The first part of this section of the chapter is here. I would love to finish this chapter finally this weekend. We'll see. I'm doing this section in bits to hold my interest...
Part 2: A Soul in a Body
At the time of Christ, most people in the world did not believe in much of a meaningful, personal afterlife for individuals. If the abbreviation R.I.P is somewhat well known today (“Rest in peace”), a common Roman epitaph translates as “I was not. I was. I am not. I care not.” When we read the ancient Greek epics of Homer and the Latin Aeneid, we primarily find an underworld where shadows wander mindlessly, lacking the flesh and blood necessary for them to have much of a meaningful or thoughtful existence. This is presumably the same sense of the afterlife we find in the Old Testament when we read statements like, “But when people die, they lose all strength. They breathe their last, and then where are they? … people lie down and do not rise again. Until the heavens are no more, they will not wake up nor be roused from their sleep… They never know if their sons grow up in honor or sink to insignificance” (Job 14:10, 12, 21).
Nevertheless, even in Homer’s Iliad we find hints of a place among the dead for very special people, the Elysian Fields. The idea that the dead might return to the living in some way seems to have begun to emerge in the 500s BC. One of the oldest known Greek philosophers to think something of this sort was Pythagoras (ca. 520BC), who is best known for the Pythagorean Theorem in geometry. He believed in some form of reincarnation. A famous anecdote in Xenophanes says of him that “once when he passed a dog being mistreated, Pythagoras pitied the animal and told the person, ‘Stop! Don’t beat him! He is the soul of a friend I recognized immediately when I heard his voice.’”
Plato also held to the transmigration of the soul, a little over a century later. For Plato there are a fixed number of souls in existence, and they make their ways into various human bodies. While Plato did not think the body was evil, he thought of it as a “prison house” or tomb of the soul, from which the soul was freed at death. At death we drink from the river of forgetfulness (Lethe) and eventually our souls return to enter different bodies of various animals.
However, for most Greek thinkers, the soul was not completely distinguishable from the more animal part of a person, particularly whatever life force keeps us alive. For example, Democritus (ca.460-ca.370BC) taught that a person’s soul was made up of “soul atoms” that disintegrated with the body at death. He believed in a soul, but he did not believe in an afterlife! The soul was simply that which gave your body life, and it dissolved at death like the rest of you. It was material that blended back into the elements of the world just like your skin or hair does after death.
Democritus highlights a very important realization—just because the Bible or some other ancient source uses the word soul does not mean it is talking about exactly the same thing we are today. Indeed, the Old Testament in particular does not use its word for soul (nephesh) in the sense we do. “Soul” in Hebrew never refers to a detachable part of us. It refers to a living being in its entirety, both body and breath of life within it. So Adam becomes a “living soul” when God breathes into the dust (Gen. 2:7).
So Genesis uses the same word of the “living souls” in the water in Genesis 1:20. And even though the Old Testament speaks of the breath (ruach) inside living things, it never thinks of this spirit as the container of our personhood. It is simply the breath of life within us, and animals have the same breath we do (cf. Eccl. 3:19). In general, the Old Testament has little sense of a meaningful, personal afterlife. Indeed, Daniel 12:2-3 is the only passage in the Old Testament about which we would find general agreement among scholars that it actually refers to a meaningful life after death.
The New Testament also can use the word soul in this way. 1 Peter 3:20 uses the Greek word for soul (psyche) when it speaks of “eight souls in all” being saved on the ark. Translations usually translate the word as “eight people” or “eight persons” so we do not get confused. Jesus uses this word in Matthew 16:25 when he says that whoever “loses his soul will find it.” English translations rightly translate the verse as “loses his life.”
We cannot at all assume, therefore, that the word soul in our English translations of the New Testament always has the same thing in mind as we do when we use the word soul. And when New Testament authors did use the word similarly to the way we do (e.g., Matt. 10:28), they may not have had as much invested in the language as we do. I can talk of “being on cloud 9” without literally believing clouds are numbered.