Lost in translation
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.
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).
- 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.“
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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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