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1 Peter 3:1-7 in Fresh Perspective

By Peter R. Rodgers

When the Lambeth Conference meets next summer, one of the distinctive features will be a study of the First Letter of Peter. The First Letter of Peter: A Global Commentary, edited by Professor Jennifer Strawbridge of Oxford, has been published to assist the church in this study.

This gem among New Testament writings will provide biblical and theological focus for the bishops’ deliberations as they seek to think through how to live by the gospel of Jesus Christ in our increasingly complex and challenging world.

Among the most challenging passages in the letter is 1 Pet 3:1-7, which concerns husbands and wives. Like the passage that precedes it (2:18-25, which calls slaves to submit), this text has proved to be a stumbling block for many contemporary Bible readers, and especially for women. This call to women and slaves to submit has been misused by many to support woman’s submission and the institution of slavery that is inconsistent with the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. How is this call to submit in any way consistent with a gospel that promises liberation (cf. “live as free people,” At 1 Pet. 2:16)?

Thus many interpreters stumble over these passages, and reject the teaching on submission. One especially striking reaction was written by Kathleen Corley: “Of all the Christian testament texts, the message of 1 Peter is the most harmful in the context of women’s lives. Its particular message of the suffering Christ as a model for Christian living leads to precisely the kind of abuses that feminists fear. … The basic message of 1 Peter does not reflect God’s liberating word” (Searching the Scriptures, ed. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Vol. 2, 354-57).

We need to consider several developments in the recent study of 1 Peter. First of all, in the recent study of the letter several commentators (especially Karen Jobes and Ben Witherington III) have adopted the position that the recipients of 1 Peter in the various communities of Asia Minor were largely Jewish in character.

They part company with most modern interpreters of the letter, who believe the recipients were Gentile believers. They also stand with the almost universal witness of the early Christian interpreters of the letter, who believed that Peter wrote to a Jewish audience. The importance of this new direction, with which I concur, is that it adds significantly to our understanding of the socio-religious character of the recipients.

Most commentators believe the wives being addressed are Christian women married to unbelieving Gentile husbands. I believe that many addressed here are Christian women married to Jewish men who are not Christian believers. Perhaps this is indicated by the description of them in 1 Peter 3:1 as those who “do not obey the word.” The word for disobey here is the same word used in the Acts of the Apostles for Jewish disbelief in the gospel. Gentiles would be expected not to obey the word of God. For Jews, however, there would be such an expectation.

A major development in the study of 1 Peter is found in Temple, Exile and Identity in 1 Peter (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), a pioneering study of Andrew M. Mbuvi. Mbuvi argues convincingly that temple imagery is not limited to 1 Peter 2:4-10, as is commonly admitted, but may be found throughout the letter. In 1 Peter 3:1-7, Mbuvi found temple imagery in both “holy conduct” (3:1) and prayers (3:7). Encouraged by Mbuvi’s study, I found what seem to be several other temple/cultus references in 1 Peter 3:1-7:

  • The word chased (Greek, hagnan) in 3:2 describes behavior expected to win unbelieving husbands “without a word.” This word is sometimes used in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) to speak of purity in the temple cult (e.g., 2 Mac. 13:8). (F. Hauk, Hagnos, etc. TDNT 1, , 122).
  • The term vessel in 3:6 also has temple and cultic overtones. Maurer notes that a full third of the references to this word in the LXX refer to the vessels and utensils of the tabernacle. (C. Maurer, Skeuos, TDNT 7, 359).
  • The phrase “a gentle and quiet spirit” in 3:4 appears to be an echo of Isaiah 66:2, a passage depicting the true temple or dwelling place of God. (L. Goppelt, A Commentary on 1 Peter, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993). This passage was employed by Stephen in Acts 7:49-50, arguing that God does not dwell in temples made with hands.
  • The term in 3:4, “very precious in God’s sight,” may also be a temple reference. The word for precious (Greek poluteles) is used in 1 Chronicles 29:2 of the precious stones used in the building of Solomon’s temple.

It is clear that in this section Peter and those writing the letter with him (1 Pet. 5:12-13) have chosen vocabulary that has temple associations, and this corresponds to the “new temple” teaching that has been recognized by Mbuvi and others throughout the epistle (Conroy, 190-200).

Another recent development in biblical studies regarding the temple adds an extra dimension to our understanding of 1 Peter 3:1-7. In his important study, The Temple and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004), G.K. Beale has shown that in the cultures of the Ancient Near East, including ancient Judaism, there was a strong link between temple and creation. That is, in ancient Near Eastern cultures the stories of creation were told as if the god were building a temple in which he wished to dwell.

For these ancient cultures, the creation story was a temple story. For our purposes it is important to note that the final act of the creation/temple building project was when the god placed an image of himself in the center of his finished creation. In the biblical creation story, this is stated in Gen 1:27-28: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fil the earth and subdue it; and have dominion.” Beale notes that that humans were called to be a “royal priesthood,” or perhaps better “a kingdom of priests,” as the image of God in the garden/temple that God had made (Beale, 81-93). N.T. Wright put it succinctly: “The book of Genesis offers us, then, a picture of the world as a temple and of humans as the statue, the image of God within that temple” (Surprised by Scripture, New York: Harper Collins, 2014, 142).

How does this reading of Genesis relate to 1 Peter in general and 3:1-7 in particular? In 3:7, husbands and wives are called “joint heirs of the grace of life” (RSV). This beautiful expression picks up a major theme of the letter: inheritance. By his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ has restored the inheritance originally intended for man and woman in creation. It is an inheritance “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1:4). Men and women are restored in Christ to their original calling to be the image-bearers of the God who created them.

Their role is, as it was at the creation, to be kings and priests, a royal priesthood (2:9). This is the calling of God to husbands and wives in Christ, the image of God, with the combined role of worshiping him and caring for his creation, with the calling to “be fruitful and multiply.” This expression refers not just to procreation, but to the calling to enlarge the borders of God’s good garden to the ends of the earth (Beale, 87-93). 1 Peter 3:7, when read in the context of the whole letter, and the assumption of the temple/creation link, makes its stunning vision of husband and wife restored in Christ to their original creation vocation, and inheritance becomes the key to rethinking the whole passage.

One other detail in this passage merits consideration before we return to the call of wives to submit. This is the curious expression in 3:4, describing the inner qualities of the wife, translated in the NRSV as “let your adornment be the inner self.” The term translated self is anthropos in Greek, and is translated man in the KJV and the ASV, versions still widely used in churches. How curious that a woman should be called a man!

But the use of this term signals not a reference to sex, but an echo of the Greek Old Testament (Gen 1:26), “let us make man (anthropos, Greek, adam, Hebrew). In light of these considerations, and the assumed link between creation and temple elsewhere in the letter (4:12-19), we are justified in seeing here a reference to the image of God in creation, seen especially in the distinctive qualities outlined in 3:4, qualities for the true dwelling place of God (Isa. 66:1-2).

With these new perspectives on the letter we return to 3:1, the call of wives to submit. It is clear that 1 Peter presents the wife’s submission to her unbelieving husband as a strategy to win him over to Christian faith. It is indeed a strategy to restore the husband and wife to their calling to be the image of God in his temple/garden. It is a strategy to restore them as co-heirs of the grace of life. The humble submission of Christ to the cross brought forgiveness and healing (1 Pet. 2:24-25). Nowhere is this divine strategy stated more clearly in the New Testament than in Phil. 2:5-11, where we read that Christ “emptied himself … humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”

But we should note that while submission is God’s strategy to reconcile the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19), it is not merely a strategy. Submission seems to be of the very nature of the triune God. Especially striking is the picture found in 1 Cor 15:28: at the last “the Son himself will also be subject to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.” It appears that submission is at the heart of the trinity of love. It is best then to embrace the call to submission, decry the misuse of this and similar passages to oppress women and others, see it as an opportunity to participate in the very character of God, and follow in the steps of Christ (1 Pet. 2:21).

Thus we become part of God’s strategy for restoring men and women to their God-given status as his image-bearers, his royal priesthood. Together they share the same glory, equality, and dignity under God.

The Rev. Peter R. Rodgers is vicar of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Antelope, California.


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