Peter’s pun: “Christ” in 1 Peter 2:3

It is quite rare that new textual evidence is published which could make a significant difference to how a New Testament passage is translated. Peter Rodgers, writing at Evangelical Textual Criticism, seems to have found a possible example.

It seems that a newly published papyrus fragment, P125, includes at 1 Peter 2:3 the reading christos “Christ, Messiah”, where the standard critical text has chrēstos “good, kind”. The fragment is significant because it is one of the oldest surviving for this passage, from the late third or early fourth century. The reading christos is found in some quite late manuscripts and in the one other papyrus witness for this text, P72, from the same period as P125. But the great uncial codices of the late fourth and fifth centuries (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus and Alexandrinus) agree with the Byzantine majority text in reading chrēstos.

One thing to note here is that the words christos and chrēstos were very often confused because in the New Testament and later periods they were pronounced almost identically. Secular authors may have misunderstood the religious term christos as chrēstos, but Christian copyists would have tended to replace chrēstos with christos. Textual critics used to judge that the latter is what had happened to late manuscripts with christos. The reading later discovered in P72, published in 1959, was presumably considered to be an oddity. But now it has been confirmed, as there are, in Rodgers’ words,

two papyri from different places in Egypt [which] give different abbreviations of Christos.

And so a strong argument can now be made that christos is the original reading.

Part of that argument would have to be that the uncial and Byzantine reading chrēstos has been harmonised with the Greek version of Psalm 34:8 (numbered 33:9 in LXX). This has chrēstos, as an accurate rendering of Hebrew tov “good”. Copyists could easily have assumed that the Apostle Peter was simply quoting LXX, or providing his own accurate translation of the psalm into Greek, and so corrected christos to chrēstos.

But there was something more going on here. The apostle was surely aware of the similarity in sound between christos and chrēstos, and deliberately making use of this in his letter As Rodgers writes,

Christos in 1 Peter 2:3 is not a patristic but a petrine pun.

Peter surely noticed that the words in the psalm, read out in Greek, sounded just like christos ho kurios, meaning “the Lord is Christ”, a variant of the basic Christian confession “Christ is Lord” which had just been made by the new believers he was addressing. So, very likely, he deliberately adapted his psalm quotation to bring this out. We cannot be sure which of the words Peter actually wrote down, but it does at least seem clear that he intended to make a pun here.

So, how should we see this reflected in translations? The new evidence Rodgers quotes might be enough to justify a change in this verse to “you have tasted that the Lord is Christ”. But that rendering obscures the pun just as much as the more traditional “… the Lord is good”. There is no one English word which even by according to its sound means both “Christ” and “good”. So this is a case where translators really need to choose one rendering for the text and mention the other in a footnote.

11 thoughts on “Peter’s pun: “Christ” in 1 Peter 2:3

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    There is no one English word which even by according to its sound means both “Christ” and “good”.

    “…you have tasted that the Lord is Mm Mmessiah good”
    (most American consumers of Campbell’s soup commercials would get it).

  2. Peter Kirk says:

    I had a further thought on this. Why does LXX have chrēstos when this is not the usual translation of Hebrew tov? Could it be that the pun has found its way into LXX as well as into 1 Peter? Of course we have to remember that LXX as we have it surviving is a production of the Christian era, and is certainly influenced by New Testament teaching, as most clearly in its version of Psalm 14 (LXX Psalm 13) which includes a lengthy quotation from Paul’s letter to the Romans! So it would hardly be surprising if a Christian influenced rendering had found its way into 33:9. Of course this could be disproved if this rendering of this verse has survived in one of the few pre-Christian fragments of the Psalms in Greek.

  3. J. K. Gayle says:

    Peter, That’s really good, your thoughts about the LXX that is. As you suggest, in Romans, Paul follows up his quotation of the LXX Ps. 13 (“not one is Kristlike kind”) with statements about Christ (“through faith of the kind Krist to all… all sinned…freely justified …in the Krist who is kind”). The pun is not usually found in translation. And Psalm 34 has Hebrew tov four times, but only in LXX 33:9 is it translated with the punny Greek word chrēst*; the other three times, it’s translated with agath*. Albert Pietersma does illustrate this when he translates the LXX Greek into English: “9 o taste and see that the Lord is kind…. 11… any good thing… 13 … good days… 15… do good. LXX Ps 33:15 is a translation of the exact Hebrew phrase that LXX Ps 13:3 is a translation of. As you say, Paul takes advantage of the punny difference in LXX Ps 13:3. And Pietersma brings that difference out in English: “do good” for 33:15 (agath*) but “practicing kindness” for 13:3 (chrēst*).

  4. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks, Kurk. I hadn’t noticed that in Romans 3:12 Paul has poiōn chrēstotēta, quoted from Psalm 13:3 LXX (14:3 in English) or vice versa, just before the long addition in LXX from Romans. I note also that the parallel Psalm 52:4 LXX (53:3 in English) has poiōn agathon, just like 33:15 LXX (34:14 in English). All three have the same underlying Hebrew, tov for “good”. There could be material here for a paper on NT influence on LXX.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    I looked at this a bit more, at all the occurrences of tov in the Hebrew Psalms and how they are rendered in LXX. Here are the results (all verse numbers from English versions, * indicates verses quoted in NT):

    For the phrase “do good”:

    poieō chrēstotēta: 3 (14:1*,3*, 37:3)
    poieō agathon: 4 (34:14, 37:27, 53:1*,3*)

    Referring to God or God’s name:

    chrēstos: 10 (25:8, 34:8*, 52:9, 86:5, 100:5, 106:1, 107:1, 119:68, 136:1, 145:9)
    agathos: 5 (54:6, 73:1, 118:1,29, 135:3)

    Other occurrences of tov:

    chrēstos or chrēstotēs: 9 (21:3, 69:16, 85:12, 104:28, 106:5, 109:21, 112:5, 119:39,65)
    agathos or agathōsunē: 26
    Other renderings: 9

    This shows quite some variation, perhaps for good contextual reasons. But it makes it clear that chrēstos is a common rendering of tov especially but not only when used to describe God, for whom perhaps agathos was considered not so appropriate. So we probably shouldn’t put too much significance on the use of chrēstotēs in 14:1,3 and 37:3. I don’t see any evidence here of NT influence on LXX, other than in Psalm 14 (LXX 13).

  6. Brad says:

    This causes me to wonder if Paul is engaging in some wordplay in Ephesians 4:32. Is there a possible paralleling of chrestos and christos between the first and second parts of that verse?

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