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Paul delivers his famous account of the death and resurrection of Jesus:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.—1 Corinthians 15:3-9 (ESV)

His description of himself is that he is one untimely born, which in Greek is ektroma <1626>. The literal definition of the word is "an abortion, abortive birth". The secondary definition, by analogy, is "an untimely birth". Virtually all translations use the less vivid translation, though the Aramaic Bible in Plain English, GOD'S WORD® Translation, and Darby Bible Translation do use some variation of the first sense.

Which translation best fits Paul's intended meaning here?

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2 Answers 2

The Greek noun ἔκτρωμα occurs three times in the LXX. (Please click here.) In one instance, the wider context appears to be in reference to defiance of the authority of God.

In Numbers 12:12, Miriam is struck with leprosy because of her defiance of the authority of Moses; in fact, Miriam had arrogated herself the title of spokesperson of the Lord on par with Moses (Nu 12:2). When Aaron noticed her with leprosy, he described her as the living dead.

Numbers 12:12 (LXX)
12 μὴ γένηται ὡσεὶ ἴσον θανάτῳ, ὡσεὶ ἔκτρωμα ἐκπορευόμενον ἐκ μήτρας μητρὸς καὶ κατεσθίει τὸ ἥμισυ τῶν σαρκῶν αὐτῆς.

Miriam was not on par with Moses, but on par with someone dead ("...ὡσεὶ ἴσον θανάτῳ..."). In the Masoretic Text we see the Hebrew word is the participial form of מוּת in the Qal (active), but the participle is in the masculine singular. (Please click here for the expanded analysis.) According to Walte and O'Connor (1990), this structure is indicative of the "predicate participle," or what we would call in Modern English the future progressive participle, since the participle occurs in tandem with the Qal imperfect of הָיָה. (Please click here in Google Chrome for best results.) In other words, Aaron was stating that Miriam "will be like the living dead (i.e., leper), whose flesh is comparable to the stillborn child."

Thus the LXX translators used the Greek word ἔκτρωμα to refer to a living human (Miriam), who was like the "living dead." The word ἔκτρωμα was therefore used to refer to the living dead, because the remainder of the verse in Hebrew makes allusion to the stillborn child.

So in summary, in the LXX there is at least one example of the use of ἔκτρωμα to refer to the person who is still living, but "as the living dead."

In conclusion, Paul had made reference to himself as one who was born dead (ἔκτρωμα), since he had defied the authority of Jesus Christ and tried to destroy the church of God (1 Cor 15:9). Like Miriam he took his pharisaical authority to be on par with Moses. After his conversion he was viewed as a leper among the believers of Jesus Christ--that is, they mistrusted and excluded him (Acts 9:26), and, like the leper Miriam who spent time in the wilderness apart from the Congregation of Israel (Nu 12:14-15), Paul too spent time in exile in the wilderness of Arabia (Gal 1:17).

We could therefore translate the verse in question in loose, but amplified form, as follows:

8 and last of all, as to one born a leper, He appeared to me also.

REFERENCE:
Walke, Bruce K. and M. O'Connor (1990). An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake: Eisnebrauns, 628.

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We know exactly what Paul meant by the word because he immediately explains it:

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.—1 Corinthians 15:9 (ESV)

Therefore Paul means us to understand that when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9), he was not worthy to be called an apostle. Thus he is not claiming to be the victim of an abortion in any literal sense; he must be speaking metaphorically. Of course, the phrase in verse 8 makes clear via the word "as" that a simile is intended. So it would probably be best if the non-metaphorical meaning were used to bring out Paul's full meaning.

An "untimely birth" sounds like Paul was "born under a bad sign" or doomed by fate. Those make some sense as analogies to one who is unworthy. But the context of the entire chapter is resurrection: rebirth. Paul's former life was a dead end, so to speak, and so it makes even more sense to call himself "stillborn" or even "an abortion". When Paul talks about his former life, he talks about being spiritually dead.

Paul actually talks about himself being fortunate at birth from a post-conversion vantage point:

But when he who had set me apart before I was born*, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone.—Galatians 1:15-16 (ESV)

The ESV note is:

Greek set me apart from my mother's womb

The maximal contrast between Paul's old life and his new one, comes when you compare his self-designation as an aborted fetus to the resurrection body:

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
—1 Corinthians 15:53-55 (ESV)


According to Barnes' Notes on the Bible, the Greek word is used in the Septuagint to translate "stillborn" (nephel <05309>) in Job 3:16 (NJPS):

Or why was I not like a buried stillbirth,
Like babies who never saw the light?

and Ecclesiastes 6:3 (NJPS)

Even if a man should beget a hundred children and live many years—no matter how many the days of his years may come to, if his gullet is not sated through his wealth, I say: The stillbirth, though it was not even accorded a burial, is more fortunate than he.

Both of these use strong imagery to highlight the unworthiness and misfortune of the subject.

Summary

Translators should not shy away from vivid, even disturbing, images when rendering the Bible to a target language. The word ektroma should be translated "an abortion" in 1st Corinthians 15:8.

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