This blog continues my translation and study of the First Letter of Peter
1 Peter 5:1
I am encouraging the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of Messiah’s sufferings, as well as a sharer in the splendour which is to be uncovered, to shepherd God’s flock in your place, not by compulsion but by their freewill, as God wants, and not for shameful profit, but because you are keen to do so. Don’t lord it over the people in your care, but be examples to the flock, and when the Chief Shepherd appears you will receive an unfading garland of honour.
You younger men, likewise, subordinate yourselves to the elders, dressing yourselves in modesty towards one another, for, as the proverb states, God sets himself against the big-headed, but gives favour to the little ones.”
JESUS THE GOOD SHEPHERD Catacomb of Priscilla Rome
The organisation of the assemblies of Jesus is evident here, in the division between elders and younger men. The signifiers of masculine gender exclude women, and we may conclude that a reversion to male domination was taking place even in assemblies to whom Paul had asserted the equality of all believers in Messiah Jesus. It is of course possible that some of these assemblies had female elders and that the masculine language is simply conventional.
If the author is Peter the disciple, he makes a dubious claim when he says he was a witness of Jesus’ suffering, since the gospels are clear that he was not present at the crucifixion. This may indicate that the author is only pretending to be Peter.
The author adopts the language of Psalm 23 and the book of Ezekiel to name the leaders of the assemblies as “shepherds.” Kings of Israel / Judah were also known as “shepherds.” These connections designate the assemblies as not only faith communities but also political entities, like Israel. An intelligent Roman official might have seen them as counter- cultural communities within the Empire, and therefore dangerous.
The status and function of elders in these assemblies is much debated. The evidence here suggests that at least some of them were paid or supported by their assemblies. In any case, they had enough power for this author to remind them to seek agreement rather than to issue commands, and to work out of eager conviction rather than for material gain. There is an echo of Jesus’ teaching that although gentile rulers “lord it” over their peoples, it “is not so amongst you.” Shepherds are there to care for the flock and for no other function.
Younger men, who might have hoped to exercise some authority are instructed to submit to the elders and to control their competitiveness. The emphasis on “tapeinofrosune” which means thinking of oneself as a slave, is evidence that the example of Jesus was still cherished by the author as determinative of the style of leadership in the assemblies. The characterisation of Jesus as Chief Shepherd connects with John’s gospel, which is later in time, where Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. Both images suggest not only the sacrificial leadership of Jesus, but also an ideal of community unique in the Roman Empire.
Still, the subordination of youth to age, may be a sign that the assemblies had forgotten the age of their messiah and his disciples. Perhaps older men were safer than younger.