Flesh in Galatians: Correcting a Christian Perversion of the Text

This morning, in one of our conversations, Tapji Garba asked me a sidebar question about "flesh" in Paul. To which I said, "That's a huge question!" (Because, of course, it is!) But specifically, about "flesh" in Galatians, where it comes to stand opposite "spirit" in a few loci that have been taken as profoundly pejorative by the tradition.

So I had a look, because it's a good question and not one I had any solid answer to other than "well, the tradition tends to involve people saying X, and sometimes also Y…." And I hate that answer. And I like word studies. And Galatians is manageably small and sufficiently context-rich to come up with a decent answer. And I thought the result was sufficiently interesting that someone else might be able to use it, so here you go.

I'm going to suggest that σαρξ, "flesh," is simply a reference to human biology. That includes anything from the bare fact of it all the way up to (de)formations of the body, and the whole range of possible distinctions we are capable of making on the basis of bodily differences (and things we presume to be associated with bodily differences). I do not see any justification for deprecation of "flesh" here in Paul's use, and if it's not in Galatians it's probably not deprecatory elsewhere.

Of course, there is a deprecatory context here, and a related failure of interpretation to be avoided. Paul is clearly deprecating his opposition. Not Jews or "Judaizers," but proselytizers from the ethnic fundamentalist Zealot faction, seeking to compel a very particular variety of "conversion therapy" upon pious gentiles who are already right with Yahweh. Shaye Cohen suggests that there is no evidence for circumcision as a general litmus test for Judean identity in the Hellenistic milieu, though it appears as part of the stereotype. Nobody's going around looking at penises to discern religious identity, least of all the relatively prudish conservative Judean population in the diaspora. But a faction obsessed with Torachic obedience and scriptural realities seems quite likely to have used circumcision in the "traditional" fashion as a symbolic gateway to gentile entrance. And "flesh" as a basis for identity, discriminating between self and other, appears again and again in this text.

Let's hit the passages:
  • Gal 1:16, οὐ προσανεθέμην σαρκὶ καὶ αἵματι, "I did not consult with flesh and blood," using the term as part of a merism referring to human beings, "people";
  • Gal 2:16, ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται πᾶσα σάρξ, "all flesh will not be justified by means of deeds of Torah," using the term as a simple synechdoche, again for "people";
  • Gal 2:20, ὃ δὲ νῦν ζῶ ἐν σαρκί, "the [life] I now live in the flesh," using the term as a simple reference to embodiment;
  • Gal 3:3, ἐναρξάμενοι πνεύματι νῦν σαρκὶ ἐπιτελεῖσθε, "having begun with spirit, will you now finish with flesh?" using the term to characterize the progression from trust in God to the Zealots' form of Torachic obedience signified by circumcision, body modification being the sign of conversion (even though it was not a sign of identity);
  • Gal 4:13, δι’ ἀσθένειαν τῆς σαρκὸς, "in/during bodily weakness" and 4:14, τὸν πειρασμὸν ὑμῶν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου, "your temptation occasioned by my flesh," both referencing some physical fact of Paul originally or nominally objectionable to the audience (which is not itself mentioned because everyone involved already knows about the matter);
  • Gal 4:23, ὁ μὲν ἐκ τῆς παιδίσκης κατὰ σάρκα γεγέννηται, "the one from the maid, conceived according to flesh," using the term to refer to the "natural" conception of Ishmael between Abraham and Hagar, as opposed to the "unnatural" but promised fact of Isaac because of Sarah's barrenness;
  • Gal 4:29, ὥσπερ τότε ὁ κατὰ σάρκα γεννηθεὶς ἐδίωκε τὸν κατὰ πνεῦμα οὕτως καὶ νῦν, "As it was then, so also now, those conceived according to flesh pursued/compelled those conceived according to spirit," leveraging the Ishmael/Isaac distinction polemically against the Zealot proselytizers ("flesh" pointing to circumcision), framing the pious gentiles as children of promise;
  • Gal 5:13, μὴ τὴν ἐλευθερίαν εἰς ἀφορμὴν τῇ σαρκί, "do not make that freedom into an opportunity for the flesh," referring to the abuse of spiritual freedom to support (rather than deny/overcome) human/biological/bodily distinctions between people;
  • Gal 5:16-17, ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς οὐ μὴ τελέσητε· ἡ γὰρ σὰρξ ἐπιθυμεῖ κατὰ τοῦ πνεύματος τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα κατὰ τῆς σαρκός, "you will by no means fulfill the appetites of the flesh, for the flesh desires against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh," using the term again to suggest desires based on human/biological/bodily distinctions;
  • Gal 5:19, φανερὰ δέ ἐστιν τὰ ἔργα τῆς σαρκός, "Now, the deeds of the flesh are obvious..." using the term as the basis for a vice list predicated on the abuse of and division or conflict between people along lines of human/biological/bodily distinctions, including those of class/group that we might at the very least call partisan;
  • Gal 5:24, οἱ δὲ τοῦ Χριστοῦ τὴν σάρκα ἐσταύρωσαν σὺν τοῖς παθήμασιν καὶ ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις, "Now, those belonging to Christ have crucified the flesh along with its experiences and appetites," using the term in the context of the crucifixion to illustrate the end of human/biological/bodily vices and the suffering we inflict by them;
  • Gal 6:8, ὁ σπείρων εἰς τὴν σάρκα ἑαυτοῦ ἐκ τῆς σαρκὸς θερίσει φθοράν, "Who sows to their own flesh will harvest dissolution," suggesting in the context of Zealot proselytizers a preference for one's own kind of body or people, where sexual reference to incest is only the analogy, not the intended reference;
  • Gal 6:12, ὅσοι θέλουσιν εὐπροσωπῆσαι ἐν σαρκί, οὗτοι ἀναγκάζουσιν ὑμᾶς περιτέμνεσθαι, "Those seeking to appear positively in the flesh are the ones compelling you to circumcise," using the term in what seems to be the same "in the flesh" sense as 2:20, with the added connotation of embodying their way of life and its advantages; and
  • Gal 6:13, ἵνα ἐν τῇ ὑμετέρᾳ σαρκὶ καυχήσωνται, "in order that they may boast in your flesh," suggesting the advantage that accrues to the proselytizers because of the (number of) converts that therefore adopt their way of life, circumcision and all.

On the basis of these references, it doesn't look like "flesh" is in any way bad—but the body has wants that should not morally be judged worthy. "Flesh" should not be served, or obeyed, especially in the sense in which it refers to my kind of flesh over against other kinds.

Where "flesh" meets "spirit," we typically make an ascetic dualism, but that doesn't seem to be the root of the discussion. It looks like the connection appears principally in the matter of Ishmael and Isaac, as the naturally-conceived vs the promised and magical offspring. In the Old Testament there is a fairly significant motif along the lines of "people think God will back natural facts or biological succession, but God picks differently." Genesis in particular makes the case for this. But the case is not altogether in favor of the people who tell these stories elsewhere.

Israel, as a people and as a man, is the exemplar of God's choice against biology, making a way contrary to the orders of the world. And, of course, Israel is also the exemplar of the human tendency to want things to work "naturally" or "in order" once they're on top, which God frustrates.

We can't lose sight of the facts that Genesis preserves against other tellings of the same stories: God's care for the "natural," even as it is not granted dominance. Hagar and Ishmael, Esau, these are people of promise in their own right. God is the only one who is to dominate, and God's dominion is care. Israel, the church, all analogous realities are not the singularity, but the accretion disk. The real thing is God, and yet we try to replace God so ridiculously often. Genesis doesn't let this go by unquestioned. The tendency of "the people" in self-story to look down on, and direct God to look down upon, the outsider and the other and the non-chosen is subverted intentionally in Genesis. It's not enough, but at least it's there, and has remained available for vitally necessary corrections across our histories.

Flesh isn't bad, no matter what it looks like or doesn't look like, no matter what ways of life it chooses or rejects for itself. God cares for flesh, as for the whole created realm. So don't use it as something like a handle on the world, a way you can make the world make sense. That's the Fall, right there. Ethics is Spirit, obedience to God, pursuit and reproduction of God's dominion of care.

Comments

  1. (Google is confusing me -- an earlier version of this comment may have already gone through already).

    Thanks for the exegetical spadework. But two things:

    "Nobody's going around looking at penises to discern religious identity, least of all the relatively prudish conservative Judean population in the diaspora."

    Really? What about 5:12: "ὄφελον καὶ ἀποκόψονται οἱ ἀναστατοῦντες ὑμᾶς." ("And I wish those troubling you would just cut it off!" -- "castrate themselves", in NRSV pulpitese.)

    Sounds pretty visceral to me. Is this Pauline hyperbole and a fit of pique, much as a contemporary person might say: "I wish those folks troubling you would just go f*** themselves"?

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    1. Oh, I don't mean that the proselytizers aren't pushing circumcision as the signal component of a particular form of Torachic obedience for converts. That's pretty clearly going on here, and yes: Paul is suggesting that these pushy mohels start slashing more than their own prices.

      I mean that, in "normal" Hellenistic society, the question of who is a Judean is not answered by genital inspection. Nor are the Galatians trying to pass themselves off as Judeans of a particular sect. The question of who is a Judean is answered by cultural observances, which also allow the breakdown of what sectarian version of cultural Judaism one belongs to. The bare fact of circumcision tells none of that, and the absence of circumcision certainly isn't taken as a mark against the piety of the God-fearers.

      The reality in Galatia appears to be a conflict with totalizing fundamentalism, in which a very particular and relatively extensive set of cultural observances are bundled as "Judaism" simpliciter and promoted in polemical opposition to all "lesser" forms of piety. You are not Jewish enough, you are not right with Yahweh, unless you live this way of life fully. The power and social capital of this totalizing "Judaism" is seen in its felt normativity, even by those who know better. So the question is not circumcision itself, but what circumcision stands for in the context. It stands for the demand of total conversion to fundamentalism as the only proper form of the religion. There's nothing wrong with circumcision, any more than keeping one's foreskin, for Paul and his fellow missionaries. The question of choosing a way of life before God is to be answered freely, in response to the Spirit and one's neighbors. But when circumcision has been weaponized into a tool of culture wars, it becomes a problem in that context.

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    2. I've connected this totalizing fundamentalism to the Zealots, as the ethnic nationalist faction, not least because Paul seems to signal it in 1:14. This is the same body of bickering subfactions that will provoke the Judean war, and retreat from the Galilee to occupy Jerusalem during the brief intermission and civil war in which Vespasian winds up Imperator. They are those who do not get along in "polite society," looking for a reason to take offense, in spite of the fact that they are genuinely a minority in the Hellenistic world. And Paul claims to know them from the inside, and to be the equivalent of a post-Evangelical today. What happens when "some from Franklin Graham" arrive? What does baptism mean? What is faith? Paul might have suggested that Southern Baptist missionaries targeting already-faithful Christians drown themselves.

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  2. Second, I want to push back a little on your claim that sarx in Galatians is used pretty much univocally to mean somatic existence. Your citations from chaps. 1-4 seem to be solid, on the face of it. But when we get to chapter 5, it seems less self evident to me he's just talking about being embodied. Especially when this sarx/pnuema dialectic or dualism comes into play, I start to think there is a deeper and more metaphorical use of sarx afoot (or maybe I'm reading too much into this from reading Romans?).

    (1) Gal 5:13, μὴ τὴν ἐλευθερίαν εἰς ἀφορμὴν τῇ σαρκί, "do not make that freedom into an opportunity for the flesh," referring to the abuse of spiritual freedom to support (rather than deny/overcome) human/biological/bodily distinctions between people;

    Okay, maybe you're right here. I'm thinking about it.

    (2) Gal 5:16-17, ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς οὐ μὴ τελέσητε· ἡ γὰρ σὰρξ ἐπιθυμεῖ κατὰ τοῦ πνεύματος τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα κατὰ τῆς σαρκός, "you will by no means fulfill the appetites of the flesh, for the flesh desires against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh," using the term again to suggest desires based on human/biological/bodily distinctions;

    When he brings in epithumia, I'm starting to think about fallen sarx, not just the physical stuff, as I think Paul's notion of desire is fairly complex. Again, though, maybe I'm retrojecting too much from Romans 7?

    (3) Gal 5:19, φανερὰ δέ ἐστιν τὰ ἔργα τῆς σαρκός, "Now, the deeds of the flesh are obvious..." using the term as the basis for a vice list predicated on the abuse of and division or conflict between people along lines of human/biological/bodily distinctions, including those of class/group that we might at the very least call partisan;

    Aha! Now here behavior is in view. Your bringing in socio-economic distinctions seems to me to be on point, in and of itself. But it seems to broaden the scope of sarx -- to push it in the direction of describing the non-physical aspects of ensarkic existence -- jealousy, backbiting, etc.

    (4) Gal 5:24, οἱ δὲ τοῦ Χριστοῦ τὴν σάρκα ἐσταύρωσαν σὺν τοῖς παθήμασιν καὶ ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις, "Now, those belonging to Christ have crucified the flesh along with its experiences and appetites," using the term in the context of the crucifixion to illustrate the end of human/biological/bodily vices and the suffering we inflict by them;

    Again, I'm reading more here in this than you seem to be. Or am I reading more into the passage?

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  3. I had another comment that somehow got lost, probably due to my technical ineptitude. But the gist of it was this: I was questioning a bit your claim that "sarx" in Galatians is, in each case, more or less reducible to embodied existence -- even when the broader socio-economic aspects of that embodied existence are in play. I tracked with your argument pretty closely until you hit chapter 5. There, when Paul modifies "sarx" with "epithumia" (desire), the matter seems to me to be a little more complicated. It seems to me to intend sarx precisely as fallen existence -- the person as a fallen psycho-somatic (and social) unity. Possibly I'm reading in too much from the later treatment in Romans. But whenever there is a sarx/pneuma dichotomy, I'm wondering if Paul is talking more existentially about two modes of being within the same psycho-somatic totality.

    Your take on 5:19 is interesting -- extending the notion of embodied/ensarkic existence to material differences among members of the social body. Since he's highlighting deeds, though, and invoking divisive and hurtful ways to be in community I'm wondering if Paul is using sarx more metaphorically than your reading suggests. But you've gotten me to think about this in a new way.

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    1. Whoops, somehow I only just got that one an hour later.

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    2. Okay, per your second comment, I think you're reading the same implications I am, just pushing them harder. I'm fine with metaphorical, I'm just trying like hell to avoid allegorical, much less the disproportionate highlighting of sexual sins as a problem with sex itself that seems so common.

      And certainly σαρξ is being used figuratively, though not metaphorically, in even the first two instances, as a metonym. But the crucial question of figural usage is what the reference basis is. At that point I'm still going to fall back to the human body in its biological reality, including the natural and artificial variations that entails.

      When it comes to the vice list, you suggest behavior is in view. But the only reason to use σαρξ to ground that vice list is because the behaviors derive from this reference basis. They aren't just immoral acts; they are acts on the basis of flesh. Whether or not I go into one, for spatial constraints and time, I think a proper exposition of the vices so enumerated should focus on the abuse of bodies, both actually in the physical sense and conceptually as a basis for behavior.

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    3. "Fallen existence" is a good question here. I'm not sure that Paul thinks of it in anything like the ways we have come to think of it. Specifically, I'm not convinced that there is anything different about us because of the Fall, in terms of human nature or our flesh. The question for Paul appears to be handled in terms of enslavement by false masters. Manumission into the service of God is the root of our new freedom, but the service of God forbids the service of other masters. Which is the direction I would go with the σαρξ vs πνευμα binary as well, considering the ways that sin and death are made into "powers" of our enslavement. Sin, death, and flesh do not go away, but under the new regime they do not rule; they are to become properly subject to God, as we are.

      And while Romans has a slightly different angle, I do think that Romans is concerned with a related issue of ethnocentrism and convert zeal. In both cases, religious identity and its advantages are at stake for the audience and those who rile them up in various directions. And "flesh" as a factor in the extent of one's service to a way of life has a particular direction it is to go, for both Paul and his opposition.

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  4. By suggesting σαρξ in these latter uses is "metaphorical", I don't want to take anything away from Paul's realism. I guess the reason I'm still not quite convinced that embodied existence is the baseline meaning for all these uses of σαρξ is I'm led back to pondering Rom. 7:14-25, where it still seems to me Paul is talking dialectically about the struggle between σὰρξ and πνεῦμα within one psycho-somatic selfhood. Maybe I'm still a little old school here and pre-Stendahlian in my reading. Maybe it is question begging to bring Romans in here. But at any rate, I think you may have the makings here of a journal article, should you be so inclined to pursue it.

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    1. Okay, terminological specificity time. :)

      I want to absolutely affirm your "psycho-somatic selfhood" bit, because I don't believe in the "soul" as a thing. The psyche is the life of human flesh, just as zoē is the life of animal flesh in a larger sense, and bios is the life of living things in general. (I also wonder why sōma isn't in play in Paul in these instances, and what his distinction between "body" and "flesh" would be.) When I refer to sarx as a bodily biological reference, it isn't primarily to corpses, and the life lived in the flesh is therefore psychic life in the ways we also mean "minded" and not just "alive."

      I am not clear that pneuma, however, is a reference that can be made to any internal part of the living human being. Pneumatoi appear to interact with living beings of the fleshy variety, and it is suggested now and then that we have one, but it is also suggested that a person can be possessed by one in mantic instances, and that pneumatoi are non-corporeal forms of life in the more ghostly sense in addition to being incorporeal or optionally-corporeal as references to something like a deity. "Spirit" is optional as a component of human life in ways psyche is not. One does not have the option of serving one's psyche.

      So when it is said in Rom 7:14 that Torah is pneumatikos, but Paul is a fleshy being trafficked by sin, nothing different is being said than appears in 7:25, when Paul compares the rule of God with the rule of sin. The rule of God comes from outside, and is not a matter of inner wrangling but a way out of it.

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  5. Somehow I missed your most recent comment while posting my own.

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    1. It's alright. Time delay and technology make conversation complicated. :) We're writing across each other, but at least we don't seem to be talking across each other.

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