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Tuesday Time Travel: Emperors and Governors in the Roman Empire

1 Peter
Modified "Pauline Missionary" Map

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him…” 1 Peter 2:13-14

Human Institutions, i.e., Governing Authorities

Peter commands his readers to submit to πάσῃ ἀνθρωπίνῃ κτίσει (quite roughly: “every human creation”). The word often translated ‘creation’ (κτίσις) was occasionally used for the (1) the establishment of a governing authority; or (2) the result of such an act, i.e., the governing authority itself (see: BDAG). The second makes sense of the context: “Submit to every human governing authority.”

The King, i.e., The Roman Emperor

Notice the occurrence of ‘king’ (βασιλεῖ) in the singular. Deissmann notes: “In the Hellenistic East, which received its stamp from the post-Alexandrian kings, the title ‘king’ had remained very popular, and was even transferred to the Roman Emperor, as we see for example in the New Testament” (Light from the Ancient East, 62). Thus Peter specifies an example of a “human governing authority” to which one must submit: the Roman emperor, the most powerful man in the land. Furthermore, he commands that the ‘king’ be honored (1 Pet. 2:17). Commentators do not agree which Roman emperor is in mind here (because of debate about when 1 Peter was written), but I hold the position that Nero was in power. In any case, I disagree with those who suggest a peaceful backdrop (thus, ‘honor the king’ would be relatively easy) because of the following context in which submission is commanded even where authorities are abusing their powers (contra Jobes who dates the letter during the reign of Claudius).

Governors, i.e., Provincial Administrators

Basilica in Pompeii
Basilica in Pompeii

The term for ‘governors’ here (ἡγεμόσιν) commonly referred to those serving as provincial governors. As the name suggests, they would function as administrators over an entire province (see the colored regions on the map above). Peter goes on to describe the governors as those “sent by him,” probably referring to the emperor. Thus Peter gives two specific examples of “human governing authorities” who served to administer justice (1 Pet. 2:14), and before whom Christians were to submit.

Reviewing the Context

Yet again I have worked backwards in the text relative to the previous post. It is significant, however, to note the context as discussed before:

In 2:11-12, Peter has applied the metaphor of ‘aliens’ and ‘strangers’ once again to his audience (cf. 1 Peter 1:1, 17). He exhorts them to “keep their behavior excellent among the nations” in order that God might be glorified “in the day of visitation.” In the greater context of 1 Peter, this is most likely a reference to the potential that some of these unbelivers will be saved and glorify God when Christ returns in judgment.

Peter then commands submission in the context of three social structures, all of which are significant in the Roman Empire: (1) Civil Authorities (2:13-17); (2) Slave-masters (2:18-20); (3) Husbands (3:1-6). The principle apparent in each section is submission even when the authority is in some sense abusing its powers. The ultimate goal in enduring such abuse is Gospel-witness (2:12; 3:1, 15).

Within this discussion, Peter exalts Christ as the primary example of an ‘alien-stranger’ living in submission (2:21-25). Christ did not retaliate while enduring such unjust abuse. Rather, He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (2:23). Peter seems to call his audience to do the same.


Although there’s much more to be discussed in 1 Pet. 2:13-17, I’ll wrap it up for the sake of brevity. Peter mentions two highly powerful positions in the Roman empire: Roman emperor and provincial governor, yet he gives no exceptions to the command to submit (such as “unless they’re abusive”). Some suggest that Peter is hoping that Christians will lay low and thus avoid conflict with the Roman Empire. But this doesn’t seem to fit with why slaves are called to submit to crooked masters (1 Pet. 2:18-20) or wives to their husbands (1 Pet. 3:1). I think Peter is again suggesting that his readers make an intentional choice to submit to authorities and refrain from any sort of retaliation (1 Pet. 3:9) so that Gospel-witness is not hindered (1 Pet. 2:12; 3:1; 3:15).

Who on earth is willing to do such a thing? Christ (1 Pet. 2:21-25)! And anyone else whose citizenship happens to be in another ‘land’. Peter presents us as aliens-travelers who are without any legal status in this world. But we have an inheritance, imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Pet. 1:4)…not here, but “reserved in heaven.”

7 Responses to Tuesday Time Travel: Emperors and Governors in the Roman Empire

    • Thanks Joel. I’m in the process of thinking through a complete answer to that question. On one hand, I don’t think Peter is advocating pacifism. I think the ultimate motivation has to do with Gospel-witness. I think this must be reflected in a Christian’s priorities. Political activism (or ‘inactivism’) is somewhat beside the point in the first century context (though some scholars are increasingly interested in anti-empire rhetoric in Paul…I think such scholarship is misunderstanding Paul and overstating the case). Anyway, I plan to post some thoughts on what submission might look like in an American context in light of NT teaching. I’ll look forward to your thoughts on this.

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