Not long ago I was talking with someone about Bible text and comparing how the translations we were using rendered the verses. It struck me that we can get so used to the Bible translations that we’re accustomed to using — whether by choice or happenstance — that we never consider or even know about other possible readings of difficult verses. In a lot of the Bible, that’s probably fine — there’s not that much variation in possible meaning. But in other places, not being aware of other translations can be problematic. We can miss nuance or alternate meanings that have been obscured by whoever it is that produced the translation we’re using. So, occasionally, I’m going to write about a translation that makes a contribution toward better understanding a particular text. This will be the first of those posts.
I’ve written about Bible translations before, including a series on different available English translations. Translation is an inexact science, at best. In fact it’s as much art as science. It’s not just a one-for-one swap of words. There is context and vernacular to consider. There are considerations about who your intended audience is. Are you creating a translation for reading aloud in a church, or for an individual reading silently? How do you best communicate figures of speech from one language into another?
Sometimes the choices translators make end up importing meaning into a text. All translation is a form of interpretation, but at some point you cross a line and enshrine a particular interpretation in your translation.
When the New International Version was first published in 1978, there was a lot of controversy in some circles about the way it handled the word sarx, a Greek word that is often translated “flesh” in English Bibles. (We get the word sarcoma, through Latin, from it.) It has a range of meanings, though. Sometimes it means the “meat” that makes up a human body. Sometimes it’s used as a kind of a shorthand for the entire human being. It can be used to refer to human beings collectively. Sometimes, it’s contrasted with Spirit, and so you could actually translate it “merely flesh” if you were so inclined.
Usually, you can tell by the context which of the range of meanings it has. And so you just need to understand something about the different ways the word can be used and figure out which is intended in a particular verse. It’s usually not all that hard.
But translators have a decision to make with words like that. Do they translate sarx as “flesh” in every usage, and let the reader sort through the range of meaning? Or do they find different words and phrases to try to denote the different connotations the word has?
In 1978, the NIV translated sarx at least 20 times as “sinful nature.” A good example is Romans 8:8. Take a look at this comparison between the very literal way the New Revised Standard Version translates it and the way the NIV translated it in 1978:
NRSV — “…those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
NIV — “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”
The NIV invented a phrase to translate sarx in those contexts that they thought required something more than just “flesh.” That phrase was “sinful nature.” In this case, the translation committee thought “controlled by the sinful nature” was better than “in the flesh.”
You see why they thought so, right? When we say, “in the flesh,” what do we mean? Physically present. When we’re “in the flesh,” we’re here. Maybe I’ve been gone for a while, but now I’m back, “in the flesh.”
So it’s easy for us to read Romans 8:8 as saying that there’s something about the human body that is displeasing to God. It suggests a disconnect between a part of us called “body" and a part of us called “spirit.” It can leave the impression that physicality is distasteful to God and that there’s something inherently sinful or at least distrustful about human drives, desires, and feelings.
The NIV, by using “sinful nature,” was interpreting as they translated. Again, translation is itself a form of interpretation. But how much do you do? How much is too much?
Arguably, “sinful nature,” doesn’t solve the problem. It requires some interpretation as well. Some read it as the sin that we “inherit” from Adam — a doubtful concept linguistically and also theologically. For some, it means that in our human nature we are sinful, which still creates an unhelpful dualism between flesh and spirit.
Most English translations just go with “flesh” and let readers interpret for themselves. Some are freer:
“People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.” (Common English Bible)
“…[T]hose who identify with their old nature cannot please God.”(Complete Jewish Bible)
“If we follow our desires, we cannot please God.” (Contemporary English Version)
“Those who are ruled by their sinful selves cannot please God.” (Easy-to-Read Version)
“Those who obey their human nature cannot please God.” (Good News Translation)
…[T]he carnal attitude is inevitably opposed to the purpose of God…” (Phillips)
“….[T]hose who are still under the control of their old sinful selves, bent on following their old evil desires, can never please God.” (The Living Bible)
“Those who are determined by the flesh can’t please God.” (Kingdom New Testament)
As you can see, the translations above also translate the Greek word usually translated “in” — en — as something else: “identify with,” “follow,” “ruled by,” “obey,” “under the control of,” or “determined by.”
Four verses later, in Romans 8:12-13, Paul mentions living “according to the flesh,” which suggests that Paul means something other by “flesh” than just physicality. As a rough parallel, take the phrase “gasoline engine.” We understand that the engine isn’t made of gasoline. We mean that gasoline powers it. The same when we talk about a “wood stove:” The stove is intended to burn wood as fuel, it’s not made of wood.
So when Paul writes that those who are “in the flesh” can’t please God, he isn’t saying that the bodies God made are inherently evil. In Romans 12:1 he writes that we should offer our bodies as living sacrifices. The only way we can worship and serve God is physically. True and proper worship is offering your body for God’s purposes. You can’t please God if you won’t do that, he says in our text. That’s what it means to be “in the flesh;” you refuse to allow your body to be under the influence of God’s Spirit.
Romans 8:5 says, "Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” That doesn’t mean it’s virtuous to deny your body what it wants. It’s just that, when there’s a conflict between the two, we follow the Holy Spirit. (See Galatians 5:19-25)
When the NIV was revised in 2011, the committee all but did away with “sinful nature.” In the update, Romans 8:8 reads, “Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” They left sarx as “flesh” and translated ev as “in the realm of.” I think that splits the difference pretty well. It lets Paul communicate that what he’s talking about is what rules us. What powers us. What drives the bus.
Our bodies, and their needs, feelings, and desires, were created by God. But they weren’t created to rule us. They were created to do his work in the world. They are made holy in Christ by the presence of his Spirit. Let’s set our minds on what the Spirit wants us to do and to be in the world.