Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Biblical words for soul and spirit

1. The typical process of reading the Bible goes like this:
  • I see the same English word used throughout the Bible. For example, "soul" or "spirit."
  • I assume that word has the same meaning throughout the Bible, since it is the same English word.
  • I assume that the meaning of that word is whatever that word means to me in English, which could involve things I've heard from the pulpit or things I've read somewhere.
  • Perhaps there is a key verse or passage that drives my understanding of that word, the Archimedian point from which I interpret all other verses or the focal lens through which view all the other verses.
So on a topic like "soul" or "spirit," I may have had someone say that the "biblical" view of a person is that we are made up of a body, a soul, and a spirit, variously defined. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 might be a focal verse: "May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."

2. This of course is a pre-modern way of reading the Bible. It is unreflective and completely unaware of how to read the words in historical context. So,
  • These were not the same words in Greek and Hebrew.
  • The meanings were not the same because the books in which these words were used spanned 1000 years and words change meaning over time in any language.
  • The proper dictionary for defining these words is not an English one, but a function of the "dictionary" in use at the time and place where each book was written.
  • You cannot use the meaning of a word in one part of Scripture to define a word in another part of Scripture because the meaning of a word is a matter of how it is used at a specific time and place.
3. So if we look at the biblical words for spirit and soul, here's something like how they map out over time.

a. nephesh - a living being of some sort. Genesis 1 calls the living creatures that God creates in the sea, nephesh chayah. So, in Hebrew, these sea creatures were "living souls." C. S. Lewis knew enough to put it this way: "You don't have a soul. You are a soul." Of course that is only the Old Testament way of using the word.

Adam as a living soul is the whole Adam, body and breath (Gen. 2:7). The NIV well translates the phrase here as "living being." There is thus not a single instance in the Old Testament where the word "soul" means a detachable part of a human being.

b. ruach - breath. In Hebrew, "spirit" comes much closer to what we think of when we speak of the soul. But it would be anachronistic to think of spirit in the OT as what we mean by the soul. I personally think it is misleading to translate this word as "spirit" anywhere in the OT. We would be much more accurate to translate the word as "breath."

c. psyche - The Greek word for "soul" both retains the OT sense of nephesh but also occasionally adds the use of the word in some Greek circles. So in 1 Peter 3:20, eight "souls" are saved on the ark. Notice how the NIV, realizing how confusing the word soul would be for an English speaker here, has prudently left the word untranslated. "Soul" here simply means a living being, as in Hebrew.

Psyche can also mean "life," as in Matthew 10:39. Here it is obviously not a part of us that continues to live after death, for it would then make no sense to say that "whoever loses his soul will find it."

So there are really very few places like 1 Thessalonians 5:23 where something like the Greek picture of a bipartite or tripartite person is invoked. In such cases, we are only looking at a picture, a metaphor of human existence. It would be foolhardy in the extreme to treat this as the ultimate secret to understanding human psychology.

In such instances, the soul seems to be something like the meeting point and intersection of body and spirit. It is like the animal part of us. Philo, for example, calls the spirit the "soul's soul." I do not think at any place, however, the NT considers the soul in Platonic fashion to be a detachable part of us that survives death.

d. pneuma - "Spirit" retains its connection to the idea of breath (cf. English derivative pneumonia). However, the NT does seem to draw more consistently on the Greek image of the spirit as a part of the human being that holds the essence of who we are and that can leave our bodies. This is ultimately, I believe, still a metaphor of sorts, not a scientific picture. Although there are significant scholarly voices against me, I still think that Hebrews 12:23 most likely pictures the disembodied spirits of the righteous around the throne in heaven.


Bob MacDonald said...

That's an interesting way to approach this problem. I suspect 1 Thess is Paul using the language of the Greeks to speak to Greeks. This disembodied spirit is evident in Qoheleth 12, the spirit returns to God who made it. I have been reading the last chapter (The Hereafter) of Louis Jacobs, A Hebrew Theology. It shows that Jewish tradition from the Tannaim through Saadia all the way to the 16th century (The Mabit) is filled with allusions to all sorts of things which echo both OT and NT like spirits under the altar, etc. And that they themselves echo the Egyptian Book of the Dead and other ancient sources. Fascinating history...

Anonymous said...

The mistranslations and misunderstanding of these words aren't just scholarly nitpicking. They have huge implications for people's beliefs.

Probably 99% of Christians think the bible teaches that we have a soul that goes to heaven when we die. We may have, but that is not what the Bible teaches at all. Yet people say they believe it because it is in the bible.

Kind of a sorry state of affairs.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your insight.