1 Peter 4:17 – What Judgment?

When translated, 1 Peter 4:17 reads, "it is the time for the judgment to begin…" Unfortunately, most English versions do not translate the article (the) preceding "judgment." During a recent debate here in Indianapolis, one participant exclaimed that there is "no justification" for translating the article in 1 Peter 4:17. I was hoping that he would go on to examine the text and explain why this is the case. Unfortunately, he did not. He simply stated his position and then cited several English translations.

To paraphrase noted grammarian A.T. Robertson, the Greek article is never meaningless. In other words, the article isn’t just taking up space in 1 Peter 4:17. Peter placed the article before "judgment" for some reason. The question is: why? This is the question we will seek to answer in this brief article. We will begin by examining a common use of the Greek article. Then, we will make a few observations. The following is an excerpt from from Wallace’s Grammar: 1

1. Anaphoric (Previous Reference)

The anaphoric article is the article denoting previous reference. (It derives it’s name from the Greek verb, αναφερειν, "to bring back, to bring up.") The first mention of the substantive is usually anarthrous (anarthrous means without the article – JL) because it is merely being introduced. But subsequent mentions of it use the article, for the article is now pointing back to the substantive previously mentioned. The anaphoric article has, by nature, then, a pointing back force to it, reminding the reader of who or what was mentioned previously. It is the most common use of the article and the easiest usage to identify.

For example, in John 4:10 Jesus introduces to the woman at the well the concept of living water (υδωρ ζων). In v 11 the woman refers to the water, saying, "Where then do you keep the living water?" (ποθεν ουν εχεις το υδωρ το ζων;). The force of the article here could be translated, "Where do you keep this living water of which you just spoke?"

3) Finally, the anaphoric article may be used with a noun whose synonym was mentioned previously. That is to say, although the terms used to describe may differ, the article is anaphoric if the reference is the same.

C) Illustrations

Romans 6:4 συνεταφθημεν ουν αυτω δια του βαπτισματος
  we were buried with him through the baptism

The previous reference to baptism, in v 3, is the verb εβαπτισθημεν. The anaphoric article thus can refer back not only to a synonym, but even to a word that is not substantival.

Now, to the point. Remember: "The anaphoric article has, by nature, then, a pointing back force to it, reminding the reader of who or what was mentioned previously." Wallace also notes, "Practically speaking, labeling an article as anaphoric requires that it (i.e. the concept – JL) have been introduced at most in the same book, preferably in a context not too far removed." Now, let’s take another look at 1 Peter 4:17 in both Greek and English.

1 Peter 4:17 οτι ο καιρος του αρξασθαι το κριμα
  because it is the time for the judgment to begin

You will notice that the article (underlined) precedes κριμα (judgment). If the article is never "meaningless," what is it doing there? Is it anaphoric? If so, what "judgment" is Peter trying to "remind" his readers of in this context? Could the article preceding κριμα be "pointing back" to the same concept previously introduced by Peter "in a context not too far removed"? Absolutely! Let’s jump back a few verses.

1 Peter 4:5 οι αποδωσουσιν λογον τω ετοιμως εχοντι κριναι ζωντας και νεκρους
  They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

Notice the underlined infinitive (κριναι) in verse 5 and its similarity to κριμα (judgment) in verse 17. These two words are cognates. Why is this important? The anaphoric article can refer back to verbs, synonyms, and substantives – even epexegetical infinitives as in 1 Peter 4:5. So what "judgment" was Peter reminding his readers of in verse 17? What "judgment" had already been mentioned? "It is the time for the judgment to begin (this judgment of the living and the dead of which I just spoke)." Verse 17 points back to verse 5. In other words, the resurrection was at hand!


[1] Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the NT; Daniel B. Wallace, pg. 218-19