Answering Davies's Objections
In his now-classic Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, W. D. Davies has argued against a hermeneutical reading of the flesh / spirit opposition in Paul. Davies has two major objections to the notion that in the usage of σάρξ Paul accepts “a typical Hellenistic dualism” (Davies 1965, 18). In the first place, he argues that “the ascription of Hellenistic dualism to Paul involves us in a psychological, ethical and spiritual impossibility. It would be to make Paul's faith in the real coming of Christ into the world an absurdity. To Paul Christ was of the seed of David, a figure in history, a man after the flesh. If the latter was intrinsically evil, as Hellenistic dualism maintained, then Paul's faith in the historic Christ was in vain” (18). The second argument that Davies mobilizes is a lexical one. He claims, correctly it seems, that σάρξ almost never (but not quite never) refers in Hellenistic Greek to the material as opposed to the ideal.
The first of Davies's arguments can be easily answered. Paul's “dualism” was precisely not a typical Hellenistic dualism, one that would maintain that the flesh is intrinsically evil. Davies is absolutely correct; such a value system would make very difficult the notion of a real human Christ, and indeed, “gnostics” who held such views have also held a docetic christology, that Jesus only appeared to be a man of flesh. A dualism, however, of another sort, one that values the flesh, albeit considering the spirit to be the essence of the human and the essential meaning of things and of language as well, would explain precisely the coming of Christ, as a visible manifestation of God, into the world. Such a dualist mode of thinking will account for both the literal, physical Jesus who is the son of David according to the flesh and the pre-existent, spiritual Christ who is the son of God. On the other hand, a monistic ontology, such as that of much of rabbinic thinking, will not dematerialize Godhead to begin with, and will accordingly not require an Incarnation (or the Pauline equivalent thereof).
My explanation of Paul also accounts for the second objection as well. Σάρξ, רשב, flesh has two well attested metaphorical usages in Jewish parlance. It refers on the one hand to the penis and on the other hand to the physical connection of genealogy of filiation and of family relationship. These are the primary senses in which Paul uses the term as well, thus referring to circumcision “in the flesh” and brothers “in the flesh” (Romans 9:3). And even “my flesh” as simply “my kin,” e.g., Israel in Romans 11: 14. However, Paul goes one step further in my view. Since for him, these physical entities and connections have been fulfilled/annulled by their spiritual referents, “according to the flesh” becomes a hermeneutical term referring to the literal, the flesh of language as well. Let us see how this is achieved. In the wake of these familiar metaphors, Paul easily sets up a set of parallel ratios, a very common practice in Hellenistic argumentation. A quick look at Romans 2:28–29 will exemplify this procedure:
Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.
οὐ γὰρ ὁ ἐν τῷ φανερῷ 'Ιουδαῖός ἐστιν οὐδὲ ἡ ἐν τῷ φανερῷ ἐν σαρκὶ περιτομή. ἀλλ' ὁ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ 'Ιουδαῖος, καὶ περιτομὴ καρδίας ἐν πνεύματι οὐ γράμματι.
In this verse—which I discuss in much more detail in the next chapter—the relevant oppositions are:
outer inner in the flesh (penis) in the heart in the letter in the spirit
We have here an absolutely marvelous syncretism of biblical and Hellenic notions, so organized that they become synonyms for each other. On the one hand, in the Bible itself, as is well known, the opposition between circumcision of the penis and circumcision of the heart is attested. In the second of these ratios, therefore, Paul is apparently just using the biblical formula. However, by combining them with the other two sets of oppositions new and additional meanings are generated as well. Thus, once “in the flesh” (meaning “penis”) is on the same side of the ratio as “in the letter,” and the latter is opposed to “in the spirit,” then “in the flesh” can become opposed to “in the spirit” as well. The association of “letter” and “flesh” promotes an understanding of the flesh as the literal as well. Finally, the hermeneutical opposition of “outer” and “inner,” which is purely Hellenistic, supports these transfers also, for the material language, the outer flesh of the language, is that which is opposed to its spirit, its true meaning, which is within it. It is further important to note that since “flesh” in Hebrew refers, as I have said, to physical kinship, exactly the same set of transfers will be possible for that term as well. It is precisely this ability that Paul had—perhaps greater in him than in any other Hellenistic Jewish thinker—to discover and animate the ways in which Hellenistic and biblical ways of thinking could illuminate and enrich one another that constitutes his genius. And note that it is exactly this formal move that, on my account, makes his political, ideological, and theological passion. One could with justice say that in Paul, as in Christ, “There is no Jew or Greek.” The ethical dualisms of the Bible are mapped onto hermeneutical, anthropological, and ontological dualisms of Plato in a way that often seems almost seamless. I think that Paul, unlike Philo, is not performing this mapping consciously but that it has become for him the very organic mode of his thinking. Jewgreek is Greekjew.
Furthermore, the usage of body and soul, respectively, for the literal and the allegorical is in fact known from Hellenistic language, namely from Philo, who writes that his interest is in “the hidden meaning which appeals to the few who study soul characteristics, rather than bodily forms” (Abraham, 147). Moreover, the radical allegorizers who deny the necessity of keeping the literal commandments are referred to by him as people who are “trying to live as souls without bodies” (ibid., 89). In Greek as well, σάρξ is more than occasionally used as a synonym or near-synonym for σῶμα, “body.”  I hypothesize that two factors would have led Paul to choose the former over the latter for this meaning. The first is the powerful homology that is set up between the literal in language and those symbols of literality that are so central to his thinking, literal circumcision and literal connection with the family/tribe of Israel, by using the term flesh, which carries those metaphorical senses, and not body, which does not. Secondly, precisely because σῶμα had taken on particular significances for Paul (as we have seen in 1 Corinthians 15), including the notion of a spiritual body and often something like the whole person, it was not available to him for the sense of the outer, the merely physical. Accordingly, he could not use σῶμα for the physical, literal, outward sense, but only σάρξ. Finally, there are passages in which Paul himself indicates that σάρξ, flesh, is being used by him as a synonym for σῶμα, body: “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh [οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ τοῦ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆν]. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body [εἰ δὲ πνεύματι τὰς πράξεις τοῦ σώματος] you will live” (Romans 8:12–13). Another such passage is Romans 6:12: “Let not sin reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions,” where, as Bultmann has pointed out, “passions of the body” is equal to “passions of the flesh,” as in Galatians 5:16 et al. Once more, as Bultmann has shown, “the body of sin [τὸ σῶμα τῆς ἁμαρτίας]” in Romans 6:6 is equivalent to “sinful flesh [σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας]” of 8:3 (1951, 197). Furthermore, at several points in 1 and 2 Corinthians as well, the terms seem interchangeable (Jewett 1971, 58). It is therefore not at all surprising to find that Paul uses “flesh” to mean the outer, literal sense of the language with all of its concomitant outer, physical referents, whereas Philo used “body” to mean these same things.
Circumcision in the spirit of the language, that is, the true allegorical meaning of circumcision, is also a spiritual experience, and it is this homology which makes Paul's expression so powerful. Paul's thought and mode of expression at this point are nearly identical to Philo's:
It is true that receiving circumcision does indeed portray the excision of pleasure and all passions, and the putting away of the impious conceit, under which the mind supposed that it was capable of begetting by its own power: but let us not on this account repeal the law laid down for circumcising. Why, we shall be ignoring the sanctity of the Temple and a thousand other things, if we are going to pay heed to nothing except what is shewn us by the inner meaning of things. Nay, we should look on all these outward observances as resembling the body, and their inner meanings as resembling the soul. It follows that, exactly as we have to take thought for the body, because it is the abode of the soul, so we must pay heed to the letter of the laws. (Philo 1932, 185)
For Philo, as for Paul, the allegorical interpretation of circumcision, explicitly figured by Philo as “resembling the soul,” refers to an event which takes place in the soul, while the literal understanding, “resembling the body,” refers to an event which takes place in the body. It is this very homology between language theory and anthropological ontology that makes Paul's text so effective. Two very natural senses of “the flesh,” namely, the observance in the flesh of circumcision and filial connection, are concatenated with embodiedness or fleshliness as an attribute of the literal meaning of language as well. Because the literal sense of the Hebrew Bible refers as well, par excellence, to these fleshy entities of genealogy and fleshly observance, such as circumcision and kashruth, the three senses of “flesh” all work together in Pauline rhetoric in synergistic fashion. The spiritual then refers to an observance such as baptism, which is not “in the flesh,” made not with hands; to faith in general as opposed to physical observances; to the spiritual Israel, namely, the community of Christian believers; and to spiritual filiation according to the promise as opposed to the physical, genetic community of Israelites descended from Abraham. All these denied senses are comprehended together in κατὰ σάρκα, which is not a term of opprobrium by itself but becomes so when the flesh is allowed to occlude the spirit.