Many people perceive Latter-day Saints as “peculiar” in the modern sense of being a little strange, weird, odd or different. For instance, I recently saw a blurb for an anti-Mormon book on the Internet that said: “Mormons are a very peculiar people, but they claim to be Christians.” Some Saints view this perception perversely as something of a badge of honor, as evidence that we are the people spoken of in 1 Peter 2:9: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people”. In one of the old Melchizedek Priesthood Study Guides there was a lesson entitled “Become a Distinctive People,” which was keyed to 1 Peter 2:9. This title was attempting to put a positive spin on the common understanding of what it means to be a “peculiar people.”
What did Peter mean by the expression “a peculiar people”? He seems to be taking designations used for the children of Israel, the people of the covenant, and applying them to the members of the elect community, to the Saints of his day. In doing this he shows in particular the influence of Exodus 19:5-6, which reads as follows: “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure [segullah] unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.”
“Peculiar treasure” translates the single word segullah. This word is cognate with the Akkadian sikiltum, and conveys the sense of valued property to which one has an exclusive right of possession. From a very early date, however, the term was used metaphorically of people. For instance, the royal seal of Abban of Alalakh designates the owner as the sikiltum of the god, his “servant” and “beloved.” Also, a letter from the Hittite sovereign to the king of Ugarit characterizes his vassal as his “servant” and sglt “treasured possession.” For these examples, see the JPS Torah Commentary, ad loc.
The expression ‘am segullah “treasured people” is used several times in Deuteronomy, as in 7:6: “For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people [‘am segullah] unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.” (See also 14:2 and 26:18-19.) Other Old Testament occurrences of the word include Psalm 135:4: “For the LORD hath chosen Jacob unto himself, and Israel for his peculiar treasure [segullah],” and Malachi 3:17: “And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels [segullah]; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.” The word is used in the literal sense of king’s treasure in Eccl. 2:8 and 1 Chron. 2:3. (If you want to see what the word segullah looks like in Hebrew, Brent Top wrote a book with Bookcraft called A Peculiar Treasure: Old Testament Messages for Our Day. The cover art has this Hebrew word in large letters superimposed on a scroll. Various LDS booksellers have a picture of the cover on their web sites, so a quick search should turn one of these up. I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on it.)
In the New Testament, this concept is picked up by three Greek words. First, the verb peripoieomai means to cause to remain over and above, to save up, lay by, procure, keep, save for oneself. The cognate noun, peripoiesis, which is the word Peter used, means keeping safe, preservation, gaining possession of, acquisition, procuring. A related word is periousios, which means having more than enough, rich, wealthy. Interestingly, the word periousios is usually the word chosen in the Septuagint to render Hebrew segullah. This suggests that in the Old Testament, there was a certain stress on the “value” aspect of the word, so it is often rendered “special treasure” or some such thing. In the New Testament, periousios only appears once, in Titus 2:14. More common is the verb (three occurrences, at Luke 17:33, Acts 20:28 and 1 Tim. 3:13), and peripoiesis, which occurs five times (Eph. 1:14, 1 Thess. 5:9, 2 Thess. 2:14, Heb. 10:39, and of course 1 Pet. 2:9). The New Testament seems to stress less the wealth aspect of the word, and more the possession aspect. Peter’s Greek literally says: “a people for (his) possession” and might be rendered something like “God’s own people.” The word is rich, and it is worthwhile to read the scriptures cited above and explore the different nuances of meaning it conveys, including the sense of salvation (from saving up, laying by more than enough). To me, the sense of God’s special covenant people is especially strong, as is the sense of ownership. This might have something to do with the slave imagery that is common in the New Testament. (When Paul calls himself “a doulos of Jesus Christ,” we soften the concept by rendering “servant”; a stronger rendering would be “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.” Cf. the title “Master.”)
The KJV rendering “peculiar” was actually a perfectly acceptable translation at the time, but the primary meaning of the word in English has drifted so far from its original meaning that it is no longer an appropriate rendering. The English word “peculiar” derives from the Latin peculium “private property,” which is the word one would use of a slave or one’s cattle (pecu means “cattle”). Something like the original meaning of the word persists in modern English, as when we say “that type of flower is peculiar to this region of country.” But today the primary meaning of the word is “weird, odd.” If one really wants to, one could read the modern concept of “weird” into the word in its scriptural uses, because one aspect of the word is holiness, which entails separation, and it is our aggressive boundary maintenance from the rest of society that results in the perception that we are a little bit weird. But that is very much a developed meaning; the primary meaning of the word has to do with God’s covenant relationship with us.
As a final note, I will point out that Joseph Smith did not use the English expression “peculiar people” in his revelations. I wonder, however, whether the expression “a choice and a favored people of the Lord” in 2 Nephi 1:19 might not in some fashion reflect an underlying Hebrew something like ‘am segullat YHWH. This is, of course, pure speculation.