What Is “Flesh”?
Σάρξ, “the flesh” is the most important term in Paul's anthropology, where it contrasts with πνεῦμα, “the spirit.” A recent “history of research” by Robert Jewett counts the following interpretations:
- Many of the Fathers of the church interpreted σάρξ “as material sensuality which solicited or directly induced sin” (Jewett 1971, 50).
- The Augustinian tradition which the Reformation continued understood the flesh as “man in revolt from God.”
- The “father” of modern critical study of the New Testament, Ferdinand Christian Baur, understood σάρξ, once more, as the material body which is the source of sin, however, for him, as for his follower Carl Holsten the πνεῦμα, spirit, is not the human spirit, soul, or mind but the Holy Spirit.
- Holsten's contemporary, Hermann Lüdemann proposed that there is “within man himself a dichotomy of πνεῦμα ἀνθρώπου [spirit of man] (ἔσω ἄνθρωπος [inner man] which consists of νοῦς [mind] and καρδία [heart]) and σῶμα σαρκός [body of flesh] (ἔξω ἄνθρωπος [outer man] consisting of σάρξ [flesh], ψυχή [psyche] and σῶμα [body])” (Jewett 1971, 52). In a rather brilliant theorization, Lüdemann argued that Paul's anthropology was a unique blend of Hebraic and Hellenistic notions, such that while Paul did distinguish an inner man from an outer man in Hellenistic fashion, the inner man could be either controlled by the flesh or not, a more biblical notion. In spite of certain excesses, aspects of Lüdemann's contribution remain central, particularly the insight that for Paul, spirit and flesh were both inner- and extra-personal forces. These views, that is, various combinations of Holsten's and Lüdemann's, formed a sort of scholarly paradigm and consensus for Pauline interpretation that was challenged in the late nineteenth century.
- One of the dominant trends developing in the second half of that century was a view that understood σάρξ to be simply the “whole human being,” something like the “flesh and blood” of Hebrew usage, which certainly means the whole human being and not merely an aspect thereof. And the closeness to Hebrew usage in this view is no accident, for this interpretation in general sought to bring Paul closer to “Old Testament” categories and paint him as relatively un-Hellenized and certainly non-dualistic. This was the view of, among others, Albrecht Ritschl.
- In the next stage of research, as Jewett narrates it, there were two prevailing views: an apocalyptic conception which saw the flesh and the spirit as cosmic forces locked in combat in the last days and a gnostic one within which the fleshy human being is taken possession of by a divine fluid in the experience of gnosis and transformed. Jewett himself characterizes the ensuing situation as “The Resultant Confusion” (Jewett 1971, 63).
- Dominant in current interpretation and scholarship is the Bultmannian-inspired “existential interpretation,” within which σάρξ is “the earthly sphere which becomes the source of sin only when man places his trust in it” (Jewett 1971, 67): “Each person is determined by either spirit or flesh, has a tendency towards one or the other; if one lives by spirit, he lives in midst of the indicative and the imperative and is enabled thereby to overcome the fragmentation of life and to achieve existential unity; but if one lives by the flesh, he does his own will and seeks to secure his own future by works” (Jewett 1971, 68–69). Bultmann's student and disciple Ernst Käsemann, about whom I shall have much to say in another context, took his teacher's views further by emphasizing the cosmological and eschatological dimensions, essentially, I think, by taking seriously the clear implication of Romans 7:5 that ἐν τῇ σαρκί (in the flesh) represents an eon. He remained, however, with the essentially existential definition of that eon as one determined by living according to the flesh defined as worldliness.
- Egon Brandenburger has in some ways come closest to the view that I am espousing in the present work. In his Fleisch und Geist, Brandenburger proposed that Paul's σάρξ / πνεῦμα opposition bore significant parallels to Philo's dualism, a conclusion which I find compelling. This does not mean, however, that Paul has to be taken as a representative of the philosophical school of which Philo was a part or that Paul has been “influenced” (whatever that might mean) by Hellenistic Judaism, but it might very well reflect the existence of this dualism in the Jewish and wider cultural koine of the first century. On the other hand, there is no doubt that Paul manifests themes which are quite unknown in Philo. Philo's platonism is such that cosmic history nearly drops out of the picture, whereas for Paul the apocalyptic sense of changing eons is powerful, as well as the cosmic drama between realms. Jewett has, I think, judiciously summed up the situation: “One would have to say that Brandenburger has succeeded in tracing a flesh-spirit antithesis in Hellenistic Judaism which offers some precedent for Pauline usage. But his attempt to document the cosmic dimensions of this antithesis is less than convincing because it does not properly relate to Philo's actual philosophical stance” (Jewett 1971, 92).
Jewett himself proposes an interpretation of Paul's σάρξ language which in one respect is close to the one that I am theorizing here. He argues that the origins of the term are in the controversy over circumcision, which is referred to as being “in the flesh.” In Paul's conflict with the Judaizers in Galatia he came to portray his opponents as those who have confidence in the flesh in two senses: (1) they believe that circumcision as the entry marker into the Jewish People is the requirement for salvation, and (2) they wish to be saved themselves from zealot vengeance on the Judean church (Jewett 1971, 96; Jewett 1970). Then, “the fact that σάρξ had a negative connotation in the Hellenistic world made its polemic possibilities particularly attractive.” Jewett's proposal, while in the right direction, is much too narrow in my view. First of all, it comprehends only one of the metaphorical senses of “flesh” allowed by the Bible and Jewish usage, namely, the penis which is circumcised. It thus ignores a second, equally powerful usage: kinship. When Jewett discusses the allegory of Galatians 4, therefore, he does not realize that there the child according to the flesh has to do not with nomism but with physical descent. Second, Jewett, in his zeal typical of moderns to deny any platonistic idealism in Paul, denies that which Paul himself asserts, namely, that his interpretation of the Hagar story is an allegory, because “it neither begins nor ends with abstract principles. It is a typological application of a past event onto a concrete present situation. The connection between past and present is apocalyptic rather than idealistic” (1971, 100). The move, however, from fleshy kinship to kinship according to promise and faith commitment, from earthly Jerusalem to heavenly Jerusalem, is certainly a move from the material to the spiritual. Since it is from the material expressed in material language to a set of ideas more abstract than the ones expressed by the material language, this is certainly allegorical, just as Paul would have it, and eloquent evidence for a dualist sensibility. What is so striking in Paul is precisely the way in which the apocalyptic or typological is allegorical, that the world and history move from the realm of the literal to the realm of the allegorical in time. Apocalyptic is thus precisely, for him, a revelation, as its etymology implies. Third, Jewett falls back ultimately on the Bultmannian categories to explain what Paul finds wrong with the flesh, namely, “It is religious man who rests on his own virtuous obedience and thus enters into conflict with the spirit” (1971, 101). Jewett thus nearly cancels out the virtues of his insight. Fourth, Jewett locates the origins of the flesh / spirit opposition in the Galatian controversy rather than seeing that it is this opposition which occasions the controversy. Fifth, I see very little evidence for Jewett's understanding that σάρξ in Paul is demonic. Finally, I disagree entirely with the claim that “it was the concrete situation of conflict with the Judaizers which led him to connect σάρξ with the old aeon” (1971, 101). Σάρξ belongs to the old eon, because that was the eon in which the Torah and physical Israel had a role, and it was always preparatory to the present eon in which the Spirit has been revealed and the flesh of the Torah and of Israel are superseded. Once more, this explains Paul's opposition to the Judaizers and does not arise from it.
The upshot of my dispute with Jewett and the premise of this book is that for Paul the term flesh enters into a rich metaphorical and metonymic semantic field bounded on the one hand by the metaphorical usages already current in biblical parlance and on the other hand by the dualism of spirit and flesh current in the milieu of Hellenistic—that is, first- century—Judaism. It was the working out and through of these multiple semantic possibilities that generated Paul's major semantic innovations. Flesh is the penis and physical kinship; it is the site of sexuality, wherein lies the origin of sin; it is also the site of genealogy, wherein lies the ethnocentricism of Judaism as Paul encountered it. All of these could be opposed, Paul came to see, by a spiritual or ideal set of counterparts which would enable the escape from the two elements of human life that Paul felt most disturbing: desire and ethnicity. The circumcision controversy is not the fountainhead of Paul's theory of σάρξ, but the theory of σάρξ is that which occasioned and fueled the controversy. Paul came to oppose the Law because of the way that it literally—that is, carnally—insisted on the priority and importance of the flesh, of procreation and kinship, symbolized by the mark in the flesh, par excellence, the penis. This set of notions, then, expanded and complicated will be the foundation for my understanding of Paul.