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1 Peter 3:19 says that Jesus preached unto spirits in prison; are these spirits associated with the angels of 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6? If not who were the spirits that He preached to?

  • You may want to check out the related question, "Does Peter suggest Jesus “descended into hell”?". – Dɑvïd Feb 18 '14 at 7:37
  • Mark, I don't see where you accepted the answer by @MarkEdward which I find to be extremely cogent (and the answer I would have given if he had not first). Did you not consider it to be the answer? If not, can you indicate why not? And if so, please mark it as the answer. – user10231 Apr 6 '16 at 16:53
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The Passage in Question

1 Peter 3.18-20, NRSV
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.


Overlap Between 1 Peter, Jude, and 2 Peter

I've highlighted a set of key elements of 1 Peter 3.19–20 from the NA28 Greek text:

ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν ἀπειθήσασίν ποτε, ὅτε ἀπεξεδέχετο ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ μακροθυμία ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε κατασκευαζομένης κιβωτοῦ εἰς ἣν ὀλίγοι, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν ὀκτὼ ψυχαί, διεσώθησαν δι’ ὕδατος

1 Peter 3.19–20

What we have here are:

  1. Spirits (πνεύμασιν)
  2. Who disobeyed (ἀπειθήσασίν)
  3. In prison (ἐν φυλακῇ)
  4. During the days of Noah (ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε)

Jude 6

As noted in the original question, this is remarkably similar to a passage from Jude:

  1. Angels (ἀγγέλους)
  2. Did not keep their first [dwelling], but abandoned their own home (τε τοὺς μὴ τηρήσαντας τὴν ἑαυτῶν ἀρχὴν ἀλλ’ ἀπολιπόντας τὸ ἴδιον οἰκητήριον)
  3. Are kept in eternal chains under darkness (δεσμοῖς ἀϊδίοις ὑπὸ ζόφον τετήρηκεν)

2 Peter 2.4–10

Critical scholars are in general agreement that the author of 1 Peter was not the same author of 2 Peter, but that the author of 2 Peter had a copy of 1 Peter (referenced in 2 Peter 3.1). Second Peter also shows extensive dependence on Jude (cf. this related answer), and appears to combine the ideas present in 1 Peter and Jude:

  1. Angels (ἀγγέλων)
  2. Who sinned (ἁμαρτησάντων)
  3. Delivered to chains of gloomy darkness in Tartarus (σειραῖς ζόφου ταρταρώσας παρέδωκεν)
  4. Related to 'the ancient world' of 'Noah' (ἀρχαίου κόσμου … Νῶε)

1 Enoch 1–36: The Book of the Watchers

First Enoch, along with a few other texts from the Second Temple period, interpreted the 'sons of God' from Genesis 6.1–4 as angels, and expanded on the account. This large crowd of angels, called 'the watchers', conspired to leave heaven in order to marry human women on the earth:

1 Enoch 6.1–2
And it came to pass when the sons of men had multiplied in those days, beautiful and comely daughters were born to them. And the watchers, the sons of heaven, saw them and desired them. And they said to one another, "Come, let us choose wives for ourselves from the daughters of men of earth, and let us beget children for ourselves."

The narrative describes how the watchers taught humans forbidden things, and the children the of the watchers were giants. The four archangels in heaven raise a complaint to God about the violence the watcher's offspring have brought on the earth. In response, God sends the archangel Sariel to inform Noah that he must build an ark, Raphael is sent to imprison Azazel the leader of the watchers, Gabriel is sent to destroy the watchers' giant offspring, and Michael is sent to pronounce judgment over the other watchers. (1 Enoch 9–11)

Then Enoch is enlisted by God:

1 Enoch 12.4, 13.1
"Enoch, righteous scribe, go and declare to the watchers of heaven who forsook the high heaven, the sanctuary of their eternal station, and have defiled themselves with women. … And, Enoch, go and say to Azazel, 'You will have no peace. A severe sentence has gone forth against you, to bind you. …'"

In other words, Enoch proclaims to imprisoned spirits shortly before the days of Noah.


Who Proclaims in 1 Peter 3.19–20?

The text in question, 1 Peter 3.19–20, doesn't actually identify 'Jesus' as the one preaching. Instead, Jesus, the subject of the previous verse, is inferred by readers because of the phrase ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ('in which also he'):

ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν ἀπειθήσασίν ποτε, ὅτε ἀπεξεδέχετο ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ μακροθυμία ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε κατασκευαζομένης κιβωτοῦ εἰς ἣν ὀλίγοι, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν ὀκτὼ ψυχαί, διεσώθησαν δι’ ὕδατος

It has been suggested that the opening of verse 19 originally referred to Enoch. This conjecture takes two forms, either emending ἐν ᾧ καὶ as Ἐνώχ καὶ by suggesting the restoration of a single χ, which was misheard or misread with the following κ in καὶ, or as ἐν ᾧ καὶ Ἐνώχ by suggesting Enoch's name was dropped entirely.

A.T. Robertson (Word Pictures of the New Testament) comments on the verse, summarizing the speculation as follows:

In which also (εν ωι και). That is, in spirit (relative referring to πνευματι). But, a number of modern scholars have followed Griesbach's conjecture that the original text was either Νωε και (Noah also), or Ενωχ και (Enoch also), or εν ωι και Ενωχ (in which Enoch also) which an early scribe misunderstood or omitted Ενωχ και in copying (ομοιοτελευτον). It is allowed in Stier and Theile's Polyglott. It is advocated by J. Cramer in 1891, by J. Rendel Harris in The Expositor (1901), and Sidelights on N.T. Research (p. 208), by Nestle in 1902, by Moffatt's New Translation of the New Testament. Windisch rejects it as inconsistent with the context. There is no manuscript for the conjecture, though it would relieve the difficulty greatly.

The passage in 1 Peter 3 definitely seems to be referring back to the familiar story about the watchers, the flood, and Enoch. If such conjecture is correct, the passage would be something like this:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also Enoch went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.

In other words, Enoch proclaims to imprisoned spirits shortly before the days of Noah.

However, for as desirable an emendation like this may have, there is no textual evidence for it. For this reason, most scholars have rejected it. Dalton (Christ's Proclamation to the Spirits, p. 144) heavily criticizes the theory:

For a period this conjecture was in favour among a number of scholars. However it has now been abandoned, and with good reason. A pure conjecture, with no support at all in the manuscript tradition, could only be justified if the text were really incomprehensible. The text of 1 Pet 3:19-20 is indeed difficult, but not incomprehensible. In addition, such a conjecture should make the text intelligible. But the conjecture fails to do this. If Enoch is the person who makes the proclamation to the spirits, then the transition from 3:18 to 3:19 is abrupt in the extreme. In any case, it is hard to see how this ancient story about Enoch bears on the situation of the persecuted Christians.

Manuscript evidence notwithstanding, I think Dalton may be overstating his position. First Peter 3.19-20 displays too much overlap with the 1 Enoch-version of angels being imprisoned shortly before the time of the flood. That this version of the story makes explicit appearances in the related letters of Jude and 2 Peter seems to corroborate that the hypothesis has some merit.


tl;dr:

Angels who were imprisoned for their sins (the 'sons of God' from Genesis 6.1-4) are the ones being proclaimed to.

Possibly, Enoch, not Jesus, is the one doing the proclaiming, based on intertextual dependence and conjecture.

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  • You could also mention that "angels" (ἄγγελοι) are equated to "spirits" (πνεύματα) in Psa. 104:4 (cp. Heb. 1:7). – user862 Feb 18 '14 at 4:53
  • I disagree with the Enoch points in the above answer. Especially when 1 Peter is speaking of Christ in this whole chapter and Enoch is not mentioned AT ALL in the book, let alone the chapter. The focus is on Christ, and it is incorrect to imply that the scripture here is talking about anyone else. – Gremosa Mar 3 at 2:20
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The question as I understand it is,"Are pneuma the same as aggelos"?

To answer that question, one must understand the triparte being that man is:(1 Thess. 5:23)

And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We 'live' in a body-our earthly tabernacle, we manifest our life through our soul, our 'pneuma' is the life of God(Gen. 2:7):

"And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

Therefore, men are living "spirits"(pneuma), who express their life through their souls, and are housed in a physical body until they die.

An "aggelos" is not an heir of salvation:(Heb. 1:14)

"Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?"

They 'dwell' in God's Presense continually-therefore, they are not needing 'salvation', they are ministers of salvation to those who believe.

'But what about those who rebelled, isn't that what this text(1 Pet. 3:19) refering to?

Matt. 25:41 says,

"Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels."

Hell(everlasting fire) was prepared for Satan(the devil) and his angels-their judgement was immediate, there was no "waiting" for a Great White Throne Judgement. It's the souls w/the 'pneuma' of God who await their destiny at the Great White Throne Judgement.(Matt. 25:31)

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  • I haven't downvoted, but this answer relies on these different texts (1 Peter, 1 Thessalonians, Genesis, Hebrews, Matthew) using the same definitions for the relevant words. That falls under a systematic approach that needs to be shown, not assumed. – user2910 Feb 22 '14 at 18:43
  • @MarkEdward-I'm not contesting your linguistic analysis but the evidence lies within the context of how the words are used. One cannot reconcile Heb. 1:14 and maintain that "spirits in prison" are in fact "angels" who according to Jude 1:6,"And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day." – Tau Feb 23 '14 at 2:23
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In addition to 3:19, we also have 4:6:

For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.1

The preacher is Jesus and those being preached to are those from Old Testament times who had been consigned to Sheol (Gr. Hades). I lay out my support for this below.

πνεύματα and ἄγγελοι

The spirits (πνεύματα) being preached to in 1 Peter 3:19 are not the same beings you refer to in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6. The latter are fallen angels (ἄγγελοι) - in other words, demons. (See the end of this answer to What's the difference between demons and devils?)

The Enoch Conjecture

I don't think that interpreting ἐν ᾧ καὶ as a typo derived from Ἐνώχ καὶ is very credible. Metzger argues against this in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament:

Several scholars have advocated the conjectural emendation that introduces the subject “Enoch” (ενωκαιενωχ). Instead of improving the intelligibility of the passage (as a conjectured reading ought to do), the word Ἐνώχ breaks the continuity of the argument by introducing an abrupt and unexpected change of subject from that of ver. 18.2

The facts that (1) not a single of the available hundreds of Greek manuscripts has any "Enoch" variant and that (2) no commentator in antiquity seems to have ever commented on the passage in this context weigh heavily against the conjecture. (I am happy to be corrected on either point). It also would beg the question why Enoch in particular should suddenly appear out of context to preach the Gospel (1 Peter 4:6).

Related Scriptures

In all of the surviving ancient commentaries, Jesus was universally understood to be the one preaching. The spirits that the passage speaks of were those souls captive in Hades (Hebrew Sheol). The Gospel texts that allude to Christ's descent into Hades include:

Matthew 12:40

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.3

also foreshadowed in the Old Testament:

Job 38:17 LXX

And do the gates of death open to thee for fear; and did the porters of hell quake when they saw thee?

Hosea 13:14

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your destruction?

Other New Testament Scriptures relate to Christ's descent and His victory over death:

Ephesians 4:12

In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?

1 Corinthians 15:54-57

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Colossians 2:14-15

... having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

Patristic Understanding

In the patristic interpretation, those spirits in Hades were those of the Old Testament times who had died. Irenaeus (130-202), having recounted the sins of such figures as David and Solomon, explains:

It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also, and [declaring] the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him. Now all those believed in Him who had hope towards Him, that is, those who proclaimed His advent, and submitted to His dispensations, the righteous men, the prophets, and the patriarchs, to whom He remitted sins in the same way as He did to us, which sins we should not lay to their charge, if we would not despise the grace of God. For as these men did not impute unto us (the Gentiles) our transgressions, which we wrought before Christ was manifested among us, so also it is not right that we should lay blame upon those who sinned before Christ’s coming. For all men come short of the glory of God,4 and are not justified of themselves, but by the advent of the Lord5

Hippolytus (175-235) also wrote of Christ's descent into Hades:

For this reason the warders of Hades trembled when they saw Him, and the gates of brass and the bolts of iron were broken. For, lo, the Only-begotten entered, a soul among souls, God the word with a human soul. For his body lay in the tomb, not emptied of divinity; but as, while in Hades, he was in essential being with his Father, so was he also in the body and in Hades. For the Son, just as the Father, is not contained in space and he comprehends all things in himself. But of his own will he dwelt in a body animated by a soul in order that with his soul he might enter Hades, and not with his pure divinity.6

Addressing 1 Peter 3:16 directly, Hippolytus writes:

He showed all power given by the Father to the Son,7 who is ordained Lord of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth, and Judge of all:8 of things in heaven, because He was born, the Word of God, before all (ages); and of things on earth, because He became man in the midst of men, to re-create our Adam through Himself; and of things under the earth, because He was also reckoned among the dead, preaching the Gospel to the souls of the saints, (and) by death overcoming death.

The overall patristic understanding of 1 Peter 3:19 has been summed up:

In addition to the broad significance of the salvation of the world here indicated, the death of Christ and His subsequent descent into hades (I Peter 3: 19– 20, 4: 6; Eph. 4: 8– 10) signify in a narrower sense the deliverance from hades of the souls of the reposed first ancestors, prophets, and righteous ones of the pre-Christian world; and thus they express the special significance of the Cross of the Lord for the Old Testament world, a significance which comes from the death of Christ accomplished upon it: for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament (Heb. 9: 15)9

The deliverance from hades testifies also to the lifting of the curses which were placed in the Old Testament: (a) the curses in the third chapter of the book of Genesis, which were joined to the deprivation of life in Paradise of Adam and Eve and their descendants; 19 and then (b) the curses placed by Moses, in the book of Deuteronomy (chap. 28), for the stubborn non-fulfillment of the laws given through him.10


(Much of the material included in this answer is based on Hilarion Alfayev's Christ the Conqueror of Hell: the Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective, especially Chapters 1 and 2.)


1. RSV
2. See also Metzger, Journal of Religion, xxxii (1952), pp. 256 f.; Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, p. 185, n. 1; Dalton, Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits; a Study of 1 Peter 3:18–4:6 (Rome, 1965), pp. 135 ff.
3. New Testament and Masoretic Text translations taken from RSV. Septuagint translations taken from Brenton.
4. Romans 3:23
5. Against Heresies, IV.XXVII.2
6. Fragment III cited by Nicetas the Deacon; in Hyppolitus Werke (Leipzig, 1897), p.268
7. Matthew 28:18
8. Philippians 2:10
9. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
10. M. Pomazanski, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (3rd ed.), pp.205,206

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  • Yes, the linguistics and patristics carry this answer. – Tau Feb 4 '18 at 14:22
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Who were the spirits that He preached to?

There are several interpretations of 1 Perter 3:19. I won’t go into detail on each view but let me list them here and then I will explain which one I hold.

  • St. Augustine held the view that the spirits are unbelieving contemporaries of Noah, to who the spirit of Christ in Noah, preached, or to whom the pre-incarnate Christ himself actually preached.

  • Christian Reformation and Enlightenment(Thomas Belsham) beliefs held the view that the “spirits in prison” were simply Gentiles in the “prison of ignorance (darkness)” to whom Christ is preached by the Apostles.

  • When Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell:
    sub-view 1: offering them a second chance of salvation.
    sub-view 2: proclaiming to them that he had triumphed over them and their condemnation was final.
    sub-view 3 (fallen Angels - not people): proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels (the Nephilim, i.e. Giants in the days of Noah) who had sinned marrying human women in the days before the flood.
    sub-view 4: proclaimed release to the people who had repented before they died in the flood, and took them from purgatory into heaven.

It is my stance that the verse is most clearly interpreted by cross-referencing Isaiah, looking at the context in which Peter wrote (i.e. specifically to whom did he write this to) and trying not to tie in the interpretations of (2 Peter 2:4, and Jude 1:6) which uphold sub-view 3 most strongly.

The key to me is the preceding verse in 1 Peter 3:18 (emphasis mine):

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

The use of the word us in “that he might bring us to God” signifies the object, the human object, not fallen-angels of the next statement. Peter, a Jew, was still living in a world view held by the Jewish communities that God was for the Jews and no one else. It was still hard for the Jewish mind to let go of their selfish exclusivity on God and even the Gospel not to mention the Laws they lived by. He was reaching out to both Jewish and Gentile “elect” as we see in the first of his letter to whom it was addressed “…to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…”

This letter encourages the Elect in the audience — the mainly “gentile” audience — of these areas of the world. The gospel is preached to these folk who were by Jewish eyes those people who were “unclean” and sat in “outer darkness” of the ignorance of the true God.

Finally, let’s look at Isaiah who many years before prophesied of this exact occurrence in which Peter and others were bringing about through the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentile world.

Isaiah 42:6-7

I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;

To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, [and] them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.

This is the best example of God’s grace being shed upon the unbelieving world at large which sat in ignorance obeying their lusts which imprisoned them. This gospel should bring together all people regardless of ethnicity and at that time of Peter’s writing it was still a radical idea to think that Gentiles were worthy of hearing or could even hear the good news.

I hope this helps you and you can consider this view and hopefully it makes sense. Blessings.

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  • 1
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    Augustine's view makes most sense to me. Just as Christ preaches to men today by His pastors and teachers as they proclaim the Gospel, so He did in Noah's day through Noah. – user5197 Feb 21 '14 at 4:03

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