Biblical Archaeology Review 38:5, September/October 2012

Strata: The Bible in the News: Willing but Weak: Mind over Matter?

By Leonard J. Greenspoon

It is Jesus to whom we are indebted for the thought that lies behind the well-known saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Jesus’ exact words, spoken in Aramaic, were translated into Greek by the writers of the New Testament and from there into many other languages. It is to William Tyndale, via the King James Version, that we owe our gratitude for this phrasing in English, which is as memorable as it is apt.

It is then perfectly appropriate that we begin our foray into the myriad uses of this expression in the popular press with an example that relates to translation. “We know it’s an old one, but we liked [former Secretary of State for Scotland Sir Malcolm Rifkind] recalling the British minister speaking in Moscow at the height of the Cold War who declared in a speech: The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. He was surprised to see the speech translated into Russian as: We have lots of vodka, but we’re rather short of meat” (so The Herald of Glasgow, among other newspapers).

This might be the moment for a digression of sorts, simply to note that an Irish newspaper (The Irish Times) lists “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” as number 5 in its “A History of Ireland in 100 Excuses.”

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