Control Your Vessel: Euphemism in 1 Thessalonians 4.4

Our bible class at church recently wrapped up a series on 1 Thessalonians, a study led by my ACU colleague Trevor Thompson. Trevor is a historian and NT scholar in our College of Biblical Studies.

One of the texts we wrestled with is 1 Thessalonians 4.3-4. From the NIV:
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable...
In the NIV there is a note attached to the phrase "control your own body." The note reads:
Or learn to live with your own wife; or learn to acquire a wife
Obviously, there is some interpretive ambiguity here. Is Paul saying "learn to control your body" or is he saying "learn to live with your wife" or is he saying "go acquire a wife"?

The translation "go acquire a wife" might seem strange, but we've seen Paul recommend marriage elsewhere in his letters as a means to controlling lust:
1 Corinthians 7:9
But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 
Admittedly, this isn't the most romantic motivation for marriage, but it does show that interpreting 1 Thess. 4.4 as "go acquire a wife" as a means to "avoid sexual immorality" wouldn't be strange to see in Paul.

And if that's the case then why do most translations go with "body" over "wife" in 1 Thess. 4.4?

The word in question here is skeuos. Skeuos doesn't mean body or wife. It means vessel. Thus, some "word for word" translations go with that more literal meaning:
that each one of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel in sanctification and honor...

that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor...

That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour...
The interpretive issue, then, is what Paul might be referring to when he says "vessel." For both bodies and wives are referred to as vessels in the New Testament. And, as we've seen, both meanings make sense in the text. In order to avoid sexual immorality Paul might be saying "control your body" or "acquire a wife." The first recommendation is more straightforward (particularly to modern readers of the bible), but the latter meaning is also consistent with Paul (e.g., 1 Cor. 7.9).

But there is a third possibility here as well. Specifically, skeuos is also a euphemism for the male sexual organ--the penis.

(See, now you know why I'd be blogging about this.)

In 1 Samuel 21:4-5 we find an exchange between David and the priest Ahimelek. David and his men are on a mission and they are hungry. David asks for food and Ahimelek says the only bread on hand is the consecrated bread. Ahimelek is willing to give this holy bread to David as long as his men are ceremonially pure. As Ahimelek says (v. 4):
“I don’t have any ordinary bread on hand; however, there is some consecrated bread here—provided the men have kept themselves from women.”
David responds (v. 5):
“Indeed women have been kept from us, as usual whenever I set out. The men’s bodies are holy even on missions that are not holy. How much more so today!”
[Before going on, some comments about this text. First, many will recall that this is the text that Jesus cites in his debates with the Pharisees about eating on the Sabbath day (c.f., Matthew 12.1-8).

Second, this text also illuminates why Uriah did not return to have sex with this wife Bathsheba after David called him in from the front lines. Israelite men purified themselves before battle and maintained it during battle. David's response to Ahimelek is that his warriors are still in this state of ritual purity as "women have been kept from us."]

In 1 Sam. 21.5 David's literal words are not "the men's bodies are holy." His literal words are "the vessels of the men are holy." This rendering is again best picked up by more literal translations:
the vessels of the young men were holy
Vessel here seems to be a more straightforward reference to the male sexual organ than to bodies generally. The Hebrew word here is kli and in the Old Testament kli is never used as a reference for the body. So David seems to be making a comment about the male member/penis, that the members/penises/"vessels" of the men were holy.

This interpretation is strengthened when we note that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the NT writers) translates kli in 1 Sam. 21.5 as skeuos, and that skeuos was used as a euphemism in ancient Greek writings as a euphemism for the penis. More, the Latin equivalent for skeuos is vas, and vas was also used as a euphemism for the penis by the ancients.

In light of all this, NT scholar Jay Smith concludes (link to his paper making this argument):
It seems necessary, then, to propose another translation of 1 Thess 4:4...I offer the following: "that each one of you know how to control your own member in a holy and honorable way," in which "member" could be understood simply as "body" but strongly hints at the meaning "sexual organ."
In short, Paul's recommendation for avoiding sexual immorality is for the male readers of his letter to "control their penises," though Paul uses a euphemism (vessel) to get this idea across.

And if that's the literal meaning of the text, I'm wondering what a dynamic equivalent, Message-like rendering might be?

My proposal:
Men, here's the best way to avoid sexual immorality: Keep your pecker in your pocket.

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15 thoughts on “Control Your Vessel: Euphemism in 1 Thessalonians 4.4”

  1. Wait... is biblical interpretation allowed to be funny?
    And furthermore - if your interpretation is correct, then that verse becomes a bit of a truism, doesn't it? Which fits, to me, since I tend to think that a lot more of the Bible ought to be categorized as "wisdom literature" than is currently in vogue among our more literalist, litiginous brethren.

  2. I'm actually quite curious about this take. Would masturbation even be considered a method to abide by Paul's instruction? There are different takes on this issue regarding whether or not it is "sexual immorality" or not.

  3. Or you could paraphrase, "Don't set your vessel's sails without explicit instructions from the Admiral," a lexocographically questionable appropriation of the mystery word but still preserving a certain delicacy.....Why did I know this was coming?

  4. St Augustine's vision of Paradise included the delightful idea--maybe you've mentioned this before and I've forgotten--that Adam in the prelapsarian state could produce or reduce an erection at will, without fail. That is, Adam could control his vessel. I wonder if Augustine was influenced by these passages?

  5. I think a subject heading about keeping your pecker in your pocket should go in the next version of the NIV!

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