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1 Peter 3 refers to the "spirits in prison" (I believe referring to angels) and 1 Peter 4 refers to those who are dead (I believe referring to men). 1 Enoch 21 is commonly believed to be used as reference material for 1 and 2 Peter. If you read 1 Enoch 21, you see Enoch also refers to different places and two different punishments, and it's the latter group that is specifically called a prison for angels. 1 Enoch 21:6, in some translations, says, "These are the stars of heaven that transgressed the command of the Lord" (1). However, in the Ethiopian Bible, I believe the translation says, "These are of the number of the stars of heaven, which have transgressed the commandment of the Lord."(2)

Many believe both groups refer to angels since angels can be symbolized as stars. However, that reading would seem to mean that all the angels were in this first fiery place, being punished for 10,000 years. This is also problematic because who are the angels in prison in the second place?

The second translation seems more accurate if we understand the first group to be a large group of people, not angels, whose number is the same as the number of stars, see Genesis 15.

What sources might corroborate either translation or interpretation?

(1) George W. E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, ed. Klaus Baltzer, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 297. (2) The Books of Enoch Complete Edition. Paul C. Schnieders. International Alliance Pro-Publishing, 2012, p29.

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    I’m voting to close this question because the Book of Enoch is a work of fiction and is not scripture. Therefore this question is outside the purpose for Biblical hermeneutics.
    – Gina
    Apr 14 at 8:24
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    @Gina This site doesn't restrict itself to any single denomination's canon. 1 Enoch is part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's canon.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 14 at 10:03
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    @Gina I agree, but also, the OP asks about Enoch as a gateway to understanding 1 Peter... so the canonicity of Enoch is not really an issue. Apr 15 at 19:41
  • @DanFefferman thank you for the clarity. That is exactly my position. I don't personally take Enoch as canon either. This is question is designed to better understand a rather misunderstood verse in the Bible. Apr 16 at 0:30

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As the OP points out, there is a basis for either interpretation so it ends up being a matter opinion: I would mention this, however: In the bible, "stars" can represent human beings as well as angels. They symbolize stars in Jacob's dream, related in Genesis 37:

9 Then he had another dream, and told it to his brothers. “Look, I had another dream,” he said; “this time, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 When he told it to his father and his brothers, his father reproved him and asked, “What is the meaning of this dream of yours? Can it be that I {sun}and your mother {moon} and your brothers {stars} are to come and bow to the ground before you?”

In the Book of Job, on the other hand, stars are associate with the "sons of God," often thought to mean angels (Job 38):

Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it?... 7 While the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

In the end, the important thing for biblical hermeneutics is not so much how 1 Enoch 21 should be translated but how 1 Peter understood it, assuming it was Peter's source.. It seems clear that 1 Peter understood it to mean people rather than angels:

1 Peter 3

18 For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. 19 In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, 20 who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water.

This cannot refer to angels, because the NT teaches that Christ suffered for the sins of human beings, not angels, who do not need to be saved from death. Also, those who were disobedient during the building of the ark were human beings. (The sons of God who had intercourse with human females in Gen. 6 did so before the building of the ark.)

In 1 Peter 4 "those who are dead" cannot refer to angels, because angels do not die, as humans do.

Conclusion: 1 Peter speaks of Christ preaching to the spirits of deceased human beings, not fallen angels. Enoch 21 is less clear about the identity of the "stars" it speaks of.


Note: The OP asks for resources about this. Since it didn't come to us in Hebrew, Aramaic, or even Greek, we don't know how the verse would read in those languages. In that sense, the OP is asking about the proper translation of a translation. A DSS version of Enoch exists, but it is fragmentary, so of no help. There is a tantalizing possibility, however. An Aramaic version of Enoch is thought to have been found at Qumran, but is reportedly in the hands of private collectors.

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  • thank you for the clarity of your answer and my post. I agree on all accounts. I was unaware of the reference in Genesis 37. I did take a gander at the DSS, and you are correct about that. I can hope for a clearer answer from the Aramaic version of Enoch you mentioned, but I agree that a finer point is made regarding how Peter understands the chapter in Enoch. Apr 16 at 0:29

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