Jesus: flesh like ours?

Posted: December 3, 2011 by J in Bible

Before we go any further considering the meaning of Jesus’ incarnation, I think it might help to take a look at a disputed statement of the apostle Paul’s: the one in Romans 8: 3. The argument is not about the greek, it’s about how to translate it. Compare the NRSV with the Holman:

By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh (NRSV)

He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain (Holman)

Can you see where the big difference is? It’s in the word translated ‘likeness’: greek ‘oμoιωμα  (homoioma). In the NRSV it sounds like a distancing word: likeness. Jesus was sent, not into actual sinful flesh, but into the likeness of it. Presumably this means he appeared to be a man sharing our fallen humanity, but really his was a separate, pure humanity. Even just the appearance of sinfulness was enough of a descent, a humiliation, for God the Son. ‘Likeness’ functions to create a protective barrier between Jesus and us.

The RC Church has taken this protective barrier idea much further: they have Mary also conceived in sinlessness (Immaculate Conception). So her offspring is free of the taint of Adam’s sin. Puts a safe distance of one whole generation between Jesus and sinful flesh. He is only in its likeness.

The Holman takes ‘oμoιωμα  (homoioma) in the opposite way: it’s about real similarity. Jesus was sent ‘in flesh like ours.’ ‘Like’ here means ‘the same as’, as in ‘the longer they were married, the more they grew alike.’ Rather than suggesting a barrier, ‘flesh like ours’ emphasises closeness and solidarity.

Interestingly the Holman didn’t feel it right to include the adjective: sinful. ‘In sinful flesh like ours’ was too strong for them. They’ve paraphrased: ‘flesh like ours under sin’s domain.’ Not bad: Holman are trying to explain that Paul when Paul says ‘sinful’, he doesn’t mean Jesus committed actual sins. They’re wanting to have Jesus come very close to us, no distance, but not copy our conduct. He took on our humanity, fallen as it is under the reign of sin – but he didn’t sin himself. OK, I can accept that as a possible meaning of ‘sinful’ for now.

Almost every other translation goes with the NRSV. The Holman is out on a limb here.

So who is right? What does ‘oμoιωμα  (homoioma) mean in this statement about Jesus’ flesh?

For Paul the term can refer to appearance:

…and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling (homoioma) a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. (Rom. 1:23)

Here the word signifies a representation or copy. But it can be also used where there is more than just the appearance of likeness. Here it means a real and deep similarity and sharing:

For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness (homoioma) of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness (homoioma) of His resurrection. (Rom. 6:5 )

Paul has a similar passage in Phillipians which may give help:

he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness (homoioma).
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself   (Phillipians 2:7-8)
Here ‘human likeness’ doesn’t mean ‘the mere appearance of humanity’: Jesus has true humanity. But the focus here is on outward appearance and reputation: The Son gave up his divine honour to take on the dishonoured form and status of humanity. In an honour/shame culture that’s a big deal.
So even when appearance is to the fore, that doesn’t necessarily imply ‘mere appearance.’ Appearance can go along with reality! This Philippians passage is the closest biblical parallel to our statement in Romans 8 ‘the likeness of sinful flesh.’ So it should influence our reading there.
Seems the word’s usage in Paul doesn’t settle the matter: could go either way. But he doesn’t normally use it to mean ‘mere appearance.’ The Philippians passage suggests that here in Romans also Paul may be describing a likeness that involves real sharing and solidarity. But the context will have to decide it (as always!)

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