Of “Physical” and “Spiritual” Bodies

blue cross2Those of you participating in the 90 Day New Testament Reading Plan, recently read 1 Corinthians 15.44a. The NRSV translation of 1 Corinthians 15.44a reads as follows: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” That would seem to undermine the argument I made in a recent sermon about “incorruptible physicality.” However closer study shows that this is not the case, indeed the whole tenor of Paul’s larger argument reinforces my point.

I’ll try to keep this explanation brief. Biblical Scholar N. T. Wright makes the point that we refer to wooden ships, iron ships, sailing ships, and steam ships. In the first two cases we speak of the material the ship is made of, in the latter two we speak of what it is powered by. The same distinction can be made concerning 1 Corinthians 15.44a. The Greek word that Paul uses (translated in the NRSV as “physical”) is one that refers not to what the body is made of, but rather to what animates it. So when he speaks of physical and spiritual bodies, he’s not talking about what the bodies are made out of, but what powers them. This interpretation is supported by the fact that rest of the passage flounders under a “made of” interpretation but flourishes under a “powered by” interpretation.

In summary the phrases “physical body” and “spiritual body” would be more clearly translated “nature animated” or “spirit animated.” Wright uses those phrases elsewhere in his translation of this chapter. I prefer them to the accurate, but more awkward phrases “the embodiment of ordinary nature” and “the embodiment of the spirit” that he uses for this verse.

Sources: Surprised by Hope and The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation both by N. T. Wright.