Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Introduction

“… dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life …” 1 Peter 3:7 NKJV.
“… live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker partner, showing them honor as coheirs of the grace of life … 1 Peter 3:7 CSB.

I have previously written an article about 1 Peter 3:7, the Bible verse that includes the phrase “a weaker vessel” here]. Since writing this article, however, I’ve come across a few references in Greek papyri where women are called “weak” (asthenēs). In these papyri, women use the adjective for themselves hoping to elicit pity, or hoping to ingratiate themselves, while seeking justice from men. A.L. Connolly comments on several of these legal petitions and notes that appealing to a woman’s frailty (asthenēs) “had become commonplace in the rhetoric of petitions.”[1]

So what did Peter mean when he told husbands that their wives are a “weaker vessel”?

Social Weakness

Peter calls wives “weaker vessels”[2] because he wants husbands, not necessarily to pity them, but to be more understanding with their wives. Ancient women were, with few exceptions, disadvantaged economically, legally, and politically. They had less power and fewer rights in society than men. Peter wanted husbands to be considerate of the more vulnerable situation of their wives so that they would take care not to exploit them.

People in positions of privilege are often not fully aware of the disadvantages of those in weaker positions. 

In 1 Corinthians 1:27b, Paul used the Greek word asthenēs to mean weakness in society: “God chose the weak of this world to shame the strong.” The context of social weakness is given clearly in the preceding verse, 1 Corinthians 1:26, where Paul wrote that not many of the Corinthian Christians were (1) wise according to the flesh: they did not have the wisdom that came with an advanced education; (2) not many were mighty: they did not have social clout or influence; (3) not many were well-born: they did not come from elite families with the social advantages of wealth, a name, and powerful connections.[3]

Peter may have had in mind the social disadvantages that ancient women faced when he used the words “weaker vessel.”

Physical Weakness

However, asthenēs is used many times in the New Testament to mean weak, sick and infirm. Did Peter have physical weakness in mind?[4] Interestingly, Paul, who readily admitted to his own weakness, used the word asthenēs many times to refer to physical weakness. He used the comparative form of asthenēs (= “weaker”) in 1 Corinthians 12:22 where he wrote, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Peter likewise uses the comparative form of asthenēs (“weaker”) in 1 Peter 3:7.

Physical weakness is not a disadvantage in the body of Christ, and it need not be a disadvantage in marriage.

Honour and Mutuality

Neither Peter nor Paul use the word “weaker” to insult or diminish anyone. In fact, they do the opposite. Like the women seeking justice, Peter uses the word “weaker” for its rhetorical effect, and he juxtaposes the phrase “weaker vessel” with the phrase “bestowing honour.” Peter wants husbands to regard their wives with honour and not consider them, or treat them, as social inferiors.

It was not unusual to hear women being called “weak” or “weaker” in the first century.[5] On the other hand, some may have been surprised to hear Peter tell husbands to honour their wives.[6] Furthermore, Peter gives the reason why husbands should honour their wives: because a Christian couple are co-heirs of “God’s gift of new life” (1 Pet. 3:7 NLT). Being co-heirs is a strong basis for mutuality and equality in marriage.

I’m not bothered that Peter called wives “weaker” considering it was part of the rhetoric of petitions. Moreover, I’m delighted that he appealed to husbands to treat their wives with honour and with understanding, and to acknowledge them as co-heirs. It seems Peter was advocating for justice in marriage.

Footnotes

[1] “30. ‘The Weaker Sex'”, G.H.R. Horsley with A.L. Connolly, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri in 1979, Volume 4 (The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1987), 131-133, 132.
Postscript (July 16 2021): I recently read a letter written by a woman seeking justice when someone took her donkey without permission. She ends her letter by pointing out she is a widow. No doubt she added this information to encourage action from the recipient of her letter. Petition to Zenon from Senkhons about a Donkey, PMichZen 29 (docketed 13–21 July 256 BCE)

[2] Edwin A. Blum briefly discusses the meaning of “vessel” (Greek: skeuos).

The exact metaphorical meaning of vessel (skeuos) is disputed. In Greek usage, it is a common term for the body as the container of the soul. A Hebrew equivalent of this term was used in rabbinic teaching for “wife” or “sexual partner.” This uncertainty of interpretation applies to 1 Thessalonians 4:4 as well as to 1 Peter 3:7.
Blum, ”1 Peter,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12, Frank E. Gaebelein (ed) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 238.

Here is definition II of skeuos in Liddel, Scott and Jones’ lexicon (LSJ), the most exhaustive lexicon of ancient Greek.

II. τὸ σκεῦος the body, as the vessel of the soul, a metaphor clearly expressed in 2 Cor. 4:7 ἔχομεν δὲ τὸν θησαυρὸν τοῦτον ἐν ὀστρακίνοις σκεύεσιν, cf. 1 Thess. 4:4; 1 Pet. 3:7. (Source)

[3] These socially disadvantaged Corinthians were the ones who God selected, and he used them to shame the wise, the powerful, and the ones “belonging” to society. Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-30; it’s a remarkable passage of scripture. Paul uses “weak” again in 1 Corinthians 9:22f where he says he became weak, that is, he identified with the weak, in order to win them over for the gospel.

[4] The entry on asthenēs in the LSJ Greek-English Lexicon is here. It gives the primary meanings as “without strength” and “weak”, and lists other kinds of weaknesses, not just physical or bodily weakness.

[5] Note that Peter does not say that women are “weak.” Rather, his meaning is that wives are “weak-er” than their husbands.

[6] Peter writes that the Christians in Asia Minor should also honour the emperor (1 Pet. 2:17).

Postscript: January 18, 2022
The Grammar of 1 Peter 3:7: Are men the weaker vessel?

Twice in the past month, I’ve heard someone suggest that Peter was really saying the men, not women, are the weaker vessel. However, this is a grammatical impossibility in the Greek of 1 Peter 3:7. Let me explain.

The Greek words for “the men/ husbands” (οἱ ἄνδρες) are vocative masculine plural (or perhaps nominative masculine plural). “The men” are the subject of the sentence, and any articles, pronouns, adjectives or participles belonging to or describing “the men/ husbands” would need to grammatically “agree” and be nominative masculine plural. Thus we have the nominative masculine plural participles for “living together” (συνοικοῦντες) and “bestowing [honour]” (ἀπονέμοντες).

If Peter had wanted to say that the men were like, or as, (ὡς) weaker vessels, he would have used nominative masculine plural words for “weaker vessel.” But he didn’t.

The Greek words in the phrase “to/ with a weaker vessel” (ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει) are dative neuter singular.[1] The words for “to/ with the womenfolk” (τῷ γυναικείῳ) are also dative neuter singular.[2] These singular neuter dative words grammatically “agree” and indicate that “as to/ with a weaker vessel” and “to/ with the womenfolk” refer to the same group of people.

The law of grammatical agreement is basic grammar and is typically learnt in the first few weeks of learning Greek. The “agreement” in 1 Peter 3:7 is reasonably straightforward. “As with a weaker vessel” (ὡς ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει: dative neuter singular) cannot describe “the men” (οἱ ἄνδρες: vocative masculine plural) in an equative sense.

One thing that is unclear is where to place “to/ with the womenfolk” in translations of the sentence. (Note the differences in the NKJV and the CSB at the top of the page.) However, in fluent English, and considering the continuing theme of submission (which I’ve written about here), 1 Peter 3:7 might be translated or paraphrased as: “The men, likewise [being submissive], live together with your womenfolk recognising they are like a weaker vessel, giving honour to them as also co-heirs[3] of the gracious gift of life  …”

I could say more, but I’ve tried to keep this explanation as brief and as comprehensible as possible.

Notes to Postscript

[1] Neuter nouns and substantives can function as collective nouns, which is the case in 1 Peter 3:7. Dative nouns, etc, have a sense that is usually expressed in English with words such as “to,” “for,” “in,” “with,” etc.

[2] The usual Greek noun for “woman, wife” is not used in 1 Peter 3:7. I have chosen to translate the adjective (that occurs only here in the New Testament) as a substantive, as “womenfolk.” However,  the phrase ὡς ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει τῷ γυναικείῳ may mean “to/ with a weaker vessel in respect to the female condition/ situation.”

[3] The dative plural word συνκληρονόμοις (“joint-heirs, co-participants”) has the same form whether masculine, feminine, or neuter.

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Related Articles

Submission and Respect from Wives in 1 Peter 3:1-6
Submission and Respect from Husbands in 1 Peter 3:7-8
Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage?
Equality and Unity in Ministry in 1 Corinthians 12
Are Men Physically Superior to Women?
Protecting the Weaker Sex

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

16 thoughts on “What does “weaker vessel” mean in 1 Peter 3:7?

  1. A good argument can be made that Peter’s reference to honoring the wives is financial in nature, ordering Christian men to share the household finances and give the wife rule over “the Housekeeping,” which was a custom that extended form the early church through the 20th century. His reminder that she is the weaker vessel is actually a way of calling her “hobbled,” that is, in that society, though she is a co-heir, she has been made helpless financially (something not true across the board in the ancient world). In rural formerly Greek cultures, wives were servants who ate in the kitchen with the children while the man of the house dined in the front room with any guests. The man ran the cupboard and often procured the best for himself. Peter may very well have been ending that practice, admonishing Christian men to take up the Aristotelian and Jewish practice of entrusting the Housekeeping funds to the wife and running the home as a joint venture (co-heirs in Jesus Christ).

    Peter’s references are financial in nature, including the concept of “honoring,” which at that time was often used in the sense of “compensation” for a role a person held or a meritorious service they had provided. But also, the reference to beign co-heirs is financial in nature, and even the word for “weaker vessel,” that she has been “hobbled” could be used in a commercial sense: ie, she is unable to provide for herself, unable to earn a living.

    Peter had no concept of “Gender justice” and the idea of a man “submitting” to his wife would have struck him as unlikely, even in situations where a man did what his wife wanted him to do. Peter’s view of leadership in the household doesn’t even equate to ours. He would have viewed the masculine role as being bound up in the happiness of the wife and her happy condition. But he would have viewed that as a necessity of good patriarchy, not as gender equality. You can’t just shoehorn a 21st century concept onto the ancient world.

    Our concept of patriarchy is NOT the concept of patriarchy in the ancient world, where the man of the house was expected to know the needs of every member of the household and weave the household together into a harmonious and happy unity. The macho, authoritarian masculinity currently embraced by right wing Christianity today would be just as foreign and repulsive to Peter as it is to normal people today, but he still wouldn’t comprehend “Gender Justice” or “Gender Equality.”

    1. Thanks for leaving this comment, Jeri.

      The first century Greco-Roman world is so foreign to modern westerners. I completely agree that “You can’t just shoehorn a 21st century concept onto the ancient world.”

      “Gender Justice” is a phrase I rarely use; this post might be the first occasion where I use it. It is a pun based on the use of “weak” by women seeking justice. Nevertheless, I believe Paul and Peter wanted to see more equality among all people in the churches.

  2. When I attended seminary I took five semesters of Koine Greek. In my opinion, the verse has been deliberately translated incorrectly to continue to foster that which God never intended. Most people do not get to see the inside workings of a verse in regards to the Greek grammar. You might want to check out my video: Exegetical Study of 1 Peter 3.7. It is very controversial, but this is what the Lord showed me back in 2000 and I finally decided to videotape what the Lord showed me. Here is the link. I hope you watch the whole of it even if it is a bit long.

    <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jwb36Zdoaqs>

    1. Hi NCCM,

      The video is quite long, so I’ll take a look when I have more time.

      I did catch the bit about writing a paper on glossolalia. Perhaps you’re interested in what I wrote about this here: https://margmowczko.com/christian-theology/speaking-in-tongues-xenoglossia/

      1. Hello! Did you ever watch this video? I did. It’s extremely interesting. I would love to know your thoughts.

        1. Good question, Christina. I started but didn’t finish. I’ll put it on my to-do list.

          1. Oh, thank you! Mostly I am wondering if you would come to the same translation as she did. I have no idea how to go about doing it myself. I want to say thank you for your wonderful writings and all the research you have shared! I have been raised in the church. Been very heavily influenced on male leadership. I am searching for truth. Only truth and not opponions. It’s so hard to navigate through these issues when you’re ingrained with patriarchal teachings. My husband is very much enjoying your work too! Thank you!!!!

        2. Hi Christina, I found the video long-winded. But I’ll make brief comments about some of the claims made in the video.

          ~ The speaker’s claim that the husband is the weaker vessel in 1 Peter 3:7 is incorrect.

          She mentions that she’s taken 5 semesters of Greek, but in the very first semester we learn about grammatical agreement. Grammatical agreement is a basic law. According to this law “weaker vessel” cannot refer to “the men” in 1 Peter 3:7. It is simply impossible.

          The Greek for “the men/ husbands” (Οἱ ἄνδρες) is vocative masculine plural (or perhaps nominative). The men are the *subject* of the sentence and any articles, nouns, adjectives or participles describing “the men/ husbands” or their actions would need to grammatically “agree” and be nominative masculine plural too. Thus we have the nominative masculine plural participles for “living together” (συνοικοῦντες) and “bestowing” (ἀπονέμοντες).

          The Greek for “weaker vessel” (ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει) is not nominative, masculine or plural; it is dative neuter and singular, as are the words for “to the woman/ women folk” (τῷ γυναικείῳ). These singular neuter dative words grammatically “agree” and belong together.

          This is basic Greek grammar. The grammar of “agreement” is not at all tricky in 1 Peter 3:7. It is simple and straightforward.

          ~ Her comment about the passive participle having the sense “being made or forced to be in subjection” is also incorrect. It’s just plain wrong.

          Furthermore, the form of the “submit” participle used in 1 Peter 3:6 can have either a middle or passive voice. (Both middle and passive voices have the same form in present participles.)

          If it’s middle, the phrase means “submitting themselves to their own husbands.” (I think it’s middle.)

          If it’s passive, it means “being submissive to their own husbands.” There is usually no extra sense or nuance of being forced.

          What is also important is the immediate context. Peter says that this is how the holy women of old behaved, and he thinks it’s a good example for the Christian women in Asia Minor who were suffering. Peter wants the women in Asia to copy the behaviour of the holy women of old. They couldn’t make the decision to copy behaviour if they were being forced and had no choice.
          I’ve written more about 1 Peter 3:6 here.
          https://margmowczko.com/submission-respect-1-peter-3_1-6/

          ~ Obeying parents, both mother and father, was the norm in the ancient world for respectable people. Several pagan authors writing to men tell them to obey their parents, both mother and father. Of course, Jesus would honour and obey his mother. The speaker is exaggerating the lower status of women in Jesus’ time.

          The Bible teaches that we are to honour and obey both parents.
          https://margmowczko.com/leading-together-in-the-home/
          Paul taught this too. Grown children were expected to obey their parents.
          https://margmowczko.com/the-household-codes-and-male-slaves-with-female-masters/

          ~ I disagree that Eve did not know the command of the forbidden fruit.
          https://margmowczko.com/eves-statement-to-the-serpent/

          ~ Practices of rabbinical scribes copying Hebrew texts have nothing to do with copying New Testament books and letters. And I think the speaker makes too much of the fact that most Greek texts and translations start a new section at Ephesians 5:22. Just because most texts start a new section at verse 22 doesn’t mean we immediately ignore verse 21.
          I’ve written about this here https://margmowczko.com/grammar-ephesians-521-and-22/

          ~ Jerome wrote in Latin, not in Greek. He did not add a sigma (a Greek letter) to Junia’s name. Jerome took Junia to be a woman. I have some info on this here.
          https://margmowczko.com/junias-junia-julia-romans-167/
          Also, the speaker is exaggerating the misogyny of Jerome. He was a man of his time and did have some low views of women, but he loved and valued women such as Paula and Marcella.
          In this letter to a woman named Principia, Jerome does not sound at all like a misogynist.
          https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/letter/425.html

          Pretty much the only thing I agree with in the video is that we are to read verses in context. And I agree that Peter was also telling husbands to be submissive. I’ve written about this here.
          https://margmowczko.com/submission-respect-1-peter-3_7-8/

          Because of the several misleading statements, it may be best to remove the link to the video.

          1. Oh, wow! Thank you so much for looking into this. I found some of her ideas incorrect as well. You definitely know much more than I do! I am extremely new to learning about the things you write about. Grew up with Bill Gothard, James Dobson, and the like. I have been spending hours in between taking care of my 5 kids looking into these topics about women. It’s extremely difficult for me to understand how to process everything. I really appreciate your help. My mind is blown after you said there are no gender specific pronouns in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Correct? Isn’t that one of the main scriptures that is used to withhold women from church leadership??!! My husband is an Elder at our church. (I grew up a pastor’s kid.) He is studying along with me. Our church is looking to add more elders, and I know for a fact that women would never be allowed! I feel so frustrated about not wanting to misinterpret any scripture with my humble knowledge and yet wanting to scream freedom for women in Christ! Prayers for wisdom and understanding of God’s perfect Word would be so appreciated.

          2. Hi Christina, to be precise, there are no masculine personal pronouns in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. This, in and of itself, is not especially significant. But it’s important to realise that the masculine pronouns that have been added into English translations are absent in the Greek.

            It’s difficult to render “own household” without using the word “his”: “his own household.” And the Greek word for “own” is masculine.

            I maintain that Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 do not contain a prohibition that forbids women from being overseers of congregations. But it does reflect the situation that most overseers would have been men. Still, we know that women like Priscilla and Nympha functioned as overseers and took care of congregations.

            All my articles on 1 Timothy 3 are here: https://margmowczko.com/category/1-timothy-3/

  3. I imagine that the Christian husbands would’ve been astounded at being instructed to honor their wives. But imagine the even greater astonishment of those unbelievers in the surrounding culture when they witnessed a Christian man honoring his wife, treating her with respect and not as property. That would have been a tremendous witness to the world. (Though, of course, many might’ve despised the man for such behavior.)

    1. Excellent point. It would have been astonishing for onlookers. Even disturbing. The social code of honour-shame was entrenched in their culture, so the more egalitarian behaviours of the very early Christians, which included bestowing honour on women, were seen as a threat with the potential of destabilising society.

      The household codes were written in the later letters to temper some of the egalitarian behaviours but not to extinguish egalitarianism as the ideal and goal.

      I like what Philip Towner has to say on this:

      “On the one hand, the already-not yet nature of salvation dictates the ideal of equality within the various social relationships is indeed the goal towards which the community must press. . . . Realization of Salvation’s promises [of a ‘new man’ where gender is largely irrelevant] involves a process that is sometimes agonizingly slow. On the other hand, progress towards this realization must, because of the priority of mission, be tempered by the ability of society to accept the changes in the social equilibrium that the equality tradition implies. Thus on this understanding the house code encourages respectability and requires the church to touch base constantly with the world about it.”
      The Goal of Our Instruction: The Structure of Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989) 211.

  4. Gender justice in marriage must be a welcome aspect of the gospel of freedom and grace for wives who have been oppressed and marginalized by husbands.

    1. And you would know about the health and freedom justice can bring, since justice is your vocation. 🙂

  5. We just read I Peter 3 in its entirety to see if the question asked in v13 was rhetorical. We went to the CEV to gain a better understanding of the chapter. We then came to the Internet to find out why the writer had referred to the women as the “weaker vessel”.

    We were quickly reminded that society has always given men more rights than women and how females & also widows (w/no male heirs & even those w/male family members) were treated when it came to finances & certain jobs. We were also quickly reminded how God gave the female the responsibility of carrying life, which requires much strength even after delivery. For most families, the female is usually the backbone for it; she has to nurture all in some fashion & pour into everyone, especially mentally; as we know, our minds are important & powerful.

    Back to the scripture – The KJV reads, “AS UNTO the weaker vessel” @v7, which suggests the wife is NOT necessarily weaker but to treat her as if & honor as if, all while remembering they’re = co heirs & also joint heirs w/Christ. Additionally @ the opening of said chapter, the writer paints the husband AS weaker in that he will follow the wife if she moves naturally, quietly, gently & beautifully in her heart as she does God’s Will. #Powerful

    One of the commenters on this page pointed out the “er” in weaker, & either the same or another commenter reminded us that while a par(s) of the ‘body’ may APPEAR weakER, it is still necessary for the whole to function properly/effectively & efficiently. Furthermore, we have strengths & weaknesses in different areas; that’s why it’s good & smart to collaborate sometimes & work as a Team w/a shared goal(s).

    We have a newfound perspective & love for this chapter – Gr8ful 4 Wisdom, Revelation & Understanding…

    1. Excellent points, Sam. 🙂

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