Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Exploring 1 Peter 3:18-22

This section of Peter is arguably the hardest. There are several interpretive options at the level of grammar, vocab and background influence. But my concern will not be to solve all those obscure details, Achtemeier has shown which option is most plausible, and I would like to build on that proposal here. But before I do, let me summarise my position:
Firstly, I contend that 3:18b should be understood as "He was put to death by the flesh, and brought to life by the Spirit". Thus, humanity was the agent of Jesus' death, but the Spirit was the agent that brought Jesus back to life. Furthermore, it appears that this forms a [temporal?] sequence which then leads onto verse 19.
That means that verse 19 cannot be understood as a reference to a decent into hell, since Jesus has already been raised, as noted in verse 18. So what does verse 19 mean? The Greek states ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν, which I have translated as "by the Spirit Jesus also ascended and made a proclamation to the demons in prison." It appears to me, and please correct me if you think my understanding has gone astray, that the Spirit is the agent that declares the victory of the resurrection. What was declared to the "spirits" which I take to mean "demonic forces" was that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
But the more interesting thing here, and admittedly this is conjecture, is exactly how does the Spirit make this proclamation? I would like to propose the following. 1 Pet 1:12, notes that “…in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven…” Does Peter understand the announcement of vs. 19 to be done through the Spirit by means of the Christian community? Thus, the community of followers is understood as the couriers of the message of Jesus' victory over the enemy.
Admittedly, this is a conjecture. But if Peter has set up an understanding that the Spirit is the agent from heaven that announces the victory of Jesus through Christians, then perhaps he is being consistent in his understanding and we should understand this verse to entail that the announcement of Jesus' victory of death, and the demonic forces that played a role in his execution, is communicated through these believers amidst their situation and circumstances. They are to continue a full frontal declaration, despite their suffering/persecution, of Jesus' victory as the Messiah and Lord.
Any thoughts or responses? Have I missed the point completely, or is there something here?


R Rodríguez said...


You're certainly right that 1 Pet. 3.18ff. does not describe a descent into hell, though I think you're translation of τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν as "to the demons in prison" is unnecessary. Also, the appeal to 1 Enoch is problematic, especially since (for example) Achtemeier and Michaels can't agree on which passage from 1 Enoch is being cited! Achtemeier's treatment especially is very careful, which makes it all the more suggestive that perhaps something else is going on in 3.19.

I've tried to address this problem on Verily Verily. I'd be interested in your thoughts, if you have the time.

John Dennis said...


I agree completely with your translation of v.18: I think the datives are in fact describing agency: Jesus was put to death by human beings and made alive (resurrection) by the divine Spirit.

And, yes, v.19 is NOT a reference to Jesus' decent into hell.

R. Rodriquez:

I do think that it is unnecessary to tranlate πνεύμασιν with "demons," though, in the end, this is probably the idea. Why? Because I do, along with most interpreters, think that the apocalyptic story of the WATCHERS is being referred to here. In 1 Enoch the watchers are in fact "spirits," offspring of the Angelic watchers' union with the women in Gen 6 (strange as though that sounds to us). These are often called "spirits" in 1 Enoch and, in the end (as Bauckham has pointed out in his 2 Peter commentary), Peter may not have the extant copy of 1 Enoch that we have, but he clearly knows this "watcher" traditions that shows up in the LXX and Josephus! It does NOT matter then that we cannot identify the exact passage in 1 Enoch---it is the tradition that counts!

See my full treatment of these things in:

John Dennis, “Cosmology and Theology in the Petrine Literature and Jude.” In Cosmology and New Testament Theology. Library of NT Studies Series. Edited by Jonathan T. Pennington & Sean McDonough. T&T Clark/Continuum, 2008. Pages 157-177.