Interpreting the Idiomatic “Essence” of Romans: Paul’s Oscillating Connotations of Spirit and Flesh

By Caitlin Warchol
Occidental College, Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies

Within the Hebrew Bible, a simple division between spirit and flesh rarely occurs. Independently defining the two terms proves problematic because any deliberate separation of the them denies their inherently intertwined nature. In the Pauline Epistle to the Romans, however, Jesus Christ’s crucifixion instigates a symbolic split of the spiritual and corporeal sites. The event initially appears to stabilize the erratic exchange between the spirit that embodies life and the flesh that produces death. In the text, Paul asserts that “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). In order to purify their spirits, individuals must continuously reproduce Christ’s physical death and transcendent resurrection. They must mortify their own bodily forms that inherently produce sin in order to access the goodness of God.

The bisection of human life into spirit and flesh fails due to the inherently unstable concept of a soul separate from the body, but also because both terms demonstrate complex, heterogeneous meanings that the reader of Romans cannot singularly translate. The word “flesh,” or basaar in Hebrew, expresses an expansive definition that prevents the individual from differentiating his flesh from that of any other animal—it means simply “meat.” Although Romans seemingly asserts that sin dwells exclusively in the flesh and good only in spirit, its language continuously disrupts this type of separation. Bodily sin fuses to immaterial virtue because each aspect requires its opposite for definition—as in Genesis, knowledge of good also requires knowledge of evil. The individual employs reason in order to interpret how he relates to his notions of body and spirit. Human intellect utilizes knowledge of good and evil to simultaneously produce and evade sin. Flesh manifests as a vile form only when it interacts with the mind and the individual defines his body as sinful according to an inner morality. This action reveals that any notion of “spirit” detached from the body continuously eludes the individual.

In Romans Chapter 7, Paul asserts:

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, the one who wants to do good…I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good…but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members (7:18-23).

Paul begins his assertion with the notion that “For I know that nothing good dwells in me,” illustrating the symbiotic relationship of cognitive impression (“to know”) and physical experience (“to dwell”). To comprehend and begin to eradicate what physically resides within the body requires intellectual mastery; Paul conveys that recognizing and denying sin demands internal understanding of it. Despite this alignment, however, Paul outwardly retains a division between the two spheres—knowledge and living—by inserting a literal and figurative boundary between them. At the center of his statement, between mental and physical action, he interposes the term “nothing.” The word produces an image of lack and negation that pivots his argument. The relationship between what Paul knows and what dwells within him revolves around this term that simultaneously centralizes meaning and produces disparity. If “nothing good dwells in me,” it logically follows that nothing bad or sinful occurs within the context of spiritual knowledge. Nonetheless, the sentence may be read alternately as “I know…nothing good,” highlighting the dualism of human knowledge that explores both positive and negative behaviors and can never master either faction without addressing its opposite. The rhetorical trope that the term “nothing” performs underscores the questionable possibility of any knowledge or spirit transcending the body if the individual continuously draws on his interior principles to explore and define sin. Even as Paul theorizes a partitioned world in which an individual “wants to do good” and live spiritually but cannot until he mortifies his own corporeal existence, Paul’s parameters inevitably fluctuate because they rely on the infinite concept of “nothing” to define their terms. Paul presents a comparison that appears to maintain consistent boundaries, but he almost immediately destabilizes these limits through idiomatic expression.

Based on his argument that the Greek text of Romans emulates Hebraic phraseology, the French translator, Andre Chouraqui, introduces another way in which Paul’s notions of flesh and spirit fuse together. In the line, “…but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members,” Chouraqui instead translates “mind” as raison (7:23). If the reader applies raison to this context, the term convolutes and diminishes initial boundaries between the “law of my mind” and “law of sin.” As Paul asserts that knowledge helps him to set apart good from the sin that “dwells” in him, he places raison in a third space that maintains no separation from the flesh. Human rationality links the two modes of existence—good/spirit and sin/flesh—because it induces the individual to define each term against the other. Even as Romans distinguishes bodily law from reason, it cannot maintain this disconnection because the term raison produces dual definitions: it is simultaneously a mental feature and a necessary device to interpret the body’s physical structures and desires. It produces within the individual an immaterial core and external substance. Raison operates not as an antithesis to fleshly sin, but as a catalyst for the individual’s recognition of it before he performs the necessary act of “mortifying the deeds of the body” in order to live in spirit (8:13).

If Paul’s conception of “mind” fails to preserve separation from the physical realm, the term “flesh” also denies stable definition, further undermining any concept of spiritual liberation from the body. Romans Chapter 7 asserts “but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (7:14) emphasizing that permanent interweaving of physicality and transgression that causes Paul to demand individuals mortify their bodies to achieve salvation. Romans, however, must introduce a new argument to prove how living “of flesh” inevitably means that an individual is “sold into bondage to sin.” If the reader approaches the text according to Chouraqui’s interpretative model, basaar in Hebrew indicates only the generic concept “meat.” The term obscures any separation between human form and animal. To sin and “do good” are actions that belong solely to human society, but this notion of “flesh” provides no such specification for the human body. If animals cannot produce good acts or sin, “flesh” in its basic form does not immediately serve as “bondage to sin.” The movement from physical form to sinfulness requires a further stage of development achieved beyond the physical body.

Individuals must apply their reason to flesh in order to move toward goodness, but in so doing they also introduce evil into themselves. Reason simultaneously produces the “evil that I do not want” and the “good that I want” (7:19). Romans intensifies this argument by suggesting “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness” (8:10). If Christ imbues the spirit with life and virtue, this performance relates directly to the process of rational recognition. The individual knows “righteousness”—and how to distinguish it from sin—because “Christ is in” him. In order to pursue a path of spiritual life, each person must invoke a knowledge system that incorporates both good and evil. It is precisely at this moment , when he realizes “Christ is in” him, that the individual’s body grows vile. The sin of flesh occurs at the same moment man is blessed as Christ incarnate. In such a network of associations between positive and negative, the assertion that “on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (7:25) deteriorates rapidly. Mind and flesh, reason and meat, continuously and violently refuse division.

As body and spirit naturally intersect or even merge, the spirit itself begins to demonstrate its own inherent physicality. Paul states: “I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (7:23). His rhetorical strategy again sets up two aspects of human life that appear diametrically opposed to one another and a median site between them. Now, however, “the different law in the members of my body” and the “law of my mind” produce a textual and conceptual division through “waging war.” Such a phrase ultimately denies any possible separation between Paul’s dual concepts of law. As the two realms violently intersect, the spiritual self no longer preserves its immaterial form; it instead produces its own physical existence through its direct interaction with the flesh. To wage war conjures images of tangible interaction. Paul can only differentiate body and mind at the instant they merge in this “war.” Separate spheres fail to materialize and instead the definitions of sin and virtue occur at the intersection of multiple definitions, terms, and concepts. They belong to a third sphere that imparts heterogeneous meaning on both body and soul. Though Romans often obscures this diversity through superficial binary, the text cannot permanently repress it.

Human reason remains inextricably linked to both spirit and flesh. Even as Paul suggests that individuals must “mortify the deeds of the body,” his argument requires that the body continue to exist in order to distinguish it from the Spirit of God. Without the sin that wages war against the unrealized liberated spirit, the individual would fail to recognize, and aspire to, life beyond the mortal soul. This notion, however, produces an inherently problematic moment in which the individual must accept that he simultaneously “knows” and “dwells.” Though Paul insists that one can put to death corporeal existence in favor of an ethereal life, such a separation negates the individual’s body even as it requires him to recognize his physical selfhood. He must define himself through the intersection of thought and physicality; he cannot rid himself of the flesh that remains bound to his impressions of morality. The two no longer operate as antitheses, but rather as impetus for the individual to recognize that any attempt at division between spirit and flesh will continuously and infinitely evade him.

Works Cited

Romans, New American Standard Bible. Biblos: (