The range of meanings borne by this term in the Bible starts from the literal use denoting the material of which the human body is chiefly constructed, but quickly takes on other senses derived from the writers' understanding of the created order and its relation to God. Careful attention to context is needed to catch the precise nuance in any given case.
The Old Testament. Fundamental Data. The Old Testament employs two terms to denote flesh: basar [בָּשָׂר], which occurs 266 times; and seer [שְׁאֵר] which occurs 17 times. The two terms are identical in meaning. Their basic reference is to the material substance of which earthly creatures are made. This is true of humans (Gen 2:21; Lev 13:10-11; Ezek 37:6; Dan 1:15; Micah 3:3) and animals alike (Exod 21:28), including animal flesh used for food (Gen 9:2-4) and in sacrifice (1 Sam 2:13; Isa 65:4; Hosea 8:13).
Extended Senses. What one individual is all kindred individuals will be. Flesh thus comes to denote blood-relationship (Gen 2:23-24; Lev 18:6), and beyond that, kinship to all humans, "all flesh" (Psalm 65:2; Isa 40:5; 49:26). Yet another extension of significance is the use of flesh in reference to the human body as a whole (Lev 13:13; 16:4; 2 Kings 6:30). While in such uses it can denote a corpse (1 Sam 17:44; 2 Kings 9:36), it more commonly denotes the whole life of the individual viewed from an external perspective so that safety of the flesh is life (Psalm 16:9; Prov 4:20-22) and its endangerment a threat to life (Job 13:14; Prov 5:11).
Transferred Senses. It is an easy step from flesh as denoting life viewed externally to life viewed more comprehensively. "Flesh" is thus used interchangeably with "soul" and "body, " and credited with the emotions and responses of the whole person (Psalm 63:1; 84:2). In some instances it carries the sense of self (Lev 13:8). In short, the human creature is flesh in essence. Implicit in this is the idea that humans do not have flesh, but are flesh. If at times the outer being ("flesh") is distinguished from the inner ("heart" or "soul"), this is not because one is seen as more important than the other, but because both are indispensable for the existence of a whole person. In the Hebrew understanding of a human being there is nothing that is merely physical. As constituted essentially of flesh the human creature stands over against God. By virtue of being God's creation flesh is good, like all other parts of God's creation (Job 10:8-12; Psalm 119:73; Isa 45:12). At the same time, flesh as dependent on God, and in particular God's spirit (Gen 2:7; 6:3; Isa 31:3), is frail and transitory (Psalm 78:39; Isa 40:6). While at no time is flesh said to be sinful, it is implied that, by virtue of its frailty, flesh is exposed to the onslaught of sin (Gen 6:3,5,13). It is safe to say that all of the New Testament uses of flesh are made from these Old Testament building blocks.
The New Testament. Terms. The Greek word used most commonly in the New Testament to render the Hebrew word for flesh (basar [בָּשָׂר]) is sarx [σάρξ], which occurs 147 times. Of this total, 91 are found in the Pauline writings, mostly in Romans and Galatians. While the New Testament appropriates the Old Testament foundation, it also builds on it, some writers giving the term their own distinctive twist. From this perspective it is possible to group the New Testament writings into three categories.
Writings Employing Chiefly the Old Testament Usages. In the Synoptic Gospels "flesh" is used only four times (aside from Old Testament quotations in Mark 10:8; and Luke 3:6). In Matthew 16:17 "flesh and blood" stands for human beings in their wholeness, but especially in their mental and religious aspect. At the same time they stand over against God, the true revealer. Mark 13:20 is a typical use of the Old Testament expression "all flesh." Mark 14:38 has a dualistic ring, but need not do more than contrast the human and the divine as in Isaiah 31:3. In Luke 24:39 the "flesh and bones" of the risen Jesus contrast with the immateriality of ghosts, implying a positive estimate of materiality that again harmonizes with the Old Testament. In Acts there are 3 instances of "flesh" (2:17, 26, 31). The first two are Old Testament quotations. In 2:31 "flesh" clearly refers to Jesus in his wholeness, but with the important idea added that in his wholeness he survived death. The Epistle to the Hebrews likewise reflects Old Testament usage. Of its six examples, three are literal in meaning (2:14; 5:7; 12:9). The first two, however, use the term to make the significant point that it was "flesh"true human nature—that Christ assumed in his incarnation. In 9:10, 13 the rituals of the old order affect only external purification, leaving the conscience untouched. Jesus, through the spilling of his blood, opened the way into God's presence through the veil, which is interpreted as his flesh (10:20). Just as it was only when the curtain was torn open that access to the Most Holy Place was possible, so it was only by the tearing of Jesus' flesh in death that access to God's presence was made permanently available. Here, then, flesh stands for Jesus' life in its wholeness: incarnate and surrendered in death. The remaining concentration of instances of flesh in this grouping is found in the First Epistle of Peter, where there are examples (aside from the Old Testament quotation in 1:24). First Peter 3:21 echoes the same contrast found in Hebrews 9 between the cleansing of the flesh and the conscience. The remaining examples (3:18; 4:1, 2, 6) contrast death in the flesh with life in the Spirit in reference both to Christ and the believer. They are best taken to refer to the death and resurrection of Christ, which is reproduced in the life of the believer, bringing death to sin and resurrection to new life. The contrast throughout, then, is between "flesh" understood as earthly existence and "spirit" as life in the Spirit. The adjectival form sarkikos [σαρκικός], "fleshly, " occurs at 2:11 and is probably best understood within the same frame of reference as the examples of the noun.
The Johannine Writings. In the Gospel of John the term occurs thirteen times, seven in 6:51-63. The strictly literal sense is not found, but the extended sense, "all flesh, " occurs at 17:2. In other examples the idea present is that of limitation, in which the flesh or the sphere of the flesh is contrasted with the divine sphere (1:13; 3:6). The flesh is not evil; it simply is not the sphere of salvation, which rather is that of the Spirit. Both of these uses are in line with Old Testament thought. Cognate with these uses, though advancing beyond them, are passages in which flesh denotes mere appearance rather than inner reality. To measure Jesus thus, rather than by the insight of faith, is to be blind to his identity (6:63; 8:15). The obverse of this is that flesh may indeed be the medium of the revelation of God himself. It is against the background of the affirmation of the incarnation that the six examples in 6:51-58 are to be read. The Incarnate One is he who has come from above from whence alone life can come. Therefore to feed on his flesh and blood is to share in his life (6:57-58). In the Epistles of John the accent falls on confession of Christ's coming in the flesh as decisive for salvation (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). "The desire of the flesh" (1 John 2:16) is condemned not because it refers to the material realm, but because it refers to what is earthly and therefore transitory (v. 17).
The Pauline Writings. The uniqueness of these in this regard is sufficiently indicated in that approximately two-thirds of the New Testament occurrences of flesh are found in them, almost half of these in Romans and Galatians. They may be considered in two broad categories.
Uses Akin to the Old Testament. Most of the uses found in the Old Testament are also present in the Pauline literature. There flesh can denote the physical flesh (1 Cor 15:39; 2 Cor 12:7) and, by extension, the human body (Gal 4:13-14), humanity as a whole (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:16), human descent (Rom 1:3; 9:3), and human relationships (Rom 4:1; 9:3-5). By this point the term acquires the transferred sense of that which is frail and provisional (1 Cor 1:26; Gal 1:16; Php 3:3). As transient, it is not the sphere of salvation, which is rather the sphere of the Spirit. This does not imply that flesh is evil per se: life "in the flesh" is normal human existence (Gal 2:20), but it is still merely human. This picture accords generally with that of the Old Testament.
Distinctive Pauline Uses. The uniquely Pauline understanding begins from the idea that flesh, as weak, becomes the gateway to sin (Rom 8:3; 2 Cor 12:7; Gal 4:14). Still more, as the arena in which sin entrenches itself it becomes the instrument of sin (Rom 6:12-14) to the extent that it becomes sinful itself (Rom 8:3), and so an occupying alien power (Rom 7:17-20). The accompanying war Paul describes as a struggle between flesh and Spirit (Rom 8:5-17; Gal 5:16-24). The seriousness of the struggle is indicated by the fact that the mind-set of the flesh leads to death (Rom 8:6), and that those living in the flesh cannot please God (Rom 8:8). Accounts of this conflict are most vivid in contexts where Paul is describing the demands of the law on the one hand (Rom 7:4, 7-11; Gal 5:2-5), and its impotence to enable the believer to meet them on the other (Rom 8:3; Gal 3:10-12). Flesh, however, is not intrinsically sinful, and may therefore be the scene of sin's defeat. This it became through Christ's coming and crucifixion in the flesh (Rom 8:3). Those who identify themselves with him by faith likewise crucify the flesh (Gal 2:20; 5:24) so being emancipated from the power of sin in the flesh (Rom 6:14; 8:9). This reading appears to be confirmed by the Pauline use of the largely parallel term "body." The "body of sin" was done away with at the cross (Rom 6:6). The "body of our humiliation" (Php 3:21), which is weak and still subject to the attack of sin, is the body of the interim. The "body of glory" (Php 3:21), transformed and imperishable (1 Cor 15:42-44,50-53), is the body of the age to come.
A. R. G. Deasley
See also Body; Sin
Bibliography. J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought; R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament; R. Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms; A. Sand, EDNT, 3:230-33; H. Seebass and A. C. Thiselton, NIDNTT, 1:671-82; C. Ryder Smith: The Bible Doctrine of Man.
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Flesh'". "Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology".