Posted by: mattcolvin | January 25, 2012

“Sown a Natural Body”?

Thursday of the third week in Epiphany: 1 Corinthians 15:35-49.

I’ve been correcting my students’ NKJV Bibles’ translation on this passage for years now. It’s all in N.T. Wright, and it’s amazing to me that there hasn’t been an outcry about how the usual translation makes utter nonsense of Paul’s argument.

Here’s the NKJV:

42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. 45 And so it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

46 However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven.

Now, there is a perfectly good Greek word for “natural”: φυσικός. Paul does not use it. Why? Because he is not contrasting “natural” with “supernatural” or “unnatural.” Rather, he is contrasting the invincible animating power of the resurrected Christ — a power that will make our bodies live forever — with the hopelessly doomed impotence of the souls we have received by natural descent from Adam. For the Greek is not “a natural body” (σῶμα φυσικός) but “a soul-filled body” (σῶμα ψυχικόν). The adjective derives from the word for “soul” (ψύχη), not the word for “nature” (φύσις). By any standard, the translation has to be considered objectively incorrect and misleading.

It also destroys our ability to follow Paul’s argument. And this destruction is compounded by the translators’ unaccountable decision to render the word ψύχη ζῶσα in 15:45 as “a living being.” Again, Greek has a perfectly good word for “being” (ο­ὐσία), and Paul did not use it. He used ψυχή, the word for “soul.”

The reference is to Genesis 2:7:

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Hebrew: nephesh).

(The NKJV has also done a poor job on Genesis 2:7, since the Hebrew nephesh does not normally mean “being” any more than the Greek ψυχή.)

With both errors corrected, Paul’s argument suddenly snaps into focus: the soul (ψυχή) that makes your body alive is derived from Adam, who became a living soul when God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. That soul is doomed to die, as Paul proves by calling it χωικος, “dusty”, from the dust: “dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Thus, without a new source of life, the only possible destination is the grave. If you are to live eternally, you will need to have a new source of life, namely, Christ, who has become a life-giving Spirit.

I’ve suggested before that understanding this argument helps us account for how it is that Adam’s sin is imputed to us. It is not a matter of mere legal fiction, arbitrary fiat, or heredity. Rather, there is a very real sense in which the very life-breath that animates our bodies just is that same Adamic soul that sinned. Adam is in us, and we need to get rid of him. He needs to be replaced with Christ.

Not a body made alive by a ψυχή!

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