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In Colossians 2:11, what does Paul mean by τοῦ σώματος τῆς σαρκός? Paul uses σάρξ to refer to the body or the physical far less than John, and it is clear that isn't what he's referring to here: the point of the verse is that the circumcision received by the Colossians was not physical (περιτομῇ ἀξειρομοιήτῳ). But this use of σώμα seems more unusual, and the two in combination especially. So what's the best way to understand and to translate this phrase (other than wooden literalness)?

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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The NET Bible translates this as:

In him you also were circumcised—not, however,1 with a circumcision performed by human hands, but by the removal2 of the fleshly body,3 that is, 4 through the circumcision done by Christ.

That's four footnotes in one verse, all related to translation issues:

  1. tn The terms “however” and “but” in this sentence were supplied in order to emphasize the contrast.

  2. tn The articular noun τῇ ἀπεκδύσει (th apekdusei) is a noun which ends in -σις (-sis) and therefore denotes action, i.e., “removal.” Since the head noun is a verbal noun, the following genitive τοῦ σώματος (tou swmatos) is understood as an objective genitive, receiving the action of the head noun.

  3. tn Grk “in the removal of the body of flesh.” The genitive τῆς σαρκός (th" sarko") has been translated as an attributive genitive, “fleshly body.”

  4. tn The second prepositional phrase beginning with ἐν τῇ περιτομῇ (en th peritomh) is parallel to the prepositional phrase ἐν τῇ ἀπεκδύσει (en th apekdusei) and gives a further explanation of it. The words “that is” were supplied to bring out this force in the translation.

(I don't pretend to understand all that as I am a mere novice in Greek (or any other ) grammar.)


As for what Paul means by this, I take it as an allusion to something Moses said:

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven.—Deuteronomy 10:12-22 (ESV)

It's a theme that Paul returns to over and over again in places like Ephesians 2:11-22 and Romans 2:25-29. Less directly, he talks about needing to die or put aside our natural selves in order to obtain spiritual bodies in passages like Galatians 2:15-21 and 1st Corinthians 15:35-49. I don't think this passage is so much saying something new as saying the same thing in a new way.


Finally and further afield, the idea Paul expresses seems so much like something C. S. Lewis wrote in The Dawn Treader:

"Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. There he caught hold of me—I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again. You'd think me simply phony if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they're no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian's, but I was so glad to see them.

"After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me . . . in new clothes—the same I've got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here."

After this point in the story Eustace Scrubb becomes a full member of the crew of the Dawn Treader very much as if he were baptized and initiated.


Summary

Given Paul's other writings, I think we can understand "body of flesh" here to mean something of the old life that must be miraculous removed in order to commence living a new life as a part of the church.

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My friends had told me about the NET Bible, but I had never taken the time to look into it—looks like it would be worthwhile! –  Kazark Dec 1 '11 at 3:54
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I would give an extra +1 for the C.S. Lewis connection if I could. I have often found that Dawn Treader metaphor very helpful but had not thought about in connection with this passage. –  Kazark Dec 1 '11 at 3:57
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@Kazark: The NET Bible (classic) is my go-to source for translation and textual criticism issues. Thanks for the extra +1.5 for accepting my answer. I'll try to make up excess +0.5 by quoting Lewis some other time. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Dec 1 '11 at 22:36
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This answer is complementary to Jon's. Having thought about this and researched it a good deal more and discussed it with friends, I have decided to render the phrase the whole mass of the sinful nature.

  • This rendering fits well with Colossians 3:5: So kill the parts [of you] which are worldly: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil passions, and greed, which is idolatry. (my translation) Murray J. Harris renders this Therefore put to death your limbs as used for earthly purposes in his commentary, citing C.F.D. Moule. However, besides being a convoluted sense, that makes it difficult to explain how immorality etc. are parts, whereas they can certainly be thought of as parts of the whole mass of the sinful nature.
  • It fits the circumcision metaphor (see Jon's answer).
  • I do not think that Paul's use of the same phrase to refer to Christ's physical body in Colossians 1:22 is at odds with this, since the point, as Jon has explained, is that Paul is using a physical metaphor.

Paul's use of σάρξ and σώμα are incredibly difficult to grasp; they are slippery and seem to change from passage to passage. Nevertheless, passages such as this are enriching to meditate on. For further thought: what is the relationship to Paul's use of σώμα in Romans 7:23-24 and 8:13?

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FYI: the characters to either side of "of you" in point #1 are rendered as boxes on my browser. I love your turn of phrase! It sounds like Paul is advocating a surgery to cut out a cancerous tumor, which seems a perfect analogy. (Is there any chance such a surgery could be known to Paul?) –  Jon Ericson Apr 11 '12 at 20:47
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