Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

meaning of weaker vessel in 1 Peter 3

“… 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.

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).

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14 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.

    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/

    2. Hi NCCM, I really liked this video, and found it really enlightening and helpful, as I am actually writing a book on the subject. I wish to contact you by direct email, if you don’t mind.
      Many thanks.

  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. As I mentioned before having researched the Greek translation of the words weaker vessel, I always concluded it refrered to either the physical weakness of women or treating more delicately, more gently or a combination of both. The main point was the husbands were to be considerate of their wives an areas where they are more vulnerable. I too never thought this term is demeaning in anyway as hit tells husband to show honour to their wives and remember they are co-heirs in God’s kingdom encouring mutual respect and equal regard. God Bless.

  5. In 1 Peter 3:7 many translations say “You husbands in the same way, live with [your wives] in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman”, but in the NASB Greek text the word translated as weaker is the Greek word poieo which is defined as “to make, or make out of something”. http://biblehub.com/lexicon/1_peter/3-7.htm . It appears that Peter is saying women were created from the man not that she is weaker and this changes the meaning of the verse entirely.

    This improved translation brings this verse in line with other scriptures that show equality among all of the body of Christ. In 1 Cor 12: 12 to 26 Paul describes how born again believers are all members/parts of one body v12 and no member is any less a part of the body v 15 & 16. He goes on to describe how different members are necessary and desired by God v18. When he talks about weaker members he isn’t confirming that there are weaker members but only that they “seem to be weaker” v22 but says they are necessary and are to be bestowed more honor v23. No member is better than or more valuable than any other member because being one body “if one member suffers all the members suffer with it” and “if one member is honored all the members rejoice with it” v26. Paul says that men and women are equal in Gal 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    1. The Greek word for “weaker” in 1 Peter 3:7 is ἀσθενεστέρῳ (asthenesterō) in every Greek text I have seen (including the texts used by the NASB translators.) You can check here.

      The information at Bible Hub is a mistake. The Strong’s number should be 772, not 4160. (Asthenesterō and poieō are completely unrelated.)

  6. 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. 🙂

  7. In Gen. 3: 16, the second word translated “sorrow” or “labor” is etseb which also has a secondary meaning of “earthen vessel” or “idol” as a verb can mean “to stretch out or fashion”. Personally, I think Peter is drawing on Gen. 3: 16 to describe the wife as a weaker vessel to mean that because of the circumstances of the fall, the woman is indeed the “weaker vessel” compared to the man. The husband is to consider this and give her honor as a “joint heir” rather than perpetuate the circumstances of the fall. Just my opinion.

    1. That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know if the two different meanings of the Hebrew verb עָצַב atsab are necessarily related.

      The Hebrew verb עָצַב atsab typically means “to hurt, pain, grieve”. The related noun עֶצֶב (etseb) is used in Genesis 3:16, in Psalm 127:2, and a few times in Proverbs with the sense of painful toil. Another related noun עִצָּבוֹן (itsabon)is used in Genesis 3:16, 3:17 and 5:29.

      The way I see it, the same letters עָצַב are used for a different verb that means “fabricate.” The related noun עֶצֶב (etseb) is used in Jeremiah 22:28. The word translated as “vessel” in this verse is כְּלִי (keli) and is completely unrelated to atsab or etseb.

      Since the vessel in Jeremiah 22:28 is a “despised, shattered jar”, and since “painful toil” is the meaning in Genesis 3:16, I strongly doubt that Peter had either the verb atsab or the noun etseb in mind when he described wives as a weaker vessel.

      The Greek word for “vessel” (skeous) is a very common word, but it may be used metaphorically for wives in 1 Thessalonians 4:4 as it is in 1 Peter 3:7.

      I don’t believe there is an allusion to the fall in 1 Peter 3:7. Rather, Peter has his eyes firmly on the New Covenant of which men and women are joint heirs.

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