‘Flesh’ Beats ‘Sinful Nature’ for Clarity

I am almost persuaded by John Richardson the Ugley Vicar’s argument that “flesh” is a better rendering of sarx than “sinful nature”, in Romans 8. It’s a shame John didn’t realise that the NIV translation team now agrees with him. But I do also see problems with the “flesh” rendering.

16 Comments

  1. aubee91
    Posted August 2, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    The NIV still renders sarx as sinful nature in Romans 7:18 and 7:25, right? Jason Staples has discussed this here:

    http://www.jasonstaples.com/blog/2009/the-sinful-nature-translation-dilemma-and-the-upcoming-niv-revision-23

    I am more than almost persuaded that Jason and John are correct. Sarx probably never means sinful nature. Flesh may not be an ideal translation, but it is far, far better than sinful nature.

  2. Posted August 2, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Aubee91, you are correct about Romans 7:18,25, to my surprise. I have no idea why, and at a quick glance it seems to destroy an important conceptual link between chapters 7 and 8.

    I agree in having serious theological reservations about the rendering “sinful nature”. The problem is that I also have serious difficulties, of a more practical nature, with the rendering “flesh”.

  3. Mike Sangrey
    Posted August 2, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion, with σάρξ (SARX), we are stumbling over two things: 1. We’re dealing with a ‘body part idiom’, and 2. the idiom refers to something within a foreign (to us) psychological system.

    For the first, we need to accept that we shouldn’t translate the term literally. We don’t translate κλείσῃ τὰ σπλάγχνα αὐτοῦ (KLEISH TA SPLAGXNA) as “stop up his bowel” (which sounds to me like self-inflicted constipation). We translate the meaning, which has more to do with “withholding his offer of kind consideration.” The way toward a solution for translating σάρξ really should not be any different.

    For the second things get much more difficult. Our English language doesn’t partition or segment a human being, or even an aspect of being human, into these two parts. The other part, the non-SARX part, would be πνεῦμα (PNEUMA, or ‘spirit’).

    I think this lack in our language is one of the key drivers in the discussions. That is, the discussion automatically defaults to a religious one where SARX and PNEUMA must take on theological meaning. The meaning of SARX, from this viewpoint, must be theological.

    The discussion does this because it can’t go outside of the religious realm and easily and efficiently use English to discuss the topic of human nature. The English constructs available are things like ‘reason’ and ‘emotion’, ‘ego’ and ‘id’, those sorts of segmentation models of the human being. But none of those systems are the equivalent of the one presented particularly in the New Testament.

  4. Posted August 3, 2013 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Mike, I agree with you. But I think John R’s point ties up with that, that the “sinful nature” rendering is not a very good reflection of the New Testament system of dividing up the person. John’s point is that “flesh” and “spirit” capture one of the most important contrasts here, between sarx as mortal and pneuma as immortal. Perhaps “body” would be better than “flesh” because a body can be thought of as an independent actor. Or is even that Christian jargon? Actually I think one of the serious problems with today’s society is that the actions and lusts of the body, the flesh, are not distinguished from the desires of the real person, but to discuss that would take us far from the subject of Bible translation.

  5. Posted August 3, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    correct about Romans 7:18,25, to my surprise. I have no idea why

    The Pauline comparison/contrast in 7:17 and 7:18 (an appositive of sorts) is

    ἡ οἰκοῦσα ἐν ἐμοὶ ἁμαρτία

    οἰκεῖ ἐν … τῇ σαρκί μου

    “hamartia” and “sarki” can be read as Pauline equivalents.

    In 7:25 the comparison/contrast is

    τῷ … νοῒ δουλεύω νόμῳ θεοῦ

    τῇ … σαρκὶ νόμῳ ἁμαρτίας

    “noi” and “sarki” can be read as in competition around “nomo Theu” and “nomo hamartias”

    John Richardson’s translation “clarity” from the contrasts/comparisons between “sarka/sarkos/sarki” and “pneuma/pneumatos/pneumati” (in 8:5 and following) only comes after the earlier Pauline wordplays.

    The big big change is, in my opinion, in 8:1 and explicitly then in 8:3 and 8:4. There’s this tremendously difficult contrast/comparison:

    ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ

    ἐν ὁμοιώματι σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας

    The Pauline Greek makes “Christo Iesou” become “sarkos” or at the very least, in the fashion of what we call a simile, something “like” sarkos hamartias.

    It seems that Paul would like his reader to acknowledge how he uses some of the same phrases to make new meanings. How does an English translator render that, if this is the case? Is it “flesh” v “sin” then “flesh” v “mind,” then “flesh” v “spirit” after “Christ Jesus” is “flesh sin-like”? Isn’t there a development and a nuance of contrasts and comparisons to make meanings? Doesn’t the best translator try to show these stable phrases and changing meanings?

  6. Posted August 3, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    On the various meanings of “sarx,” there’s a very helpful little book by Ernest DeWitt Burton:

    Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: The Usage of Pneuma, Psychē and Sarx in Greek Writings and Translated Works from the Earliest Period to 225 A.D. ; and of Their Equivalents Ruaḥ, Nefesh and Baśar in the Hebrew Old Testament

    It’s available as a free ebook here:

    https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=bg9FAAAAYAAJ

  7. Posted August 3, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Kurk, thank you. Yes, it is instructive to see how sarx contrasts with a range of other words in Romans – but we don’t want to get too theological here. Leaving aside the rather odd 6:19, the first use of sarx in the sense in question is in 7:5 where there is a clear link with hamartia “sin” and with the law (nomos, gramma), and a distinction from the newness of the pneuma “S/spirit” (7:6).

    Paul then, in a long aside with no mention of Christ or the S/spirit (7:7-24), takes pains to distinguish between the law and sin. In 7:7-13 it is clear that he is talking about before he was a Christian. But there seems to me a serious difficulty in 7:14. What does Paul mean when he says that he is (present tense) sarkinos and “sold under sin” – in a verse where now the law is pneumatikos? Is he still referring to his pre-conversion state, in 7:14-24, despite the verb tenses? Many think so, including me. In any case sarx in 7:18 ties up with this: the “flesh” is seen as the dwelling place of sin (7:17,20). But perhaps sarx here simply means “body”, alluding to sexual passions; this is most likely how the word “flesh” would be understood in this context, in an English version.

    Then in 7:25 Christ returns to the picture, and we return to a similar contrast to 7:5-6, but with nous (“mind”, but not the same word as in 8:5-7) somewhat surprisingly taking the place of pneuma. Does this represent a stage of Christian conversion, an understanding of what Christ has done before moving on to the freedom of life in the Spirit (8:2)? Then in 8:3 we have an explanation where “flesh” works very well, referring to the body of the incarnate Jesus.

    Then follows a whole series of occurrences where sarx contrasts with pneuma, the same contrast as in 7:5-6. Now being in the sarx is seen as something alien to the Christian life (and 7:14,18 must be read in the light of this). This “flesh” is clearly understood as sinful, as made explicit in 8:3.

    So what does this mean for translation? It depends on the intended style. But I think that in a version intended for an educated audience, like NIV, I would go for “flesh” consistently in these two chapters, although I do see a potential misunderstanding in 7:14,18 which may be why NIV made a change. For a more dynamic equivalence translation intended for Christians I would look at renderings like “unspiritual nature” (used in the Jerusalem Bible). In a version avoiding Christian jargon, I’m not sure what I would put. But I think I would leave it to the context, and to the explicit statement in 8:3, to link this “flesh” with sin.

  8. Posted August 3, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Kurk, thanks for your second comment which crossed with my last one. The book you recommend would be an interesting read, but I have already spent too long on this topic for today.

  9. Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    The word sarx is among the most difficult Greek words to translate; much time is spent on it in a fabulous book called The Challenge of Bible Translation. http://www.amazon.com/Challenge-Bible-Translation-Glen-Scorgie/dp/0310246857

  10. Pastor Don
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    My question: Isn’t the goal of good Bible translation to convey the meaning of an ancient text originally written in a foreign language no longer spoken to a modern reader in their own language? If so, then in my opinion translating ‘sarx’ as ‘flesh’ is quite problematic. To me, as a modern English speaker, flesh implies a reference to my physical body. Therefore, consider this rendering: “I know that in me, that is in my physical body, there dwells nothing good.” Does that really convey the meaning intended by the author? Am I misunderstanding the issue somehow? Am I oversimplifying?

  11. Posted May 14, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Pastor Don, I agree that the rendering “flesh” is problematic, as potentially misleading. The problem is that the rendering “sinful nature” may well be just as problematic, as it is theologically misleading. Do you have any alternative suggestions for how to translate this word and concept into English?

    Sadly John Richardson is no longer with us to add any further insights.

  12. Pastor Don
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Peter Kirk: I agree that the rendering “flesh” is problematic, as potentially misleading. The problem is that the rendering “sinful nature” may well be just as problematic, as it is theologically misleading.

    My reply: Oh I agree. But as I see it, using the word ‘flesh’ for ‘sarx’ opens up a whole other can of theological worms…just as problematic if not more so. Allow me to insert a quote from one of your previous posts here:

    “Then follows a whole series of occurrences where sarx contrasts with pneuma, the same contrast as in 7:5-6. Now being in the sarx is seen as something alien to the Christian life (and 7:14,18 must be read in the light of this). This “flesh” is clearly understood as sinful, as made explicit in 8:3.”

    As you stated, sarx is seen as something alien to the Christian life. I agree totally. Therefore does it not stand to reason that sarx means something other than or much more than just the physical body? Otherwise, do we not run the risk of engendering a kind of ‘neo-gnosticism’ in which the human body in and of itself is seen as inherently evil?

    As far as ‘alternative suggestions’ are concerned…you’ve got me there. :) I always figured ‘sinful nature’ was about as close as we could get in idiomatic English. But perhaps I am wrong.

  13. Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Pastor Don, I agree that, as Paul uses the word, “sarx means something other than or much more than just the physical body”. Paul is by no means teaching neo-gnosticism, or for him it would be proto-gnosticism.

    The real issue is how to express this well in English. There are serious theological issues with “sinful nature” (NIV 1984, TNIV) and “human nature” (Good News Translation) as well as with the more literal “flesh”. The NIV translation team, among others, has been over the issues a number of times. See my earlier post NIV “flesh” or “sinful nature” and the linked article by Douglas Moo which is now here.

  14. Pastor Don
    Posted May 15, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Peter Kirk wrote: Pastor Don, I agree that, as Paul uses the word, “sarx means something other than or much more than just the physical body”. Paul is by no means teaching neo-gnosticism, or for him it would be proto-gnosticism.

    My reply: Oh no no no…please don’t misunderstand what I was trying to say. I am NOT trying to suggest that Paul was teaching a nascent form of gnosticism. Not at all. Merely that the use of ‘flesh’ to translate Paul’s words into the vernacular MIGHT lead to such thinking on the part of modern day Christians. Sorry if my poor choice of words made that confusing.

    Peter Kirk: The real issue is how to express this well in English.

    Agreed 100%.

    By the way, thanks for the link to the Moo article. I’d never seen that before. Now I have it archived. Very helpful.

  15. Dewayne Dulaney
    Posted June 27, 2014 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    A good English alternative to “flesh” for σαρξ (sarx) is “self” or “selfishness”. We all understand the contrast between “selfish” and “selfless”, the former being sinful and the latter spiritual.

    Or, if something more expanded is needed, “unspiritual self” might work.

    Gerald F. Hawthorne used “self” for sarx in his translation of Philippians for his Word Biblical Commentary volume, and I thought this was very effective and clear when it refers to human desires/acts that are sinful.
    (I have not seen the revised volume with Ralph P. Martin, so I don’t know if that choice for sarx was retained.)

    Dewayne Dulaney

  16. Posted June 28, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Dewayne, that sounds like an idea worth looking into carefully.


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