Monday, October 11, 2010

What happened to the "flesh" in Romans? More thoughts on the CEB

Last Monday I asked if we have too many translations. On Tuesday I mentioned that I was teaching Paul's letter to the Romans this term. This week I bring the two together.

One of my students in Romans was looking at the new Common English Bible. She brought to my attention Romans 7:5 which reads "When we were self-centered, the sinful pleasures aroused through the law were at work in all the parts of our body, so that we bore fruit for death."

What struck me was the choice to translate the Greek word sarx, as "self-centered". A literal translation of the first portion of 7:5 is "For when we were in the (sarx) flesh, the passions of sin were at work in our members." What happened to "flesh"? Is Paul really talking about being self-centered here? A scan of Romans 8 indicates that this was what someone thought. In 8:3-8 sarx appears another 13 times of which 10 are translated as either "selfishness" or "self-centered." I am not sure this gets at what Paul was talking about here.

In fairness sarx is a notoriously difficult term to define and translate. It has often be translated literally as "flesh," but this does not always get at what Paul (or other NT authors) meant. In Romans alone the term can take on connotations meaning ancestor/descent (1:2; 4:1), humanness (3:20), weakness (6:2o) the sphere in which sin operates (7:5, 18, 25) and a source of corruption and hostility against God (8:7).

The difficulty of interpreting this term is demonstrated in other translations. While the NAS and NRSV have retained "flesh" in 7:5 the NIV renders it as "sin nature" and the NLT as "old nature". Translations like that of NIV and NLT have been less than helpful, but simply translating sarx as flesh has not been any better. The problem with "flesh" is that in the modern age it tends to encourage dualistic thinking that leads to the conclusion that our bodies are somehow sinful or inherently evil and therefore something that we need to escape.

In the CEB the problem of how to understand "flesh" (sarx) has been met with a gloss over. "Flesh" is not used as a translation for any occurrences of sarx in Romans. The term appears 26 times in Romans but not once is it translated as "flesh". Moreover, half of the occurrences are in Romans 8, but you would not know it since the CEB translates sarx as "self-centered" or "selfish" 10 of the 13 times.

Is this what Paul really means by sarx? That sin is a problem of selfishness? Can the problem of human sinfulness be boiled down to being self-centered? I don't think so.

The problem, as Paul points out in 7:17, 20, is not with sarx, but with sin. The struggle that "I" has with doing what is right is not because of selfishness, or a sin nature, but because sin takes advantage of the weakness of the sarx. As flesh (sarx) humans are susceptible to sin, but they are not sinful simply because they are sarx (flesh).

Just as translations such as "sin nature" do not get to the heart of Paul's message so too "selfishness" fails. Such interpretations/translations flatten out the multifaceted meaning of what Paul is saying and paints his concept of "flesh" into a theological corner. Furthermore, there are times when Paul's use of sarx is intended to communicate several meanings at once. For instance, Paul's identification of Abraham as "our ancestor according to the flesh" in Romans 4:1 probably refers not only to the lineage of Abraham, but also to his circumcision of the flesh in which some were boasting (cf. 2:28). Abraham is not just the father of those circumcised in the flesh, but also those who are not circumcised (4:9-12). This is important stuff for Paul. But if you gloss over sarx you miss the way that he has woven together his argument and theology.

So what is a better translation? I am not sure there is one. Some words in the Bible are technical terms and do not easily lend themselves to translation. In their commentaries on Romans, Dunn and Byrne have both highlighted sarx as a technical term and that it must be translated literally as "flesh". I am in favor of this, but of course that leaves us with the old problem of dualistic thinking which can lead to a theology of extreme asceticism.

What if we didn't translate it but instead left sarx as sarx? Yes it is a foreign term, but that would provide teachers and preachers the opportunity to explain what it means rather than leaving it as "flesh," "sin nature" or even "selfishness." But even as I write this I am thinking of reasons why this would not always work.


What are we to do? Any suggestions?


  1. John--

    Here (
    is a really good essay by Doug Moo that speaks to this very subject.

    By the way, I am in favor of "flesh", but I would be quite curious as to how "sarx" would do with maybe explanatory footnotes attached.

  2. well that is what they did with baptizo and it has caused no end of problems since! bottom line is, every word should be translated but then the english readers need to do the hard work of giving Bible words Bible meanings instead of using their colins gem dictionary for exegesis!

    1. "but then the english readers need to do the hard work of giving Bible words Bible meanings" - perhaps that can and should be said need to do the hard work giving Bible words meaning of the spirit, to delve or discover the spiritual meaning since the source of inspiration is God, a spirit (John 4:24)?

    2. "but then the english readers need to do the hard work of giving Bible words Bible meanings" - perhaps that can and should be said need to do the hard work giving Bible words meaning of the spirit, to delve or discover the spiritual meaning since the source of inspiration is God, a spirit (John 4:24)?

  3. Speaking from my experience as a Japanese-English translator, I would go find other sources in which that word is used to get a better handle on its semantic range and idiomatic usages, and then try to reformulate the entire English sentence in a way that captures the same meaning.

    Paul didn't make up the word "sarx". Go see how other Greek writers use it and what they mean by it, and go from there.

  4. If sarx as flesh appears to imply a theology of asceticism then perhaps that is precisely what Paul meant. There were many groups of ascetics at the time, so I don't see the problem.

  5. Dear Anonymous,

    The problem with the "asceticism" is that Paul's use of sarx does not imply that. This interpretation arises from later readings that are less than helpful.

  6. How do you know that the use of sarx doesn't have ascetic connotations here?

    For example, in 1 Cor 3 Paul contrasts pneumatikois with sarkinois. Spiritual is good, fleshly is bad. In 1 Cor 15 there is the distinction between psychikoi and pneumatikoi (spirit is good again) and Paul writes that sarx and aima cannot inherit the kingdom of God.

    Isn't the dualism between flesh and spirit quite clear in Paul?

  7. On a similar note: Robert Alter's translation of the Psalms avoids any use of the term "sin." Consider the post-modern influence on that decision.

  8. My issue with reading overly ascetic connotations into Paul's use of sarx is that it fails to recognize the complexity of the semantic domain in which the term is used in Paul. To simply read "flesh" as meaning "body" and therefore our bodies are bad, misses the point. Paul is talking about so much more than that.

  9. Would it be feasible to just leave "technical" terms like sarx, logos, ruach, etc. untranslated/transliterated? Granted, this might not be helpful, and might be somewhat irritating, for the (average) lay reader, particularly ones with little or no background in the biblical languages. On the other hand, it would allow these terms to hold on to their rich semantic depth. Ah, well. Perhaps the only solution is to have everyone learn Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic.

  10. "Would it be feasible to just leave "technical" terms like sarx, logos, ruach, etc. untranslated/transliterated?"

    That is terrible translation technique, with extremely few exceptions.

    I think the problem is that people are trying to create translations that are too literal, and realizing some words cannot be translated that way. The best procedure is to *understand* the entire sentence and its context, then word it in English as an English speaker would have if writing it from scratch. If that means using several words or a longer phrase to convey a single word from the original, so be it.

    I don't really understand some biblical translators' insistence upon trying to maintain some kind of word-for-word parallel. This approach, at least in professional translation where results matter, is a very naive and amateur one. Literal translation is anathema to good translation.

    "Perhaps the only solution is to have everyone learn Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic."

    That's probably only necessary if you want to do an precise exegesis of the text. For most people's purposes, a clear and accurate translation is good enough.

  11. It seems needlessly harsh to refer to what anyone says on this blog, which is really a way to exchange ideas freely and in a civil manner, as "terrible." Furthermore, my sentence was to be taken tongue-in-cheek.

  12. The NIDB has a good article by Dunn on the semantic range for sarx (under the entry Flesh in the NT, which is the KJV/RSV/NRSV term). It argues that the undelying meaning in Paul's corpus is "weakness" and can mean "sinful desires" (which is similar to "self-centered" and the CEB sometimes goes with "sinful desires") See the footnote on Galatians 6:13 in the Common English Bible for the semantic range in that particular book.

  13. I apologize for sounding harsh. I meant to criticize the translation technique, not the person suggesting it. I guess I have too strong of a gut reaction after all the bad translations I've had to deal with in my job!

  14. I may have been overly sensitive as well, and for that I also apologize.

  15. Dear Anonymous,

    Check out N.T. Wright "The Resurrection of the Son of God" (pp. 277-286, 348-356) for a detailed discussion of those technical terms you refer to above, and why a dualistic understanding like yours is probably not what Paul is getting at. Even if you don't agree with his conclusions, it is at the very least an informative read.

  16. this is the most controversial translate english to spanish issue ever...
    what can you say about it?

  17. I thank God our Father I thank my Savior my king my Lord Jesus the Christ He is Emmanuel and through the power of His Love for us He allowed the spilling of His innocent blood to fall to the ground that through His obedience we may recieve the free gift of forgiveness with eternal life with Him. I thank the Holy Spirit of the only living God the Father God the Son God the Holy Spirit. Our Father encourages us that if we lack knowledge to ask humbly that we faithfully receive that gift. We also receive the gift of understanding knowledge that comes through the Holy Spirit within our relationship with Jesus. I true came across the word flesh in the verse where Paul speaks of "a thorn my flesh" 2 Corinthians 12:7 Greek 4561 also 143 in the Greek. Satan has put a thread of confusion into the perception of the knowledg of God, in our taught selfishness as we are decieved by man as well as we can percieve incorrect what we missunderstand thus believing a lie, and even choose to die for that lie. Jesus claims our lives when we surrender our ability to choose our own way in anything we do, but we need extreme prayer in our minds for correction in understanding God the Father God the Son God the Holy Spirit. May you be encouagement in our Savior Jesus our Christ be humble of power of the Holy Spirit ready and waiting for the day of His return, His name is Jesus the Christ Son of God Almighy in the fullness of power the Holy fire of God the Father in the Divine Holy Spirit. RDC