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1 Peter 3:18-19

Context

3:18 1 Because Christ also suffered 2  once for sins,

the just for the unjust, 3 

to bring you to God,

by being put to death in the flesh

but 4  by being made alive in the spirit. 5 

3:19 In it 6  he went and preached to the spirits in prison, 7 

1 sn This passage has been typeset as poetry because many scholars regard this passage as poetic or hymnic. These terms are used broadly to refer to the genre of writing, not to the content. There are two broad criteria for determining if a passage is poetic or hymnic: “(a) stylistic: a certain rhythmical lilt when the passages are read aloud, the presence of parallelismus membrorum (i.e., an arrangement into couplets), the semblance of some metre, and the presence of rhetorical devices such as alliteration, chiasmus, and antithesis; and (b) linguistic: an unusual vocabulary, particularly the presence of theological terms, which is different from the surrounding context” (P. T. O’Brien, Philippians [NIGTC], 188-89). Classifying a passage as hymnic or poetic is important because understanding this genre can provide keys to interpretation. However, not all scholars agree that the above criteria are present in this passage, so the decision to typeset it as poetry should be viewed as a tentative decision about its genre.

2 tc The variants here are legion (B. M. Metzger produces eight variants in a nice layout of the evidence [TCGNT 622]). Most of these variants involve pronouns, prepositions, or word order changes, but the major problem involves whether Christ “suffered” (ἔπαθεν, epaqen) or “died” (ἀπέθανεν, apeqanen). The witnesses that read ἀπέθανεν are Ì72 א A Cvid Ψ 0285 33 614 630 945 1241 1505 1739; the witnesses that read ἔπαθεν are B L P 81 Ï. Although the external evidence slightly favors ἀπέθανεν, such may be a secondary reading. Intrinsically, ἔπαθεν both fits the context better, especially the verbal link between v. 17 and v. 18 (note in particular the introductory causal ὅτι [{oti, “because”] and the emphatic καί [kai, “also”]), and fits the author’s style (1 Peter never uses ἀποθνῄσκω [apoqnhskw], but uses πάσχω [pascw] 11 other times, more than any other NT book). However, scribes would most likely realize this, and might conform the verb in v. 18 to the author’s typical usage. It may be argued, however, that scribes tended to alter the text in light of more common NT idioms, and did not have as much sensitivity to the literary features in the immediate context. In this instance, it may not be insignificant that the NT collocates ἀποθνῄσκω with ἁμαρτία (Jamartia, “sin”) seven other times, though only once (1 Cor 15:3) with a meaning similar to what would be demanded here, but collocates πάσχω with ἁμαρτία in only one other place, 1 Pet 4:1, where the meaning also detours from what is seen here. All in all, a decision is difficult, but ἔπαθεν is to be preferred slightly.

3 sn The reference to the just suffering for the unjust is an allusion to Isa 53:11-12.

4 tn Greek emphasizes the contrast between these two phrases more than can be easily expressed in English.

5 sn Put to death in the flesh…made alive in the spirit. The contrast of flesh and spirit is not between two parts of Christ’s person (material versus immaterial) but between two broader modes of existence: the realm of unregenerate earthly life versus eternal heavenly life. The reference may not be to the Holy Spirit directly, but indirectly, since the Spirit permeates and characterizes the spiritual mode of existence. However, ExSyn 343 (n. 76) states “It is often objected that the Holy Spirit cannot be in view because the two datives of v 18 (σαρκί, πνεύματι [sarki, pneumati]) would then have a different syntactical force (sphere, means). But if 1 Pet 3:18 is a hymnic or liturgical fragment, this can be no objection because of ‘poetic license’: poetry is replete with examples of grammatical and lexical license, not the least of which is the use of the same morpho-syntactic categories, in parallel lines, with entirely different senses (note, e.g., the dat. expressions in 1 Tim 3:16).”

6 tn Grk “in which.” ExSyn 343 notes: “The antecedent of the RP [relative pronoun] is by no means certain. Some take it to refer to πνεύματι immediately preceding, the meaning of which might be either the Holy Spirit or the spiritual state. Others see the phrase as causal (‘for which reason,’ ‘because of this’), referring back to the entire clause, while still other scholars read the phrase as temporal (if so, it could be with or without an antecedent: ‘on which occasion’ or ‘meanwhile’). None of these options is excluded by syntax. It may be significant, however, that every other time ἐν ᾧ is used in 1 Peter it bears an adverbial/conjunctive force (cf. 1:6; 2:12; 3:16 [here, temporal]; 4:4).” Also, because of the length and complexity of the Greek sentence, a new sentence was started here in the translation.

7 sn And preached to the spirits in prison. The meaning of this preaching and the spirits to whom he preached are much debated. It is commonly understood to be: (1) Christ’s announcement of his victory over evil to the fallen angels who await judgment for their role in leading the Noahic generation into sin; this proclamation occurred sometime between Christ’s death and ascension; or (2) Christ’s preaching of repentance through Noah to the unrighteous humans, now dead and confined in hell, who lived in the days of Noah. The latter is preferred because of the temporal indications in v. 20a and the wider argument of the book. These verses encourage Christians to stand for righteousness and try to influence their contemporaries for the gospel in spite of the suffering that may come to them. All who identify with them and their Savior will be saved from the coming judgment, just as in Noah’s day.



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