John H. Elliott, 1 Peter: an appreciation – Book Review
Paul J. Achtemeier
John H. Elliott, I PETER. A NEW TRANSLATION WITH INTRODUCTION AND COMMENTARY. Anchor Bible 37B. New York, NY: Doubleday (Random House), 2000. Pp. xxiii + 956. Cloth, $60.00.
Professor Elliott’s commentary on 1 Peter belongs among the very best commentaries on this epistle published within the past half-century. That this commentary merits the high praise I give it will come as no surprise to those who have followed Professor Elliott’s work over the past four decades, particularly his seminal publications regarding 1 Peter. Beginning with his masterful doctoral dissertation on 1 Peter 2 (1966b) and continuing through his cri de coeur about the epistle’s status as step-child in the exegetical enterprise (1976), Professor Elliott has produced a steady stream of articles and books about 1 Peter that no one in the scholarly guild could afford not to read (1966a, 1966b, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982a, 1982b, 1983, 1985a, 1985b, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995a, 1995b). It is all drawn together here in his Meisterstuck, which well reflects his long and productive career in this area of academic endeavor.
There are several points that attest the excellence of this commentary. There is first and foremost the exhaustive research that underlies the volume, attested to by the voluminous evidence presented for the points made as well as for the points gainsaid. That evidence covers primary sources from the world within which 1 Peter was written, as well as voluminous secondary materials in any number of languages. That evidence is sifted, evaluated, organized, and clearly presented; there are no snap judgments in this book.
Again, Elliott has done an excellent job in integrating Old Testament evidence and background in his book. He constantly relates the theological movements in 1 Peter to the Old Testament and to Second Temple Judaism, thus giving significant depth to his discussion. The same can be said for the New Testament. There are constant discussions of links between points made in 1 Peter and in the remainder of the New Testament. Elliott does not fall into the trap of seeing literary influence on 1 Peter from those New Testament writings. He accurately accounts for such similarities on the basis of common traditions, but he does on a regular basis show how the theology of 1 Peter is related to that of the other New Testament writings.
In another area, Elliott is sensitive to the compositional devices and patterns employed by the author of 1 Peter. There are lengthy charts illustrating the kind of rhetorical strategies used to enhance the literary appeal of the letter to its hearers. And Elliott is as good as his observations about 1 Peter. Repeatedly pointing out the kind of alliteration used in this letter, Elliott himself shows a like talent when he writes, in relation to 1 Peter 5:2, that “elders are not to be leaders for lucre or ministers for mammon” (829). Again, pointing to an occasional neologism in 1 Peter, Elliott again shows similar talent when he uses the word “complexify” (844). But maybe that is a neologism only to old fogies like me.
On the historical background of the period during which the letter is written, Elliott again gives ample and interesting information, as he does on the geographical locations of the persons to whom the letter is addressed.
Finally, in the matter of socio-historical perspective, Elliott has continued his impressive analysis of the place of the material in 1 Peter within the honor/shame categories that so dominated Mediterranean culture at the time this letter was written. You will hear more on that point later from others, but no comment on this book from the viewpoint of recent scholarship would be complete without calling attention to this signal contribution of Elliott’s commentary.
In much of this Elliott has taken positions common to the better commentaries on 1 Peter produced within the past decades. For example, he correctly argues that the letter is a literary unity, not an adapted homily, whether baptismal or other, tricked out with introduction and conclusion (874). Elliott is too good a literary analyst to miss the fact that the letter is a literary unity. Again, Elliott argues that the letter is pseudepigraphic, written sometime during the last third of the first century, almost surely stemming from a Petrine group in Rome–points that all have been supported by most of the better recent research. Two final, minor but important points: Elliott correctly argues that the “briefly” of 5:12 represents a literary convention of first-century letter-writers, and is not meant to be taken literally in any twenty-first-century sense (876), as he correctly sees that that same verse contains a summary of the intent of the letter (880), thus providing one more proof of the literary unity of the letter.
To the points made above concerning some of the conclusions Elliott has in common with recent scholarship, let me add some further points where I would find myself in complete agreement with his views on 1 Peter. I can list only a small number, since those agreements, as you will see, range from the very broad to the very specific.
First, and perhaps most significantly for me, I agree with the general perspective of the letter Elliott sets out at the conclusion of his Introduction (152); it is worth quoting in full:
… the present commentary seeks to show how the essential perspective of
this letter concerns, not a cosmological contrast between life on earth and
home in heaven, but a social tension between maintaining the identity and
integrity of the Christian people of God and experiencing the abuse and
pressures of a hostile society.
Several points need emphasizing here. The first is that the letter concerns real problems for real persons in the real world regarding how to live as real Christians in the midst of essentially social pressures. It is not, as Elliott likes to say, about “pie in the sky”; it is about how to live as a cohesive group in the real world (322, 367, 461, 480-81). The second point to emphasize, and with which needless to say I also agree completely, is that the pressure facing those people was largely social, not political or imperial in origin. Like any oriental religion, Christianity was faced with official Roman skepticism, but at the time 1 Peter was written, there was no official edict banning Christianity. Pliny’s letter to Trajan makes that clear enough. As a result, it was hostile neighbors, not hostile governmental bodies with anti-Christian policies that were plaguing the hearers of this letter (e.g., 607, 631, 779, 788). Third, implied in that statement is the point that Christians are not called by the author of 1 Peter to conformity with the customs of the Greco-Roman world. Quite the contrary, as Elliott makes clear more than once (e.g., 863, 869), the advice is to non-conformity when conformity would compromise the integrity of the Christian reality the hearers are seeking to embody. The advice is to conform if it secures public approval, provided it involves no sacrifice of Christian identity (562), but that is a long way from sacrificing Christian ideals by conforming to Greco-Roman social customs.
On another key issue in 1 Peter, I find myself in basic agreement with Elliott’s solution to the problems posed by 1 Peter 3:18-22. On all major points we are in agreement; on occasion we interpret linguistic evidence in differing ways, but the conclusions remain compatible. Included in that is the agreement that the imprisoned spirits in 3:19 are unrelated to the dead in 4:6 but that they are related to the supernatural powers mentioned in 3:22, and that there is no descensus ad inferos implied in 3:19.
I also applaud, and incidentally agree with (!) the point that the author of 1 Peter chose, in the fragments of the Haustafel included in the letter, to put major emphasis on slaves (2:18-25) and wives (3:1-7) because of their paradigmatic illumination of the status of all Christians within the social situation in which they lived. Like that of slaves and wives, their contemporary social structure allowed the Christians little true freedom for expression or action.
Again, I agree that 1 Peter originated with a Petrine group in Rome, a point I ought to agree with since I first was convinced of it by Elliott’s writings! I also agree–and this I did not first learn from Elliott–that Silvanus is not the secretary but the bearer of the letter (872); the linguistic evidence makes that all but certain. A few other, minor points: I agree that the basic thrust of the Greek word pistis is best rendered as “trust” rather than “belief” (378, 860), that the Greek word ktisis (2:13) is to be rendered as “creature” rather than “institution” (489), and, I think very importantly, that derivatives of the Greek word upotasso are best rendered with some form of the English word “subordinate” (484-88) rather than some form of “be subject to” or “obey.” The point is not to give in no matter what–the point is to assume the place in the social order which one is allotted, including, I would argue, its modification brought about by membership in the Christian community.
Let me now turn to an important aspect in any scholar’s overall understanding of 1 Peter, namely the role played in the letter by metaphor. It is at this point that one must celebrate Elliott’s insight into the importance of “family” terminology in the Epistle, but I shall return to that in due course.
There is general agreement that metaphor is a key element of the theological strategy of the author of 1 Peter, a point made the more obvious by the numerous metaphors that appear. Among the more evident are living stone, rebirth, new-born babe, milk (of the word), gentiles, used in the letter to describe non-believers of any racial origin–readers of pagan origin are urged in the letter not to be like gentiles–and the numerous terms normally used to describe the family. A major metaphor is also represented by terminology used in Jewish literature to describe Israel. As Elliott notes (e.g., 113,447), the fact that the author of 1 Peter simply takes over the terms originally applied to Israel and uses them without comment to describe the Christian community clearly identifies Israel as a major metaphor in this argument.
One of the major problems any interpreter of 1 Peter faces, therefore, is to determine whether there is a root metaphor used by the author that informs and shapes the argument of the letter. Elliott, in one of the major contributions of his commentary, identifies as root metaphor the Christian community as the household of God (444). It is this figure, Elliott argues, that the author employs to inform the readers about the way they must act towards one another in the face of overt social hostility, and it is this figure that provides the way of life as well as the mode of believing for the nascent Christian community.
Also in this regard, Professor Elliott has, I think, modified to some extent an earlier view regarding the words “strangers and aliens.” In earlier writings, e.g., A HOME FOR THE HOMELESS, one gained the impression that he thought they were used exclusively to describe the actual social condition of the readers. Contrarily, I had argued that given the exclusive use of this phrase in Greek literature to refer to Abraham, and Abraham alone, the phrase must be understood as metaphorical, within the larger controlling metaphor I had wanted to identify as Israel as chosen people.
While Professor Elliott continues to argue that unless there is compelling reason to see the phrase as metaphorical, it needs to be taken as literal description of social reality (461), he does now also argue that while some of the readers “may have been aliens in the lands where they resided prior to their conversion” (460), “eventually the estrangement that subsequent adherents of the movement also experienced made it possible for our author to describe the entire brotherhood as a community of strangers and resident aliens” (461). Thus allowance is made for a metaphorical as well as a literal use of the phrase. Because this was a major difference between Professor Elliott and myself in interpreting 1 Peter, I have spent more time on it than was perhaps warranted. Nevertheless, I welcome this qualification in emphasis, and would find little to argue against it.
That is not to say that I still do not have some disagreements, although they are for the most part minor, and often represent differing ways of evaluating the same evidence, placing differing emphases on differing elements within that evidence. Understanding the Greek word basileion in 2:9 as the adjective “royal,” modifying priesthood, or as the nominal “royal residence” is one such example; Professor Elliott has argued for the latter. I am also not entirely convinced that there are as many imperatival participles in 1 Peter as Professor Elliott finds, and, in a startling about-face, I would see the description of wives in 3:3 as containing references to social and economic reality, whereas Professor Elliott would not (564). Being by nature skeptical, I am not so convinced as Professor Elliott that the Silvanus mentioned as the one who delivers the letter is necessarily the same Silas/Silvanus mentioned in Acts and Paul, or that the Mark of 5:13 is the same John Mark who also appears in Acts and is credited with a Gospel. Such differences are, however, minor quibbles.
Let me conclude by pointing to what I see as the major contributions of the Commentary. Foremost is the argument for household and family terminology as the root metaphor and key conceptual framework for understanding the intention of the author of 1 Peter. In what I take to be an unparalleled fashion, Elliott contends for this major insight not only into 1 Peter, but also into the larger mode of self-understanding practiced by the early Christian community.
The second major contribution is the location of certain terminology in the letter within the domain of the honor-shame conceptuality of the first-century Mediterranean world. It is presented in a persuasive and illuminating way, and helps the reader gain purchase on the kind of world within which, and for which, 1 Peter was written.
A third major contribution is represented by the careful and sensitive discussion of the hermeneutical problem posed for our age by 1 Peter’s discussion of wives in 3:1-7 (585-99). It is the best such discussion I know, and shows the extent to which Professor Elliott is sensitive not only to the social situation in which the letter originated, but also to the social situation within which its message is now to be understood. That sensitivity is in the end perhaps the most abiding characteristic of this fine Commentary on 1 Peter.
Works (by John H. Elliott) Cited
2000. 1 PETER. A NEW TRANSLATION WITH INTRODUCTION AND COMMENTARY. The Anchor Bible 37B. New York, NY: Doubleday (Random House).
1982a. (with R. A. Martin). JAMES, I-II PETER, JUDE. Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg. Chinese translation by B. Juk (JAMES) & A. Chow (I-II PETER, JUDE). Hong Kong: Taosheng Publishing House, 1988.
1996a. DOXOLOGY: GOD’S PEOPLE CALLED TO CELEBRATE HIS GLORY. A BIBLICAL STUDY OF 1 PETER IN 10 PARTS. St. Louis, MO: Lutheran Laymen’s League.
1995a. Spanish translation of the second edition of A HOME FOR THE HOMELESS by C. Ruiz-Garrido, UN HOGAR PARA LOS QUE NO TIENEN PATRIA NI HOGAR. ESTUDIO CRITICO SOCIAL DE LA CARTA PRIMERA DE PEDRO Y DE SU SITUACION Y ESTRATEGIA. Estella (Navarra, Spain): Verbo Divino.
1990. A HOME FOR THE HOMELESS. A SOCIAL-SCIENTIFIC CRITICISM OF I PETER, ITS SITUATION AND STRATEGY, with a New Introduction. 2nd expanded edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
1985a. Portuguese translation of the first edition of A Home for the Homeless by J. Rezende Costa, UM LAR PARA QUEM NAO TEM CASA. INTERPRETACAO SOCIOLOGICA DA PRIMEIRA CARTA DE PEDRO. Colecao Biblia e Sociologia 3. Sao Paulo, Brazil: Edicoes Pauliinas.
1981. A HOME FOR THE HOMELESS. A SOCIOLOGICAL EXEGESIS OF 1 PETER, ITS SITUATION AND STRATEGY. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press/London, UK: SCM Press.
1979. 1 Peter. ESTRANGEMENT AND COMMUNITY. Herald Biblical Booklets. Chicago, IL: Franciscan Herald Press.
1966b. The Elect and the Holy. An Exegetical Examination of 1 Peter 2:4-10 and the Phrase Basileion Hierateuma. NOVUM TESTAMENTUM, Suppl. 12. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
1992. Peter, First Epistle of. ANCHOR BIBLE DICTIONARY 5: 269-78.
1995b. Disgraced Yet Graced: The Gospel According to 1 Peter in the Key of Honor and Shame. BIBLICAL THEOLOGY BULLETIN 25: 166-78.
1993. Social-Scientific Criticism of a Biblical Text: 1 Peter as an Example. Pp. 70-86 in WHAT IS SOCIAL-SCIENTIFIC CRITICISM? GUIDES TO BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP, edited by John H. Elliott. New Testament Series. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. Reprinted as Social-Scientific Criticism of a Biblical Text: 1 Peter as an Example. Pp. 339-58 in THE SOCIAL SCIENCES AND NEW TESTAMENT INTERPRETATION: CONTEMPORARY APPROACHES, edited by David Horrell. Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark, 1999.
1986. 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy: A Discussion with David Balch. Pp. 61-78 in PERSPECTIVES ON FIRST PETER, edited by Charles H. Talbert. NABPR Special Study Series, 9. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
1985b. Backward and Forward “In His Steps”: Following Jesus from Rome to Raymond and Beyond. The Tradition, Redaction, and Reception of 1 Peter 2:18-25. Pp. 184-209 in DISCIPLESHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, edited by E Segovia. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.
1983. The Roman Provenance of 1 Peter and the Gospel of Mark: A Response to David Dungan. Pp. 182-94 in COLLOQUY ON NEW TESTAMENT STUDIES. A TIME FOR REAPPRAISAL AND FRESH APPROACHES, edited by B. Corley. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
1982b. Salutation and Exhortation to Christian Behavior on the Basis of God’s Blessings (1 Pet 1:1-2:10). REVIEW AND EXPOSITER 79: 415-25.
1980. Peter, Silvanus and Mark in I Peter and Acts. Sociological-Exegetical Perspectives on a Petrine Group in Rome. Pp. 250-67 in WORT IN DER ZEIT. NEUTESTAMENTLICHE STUDIEN. K. H. Rengstorf FS. Edited by W. Haubeck & M. Bachmann. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
Paul J. Achtemeier, Th.D., Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education, 3401 Brook Road, Richmond, VA 23227. He is the author of the Commentary on 1 Peter in the HERMENEIA series and has served as editor of the journal INTERPRETATION.
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