The Sinful Desires of this Mortal Body in Romans 6:12

Most manuscript variants–that is, different words appearing in different ancient copies of parts of the Bible–are theologically insignificant. They change some bit of grammar or other, but don’t affect the meaning. When it comes to Romans 6:12, however, this is not the case.

The majority reading of the manuscripts–the one that appears most commonly and in the oldest manuscripts–reads like this: “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires.” The ‘its desires’ part refers here to the body, the body’s desires. (It’s impossible to tell in English, but the Greek pronoun αὐτοῦ–meaning ‘its’–refers to the neuter word ‘body,’ not the female word ‘sin.’) To obey the desires of this ‘mortal body’ is to give into sin and allow it to ‘reign’ over us.

But this verse is worded differently in some manuscripts. Some say, “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it [the female αὐτῇ, referring to ‘sin’]”: do not let sin reign by obeying it in your body. Others say, “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it [sin] in its [the body’s] desires”: to obey the body’s desires is to obey sin–meaning, in effect, the same as the majority reading.

The most interesting variant is one that appears in only a single manuscript, a lectionary from the eleventh century. Here Romans 6:12 reads, “Do not, therefore, let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it [sin] in its [the female αὐτῆς, sin’s] desires.” What is fascinating about this reading is that the body is not the source of sinful desires. Sin can reign in our ‘mortal body’ if we let it, if we ‘obey sin in sin’s desires.’ But it has no power over or connection to our very body’s desires, as in every other manuscript.

Of course, this interesting reading is not the correct reading. There are good textual–it only appears once, in the eleventh century–and theological reasons for rejecting it. Ever since our first parents’ sin, sin, like death, has ‘come into’ humanity (Rom. 5:12). It is no longer an external word tempting us from outside, but a force within us, stirring up desires that bear the ‘fruit’ of ‘death’ (6:21). Even after we have ‘died to sin’ in baptism (6:2), it is still the ‘sin living in me’ (7:17) about which Paul cries out to God, “Who will rescue me from the body of this death?” (7:24). Only after the resurrection will it be true that our bodies themselves will be free of sinful desires.

John Chrysostom on 1 Corinthians 1:21

To round off my set of posts on the history of exegesis of this verse, let’s look at John Chrysostom (c.347-407), an important Greek theologian at the height of the patristic era. His comments are, well, beautiful:

In what appears in his works: it is through these that God wanted to be known. For this reason God made these impressive creatures, in order that by drawing connections from what is visible, him who made them would be admired. The heavens are great, and the earth–how boundless! So admire the one who has made them. For even this great reality not only came into existence by him, but even with ease, and this boundless earth also was led into being as if nothing. For this reason, it says concerning this, “The heavens are the works of your fingers” (Ps. 8:3), and about the earth, “He made the earth as nothing” (Isaiah 40:23).  Since, therefore, the world did not want to come to know God through this wisdom, through what they considered to be the foolishness of the message, God was pleased to save the world, not through reasoning, but through faith. So it is that where there is the wisdom of God, there is no more need of human wisdom. (PG61: 32)

John Chrysostom begins in the same way as most commentators, by talking of the wisdom God wrote into the visible creation, the things he made. Through these, he says, we could come to know God “by drawing connections” (ἀναλόγως) from creatures to the Creator. However, we did not in fact make the proper connections–we did not, John argues, “want” to get to know God this way. Instead, we fell into ignorance and idolatry, worshipping creatures as if they were the Creator. So God decided to bring the saving knowledge of himself to the world another way, not by arguments from the nature of creation, but through the faith that comes by the preaching of the Word. Thus, human wisdom is rendered null and void, needless.

(You might also be interested in comparing these reflections with those of Sedulius ScotusTheophylact of Ohrid, Thomas AquinasNicholas of Lyra, or Heinrich Bullinger.)

Theophylact of Ohrid on 1 Corinthians 1:21


I have been fascinated to see, through my study of the history of exegesis of 1 Corinthians, the similarity of interpretations of verse 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe.” Almost all exegetes use this verse to talk about God’s revelation through creatures; Nicholas of Lyra calls it the speculum creaturarum, the “mirror of creatures.” But they also talk about God as a wise teacher, who sees that his students failed to understand this mirror of creatures, and so tried another angle: the Incarnation. These are the comments from Theophylact of Ohrid (1055-1107), a Greek commentator:

Paul now gives the cause through which external wisdom [i.e., worldly wisdom] was made foolish. For since, in the wisdom available through visible creatures (for the heavens and the earth, and every creature proclaims the Creator) the world, that is, those whose mind is on the things of the world (who are clearly impeded through a wisdom that has its focus on fine speech), did not know God, it pleased God through the illiteracy of those preaching (which people think is foolishness, but really is not) to save those who believe. Therefore, though having the wisdom of God as a teacher, the Greeks, obviously gazing at creatures, did not know God through their wisdom of words, which is not, in fact, wisdom. (PG124: 580C)

As other commentators, Theophylact argues that there is a wisdom available through the creatures God has made, and that this can even be called the “wisdom of God.” The “Greeks,” however, those who only pay attention to what is visible and what makes for beautiful and persuasive speech (i.e., rhetoric), did not know God through this wisdom of creatures. Instead, they fell into idolatry and ignorance, failing to learn the lesson their ”teacher,” the wisdom of creation, had to teach them. A new lesson had to be prepared for them, then, in the preaching of the gospel, which God chose to operate through people without education (ιδιωτεια, what I’ve translated here as “illiteracy”) in order to get the Greeks to focus their attention somewhere else: not on “external wisdom,” but on spiritual, invisible wisdom.

Origen on 1 Corinthians

As part of my thesis, I’m looking at Origen’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 1-2. Unfortunately, the commentary only survives to us in fragments. Since no complete English translation has yet been published (there are bits and pieces translated in this book and this book), I’ve translated the section I’m using: fragments 1.5 – 11, on 1 Cor. 1:14 – 2:15. If you’re interested, you can take a look at it here (.pdf).

Here’s a snippet:

Therefore, “God chose the foolish things of the world, in order that he may shame the wise” (1:27)—not those who are wise full-stop, but those who are so in the world’s estimation. He says, “God choose the foolish things of the world, in order that he may shame the wise” of the world. For the wise of the world are truly shamed when they pray to idols, and “the unlettered and simple” (Acts 4:13) would die so as to not worship these idols. (fr. 1.8)

Philippians 2:7-8

But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming in the likeness of human persons; and being found as a human in form he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, the death of a cross.

The grammar here is theologically significant. (Don’t run away yet!) Jesus empties himself; Jesus humbles himself. These two phrases are parallel: they both use an active verb with a reflexive pronoun. The difference between an active and a passive verb is the difference between “Johnny loves” and “Johnny is loved.” In the first, Johnny is actively loving, he is doing the action; in the second, Johnny is passive, he is receiving someone else’s love. So here in Philippians, we see that Jesus is not emptied by another, nor is he humbled by another. (“Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Matt. 26:53.) Rather, this is Jesus’ active decision: Jesus empties, Jesus humbles.

But there is also a reflexive pronoun here: Jesus empties himself, humbles himself. As the Lord, he could humble or empty others. At different points in his ministry he does just this: he humbles others (John 9:39), but he also lifts up those who did not humble themselves, but were humbled by others–passive voice! (Matt. 20:29-34). But the Lord also humbles himself, and not more or less but completely, to death, even to the humiliating death of a cross. “For this reason, God raised him to the highest place”–not only raised him up (hupsoō) but raised him up above everything (huperupsoō)–“and gave him the name above (huper) every name” (Phil. 2:9). The lesson here is that we should do the same: “You should think the same way that Jesus did” (2:4). “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6).

Pseudo-Epiphanius, “Second Homily on the Resurrection”

I’ve been wanting to translate something from the Fathers, so I picked this short homily. It’s unclear who actually wrote it, because although ascribed to a “Saint Epiphanius, bishop,” it was composed a century or two after the life of Epiphanius of Salamis (d.403). But it has some classic marks of a patristic work: the love of paradox–“They hung him who hung the earth” (4)–and a strong doctrine of the descent into hell (9). For how short it is, it’s actually quite interesting. It’s not a perfect translation, but feel free to give it a read here. Oh, also I’m pretty sure this has never appeared in English before, which makes me feel special. (Though that’s probably called pride.)

Romans 11:33-12:8: Sneak Peek

Since I’m speaking at youth on Friday, I thought I’d put my two years of Greek to work and translate the text I’m speaking from. Here it is:

[11:33] Oh what rich depth and wisdom and knowledge are God’s, that his decisions are so beyond examining and his paths are untraceable! [34] For who knew the mind of the Lord, or who was his advisor? [35] Who first gave him something so that they would be repaid? [36] Because everything is from him and through him and to him—let the glory be his into eternity. Amen.

[12:1] Therefore, I challenge you, brothers and sisters, through God’s compassion, to offer up your bodies as a living, holy sacrifice pleasing to God—your thoughtful worship. [2] And don’t be patterned just like this age, but be transformed by a change of mind, in order to test what the will of God is: good, pleasing, complete.

[3] For through the grace given me, I say to each one of you: do not think better of yourself than you should, but think sanely, since God has given a piece of faith to each of you. [4] Because just as we have many parts in one body, and every part does not function the same, [5] so many of us are one body in Christ, and each person is a part of the others. [6] But we have different gifts based on the grace given to us, whether that’s prophetic—based on one’s piece of faith— [7] or for service in the church’s ministry; or as a teacher in education; [8] or as someone who challenges people, encouraging them; someone who shares with others in generosity; someone who leads others by working hard; or someone who happily extends mercy.

This section marks the end of a long three chapters on how God has spread Israel’s promises and gifts into all the world (Romans 9-11). Paul then enters into a longer section on how we should respond to all these gifts by offering up everything we are as “a living, holy sacrifice pleasing to God” (12:1-15:13). So in a way, this passage is a sneak peek on the last part of the letter to the Romans too.