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Our old friend (2 Cor 7:5) — Mondays with Mounce 262

Categories Mondays with Mounce

The translation of σάρξ has caused lots of grief over the years. BDAG gives it the semantic range of “flesh, physical body, a living being with flesh, human/mortal nature, earthly descent, the outward side of life.” Paul often uses it to describe the weak, sinful, human condition. So how should it be translated?

The formal equivalent group says, just use “flesh” and let the reader figure it out. The dynamic group says this can produce meaningless translations, or at worse misleading translations.

It would be wonderful if we had a single word in English that corresponded to all the uses of σάρξ, but sadly the word does not exist.

2 Cor 7:5 is an interesting example of why you can’t just say “flesh.” Paul writes, “For even when we came to Macedonia, our bodies (σάρξ) had no rest, but on all sides we were distressed — from the outside came conflicts, from within there were fears.” You can’t simply say, “Our flesh had no rest; the KJV/NASB do precisely that, but that is not English.” Even the ESV says “bodies, along with the NRSV and NET. The NIV/NLT simply has “we/us,” which loses all sense of σάρξ.

Why can’t you say, “Our flesh had no rest”? Because it doesn’t mean anything. If you were raised in the church reading older translations, you could figure it out; but for normal English use, especially for those not raised in the church, it is meaningless. Does the flesh rest but the bones keep working? Or how about flesh resting but the muscles working? See what I mean; the words are meaningless outside of “churcheze.”

The HCSB does an interesting thing, which we see many times in many translations. They translate “we” and footnote, “Lit our flesh.” I object to this type of footnote because σάρξ does not literally mean “flesh.” It literally means many things, and what it literally means in one context may vary from another context. What the HCSB means is that a common gloss for σάρξ is “flesh,” but a gloss is not a meaning. It is a one word approximation that may be right in some contexts.

So let’s stop pretending that σάρξ, or any word for that matter, has a “literal” meaning that corresponds on a one-for-one basis to an English word. “Literal” has to do with meaning, not form — check a good English dictionary.

σάρξ “literally” means σάρξ.

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William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics on the ZA Blog. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.

Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at Teknia.com and visit his blog on spiritual growth at BiblicalTraining.org/blog/life-journey.

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