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Dynamic Equivalence and the NIV: Flesh

February 6, 2010

Flesh is a prominent concept in the New Testament. The Greek word for “flesh” is σάρξ (sarx, Strongs #4561). It is translated 151 times in the KJV, and 149 of those times it is translated “flesh.” However, since the NIV is translated based on the principle of “Dynamic Equivalence,” decisions were made to translate many of these occurrences into something other than “flesh.” Some examples:

1. A person / persons

Mat 24:22 If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.

Rom 3:20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

Mat 16:17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.

Phm 1:16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.

Luk 3:6 And all mankind will see God’s salvation.'”

Joh 17:2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.

Rom 11:14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.

1Co 10:18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?

2. The physical / biological body

Mat 26:41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.

Act 2:26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope,
Act 2:27 because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.

Rom 2:28 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.

Gal 4:23 His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.

3. This physical life on earth

1Co 7:28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. Eph 6:5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

Col 2:1 I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally.

Heb 5:7 During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.

4. Human ancestry / descendants

Rom 9:5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Rom 9:8 In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.

Joh 1:12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—
Joh 1:13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

Act 2:30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne.

5. Sinfulness / worldliness

Joh 8:15 You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one.

1Co 1:26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

Col 2:18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.

2Co 1:17 When I planned this, did I do it lightly? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, “Yes, yes” and “No, no”?

2Co 5:16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.

2Co 10:2 I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world.

2Co 11:18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast.

Rom 1:3 regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David,

Rom 6:19 I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.

1Jn 2:16 For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.

Rom 7:5 For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.

Rom 7:18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

Gal 5:19a The acts of the sinful nature are obvious:

Col 2:11 In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ,

6. Literal translation into “flesh”

Mat 19:5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh‘?

Joh 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

2Co 4:11 For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

Eph 2:14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,
Eph 2:15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace,

Eph 6:12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

7. Completely omitted

Rom 4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter [ASV according to the flesh?]

Gal 4:13 As you know, it was because of an illness [ASV of the flesh] that I first preached the gospel to you.

In each of these cases, the translators were considering how to render the Greek word σάρξ. They made a decision, not based on the meaning of the individual word, and not based on grammar, but rather on the their interpretation of what was meant in context. In most cases, the choice seems quite reasonable and uncontroversial. In a few cases, however, the choice conceals some possible alternative interpretations, and may actually introduce doctrinal concepts that were not intended.

I could quibble with many of these choices. But to me, the most objectionable choice involves interpreting σάρξ as “sinful nature” in Romans 7-8, Galatians 5, and several other passages. “Flesh” does not mean “sinful nature.” The Word became flesh (John 1:14) and yet was not sinful. To teach that our flesh is a “sinful nature” suggests that we have an excuse for our sin. It also suggests that our sin is inherited, passed down from Adam. It undermines personal responsibility for our behavior. The biblical teaching is that we are guilty because of our own behavior (not because of Adam and Eve) and that “the soul that sins shall die. (Ezek 18:4)

When the NIV translators rendered these passages, they attempted to rephrase them in words that sound more natural to modern ears. That’s what Dynamic Equivalence does, and it is what makes this translation so readable and so popular. But it inherently means that the translators’ doctrinal beliefs influence the translation. They render it according to what they think it means.

The NET Bible is also a Dynamic Equivalence translation. However, in many of the above cases the NET translators chose to use a literal translation of σάρξ as “flesh.” The NET Bible made a more conservative choice in some cases, resulting in a more literal translation than the NIV.

For careful Bible study, we need to know exactly what was said by the Holy Spirit to the original writer, not what the translator thinks it means. That way we can make our own judgment about what a passage means, given our understanding of the rest of scripture. If a Bible teacher prepares lessons based on a translation like the NIV, without verifying the text in more literal translations, he runs the risk of teaching in error, because the interpretation in the NIV may be in error.

On the other hand, a translation like the NIV can make the scriptures more accessible to many people. People will read more if it is more enjoyable to read. But at the same time they may pick up the wrong idea on certain topics. It is therefore important for Bible teachers to make congregations aware of the areas where the NIV might take too many liberties with the literal words.

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