Sunday, November 8, 2009

Two Cultural Sources of Paul's "Sarx"

Before claiming to understand exactly what Paul meant by the Greek word σάρξ [sarx], an English language translator does well to consider Paul's sources and how they used the word. Paul (or someone using his name) wrote the word nearly 100 times in the extant texts we call the New Testament. This same Paul quoted from the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (the Septuagint or LXX), which uses sarx well over 200 times. And Paul - in Luke's history (Acts 17) - quoted out of his verbal working memory the sayings of various Greek poets and playwrights. And Paul writing in Greek - to Jews and Greeks in Rome (Romans 12) - is the only New Testament writer to use Aristotle's logical-method word, λογικη [logikē, or "logic"). And Paul - if it's not too much of a speculation - may have read popular Greek works of his day.

In this post, I want to look at some examples of writings that Paul may have read.  Let's consider (1) the LXX and (2) a poet / playwright in this post.  If we have time, in another post, then, we'll consider (3) Aristotle and (4) a first-century novelist .

How did other writers use the Greek word σάρξ [sarx]? (How) might this have colored and shaped and otherwise influenced exactly what Paul meant by the word?

(1) LXX

The very first use of sarx in the Septuagint (by the Jews in Egypt, in Alexander the Great's namesake city, translating their scriptures into the language of the new Greek empire) is in Genesis 2:21 -
καὶ ἔλαβεν μίαν τῶν πλευρῶν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀνεπλήρωσεν σάρκα ἀντ’ αὐτῆς
Roughly, it's conveying this,
that God took a rib from the first human being and closed up the "sarx" in its place.
The story goes on quickly to make clear that this human being has out of him, formed by God, a new human being. And the first says of her (in Greek-translated Jewish language):
τοῦτο νῦν ὀστοῦν ἐκ τῶν ὀστέων μου καὶ σὰρξ ἐκ τῆς σαρκός μου
In essence, he's saying the following:
"This now is bone out of my bone and 'sarx' out of my 'sarx'."
And he goes on reasonably to call her γυνη "gunē" (or "woman" or "wife") - which is funny in Greek, because the word rhymes with the Greek words for "Genesis" and for "birth" and for "generations" and for "ground." There is an ambiguous, playful set of meanings here. And I want to emphasize that from the get-go the LXX uses sarx in gendered ways, that semantically (to get at all the meanings) there has to be some understanding of "woman" and there has to be a bit of an appreciation for "womanly" ways of meaning making and of language.

It is funny in another way too:  the first human being looks at the second human being and declares, in Greek, ἐκ (ek "out of").  This preposition in this context is something that connotes a conception and a birth. The preposition is used when talking about a newborn coming "out of" the mother.  So the first human being (a male) is like the mother (a female) of the second human being, is like that in Greek in the beginning.  The second human being is actually the female in the story. And she becomes the first mother, of course.  And in Matthew's genealogy where he includes some females in the patrilineage of Jesus, Matthew writes "out of Tamar" and "out of Ruth" and so forth using this same Greek preposition.  But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

So then the writer of Genesis (and the translators too) will do something even funnier. In a sentence a little later, the father and mother (and the idea of mother and father in conception and in birth) get left behind:
ἕνεκεν τούτου καταλείψει ἄνθρωπος τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ προσκολληθήσεται πρὸς τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν
More or less, this means:
"Therefore, this human will leave his father and his mother, and he will stick together with his woman (womb-man, birthing wife, baby generator), and the two will become merged into a single 'sarx'."
The LXX uses sarx in other startling ways we don't have time for.  The consistent thing is that the referents are things that are, as we say in English, fleshly:  skin, muscle and sinew, as mixed with blood and bone in a carcass or body.  But the gendered beginnings of the word (in the beginning, in Genesis) is how this all starts.

(2) A Greek Poet / Playwright

We could laugh all day reading funny Greek poetry and plays in which the Greek word σάρξ [sarx] is used.  I just want to look at one example.  I've chosen it because I think Paul at a particular point in his life might have been drawn to it.  It's the play Hecuba by the writer Euripides.  The antagonist Polymestor gets blinded.  This is not too different from Paul's getting blinded on his way to Damascus, where he's going to arrest and kill or otherwise "persecute" some of the earliest Messianic Jews (as noted in Luke's history, Acts 22).

Let's read the E. P. Coleridge English translation around line 1056 (and I'll drop in sarx and some other Greek words, bolding the pertinent English references to females)."  Again, here's Polymestor talking immediately after getting blinded by the woman protagonist Hecuba:
Woe is me! where can I go, where halt, or turn? shall I crawl like a wild four-footed beast on their track, as my reward? Which path shall I take first, this or that, eager as I am to clutch those Trojan murderesses that have destroyed me? You wretched, cursed daughters of Phrygia! to what corner have you fled cowering before me? O sun-god, would you could heal, could heal my bleeding eyes, ridding me of my blindness! Ha! hush! I catch the stealthy footsteps of the women [γυναικῶν gun-] here. Where can I dart on them and gorge on their flesh [σαρκῶν sark-] and bones, making for myself a wild beasts' meal, inflicting mutilation in requital of their outrage on me? Ah, woe is me! where am I rushing, leaving my children unguarded for maenads of hell to mangle, to be murdered and ruthlessly cast forth upon the hills, a feast of blood for dogs?
Of course we can only imagine that Paul might have read this.  We only conjecture that if Paul had read or seen or heard Euripides's play Hecuba that he would have identified Hecuba's blinding Polymestor with Jesus Christ's blinding Paul.  But, if he did, then perhaps we could also speculate that sarx as Euripides used it made some impact on Paul.

I want to consider again how gendered this Greek word is.  As with the first uses of sarx in the LXX, Euripides's use of sarx (in the mouth of the sexist antagonist Polymestor) is gendered.  Specifically, it refers to women, to females, and their bodies.


When we look at Aristotle's uses of sarx, we'll look at how gendered the word is by the objective scientist.  Likewise, when we look at how one of Paul's  contemporaries -- a  Greek novelist -- used the word, then we'll also see sarx making statements about a woman and her beauty and the desires of men for her because of that.  But the look at these two other cultural sources for Paul's sarx will have to wait for another post if there's time.

To reiterate some of the things shown in this post, there's gendered reference to sarx in some of the texts Paul was familiar with.  Certainly Paul knew and quoted the LXX, and perhaps he heard, watched, read, or was otherwise familiar with the play Hecuba.  The ways females and women are associated with the Greek word σάρξ [sarx] is not, I would say, lost on Paul.  When Paul starts writing to Greeks and to fellow Jews in Rome in particular, exactly what he means by the word can be seen in this light.  (So again, if there's time for another post, we may get to that).


Gary said...

I would be very interested to hear how Hebrew contemporaries of Paul used the word sarx. Paul was extremely well-versed in rhetoric and Greek literature, certainly -- though the exact contents of his bookshelf beyond the LXX (and likely Philo) are a matter of fanciful speculation -- but the use of sarx in the more immediate context of Judaism would be fascinating. Would you mind giving a little attention there soon, as well? I'd appreciate it!

J. K. Gayle said...

I would be very interested to hear how Hebrew contemporaries of Paul used the word sarx.

There are plenty of Jewish writers and translators of the New Testament who are Paul's contemporaries. I've posted today on a novel that seems to have existed when Paul was alive. So please just suggest a text and an author, and we'll look.