In the course of preparing for their Greek finals I have received a number of wonderful questions from students about this or that passage of Scripture. And since Nick Batzig has been hounding me for over a year to include some kind of Greek exegetical comment on my blog, I thought it might be appropriate to share one with you, though it is a significant departure from my usual posts (I really try to steer clear of theological stuff here).
The question revolves around translating 1 Cor 15:26:
ἔσχατος ἐχθρὸς καταργεῖται ὁ θάνατος
Don’t let the brevity fool you. I found it very difficult to bring out the force of this in sensible English. The Greek syntax actually made me teer up a little. Here are some considerations.
- The position of ὁ θάνατος makes it difficult to bring out the “surprise” of the passage. It is appositional with ἔσχατος ἐχθρὸς: “the last enemy… namely, death.” Translating as appositional in English seems overly formal to me, though. Paul makes his point with a bit of rhetorical flair, a flair that is removed in the “literal” English.
- The verb καταργεῖται is both passive and progressive. The combination makes translation difficult, but the big problem is the force of the progressive. Most English versions regard it as futuristic, which would indicate the surety of the outcome described. I think it better to regard it as having a durative or tendential force.
- Futuristic idea: either “the last enemy to be destroyed” (most translations) or “the last enemy that will surely be destroyed is death” (focuses on the surety of a future outcome). This is possible, but it is not the best explanation. Remember we are driving to a main point in all this discussion of resurrection: the (present!) stinglessness of death (1 Cor 15:55-6).
- Tendential idea: “the last enemy is being destroyed” (that is, Christ is currently in the business now of destroying this enemy). This is my preference. See Thiselton’s 1 Cor commentary, p1234. The difficulty here is the passive. It’s really difficult to get (1) the tendential idea, (2) the passive idea, and (3) the pithiness all in one go.
- Durative idea: “the last enemy has begun to be destroyed” (that is, Christ began destroying this enemy in the past and continues to do so. This is possible, but durative progressives are usually associated with a temporal adverbial clause, which we don’t have here.
- Paul is all over the temporal and aspectual map in this section (1 Cor 15:23-28); progressives are bracketed by Aorists, which in turn are bracketed by progressives again. The whole constitutes a redemptive-historical description of the resurrection. We start with the broadest eschatological orientation: ἀπαρχὴ Χριστός, ἔπειτα οἱ τοῦ Χριστοῦ (15:23). One resurrection harvest in two parts (see Gaffin). So Christ’s resurrection starts the process, and the whole thing will be completed when his many sons (Genitive of relationship) will be raised ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ αὐτοῦ (temporal prepositional phrase (“when”) with a subject Genitive (“when he comes”). Within these two bookends we have a whole slew of activity, described with whole slew of progressives and Aorists and related temporal conjunctions, all of which is then described under the umbrella of Jesus’ βασιλείν. Sorting when each activity occurs can be difficult, and goes beyond the abilities of what started out as a simple post.
So the question is: can we bring all this content out with the same economy and forcefulness of Paul’s original? Here are my attempts at a translation.
Respecting the passive, though adding an adverb to bring out the tendential/durative force:
“Death, the last enemy, is already being destroyed.”
Or, avoiding the passive for the sake of clarity (our little girl has made me appreciate the NLT more than I had in the past):
“Christ is already destroying death, the very last enemy.”
“Christ has already begun to destroy the last enemy, death.”
All of these are significant syntactic departures from the original, though.
In any case, here is my (loose, preliminary) translation of the entire passage, 1 Cor 15:22-27a:
ὥσπερ γὰρ ἐν τῷ Ἀδὰμ πάντες ἀποθνῄσκουσιν, οὕτως καὶ ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ πάντες ζῳοποιηθήσονται. Ἕκαστος δὲ ἐν τῷ ἰδίῳ τάγματι· ἀπαρχὴ Χριστός, ἔπειτα οἱ τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ αὐτοῦ, εἶτα τὸ τέλος, ὅταν παραδιδῷ τὴν βασιλείαν τῷ θεῷ καὶ πατρί, ὅταν καταργήσῃ πᾶσαν ἀρχὴν καὶ πᾶσαν ἐξουσίαν καὶ δύναμιν. δεῖ γὰρ αὐτὸν βασιλεύειν ἄχρι οὗ θῇ πάντας τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ. ἔσχατος ἐχθρὸς καταργεῖται ὁ θάνατος· πάντα γὰρ ὑπέταξεν ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ.
For just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in its own proper order. Christ as firstfruits, then those who are sons and daughters of Christ when he comes, then the end, when he will hand over the kingdom to His God and Father, after he has destroyed ever authority and power. For it is necessary for him to continue to rule until every enemy has been placed under his feet. The Last Enemy, Death, is already being destroyed, for all things have been placed under his feet.
What do y’all think?
Oh, and I have found Thiselton’s commentary on 1 Corinthians to be a very helpful handling of the Greek text. He consistently appeals to Paul’s overarching theology in its eschatological/redemptive-historical emphasis.