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1 Peter 2.2 - "pure spiritual milk" or "pure milk of the word"?

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Professor of New Testament Studies,
Dallas Theological Seminary

1 Peter 2.2 reads as follows: ὡς ἀρτιγέννητα βρέφη τὸ λογικὸν ἄδολον γάλα ἐπιποθήσατε, ἵνα ἐν αὐτῷ αὐξηθῆτε εἰς σωτηρίαν. The NET Bible renders this: “Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation…” Most modern translations also translate τὸ λογικὸν ἄδολον γάλα as ‘the pure spiritual milk’ or something very similar (NIV, RSV, REB, TEV, NLT, NJB, ESV, NAB, ASV, etc.) The KJV here has “the sincere milk of the word.” I think in this instance the KJV translators may have something going for them. Below is a brief argument in behalf of the KJV rendering (except that I prefer ‘pure’ over ‘sincere’).

The focal point of the discussion is the Greek word λογικόν. This word usually has the force of ‘thoughtful’; elsewhere, ‘spiritual’ (so BDAG). But when it has the force of ‘spiritual’ the idea seems to be more a contrast with literal than something in the spiritual realm. That is, metaphorical as opposed to literal milk is in view. To translate this as ‘spiritual,’ then, might be a slight over-translation since the focus really is not on the spiritual realm but on the non-literal realm.

But there are reasons to see it as having the force of ‘of the word.’ Consider the following points.

(1) James 1.21 may have been in Peter’s mind; there are several points of comparison. James 1.21 says, διὸ ἀποθέμενοι πᾶσαν ῥυπαρίαν καὶ περισσείαν κακίας ἐν πραΰτητι, δέξασθε τὸν ἔμφυτον λόγον τὸν δυνάμενον σῶσαι τὰς ψυχὰς ὑμῶν (“So put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the message implanted within you, which is able to save your souls” [NET]). There are three verbal points of comparison. First, ἀποθέμενοι (“put away”) is used in both texts (1 Pet 2.1). Second, a cognate to λογικός (1 Pet 2.2) is used in Jas 1.21 ( λόγος). Third, “save” is used in Jas 1.21 ( σώζω), while the verbal cognate “salvation” ( σωτηρία) is used in 1 Pet 2.2. Besides the verbal parallels, there are the conceptual parallels: First, ἀποθέμενοι is used in the sense of ridding oneself of moral filth, as is 1 Pet 2.1. Second, salvation, though already a possession of the believer (in James the word is apparently already implanted within the readers and is able to ‘save your souls’; in Peter, the readers are urged to ‘grown up to salvation’) (Jas 1.21; 1 Pet 2.2). And third is the force of λογικός in 1 Pet 2.2. If the cognate λόγος is in Peter’s mind, then it is not much of a stretch to see him as speaking about ‘the word’ here. Peter knew James well and may have discussed his letter with him. Scholars have noted for a long time parallels between these two letters. However, it may be objected that Peter’s audience cannot be expected to have known this literary background. Though true, it may have been in his mind (authors don’t always clearly communicate what they’re thinking to their readers); and it is possible that even he gives contextual clues as to this meaning.

(2) λογικόν = ‘spiritual’? As we noted, sometimes it does have this meaning. As Ramsey Michaels points out in his commentary on 1 Peter (WBC), λογικός means spiritual in the sense of the human-divine plane of existence, rather than mere βιός (animal existence). The difficulty of taking that meaning here is that Peter explicitly uses the word “spiritual” twice in this passage: πνευμάτικος (v 5 [bis]). And in v 5, the semantic domain of the word πνευμάτικος seems to encompass both the metaphorical as opposed to literal (Christians are not a physical temple made of real stones), and the divine as opposed to human. That is to say, Peter demonstrates that he uses πνευμάτικος in the way that many commentators see λογικός being used. If so, the question is, Why would he change his wording? Although of course it is possible that he uses a variety of terms for the same idea, one of the things that is marked about Peter’s style is that he will typically use the same word or a verbal cognate when he wants to communicate a similar idea. If that is the case here, we would do well to seek earlier in 1 Peter to see if he uses a cognate of λογικός.

(3) λογικόν=‘reasonable, rational’? Again, this is a common use for this adjective. But, if this is the meaning here, it is introducing a new concept. Michaels does suggest that λογικός has the force of interpreting the metaphor, as if to say ‘this pure milk, that is, that which is connected to reality.’ Or, ‘this pure milk, so to speak.’ That is certainly possible, but it strikes me as a bit odd. We might have expected the construction τὸ ἄδολον γάλα λογικόν (‘the pure milk which is reasonable’) instead of τὸ λογικὸν ἄδολον γάλα. By putting the adjective in an attributive position, especially the first attributive position, tends to show that the author is thinking of a known entity, while putting it in predicate position tends to suggest that he is introducing a new concept. Since Peter places the adjective in attributive position, this again may be an indication that he is referring back to a previous reference.

(4) As we have noted, the KJV has ‘sincere milk of the Word.’ Michaels argues that this is too subtle, yet he affirms what may be an even more subtle word-play in v 3 ( χρηστός for Χριστός).1 Further, in 2.9 he sees the adjective βασίλειον as functioning like a genitive noun—’of the King.’ That is precisely the same kind of grammatical idiom the KJV has rendered here—an adjective functioning like a genitive noun. Further, the subtlety of the terms is so more in English than in Greek. Suppose we were to translate λόγος in 1.23 as ‘reason.’ Would it be too subtle then? 1.23 would read: ‘the living reason of God’; 2.2 would read: ‘Desire the reasonable milk.’ My point is not that we should translate λόγος as reason, but that the two terms are close cognates, obviously so in Greek, much less so in English. The subtleties are not so pronounced in Greek as they are in English.

If my analysis is correct, then τὸ λογικόν is anaphoric, harking back to 1.23, where ‘the word of God’ ( λόγου ζῶντος θεοῦ καὶ μένοντος [‘the living and abiding word of God’]) is said to abide forever. The word is thus pure because it is imperishable. The KJV has thus picked up on something, though the text cannot be translated into English without overdoing it some. The KJV has erased the subtlety, making the connection explicit (similar to what they did in John 1.11 [“He came unto his own, and his own received him not”]). Modern translations have, however, obliterated the connection altogether. In this instance, I think it would be better to over-translate than under-translate.

(5) Concluding comments on the ‘pure milk of the Word’: The οὖν of v 1 makes the connection strong: because the word of God that brought us salvation abides forever, we too have sustained life by desiring after this word. It is not just the Bible (it may not even be the Bible—‘word of God’ is only rarely used in scripture of the Bible); it is the message of God. This comports with Jas 1.21: there, the word that has been implanted in believers is able to save their souls; here, the pure milk of the word is the nourishment that causes one to grow into salvation. That message, in particular, is the apostolic proclamation about Christ. Thus, what Christians are to desire is all they can learn about their wonderful salvation, about the apostolic kerygma of the cross. This ‘word’ has been inscripturated for us and is now, effectively, the New Testament. But in Peter’s day the scriptures were still being written. By way of application, we can follow Peter’s advice by learning all we can of our glorious salvation that Christ has brought us. The place to turn for such is the ‘pure milk of the word,’ the New Testament.

Related Topics: Grammar