Moderator’s note: English speakers today commonly use the same words to mean various things in varying contexts. The same is true of ancient writers. When we study biblical Greek and Hebrew, we observe the fascinating and ingenious use of word pictures and double meaning, among other literary techniques. One word the apostle Paul for multiple purposes was sarx. I asked a panel of scholars, How do we decide what Paul has in mind when he writes sarx, as in Romans 8:8? CBT member Craig Blomberg offers some insight into a change from the 1984 to the updated NIV published online this year.
It is well known that several New Testament authors, but especially Paul and John, regularly use sarx (“flesh”) in two ways—the skin on a person’s body, and by extension, a human body more generally; and a person manifesting sinful behavior or a sinful condition. Context usually makes clear which of these two is involved, but how do we translate the latter? Romans 8:8 is just one of many passages that could be chosen by way of illustration: “but the ones being in the flesh are not able to please God” (a woodenly literal rendering). Most translations historically and today have chosen simply to retain the word flesh here, and the updated NIV has followed suit, after the 1978 and 1984 NIVs used “the sinful nature.” Other options that have been utilized include “the lower nature” (Weymouth’s NT in Modern Speech), “earthly minded” (Montgomery’s Centenary Translation), “their old nature” (Complete Jewish Bible), “the corrupt nature” (God’s Word to the Nations), “their natural inclinations” (New Jerusalem Bible), and “their sinful nature” (New Living Translation).
I confess that when the NIV first appeared, I liked “the sinful nature” (as a translation, not the concept!). It meant I didn’t have to stop and think each time I saw “flesh” how it was being used. I had been schooled in Campus Crusade for Christ’s distinction between the natural, carnal, and spiritual persons, while realizing already then the limitations of the way they described the distinctions among these terms. Through my seminary studies, however, I came to learn that it wasn’t as though Christians had two compartments to them, one in which the Spirit resided and one in which the flesh resided, so that one could speak of their spiritual and their sinful natures. The Spirit always indwells us, and sometimes fills us, but when he doesn’t it is because we are not fully yielded to him. Thus the flesh, as the common Scriptural opposite, is most naturally likewise understood as a power to which we can yield, to varying degrees. “Earthly minded” and “natural inclinations,” of the options noted above, probably capture this better than any expression involving the specific word “nature.”
But occasionally it seems like the negative use of sarx really does shade over into the (metaphorical) sense of a “compartment” of a person. Romans 7:14-25 is an excellent example of this. Paul waxes eloquent about the war going on inside of himself between two powers. So in the two appearances of sarx in verses 18 and 25, even the updated NIV preserves “sinful nature.” In other places, however, it is not even clear if sarx is being used pejoratively (for something sinful) or just neutrally for frail humanity (e.g., “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”). On balance, then, it is best to leave most of the renderings of sarx simply as “flesh” and not foreclose on the interpretive conversation. But the updated NIV does make an improvement by often speaking of “the realm of the flesh” (as in 8:8), which sounds a little bit more like someone under an influence rather than a certain location inside a person.
Craig Blomberg is distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado. He has been a member of the Committee on Bible Translation since 2008.
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