What did the apostle Paul mean when he referred to himself as “one born prematurely”? (1 Corinthians 15:8)
According to 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul stated: “Last of all he appeared also to me as if to one born prematurely.” In the past, we have explained that Paul was apparently referring to his own experience when he had a vision of Jesus in heavenly glory. It was as if he had been granted the honor of being born, or resurrected, to spirit life ahead of time, centuries before that type of resurrection was to occur. However, further study of this verse points to a need to adjust the explanation of this verse.
It is true that Paul is here referring to what happened at his conversion. But what did he mean when he said that he was “born prematurely”? There are several possibilities.
His conversion was abrupt and traumatic. A premature birth often comes as a surprise. As Saul (who later became known as Paul) traveled to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, he was not expecting to see a vision of the resurrected Jesus. Paul’s conversion was a surprise not only to him but also to the Christians whom he was planning to terrorize in that city. Additionally, this experience was so traumatic that he temporarily lost his sight.—Acts 9:1-9, 17-19.
He was converted at “the wrong time.” The original Greek word translated “one born prematurely” can also be rendered “one born at the wrong time.” The Jerusalem Bible puts it this way: “It was as though I was born when no one expected it.” By the time of Paul’s conversion, Jesus had already returned to heaven. Unlike those whom Paul had referred to in the preceding verses, he had not seen the resurrected Jesus prior to his ascension to heaven. (1 Cor. 15:4-8) Jesus’ unexpected appearance to Paul granted him that opportunity, even though it seemed to be at “the wrong time.”
He was speaking of himself in a modest way. According to some scholars, the expression Paul uses here can have a derogatory connotation. If Paul had that in mind, he was acknowledging that he did not deserve the privilege he was given. In fact, he went on to say: “I am the least of the apostles, and I am not worthy of being called an apostle, because I persecuted the congregation of God. But by God’s undeserved kindness I am what I am.”—1 Cor. 15:9, 10.
Consequently, it seems that Paul could have been referring to the unexpected and abrupt manner in which Jesus appeared to him, the untimeliness of his conversion, or the fact that he was spiritually unworthy to have such an amazing revelation. Whatever the case, Paul clearly treasured this experience. It proved to him beyond a doubt that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. No wonder he often referred to this untimely experience when preaching to others about Jesus’ resurrection.—Acts 22:6-11; 26:13-18.