The word “flesh” literally means soft tissue, as distinguished from skin and bones (e.g., Job 19.20); by extension it can mean the human race (Isa. 40.5; Joel 2.28) and even all animal life (Gen. 6.19). “Spirit” translates words that in both Hebrew and Greek mean “wind” (Gen. 8.1; cf. 1.1) or “breath” (Gen. 6.17; Ezek. 37.5), as well as vital essence. Biblical writers do not normally combine the two terms to designate the totality of human nature. The body/soul dichotomy that so fascinated Greek philosophy is not generally presupposed, even when the two terms occur in close proximity; thus, Matthew 26.41 is not a real exception to this rule. (See Human Person.)

In the New Testament, particularly in the letters of Paul, “flesh” and “spirit” often appear as contrasting rather than complementary terms, representing the natural and divine spheres respectively; this usage also occurs earlier (see Isa. 31.3). Thus, for Paul “flesh” often has a negative connotation, meaning the sphere of human rebellion against God (Rom. 8.3–13; Gal. 5.16–25), as contrasted with the “spirit,” which is sometimes identified as the “spirit of God” (e.g., Rom. 8.9; see Holy Spirit).

Douglas R. A. Hare