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Paul's usage of sa,rx in Romans and Galatians

By Owen Weddle

In what may be a somewhat puzzling word usage in an OT allusion, Paul in Romans 3:20

alludes Psalm 143:2 in writing ouv dikaiwqh,setai pa/sa sa.rx evnw,pion auvtou/ ("no flesh will be justified

before him"). Why this is interesting is that Psalm 143:2 in the LXX does not use the word sa.rx.

Instead, it reads ouv dikaiwqh,setai evnw,pio,n sou pa/j zw/n ("no one who is living will be justified before

you"). Why did Paul switch from zw/n in the LXX to his own usage of sa.rx? The journey that is taken

in answering that question is one that will provide us much insight into Paul's anthropology and his

usage of sa.rx as a whole.

sa.rx is a word with various nuanced meanings. Louw and Nida attribute eight different

meanings to the term: flesh, body, people, human, nation, human nature, physical nature, and life.1 In

addition, Robert Jewett adds a possible ninth "The word sa.rx was chosen by Paul because it

represented that which was circumcised and thus could be polemically characterized as that in which

one wished to trust."2 Whether all these uses are proper understandings of the usage of the term or not,

it is clear that sa.rx is used with many nuances and in different contexts.

In perusing the list of meanings for sa.rx provided by Louw and Nida, there is a possible overlap

with zw/n. According to them, this is a rather figurative usage of the word with its only clear usage

occurring in Hebrews 5:7. However, one might question the legitimacy of this category. In Hebrews

2:14-18, the necessity of Jesus taking on flesh was so that he was made like his brothers (or the

"children of Abraham") in every way, as opposed to the angels. This was so that he could suffer in

order to be merciful. Additionally, the liberation from the fear of death is a result of Jesus taking upon

"flesh and blood." This pairing of sa.rx and qana,toj ("death") occurs also in 5:7. Instead, the

1 J.P Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domain (New
York: United Bible Societies, 1988).
2 Robert Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms: A Study of Their Use in Conflict Settings (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 96.
connotation seems to be more of mortality. We are left then with no explanation, then, of Paul's allusion

that doesn't require a conscious alteration or addition. Rather, Paul's usage of sa.rx in Rom. 3:20

represents a purposeful move on his part that subtly delegitimates the Torah-observance crowd.

However, one barrier on understanding Paul's usage of sa.rx is the relationship of the various

uses of the word to each other. Louw & Nida in the introduction to their lexicon write "it is much better

to recognize the fact that sa.rx is simply a lexical item which serves to designate a cluster of related

meanings. By focusing attention on a cluster or constellation of meanings, one is inevitably forced to

look more closely at those distinctive features of meaning which are relevant for the different meanings

signaled by a single word or idiom."3 They prefer to reject the attempt to try to relate the various

meanings back to the concept of "flesh." While it is certainly true that any word can convey a plurality

of meanings, some of them even not related to each other or barely so, this is only one principle that

applies to language. However, when describing a entity that itself is a combination of multiple ideas,

the various meanings that might seem barely related are brought together in the one entity.

For instance, say a friend says to you "I am going to the library" (if it is not obvious, this

example is drawn from the fact that I am typing this in a library). At first blush, the immediate meaning

we might grasp from it is that he is going there to pick up some books at the library to read. That is the

major association we make with an entity call a library. However, as part of my rationale for being in

the library at the moment reveals, there are other reason to go there. One might also go to the library to

have a quiet place to go to for various reasons, such as to read, study, or simply to sit and relax. Also,

there are frequently ways to access to the internet. In the end, there are many qualities that describe a

library, and while the various meanings might share a relationship with each other (such as the fact that

for some books are best read in quiet), their relationships with each other are increase since there are all

part of the same entity.

In apprehending the various usages of sa.rx, then, the concept of "flesh" may make reference to

3 Louw & Nida, xv.
various features of the whole entity and are thus related through the entity. Furthermore, since the

different aspects are related, any quality that is associated with the whole might be said to affect the

other parts of the whole. While this is only stands as a possibility of language and not a necessity, when

we open up that possibility for Paul's usage of sa.rx, Rom. 3:20 may have a polemical intent.

However, Romans is not a very argumentative letter, butRom. 3:20 is not the first time Paul

uses the phrase ouv dikaiwqh,setai pa/sa sa.rx. It is also used in Paul's very polemical letter of Galatians

in 2:16. Romans stands as a more calm and reflective epistle that hits on the topic of the works on the

Torah to a people that Paul has never met, whereas Galatians is a battle for the gospel with agitators

fighting over Paul's converts. If the language of Rom. 3:20 was formed for a combative purpose, it

would certainly be plausible that ouv dikaiwqh,setai pa/sa sa.rx is a phrase Paul developed and relied

upon in his battle with the Judaizers. As we know in looking at the progression of events, Paul's side

wins out with the hierarchy of the church. It stands reasonable to think that ouv dikaiwqh,setai pa/sa

sa.rx was a particular phrase to Paul that he kept because of its perceived success.

In looking at Galatians, we can initially define the usage of sa.rx with three readily apparent

categories.4 In 6:13 sa.rx most likely takes upon the meaning that Jewett ascribes to the term; the

circumcision of the male sexual organ. However, in 2:19 it is used to refer to Paul's physical body as a

whole. Then in 5:19, it stands as the source for sinful actions. It is clear that the first two observed

usages can be related, because they both are used in direct reference to physicality. However, what

about the "deeds of the flesh" in 5:19?

Going back to Hebrews 2:14-18, the threat of death has an enslaving power. While not

explicitly contained in that passage, part of the purpose of Hebrews is to convey a behavioral

transformation that takes place through Jesus the High Priest and Sacrifice.5 For the author of Hebrews,

who is most likely influenced by or influenced Paul, the reality of death stands as a cause of sin.

4 As will be revealed later, the usages in Romans will also be similar to that of Galatians
5 See Heb. 9:13-14, 10:10-22
Furthermore, the association of death with flesh in Heb. 2:14-18 and 5:7 show one of the understood

characteristics of flesh, mortality. It is most unfortunate that Louw and Nida do not take that aspect to

bear upon the meaning of sa.rx, except perhaps allowing for it fit within the broader category of

physical nature. The concept of mortality is clearly correlated with the flesh elsewhere in Paul's letters.

Romans 8:6 is one example. 1 Corinthians 15:50 is another. Within the letter to the Galatians, 6:8 has a

relationship of sa.rx with fqora,n ("destruction"), which is contrasted with pneu/ma ("Spirit") and zwh.n

aivw,nion ("eternal life"). Also, considering the frequent usage of pneu/ma and sa.rx, it is very possible

that Paul's understanding of those terms in relationship to life and death derived from the flood of Noah

and, most particularly, the text of Genesis 6:3; Genesis 6:3 in the LXX uses both terms in reference to

the eventual death of men.

However, there is even another potential usage sa.rx on the part of Paul. It also seems to convey

physical lineage. In Romans 4:1, sa.rx is possibly used to refer to Abraham as a physical ancestor.

However, it is most clearly used to refer to physical lineage in place such as Romans 9:5 and 11:14. In

that case, it seems to be a fitting usage of the term in Galatians 4:23-29, where it is perhaps used, to a

degree,6 to talk about physical lineage without regards to a promise.

Upon a deeper analysis then, the term is used in such a very fluid manner in the same letters.

Furthermore, it is probably not coincidental that the two letters with the most occurrences of sa.rx7 and

the greatest number of different forms of usage are the two letters that have the topic of Torah

obedience as an essential part. All the more reason to believe the slight alteration of Psalms 143:2 in

Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16 was a conscious effort on Paul.

In Witherington's rhetorical analysis of Galatians 2:15-21, he assigns that portion of the text to

6 This usage is qualified by the fact that the descendants of Abraham through Sarah are from the promise. sa.rx then
conveys physical lineage without regards to divine provision
7 Galatians uses sa.rx 18 times and Romans uses it 26 times. By comparison, all the other Pauline letters use sa.rx 47
times, with 1 Corinthians have the most occurrences of it at 10
the propositio in the letter,8 which is the part that the speakers wishes to prove.9 While as I have written

previously that rhetorical criticism can not automatically be applied structurally to the whole of

letters,10 considering the polemical and emotional nature of Galatians which would call for a more

conscious attempt at persuasion, it is very likely Paul wrote Galatians with rhetorical conventions in

mind. Thus, the rest of the letter would attempt to support the statements of the propositio, including

the statement "no flesh will be justified."

How does Paul accomplish this task? By using the same term sa.rx in multiple manners, he

makes an implicit relationship between the various ideas associated with sa.rx. The same sa.rx that

stands for the physical lineage also is associated with mortality. Physical lineage is overcome by death.

This he manages to do in a brief recounting of the patriarchal history in Romans 9:6-13 and the

allegorical interpretation of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4:22-31; both use sa.rx to refer to the lineage

that comes through Hagar.

Also the same sa.rx that stands for circumcision as symbolic of entrance into a covenant also

stands for the struggle of sinfulness due to its mortality. Circumcision of the flesh is invalidated by the

sinfulness that focus on the flesh leads to, therefore one can not be seen as righteous by focus upon

fleshy things. The greatest example of this connection is Romans 7; in Romans 7 Paul believes the

Torah leads to sin because of the fleshy nature of humanity. The Torah acts as good when it is applied

spiritually (Rom. 7:14), but to receive circumcision entails a merely physical reality.

This is why in Romans 2:28-29 the circumcision Pail finds important is the inward one, not the

outward physical one. Also, this can explain Paul saying in Romans 7:6 "we serve in newness of the

Spirit (pneu/ma) and not in oldness of the letter," where Spirit is generally contrasted with sa.rx, but at

this point it is contrasted with gra,mma ("letter"). The contrast between these two isn't immediately
8 Witherington, Ben, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1998), 169-171
9 Kennedy, George, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina Press,
1984) 24.
10 Weddle, Owen, "The Limitations and Proper Usage of Rhetorical Criticism," Renewed Theology [cited February 2,
apparent,11 but it would make sense if Paul has made an association of the Torah with sa.rx.

As a note of caution, it is important that we do not equate sa.rx with the material world and the

pneu/ma with the immaterial world. Paul is not denying the materiality of actions and existence. A

spiritually applied Torah does not simply refer to the soul with no reference to physical action. This is

the Platonic, dualistic misreading of Paul. Spirit is used in refer to the third person whom provides new

heart and capacity to obedience along with a future physical resurrection, whereas flesh, or the body, is

the part that is awaiting redemption in Romans 8:23.

So in the phrase ouv dikaiwqh,setai pa/sa sa.rx, he is subtly impugning the reliance upon

circumcision and physical genealogy from Abraham, Issac and Jacob. However, the relationship

between this and Psalm 143:2 is still a bit precarious. How can Paul justify the change from zw/n to

sa.rx? If anything, they convey opposites, as the flesh conveys mortality. One option might be to say

that Paul simply played loose with the text of Psalms 143:2. However, I think the answer is to be had

elsewhere. Another option is to say that Paul doesn't intend to use the meaning of Psalm 143:2, but that

he simply appropriates the language in a new, somewhat altered way. That is perhaps doubtful though,

given the proximity of Romans 3:20 to the list of quotations and allusions from the OT that is contained

in 3:10-18. Paul likely sees 3:20 to be justified as an OT teaching.

How then can he justify this move? Simply put, Paul believes that Jesus has now solved the

problem of righteousness that could not be obtained under the Torah: "But now the righteousness of

God has been revealed... the righteousness of God through Christ's faith for all who believe." (Romans

3:21-22). Simply put for Paul, the statement that "no one who is living will be justified" is no longer

true.12 Salvation history has come to its climax and has offered a solution from the problem of sin.

Many people now living can capably obey the righteous life because of Christ who provides the Spirit

and who also lived the righteous life. So, the alteration is a necessary alteration to convey the present

11 Keep in mind that pneu/ma didn't mean the "intended meaning" as its English counterpart of spirit can.
12 We might also derive the same understanding from the cantena of quotations in Romans 3:10-18. Maybe now, Paul
might believe there are some righteous.
reality for Paul; all who are stuck in the flesh mode will not be justified, but those living persons who

receive the Spirit of Christ and are joined in Christ can escape the stranglehold of death and sin. Given

the necessity of appropriating Psalm 143:2 to the new present day context, it provides Paul the ample

opportunity to reuse it in a rather polemical way against the Judaizers.

So Paul's different usages of sa.rx, particularly in Romans and Galatians, is not a set of random,

unrelated meanings, but a subtle, perhaps masterful, pastiche that serves to invalidate the claims of

those who would rely upon their Jewish heritage and customs.