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Body Parts, Wives and Other Stuff in 1st Thessalonians 4:4

vessels tools womanLet’s consider three different translations for 1 Thessalonians 4:4 in context. Paul uses a figure of speech that has many people scratching their heads.

The King James takes a rather literal approach. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6 reads:

For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified.

Thus, in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Paul emphasizes Christian living with a call to sexual purity as both an expression of one’s knowledge of God, and a loving attitude toward his brother.

The struggle, however, is over the figurative intentions of the Greek term skeuos, “vessel”  and secondarily over the larger meaning of the verb ktaomai “possess” with vessel. What does possess his vessel mean as a phrase?

Skeuos literally refers to the “stuff” of a person or place which is used to accomplish intended duties.[1]  It references everything from household utensils, to jugs or drinking cups of any make, farmer tools, caravan luggage, warrior’s weapons, ship’s tackle or anchor. In a temple, it may reference furnishings or sacred vessels.[2]

It was not uncommon to use skeuos to describe figurative “stuff” as well.  Thus, the term speaks of a man as another’s tool, or, by some, of a man’s genitalia as a sex tool.[3]  Philosophically some reference a man’s body as a skeuos/vessel for the soul.[4]

Thus, some translations, like the ESV render this 1 Thessalonians 4:4, “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor.”

A second interpretation says that skeuos, here, references a man’s wife as the only proper avenue for sexual expression. You want sex, get your own wife, and be honorable; don’t touch someone else’s wife.

Thus, other bibles, like the Good News, read, “Each of you should know how to live with your wife in a holy and honorable way.”

These are strikingly different. One might say, “What practical difference does it make? No sex outside of marriage… period… Who needs the details?”

You may mean this rhetorically, but I’ll answer anyway. Me. I need the details. Inquiring minds want to know, and when we start saying of any Scripture, “Who cares about the details?” we end up saying, “Who cares if we get this right?” Replacing one message with another message obscures the inspired message… no matter how true or noble the replacement is.

The evidence for both is strong, but I am convinced that Paul intends to reference vessel as wife. This becomes a warning and a help… recognizing human need while seeking to restrain corrupt inclinations.

Figuratively, the New Testament writers do nothing surprising with skeuos, using it most often to discuss man as an instrument of God. (Acts 9:15; Romans 9:21-23; 2 Tim. 2:20-21; 2 Cor. 4:7)  Though some have suggested that skeuos in 1 Peter 3:7, has the same marital/sexual intentions that have been recommended for our passage. [5] Others, insist that a man’s wife as the weaker vessel means no more than weaker person.[6]

In the Greek OT, skeuos frequently translates the Hebrew term keli, which means  “stuff” just like skeuos.[7]  They could be perfect synonyms. Thus, the question should be asked, “Did Paul have a particular text in mind when he wrote 1 Thessalonians 4:4?”

In Isaiah 29:16 and Jeremiah 18:1-11,  man is like a vessel/tool on the potter’s wheel. God creates man in keeping with His purposes. In Isaiah 45:9, Cyrus is a created vessel/tool accomplishing God’s designs for Israel.[8]  Several terms are used in Greek to translate keli, usually more exacting terms that interpret “stuff” as, say, axe, or hammer or the like. There is, however, another term used, an exact Greek synonym for skeuos… one Paul might easily opt for when translating keli from Hebrew in his own letters. Angeion is used in Proverbs 5:15, when, in poetic warning against the harlot, the “son” is encouraged toward his own wife.  A wife is called an aggeion vessel in whose love a man is increased.

The Rabbis’ presentation of man as a vessel (remember Paul was a Rabbi) goes beyond the Old Testament’s use of keli/skeuos/angeion.  Man as a creature, is a tool of God, and a tool of  the devil. Like the Greeks, they saw the body as a vessel for the soul.[9]  The Apocalypse of Moses records Satan’s request for the serpent to be his vessel to destroy man.[10]  The Testament of Naphtali  says that those who fail to do well will be inhabited by the devil and become his vessel/tool.[11]  The author of 4th Ezra describes death as the separation of one from his mortal vessel.[12]  Philo, who favors aggeion, declares that the ark is the vessel into which the soul takes refuge from the flood, i.e. the body.[13]  He also plainly says that the mind is contained in the body like a vessel.[14]  The Talmud records a royal insult against a profound, but ugly, Rabbi in which he is called glorious wisdom in a repulsive vessel.  The Rabbi demands that the complaint be taken up with God who formed him.[15]

The notion of a woman as a vessel, an instrument for sexual use, is also expanded within Rabbinic literature.  In a Talmudic account of Vashti’s banishment, Xerxes, attempting to settle a debate over the best genus of women, declares the vessel that I use is from… Kasdim.  Would you like to see her?[16]  It also records a widow’s snub of a marriage proposal with the insult, “How can a vessel which has been used for what is holy be used for what is profane?”[17]  To use a vessel is a euphemism for sex,[18] which coincides with another common euphemism for sex, to possess, literally baal, to become owner of, master of. Be offended if you like, but that’s the common figure. [19] (Deuteronomy 21:13, Deut. 24:1)

For me, the choice between, possess his own vessel as a conceptual notion of self-control vs. possess his own vessel as a piece of practical advice concerning proper vs. improper sexual expression comes down to Paul’s verb, ktaomai I possess, tipping the interpretive scales toward skeuos as wife.

Xenophon Symposium 2, 10, and Sirach 36:24 both use the phrase possess a wife. The Greek of Ruth 4:10 uses Paul’s verb when Boaz says, I have ktaomai/acquired for myself for a wife. This draws evidence from Hellenistic sources, Old Testament sources, and Rabbinic sources.  It should also be noted that ktaomai is one of the terms used to translate baal to possess/to wife-ify if you’ll pardon the expression.

In contrast, there is no known reference to ktaomi in the context of possessing one’s body, nor of self-control in general.

Once, posses his own vessel with honor, is properly interpreted from the standpoint of Paul’s language and culture, rather than from our modern sensibilities of politically correct talk about male-female relationships, we can stop being vague about his words, and seek to apply them more specifically to our fraught with turmoil lives.


[1] W. L. Lane, Vessel  vol. 3 in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, pp. 912-913.

[2]Christian Maurer, “skeuo”” vol. VII in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, pp. 358-359.

[3] Ibid., p.359.

[4] Ibid., p.359.

[5] Maurer, p. 367.  Note the language links – a man is to sunoikounte” kata  gnwsin live with according to knowledge.

[6] Charles Bigg, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1901) 155.

[7] John Oswalt, “כלי” vol. 1 in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, pp. 982-983.  [K. M.] Beyse, “כלי” vol. VII in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testamentpp. 169-175.

[8] There is a controversial text in I Samuel 21:6 (5) in which some have suggested that David calls the genitals of his warriors “sanctified vessels” in response to the Priest’s concern about giving Holy Bread to ceremonially unclean men.  The text critical, translation, and interpretation issues involved in understanding this passage, however, force its dismissal for the present discussion.  For, it would be unwise to use a more obscure passage as an interpretive key for a less obscure passage.

[9] Maurer, pp. 360-362.

[10] Ibid., p. 360.

[11]H. C. Kee, Testament of Naphtali 8:6  in Testament s of the Twelve Patriarchs vol. 1 in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha:  Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments, 2 vols., ed. James Charlseworth, trans. H. C. Kee (New York: Doubleday, 1983), p.  814.

[12] B. M. Metzger, The Fourth Book of Ezra 7:88 vol. 1 in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha:  Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments, 2 vols., ed. James Charlesworth, trans. B. M. Metzger (New York:  Doubleday, 1983), p. 540.

[13] Philo “That the Worse is Wont to Attack the Better”,  170 in The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged  –  New Updated Version, trans. C. D. Yonge  (1993; rpt. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995),  p. 130.

13Philo ”On The Migration of Abraham”, 193 [14], p. 272.

[15] Babylonian Talmud Taanit 20b.

[16] Babylonian Talmud Megilla 12b.

[17] Babylonian Talmud Baba Mezia 84b.  The proverbial overtones do not destroy the sexual connotations of the statement.

[18] Maurer, p. 361.

[19] Marcus Jastrow, “lub” vol. 1in Dictionary of Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi, Midrashic Literature and Targumim,  2 vols.,  (New York: Title Publishing Company, 1943), p. 182.  In fact, the Aramaic term lu@oB actually refers to an adulterous lover.

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