Flesh (theology)

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In the Bible, the word "flesh" is often used simply as a description of the fleshy parts of an animal, including that of human beings, and typically in reference to dietary laws and sacrifice.[1] Less often it is used as a metaphor for familial or kinship relations, and (particularly in the Christian tradition) as a metaphor to describe sinful tendencies.[2] A related turn of phrase identifies certain sins as "carnal" sins, from Latin caro, carnis, meaning "flesh."


The word flesh (from the Old English flǣsc, of Germanic origin) is translated from the Hebrew lexemes bāśār and šĕēr, and from the Greek σάρξ (sárx), and κρέας (kréas).[1]

Meaning and Use[edit]

Old Testament[edit]

In the Hebrew Bible, the way of all flesh is a religious phrase that in its original sense meant death, the fate of all living things. This phrase does not appear verbatim in the King James Bible either, but is clearly prefigured in that translation:

And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. (Genesis 6:13)

Samuel Butler, by contrast, used The Way of All Flesh as the title of a semi-autobiographical family saga, using the phrase to refer ambiguously to either the religious or to a sexual sense.

New Testament[edit]

Saint Jerome in the Wilderness The saint spent four years in the Syrian desert as a hermit, mortifying his flesh and elevating his spirit through study.

Saint Paul makes this connection in Romans 7:18, in which he says:

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. (KJV)

However, the (fourth century) Apostles' creed affirms 'carnis resurrectionem' (the resurrection of the flesh), the body being an essential part of a person.

In religious language, the "flesh" took on specific connotations of sexual sins. It was in this sense that the nineteenth century critic Robert Buchanan condemned a Fleshly School of Poetry, accusing Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris with preoccupation with sex and sensual matters.

A traditional turn of phrase condemns "the world, the flesh, and the Devil" as the sources of temptation to sin. This specific phrase does not appear in the King James Bible, but a similar sense appears in passages such as 1 John 2:16:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (KJV)

The phrase definitely appears in the writings of Abelard, who writes that "there are three things that tempt us: the world, the flesh, and the devil."[3] The litany of the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer contains the petition:

From fornication, and all other deadly sin; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
   Spare us, good Lord.

and the English translations of Roman Catholic litanies often contain a similar petition.[4]

This traditional turn of phrase gave rise to a number of films and books entitled The world, the flesh, and the devil.

Analysis and Interpretation[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Flesh, from the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception" DeGruyter (Berlin, Boston) 2014. Retrieved on 22 July 2014.
  2. ^ "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia - Flesh"
  3. ^ Tria autem sunt quae nos tentant, caro, mundus, diabolus. Abelard, Exposition of the Lord's Prayer, sixth petition ("And lead us not in temptation")
  4. ^ Book of Common Prayer, 1662 edition

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Catholic Encyclopedia: Mortification: ""If you live after the flesh", says the apostle, "you shall die, but if through the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live" (Romans 8:13; cf. also Colossians 3:5, and Galatians 5:24)."