Prepositions Drive Translators Crazy
There are, broadly speaking, 2 common renderings of πνεύματι ("pneumati") (as already noted by Dottard, multiple prepositions--in English--are grammatically possible):
A. in the spirit
B. by the spirit
Among common English translations, "A" outnumbers "B" about 5 to 1 (example). "A" has the advantage of forming a poetic parallelism: in the flesh vs. in the spirit. The use of "in" instead of "by" would treat both nouns the same way:
- σαρκὶ ("sarki" - in dative singular) = "in the flesh"
- πνεύματι ("pneumati" - in dative singular) = "in the spirit"
Grammatically, "in" & "by" (and "for") are possible; contextually, I suggest "in" is to be preferred.
("by the flesh" & "by the spirit" together would not make sense in context)
Let there be life
The verb ζῳοποιέω (quicken/make alive) is used by Paul to refer to the resurrection (e.g. see 1 Cor. 15:22). The NRSV translation is quite consistent with this interpretation:
He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit (NRSV)
Although this is not the only possible understanding of ζῳοποιέω, it is straightforward and supported by other contemporary writings.
The triple metaphor
It turns out the meaning of the passage can be deciphered without taking a dogmatic position on several matters of semantic ambiguity. This passage is strikingly poetic, paralleling 3 Biblical narratives:
The flood - the earth went underwater, bringing death, and resurfaced renewed & flourished with life (compare v20 with Genesis 7:23; 9:1)
Baptism - the person goes underwater, bringing death of the old self, and resurfaces with newness of life in Christ (compare v21 with Romans 6:4)
The death of Christ - the Savior dies, goes to the underworld to the dead, and returns bringing life through the resurrection (compare v 19 with Isaiah 9:2; 24:21-22; 42:5-7)
The metaphor is even more apparent in the worldview of Peter's Hellenistic readers (see 1 Peter 1:1); Hades was often thought of as being beneath the depths of the sea (see here). Verse 19, then, describes what happened between death & resurrection: Christ went under(water/world) and preached to the dead.
If verse 19 does not describe the underworld, it is abruptly out of place in this otherwise carefully constructed triple metaphor. Peter speaks of those saved when the earth went under the water, he speaks of how the individual is saved who goes under the water, and he speaks of the saving that comes because Jesus went to the underworld (lest we miss the point, he reinforces it again in 1 Peter 4:6).
This interpretation is reinforced through patristic writings.
Let's consider how this passage was understood by 3 individuals who were heirs of Peter's preaching:
The Shepherd of Hermas
Whether the author was a direct disciple of Peter or a few steps removed is unclear (Irenaeus & the Muratorian Canon appear to disagree on this matter); for our purposes we can acknowledge this is a man who was not far removed from Peter.
Here "seal" refers to baptism, "asleep" refers to physical death, "dead" refers to separation from God, and "stones" represent people.
Sim. 9 ch. 16:
2 "It was necessary for them," saith he, "to rise up through water,
that they might be made alive; for otherwise they could not enter into
the kingdom of God, except they had put aside the deadness of their
3 So these likewise that had fallen asleep received the seal of the
Son of God and entered into the kingdom of God. For before a man,"
saith he, "has borne the name of [the Son of] God, he is dead; but
when he has received the seal, he layeth aside his deadness, and
4 The seal then is the water: so they go down into the water dead, and
they come up alive. "thus to them also this seal was preached, and
they availed themselves of it that they might enter into the kingdom
5 "Wherefore, Sir," say I, "did the forty stones also come up with
them from the deep, though they had already received the seal?"
"Because," saith he, "these, the apostles and the teachers who
preached the name of the Son of God, after they had fallen asleep in
the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to them that had
fallen asleep before them, and themselves gave unto them the seal of
6 Therefore they went down with them into the water, and came up
again. But these went down alive [and again came up alive]; whereas
the others that had fallen asleep before them went down dead and came
7 So by their means they were quickened into life, and came to the
full knowledge of the name of the Son of God...
The Shepherd of Hermas very consciously echoes Peter's words, and uses his metaphor relating baptism to preaching to the dead after death but before the resurrection.
Clement of Alexandria
Spiritual descendant of Peter through Mark (see Jerome De Viris Illustribus ch. 8)
Wherefore the Lord preached the Gospel to those in Hades...
But how? Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the
Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been
chained, and to those kept in ward and guard? And it has been shown
also, in the second book of the Stromata, that the apostles, following
the Lord, preached the Gospel to those in Hades.
...it is evident that those, too, who were outside of the Law, having
lived rightly, in consequence of the peculiar nature of the voice,
though they are in Hades and in ward, on hearing the voice of the
Lord, whether that of His own person or that acting through His
apostles, with all speed turned and believed...So I think it is
demonstrated that the God being good, and the Lord powerful, they save
with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to
Him... (Stromata chapter 6)
Clement directly references Peter's words, reaffirms Hermas, and expounds upon the spiritual life offered to the dead.
Origen of Alexandria
Pupil of Clement of Alexandria, also connected to Peter through Mark
we assert that not only while Jesus was in the body did He win over
not a few persons merely...but also, that when He became a soul,
without the covering of the body, He dwelt among those souls which
were without bodily covering, converting such of them as were willing
to Himself (Contra Celsum 2.43)
Origen is concise and direct: Christ preached to the dead between death & the resurrection.
Jesus was made "alive in the spirit" (v18). When, exactly, did this happen?
If we grant that ζῳοποιέω is a reference to the resurrection, as in other early Christian writings, this happened on Easter Sunday.
Did this happen before or after Jesus preached to the spirits in prison (v19)?
Order of operations:
- Jesus died; spirit & body separated (Friday 14 Nisan)
- Jesus' spirit went to Hades (Friday 14 Nisan)
- Jesus' body went to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Friday 14 Nisan)
- Jesus organized the ministry in Hades; He brought light to those in prison as described by Isaiah (Friday 14 Nisan - Sunday 16 Nisan)
- Jesus was resurrected; spirit & body reunited; He brought life as described by Paul (Sunday 16 Nisan)
This passage may be an adianoeta - in addition to a more obvious meaning (discussed above), a second layer of meaning may be intended as well. I don't take a dogmatic position on this. Multiple layers of meaning is a feature common to the extremely poetic Isaiah; in a passage as poetic as 1 Peter 3, I wouldn't rule out the possibility that both meanings were intended.
Consider the following somewhat prominent translations of the latter part of verse 18:
after being put to death in the fleshly realm but made alive in the
spiritual realm (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
and he died in body and lived in his Spirit (Aramaic Bible in plain
These grammatically permissible translations focus on Jesus' life/activity in the spiritual realm, which I've argued above (and the patristic writers regularly suggested) is in fact the focus of verse 19.
That Jesus (and the apostles) were active in and brought life to the spiritual realm is abundantly supported by the Shepherd of Hermas.
Along these lines Talmage offered the following commentary, relevant to the question in the OP:
The...text expresses the true thought that Christ was quickened, that
is to say, was active, in His own spirit state, although His body was
inert and in reality dead at the time; and that in that disembodied
state He went and preached to the disobedient spirits...[which] fixes
the time of our Lord’s ministry among the departed as the interval
between His death and resurrection. (Jesus the Christ p. 677)