Excerpt from Robert Hamerton-Kelly's Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992, pp. 146-150.

The Law and the Flesh

Paul ranks the Jewish interpretation of the Mosaic Law with the things of the old world, and specifically with the "flesh." This can be seen quite vividly in Galatians 5:16-18, where the old opposites of flesh and Law are so realigned that the opposite of the flesh is not the Law but the Spirit, and the Law is shown to be in alliance with the flesh rather than its opposite. The Law and the flesh signify the same thing -- namely, existence within the old world of sacred violence. No longer does the Law curb the passions of the flesh, rather it exacerbates them and conspires with them against the Spirit.

I have already argued that "flesh" is primarily a symbol for Jewish religious existence. This line of interpretation is corroborated in Romans 7-8, where Paul addresses "those under the Law" (Rom 7:1) and says that the state of being under the Law is the same as being "in the flesh" (en te sarki -- Rom 7:5). (1) In this realm the three negative forces are sin, Law, and death. Sin uses the Law to cause death (Rom 7:5), as the serpent used the prohibition. This prohibition is expressed in the tenth Mosaic commandment against envy, which was a traditional summary of the Law. (2) The Mosaic Law, therefore, contains the primal prohibition, understood as an injunction against envy, and just as the serpent used that prohibition to produce envy, so sin uses the Mosaic Law to produce the system of sacred violence built on envy, life "according to the flesh."

The Law is an expression of the primal prohibition and so is good, just, and holy, but its function and effect is to make sin more sinful, by serving as its instrument of sacred violence, just as the primal prohibition served the serpent (Rom 7:12-13). This is the dialectical role of the Jews in the plan of salvation operating at a level of greater specificity. In Romans 9-11 Paul thinks of Israel as a whole doing dark service to God by rejecting the messiah; here the Mosaic Law does that same service by enabling sin to commit violence, to "be more sinful," and thus eventually to reveal the founding mechanism through the crucifixion.

It does this in two stages, by provoking envy and then by organizing that envy into the structure of sacred violence by means of the surrogate victim mechanism. Romans 7:14-25 is an explanation of how life "in the flesh"-- in the system of sacred violence, under sin working through Law -- feels to its subject. Paul speaks autobiographically but intends his experience to be representative, (3) and describes a life characterized by achieving the opposite of what one wills, an instance of how the Law makes sin more sinful (Rom 7:13). The Law is spiritual in itself, but like the self it is in thrall to sin (4) in the sense of being a part of the system of sacred violence. The self in this situation literally does not know what it is doing (Rom 7:15a); not in the sense that I do not understand my actions, because I cannot carry out my intentions ('akrasia), (5) but in the sense that I really do not know what is going on, because I am being deceived by sin (Rom 7:11). The agent of my action in this situation is the sin "that dwells in me"; namely, "in my flesh" (tout estin en te sarki mou) (Rom 7:18). In the light of my argument this might be paraphrased, "no good thing dwells in me, that is, in my culturally embedded (Jewish) self." Deception by sin, which is really self-deception, is, therefore, the hallmark of the Jewish religious life in its role as the paradigm of sacred violence that is the primitive essence of all religion. Life in the community of the Law is a life of nescience concerning the founding mechanism.

Paul describes, therefore, a sociological phenomenon of deviated purpose rather than a psychological phenomenon of the weak will. The deviation of purpose is caused by the social dynamics of the Sacred rather than the psychological dynamics of frustration. The self that is both "I" and "my flesh" is the culturally embedded self, and in Paul's case, a Jewish self. As such it is enmeshed in a social nexus that turns good will to evil action. In this nexus a robust will produces well-intentioned actions that miss the mark.

The prime example of this in Paul's life is his persecution of the Christians, which was, as far as we know, not an act of uncontrollable rage, but rather the rational pursuit of a religious goal according to the ethos of his Jewish community. In doing this he really did not know that he was doing evil by doing good, because sin deceived him through the Law, with the result that he saw religious envy as divine obligation. Insofar as he wanted to be doing God's will, he could be said to have rejoiced in God's Law with his mind (Rom 7:22; cf. Rom 10:2), (6) but insofar as he tried to do that will through the Jewish community, he found his desire thwarted. Sacred violence turned the Mosaic Law (heteros nomos -- Rom 7:23, cf. Rom 13:8) into the enemy of his desire to do the Law of God; it made the Law serve the opposite of its intended purpose.

On this understanding of "flesh" as the system of violence in its Jewish manifestation, the passages in Romans 8 on the Spirit and the flesh make perfect sense. Romans 7:25 is a resume of the problem that introduces the triumphant presentation of the solution. "The Law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2) is the Mosaic Law (7) and the "sinful flesh" in whose likeness Christ came (Rom 8:3) is the Jewish way of life (cf. Gal 4:5). Christ condemned sin in this most acute manifestation, and set us free (cf Gal 5:1, 13) by being born a Jew and being scapegoated by the Law (Gal 4:4-5; 1 Thess 2:15). The primal prohibition (dikaioma) of the Law, which Adam was the first to transgress and allow to fall into the hands of sin, is fulfilled in those of us who no longer live as Jews, "who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:4). (8)

If one reads "Jewish way of life" for every occurrence of "the flesh" in Romans 8:1-17, the passage makes consistent sense. Thus, the "mind of the flesh" that is "enmity with God" is the Jewish mind (cf. Rom 5:10;11:28), and the point of saying that it cannot subject itself to the Law of God is precisely to make the distinction between the Law of God as expressed in the fundamental prohibition, the dikaioma of Romans 8:4 and 1:32, and the Law of Moses (cf. Gal 5:17) that produces the sin it intends to prevent. The Law of God is fulfilled by those in the Spirit because they receive and obey the inspired commandments of God (1 Cor 7:19; 14:37), walk in the Spirit under the "Law of Christ" (Gal 6:2;1 Cor 9:21), and fulfil the fundamental intention of God's Law, which is "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6,14).

Just as "flesh" designates a way of life in a particular community, so does Spirit; the Spirit dwells in the community (en hymin -- Rom 8:9) just as sin dwells in the flesh in Romans 7:18 (en te sarki mou) (9); that is, the Spirit dwells primarily in the community, and in individuals only to the extent that they are part of the community. All the verbs and pronouns referring to the action or locus of the Spirit in Romans 8:1-17 are plural, with the exception of 8:2 where the first person singular is representative in the same way as in Romans 7, and in 8:9b, which is a brief reference to the individual within a context that is overwhelmingly oriented to the group. For Paul the Spirit, therefore, describes the quality of life in the Christian community and as such is a perfect counterpart to the flesh as the quality of life in the Jewish community.

The image of Adam begins to assert control over Paul's thought again as the exposition of salvation approaches a climax in Romans 8:18-25 with a vision of the restored creation as the reversal of the curse on Adam in Genesis 3:17-19. This accounts for the fact that Paul begins to generalize the contrast between the Jewish and Christian ways of life, expressed as the contrast between flesh and Spirit, into a contrast between mortality and immortality, expressed as the contrast between the body and the divine Spirit (Rom 8:10-11). By the same token, in Romans 8:12-13 he generalizes the reference of "according to the flesh," which is parallel here to "the deeds of the body," to mean the evil things one does in this world under the influence of sin that is at work everywhere, in "the Jew first and also in the Greek" (Rom 1:16; 2:9-10).

There is a correspondence between the beginning of the exposition in Romans 1:18-3:20 and the end here in Romans 8:12-25; there we have the consequences of Adam's trespass and here we have the consequences of Christ's obedience, a symmetry set out in Romans 5:12-21. For Paul sin begins with Adam and concentrates its focus in the Jewish way of life; salvation begins in Christ under the conditions of the Jewish way of life and broadens its focus to Adam again. This explains why here at the limit of the exposition of the course of salvation Paul does at last generalize the meaning of flesh and use it as parallel with body to describe the human condition under sin. Romans 8:12-13 is, however, one of only three places in the Pauline corpus where flesh has this generalized negative meaning (cf. Gal 6:8, Rom 13:14). The negative connotation that it has here is an extension of the specific negativity it has when referring, as it does in the majority of cases, to the Jewish way of life.


1. Cf. 2 Cor 10:3 where it means simply "as a human being." Here the meaning "under the Law" is specified by 7:1.

2. In Hellenistic Jewish sources, desire (epithymia) was often said to be the root of all sin: Philo, Spec Leg 4.84,130; Dec 142,173. From Spec Leg 4.84 it is clear that desire means more than merely sexual desire: "Desire is . . . the source of all evil, of robbery, plunder, not paying one's debts, slander and complaining, seduction, adultery, murder, and other crimes against the individual or the state, against holy and profane things" (cited from G. Theissen, Psychological Aspects, 204-5; cf. 4 Macc. 2:6); cf. R. Weber, "Die Geschichte des Gesetzes and des Ich," 154-55.

3. J. C. Beker, Paul the Apostle, 326-43; W D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 25-26; E. P Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, 89, n. 33.

4. The fact that he uses sarkinos, rather than sarkikos in Rom 7:14b is of no consequence in view of the context; it is just a stylistic variation and should not be taken to mean that he has the sensuous dimension rather than the psychological or sociological in view here (Käsemann, An die Römer, 191).

5. H. Hommel, "Das 7. Kapital des Römerbriefs."

6. The Law of God affirmed by the mind or inner person is the essence of the Law thought of as the primal prohibition of Gen 2:15-17 and spoken of in Rom 7:7, 1:32, and 2:15. R. W Thompson ("How is the Law Fulfilled in Us?") referring to Rom 8:4, 13:8-10, and Gal 5:13-16 argues that dikaioma refers primarily to the love of neighbor as the "just requirement" of the Law. In Rom 1:32, therefore, we have the negative formulation of the same point: the interdiction on mimetic rivalry is the negative expression of the command to love the neighbor. Also P Stuhlmacher, Versöhnung, Gesetz, and Gerechtigkeit, 188, n. 46.

7. Cranfield, Romans, 373-74, connects Rom 8:1-2 with Rom 7:1-6, by means of ara in Rom 8:1. Rom 7:6, in turn, refers back to Rom 6:14 -- ou gar este hypo nomon. On these grounds alone the nomos tes hamartias kai tou thanatou is the written Law of Moses, presented in Rom 7:6 in contrast to the newness of the Spirit. Cranfield, nevertheless, understands nomos metaphorically in this phrase, as a symbol for the power of sin, presented as a travesty of the Law of God; it means the same thing as ho heteros nomos in Rom 7:23 (364-65). C. K. Barrett, Romans, 155, however, agrees with me that it is "evidently the Law of Moses, seized and perverted by sin and consequently leading to death." E. Lohse, P von der Osten-Sacken, and E. Käsemann also support this interpretation, as reported by L. Keck, "The Law and 'the Law of Sin and Death.'" Keck does not share this view but, while taking the phrase to mean the same as the heteron nomon of 7:23, understands it to signify "a structure of power, which one inevitably obeys. It is not really a bondage of the will but a bondage of the self which is free enough to will but not free enough to achieve what is willed" (49). Keck generalizes too soon! He ignores the fact that the existence Paul has in mind is Jewish existence.

8. The metaphor of the walk may allude to the rabbinic designation of the Law as Halakah, literally, "the way."

9. The en emoi of 7:18 is specified by the en sarki. The linking word is oikei.