One of the most perplexing passages in the New Testament occurs in 1 Peter 3:19. This verse describes how Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” Nearly every part of this verse has been debated by scholars. However, the keys to unlocking this mysterious passage may lie in the next verse in which the author describes “the days of Noah, during the building of the ark.” What does the story of the flood have to do with a proclamation to “spirits in prison”?
The first step begins with recognizing that many of the strange elements in this passage, such as the references to spirits in prison and an otherworldly journey, are telltale clues pointing in the direction of apocalyptic literature, a genre of Jewish and early Christian writings that reveals hidden knowledge of heavenly realities. After the New Testament Book of Revelation, the most famous apocalypse is a collection of writings known as 1 Enoch, which tells the remarkable adventures of Enoch, a man who walked with God (Genesis 5:22) and toured the heavenly realms. First Enoch, or its traditions, seems to have influenced 1 Peter 3:18–20, in which Christ, like Enoch, makes an other-worldly journey and delivers a message to heavenly beings. Interestingly, only one other person in Scripture besides Enoch is described as walking with God: Noah (Genesis 6:9).
These types of intriguing statements prompted later interpreters to ask questions and write texts to fill in the gaps. Indeed, these Biblical facts work as pegs upon which later interpreters hung expansive narratives, not unlike fan fiction today, in which enthusiasts write new stories for their favorite literary characters. Modern scholars are fortunate that many of these writings have survived and, in the case of 1 Peter, shed vital light on otherwise obscure references. Early Jewish and Christian literature, including apocalyptic texts, therefore provides a window into the interpretive world of 1 Peter.
Some interpretive trajectories are already visible in Scripture. For example, in Ezekiel 7 and Ezekiel 14, Noah’s flood becomes a model for future judgment. This motif continues in 1 Enoch and in the Book of Jubilees. The end will be patterned on the beginning. Just as the world was destroyed in the days of Noah, so will it be destroyed again at the end. These interpretive traditions permeated the air of the New Testament authors’ world, influencing their understanding of how Biblical texts ought to be interpreted. The author of 1 Peter used these traditions to draw a comparison between the events of Noah’s lifetime and the lives of early Christians.
Genesis states that Noah’s world was entrenched in evil (Genesis 6:5). Later interpreters extrapolated the specifics of what made that generation so depraved. That generation was indicted for injustice, idolatry, bloodshed, illicit sexual unions, and the acquisition of forbidden knowledge, to name a few (e.g., 1 Enoch 6.1–7.6; Jubilees 7.20–25). Philo, a Jewish philosopher of the first century C.E., wrote that the flood generation “left nothing undone which could lead to a guilty and accursed life” (On Abraham 40). With this in mind, the vice list in 1 Peter 4:3–4 takes on new meaning; many of the sins in this list overlap with the sins of the flood generation. The wickedness of the world correlates the flood generation with the contemporaries of early Christians. The world was exceedingly wicked then, and now the world is wicked again, and “the end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7).
Second Temple Jewish texts are replete with references to Noah’s righteousness, which was magnified by the degenerate state of the world around him. Interestingly, Second Temple Jewish and early Christian literature depicts Noah as a herald of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5; Hebrews 11:7; First Epistle of Clement 7.6). Genesis says nothing about this, but later texts elaborate that Noah urged his contemporaries to repent, sometimes endangering his family in the process (e.g., Josephus, Antiquities 1.74). The Sibylline Oracles even record two of Noah’s orations to his countrymen. For his efforts, Noah was derided and mocked.
This sequence of witness and derision would060 have resonated deeply with the Christian addressees of 1 Peter, who were also facing social prejudice and marginalization for their faith. Just as Noah and his family maintained their integrity by living an upright life, so too were Christians called to a life of exemplary character in the face of opposition.
The author of 1 Peter used contemporary traditions of Noah and the flood to weave together a sophisticated pattern of correspondences.1 Just as the evil of the former generation was purged with the flood, a judgment of another kind is imminent. Noah upheld his righteousness, and Christians are called to do likewise. Just as Noah and his family were saved through water, so are Christians saved through the water of baptism (1 Peter 3:21). An apocryphal aphorism, often attributed to Mark Twain, states, “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” The author of 1 Peter would certainly agree.
One of the most perplexing passages in the New Testament occurs in 1 Peter 3:19. This verse describes how Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” Nearly every part of this verse has been debated by scholars. However, the keys to unlocking this mysterious passage may lie in the next verse in which the author describes “the days of Noah, during the building of the ark.” What does the story of the flood have to do with a proclamation to “spirits in prison”? The first step begins with recognizing that many of the strange elements […]
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