A Question I Was Asked:

What Did Paul Mean by His Remarks in 1 Corinthians 15:8?

I have two questions regarding 1 Corinthians 15:6-8, but mainly verse 8.

1. What did Paul mean by "last of all" He (the resurrected Jesus, that is) appeared to him?
2. What did Paul mean by the remark that he (presumably meaning Paul) was "one abnormally born"?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay, let us look at this:

6. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8. and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:6-8, NIV).

Okay, these are very good questions, perhaps with more substance to them than many initially realise. Paul is here referring to the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

1. The expression "last of all" in reference to Paul could have more than one meaning. In verse 7 Paul had just mentioned how the risen Jesus appeared to the apostles, then at the start of verse 8, Paul commences with the expression "and last of all..." Now since he had just mentioned the Apostles, Paul could well have meant that he (Paul) was the last of the Apostles to be called and chosen back in the First Century. Of this, major Bible commentator Adam Clarke wrote,

It seems that it was essential to the character of a primitive apostle that he had seen and conversed with Christ; and it is evident, from the history of Saul’s conversion, Acts 9:4-7, that Jesus Christ did appear to him; [though in a vision, and in a very dramatic encounter], and he pleaded this ever after as a proof of his call to the apostleship. (Adam Clarke Bible Commentary).

But Paul also considered himself to be the least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9) because he had persecuted the church, so perhaps he makes the "last of all" description of himself from this view, that is, from a view of humility.

Finally, Paul might simply have been referring to the time order in which Jesus appeared to people post-resurrection.

I think there could be elements of all three of these points in the words of Paul, but perhaps the second point (Paul was the least of the Apostles because he had once persecuted the church), being the strongest, but we must at once go on to the second question:

2. Why did Paul consider himself as one "abnormally born"?

Paul could have simply been pointing out that his calling was very different to the other Apostles, since he never met nor conversed with the pre-resurrection Jesus Christ. The real meaning of the Greek here is something like, 'an abortive.'

Of this, Bible commentator John Gill wrote,

Several learned interpreters think the apostle refers to a proverbial way of speaking among the common people at Rome, who used to call such supernumerary senators in the times of Augustus Caesar, who got into the senate house by favour or bribery, "abortives," they being generally very unworthy persons; and therefore [he] calls himself by this name, as being in his own opinion a supernumerary apostle, and very unworthy of that office: though others rather think that he refers to a "posthumous" birth, to one that is born after the death of his father; because that the rest of the apostles were all chosen, and called, and sent forth, whilst Christ, their everlasting Father, was living on earth, but he not till after his death, resurrection from the dead, and ascension to heaven: but it seems best to understand him of an abortion, a miscarriage, or birth before its time; and may respect either the manner of his conversion, which was done both suddenly, immediately, and at once, by a sudden light from heaven, when he little thought of it, and had no expectation of it. (John Gill Bible Commentary).

We should perhaps define the word "supernumerary" which Gill uses here since it's use has now virtually disappeared from the English language. 'Supernumerary' is something of a put-down. It can mean an actor employed who does not actually have to speak, a person not on the regular staff but employed for extra work, maybe something which goes beyond what is necessary, or something of little merit or substance.

I have to say that the John Gill explanation seems to be a pretty sound explanation of the expression which Paul uses; it is a remark of humility, something typical of Paul; Paul sometimes wondered if he wasn't indeed the 'least of the Apostles,' though today many of us would consider him, perhaps, the major Apostle because of his additional responsibility in taking the Gospel to the Gentile world. Let us not forget that it the Gospel to the Gentiles - and Paul was obviously granted overall responsibility for that - that was to be preached to all the world, especially post AD 70.

Robin A. Brace. June 17th, 2017.