by D.P. Brooks
One of the most misunderstood words of the Bible is the word "soul." In its usage in our culture the word is used to describe "that eternal part of man which survives death," This is a rather accurate reflection of what the Greek philosophers meant by "soul." For them, man was made up of two parts: physical and spiritual. The body, being material, is evil; the soul, being spiritual, is good. At death the body perishes, but the soul lives on. This concept of the soul has influenced modern ideas far more than has the Hebrew meaning reflected in the Bible. Therefore, when the average Bible reader sees the word "soul" he probably gets a picture very different from that intended by the biblical writer.
The first use of the word "soul" in the Bible is Genesis 2:7. The King James Version reads: "The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." People often read this and say that here we have the explanation of man's uniqueness; made in God's image, man is here endowed with an immortal soul. But if you read this verse in a modern translation you may find that the word "soul" is not used and that instead (as in the Revised Standard Version) the verse reads: And he became a living being." The same word which the King James Version translates as "soul" is also used in reference to animals and refers to their being alive, animate beings.
In the Old Testament the word translated "soul" in the King James Version is the Hebrew word nephesh. There are 444 uses of this word in the Old Testament. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in 200 B.C., the word pseuche was used to translate nephesh (cf. our word "psychology"). There are fifty-seven uses of this word in the New Testament.
The question now arises: What was the meaning of this word that is translated "soul"? To the Hebrews the soul was a union of body and spirit. It was the aliveness of man or animal. A soul was a person, an embodied spirit, a self. Whereas the Greeks saw the soul as an oyster in the shell (a spirit in a body), the Hebrews emphasized the wholeness of the person. For the Hebrews the soul perished at death. Norman Snaith says: "There is no single instance in the Old Testament where the 'soul' should be thought of as that which survives death" (The Interpreter's Bible, I, 230). In the New Testament the word pseuche is used in the same sense as nephesh in the Old—never in the Greek sense. The pseuche is what the New Testament calls "carnal" or natural man—man who lives for self, man in rebellion against God.
Jesus' words to His disciples, as recorded in Matthew 16:26, read thus in the King James Version: "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" How many sermons have been built on a misinterpretation of that word "soul"! A translation more in keeping with the biblical understanding of "soul" is as follows: "What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?"
Someone may be inclined to ask: What difference does it make whether we call it soul, life, or self? Obviously there is a great difference between what the biblical writers meant by pseuche and what most Americans mean by the word "soul." Like the Greeks, we tend to divide man up into body, mind, and soul. This enables some people to claim to love a person's soul while hating him as a person. Also, we tend to separate life into sacred and secular. But in the Bible there is no such division. All of life is sacred, and all is under God's judgment. Modern psychology has emphasized the wholeness of life and thus helps us understand the Hebrew concept.
A seminary professor shocked his students by saying: "Jesus never went on a 'soul-saving' mission in his life." Then after a pause, he declared: "He was much too busy saving men." It is not just some immaterial "soul" that is lost; men are lost. And it is not just "that eternal part" that is saved; the whole man is saved! Salvation brings wholeness through a new relationship with God. Much bad religion is rooted in a misconception of the nature of man, and at the root of this misunderstanding is an unbiblical concept of the soul.
(From D.P. Brooks, The Bible—How to Understand and Teach It [Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969], 29-31.)
Recommended further reading:
Archibald Alexander: A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth
Louis Berkhof: Systematic Theology
Herman Bavinck: Our Reasonable Faith
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