OVERTIME: 1 Peter 3:18—Did Jesus “Suffer” or “Die” for Sins?
On Sunday, I preached on 1 Peter 3:18. As I read the text I acknowledged that the NASB says Jesus “died” for sins but many translations have Jesus “suffered” for sins. I expected to revisit this apparent discrepancy later in the sermon but decided to edit out the explanation because of time restraints. This short article is written to the laymen that is asking, “Your Bible and mine aren’t the same, what’s the deal?”
The reason some translations have “died” instead of “suffered” is due to a textual variant in 1 Peter 3:18. A textual variant means that when one compares all of the Greek manuscripts on 1 Peter 3:18, some have the word “suffered” and others have the word “died.” Even though these two words are very different in English in terms of spelling, they are fairly similar in the original Greek. Did you know that the Bible has many textual variants? Some have noted this fact in an effort to cast doubt on the reliability and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. They have said things like, “The Bible has thousands of scribal errors and mishaps, there is no way that we can be certain that the Bible is an accurate account of what was originally written.” Yet, when you look at the evidence, the textual variants contained in the Bible do not discredit its reliability and trustworthiness, it actually validates it.
First of all, there are well over five thousand Greek manuscripts as well as thousands more in other languages spanning a vast array of both time and space. To give you an idea of how vast the Greek manuscripts are for the New Testament, the only thing that even comes close by an ancient author would be Homer’s Iliad, numbering a mere one thousand or so. So to say that we have a full and robust number of New Testament documents to compare is an understatement.
Second, when one compares the copious manuscripts, it is not the number of differences that strike you, it is the incredible amount of similarity. This speaks of the supernatural preservation of the Bible by its Author, the Holy Spirit. It is true that this record number of manuscripts contain a record number of variants, but this should not cause any concern mainly because of the kind of variants contained in the Biblical text. Do not miss this fact: Over 99% of the variants found in the New Testament are easily identified and categorized as not being in the original manuscripts and not capable of altering an iota of meaning within the text. For example, almost three quarters of all variants in the New Testament are simply spelling differences (i.e. spelling John’s name with one ‘n’ or two). Furthermore, many others have to do with word order or perhaps if a definite or indefinite article is present. The point here is that there are relatively few variants which (1) possibly were or were not in the original manuscripts and (2) could alter the meaning of a text. Whether Christ “suffered” or “died” in 1 Peter 3:18 is a good example of an uncertain variant that could alter meaning. Should this small number of variants cause us concern?
The answer is “no” and here is why. Out of these very small number of uncertain variants that could alter meaning, absolutely none of them alter any clearly defined doctrine in God’s word. The Bible is very clear in its teaching and absolutely no doctrinal truth hinges on any of these variants. Whether Christ “suffered” or “died” according to Peter is a great example. If Peter originally wrote “suffered” then this is in no contradiction to rest of the New Testament. As a matter of fact, Peter himself says that Jesus “suffered” (same exact word) 11 times in 1 Peter. This is one of the reasons I personally think that Peter originally wrote “suffered.” On the other hand, if Peter originally wrote “died,” this is also consistent with the rest of the New Testament. The Bible is clear, Jesus “died.” So, no harm and no foul whichever variant is chosen. Remember, any variant in the less than 1% category of all variants, are exactly like the one found in 1 Peter 3:18, it makes absolutely no difference doctrinally.
Let me close with what one of my New Testament professors told us when he was lecturing and teaching us about these matters—"Make no mistake about it, we have a reliable BOOK!”