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Like the word ‘spirit’, the word ‘soul’ has a variety of meanings in English. There is some variety also in the usages of the original words from which ‘soul’ has been translated. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament the word is nephesh. In the Greek of the New Testament the word is psyche.

Old Testament usage

The writers of the Old Testament did not speak of the soul as something that exists apart from the body. To them, soul (or nephesh) meant life. Both animals and people are nephesh, living creatures. Older English versions of the Bible have created misunderstanding by the translation ‘man became a living soul’ (Genesis 2:7), for the words translated ‘living soul’ are the same words as earlier translated ‘living creatures’ (Genesis 1:21; Genesis 1:24). All animal life is nephesh (or psyche; Revelation 8:9), though human nephesh is of a higher order than the nephesh of other animals (Genesis 2:19-22).

From this it is easy to see how nephesh came to refer to the whole person. We should understand a person not as consisting of a combination of a lifeless body and a bodiless soul, but as a perfect unity, a living body. Thus nephesh may be translated ‘person’; even if translated ‘soul’, it may mean no more than ‘person’ or ‘life’ (Exodus 1:5; Numbers 9:13; Ezekiel 18:4; Ezekiel 18:27). A reference to someone’s nephesh may simply be a reference to the person (Psalms 6:3-4; Psalms 35:9; Isaiah 1:14) or the person’s life (Genesis 35:18; 1 Kings 17:22; Psalms 33:19).

New Testament usage

Similarly in the New Testament psyche can be used to mean no more than ‘person’ (Acts 2:41; Acts 2:43; Acts 7:14; Romans 2:9; Romans 13:1). Again, a reference to someone’s psyche may simply be a reference to the person (Matthew 12:18; Matthew 26:38; Luke 1:46; Luke 12:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:8; Hebrews 10:38) or the person’s life (Matthew 16:26; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Philippians 2:30; 1 Peter 4:19). Sometimes ‘soul’ appears to be the same as ‘heart’, which in the Bible usually refers to the whole of a person’s inner life (Proverbs 2:10; Acts 4:32; see HEART; HUMANITY, HUMANKIND).

A person characterized by psyche is an ordinary person of the world, one who lives solely according to the principles and values of sinful human society – the ‘natural person’, in contrast to the ‘spiritual person’. The latter is one who has new principles and values because of the Spirit of God within (1 Corinthians 2:12-16; cf. Judges 1:19; see FLESH; SPIRIT).

Human uniqueness

Both Old and New Testaments teach that when people die they do not cease to exist. The body returns to dust (Genesis 3:19; Ecclesiastes 3:20), but the person lives on in a place, or state, of the dead, which the Hebrew calls sheol and the Greek calls hades (Psalms 6:5; Psalms 88:3-5; Luke 16:22-23; see HADES; SHEOL). The Old Testament does not say in what way people live on after death. Certainly, they live on as a conscious personal beings, but that personal being is not complete, for it has no body (Psalms 49:14; Ezekiel 26:20).

The New Testament also is unclear on the subject of a person’s existence after death. It speaks of the bodiless person after death sometimes as a soul (Acts 2:27; Revelation 6:9; Revelation 20:4), sometimes as a spirit (Hebrews 12:23; 1 Peter 3:18), but again the person, being bodiless, is not complete. Also, this existence as a bodiless person is only temporary, just as the decay of the body in the grave is only temporary. That is why the Bible encourages believers to look for their eternal destiny not in the endless existence of some bodiless ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, but in the resurrection of the body to a new and glorious life (1 Corinthians 15:42-53; Philippians 3:20-21).

Since there is more to a human life than what people experience during their earthly existence, psyche naturally developed a meaning relating to more than normal earthly life. Eternal destiny also is involved (Matthew 10:28; Matthew 16:26; Hebrews 10:38-39).

From this usage, psyche developed an even richer meaning. It became the word most commonly used among Christians to describe the higher or more spiritual aspect of human life that is popularly called the soul (Hebrews 6:19; Hebrews 13:17; James 1:21; 1 Peter 1:9; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 Peter 2:11; 1 Peter 2:25; 3 John 1:2).

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Soul'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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