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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Paul and the Yetzer Ha-Ra

W. D. Davies devotes Chapter 2 (“The Old Enemy: The Flesh And Sin,” 17-35) of his classic Paul and Rabbinic Judaism to an examination of the role in Pauline thought of the rabbinic doctrine of good and bad “tendencies” (Heb. yetzer) in human nature. (We should note that Davies uses the term “rabbinic” in a somewhat anachronistic sense since, at the time of Paul, Judaism was still in the Second Temple period and had not yet entered the Rabbinic period. Properly speaking, Rabbinic Judaism become dominant over the period from the 2nd to the 6th centuries AD.  Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that the roots of Rabbinic Judaism are to be found in the earlier Second Temple period.)

Davies begins his inquiry from the assertion of some earlier scholars that the Pauline opposition of “flesh” and “spirit” (sarx/pneuma) reflects a Hellenistic, dualist influence that is foreign to Israelite thought. Davies dismisses this argument, noting that in Hellenist thought the body/soul dichotomy is never expressed in terms of “flesh/spirit,” whereas Paul's use of such key concepts as psyche, kardia and pneuma (soul, heart, spirit) closely tracks the usage of the Israelite scriptures: nephesh, leb, ruach. In contrast, in later Israelite writings the Hebrew word for sarx/flesh, basar, is used to express: