Tag Archives: 1 Peter

1 Peter 3:18-20 and Gospel of Peter 38-42

I’ve been pondering a lot lately the remarkable similarities between 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6, and Gospel of Peter 38-42. Here are these three passages, for comparison’s sake:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

1 Peter 3:18-20

For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.

1 Peter 4:6

And so those soldiers, having seen, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they too were present, safeguarding). And while they were relating what they had seen, again they see three males who have come out from they sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one, and a cross following them, and the head of the two reaching unto heaven, but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens. And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, “Have you made proclamation to the fallen-asleep?” And an obeisance was heard from the cross, “Yes.”

Gospel of Peter 38-42

These passages in 1 Peter have been devilishly hard for interpreters. At face value, they seem to say that Jesus, after he was crucified, traveled to a heavenly prison where God kept the souls of the sinners who died in the Noahic flood, converted them, and then was resurrected. It is now virtually scholarly consensus, however, that, following 1 Enoch, the “spirits in prison” are fallen angels. Moreover, according to consensus, ἐκήρυξεν (ekēruxen, “preached”) in 1 Peter 3:19 does not mean that Jesus preached to these fallen angels in order to convert them; instead, it means that he proclaimed to them his victory. This text thus has no direct relation to 4:6; “the spirits in prison” of 3:19 are not “the dead” of 4:6.

It seems to me, though, that Gospel of Peter 38-42 functions as a sort of narrative commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6. That is, it seems entirely plausible to me that a later community, having a copy of 1 Peter, read 3:18-4:6 at face value and inserted them into the resurrection narrative: Jesus quite literally preached to the dead between the time he was crucified and the time he was resurrected.

Another option, though somewhat less likely, is that 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6 are interpolations into the text of the epistle, based on the sequence of events that found its way into the Gospel of Peter. For instance, here is the latter part of 1 Peter 3 both with and without verses 19-20. (For the sake of space, I won’t show the same comparison with 1 Peter 4; 1 Peter 3 represents them both well enough.)

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. . . . Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

Notice that the second paragraph still makes perfect sense; baptism here doesn’t correspond to the Noahic flood, it corresponds to Jesus’ death and resurrection (much like it does in Paul, in Romans 6). The “in which…” phrase could thus be an interpolation of a note, written in the margin by a member of the Petrine community or somesuch, but copied into the body of the letter by a later scribe (like we have in 2 Corinthians).

Unfortunately, while interesting the think about, the latter option is pure speculation, and should be taken with a grain of salt. I do find the first idea compelling, though, and would thus argue that in the Gospel of Peter we have an early commentary on 1 Peter 3 and 4. (From this conclusion, we may conclude two other things: 1) since 1 Peter and the Gospel of Peter have such similar ideas about what happened to Jesus between his death and his resurrection, they came from the same community, which was probably self-consciously Petrine; 2) this Petrine Christianity seems much more mystical than Pauline Christianity or that of the Evangelists.)

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