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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Flesh (2)

FLESH (σάρξ).—In every instance where this word is used by the Evangelists we observe that it is confined in its reference to the human race. The same remark, it may be noticed, holds good of the NT writers as a whole (cf., however, 1 Corinthians 15:39, and the plural σάρκας of Revelation 19:18). The particular conception attaching to it varies in different contexts to a slight extent, though in almost every case a distinction or contrast is either stated or implied which has its roots in OT thought. It is interesting to remark that this is a word employed very rarely by St. Luke in either of his writings; and even when he does use it, we find that, for the most part, he is quoting from the OT (see Luke 3:6 = Isaiah 40:5 [LXX Septuagint], where in conjunction with πᾶσα it is simply a synonym for all mankind; cf. Matthew 24:22, Mark 13:20, John 17:2, and Acts 2:17). The reference, of course, is to the human race in its present condition of weakness and need of help, as contrasted with the power and the active love of God (cf. Deuteronomy 5:26, Psalms 56:4 [55:5 LXX Septuagint]).

In the only other place where the word is found in St. Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:39) we have it used simply to denote the substance flesh considered as a constituent of the human body. The risen Jesus is represented as inviting His disciples to assure themselves by touching Him that He had risen not merely in a spiritual, but in a corporeal sense. The antithesis is that of ‘spirit’ and ‘body’ (πνεῦμα and σῶμα), the latter consisting of ‘flesh’ and ‘bones’ (σάρξ and ὀστέα). See art. Body.

A still more emphatic expression signifying the distinction between man and God is found in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 16:17), where σάρξ is joined with αἶμα to denote man in his present condition of spiritual limitation and of defective knowledge. A somewhat similar antithesis is incidentally, albeit elaborately, pointed out by St. John (John 1:13), who, in his reference to the new life communicated through Christ to believers, lays stress on the fact that this higher life is not the result of human birth, whether the latter be considered as the outcome of a long line of descent (ἐξ αἱμάτων), or as springing from natural instinct inherent in the flesh (ἐκ θελήματος σαρκός), or even as the resultant of the will power resident in the entire man (ἐκ θελήματος ἀνδρός). Their infused life has its roots in Him who is the source of all life (… ἀλλʼ ἐκ θεοῦ ἑγεννήθησαν), and is conditioned in every instance by their reception of the Word made flesh (ὃσοι δὲ ἔλαβον αὐτόν, see Westcott, Gospel of St. John, ad loc., who notices a very early variant reading which would make ‘the Word’ the subject of the whole verse).

Another form of this antithetic relationship occurs in the same writing. In His conversation with Nicodemus Jesus draws attention to the limitations which surround the functions of man’s nature considered on its sensuous side (ἐκ τῆς σαρκός), and those of the Spirit which finds scope for activity within another sphere of human life (ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος). It is not the antithesis of evil and good that is here referred to. It is simply that within the realm of man’s being there are two principles of energy which take their origin from two orders of existence. The law of nature which compels like to produce like holds good in man’s complex life, and so ‘What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (John 3:6). With this we may compare another passage in the same Gospel where this idea is expressed in language more explicit still and as emphatic (John 6:63). The contrast here between spirit, which not only has life in itself but can communicate that life as it wills (τὸ ζωοποιοῦν), and flesh, which ‘is of no avail’ above its own sphere (ἡ σἀρξ οὐκ ὠφελεῖ οὐδὲν), is categorically asserted.

So, too, on another occasion when engaged in controversy with the Pharisees, Jesus contrasts their method of judging with His own patience in that respect, and in so doing implies a further contrast—their imperfect and therefore incorrect judgment (κατὰ τὴν σάρκα) which is based on a superficial knowledge, and His just judgment which comes from His ‘knowledge of all the circumstances, and aspects, and issues of life’ (ἡ κρίσις ἡ ἐμὴ ἀληθινή ἐστιν, John 8:15 f.; see Westcott, Gospel of St. John, ad loc.).

Arising out of this conception we have the word employed to mark a psychological distinction between man’s flesh and spirit. So real was this distinction to the mind of Jesus that we can almost hear in His words (Matthew 26:41 = Mark 14:38) the echo of personal experience (… γρηγορῆσαι μετʼ ἐμοῦτὸ μὲν πνεῦμα πρόθυμον ἡ δὲ σὰρξ ἀσθενής). In this place we may also notice that there was something present in the struggle engaged in by the disciples which was absent in the case of Jesus. They were unsuccessful in their efforts to ‘watch,’ because not only was their flesh ‘weak,’ but it had also to contend with an element of discord which further distracted their power for unremitting watchfulness. With Him was also present the flesh of weakness (see 2 Corinthians 13:4 ἐξ ἀσθενείας), but the relationship between His σάρξ and πνευμα was not perverted by the indwelling presence of sin, or by the downward tendency inherited as the result of sin.

On one occasion Jesus quotes with approval the translation of the LXX Septuagint (Genesis 2:24) where the word σάρξ occurs meaning the entire man (Matthew 19:5 f. = Mark 10:8), and that without any qualifying word. It would be a colourless interpretation of Jesus’ words which would limit His teaching on the marriage relationship to a physical oneness following on and produced by the sexual union. The Hebraistic ἔσονται εἰς (Heb. וְהָיוּ לְ) implies a gradual movement from a physical union to a higher and more complex unity, so that where two separate beings formerly existed there is now but one (ὤστε οὐκέτι εἰσὶν δύο, ἀλλὰ σὰρξ μία, which is Jesus’ inference from the Heb. לְבִשִׂר אָהִד; see art. Eunuch). It is because of the ultimately complete and spiritual character of this union that the sin which dissolves it and the human legislation which seeks to render it nugatory assume their dark proportions (cf. Gould, ‘St. Mark’ in Internat. Crit. Com. on Mark 10:8 f.).

Passing from the Synoptic to the Johannine use of this word, we find it clothing conceptions which are fuller and richer. In the simple but majestic sentence in which he announces the profound mystery of the Incarnation, St. John employs the word ‘flesh’ to express the totality of human nature, looked at on the side of its manifold limitations, that is to say, as it touches and is connected with the world of matter and of time (ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο, John 1:14, with which we may compare the positive references to ‘the soul’ and ‘the spirit’ of Jesus in the same writing, e.g. John 12:27 ἠ ψυχή μου, John 13:21 τῷ πνεύματι, etc.). The phrase ‘the Word became flesh’ implies the existence of an antithesis which has been reduced in its elements to a final and permanent synthesis. The Johannine conception leaves no room for doubt as to the perfection of the human nature of Jesus, which is universal both as regards time and race.

Keeping in mind this usage, we shall be enabled to apprehend more fully the thought underlying the language of Jesus about His power of imparting Himself in His perfect humanity (cf. John 6:51-56). His ‘flesh,’ by virtue of its union with His Divine Personality, is ‘living’ (ὁ ζῶν) food, and therefore possesses the power of communicating its life to all who will eat thereof (ἐὰν μὴ φάγητε τὴν σάρκα, κ.τ.λ.). Without this participation and consequent assimilation on the part of His followers, there can be no such thing as ‘life’ within them, for they deliberately reject what contains for them the germinal principle of that ‘life’ (οὐκ ἔχετε ζωὴν ἐν ἐαυτοῖς).

The question may be asked whether it is possible to trace any likeness or fundamental connexion between the Gospel and the Pauline uses of σάρξ. In St. Paul’s writings very marked emphasis is laid upon this word, and for him it clothes a conception rich with ethical significance. The ‘flesh’ is the present abode of sin, which requires an obedient subject to execute its behests. So closely does he connect the power of sin with the existing weakness of the flesh that he does not hesitate to say from his own experience ‘I know that in … my flesh dwelleth no good thing’ (Romans 7:18). At the same time, he is careful to point out that this is not the state appointed for man by God. The ‘crucifixion’ of the flesh is possible for every man who wills to walk not ‘according to the flesh’ but ‘according to the Spirit’ (οἱτὴν σάρκα ἐσταύρωσαν, κ.τ.λ., Galatians 5:24, cf. Romans 8:4 f.), and those who have the indwelling presence of the Spirit are no longer in the flesh (ἐν σαρκί) but in the Spirit (ἐν πνεύματι, Romans 8:9). With these we may compare such expressions as ‘the mind of the flesh’ (φρόνημα τῆς σαρκός) and ‘the mind of the Spirit’ (φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος, Romans 8:6; ὑπὸ τοῦ νοὸς τῆς σαρκός, Colossians 2:18), from which we can gather how present to St. Paul’s mind was the connexion between sin and the flesh, and at the same time how strong within him was the glorious hope that such connexion in the ultimate result was abnormal and destined for destruction. There is no sign in the Pauline terminology that he was influenced in his theological conceptions by the spirit of that Greek dualism which wormed its way into subsequent Christian thought with lasting and for the most part evil consequences (see Müller, Christian Doct. of Sin, i. 320 ff.).

The redemption and the quickening of the body (… τὴν ἀπολύτρωσιν τοῦ σώματος, Romans 8:23; … ζωοποιήσει τὰ θνητὰ σώματα, Romans 8:11; cf. Romans 6:12, 2 Corinthians 4:11) are features essential to the scheme of salvation as outlined and systematized by St. Paul. The condemnation of sin ‘in the flesh’ by God, who for this purpose sent His Son ‘in the likeness of the flesh of sin’ (Romans 8:3), is evidence that there is, for him, no naturally essential connexion between the flesh and evil.

We are not without signs that this is just the point of view from which the Evangelists looked at this question (cf. John 1:14; John 17:2, Luke 3:6; Luke 11:34 = Matthew 6:22), and that neither they nor the Apostle of the Gentiles were touched by that false belief which identified sin with matter, and, therefore, with ‘the body of the flesh’ (cf. Colossians 1:22; Colossians 2:11). The anthropology of the Gospels, as well as the psychological conceptions which emerge but rarely and incidentally from their pages, are essentially Hebrew, and are never stained by the potential immoralities which characterized the later Alexandrian and Hellenistic theology.

Literature.—Stevens, The Theology of the NT, pp. 189 f., 338 ff.; Harnack, Hist. of Dogma, i. 53–224, iii. 183, 255 ff., etc.; H. H. Wendt, Die Begriffe Fleisch und Geist; Laidlaw, The Bible Doctrine of Man, and his artt. ‘Psychology’ and ‘Flesh’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible; Weiss, Biblical Theology of the NT, § 27; Cremer, Bibl.-Theol. Lex. of NT Greek, s.v. σάρξ.

J. R. Willis.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Flesh (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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