Paul and Flesh: A case for theological development

There is no doubt that σάρξ is a key concept for Paul, both within his writings as a whole and specifically within Galatians. He uses the term eighteen times in sixteen verses in this book, concentrated in this paragraph but also spread throughout the book. The normal take on Paul’s use of the term is that it ranges from neutral, referencing the physical body or the life lived in the body, to negative, referencing the sinful desires of the human person which are localized in the flesh. The neutral uses are illustrated well with Gal 1:16, εὐθέως οὐ προσανεθέμην σαρκὶ καὶ αἵματι, “immediately I did not consult with flesh and blood [i.e., with mortal persons],” and with Gal 2:20, ὃ δὲ νῦν ζῶ ἐν σαρκί, ἐν πίστει ζῶ τῇ τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ, “[the life] which I now live in the flesh [i.e., in this physical body], I live by faith in the son of God.” The negative uses are illustrated by practically all the occurrences in the present paragraph, most notably 5:19 which highlights the “works of the flesh.” This can be illustrated with BDAG’s elaboration along these lines: “In Paul’s thought esp., all parts of the body constitute a totality known as σ‌. or flesh, which is dominated by sin to such a degree that wherever flesh is, all forms of sin are likew. present, and no good thing can live in the σάρξ.”[1] When thinking about Paul’s argument in this paragraph, however, his use of σάρξ is not as clear-cut as one might think. Paul’s goal in this paragraph is to set up flesh as contrary to the Spirit; as such this develops the idea of “flesh,” moving it into a realm where it did not yet have a claim. The Galatians would have understood “flesh” in the neutral sense, and the purpose of Paul’s argument is to make them realize that it is in fact not neutral. Take for example, v. 17; this opposition appears to prove that σάρξ in this instance is the sinful tendencies of the human person. The problem with this view is simply that if Paul has to explain this to the Galatians as explicitly as he does, the word itself must not have born that denotation (or connotation) normally. The Galatians needed to understand something new about the flesh that they had not known before; Paul graphically explains it by illuminating the native opposition between the flesh and the Spirit and by illustrating without any doubt where following the flesh leads. This distinction is important for understanding his argument as a whole: The Galatians were tempted to submit to circumcision, something done in the flesh. They needed to realize that emphasizing the flesh in this way was counter to the work of the Spirit, something they did not know before. Paul helps them realize that their bodies, and more broadly their human persons and personalities, are inherently contrary to the Spirit whom God had given to them in line with the blessings of Abraham. This is at the same time lexical deepening around the connotations of σάρξ and theological development concerning the sinful nature of humanity, neither of which was understood inherently before based on the meaning of σάρξ. To put it another way, after the Galatians read this passage they would not say, “Yes, we knew all along how bad the flesh was.” Instead they would say, “We never knew our flesh could lead to such problems.”


  1. BDAG 915.  ↩