For an explanation of what this post is, see “The ‘How’ and ‘What’ of 1 Peter pt. 1.”
Household Codes and Historical Background (youth group lesson transcript taught on 10.9.19)
We are continuing on with our series on the ‘What’ and the ‘How’ of 1 Peter. As a reminder, we have been talking about the content of this New Testament letter but also about how to read and understand the Bible for ourselves too.
But before we dive in, I just wanted to ask you all a question.
Question: Why do you think that it is important for Christians to read their Bibles? What’s the point of reading such an old book like this?
We’re to read our Bibles because it’s God’s word for us! And that’s really crazy if you think about it. The God of the universe wrote a book, in a sense, and we now have it at our fingertips. But the Bible also teaches us more about God. It teaches us about Jesus and how he saves us. It teaches us about our spiritual ancestors. It even teaches us about the future too. And all of that is vital!
But the point of reading our Bibles isn’t so much about learning a lot of head-knowledge. We can learn a lot of history and theological concepts. What we are really supposed to get from scripture, though, is heart-knowledge. The Bible is there so that we can better conform ourselves to the will and identity of Christ. It is there to convict us of sin and better direct us, through the help of the Spirit, to live out good Christian lives.
However, do you remember back to our previous lesson last week (or last blog posting)? You might remember me saying that scripture, and specifically the biblical letters we find in the New Testament, are all addressed to specific people in a specific time period. And that means that Bible books all have original meaning which is contextual. The Bible is God’s word to us, but each book was written first for a specific purpose in real time and history.
So, when we read scripture, it’s kind of like we get to read other people’s mail, but we are also able to get something out of it on a personal level too. Does that make sense?
Here’s where we run into a problem, though.
Question: Have any of you ever read something from scripture and had the thought “why is this in here?” Put in another way, have any of you read a portion of the Bible and been confused about what it was saying?
I know that I have…
And sometimes, this is because we don’t fully understand what’s going on in the background of a certain text. We can’t fully understand the book Frankenstein unless we know that it was written during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800’s as a commentary on technology and its destructive power. We can know some of it and understand its basic premise, but we cannot grasp it completely without that. We cannot fully grasp a lot of Beatles songs unless we know that they’re both about drugs and that the band members were on drugs.
The Bible works a lot like this too.
Not the drugs part, but the historical background stuff being important part. We can understand pieces, and we can often get the basic premise of what an author’s trying to communicate, but often, we need outside information to help us fully grasp what’s going on in the Bible.
1 Peter 2:18-3:7 is a good example of this.
Because, with a quick read, we can understand it somewhat. However, once we take a little deeper look, there are a lot of pieces that just don’t make a whole lot of sense. Let’s read a bit of it so you can see what I mean.
Read: 1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:1-7
Here’s some questions that I have when reading this passage. See if you had similar thoughts: Why is Peter writing to slaves and telling them to serve their masters well? Why isn’t he telling his readers that slavery is wrong? Why can’t women wear braids in their hair or have gold jewelry? Why does Peter call women the weaker vessel? What gives, right?
In order to understand what Peter is talking about, we need to know some the historical background behind his letter. In order to read any book of the Bible, really, it helps a whole lot to know some historical and cultural context.
So that’s what I’d like us to do.
In fact, I’d really like us to narrow in on that section of 1 Peter 2:18-25 where slavery is talked about because that’s one of the pieces of scripture that was used way back in the day to condone slavery in America. People used to quote 1 Peter 2 and use it as a proof text to say that slavery was ok and God-approved! That’s a big deal!
Group Activity: Let’s split up into two or three groups. Each group is going to get a few copies of a handout [The material from handout is provided at the end of the blog post]. I would like your group and a small group leader to read through this handout and re-read 1 Peter 2:18-3:7. After you’ve done that, talk about how the writings on the handout compare and contrast with what Peter is saying. We will then regroup to report our findings.
Question: So, what did you find out? What did you learn?
Here’s what I think we can learn when looking at the background information behind 1 Peter 2:18-25.
First, Peter is not really making a moral judgement about slavery. He isn’t saying that slavery is good or bad here. That’s not his point. Instead, what he is talking about is how to live within a system where slavery already exists. And what Peter says is kind of subversive and counter cultural.
Maybe you noticed that people like Aristotle and Philo, ancient historians and philosophers that would have been really well known to Peter and the churches he was writing to, had already written things a lot like Peter was writing in this letter. It was really common for ancient writers to create “household codes,” or models of behavior for people within houses that were then meant to be examples of how the entire nation should act.
These philosophers would first write about the husband, the most important person in the household according to them, and then the wives, the children, and lastly the slaves who were the least important.
You also might have seen that slaves had so little importance, they were thought to be no better than animals. They could even be tortured and beaten if they weren’t working hard enough. In New Testament times, slaves were sometimes paid, and they were treated better than pre-Civil war slaves in America, but they still were the lowest of the low.
So, with that in mind, think about what Peter’s doing here.
Instead of starting off by talking about the husband, like proper household codes did, Peter starts by talking about the slave first. He’s already reversing the order on things. But more so, instead of addressing slave owners, who were considered to be much more important than their slave in the wider culture, he chooses to write only to the slave. And he basically tells them that if they suffer under the hands of their master, they shouldn’t retaliate because Jesus suffered for our sin and they can become a great witness to that reality by suffering in a similar way.
In other words, if anyone in this slave-master relationship is like Jesus, it’s the suffering slave.
And to any slave owners listening to Peter’s letter being read, that must have stung.
I hope you all were able to see why considering the historical and cultural background behind bible passages is so important to do. When we consider the “What” of a book like 1 Peter, the “How” really helps us fully understand what we are reading.
And next week, we are actually going to jump back a bit within Peter’s letter to 2:11-17 and talk about how we can find good application when reading Biblical books. The Bible’s kind of like reading somebody else’s mail, as we saw with this historical background stuff. But the cool part is, even though the Bible was written to other people, it was also written for us too. And that’s what we will talk about next week.
But I do want to end tonight with another challenge.
Challenge: Spend time this week reading and meditating on 1 Peter 2:11-17. But there were also a few unanswered questions that I intentionally left open within that passage we just read. Why were women not allowed to braid their hair or wear gold earrings? Why were women called the “weaker vessel?” And why would God not answer the prayers of men if they treated women disrespectfully? To answer these, you might have to do a bit of digging into the historical and cultural background of the New Testament. So, if you’re interested, talk to me or one of the small group leaders, and we can point you toward resources that might send you in the right direction?
Household Codes and Slavery in New Testament Times Handout
[This is the material that was on the front side of the handout we provided for our teens. On the back, we had a copy from page 59 of Everett Ferguson’s “Backgrounds of Early Christianity” that discusses Roman slavery.]
Slavery, unfortunately, was an acceptable practice in the ancient world. The Bible also says a great deal about slavery too. And some have even made the claim that the Bible is pro-slavery.
So, as we look a little closer at 1 Peter 2:18-25, consider what other ancient authors were saying about slaves and their relation to the household. How are they similar to what Peter might be saying? How are they different? And is the Bible really pro-slavery? Or is there something else going on?
Philo (Jewish Historian 20 B.C-50 A.D):
Decalogue (vv.165-167) – And the fifth commandment of the Ten Commandments, that about honoring your parents, conceals under its brief expression, many very important and necessary laws. Some are applicable to old and young men; some have bearing on the relations existing between rulers and subjects…and others affect slaves and masters. Parents belong to the superior class of all these divisions just mentioned. Children are in the inferior class…slaves [are the lowest].”
Aristotle (Important Greek Philosopher 384-322 B.C.):
Politics (vv.1253b) – “And now that it is clear what are the component parts of the state, we have first of all to discuss household management. For every nation is composed of households…The investigation of everything should begin with its smallest parts, and the primary and smallest parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children. We ought therefore to examine the proper temperament and character of each of these three relationships.”
Politics (vv. 1254a) – “The term ‘article of property’ is used in the same way as the term ‘part’: a thing that is a part is not only a part of another thing but absolutely belongs to another thing, and so also does an article of property. So, where the master is merely the slave’s master and does not belong to the slave, the slave is not merely the slave of the master but wholly belongs to the master. These considerations therefore make clear the nature of the slave and his essential quality: an article of property…Usefulness of slaves diverges little from that of animals; Both use their body to serve their master. Nature itself shows us that freedmen and slave bodies are different. Freedmen stand tall and are fit for a life of citizenship. Slaves are strong for necessary service.”
Aristophanes (Ancient Greek Comic and Philosopher 446-386 B.C.):
The Frogs (vv.1253b) – “Arrest my slave and put him to the torture, and if you get your proof, put me to death … you can use any kind of torture you wish: tie him to a ladder, mount him on the wheel, suspend or, whip him. Pile rocks upon him, put vinegar in his nose, whip him with bristles: but not with leeks or onions!”
 Ferguson, Everett, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2003).