Greek: σάρξ (sarx)
English: flesh, human body, earthly body, sinful human nature
by Mark D. Taylor, NLT Bible Translation Committee
The New Testament’s use of the Greek word sarx is both straightforward and complicated. The NLT uses a variety of words to translate sarx. In this article, these different English translations of sarx are marked with yellow highlights for clarity.
The literal meaning of sarx is simply “flesh,” as in the outer layer of the human body. So we read in Hebrews 2:14, “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.” Or in Revelation 17:16: “The scarlet beast and his ten horns all hate the prostitute. They will strip her naked, eat her flesh, and burn her remains with fire.”
In a similar sense, sarx can also represent the physical body as a whole. Jesus says to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
Paul makes reference to his present, temporary physical body—in implied contrast to something more permanent—when he writes, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Sarx can also represent humankind in general, as we see in Luke 3:6, where Luke is quoting Isaiah: “And then all people will see the salvation sent from God.”
It gets more complicated when sarx is used to refer to Jesus’ human existence on earth. In the passage where Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” he goes on to say:
51 “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.”
52 Then the people began arguing with each other about what he meant. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they asked.
53 So Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. 54 But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (John 6:51-56).
Throughout this passage the NLT renders sarx as “flesh.” Jesus is looking ahead to his death, which would be a sacrifice for humanity. Sarx here refers to his physical, earthly life as the true sustenance (“the living bread”) that people need for eternal life. It is essentially a synonym for the Greek term sōma, which means “body.” Sōma is the term used in connection to the Last Supper: “As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying. ‘Take this and eat it, for this is my body [sōma]’” (Matthew 26:26).
In Jesus’ teaching about divorce, we read, “This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one” (Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:7-8). In these two passages, most translations render sarx mia literally as “one flesh.” Here sarx is used in a metaphorical sense to show the absolute union of a married couple in their life together—physically, spiritually, and emotionally. So the NLT (both in these passages and in Genesis 2:24, which Jesus quotes here) renders the metaphor as “united into one.”
Paul uses sarx frequently in a different metaphorical sense. For example, he uses it to refer to our (sinful) human nature in contrast with our spiritual nature:
When we were controlled by our old nature,* sinful desires were at work within us, and the law aroused these evil desires that produced a harvest of sinful deeds, resulting in death (Romans 7:5).
7:5 Greek When we were in the flesh.
The footnote in the NLT is provided to clarify that the Greek text uses the word sarx (“flesh”), but Paul is using the term as a metaphor for our old nature.
In twenty-four instances where Paul uses sarx in this metaphorical sense, the NLT translates the term as “sinful nature.” Many translations (including KJV, NASB, NKJV, and ESV) render sarx as “flesh” in most or all of these passages. Interestingly, the 1984 edition of the NIV used “sinful nature,” but the 2011 edition uses the more traditional “flesh.” But occasionally, the NIV (2011) adds an explanatory footnote. For example, we find this footnote at Romans 8:3: “In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit; also in verses 4-13.”
We see that sarx is used with a wide range of meanings in the New Testament. For that reason, the NLT uses a wide range of terms to translate it rather than simply translating it across the board as “flesh,” a term that in modern English usually refers to the outer layer of the human body. As with many other words that appear in Scripture, the NLT seeks to translate sarx in a way that makes its meaning immediately clear to today’s readers in whatever context it appears and with whatever meaning the ancient authors meant it to carry.