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What Did the Prophets Know about Christ? A Brief Look at 1 Peter 1:11

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The Greek text of 1 Peter 1.111 says:

ἐραυνῶντες εἰς τίνα ἢ ποῖον καιρὸν ἐδήλου τὸ ἐν αὐτοῖς πνεῦμα Χριστοῦ προμαρτυρόμενον τὰ εἰς Χριστὸν παθήματα καὶ τὰς μετὰ ταῦτα δόξας.

There are a few exegetical problems in this verse, but our attention is focused solely on the phrase at the beginning, εἰς τίνα ἢ ποῖον καιρὸν. This prepositional phrase can be interpreted in two different ways, and the phrase constitutes one of the major exegetical problems in 1 Peter, affecting as it does the hermeneutical approach Peter is taking to the OT, as well as his perception of the OT prophets’ hermeneutical approach to their own writings.

  1. “into what [time] or what manner of time” (BDAG). In this instance, τίνα is adjectival, modifying καιρν. Only time is in view in this approach: when will this prophecy take place?
  2. “into whom or what [kind of] time.” That is, “into what person or what time.” This translation suggests that τίνα is substantival and independent of καιρόν. The prophets thus asked two questions: Who is in view? When will this prophecy take place?

The translations are split on this text. On the one hand, RSV, NRSV, Berkeley, Amplified, NASB, etc. have two questions (person and time) in mind, while KJV,2 ASV, Goodspeed, Williams, NEB, NIV, Jerusalem, etc. have one question in mind (time). Some see the issue as a major hermeneutical issue. Thus, for example, Walter Kaiser3 writes:

…“what person or time” …rendering of the Greek text would vindicate the widespread belief that the prophets “wrote better than they knew,” leaving the mysteries of their exact referents for NT authors to unlock just as the teacher of righteousness functioned in the Qumran community. On the other hand, [certain translations] have the prophets puzzling only over the time, but not the person, indicated in their prophecies.

However, this question is not unsolvable; it can be decided by an analysis of the grammar and syntax of those verses. We must ask this question: Can one dissociate tina from kairon and render it “in reference to whom,” or must tina and poion both be left to modify kairon?

Greek grammarians respond overwhelmingly in favor of the second option. A. T. Robertson cites Acts 7:49 as an instance of this tautological usage where tis = poion. Blass, DeBrunner [sic], and Funk likewise suggest that tis may be combined with poios as “a tautology for emphasis” with the resulting translation of searching for “what time.” That same opinion is set forth by Arndt and Gingrich….

Therefore, 1 Peter 1:10-12 does not teach that these men were curious, yet often ignorant as to exact impact or meaning of what they wrote and predicted. Theirs was not a search for the meaning of what they wrote; it was an inquiry into the temporal aspects of the subject, which went beyond what they wrote.

Kaiser has overstated his approach in at least two areas:

(1) He has set up the two views as black-or-white options (“can… must?”), when the issue is difficult to decide. Dogma is out of place in this text.

(2) He has both overstated and thus somewhat misrepresented the grammarians’ arguments (e.g., BDF ask the question whether a tautology is in view; they do not state this dogmatically).

(3) Kaiser’s argument about meaning is not nuanced: we need to distinguish sense from referent. Yes, it could be argued that the OT prophets knew that they were talking about the Messiah, but who he would be in flesh-and-blood is a question to which they had no answer. Surely they could not envision Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah in the sixth century BCE!

A more reasonable defense of the single question view (i.e., time) is offered by Ed Glenny.4

First, it fits well in this context emphasizing the revelation of salvation in the last time (1:6, 9, 12). Second, the prophets searched concerning salvation, not Christ (1:10)[,] and that idea is further described in verse 11 by explaining that they searched for the time of that salvation; the time of its realization was their main concern. Third, the disjunctive particle separating τίνα and ποῖον makes most sense if the two interrogatives are “related and similar terms, where one can take the place of another or one supplements the other [a quotation from BAG on ].” If the two pronouns are translated “who” and “what manner of time” it seems Peter would have connected the two concepts with καί because those two concepts are not closely related.

What are we to say to all this? This is certainly a more carefully nuanced defense of the ‘time’ only view than Kaiser had offered. However, my personal preference (at this stage) is to see the question as regarding both person and time. The argument will be put forth in two parts. First, a counter to Glenny’s points; second, some positive evidence for the two-question hypothesis.

Counter to Glenny’s arguments:

(1) The argument from context: Context always must be construed; it is not a given. The context of vv 3-12 address both the eschatological realities brought in Christ’s first coming and in his second coming. Note in particular v 11 (as the object of the prophets’ inquiry: ‘the sufferings due Christ and the glory to follow’). Glenny speaks of the revelation of salvation as the key element in the context. But this revelation is explicitly tied to Christ’s person (v 7). Further, v 13, which applies the points of vv 3-12, reiterates the revelation of salvation as “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” When he is revealed, our salvation is accomplished.

(2) The argument about salvation: We cannot artificially separate salvation from the Savior. Verse 10 begins ‘concerning which salvation’ and this refers back to vv 8-9 which are full of Christ (v 8: ‘although you have not seen him, you love him’). Salvation to Peter is not just a state; it is a relationship to the Savior.

(3) The force of : This is the strongest argument for the single question view. It is most natural to expect καί in a context telling us about what the prophets were inquiring about (both the person and the time). With used, this opens up the possibility of an epexegetical particle: “what, that is, what manner of time.” But two responses can be given: (a) If time alone is in view, then ποῖος should define τίς. Yet, it is admittedly the more general term. When the two are distinguished, τίς asks a specific, ποῖος asks a general. For the time-alone view to be probable, we might have expected ποῖον ἢ τίνα καιρόν. (See 2.c below.) (b) Since Peter has already indicated that he is selecting out certain prophets, he surely is not telling us that all of the prophets were trying to figure out who the Messiah would be and the time when he would appear. Rather, some prophets were inquiring about Christ, some about the time of his advent/the coming of salvation. fits this nicely.

Other arguments for two-question hypothesis:

(1) Hillyer argues that:

Although tis occurs well over 500 times in the NT, it is never used to ask “what time?” In all four instances in the NT where poios is coupled with a word for time, the meaning of poios is always “what?” or “which one?” not “what kind of?” (“which day” Matt. 24:42; “which hour?” Matt 24:43; Luke 12:39; Rev. 3:3). So the translation for this verse “what person or time” (as in RSV, NASB) is to be preferred to NIV’s the time and circumstances, or KJV’s “what, or what manner of time.” The OT prophets would certainly be keen to know the identity of the coming Messiah as well as the time of his appearance.5

Hillyer essentially argues three points: (a) τίς never modifies a word for time in the NT; (2) when ποῖος modifies a word for time, a specific time is meant; and (c) the OT prophets certainly longed to know the identity of the Messiah. His first point is the strongest, for it suggests that the idioms of the language were such that if one wanted to ask “what time?” he would not use τίς, but ποῖος.6

(2) Other syntactical arguments could also be marshaled. Such as: (a) Only rarely does either a substantival or adjectival τίς occur in the NT with a following καί that links two completely distinct entities.7 Yet, this is the force that the single-question advocates argue would be most natural if two questions were in view. (b) Only here (in 1 Pet 1:11) in all of biblical Greek, is τίς followed by ποῖος.8 Any judgments, it seems, must be based on other than syntax. (c) The construction ποῖοςτίς does occur in the NT on a few occasions, however. In Mark 11:28 (and the parallel in Luke 20:29) (ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιεῖς; ἢ τίς σοι ἔδωκεν τὴν ἐξουσίαν ταύτην ἵνα ταῦτα ποιῇς;) the ποῖος is qualitative and the τίς is quantitative: “By what kind of authority do you do these things; more specifically, who gave you this authority to do them?”). The only other instance is Acts 7:49, a text that could be interpreted either way (though probably indicating identity). The time-alone view would fit well with this kind of construction, for the further defines what the ποῖος asks generally. But 1 Pet 1:11 has τίς ποῖος. For τίς to be defined by ποῖος is unparalleled in biblical Greek. This, I think, is the strongest argument against the time-only view.

(3) The medium of some prophecies was such that the prophet could not know fully what he was prophesying about. For example, visions and dreams could be recorded by a prophet without him having a clue as to their referent or even sense. The words describing such visions would be the prophet’s, but the vision itself would be given by God.

(4) OT texts that could be in view by Peter are of two sorts: those predicting something specifically about Christ, and those predicting something specifically about eschatological events. Three such passages are Dan 12.6-9; Isa 53; and Isa 61.1-2. Note in particular Dan 12.6-9 (NRSV; italics added)

(6) One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was upstream, “How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?”

(7) The man clothed in linen, who was upstream, raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven. And I heard him swear by the one who lives forever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished.

(8) I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?”

(9) He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end.

Conclusion: Peter seems to acknowledge that the OT prophets, at times, spoke better than they knew.10 They did not fully grasp the implications of their own messages. If so, then the NT authors felt the right to see, at times, in the text of the OT implications that only the divine Author may have intended. This is not to deny a hermeneutic that is based on authorial intent; rather, it is to recognize that the divine Author sometimes intended something more (not less or in contradiction to) than the human author intended.


1 They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. (NET)

2 KJV reads “what, or what manner of time.” This might imply two questions, but even if so, a person is not in view.

3 Walter Kaiser, The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Chicago: Moody, 1985) 19-21. Kaiser has argued as cogently as anyone for the ‘time only’ view. What threatens Kaiser, in part, is the largely Roman Catholic hermeneutic of sensus plenior. (Cf. Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981] 106-114). Yet, the Jerusalem Bible, a Roman Catholic work, is on the side of the single question, time in 1 Pet 1:11!

4 W. Edward Glenny, “The Hermeneutics of the Use of the Old Testament in 1 Peter” (Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Seminary, 1987) 354-55. Glenny argues for the single question view “in spite of Kaiser’s overstatement of the support of it” (ibid., 354). Glenny gave a fuller treatment to this text at the 48th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on November 21, 1996 in Jackson, Mississippi. His paper was entitled, “The Spirit and the Word: Recent Discussion of 1 Peter 1:10-12.”

5 Norman Hillyer, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude in the New International Biblical Commentary [based on the NIV] (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1992) 41-42.

6 However, the LXX does on a very rare occasion employ τίς with a word for time. Cf. Job 6:11; Sirach 11:19; Wisdom of Solomon 17:2.

7 One standard exception to this rule is the idiom τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί; (cf. Matt 8.29; Mark 5.7; Luke 8.28; John 2:4). Luke 7:39; 12:29; 17:8; Acts 21:33; and Rev 7:13 are the lone examples apart from this idiom. Interestingly, when καί joins τίς to another term, the two are sometimes synonymous in that context (cf. John 12:49; Jas 3:13).

8 The construction also does not occur in the Apostolic Fathers.

9 The wording is slightly different in Luke.

10 This finds an interesting parallel in the NT. Note John 11:51 where Caiaphas, as high priest, spoke prophetically better than he knew. His statement about Jesus’ death was meant to be a political note, but it had spiritual implications that went far beyond what he himself intended.

Related Topics: Christology, Grammar, History