Biblical Usage. The Problem of Interpretation (§ 1).
The Hebrew Basar (§ 2).
"Flesh" Equivalent to "Man" (§ 3).
Jewish Usage (§ 4).
New Testament Usage (§ 5).
Paul (§ 6).
1. Biblical Usage. The Problem of Interpretation.
The Bible has different representations of man's material nature. The term "flesh" is always used with reference to man's body; so that Chrysostom's comment on Gal. v. 16 is anything but precise--"The flesh (Gk. sarx) is not the body, nor the essence of the body, but the evil disposition, the earthly, lustful, and lawless reason." The same is true of Julius Müller's definition,--"The flesh is the tendency or inclination of human life turned away from God, the life and movement of man in the midst of the things of this visible world." The flesh is regarded as endowed with mind (Gk. phronēma, Rom. viii. 6), desire or lust (epithymia, Gal. v.16; I John ii. 16), will (thelēma,Eph. ii. 3), etc., and can not, therefore, stand for a disposition of the will. Sarx designates, not a tendency or disposition of the flesh, but the flesh itself with that disposition. But a problem arises,--how can sarx be considered the subjective cause of such disposition while usually kardia (“heart") is looked upon as the seat of the will (Matt. xv. 10; Rom. i. 24)? This difficulty can not be solved by the perception that man himself as the subjective cause of such disposition may be designated as flesh because he is represented in it; for sarx does not in the Bible always mean man himself, but that which shapes him, his guiding principle (cf. Rom. vii. 14, with verses 18 and 25); this observation, however, leads to a correct understanding of the difficulty.
2. The Hebrew Basar.
It is necessary to go back to the Old Testament basar, and especially to basar in the sense of sarx, in which it is used only of the flesh of man, while it is used in the sense of kreas only with regard to animals (i.e., the flesh of sacrifice). In this special application to man basar means in the first place the substance of the body. The bones or blood are sometimes mentioned with flesh, as constituting the body (Luke xxiv. 39; I Cor. xv. 50). By synecdoche flesh is used for the body (Ps. xvi. 9; Cor. x. 3). This use of the term is a Hebrew idiom, foreign to the Greek; so that the Septuagint often translates the Hebrew baser by sōma ("body"). The expression "all flesh" is sometimes used for the race in its totality (Gen. vi. 17), but usually for the race as human (Gen. vi. 12; Luke iii. 6, etc.).
3. "Flesh" Equivalent to "Man."
This leads to the peculiarity of the Biblical use of the word. It designates man because man appears through it, and manifests his nature by it; in the flesh man has his life--he is flesh. This attribute he shares with the whole living universe. Flesh is the condition and outward expression of its existence; by the flesh it manifests its solidarity. Thus, as flesh, it is weak and frail (Ps. lxxviii. 39). Flesh is not spirit, nor vital power (Isa. xxxi. 3), but stands in living and moral contrast to spirit, the spirit of God (Deut. v. 26).
Thus in the Old Testament the term "flesh" connects itself with the conception of impotence, need of salvation, and sinfulness of man whose distinction from God is the distinction between flesh and spirit. The development of the term in the New Testament and especially in Paul may be traced directly to this Old Testament conception, while the development of the term in the synagogue was quite different.
4. Jewish Usage.
The most significant traits of the Old Testament representation practically disappear in the Apocrypha. Sarx is spoken of as the substance of the human body (Sirach xix. 12, xliv. 20; Judith xiv. 10 etc.). Pasa sari occurs with the same meaning as in the Old Testament (Sirach i. 8, xiii. 15; Judith ii. 3; etc.). But the idea of lowliness and frailty disappeared almost altogether, likewise the idea of distinction from God. The same may be said of the Pseudepigrapha and the remaining post-Biblical literature of the synagogue. Alexandrianism accepted the Old Testament meaning as little as did the theologians of the synagogue. The Septuagint perverted in important passages (Num. xvi. 22; Isa. xxxi. 3) the relation of spirit or God and flesh into the distinction between spirit and matter. Philo uses sari in the sense of evil disposition. This is not a translation of Biblical views into Alexandrinian philosophy, but it is most clearly a translation of the synagogal view of the yezer ha-ra', the evil disposition, the disposition toward the sensual from which the real evil has proceeded.
5. New Testament Usage.
On this account it is the more peculiar that the writers of the New Testament--Paul not excepted--have not built on this later foundation, but have gone back to the Old Testament. In the synoptic Gospels and in Acts sarx designates the substance of the body (Luke xxiv. 39; Acts ii. 26, 31), man and humanity (Matt. xix. 5, 6; Mark x. 8; etc.). It denotes the distinction from God and that not in the physical sense, hence the incongruous relation of sari to the divine principle of life in the heart of man (Matt. xxvi. 41; Mark xiv. 31). The writings of John and Peter, the Epistle of Jude, and the Epistle to the Hebrews do not add any essential features except that "flesh" also indicates the peculiarity of man's external nature. Thus it is opposed to pneuma, or spirit (Col. ii. 1, 5).
In the writings of Peter the contrast between sarx and pneuma appears as a contrast of sarx and the spirit of God (I Pet. iii. 18), and as a contrast of sari and the human pneuma (I Pet. iv. 6). The same contrast between God or the spirit of God and the flesh dominates the use of the word in the writings of John. Here the expression "The Word was made flesh" (John i. 14) has its force from the contrast with (verse 1) "The Word was God." The same contrast appears in Ps. lvi. 5, 2; Chron. xxxii. 8; II Cor. xiii. 4. Sarx in distinction from God and his spirit denotes frailty, helplessness, need of salvation.
The sinfulness of the flesh is emphasized by Paul (Rom. viii. 3). In this sense he calls the body "a body of the flesh" sōma tēs sarkos (Col. ii. 11), and life a "walking in the flesh" (II Cor. x. 3). Corresponding to the peculiarity of the New Testament revelation of salvation, the Old Testament contrast between God and man, flesh and spirit, has developed into the contrast between sarx and the pneuma hagion. In connection with the latter contrast Paul defines the relation between sarx and sin in so far as with the former and through it there adheres to man an evil disposition, a being sold unto sin (Rom. vii. 14). Man is dominated by sin; it lives in and through him. It was therefore easy for Chrysostom to identify sarx with an evil disposition or for Neander to define it as "human nature in its alienation from God." In a similar way Holsten maintained that for Paul sarx was the material, sensual substance in contrast with pneuma as the immaterial, spiritual and Divine substance. In the sarx and pneuma of Paul there is, according to Holsten, the opposition of the finite and the infinite, evil and good, so that in Pauline theology sin was a necessity. The whole Pauline view of the world, according to him, forms a dualism which has its root in the Jewish and Hellenistic view of the world. But it has been shown above that the thoughts of Paul as well as the other writings of the New Testament are in no way dependent upon the development in the later synagogue or Alexandrian philosophy, but have developed directly from the Old Testament. This phenomenon shows itself also in other important points of the New Testament dispensation and compels the assumption of a double tendency in religious thought, the one represented and influenced by the synagogue as a theological school and its mode of expression, laid down in the Old Testament Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and the Talmudic writings as well as in Philo, the other starting directly from the Old Testament and known through the New Testament.
If this be conceded, much has been gained for the decision of the question. Passages like Rom. vii. 14-15 show the strongest contrast to the later synagogal conception of sarx. Whenever Paul speaks of sarx, he means present reality, and does not denote by it the source and cause of sin in the world. The sarx is the seat of sin and not the cause of its existence; it is chained to life and propagates itself through it and with it in a way which has originated not through God, but through the fall. Therefore with life impotence and death propagate themselves and with them the inability to lead a life pleasing to God and the tendency toward the contrary, "enmity against God" (Rom. viii. 7, 8). We are what we are and as we are through the flesh, we are in the flesh, in its power instead of in that of the Spirit, we are flesh. But this evidently does not mean that flesh is the source of sin, it does not even mean that the flesh in distinction from the other parts of the human being is the seat of sin; for everything, even the heart, the seat of the origin of sin, pertains to man through the flesh, or, as we might say, to the flesh itself. Since sin is in the world, there are only sinners born by the flesh, and thus the apostle may distinguish between nous and sarx as he does in Rom. vii. 25.
Thus there is no reason why sarx should mean human nature. It rather means the flesh in its peculiar nature as it has been implanted into man by the fall. Even Christ appeared "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. viii. 3), an expression which denotes not the difference but the agreement with our case. He entered into the flesh with all the consequences of sin or the fall (Col. i. 22; Heb. ii. 14); but his own spiritual nature overcame, so to speak, at the very beginning, its disposition to sin. See SOUL AND SPIRIT.