 creates a contradiction, because first Peter tells women to fear, and then he tells them not to fear. Rather, he tells them to bring the fear of God to their unbelieving husbands through character and quality, then tells them to fear nothing nor be dismayed.

The last point to cover is vs. 7, which also begins with likewise, continuing the list of ways to live the Christian witness. The Christian husband is to make a home together with his wife, not build a castle with her as his maid. And Peter appeals to the men’s knowledge that women have the less stable income. This is typically translated more literally as weaker vessel even though there is apparently no firm consensus on what it means. But I have the impression that it is an idiom (a good place to start in the case of any such puzzling phrase), and in classical literature it did refer to being at an economic disadvantage. Peter says this along with calling women joint heirs, so he is drawing an analogy between social inheritance and spiritual inheritance.

It should be noted regarding the matter of how the husband treats his wife that Peter does not merely say that if he fails to honor her God not answer his prayers, but that God will block them and refuse to hear them. The Greek word is egkopto and is much stronger than the idea of merely ignoring something. God will actively oppose and hinder the prayers of a Christian man who fails to honor his wife.

Let’s summarize the list now:

Of course there is much more to glean from this letter, but the point I wanted to make today is how important it is to study scripture from all possible angles, from the stroke of a pen to the larger context of all of scripture. We rely too heavily on tradition and translation, and we cannot afford to go on blindly trusting in closed committees of fallible men. We all must search the scriptures and listen to all sides before dogmatically stating what a passage must mean.

1 GWTW 2 Rom. 2:7-8

Posted 2009-06-25 under behavior, Bible Text, Christian Living, women, Bible Text, witnessing, egalitarian