In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul launches into an extended discussion on the resurrection of the Christian faithful at the end of the present age. Some of the Corinthians objected to Paul’s teaching about the resurrection, saying “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (1 Cor. 15:35 NRSV). Paul begins his explanation by comparing human resurrection to planting seeds. A seed dies, is planted in the ground, and breaks forth into a new and different kind of life. In verses 42-49, he contrasts the type of body that will be buried in death with the new body that will be raised at the end of the age. In this context, he writes verse 44:

It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. (NRSV)

The NABRE offers a similar translation:

It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one.

At first glance, it sounds like Paul envisions the resurrection as a purely spiritual experience — our physical bodies will be sown in the ground to give rise to a new, spiritual form of life. But this is probably not what Paul meant. N. T. Wright analyzes this passage in depth on pages 348-356 of The Resurrection of the Son of God.

The Greek terms that Paul is contrasting (transliterated into our alphabet) are soma psychikon and soma pneumatikon. Now, soma pneumatikon can be reasonably translated as “spiritual body”, but it seems odd to translate soma psychikon as “physical body” or even “natural body”. After all, psychikon is an adjective derived from the word psyche — the word which is commonly translated “soul” (or “life”) in English. Furthermore, Wright says that psychikon and pneumatikon are adjectives that describe what animates a thing, rather than merely its attributes or its composition. Thus, an alternate translation comes into view: It is sown as a body animated by the ordinary breath of life (or alternatively, a human soul); it is raised a body animated by the Spirit of the living God.

N. T. Wright quotes the original Jerusalem Bible as the only modern translation that truly comes to grips with the nuances of meaning in this text:

when it is sown it embodies the soul, when it is raised it embodies the spirit.

Stephen C. Barton in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible makes a similar observation: “In the present, the time between the resurrection and the parousia (“coming”) of Christ, believers are still “soulish” (cf. “soul”, psyche); they are not yet “spiritual” (cf. pneuma, “spirit”). So rather than translate as (respectively) “physical” and “spiritual” (so RSV and NRSV), which seems to reinforce precisely the dichotomy which Paul is trying to move beyond, some other way of signifying the difference is required.” Similar to Wright, Barton concludes by citing the Jerusalem Bible’s translation as a way of grappling with the nuance in the Greek.

2 thoughts on “Bible Study Tidbit: The Resurrection Body”

  1. Marc,
    Great Bible Study Tidbit. The tidbit led me to look a little further in how the Jerusalem Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible and the New American Bible handled 1 Corinthians 15:44. See below:

    “One does not read but one bible translation alone”
    The study of how a very difficult to understand Bible passage is handled in different Bible Translations is very much illuminated in 1 Corinthians 15:44. Without any Bible explanatory notes, and taking the passage out of context we deal with an oxymoron: “spiritual body”. That is; in the expression “spiritual body” we have something (spirit) that has no substance, while at the same time has substance (or body.)
    In the past, I have just read past this verse and have only thought that the resurrection body is different than the pre-resurrection body (Mary Magdalene and the disciples at first did not recognize the risen Jesus.) However, the Jerusalem Bible (JB) translation gives a much deeper understanding of this verse. In the notes in the JB, it acknowledges the literal translation of 1 Cor 15:44 is “physical body” and “spiritual body.” The notes go on to describe why the literal translation was not used. In the New Jerusalem Bible, the literal translation is used in the text and the notes go on to describe what it means in a similar but slightly different rationale of that which was used in the JB.
    In the New American Bible the literal translation is used but the notes reflect the sentiment of the JB translation. Those notes are quoted below.
    “* [15:42–44] The principles of qualitative difference before and after death (1 Cor 15:36–38) and of diversity on different levels of creation (1 Cor 15:39–41) are now applied to the human body. Before: a body animated by a lower, natural life-principle (psychē) and endowed with the properties of natural existence (corruptibility, lack of glory, weakness). After: a body animated by a higher life-principle (pneuma; cf. 1 Cor 15:45) and endowed with other qualities (incorruptibility, glory, power, spirituality), which are properties of God himself.”

    Some questions (mostly rhetorical) to ask regarding Bible translation:
    Is a literal translation always the most accurate?
    When does a non-literal translation transition from translation to commentary?
    Should you study (not read) a Bible without notes?
    How many Bibles do you need to study to gain the best sense of the original language in its time?
    Should we study the Bible without commentaries; and, if no, how many commentaries?

  2. Excellent questions, Jim! Thanks for sharing more info about the notes in the NABRE, JB, and NJB also. I think this is an interesting example of a case where a literal translation can indeed be less accurate than a dynamic one. I suppose the complicating factor is whether “physical body” is really the best literal translation of “soma psychikon.” N. T. Wright and Stephen Barton both suggest that a literal translation would be something like “soulish body.” That seems like a pretty far cry from “physical body.” I would have to consult with a Greek speaker to understand why the translators might have chosen “physical body” as the best rendering.

    But when it comes to the NABRE, “natural body” seems like a defensible translation, although perhaps an oversimplified interpretation. I think this definitely highlights the difficulty in trying to find an English word equivalent to a word in another language. Sometimes a word-for-word equivalent simply doesn’t exist, so a translator must resort to either the closest related word that overlaps somewhat in meaning (i.e. “natural” in the NABRE) or paraphrase the passage to convey the meaning more accurately.

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