Four More Suggestions for NIV 2011: Flesh! Flesh! Flesh! Flesh!

Douglas Moo, Blanchard professor of New Testament at Wheaton Graduate School and member of the Committee for Bible Translation (CBT), expressed his struggles with the NIV’s rendering of sarx as “sinful nature” instead of the more literal “flesh.”

Case #1, according to Prof. Moo:

Whenever I taught Romans over the last couple of decades, I always criticized the NIV translators’ decision to translate sarx (flesh) when Paul uses it in a negative way as “sinful nature.”  I argued that by introducing the word “nature” in these contexts, the translators were setting up a potentially serious misrepresentation of Paul’s understanding of Christian existence.

After being appointed to CBT, prof. Moo had to deal with sarx again but this time to affect a change in the NIV translation:

So the decision came down to this: Should we continue to use “sinful nature,” even though that phrase may give a wrong impression? Or should we stick with “flesh,” even though many English readers may not understand it?  The committee elected to stay with “sinful nature,” at least in most places.”  (“Romans,” NIVAC, p. 253)

Yes, the chances for misunderstanding are there.  But I say keep “flesh” for sarx in the text and provide a footnote.

Case #2:

Keep “flesh” for sarx at John 1:14, though CBT might be tempted to follow the NLT, “human” in the text and “flesh” as a footnote.  My suggestion is to do the opposite of the NLT.

“Flesh” for becoming human has a unique incarnational ring to it.

Case #3:

At 1 Timothy 3:16, “a body” for sarx is already awkward.  Why not use “flesh” and then “a human body” as a footnote.  That should do it.

Case #4:

At Hebrews 5:7, return to “flesh” instead of “life on earth” for the Greek sarx and footnote “life on earth.”  Again, “flesh” has that incarnational ring to it—a ring that “life on earth” does carry.

But I don’t think these suggestion will be reflected in the NIV Bible 2011.  My feeling is that sarx will continue to be translated the way it is in the NIV, at the places I’ve noted above.

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35 Responses to Four More Suggestions for NIV 2011: Flesh! Flesh! Flesh! Flesh!

  1. Mike Aubrey says:

    “Then, in 1995, I was asked to join the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), the group charged with oversight of the NIV text. As we comprehensively reviewed the NIV text with a view to needed revisions, we came to Romans — and I was asked to serve on a subcommittee that would recommend alternatives to the existing NIV rendering of sarx in Paul. As we did our work — based on a comprehensive review of the translation alternatives by my colleague Walter Liefeld — it quickly became apparent to me that the translator had to consider factors that the exegete and the teacher did not. . . .[W]hat the TNIV may sacrifice on this score [of concordance for sarx] may be more than made up for in contextual readability. Every indication is that the ability ofpeople to read is steadily declining. If we are to hope for a Bible that an entire congregation can use, the readability of a more contextually nuanced translation such as the TNIV may be the best option.”

    –Doug Moo, “‘Flesh’ in Romans: A Challenge for the Translator” in The Challenge of Bible Translation (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2003), 365 & 377.

  2. bt says:

    The proper translation and understanding of ‘sarx’ is an issue that, I think, speaks to serious theological ideas, including the divine flesh heresy, the notion of original sin and inherited guilt, among others. I’m still not entirely sure where to stand on the issue, but I fear that modern translation is heavily influenced by theological preconceptions.

    • T.C. R says:

      BT,

      Then keeping “flesh” for sarx seems like a good start and then a footnote or two.

      Because of “theological preconceptions” as you charged, then what do you propose as a viable option?

  3. T.C. R says:

    Mike, thanks for this quote. But what was his conclusion? Is it the same as from NIVAC?

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Today, for most speakers of English, the word “flesh” is becoming obsolete. For most of those who do understand the word, it means only ‘soft body tissue near the skin.’ It does not mean ‘body’ nor does it refer to any part of our nature or any other non-physical part of our being. Sarx is truly a difficult word to translate to current English. Biblical scholars and Bible translators need to do further research and discuss this further so that we communicate the biblical meaning of sarx accurately in each biblical context.

  5. T.C. R says:

    Wayne,

    I always appreciate an input from an actual linguist and translator.

    What is your proposal for sarx in reference to the incarnation and then Paul’s concept of what is against God?

  6. Kyle Phillips says:

    I’ve mention Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart recently on this blog, but the sarx question leads me to bring it up again. Dr. Willard connects sin to “flesh/sarx” in a direct way. He recognizes that the meaty part of ourselves actually come to embody the practice of sin in a way that dramatically touches upon the will. For him, our “bondage to the flesh” is a literal expression. Our “soft body tissue near the skin” per Wayne Lehman above greatly influences our ability to respond in obedience to the Lord. Willard likens the process to the way an athlete trains his body so it will perform in a specific way without conscious thought on the athlete’s part (ea. a golf swing or tennis stroke). Out meaty parts have been “trained” to sin, so to speak, by the multifaceted influences of the Fall in self, community and culture. I like “sarx” as “flesh” because it keeps this connection of sin to body very, very close. I think “sarx” as “sinful nature” is over spiritualizing something Paul wants to keep much more closely to skin, bones, and sinews.

    • T.C. R says:

      Kyle said:

      I like “sarx” as “flesh” because it keeps this connection of sin to body very, very close. I think “sarx” as “sinful nature” is over spiritualizing something Paul wants to keep much more closely to skin, bones, and sinews.

      If this is really what Paul meant by sarx, then we should indeed retain “flesh” with a footnote.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    You asked:

    What is your proposal for sarx in reference to the incarnation and then Paul’s concept of what is against God?>

    My proposal remains the final sentence of my preceding comment:

    Biblical scholars and Bible translators need to do further research and discuss this further so that we communicate the biblical meaning of sarx accurately in each biblical context.

    I wish I had a solid answer, T.C. but I don’t. That is why scholars of the caliber of Doug Moo struggle with this question. It is difficult.

    With respect to the incarnation, clearly we have to communicate the meaning the Christ “became a human” in order for the translation to be accurate to the biblical text. But which particular English words to convey that needs to be researched, carefully studied, and carefully discussed.

    I don’t know how to translate what is against God in Romans, partly because even though I have quite a lot of theological training, it is not clear to me, nor to many others, exactly what Paul was talking about. If it were clear, we would not have so many differences of opinion among Bible scholars about the meaning of sarx in Romans. If the meaning were clearer there would not have been the debate for so many years over the NIV translation of sarx. The NIV translation committee are each Bible scholars. They did not translate as “sinful nature” lightly. But they, I am sure, are willing to revisit this translation in the NIV, just as they are willing ro re-visit any other translations in the NIV, when further insight becomes available.

    The first step in translation is to try to figure out what the biblical text actually means. It’s not always clear what sarx is referring to. So when it’s not clear, we cannot translate easily.

    I suggest that we need to be humble and careful in our statements so that we do not overly simplify things, especially for others who may not have as much biblical background as we do. I sure recognize how limited I am when I come upon difficult issues such as how to translate sarx.

    Now, if you can tell me what sarx means in several passages in Romans, I’d be more than happy to wrestle with you on what possible English words might be used to translate those meanings. Until we know what the meaning is, however, I think we cannot speak confidently about how to translate sarx.

  8. T.C. R says:

    Wayne said:

    Until we know what the meaning is, however, I think we cannot speak confidently about how to translate sarx.

    Then the concession of prof. Moo and others of “sinful nature” must do for now.

    I wish I had an example or two because sarx as anti-God and the things of God is what I have in mind per Romans 8:7-8.

    Drawing from prof. Willard, Kyle makes the point above: “Paul wants to keep much more closely to skin, bones, and sinews,” in contending for “flesh.” What say ye?

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    Drawing from prof. Willard, Kyle makes the point above: “Paul wants to keep much more closely to skin, bones, and sinews,” in contending for “flesh.” What say ye?

    I have my doubts about that one. I don’t think Paul is talking about skin, bones, and sinews. They have no volition, yet Paul speaks of sarx as something that battles. I suppose that could be said, metaphorically, about skin and bones, but as soon as we go metaphorical we move away from literal skin and bones, don’t we? So then we are left with the starting question: What was Paul referring to? Perhaps it’s the “inclination to sin”, if the idea of an original sin nature is too strong for some people. But maybe there’s really no difference.

    Sorry, I really don’t know how to translate Paul’s sarx without knowing better what Paul was referring to. But I do appreciate being able to discuss this. Thanks for being a discussion partner.

  10. Mike Aubrey says:

    The ellipsis between the two halves of the quote are separated about 12 pages of discussion. That is to say, the second half of the quote is his conclusion: the TNIV’s rendering is probably the best option.

  11. T.C. R says:

    Wayne said:

    I have my doubts about that one. I don’t think Paul is talking about skin, bones, and sinews. They have no volition, yet Paul speaks of sarx as something that battles. I suppose that could be said, metaphorically, about skin and bones, but as soon as we go metaphorical we move away from literal skin and bones, don’t we?

    Then “sinful nature” seems to be our best bet. 😉

    Mike, thanks for the clarification.

    That sarx has become skolops is all too obvioius. 😀

  12. Kyle Phillips says:

    Wayne said:

    “I have my doubts about that one. I don’t think Paul is talking about skin, bones, and sinews. They have no volition, yet Paul speaks of sarx as something that battles.”

    As a pastor I have a deep seated intuition that there is more going on in sarx here. Our addictive-compulsive culture trains people to act out of impulse and a sense of need that comes out of the flesh, literally, not metaphorically. The sugar-high, for example, is a sensation connected directly to body chemistry that people who struggle with obesity experience as a powerlessness in their will. It is a battle with their sarx. Sexual addiction, substance addiction all have this similarity. From here it is not a stretch for me to see the idolatry of covetousness as an dynamic deeply tied to body function. Our flesh, body chemistry, feelings, et. al. have a profound affect on our volition. Dr. Willard’s point is that when we disassociate our bodies from the equation we hinder ourselves spiritually.

    America is filled with rehab centers of all kinds of varieties where people are waging war against the fesh. They experience it in their sarx. As a pastor I like sarx as “flesh” because it it the most immediate, and I believe, needful challenge for our people who have been spiritual formed in this consumeristic culture.

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Kyle wrote:

    Our addictive-compulsive culture trains people to act out of impulse and a sense of need that comes out of the flesh, literally, not metaphorically.

    And I completely agree with you, Kyle. I’m sure that Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, deliberately used the word sarx, which, at its core, is about a physical part of our bodies, to refer to the carnal, hedonistic impulses and addictions that we have. Perhaps there is no metaphor at all. Perhaps there is simply personification of sarx so that Paul could write about it as if it has a will of its own that battles against our redeemed (and being redeemed) spirit. We just don’t know exactly what Paul’s meaning was unless we study very carefully. I think we should study very carefully. Theology is important. Thinking about what makes sense to us is important. But what is most important when we are actually translating the Bible is: What did the original author mean? Often we can figure that out. And if we can, then we can figure out how what is the closest, most accurate equivalent in current English (if we desire to translate into current English).

  14. Kyle Phillips says:

    Wayne,

    I agree completely with you when you write,

    “We just don’t know exactly what Paul’s meaning was unless we study very carefully. I think we should study very carefully. Theology is important. Thinking about what makes sense to us is important. But what is most important when we are actually translating the Bible is: What did the original author mean? Often we can figure that out.”

    Our Western orientation will often lead us into reading from a Greek body/soul dualism, the classic notion that the body is simply the shell of our deeper, truer selves. As you know, the Bible reveals, in contrast, that reality is a unity. The physical and the spiritual our deeply intertwined, unable to be easily separated.

    Hebrews 4:12 is a beautiful picture of this integration in the word of God piercing “to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow” as if the deliberations in the heart include all of it, soul, spirit, joints and marrow.

    I’m thinking I want to read Paul more out of the Jewish world than the Hellenic. Maybe he’s being intentionally ambiguous to hook a more Greek-oriented crowd. I like the simple sarx as flesh. Keep the blood and guts in it, maybe add a marginal note and challenge the reader to think a little harder.

  15. Wayne Leman says:

    Kyle, I very much agree with you that we need to be sure we don’t miss a Hebraic viewpoint in Paul’s Greek (as well as the Greek of James, et al). I have no problem understanding sarx as meaning the soft tissue near the skin. At this stage of my biblical research I simply don’t know well enough what Paul meant by sarx in Romans to know how to translate it most accurately to English. There were other Greek words for bones and blood. Sarx referred to the soft tissue. It was also metaphorically extended to refer to humanity. Angels did not have sarx. But Jesus took on sarx in his incarnation. He took on more than skin, more than muscle, sinew, and blood, to become a human. He took on everything that defines what it means to be human, including getting tired, frustrated, angry, etc., but without sinning. What a Savior!

    I’m still thinking about how to translate sarx in the different ways it is used in the Bible, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. I have to think about this because Bible translators *have to* decide on a word or words to use to translate each biblical language word.

  16. Scott W says:

    Sarx has to do with the weakness and corruptibility of fallen humanity–the whole person, as it’s used negatively by St. Paul, but it has a wide semantic range.

    pages 105-108 of the book Paul’s Necessary Sin has some good analysis of this terms and how exegetes have wrestled with it.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=oa1XOoKmNv4C&lpg=PA105&ots=AoDbrC2lrf&dq=sarx%20definition&pg=PA105#v=onepage&q=sarx%20definition&f=false

  17. Kyle Phillips says:

    Scott,

    Appreciate the “wide semantic range” of sarx. Most four letter words in any langauge do.

    The particular use of sarx in Romans 6-8 looses something I think when translated “sinful nature” as the NIV does. You’re right that “sarx has to do with the weakness and corruptibility of humanity,” but I would add with respect to the physical aspect of our spirituality, ie our flesh. When Paul writes throughout Romans 6-8 of “members” he means “body parts.” We miss something in our tendancy to over spiritualize. Check out Romans 7:5. The NIV stumbles a bit by their committment to “sinful nature.” In translating “melos” they say “bodies” rather than “body parts” because they need to retreive something they left behind when they sprititualized sarx as “sinful nature.”

    I guess I’m wanting to leave the four letter Greek word “sarx” translated as a five letter English word “flesh” rather than use a theological contrivance “sinful nature” and let the context narrow the semantic range.

  18. Scott W says:

    Kyle-
    I wholehearedly agree that “sinful nature” is a bad translation fraught with all kinds of connatations spiritually, psychologically and somatically which does not capture what St. Paul meant. I would prefer, though, to “flesh out” sarx in a dynamic equivalent manner which attempts to capture the particular way it is used contextually, which a note that it is rendering of sarx. This is why real translation is difficult and there is a loss of nerve in doing what should be done for theolgical and other reasons.

  19. T.C. R says:

    You guys have been taking me to school on this one. I’m at your feet on this one. 😀

  20. T.C. R says:

    Scott W said:

    I would prefer, though, to “flesh out” sarx in a dynamic equivalent manner which attempts to capture the particular way it is used contextually, which a note that it is rendering of sarx. This is why real translation is difficult and there is a loss of nerve in doing what should be done for theolgical and other reasons.

    Scott, that’s the difficulty. Since the emergence of the NIV we’ve had to debate sarx, “sinful nature” or “flesh.” It seems like to choose one and not the other is to lose something.

  21. Scott W says:

    TC-
    The term “flesh” already has so much baggage in our culture–much of it from distorted theological understandings. So a default position is not really a neutral position. Translators have to “man and woman” up and make responsible renderings so that readers/hearers can understand Paul as best they can. Bottoml line: “sinful nature” misses the mark.

  22. Kyle Phillips says:

    I’ve never like NIV’s “sinful nature.” Sarx is better, even if only a “default.” “Embodied self” or “bodily self” might begin to get at it. Danger there would be slipping into the Greek body/soul dualism predominant in the West.

  23. T.C. R says:

    Scott,

    Perhaps a footnote or two would do the trick. The revered NRSV simply has “flesh.”

    Now, according to many, the Common English Bible, which is touted as successor to the NRSV should be out in 2011. I’ll like to know how sarx has been handled.

  24. Scott W says:

    TC writes: Now, according to many, the Common English Bible, which is touted as successor to the NRSV should be out in 2011. I’ll like to know how sarx has been handled.

    For the forthcoming CEB the post by the project director, Paul Franklyn, gives insight on how they are wrestling with this thorny issue:

    http://betterbibles.com/2009/07/23/how-do-we-say-that-in-english/#comment-14521

  25. T.C. R says:

    Scott,

    Thanks for that link. Quite interesting. But too bland.

  26. Pingback: Sarx, Flesh, and Mismatched Metaphors « God Didn't Say That

  27. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    I remain convinced that God himself provided an answer way back in Genesis 8.21:

    The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.”

    If evil is defined as anything that separates us from God, then we understand that our natural state is inclined toward ourselves and away from God and that we slide down that slippery slope more easily than not, even at the youngest age. But it also keeps open the possibility that a human heart, directed and led by the Spirit, might resist such natural temptation and consequent corruption. This was the case of Jesus, yes?

    As far as I know, only the NJB has chosen this path, e.g. Romans 8.3-4:

    What the Law could not do because of the weakness of human nature, God did, sending his own Son in the same human nature as any sinner to be a sacrifice for sin, and condemning sin in that human nature. This was so that the Law’s requirements might be fully satisfied in us as we direct our lives not by our natural inclinations but by the Spirit.

  28. T.C. R says:

    EE,

    You’ve made a solid case. I looked up NJB in Galatians 5. It reads “self-indulgence” for the Greek sarx.

    But wouldn’t “our natural inclination” be “sinful,” hence NIV “sinful nature.”

    NEB has “lower nature” in Romans 8.

  29. Scott W says:

    There are tensions in attempting to do translation through biblical and systematic theological reflection.

    Theologically speaking, humanity’s “natural state” is not haracterized by sin and its consequences. Our natural state is one of YHWH’s image bearers with the potential to use the freedom we have as for good or ill, which has consequences for humanity on evey level. On a theological level,hovering like a specter in the background is the Augustinian legacy of theological anthropology and its relation to the Fall.

    I think part of the problem is that we try to make this an lexical or a theological issue when, in fact, it’s more of a matter of attending to St. Paul’s thought in a literary sense, in which sarx can have positive, negative or neutral connotations. I think translations themselves should reflect these nuances in the various ways sarx is used, which revolve around human existence in this aeon (of the Fall).

  30. T.C. R says:

    On a theological level,hovering like a specter in the background is the Augustinian legacy of theological anthropology and its relation to the Fall.

    Scott,

    What if this Augustinian influence is partly correct? Truth echoed on a Hippo back in the 4th and 5th is still truth.

    I think part of the problem is that we try to make this an lexical or a theological issue when, in fact, it’s more of a matter of attending to St. Paul’s thought in a literary sense, in which sarx can have positive, negative or neutral connotations.

    I do not see this neutrality of which you speak in St. Paul’s Letters. Maybe you can help me see this.

  31. Scott W says:

    TC I do not see this neutrality of which you speak in St. Paul’s Letters. Maybe you can help me see this.

    TC-“Neutrality” may be the incorrect term; maybe ambivalent would be better, even though not perfect. I have in mind Rom. 1:3 where Jesus’ Davidic descent is described kata sarka. Interpreters have seen this as a means of playing down the Messianic import of Jesus role, or as NT Wright opines concerning the NIV, by translating it “human nature” is getting into territory delimited by Nicene concerns when that may be in the picture here. If, the messianic category is important for Pauline soteriology, which I agree with, sarx has importance here. If I understand Wright’s point, it has to do with something similar to Athanasius’ claim: that God became human so that human can become god–a type of real identification without which salvation, in its broad sense, is a fiction.

  32. T.C. R says:

    Scott,

    Above you referenced the nuances of sarx. Rom. 1:3 is one such nuance. Yes, kata sarka, “according to the flesh,” but the context informs us as to what Paul means, “earthly life,” human descent.”

    Whereas as in Rom. 8:7 sarx means to that which is against God, however we wish to handle the Greek. That’s the issue.

    I do not think ambivalence can be appealed to either.

    Yes, there’s no doubt about the use of sarx at Rom. 1:3. The incarnational distinctive is truly in view, God becoming fully human.

    What a thought!

  33. Pingback: N.T. Wright Interprets “Flesh” for Everyone | New Leaven

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