Romans 8:9 Cultural Background

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

Romans 8:1 – 17

Flesh and Spirit

The OT describes people and other breathing animals as “flesh,” by which it meant bodily, finite, mortal creatures. On two occasions it contrasts “flesh” and “Spirit” (Ge 6:3Isa 31:3). The more relevant of these is Ge 6:3, where God’s Spirit will not contend with flesh (NIV “humans”) forever.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, written close to the era of the NT, show that some Jewish people further developed the implications of “flesh” as the finite and mortal state of people in contrast to God. Sometimes in these documents “flesh” connotes not only mortality but moral weakness — susceptibility to sin. The thought was not that the body was an evil part of a person; rather, it was that humans as limited, physical beings were weak.

By contrast, Greek thinkers (especially in the Platonic tradition) often viewed the soul as pure, immortal, and heavenly, but tied down to a body whose interests were mortal. The body would die; philosophy needed to free the soul from dependence on it, often by subduing passions. For followers of Aristotle, this meant controlling passions and keeping them moderate; for Stoics, it meant destroying emotion, or at least negative emotion, altogether (though some excepted initial emotional reflexes as merely “pre-emotion,” before cognition could react). Diaspora Jews often embraced some of the intellectual ideas in their milieu, and believed that the mind, informed by the law, could subdue negative bodily passions.

Paul recognizes the mortality and weakness of the flesh; he also sees the connection between passions and bodily existence. But far from believing that the informed mind can necessarily subdue all passions, he recognizes that the mind too can be governed by the flesh (Ro 7:23,258:6 – 7). For Paul the power to live a life that pleases God comes not from humans’ finite ability in isolation from God, but by the power of the Spirit. God had promised to provide the Spirit so that his people could fulfill the moral purpose of his law (Eze 36:27; cf. Jer 31:33).

When Paul contrasts Spirit and flesh in Ro 8:4 – 9, he is not contrasting two parts or aspects of the human personality; rather, he is contrasting dependence on God’s Spirit (and on Christ’s justification that provides the Spirit) with humanity left to its own devices. Nor does Paul assume that only those continuously submitted to the Spirit may belong to the “in the Spirit” category versus the “in the flesh” category. Ancient writers often contrasted groups with ideal types: thus, e.g., Stoics and the book of Proverbs contrasted the wise and the foolish, even though few would be considered infallibly wise. Likewise, Proverbs and the Dead Sea Scrolls contrast the righteous and the wicked, even though no one was assumed virtuous in every respect without exception. The point is that one either belongs to the people who have the Spirit, and therefore their hearts are being transformed by God, or to those who are left to merely the best (or worst) of human effort without dependence on God’s gift of the Spirit through faith in Christ. ◆


8:8 – 13 Writers sometimes sustained a contrast between two opposites — here “realm of the flesh” (v. 8) and “realm of the Spirit” (v. 9), as also in vv. 5 – 7. See the article “Flesh and Spirit.” Apart from the Qumran community, few Jewish people seem to have spoken of the Spirit as a present reality available in their communities; this was a blessing the prophets had promised for the period of restoration that Paul’s contemporaries understood as the end time (e.g., Joel 2:28 – 29).

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