Reviews of

Written to Serve

In 1 Peter, Benjamin SARGENT, Bloomsbury, Hermeneutics, Intertextuality, Katie Marcar, Scripture on April 8, 2016 at 2:00 pm

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2016.04.06 | Benjamin Sargent. Written to Serve: The Use of Scripture in 1 Peter. LNTS 547. T&T Clark: London, 2015. Hardback. 225 pp. ISBN: 978-0-56766-085-5. 

Reviewed by Katie Marcar, Otago University.

Many thanks to T&T Clark for providing a review copy.

In Written to Serve: The Use of Scripture in 1 Peter, Benjamin Sargent argues that 1 Peter 1.10-12 is a clear distillation of the author’s scriptural hermeneutic. Sargent argues that Scripture in 1 Peter is consistently and exclusively oriented towards Jesus Christ and the Christian community. In this way, it is “primitive” (having a single meaning, 4) and “sectarian” (relating exclusively to single group of people, 4). After a brief Introduction followed by an analysis of 1.10-12 (Chapter 1), Sargent evaluates the letter’s main quotations (Chapter 2) and allusions (Chapter 3) in light of this hermeneutic. He then compares 1 Peter’s exegetical approach to some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the cultural milieu of sectarian apocalyptic Judaism (Chapter 4). Finally (Chapter 5), Sargent uses these conclusions to argue for reconsideration of the determinate meaning of Scripture in biblical hermeneutics.

In his Introduction, Sargent observes that while nearly all commentators note in passing the hermeneutical significance of 1.10-12, especially for christology, none have applied this hermeneutic systematically to the letter’s overall use of Scripture. Schutter (1989) emphasized the suffering and glory of Christ, but this pattern does not describe all uses of Scripture in the letter.

In Chapter 1, Sargent analyzes the significance of 1.10-12 as a hermeneutical statement. He carefully works through the difficult Greek of these verses and offers well-reasoned evaluations of the relevant debates. He concludes that the use of Scripture in 1 Peter is primarily oriented towards the suffering and glory of Christ and exists to serve the present Christian community (44). These two categories roughly correspond to the kerygmatic and paraenetic uses of scripture. However, Sargent writes, “whereas scholarship has tended to emphasize the kerygmatic and christological element, it is more appropriate to see the paraenetic or ecclesiological element as dominant” (49).

For Sargent, Scripture in 1 Peter is ultimately aimed at encouraging believers and serving them. Thus, there is a radical disjunction between the past (before revelation) and the present (43). He goes further by saying that “whilst the notion that the Scriptures were written for the benefit of later readers is well attested in St Paul, this idea that the Prophets spoke only for the later generations is unprecedented” (emphasis original, 30). Elsewhere Sargent states there is no evidence in 1 Peter that the author is aware of other interpretations; to him, they refer primarily and exclusively to Christ and the church (4, 33). According to Sargent, this “primitive” understanding of Scripture means that the letter does not employ typology in any significant way (41). Typology requires relationship between past and present, which Sargent argues is not present in the letter, with perhaps the two exceptions of Sarah (3.5-6) and the Flood (3.19-21).

In Chapter 2, Sargent directs his attention to scriptural quotations. He identifies quotations as having a citation formula and/or having verbal similarity with source text and rhetorical force as defined by being somehow disruptive or standing out from its context (51-54). He first evaluates the text forms of the quotations, and then demonstrates that they agree with the hermeneutical outlook in 1.10-12. Sargent’s textual evaluations are generally even-keeled. He finds that all of the quoted texts either witness to a kerygmatic or paraenetic use of Scripture, or a combination of the two, with the paraenetic usually being predominant (98).

Likewise, the following chapter (Chapter 3) examines the letter’s scriptural allusions. Admittedly, identifying allusions is a much more difficult task than identifying quotations. Sargent relies on the criteria of recognizable degrees of verbal, conceptual, and structural similarity (102). He concludes that the allusions to scriptural texts in 1 Peter are accurately described as ‘primitive’ and ‘sectarian’ (143).

However, Sargent makes a strong distinction between allusions to scriptural texts and allusions to scriptural events (100, 104). He writes, “Whilst there is no sense in which 1 Peter uses texts as though they have a prior context, the allusions to events of the past which have no clear verbal similarity to extant scriptural texts imply that those events are real in their own right as well as bearing typological relation to the present” (104). Most notably, allusions to Sarah (1 Pet 3.5-6) and the Flood (3.19-21) represent “something of a departure from the exegetical norms of 1 Peter” and “might properly be regarded as typological” (131). The latter even uses the word ἀντίτυπον (3.21, see pgs. 136-41). However, Sargent nonetheless downplays the significance of typology in 1 Peter (see also 5, 41).

In Chapter 4, Sargent compares 1 Peter’s “primitive” and “sectarian” hermeneutic to texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls. A similar hermeneutic is found in the exegetical techniques of the pesharim, which are often based on the assumption that God has revealed secrets to a specially chosen interpreter (156). The pesharim often assume that the meaning of the prophetic words does not lie in the past, but lies exclusively in the present (1QpHab 7.1-10; 157). Sargent also notes examples of determinate meaning elsewhere in the Scrolls corpus (CD 7.9-21; 19.5-13; see also 11QT; 1QH 5; CD A 4; pgs. 157-159; 160-161). Both communities interpret scripture in an elevated and exclusive way based on their perceived place in salvation history (162). In both, scripture is understood to have a determinate meaning and is treated “as though its meaning is straightforward and unambiguous” (163).

Sargent then notes, “When considering the development of early Christian biblical interpretation, the hermeneutic employed in 1 Peter must be regarded as primitive, as representing a very early stage in this development” (163). Earlier, Sargent defined “primitive” as an interpretive approach that understood scripture as having a single meaning (4). Here, however, he appears to to mean early and unsophisticated (cf. 163). However, why must a “primitive” hermeneutic (with either definition) necessarily imply an early stage of development?

In an Excursus (163-69), Sargent employs these conclusions to support arguments for an early date of composition and the possibility of Petrine authorship. He writes, “The ‘primitive’ and ‘sectarian’ features of the epistle’s interpretation of Scripture strongly suggest that it originated within the first decades of the Christian church. There is none of the exegetical sophistication seen in the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1 Clement, or Justin Martyr” (168). Embedded in this evaluation is the assumption of an evolutionary trajectory of interpretation, with “primitive” coming first, and later being followed by texts with more “exegetical sophistication.”  Such an evolutionary model is to be rejected; early texts can have extraordinarily sophisticated hermeneutical approaches, while later texts can also be simpler. Indeed, it is unfounded to say that 1 Peter lacks exegetical sophistication, especially with regards to the stone catena (2:4-10) and the Sarah and Noah typologies (3.5-6; 3.18-21). This argument is also questionable on the grounds that most scholars date 1 Peter to the end of the first, or beginning of the second, century.

In the final chapter, Sargent argues for a renewed appraisal of scriptural determinacy in contemporary biblical hermeneutics (171). He gathers proponents of scriptural determinacy from the Antiochene school of interpretation, along with William of Ockham, John Wycliffe, Huldrich Zwingli, and Spinoza. He argues that part of the reason for scriptural determinacy’s fall from favor is due to the failed project of the Enlightenment and the belief that scientific study of the text could result in a text’s determinant meaning (184-86). Yet Sargent recognizes that there are many hermeneutical and theological questions that require answers before determinacy can be brought back into mainstream biblical hermeneutics (194).

In conclusion, Sargent has done an admirable job of analyzing the hermeneutic elements in 1.10-12 and illustrating how the letter’s quotations and allusions follow this interpretive strategy. Sargent rightly calls attention to the way the letter’s use of scripture is ecclesiologically (and not just christologically) oriented. However, Sargent’s argument that scriptural allusions are formally and functionally different than allusions to scriptural events downplays the letter’s important and sophisticated use of typology. His treatment of typology and determinacy still leave unanswered questions, and room for further investigation into 1 Peter’s use of scripture.

Katie Marcar
Otago University
katie.girsch [at]


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