1 Peter 5:13, Peter's wife

In the first few decades of the life of the church, a significant number of women were involved in various ministries. Some women cared for churches that met in their own homes, or they ministered in local congregations in other ways. Some women were missionaries and travelled to spread the gospel, or they supported missionaries through patronage and hospitality.

More than a dozen of these ministering women are mentioned by name in the New Testament, but a few, such as Philip’s prophesying daughters, are unnamed. In this article, I suggest that Peter passes on greetings from an unnamed female minister as he closes his first letter.

The Grammar of “She”

In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter sends greetings to the elect who are scattered in Asia Minor (cf. 1 Pet. 1:1). He sends these greetings from the people who are with him in “Babylon.”[1]

1 Peter 5:13 is usually translated as,

She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, greets you, and so does Mark, my son.” (Italics added)

Less often it is translated (i.e. interpreted) as,

The church in Babylon, chosen together with you, greets you, and so does Mark, my son.” (Italics added)

The CEB, HCSB, KJV, NET, NLT, NRSV and a few other English Bibles, include the word “church” in their translations of this verse.

But I propose a third way.

The one-letter Greek word ἡ (), traditionally translated as “she who” in 1 Peter 5:13, is not a personal pronoun. It is a feminine definite article equivalent to “the.” The Greek article can occasionally act as a relative pronoun, however, and with the feminine gender it can have the sense of “she who.” Less often, the feminine definite article can stand for an unstated (elided) feminine noun. (The Greek word for “church” is one example of a feminine noun, as is the Greek word for “woman.”)[2]

Unlike how other translators have understood the Greek of 1 Peter 5:13a, I suggest the article is not acting as a relative pronoun or standing for an unstated noun. I propose instead that it is acting as a definite article (“the”) and that it belongs with the feminine adjective suneklektē[3] (“co-elect”) which is functioning as a noun (a substantive). This is not an uncommon Greek construction. (See footnotes.)

With this understanding, 1 Peter 5:13 can be translated as,

The co-elect woman in Babylon greets you, and so does Mark, my son.”[4]

(In my interpretation there is no missing (elided) noun in the Greek, but “woman” needs to be added in the English translation so that readers understand that the gender of “the co-elect” is female.)

Is ”she” a church, a fellowship of believers, a woman?

Church

Most translators, past and present, have decided to go with “she who.” And the common view is that the feminine article refers to a church from where Peter is writing his letter.

Some early versions of 1 Peter 5:13 add a word for “church.” The Codex Sinaiticus adds the Greek word for “church,” a noun that agrees grammatically with the gender of the feminine article ( ekklēsia: “the church/congregation”). A few early Latin and Syriac translations also add a word that means “church.” But, Peter never uses the word “church” (ekklēsia) in his letter.

Fellowship of Believers

Another suggestion is that the definite article stands for the Greek word for “brotherhood,” a grammatically feminine collective noun ( adelphotēs: “the brotherhood” i.e. the group of fellow believers). Adelphotēs occurs a few verses earlier, in 1 Peter 5:9, and it occurs in 1 Peter 2:17. (This word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament.)

The inclusion of ekklēsia (“church”) or of adelphotēs (“brotherhood”) in translations and in interpretations of 1 Peter 5:13 requires guesswork, especially as there is no New Testament verse where a definite article obviously stands for either of these words. None that I could find, at least. And I looked. On the other hand, the feminine definite article with a feminine adjective clearly refers to women or girls in several New Testament verses.[5]

A Woman

My suggestion is that the feminine article with the feminine adjective suneklektē (“co-elect”) in 1 Peter 5:13 refers to a woman, “the co-elect.” In 1 Peter 1:1, the apostle addresses Christians (not churches) in Asia Minor who he refers to as “elect” or “elect ones” (eklektois).[6] So it makes sense that “the co-elect” in Babylon also refers to a Christian (not a church).[7]

Furthermore, the way “the co-elect” is paired with Mark in 1 Peter 5:13 (literally: “and/also Mark my son”), makes it sound like both are individuals.[8] If so, who might this “co-elect” woman have been? I offer the following speculative ideas.

Who was “she”?

Peter’s Wife

Peter’s wife is the most common suggestion from people who entertain the idea that “she” might have been an actual person. From the beginning of the Christian movement, there were male-female missionary couples,[9] and Paul tells us that the apostle Peter (Cephas) went on missionary journeys with his wife (1 Cor. 9:5).[10]

Peter’s wife is never named in the Gospels, but she knew Jesus from an early stage of his ministry; Jesus sometimes stayed in her family’s home (e.g., Mark 1:29-31). Paul does not give her name either, but it seems the Corinthians knew of her as Peter’s ministry partner.

John Mark’s Mother

It is also possible that “the co-elect” refers to a female minister who is the host of the church where Peter is staying. Providing a home base for congregations was a vital ministry in the first two centuries of the church. Perhaps “the co-elect” is a woman like John Mark’s mother. As well as being the mother of a minister, and the sister of a minister, Barnabas (cf. Col 4:10), she was involved in ministry herself.

John Mark’s mother held church meetings in her own home in Jerusalem in the 40s. Acts 12 records that despite the serious threat of persecution—Herod Agrippa had killed James and imprisoned Peter—she held a prayer meeting. And it’s to her home that Peter chooses to go as soon as he is miraculously released from prison (Acts 12:1-19). Perhaps she, or a woman like her, later hosted a church in “Babylon.”

(I’ve included the example of John Mark’s mother to highlight the ministry of courageous women who were closely associated with Peter and who he would have regarded as “co-elect.”)

An Anonymous Disciple of Jesus

Peter was well acquainted with many sisters-in-the-Lord. Jesus had female followers who included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, and many others. Peter knew these women as they had travelled with Jesus and the male disciples throughout Galilee.

These Galilean women even followed their Lord to Jerusalem where he was crucified, and it was women who were the first to learn that Jesus had been raised from death. It was Mary Magdalene who told Peter and the others, “I have seen the Lord.” Any one of these women, and others besides, may have been Peter’s female “co-elect.”

A Female Minister in Rome

“Babylon” may refer to Rome. In Paul’s list of greetings to twenty-eight Romans (Rom. 16:3-16), he mentions nine Christian women. Two of these women are unnamed. Judging from the greetings, there was a considerable number of women involved in important ministries. In fact, there are more women described as ministers in the list than men, with Priscilla at the very top of the list. Perhaps “the co-elect” woman is one of the women in Paul’s list or a woman who followed in their footsteps.

Conclusion

The elect in 1 Peter 1:1 are not churches, and “she,” or “the co-elect,” in 1 Peter 5:13 is not explicitly called a church. Nevertheless, several translations include the word “church.” It is plausible, however, that like Mark, “she” is an individual, a woman known for her role in the apostolic church: a woman like Peter’s wife, John Mark’s mother, a female disciple of Jesus, or like the Roman women mentioned in Romans 16:3-16. Yet no translation I’ve seen includes the word “woman.” Why is that?

There is no reason to reject the idea that “she,” or “the co-elect,” was a real woman. Neither the grammar nor the context of 1 Peter 5:13 rules out this credible possibility, nor does the fact that she is unnamed. Most commentators, past and present, acknowledge the possibility that “she” is a woman but then shy away from this interpretation.

The plainer meaning in the Greek of this verse is that Peter is passing on greetings from a woman who he describes as “the co-elect.” But who “she” is remains a mystery.


Footnotes

[1] Karen Jobes notes the near-consensus among scholars that “Babylon” refers to Rome and she provides the names of several scholars who hold this position.

There is virtually unanimous agreement among modern interpreters that the referent of “Babylon” is actually Rome (Achtemeier 1996: 354; W. Barclay 1976: 278; Best 1971: 178; Clowney 1988: 224; Cranfield 1958: 123; J. H. Elliott 2000: 883–86; Goppelt 1993: 374–75; Grudem 1988: 201; Kelly 1969: 218; Kistemaker 1987: 209; Michaels 1988: 311; Perkins 1995: 81; Reicke 1964: 134; Selwyn 1958: 243).
Jobes, 1 Peter (Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 321-323.

Ben Witherington agrees and cites several primary sources: “‘Babylon’ was the Jewish code name for Rome, as is perfectly clear from many references (2 Bar. 11:1-2; 67:7; 2 Esd. 3:1-28; Sib. Or. 5:143, 157-160; cf. Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17:18; 18:2-24). It is a term Peter could expect a Jewish audience to understand without further explanation.” Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1-2 Peter (Downers Grover: InterVarsity, 2007), 248.
Furthermore, “Instead of Βαβυλῶνι a few minuscules (4mg 1518 2138) read Ῥώμῃ.” Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Edition, (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994), 628.
Rome makes the best sense, but it is not impossible that Peter, “she,” and Mark are somewhere in the Neo-Persian province of Babylonia. History tells us that Christianity came to Mesopotamia sometime in the first century (cf. Acts 2:5-9ff). Josephus writes that the Jews living in Babylonia left in around 65 AD because of persecution from the Babylonians (Antiquities 18.8). So if Peter, the “apostle to the Jews” (Gal. 2:8), is writing from Babylonia, it would have been before the Jewish population left. However, the broader context of the letter suggests 1 Peter was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD.

[2] The NET Bible translates 1 Peter 5:13 as “The church in Babylon, chosen together with you . . .” But in a note it says the definite article “could refer to some individual woman (‘she who is in Babylon’) since the Greek article … is feminine.” (Source: NET Bible)

[3] Suneklektē is eklektē (an adjective that means chosen or elect) with a sun prefix that means “with” or “together with”: “co-elect.” The implication is that “she” is co-elect with Peter or co-elect with Peter’s audience in Asia Minor, or both. It doesn’t need to be spelled out as most English translations have done: “She in Babylon, chosen together with you.” Rather, hē en Babulōni suneklektē can simply be translated as “The co-elect [woman] in Babylon.”

[4] Greg Forbes translates it similarly as “the fellow elect (feminine) in Babylon.” But he believes this phrase has a collective sense and refers to a group of believers, not one woman. Forbes, 1 Peter (Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament; Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2014), 185.

[5] Here is a small sample of a feminine definite article with a feminine adjective in a phrase that refers to women or girls. I’ve provided a literal translation; the words in square brackets are not in the Greek but the sense is understood from the context. (Note that hai is a plural feminine definite article; hē, in 1 Peter 5:13, is a singular feminine definite article.)

Matthew 25:10 hai hetoimoi: “the prepared [virgins]”
Luke 23:29a hai steirai: “the barren [women]”
Luke 24:10 hai loipoi: “the other [women]”

[6] Eklektois (“to elect ones”) in 1 Peter 1:1 is masculine plural so it cannot be alluding to the Greek word for “church” which is grammatically feminine. Rather, “to elect ones” refers to chosen men and women. (Suneklektē “co-elect one” in 1 Peter 5:13 is feminine singular.)

[7] Peter uses the word “elect” three more times in 1 Peter; all three occurrences are in the passage about living stones (see 1 Pet. 2:4, 6, 9). The lady (ekelektē kuria) and her sister (tēs adelphēs sou tēs eklektēs) in 2 John 1, 5 and 13 are both described as “elect/chosen/choice,” as is Rufus in Romans 16:13. I am as convinced as is reasonably possible that all three are individuals. (I explain why the chosen lady is a woman and not a congregation here.)
Paul sometimes sends greeting from individuals at the end of his letters. In two of his letters, he also sends greetings from churches (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:19). In both these greetings, the plural ekklēsiai (“churches”) is used.

[8] Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215) believed that “she who is in Babylon” was a real person and was one and the same as the “chosen lady” in 2 John 1 and 5. He believed eklektē was not a word describing her, but was her name, equivalent to “Electa.” (Fragments  IV, Comments on 2 John)

[9] Priscilla and Aquila, and Andronicus and Junia, are two prominent missionary couples based in Rome and mentioned by Paul in Romans 16. More on male-female ministry couples and 1 Corinthians 9:5 here.

[10] Clement of Alexandria (writing about those “who never prefer the pleasant to the useful”) mentions a tradition concerning Peter’s wife, but we are still not given her name:

They say, accordingly, that the blessed Peter, on seeing his wife led to death, rejoiced on account of her call and conveyance home, and called very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, ‘Remember the Lord.’ Such was the marriage of the blessed and their perfect disposition towards those dearest to them. (Stromata 7.11)

Image

Statue of Flavia Publicia (CIL 6.32417), chief priestess of the Vestal Virgins circa 250 AD. (Wikimedia)

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Further Reading

Judith K. Applegate, “The Co-Elect Woman of 1 Peter,” New Testament Studies 38 (1992): 587-604. Also in Google Books here.

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