Thursday, 19 November 2009

Sarx - Flesh or Sinful Nature?

I am neither a C1 Greek scholar, nor the son of a Greek scholar, so when it comes to NT bible translation issues, I completely at the mercy of the translators. One issue that has kept me awake at night is how different translations render the Greek word sarx (lit. flesh).

Now according to Doug Moo, in The Challenge of Bible Translation, sarx has a range of meanings depending on the context. I'm more interested in how to translate it in instances when the NIV renders it 'sinful nature'. Many Greek scholars are unhappy with this kind of rendering (including Moo himself). Moo, in the aforementioned publication, mentions James D.G. Dunn:
He [Dunn] argues that the meanings of sarx in Paul do not fall into separate, watertight categories but occupy a spectrum of meaning. In contrast to scholars who suggest that Paul may have derived his more neutral sense of sarx from the Old Testament and the Jewish world and the more negative sense from the Greek world, Dunn, along with many others before him, traces the spectrum o Paul's usage to the Hebrew basar, with its sense of "human mortality." One implication of this conclusion is that a certain negative nuance often clings to sarx, even when Paul uses it in apparently neutral senses. (p369)

Most of the scholars who have protested against the NIV/TNIV rendering "sinful nature" would probably agree with James D.G. Dunn: "A much more satisfactory rule of translation would be to recognise that sarx is an important and technical linking term in Paul's letters and is therefore best translated consistently by the same term, 'flesh.'" (p374)
I am sympathetic to this view. One need only see what is lost to TNIV readers when they compare Romans 8:1-4 with the ESV/NRSV/NASB/HCSB in this regard. Nevertheless, more often than not, when I hear preachers teaching from a formal translation and they come to the word 'flesh' they end up explaining it using 'sinful nature' type language. For example, Hywel R. Jones in his article 'Justification by Faith Alone' in the magnificent 'Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry' says:
What is flesh? The term has more than a physical connotation in Scripture. It is more than a body....It is..associated with deeds and words of the body but also with its "desires," even strong ones (Gal. 5:16-17, 24). Flesh is therefore the unrenewed nature of the justified believer. (p303)
So perhaps for readability and comprehension, "sinful nature" ain't too bad. Yet re-reading Jones' quote leaves one with the impression that perhaps the "sinful nature" language fails to encompass that sarx means much more than strong desire, but also includes the idea of a mortal body. Hmm.

1 comment:

John Thomson said...


Enjoyable blog.

Flesh seems to refer to the sinful nature, the unfallen nature of Christ (Jn 1:14;Roms 8)and is used too of Christ in resurrection - his new body though spirit-energized is still flesh and bone (Lk 24). Yet, intriguingly his his heavenly life is contrasted with his earthly - these were 'the days of his flesh' (Hebs 4).

Flesh and spirit seem to be regularly contrasted. Christ put to death in the flesh and vindicated in the Spirit. Plus the clear distinction in Roms 8.

It would appear that 'flesh' is humanity in the weakness and mortality of first creation and humanity in rebellion in fallen creation. A bit like my comments on transforming culture.

Spirit is the essential feature of new creation, yet it does not mean non-physical or non-flesh and blood but flesh with different capacities from first creation - for both Christ and us. Christ's body could die; now he lives in the power of an unending life.

These are rushed comments and may well be wrong. Any comments valued.