2012-06-12

Last or Least: Was Paul the Last Witness or an Aborted Fetus?

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by Tim Widowfield

Lost in translation

Apostle Paul (Ubisi icon)

A bald Paul holds a red book. (Image via Wikipedia)

One of the nice things about learning Greek (and I count myself as a beginner, a perpetual student of the language) is discovering controversial translations that you’d never know about otherwise. One example you probably already know about is whether Paul meant “betrayed” or “delivered over” in 1 Corinthians 11:23. Only by reading the later gospels into Paul’s words would we be convinced that the loaded term “betrayed” is a better translation of παρεδίδετο (paredideto, “he was delivered up or handed over”). There’s even a hint at Paul’s meaning by his word choice earlier in the verse. Paul writes:

I indeed received (παρέλαβον/parelabon) from the Lord that which I also delivered (παρέδωκα/paredoka) to you that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was delivered over (παρεδίδετο/paredideto) took bread . . . (my translation)

So something was delivered to him by the Lord, which he in turn delivered to them about Jesus when he was delivered over (to the Romans or the Archons). In other words, we have three pairs of delivery-reception events. Yet nearly every English translation says that Jesus was “betrayed” on that night. Why? Well, they don’t publish these books for people like you and me; they publish them for people who already know what the Bible is supposed to say.

Untimely born?

On the basis of sheer weirdness 1 Cor. 11:23 can’t hold a candle to 1 Cor. 15:8 in which Paul caps off a confession of post-resurrection appearances with his own eye-witness testimony.

And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. (KJV)

This translation masks an unusual word — ἐκτρώματι/ektromati — which refers to a miscarried fetus (ektroma). The untimeliness of the birth does not refer to lateness, but to being born too soon, and presumably means that Paul was calling himself some sort of monster. However, his meaning is far from clear and has long been the subject of debate.

Other possible meanings

In Jesus and the Spirit, James D. G. Dunn painstakingly covers nearly all of the possibilities in his treatment of the christophanies listed in 1 Cor. 15 (p. 101-102).

1. Late birth.  We might expect from the context and from our knowledge of the Acts of the Apostles that it refers to the fact that Paul did not know Jesus during his lifetime, and that he experienced a spiritual appearance of Jesus after the ascension, “last of all (ἔσχατον δὲ πάντων).” This understanding of ektroma falls in line with orthodox Christian understanding, and goes a long way toward explaining why so many translations use nonspecific language. However, Dunn reminds us that the word ektroma “denotes early, not late arrival — premature birth.

2. Sudden, violent conversion. Another way to explain ektroma is to claim that it refers to the way Paul converted to Christianity. Tradition says that Paul was knocked to the ground violently, saw a bright light, and heard the voice of the Lord saying (in Hebrew, by the way):  “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” Dunn finds this explanation wanting as well, because ektroma does not refer to the manner but to the result of the miscarriage — and not simply a premature birth, but most likely a stillborn fetus.

3. Unworthiness. Still another explanation Dunn cites is the “view . . . that the word was used to understand Paul’s unworthiness of apostolic office.” Since ancient people often associated premature birth with deformity, it might mean that Paul considered himself a monstrosity. Some exegetes have theorized that ektroma was an insult hurled at Paul that he gladly wore as a badge of honor. While this understanding of the verse has some merit, Dunn reminds us that it ignores the element of time, which surely “cannot be unimportant.”

4. Paul’s Jewish past. One way to retain the element of time is to posit that ektroma refers back to Paul’s previous life as a pious Pharisee. “In which case, it could describe Paul’s attitude as he looked back to his state before he encountered Christ — formed by law, but not yet formed by Christ.” But once again, ektroma refers to the outcome of the premature birth, not the process leading up to it.

5. The “last” of the apostles. Dunn insists that ektroma has to be understood in relation to “last of all” — i.e., that it must be a reference to Paul’s standing as the last apostle to witness the risen Christ. But he was scarcely prepared for it. Dunn writes:

Taken this way Paul’s claim to be a ‘witness to Jesus’ resurrection’ justifies the jibe ‘the abortion’ precisely because his conversion and call was a premature birth not a late birth. Instead of becoming a Christian by gradual development, after the due period of gestation, his coming to faith in Jesus was unexpectedly premature, when he was hardly ready for it. The point of the metaphor for us, and the reason why Paul accepted it, was because without his premature birth his coming to faith would have been too late even for the last of the resurrection appearances. If we are right the implication is clear: the resurrection appearances took place over a limited period and after a time ceased, and only those who experienced one could justify their claim to apostleship. Paul accepts this and affirms it for himself. He was privileged with a resurrection appearance and so can be counted an apostle only because his birth into faith in Christ was unnaturally hastened before he was ready.  ‘All the apostles’ had already seen Jesus and been commissioned by him (1 Cor. 15.7); only by premature birth was Paul enabled to join the apostolic circle before it finally closed. (p. 102)

I quoted Dunn’s entire argument above because I wanted to be sure I did it justice. I remain unconvinced, but perhaps I’m in the minority. Dunn has a talent for stating his unconvincing conclusions quite emphatically.

Minority report

You could plow through a lot of scholarly work on 1 Corinthians and never know the ektroma was a specific term used in some gnostic cults. In The Pre-Nicene New Testament Dr. Robert M. Price translates 1 Cor. 15:8 like this:

And finally, appearing to me even as to the Ektroma, he was seen by me, too.

In a footnote, Price explains:

The reference here is to the Primordial Light Man, of whom Jesus Christ was believed to be a kind of reincarnation, appearing to the wondering Demiurge, the Gnostic Creator, who cast covetous eyes on the former’s spiritual substance and contrived to steal it to give life and order to his inert creation. This Demiurge was a defective and malicious bastard offspring of the fallen Sophia (Wisdom). Against the godhead, she brought him forth, and he was called Ektroma, the Abortus. (p. 361)

Mainstream NT scholars are quite sure that Gnosticism was a second-century phenomenon; hence ektroma for Paul “can’t” mean the same thing it did for them. How do they know there were no Gnostics when Paul was writing? Well, this is a case in which the argument from silence is not fallacious. How do we know that? Because they got the answer they wanted. See how easy that is?

Another minority opinion

Lost in the cacophony of Protestant writers is the very small minority of Catholic scholars who argue that in this case ἔσχατος (eschatos) is best translated as “least” instead of “last.” Referring to the Liddell and Scott Lexicon, we can see that eschatos can mean: (1) farthest in space, (2) highest in degree, (3) lowest [least] among persons, (4) last in time, or (5) last or lowest of species.

A reasonably complete discussion of the “Last vs. Least” argument can be found in “1 Corinthians 15:8 : Paul the Last Apostle” (PDF) by Peter R. Jones. Spoiler alert: Jones thinks Paul is the “last” apostle. The crucial point here is whether Paul is focusing only on a chronological series of events, or whether he is also pointing to himself as the least worthy apostle in the list of people who “saw the Lord.”

Unfortunately, both sides (Protestant and Catholic) have an ecclesiastical ax to grind here. If we take the traditional translation, Paul is telling us he is the last apostle (with no more to come) who was called “out of due time,” a position congenial to Protestants who hold to the view that the apostolic age ended a long time ago. On the other hand, if Paul’s meaning had more to do with his unworthiness (hence the word ektroma or “monster”), and that he was the “least” on the list of people who saw the risen Jesus, then it’s more congenial to the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession.

I have no dog in this fight, but I will admit the answer is far from clear. I lean toward the “least” interpretation, because I find it hard to explain otherwise why Paul would call himself an abortion. On the other hand, the list of witnesses seems to be arranged chronologically, with ἔπειτα (epeita):  “Then he appeared to X; then he appeared to Y.”

The nuclear option

Finally, we come to the theory put forth by Robert M. Price in “Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 as a Post-Pauline Interpolation” (found in The Empty Tomb).  Again, spoiler alert: Price thinks the whole chunk in question is most likely “a piece of later, post-Pauline Christianity.” I may take a closer look at this article in a future post.

Postscript 

I had been plugging away at this post for several weeks, and couldn’t seem to finish it. Recently, on Mark Goodacre’s NT Blog the subject came up. Goodacre asked, “How would Jesus have proved his own existence?

VinnyJH57 comments: 

The proximity in time between the death of the person and the sighting of his ghost seems significant. However, I would feel a lot better if the person who said he saw the ghost had known the person when he was alive as well.

Dr. Goodacre answers:

And that’s the case with everyone in 1 Cor. 15 bar the “untimely born” Paul, right?

To which VinnyJH57 replies:

Well . . . . I’m just not sure. 

Paul never really says much of anything that indicates that any of them had any memories or traditions or interactions involving Jesus prior to the crucifixion. If I had never read the gospels, I’m not sure that I would have much reason to think that Paul believed that any of them had had encounters any different than his own, i.e., Paul might have thought that they only saw the ghost, too.

The continuing discussion is worth reading. But suffice it to say it’s surprising that a scholar of Goodacre’s caliber would accept the translation of ektroma as “untimely born.” I mean, it’s to be expected from evangelicals who read the NIV and believe it is literally true, but I thought things were different within the guild. I wonder how many scholars read the gospels into 1 Cor. 15, assuming all the witnesses before Paul saw Jesus before the Ascension (never mentioned by Paul) as a corporeal being with the stigmata (also never mentioned by Paul), and that Paul’s vision was spiritual, unique, final, and somehow suspect — all inferred from a harmonized reading of the NT.

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  • mP
    2012-06-12 19:04:22 UTC - 19:04 | Permalink

    While reading the thoughts presented, i noticed the painter copied an interested theme that is also present in many religious art particularly that wich is found in major cathedrals and other sponsored locations, namely the golden disc behind the character. Regardless of the thoughts of historicity of the gospels and NT itself, there can be no denying that this art insists or makes the connection that Jesus is actually the Sun. Given this Paul artwork always has a disc or sun behind him, what exactly is the artist thinking or believing ?

  • mcduff
    2012-06-12 20:40:24 UTC - 20:40 | Permalink

    Here is another translation ….er, um, ‘problem’.
    Galatians 1.15ff
    “But when He who had set me apart before I was born and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son …TO…me, …”
    RSV [note the word “to’].
    In all other instances of the occurrence of the Greek word [en] translated there as ‘to’ within contemporary literature it is instead translated as ‘in,’ [or so I read in a conservative commentary on Paul somewhere].

    Now view Paul’s words with the correct [?] translation.
    “But when He who had set me apart before I was born and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son …IN…me, …”
    The sense changes dramatically.
    From an external vision, a la the 3 differing versions in Acts of the vision on the road to Damascus, that have entered our art and social awareness, to an internal revelation within the person of Paul.

    Here is the Blue Letter Bible link to Gal 1.16.

    http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Gal&c=1&v=16&t=KJV#vrsn/16

    Note that “to” is replaced by ‘in” in most translations.
    Further, if you go to BLB’s lexicon you will find the primary meaning of the Gk wortd is …”in”.

  • Blood
    2012-06-12 23:22:09 UTC - 23:22 | Permalink

    In Paul, I suspect we have much more of a Gnostic thinker than we otherwise would have expected, though one buried underneath the cumulative weight of orthodoxy. Things like the “ektroma” keep popping up the more you examine his writings.

    “…the word ektroma, so puzzling to exegetes, really refers to the Gnostic idea of primitive matter, Plato’s hyle, and to the tohu vabohu [without form and void] of Genesis.”

    — Granville S. Hall, Jesus, the Christ in the Light of Psychology, Vol. 1

    http://books.google.com/books?id=BbtZAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA201&lpg=PA201&dq=Ektroma+gnostic&source=bl&ots=WBF3a_mwo8&sig=8vAj7SN63S9JMoRbv-yCSUkC9_s&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jkbXT_7_H4OW2AW8mb2gCg&ved=0CFIQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=Ektroma%20gnostic&f=false

  • vinnyjh57
    2012-06-13 00:45:35 UTC - 00:45 | Permalink

    Interesting post.

    I was aware of the betrayed/delivered question, but I hadn’t heard about the issue regarding “untimely born.” Rereading Dr. Goodacre’s comments with that in mind, I don’t think they depend on the translation “untimely born.” All I think he really claims is that Paul is using the phrase to differentiate himself from the other appearance witnesses. Tom Verenna and I assumed that he meant a chronological differentiation, but upon reflection, I cannot be certain that he did. He may just have been using the phrase that I would recognize without intending to express an opinion on the proper translation of ektroma.

    • 2012-06-13 01:44:56 UTC - 01:44 | Permalink

      Vinny: “I don’t think they depend on the translation ‘untimely born.'”

      Hmm. Well, it was your comment that evoked Goodacre’s response, namely:

      “I quite agree. The proximity in time between the death of the person and the sighting of his ghost seems significant. However, I would feel a lot better if the person who said he saw the ghost had known the person when he was alive as well.”

      And Dr. Goodacre replied:

      “And that’s the case with everyone in 1 Cor. 15 bar the ‘untimely born’ Paul, right?”

      It seemed clear that your statement about the “proximity in time” and witnesses having “known the person when he was alive and well” was directly correlated to Goodacre’s appeal to “untimely born.”

      So according to Goodacre everyone in the list of witnesses “bar” Paul had witnessed Jesus before Paul and they had seen Jesus while he was alive and walking the earth. Can we really get all of that information out of 1 Cor. 15?

      Vinny: All I think he really claims is that Paul is using the phrase to differentiate himself from the other appearance witnesses.

      But what is it that differentiates Paul from the others? It’s clear from the context that Goodacre means that they knew Jesus pre-crucifixion and they saw the risen Jesus before Paul did.

      • vinnyjh57
        2012-06-13 02:25:42 UTC - 02:25 | Permalink

        If I understand the passage correctly (which is a very big if), the chronological order of the appearances is there regardless of whether Paul intends ektroma to refer to some separate theological differentiation. So I am thinking that Goodacre might have used “untimely born” simply as a handy way to invoke the chronology of the appearances as found in the passage even while knowing that ektroma communicates some theological point other than that chronology. I’m not really sure either way, but I think I would give him the benefit of the doubt absent further clarification..

        • 2012-06-13 02:36:21 UTC - 02:36 | Permalink

          That reminds me of a JBL article (or was it two) about the 500 witnesses and whether that refers to Pentecost. There are problems, of course, with the fact that this was a post-ascension event, and is not described in Acts as a christophany.

          It’s interesting how the writers of the NT diverge so greatly in their description of events after the resurrection. It’s almost as if they’re making it up…

          • vinnyjh57
            2012-06-13 03:05:20 UTC - 03:05 | Permalink

            Oh c’mon! Paul practically dared the Corinthians to go check the story out for themselves. Paul never would have done that if it wasn’t true unless he was screwy or some sort of brazen liar. And we know he wasn’t those because…..because…..hmmm…..How do we know that again? Oh yeah, we know that because he seems so sincere.

            • Samphire
              2012-06-13 06:51:15 UTC - 06:51 | Permalink

              Rather than having the entire Corinthian congregation charter a plane to Jerusalem to check out the truth of Paul’s preaching one or two of the apostles or the 500 could have hiked over to Corinth for a few days to give their eye witness evidence. But, contrary to Jesus’ injunction, Paul’s evidence is that the apostles seemed to have stayed in Jerusalem rather than visit these key churches. Most of them didn’t even bother to meet Paul when he visited their home town. They seem to have been very laid back about the early promulgation of the new religion.

  • 2012-06-15 06:34:14 UTC - 06:34 | Permalink

    Personally I see Paul always on the edge – and often over the edge – between a relative orthodoxy and an Idealistic/ Platonistic, matter-hating Gnosticism. Arguably in fact, he is the first famous Gnostic. (Though his overwhelmingly hyper-spiritual tentencies were to be sure, on rare occassions, reigned in by his editors).

    1) And? If Price too is right, and “ektroma” is Gnostic? And refers to the old jealous materialistic God or demiurge, who was opposed to true Spirit? Then “ekroma” might become in Paul another reference to his being mere, lowly, corrupted material matter or “flesh.” And therefore? So that Jesus appeared to Paul’s merely lowly fleshly period (when he was still Saul, etc.). And therefore? That appearance therefore it was likely NOT a valid appearance. Being perceived – and likely distorted – by Paul’s mere unreliable “flesh.”

    2) Or? If the passage is not spiritual/gnostic, or for other reasons does simply mean “untimely born”? Even this reading also suggests that Jesus was not perceived properly; Jesus was perceived by Paul – who was however not quite in the right time, to really see him.

    In both cases, note, the perception of Jesus/Christ by Paul, note, appears under a cloud, and in unreliable circumstances. According to Paul, himself.

  • L.W.
    2012-06-16 17:50:17 UTC - 17:50 | Permalink

    In verse 9 Paul states -” For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

    Paul seems to differentiate himself only by the fact that he once persecuted the church of God. He doesn’t seem to be making a distinction between his “appearances” of Jesus and the other apostles.

    • 2012-06-17 03:43:50 UTC - 03:43 | Permalink

      Nope. Paul constantly qualifies and differentiates his status both as an apostle – and his perception of Christ.

      1) Paul noting at least once for example, not only that he might not even deserve the tite of “apostle.”

      2) Then too he noted also that he was “born out of time” to see Christ; and?

      3) That his peception of Jesus was a “vision,” and/or a “voice,” on the road to Damascus.

      While 4) Paul also made countless other distinctions, between his “spiritual” Christianity, and Judaism and its “law” of the “flesh.” Distinctions that Jesus did not make as vividly as Paul.

      • 2012-06-17 03:51:50 UTC - 03:51 | Permalink

        brettongarcia: “. . . Then too he noted also that he was ‘born out of time’ to see Christ . . .”

        It’s almost as if you didn’t even read the above discussion about what ektroma means.

        brettongarcia: “. . . on the road to Damascus.”

        We shouldn’t read Acts into the Epistles.

        • 2012-06-17 05:11:46 UTC - 05:11 | Permalink

          Both Neil and I normally agree much of the time, and in the essentials. And in the present post we agree on perhaps the most important point or conclusion: that Paul was flawe, in many ways. Specifically his witnesses to Jesus or Christ, were rather different from other apostles. Perhaps his perceptions of Christ were especially flawed in some ways too. Often in effect, by Paul’s own admission.

          Regarding the meaning of “ektroma” specifically? To be sure, for various reasons – in part just for the sake of conventionality – I’m going here with a conventional reading of “ektroma,” as meaning simply “born outside” the best time. But note that BOTH translations – either Neil’s, and/or the traditional one – Paul’s witness is under a cloud, under suspicion, according to Paul’s own testimony. Paul in this case admitting that his witness to Christ is in some way, not quite right; that he himself was flawed, and was not quite in the right time to be an eyewitness to the first coming of Christ in person, it seems. For instance.

          As for bringing in Paul hearing or seeing Christ in a “voice” or “vision” in Acts? For various reasons too complicated to explain here, I do not follow the all-too-common shibboleth that we must absolutely divorce the account of Paul in his letters, from the Paul of Acts. And/or that we must simply reject Acts entirely, and its account of Paul. In fact, there is some overlap here: Paul refers briefly, even in his own epistles, to perceiving Christ. And he does so iin rather different language that one would use to describe seeing a live, physical person standing in front of you; in a way very different from the ostensible “eyewitness” perspective that we see in the gospels.

          Paul in fact, very often differentiated his view of things, from the earlier Twelve apostles. Including for example, the time he publically rebuked Peter, and called him a “hypocrite,” or “insincere,” for refusing to admit non-Jews to table fellowship (/communion?). At the same time,though, Paul did not always assert his own superiority in his own view. Which he often pointededly qualified as being subjective; “for me.” At times, he even confessed that he himself was not yet “perfect,” and so forth.

          So? However you translate “ektroma”? Either as “out of time,” or simply a “miscarried fetus”? In either case, when either one is added to the rest of Paul? We begin to see a rather all-too-imperfect Paul emerging; even according to his own description(s) of himself.

          • 2012-06-17 07:03:11 UTC - 07:03 | Permalink

            Just to point out that the post here is not mine — Tim Widowfield is the author.

      • L.W.
        2012-06-17 15:30:10 UTC - 15:30 | Permalink

        @brettongarcia

        You make assertions but offer no evidence to support a single one of them. Paul does not distinguish between himself and the other apostles when it comes to authority.

        • 2012-06-17 17:51:08 UTC - 17:51 | Permalink

          Does Paul not distinguish between himself and the apostles, when it comes to authority? Actually, Paul waffles back and forth on this, continually. He constantly talks about his status, relative to other apostles. And remember that logically, being a better or worse apostle than others, in effect, denotes his authority relative to them.

          But what does Paul finally say about his status, relative to other apostles? He goes back and forth, continually. At times 1) he calls himself not worthy to be an apostle at all; other times, 2) he says he is “not inferior” to other “superlative” apostles; other times 3) he calls them merely “reputed” pillars. While 4) he very, very directly and strongly, corrects Peter, on the matter of dining with gentiles. So that he discusses his relation with/comparison to other apostles over and over. While 5) they in turn distinguish him: as the apostle who does not teach Jews in Jerusalem; but who is invited to leave town, and be the apostle “to the Gentiles.” Which 6) Paul accepts.

          In all these comparisons and more, to be sure, it may be that Paul is not set definitely above (or below) the others. Though 7) the Catholic Church seemed to give priority to Peter (in spite of Paul finding errors in him). Though interestingly, 8) Paul was to go on to write the vast bulk of the New Testament; 14 of its 27 books are at least attributed to him.

          More than half of the New Testament was written by/attributed to, Paul. Which would seem to give him, practically speaking, some very considerable authority. But was that authority ever explicit? Especially, was he ever explicitly set above the others? That is harder to say.

          Interestingly, Paul often modestly indicated flaws in himself. Including perhaps the moment here, which is your particular interest in this post: Paul confessing he was born out of time. Or that he was an aborted or miscarried fetus.

          To be sure though? A concordance shows that there are a hundred references to being “out of time” or untimely in the Bible, Old and New. And some are considered positive. Jesus himself is said to come in an unexpected or untimely or inconvenient moment.

          Here, an even closer or broader look at the meaning of “untimely” etc., might help? Does it refer only to miscarried fetuses? What other meanings are there? what is the literal meaning of say, “Ek-troma”?

  • 2012-06-19 06:47:38 UTC - 06:47 | Permalink

    Paul is simply reacting to the historical fact that he has no legitimate claim to the eyewitness apostolic status which the disciples had which made them our sole apostolic witness to Jesus. This was Paul;s authority failure which he could never overcome – his abiding envy.

    • 2012-06-21 01:55:25 UTC - 01:55 | Permalink

      But in addition? Since Paul was 1) not an eyewithess, and 2) perhaps envious of others? These two facts in turn suggest that 3) likely Paul’s testimony is not entirely reliable.

      So that? 4) In a sense both Paul 5) and his testimony, were “miscarriages.”

  • 2012-06-24 11:44:32 UTC - 11:44 | Permalink

    James M. Robinson: Paul not a witness to the man Jesus. “The Jesus of the Apostles Creed which has turned out not to be a text Jesus taught his disciples, but rather based on the baptismal confession developed in Rome in the Second Century. In that familiar creed Jesus’ own history, what he himself said and did during his lifetime, is fully bypassed. Not what he said and did, but what they said about him. Has Paul’s kerugma of cross and resurrection, which is what lies behind the Creed, really said everything that we want to know about Jesus? Although Paul is our oldest source, yet Paul himself had not met the historical Jesus. Paul knew very few of the sayings of Jesus, and did not have a kind of religiousity, much less theology, built on Jesus sayings, and even argues that this is not necessary (1 Cor. 5:16), so as to say he is in no regard less qualified then Jesus own disciples.”

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