How did other writers other than Paul use the Greek word σάρξ [sarx]?
(How) might this have colored and shaped and otherwise influenced exactly what Paul meant by the word?I considered (1) the LXX translation of the Genesis creation story, the earliest use of the Greek word σάρξ [sarx] for translation of Torah by the Jews. And I considered (2) the play Hecuba by Euripides, because it uses the same Greek word for a blinding episode, which may have reminded Paul of his own. We saw that in both instances the word σάρξ [sarx] is gendered, that the contexts have allusions to "flesh" as female, whether in their creation and procreation or in their disparagement and denigration.
So in this post, we'll consider (3) Aristotle and (4) a first-century novelist.
This is by far the longer of the two sections of this post. I'm wanting us to look at how Aristotle used σάρξ [sarx] because he had such a profound effect on how Greeks after him used language in general and the Hellene language in particular. Aristotle disparaged and denigrated playwrights such as Euripides. And he absolutely despised females. It wasn't just that his objective, logical, scientific epistemology told him that in Nature females and poets were lesser than males and philosophers. It was also the fact that women and poets just were not objective or logical or scientific -- and if they could know anything, then it was the stuff that weakened Greek politics and the rule of the Greek household (i.e., economics), elite male politics and exclusively male-run households.
Aristotle also hated barbarians, such as Jews. The hatred seems to have backfired on him to a certain extent, however. When Jews translated their scriptures into Greek, they did not use an Aristotelian paradigm nor an Alexandrian paradigm; they didn't even use an "Exodus paradigm" although commissioned by the lackey King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, in Alexandria, Alexander the Great's namesake city. Rather, according to Sylvie Honigman, they followed the Homeric paradigm, the paradigm of the epic poet, no logician or philosopher by any stretch.
It's fascinating to see what Aristotle does with σάρξ [sarx] and to consider whether Paul follows him or someone else perhaps. To be sure, Aristotle is the king of the use of σάρξ [sarx]. In the extant writings we can read today, he or someone claiming to be Aristotle used the word more times than the LXX translators and the New Testament writers did combined. Aristotle used the word some 445 times, whereas the Greek bible book collection has just under 370 uses. The Septuagint (LXX) has around 215 uses, and the New Testament nearly 155 uses with Paul (or someone claiming his name) writing the word around 100 of those times. (And if anyone cares, Euripides only used the word 27 times in his extant plays). Aristotle used the word mostly for his biologies and some for his Metaphysics. If anyone by his corpus and by his careful science and logic defines the word, it's Aristotle. Aristotle sees σάρξ as a subject, a substance, along with bones, blood, sperm, and other parts of bodies that are material.
We have time to carefully consider the most interesting use of σάρξ [sarx] by Aristotle. It is in his book that we call Generation of Animals. It's a book mostly about the sexual intercourse and offspring conception and generative births of animals and of human beings. It's one of the books in which Aristotle objectively observes females as lesser than males, as defective or mutant beings caused by mothers who did not get the sex act right (or else, of course, they would have generated a male offspring).
The passage below is my translation of Aristotle's Greek. I want us to eavesdrop, to listen in, to overhear. I want us to image what it might have been like to be Aristotle's daughter and his slave, reading the text although it's not meant for us. (Rather it was written for the natural-born free elite boys of Aristotle's academy). I want us to hear the wordplay, certainly not intended by Aristotle, the author.
I'd like us to see how certain words disparage females, and how these are associated with a lump of flesh that is neither human nor alive outside the womb. (If you want other translations, they are readily available. And I'll link to two right after my translation. And then we'll get to that first-century novel and say something in summary before we go). Here, from Generation of Animals pages 775b-776a, is the most interesting use of σάρξ [sarx] by Aristotle:
On the subject of what is called the “maid’s millstone” [μύλης mýlēs], let us speak. It is generated [γίγνεται gígnetai] in just a few women [γυναιξί gynaiksí] in the birthing process. This thing is generated [γίγνεται gígnetai] in the passion, the suffering, of pregnancy. This offspring, in fact, is the so-called “maid’s millstone” [μύλην mýlēn]. It has, in fact, already happened as the birth woman [γυναικὶ gunaikì] has intercourse with the man, even gaining the opinion that she has conceived as certainly, first, there is the large expansion of the belly just as with a typical generation, according to stated facts. Afterwards, however, at the time for the offspring, she neither gives birth to the offspring nor does her largeness diminish. Instead, she continues on three or four years without finishing what she started until she gives birth [γενομένης genoménēs] to dysentery, and so endangers herself, until birthing this offspring:
flesh [σάρκα sárka], which is what is called a “maid’s millstone” [μύλην mýlēn].
Some women, however, will grow old with this passion, this suffering, and may even die with it. Coming out of the door of birth generation [γίγνεται gígnetai], it is hard – hard so much so that even iron is insufficient [μόλις mólis] to cut through it. – insufficient like a “maid.” On the subject of this passionate suffering, we have already said things in [my other book], The Problems. There is, in fact, passionate suffering with respect to this “fetus” in the mother, just as there is with the “maid’s measly meat-boil” [μωλυνόμενα mōlynómena] in the under-warmed pot. And the problem is not because of heat, as some would claim, but it is more because of its own sickliness and weakness of heat. It is, in fact, like its own nature, sickly and weak and neither able to finish what it starts nor able to conclude what the generative birth [γενέσει genései] should put forth. Therefore, she grows old with it or stays with it a long time. She does this, in fact, since it neither finishes what is started nor does it altogether have the nature of something different from her. The cause of its hardness, in fact, is her lack of expelling it. This cause, in fact, is somewhat also that of the “maid’s measly meat-boil” [μώλυνσίς mōlynsís].Now, I hope we've all been able to hear the gender of sound, the sounds of certain words that Aristotle (probably here unconsciously) connects with "woman" or "wife." They are the Greek words for "generation" or "birth." And then there are the words for "millstone" and for "under-cooked meat" -- these are words also associated in Greek culture with "maid," a female who grinds grain or cooks meat for men in the epics of Homer and in the plays of the others. The word for "insufficient" has a similar sound. And in the middle of all that is Aristotle's use of σάρξ [sarx]. By this, he clearly means "flesh," but it's useless flesh, a lump, the mother's fault and something this womb-woman carries with her into her dysentery, into her old age, and to her death. It's not a male child, not even a mutant called a female child. It's hard because of the woman and as undesirable as a scalded lump of meat, undercooked by the maid.
So let's say this again: Aristotle didn't intend for us to read this, and he didn't mean for the words to sound similar in this context or association. We're not trying to read into the text. And we're not doing Freudian psychology, where we'd read into Aristotle's sub-conscious motives. Rather, we're just listening with our bar-bar-ian ears and re-membering contexts in other earlier Greek texts in which the sounds of females were placed, like appositives and adjectives, alongside women.
I do want to take a long, full paragraph to talk about some of the traditional translations. We should feel free to investigate as many translations as possible. The unfortunate thing with typical translations is this: the translator usually wants to be faithful to the author's intention, and many times this means making words technical by transliteration, so as to keep the original author's original sounds. The translator may ignore the cultural context, or the translator may be following an earlier translator who transliterates and ignores the playfulness of language and the cultural contexts. Arthur Platt, for example, in 1910 just transliterates Aristotle's μύλης as "mola" and to the Greek word elsewhere he adds a bit of Latin to make it sound more technical, as with "mola uterus," which in his footnote he calls "uterine mole." Much more well done (please pardon my pun), for μωλυνόμενα Platt uses "half-cooked meat," and for σάρκα he has "lump of flesh." Here's Platt's English - if you scroll down to his Chapter 7 of Book IV, and if you go to your library, you'll find the published version with footnotes. My guess is that Platt, in translating Aristotle into English, followed Jules Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire, who translated many of Aristotle's works into French in the mid and late 1800s. Saint-Hilaire also transliterates. He has "une môle" for μύλης ; and he gives two footnotes to explain, the latter getting at what he considers uncertain etymologies: "Cette formule, répétée deux fois dans ce paragraphe, semble indiquer que l'observation était alors peu connue. L'étymologie du mot dans les trois langues se rapproche beaucoup, et est presque identique; il serait assez difficile de la justifier, puisqu'elle fait allusion à la forme d'une meule de moulin." Please understand what Saint-Hilaire is confessing by saying "'elle fait allusion à la forme d'une meule de moulin"; he is confessing that he's not translated even though the word "refers to the shape of a millstone" (i.e., the sort of millstone that maids used to grind grain for men in Homer's epic stories). Saint-Hilaire transliterates the Greek sounds of Aristotle's letters as if to preserve the original. He does not make the connection that Aristotle's daughter can if she reads the text; Aristotle's daughter would read it understanding that the "millstone" is the domain of the woman servant for men, and that this is the metaphor that Aristotle uses for the mutant thing inside the ostensibly pregnant women. To his credit, Saint-Hilaire does have "nos aliments quand ils sont à moitié crus" and "la coction incomplète" for μωλυνόμενα, even if the Greek alliterative connection to μύλης gets lost. And for σάρκα, Saint-Hilaire has "Un morceau de chair." Saint-Hilaire's French translation with Aristotle's Greek can be found here.
What I'm more than hinting at here is that Paul perhaps follows Aristotle when using the Greek word σάρξ [sarx]. In Aristotle's context, there is the use of the word to indicate something awful, something related to women.
So let's move on, then, to a first-century novelist who uses the Greek word σάρξ [sarx]. Perhaps by Paul's century, the word is used differently from how Aristotle used it some three or four centuries earlier.
(4) Chariton, a First-Century Novelist
We could argue whether Paul would have ever read a novel. It is highly plausible, however, that people to whom Paul wrote in the assemblies of Greekish Jews and Jewish Greeks would have read a novel if such had been available. It is quite likely that the place where a Greek novel would have the most appeal is at the center of the empire, Rome. The Romans were pushing official Latin but the push wasn't working very well during Paul's day. It's no accident that the entire New Testament is not originally composed in Latin but in Greek. And as these scriptures were being written, so was Chariton's novel. English translator and Greek scholar G. P. Goold makes the strong case that "Chariton's Callirhoe, subtitled 'Love Story in Syracuse,' is the oldest extant novel," composed and read in the first century.
Just a bit of background for those who've yet to read the novel. The protagonist is the beautiful woman Callirhoe, whose name means "fine" or "beautiful" or "good form." She is wanted by various men through the course of the plot, and she from time to time has to go into hiding.
How did Chariton use the Greek word σάρξ [sarx]?
Here's a snippet from Goold's English translation with my insertion of Chariton's Greek word:
Though Callirhoe was reluctant and unwilling, Plangon managed to get her to the bath. After she had gone in they had rubbed her with oil and wiped it off carefully, and marveled at her all the more when undressed, for, whereas when she was dressed they admired her face as divine, they had no thoughts for her face when they saw her hidden beauty. Her skin gleamed white, shining just like a shimmering surface, but her flesh [σάρξ sarx] was so delicate as to make one afraid that even the touch of one's fingers might cause a serious wound. They whispered to one another, "Our mistress was famed for her beauty, but she would have seemed this girl's maidservant." Their praise troubled Callirhoe and she had a foreboding of what was to come. When she had had her bath and they were fastening up her hair, they brought her clean clothes. But she said that this was not proper for one who had just been bought: "Give me a slave's tunic, for even you are my superiors." So she put on an ordinary dress, but this too suited her and in reflecting her beauty seemed an expensive one.Aren't we picking up a theme here? The Greek word, again, in another context is associated with a female. More than that, the "flesh" or "sarx" of this female is strange, is dangerous to those who would look at it or touch it.
(How) might this have colored and shaped and otherwise influenced exactly what Paul meant by the word?
And what exactly did Paul mean by the Greek word σάρξ [sarx]? (The precise answer, of course, must wait until we have more time).