The Ambiguity of Substantival Adjectives (1 Cor 15:53-54) – Mondays with Mounce 275
When an adjective is used as a noun, it is usually clear what it is referring to. But every once in a while the ambiguity is unclear.
Take, for example, 1 Cor 15:53. “For this corruptible (φθαρτὸν τοῦτο) must be clothed with incorruptibility (ἀφθαρσίαν), and this mortal (θνητὸν τοῦτο) must be clothed with immortality (ἀθανασίαν)” (HCSB, see also NIV, NASB). φθαρτός, ή, όν is an adjective meaning “subject to decay/destruction” (BDAG), hence perishable. The TEV moves the statement fully into the theoretical.” For what is mortal must be changed into what is immortal; what will die must be changed into what cannot die.”
If you think about it, this is simply not true. Is everything that is corruptible going to be made incorruptible when this world is destroyed and we inherit the new heavens and new earth? I hope not. Weeds? Slugs? Cauliflower? (Okay, I am not sure about slugs and cauliflower.)
It is standard practice to supply a noun to help explain substantival adjectives, and many translations supply “bodies,” both here and in the next verse. The ESV writes, “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (see also NET, NRSV, NLT). It is not clear what the KJV means with “this corruptible.”
It is also interesting to look at the next verse. The ESV shifts from supplying “body” to nothing. “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’” (so also NET; the NRSV and NLT continue to use “body”). I assume they figured that “body” would be carried over from the previous verse in the reader’s mind.
So is this a statement about theoretical realities, the incorruptible and corruptible, or is it talking about our bodies?
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language and exegesis on the ZA Blog. He is the president of BiblicalTraining.org, a ministry that creates and distributes world-class educational courses at no cost. He is also the author of numerous works including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek and a corresponding online class. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.
Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.