God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Sarx, Flesh, and Mismatched Metaphors

T.C. Robinson brings up the issue of sarx again. (We went through this some time ago: Peter Kirk on BBB, Doug Chaplin on Clayboy, Mark Goodacre on NT blog, Jason Staples, a short post here, and more.)

The word is a perfect follow up to our discussions earlier this and again today about metaphors. It’s pretty clear that sarx literally means “flesh.” I think the translation challenge is that the metaphoric framework of the NT uses the concept of “flesh” differently than we do now.

In our culture, “flesh” has at least three main metaphoric uses: physicality (“he’s here in the flesh”), robustness (“flesh out”), and sex (“the flesh trade”).

In the NT, and particularly as Paul uses the word, sarx has a slightly overlapping but very different metaphoric use. In his essay “Flesh” in Romans: A Challenge for the Translator (in The Challenge of Bible Translation), Dr. Douglas Moo observes that one usage out of five of the word sarx is to “designate the human condition in its fallenness.”

And there’s the rub.

The metaphoric use of “flesh” in English relies on a system of metaphor that differs significantly from the NT metaphor of “flesh.” It’s not that sarx in Greek means different things in different places, but rather, I think, that different metaphors are at work in different places, and only some of them are compatible with modern, Western ones.

Here are some questions that come to mind:

Should mastery of a new system of metaphor be required just to read the Bible? (If so, “flesh” is a fine translation of sarx. If not, “flesh” doesn’t work.) Is it possible to ingore our native system of metaphor?

Can the meaning of the text be conveyed independent of the metaphoric system that accompanies it? (If so, “sinful nature” is a fine translation.)

Or is the metaphor part of the meaning? (If so, part of the “sinful nature” concept of sarx is its connection to the flesh.)


October 29, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , ,


  1. (First of all, I should note that the link to my article on sarx is actually http://www.jasonstaples.com/blog/the-sinful-nature-translation-dilemma-and-the-upcoming-niv-revision/ — the link listed above is dead.)

    A couple things:

    1) I’m not sure Doug is right by saying that sarx means “the human condition in its fallenness,” so much as it is a straightforward way of referencing desires originating in from natural bodily drives. That is the metaphor in Greek outside the New Testament, and it seems to be the way Paul uses it.

    [digression] This hits on a pet peeve of mine: too many times “New Testament Greek” is treated as though it’s a special language in itself. Part of this is due to many (most?) NT scholars having only been trained in “New Testament Greek,” essentially learning one body of Greek literature.

    But NT Greek is only making use of the Greek language as it was spoken in that day and in those locales. All sorts of problems result from trying to understand what words mean based on their NT use alone. Words like charis and sarx had rich histories and ingrained metaphoric systems long before the NT was written. Those authors were simply using the language and metaphors available to them. [/digression]

    2) I think the biblical/Greek metaphor is still more or less active in English for the word “flesh,” largely due to the dominance of the KJV. The sexual connotation of the word (a major component of its current use) stems from the word’s metaphoric connection both with desire and the body. I don’t think translating “flesh” loses meaning simply because English speakers tend to connect that “flesh” with sexual desires more than other desires. In fact, I think the English usage is probably the result of the NT using “flesh” more in sexual contexts than in other contexts, when the word is used of specific situations. Sarx itself often had a sexual tint in Greek, anyway.

    The bottom line is that I don’t think the metaphoric systems are substantially different between the Greek “sarx” and the English “flesh.” I do think that the concept of a fallen human nature is a different concept altogether, but I don’t think that notion is present in Paul at all—that’s an Augustinian notion, not a Pauline one. That’s why I think it’s critical to translate it “flesh”—restricting the metaphor to its connection with bodily desire as is the case in the New Testament rather than forcing the reader to read the New Testament (Paul especially) through Augustinian eyes.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | October 29, 2009

    • Well said.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | January 25, 2010

  2. One more thing: Are we really to think that sarx meant “the human condition in its fallenness” in pre-Christian Greek culture? Seriously?

    This is an important question to ask, because it gets to the heart of the metaphoric capital the author is drawing upon. And isn’t the goal of translation to communicate the author’s concepts in as close to a corresponding conceptual framework as possible?

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | October 29, 2009

  3. Jason:

    1) I’m not sure Doug is right by saying that sarx means “the human condition in its fallenness,” so much as it is a straightforward way of referencing desires originating in from natural bodily drives. That is the metaphor in Greek outside the New Testament, and it seems to be the way Paul uses it.

    As it happens, I agree with you, but I also recognize that Doug Moo knows considerably more about it than I do.

    [digression] This hits on a pet peeve of mine: too many times “New Testament Greek” is treated as though it’s a special language in itself.

    In part I think it is, but only in part. I think that too often NT scholars only know about NT Greek, so they can’t incorporate the bigger picture. Equally, many Greek scholars either don’t know about the culture(s) that produced the NT or don’t talk to the NT scholars.

    The bottom line is that I don’t think the metaphoric systems are substantially different between the Greek “sarx” and the English “flesh.”

    I think they are probably more different than they seem, because our natural inclination is so superimpose our modern system on the ancient words when we read them. Then, having read them through our modern eyes, we mistakenly conclude that (NT) Greek is closer to English than it really is.

    (BTW, I fixed the link in the main post.)

    Comment by Joel H. | October 29, 2009

  4. I completely agree with the causes for the divide in Greek; I was trained in a classics department, and, as a whole, those scholars had little to no interaction with NT Greek. And since most NT scholars are trained at seminaries, they have little to no exposure to any other Greek. I’m planning on doing a post on some of the problems caused by this situation soon.

    I also agree with you that the differences are “probably more different than they seem” for the reasons you mention, but at the same time my case is that these terms specifically (thanks in large part to the KJV’s impact on the English language) are close enough that it’s not outside the reader’s capacity for comprehension.

    That being the case, I think it’s better to translate it “flesh” than to translate it with a concept completely foreign to the source text (i.e. “sinful nature” or “fallen nature”). In other words, it’s better to have a pretty close metaphor (though not necessarily an exact parallel) than one that completely distorts the meaning.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | October 29, 2009

    • While I agree that the KJV’s use of flesh makes the biblical understanding within a reader’s grasp, it will not be the first thing that springs to mind. As such, perhaps translating as flesh would be appropriate if we include a disclaimer about the biblical meaning of flesh.

      I have a policy of consulting my Septuagint lexicon even when studying books of the New Testament. It helps to see if a word is a neologism, such as katapetasma, simply to note the word’s history. Plus, one’s understanding of anachoreo in Matthew 2 is heightened when you understand that the word was first used of Moses’ flight from Pharaoh (see also Tobit 1).

      At the very least, people need some exposure to the Septuagint. Jonah is a great starting point (thought ch 2 is a bit out of whack).

      Comment by Gary Simmons | November 5, 2009

  5. (Oh, and thanks for fixing the link. My apologies for having moved some things around the last month or so.)

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | October 29, 2009

  6. Is seeing the word “flesh” in both the old and new testament as referring to human motives for actions a key way for interpretting it’s various meanings? Is it’s primary use in regard to ethics and morality that which brings conviction of imperfection in regard to ones understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Is the seems the “daily death” the Apostle Paul referred to a daily reminder of a necessary conscious act in the life of a believer? What does it mean when Paul wrote that “flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God?” What is the new body that can inherit the Kingdom of God and what is the metaphoric meaning of the kingdom in his word choice?

    Comment by Broadheart | January 25, 2010

  7. That Paul was using metaphor at all by using the word SARX is not my opinion, since he clearly uses it in parallel with the term “members”:

    Romans 7:23 But I see another law **in my members**, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of **sin which is in my members**.

    This, of course, lends a Muslim kind of spin to this:

    Mark 9:
    43 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: 44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. 45 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: 46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. 47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:

    On the other hand, Paul seems to be creating an obvious *fiction* rather than a literal accounting, since he *personifies* sin as an “evil alien” that lives in one’s members, in one’s soft tissue. He is describing the plight of the Jew in reference to the law using literary device such as:

    7 ¶ What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known [Mister] sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. 8 But [Mister] sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law [Mister] sin was dead. 9 For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, [Mister] sin revived, and I died. 10 And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. 11 For [Mister] sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. 12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. 13 Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But [Mister] sin, that it [he] might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that [Mister] sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.
    14 ¶ For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under [as a slave to Mister] sin. 15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. 16 If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. 17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but [Mister] sin that dwelleth in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. 19 For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. 20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but [Mister] sin that dwelleth in me. 21 I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of [Mister] sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of [Mister] sin.

    I think that the figures of being “sold into slavery” and “taking advantage” tip us off that he is using personification and we have to take all of this a bit with a grain of salt.

    Still, the SARX is part of the “members” where Mr. Sin lives, and not a “sinful nature” or any such thing.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 25, 2010

  8. here’s why its a nature, very simply–> He calls it another “law” at work. A law is a spiritual or at the very least non tangible force. 2ndly, if we are talking that SARX in this context (chapter 8) means physical body, then, we have a big theological problem and we become gnostic. The confusion in interpretation i think comes when we aren’t distinguishing between what is AFFECTING our physical bodies and our physical bodies themselves.

    Comment by Turin | August 26, 2012

    • For Paul, the body came from the dirt and is dirty. The material is, to his mind, flawed material.He contrasts “the principle of the flesh” with the “principle of the breath of life”… that is, the body is from the dirt, the breath comes from God. But Paul sees hope in the release from the body of flesh:

      Rom 8:20 For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
      Rom 8:21 Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
      Rom 8:22 For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.
      Rom 8:23 And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption [riddance] of our body.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | August 26, 2012

      • WoundedEgo, you seem to say that there is a Pauline dichotomy between the material body and the “breath”. However, according to Rom 8:10, if Christ is in you then the “body” is dead! So obviously, to me, it’s not referring to a material body that is made of dirt. The “body” here is a metaphor.

        Comment by Robert Kan | August 27, 2012

      • He says that the body (SWMA) becomes a corpse because of sin but because of the indwelling breath is re-animated. In other words:

        Rom 8:12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after [according to the mind of] the flesh.
        Rom 8:13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit [breath] do ***mortify the deeds of the body***, ye shall live.

        But in the end, Paul does not preach resurrection of the believer, but rather re-incarnation. No one will enter the kingdom of God in their natural body. They must have a new body that does not originate in the dirt, but rather in the sky:

        1Co 15:42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
        1Co 15:43 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:
        1Co 15:44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
        1Co 15:45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit [breath of life].
        1Co 15:46 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual.
        1Co 15:47 The first man[kind] is of the earth [dirt], earthy [dirty]: the second man[kind] is the Lord from heaven.
        1Co 15:48 As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly.
        1Co 15:49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
        1Co 15:50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
        1Co 15:51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
        1Co 15:52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
        1Co 15:53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
        1Co 15:54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

        Paul considers the flesh to be the arch-enemy of God’s breath within the believer:

        Gal 5:16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
        Gal 5:17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.
        Gal 5:18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.
        Gal 5:19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,
        Gal 5:20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,
        Gal 5:21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
        Gal 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
        Gal 5:23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
        Gal 5:24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.
        Gal 5:25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

        Paul’s hope is to be free from his vile body:

        Php 3:20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
        Php 3:21 Who shall change ***our vile body***, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

        In the meantime:

        1Cor 9:27 But I **chastise [punish] my body and bring it into subjection**: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.

        Barnes’ Notes:

        “..The word is derived probably from ὑπώπιον hupōpion, the part of the face “under the eye” (Passow), and means properly, to strike under the eye, either with the fist or the cestus, so as to render the part livid, or as we say, “black and blue”; or as is commonly termed, “to give anyone a black eye.” The word is derived, of course, from the athletic exercises of the Greeks. It then comes to mean, “to treat anyone with harshness, severity, or cruelty;” and thence also, so to treat any evil inclinations or dispositions; or to subject one’s-self to mortification or self-denial, or to a severe and rigid discipline, that all the corrupt passions might be removed. The word here means, that Paul made use of all possible means to subdue his corrupt and carnal inclinations; to show that he was not under the dominion of evil passions, but was wholly under the dominion of the gospel.

        And bring it into subjection – (δουλαγωγῶ doulagōgō). This word properly means, to reduce to servitude or slavery; and probably was usually applied to the act of subduing an enemy, and leading him captive from the field of battle; as the captives in war were regarded as slaves. It then means, effectually and totally to subdue, to conquer, to reduce to bondage and subjection. Paul means by it, the purpose to obtain a complete VICTORY over his corrupt passions and propensities, and a design to gain the mastery over all his natural and evil inclinations…”

        Comment by WoundedEgo | August 27, 2012

      • I wonder what the Greek says – that the body is becoming a corpse, or that the body is a corpse (that is, was put to death because of sin)?

        My understanding from Rom 8:8-9 (about the “flesh”), is that the “body”, like the “flesh”, is an abstract thought. Therefore, in this context, I ought to read it as a metaphor.

        Comment by Robert Kan | August 27, 2012

      • Paul uses substantives, not verbs. That is, he uses the adjective “a dead one” and “a live one” rather than a verb.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | August 27, 2012

  9. Paul goes on, and on, and on about the flesh, the body and the members versus the breath. What is so abstract about that? What offends the educated is that it is *too* concrete for their sensibilities! Paul, like *all* of the writers of scripture, was a strict materialist… everything we discuss abstractly was squarely rooted in the physical. IE: The “mind” was in the heart and the “motives” were in the kidneys and yes, “sin” was in our members. Finally, “life” is imparted, controlled and dispersed by the breath of life, and resides in the blood.

    Paul’s anatomy was “a tad off” and this is why “theologians” have skirted his materialistic views….

    Comment by WoundedEgo | August 27, 2012

    • If Paul says that we are not in the flesh but in the spirit (if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you), that is quite a statement, is it not?

      Comment by Robert Kan | August 27, 2012

      • Indeed, it would be quite ridiculous!

        It is a translation problem, of course (EN + Dative has several of possible glosses)..

        Comment by WoundedEgo | August 27, 2012

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