Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Flesh: The new NIV gets it right, mostly.

The 2011 update of the New International Version is out and I have done some quick checking. You will remember my complaints about the way the CEB translates sarx as "selfish" or "self-centered". I was also less than satisfied with the NIV (and TNIV) which often would translate sarx as "sin nature" (e.g.Romans 7:5). Neither of these are helpful and I suggested that we continue to translate sarx as "flesh" in spite of the challenges that translation presents.

Well, I have run a search and the 2011 NIV now translates sarx as "flesh,"at least most of the time. Romans 7:5 now reads "When we were in the realm of the flesh". The idea of the "realm of the flesh"is still more than what the Greek says ("in the flesh"), but I think it does the job. It brings the reader closer to the original while using modern language, which is the goal of the NIV. I commend the translators for undoing a translation that has stood for 32 years and has been the source of confusing theology. I agree that sarx, is still hard to define and comprehend, but I think "flesh" is a better starting point than "sin nature".

But the title of this post also includes the word "mostly". I say this because in spite of translating many of the instances of sarx in Romans as "flesh", the translators have left two occurrences of "sin nature" behind. These appear in 7:18 where Paul famously tangles with the good he wants to do but does not, and in 7:25 where Paul declares that he is a slave to sin. In both of these verses it is still the "sinful nature" that causes Paul to act the way he does. And in these two cases I think the translators did not go far enough. I think they should finish the job and translate sarx as "flesh" here as well. I really not sure why they deiced this approach. This is what they have to say about sarx.

Especially in Paul, sarx can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin. In an effort to capture this latter sense of the word, the original NIV® often rendered sarx as "sinful nature." But this expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers' point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx. The updated NIV® uses "flesh" as the translation in many places where it is important for readers to decide for themselves from the context whether one or both of these uses of sarx is present.

Again I commend them for their job. I just wish they had gone a little farther. If they want the reader to decide what the context is saying about sarx, then they should let the reader do just that.


  1. Perhaps the best way to define "sarx" is to juxtapose it with both "soma" and "pneuma." Doesn't Paul tend to localize these terms in order to nuance the meaning of the intimate relationship between the physical and spiritual? For example, Romans 7: 4-6...

    "Therefore, bro, you also have become dead to the law through the SOMA of christ, that you may be married to another -- to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the SARX, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the PNEUMA and not in the oldness of the letter."

    It is interesting to note that Paul is nuancing the same fruit metaphor in vv. 4-5, only coming out with two very different meanings of fruit bearing; one being death and the other life. And so, perhaps he is saying that our body is bridged and better realized in Christ's body, and he is using sarx/soma to mark the endpoints of the same line of thought?

    Is Paul here implicitly referring to the Mosaic paradigm of the gift of life bringing both the capacity of blessing and curse? If so, then perhaps this idea of the body/flesh is paralleling that very old Scriptural idea. Just a thought..

    Also, how does sarx/soma jive with the Hebrew word for body/image, "selem"? If Paul read his Genesis, and I think he did (Colossians), then he must have realized the the basic, God-like worth of the physical/selem? In this way, was Paul at pains to try and translate this meaning into Greek?

  2. David,

    You bring up some good points. The problem with Paul's use of sarx is that it can and often does mean something different from verse to verse. At times he does juxtapose sarx and pneuma. But at other times it is clear that this is not what he has in mind. And the old, Platonic, way of thinking that the body = flesh and therefore the flesh/body is bad is simply not helpful. I think the NIV has done better, I just wish they would go further.

  3. Evolutionary Christian Michael Dowd ("Thank God For Evolution") calls it our "unchosen nature." What do you think of that translation?

  4. Marshall,

    I am not familiar with this translation. However, I am resistant to anything that sounds like it is trying to read "original sin" into Paul's use of sarx.

  5. I thought you and your readers might find it useful to know that I’ve just put up some pages that show how similar the NIV2011 is to the NIV1984 and the TNIV. My pages also show each verse where the NIV2011 differs from the NIV1984 or the TNIV in an easily read / clear manner.

    The pages are online @ http://www.slowley.com/niv2011_comparison/

    I’d appreciate any comments or suggestions if anyone has any. Please either email me robert@slowley.com or leave a comment on my blog post http://community.livejournal.com/robhu_bible/4977.html

    Thank you,