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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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I. In the OT

The term ‘life’ in EV [Note: English Version.] is used, with a few unimportant exceptions, as the equivalent of one or other of two Heb. expressions: (1) chai , or mostly in plur. chayyim; (2) nephesh . The LXX [Note: Septuagint.] makes a general distinction between these two, by usually rendering the former as zôç and the latter as psychç . The former term occurs more frequently than the latter. The notion of life and the terms used to denote it belong, like ‘death,’ to the primitive elements in human thought and speech. Roughly speaking, we may explain (1) as primarily = what is fresh, new, in active existence; and (2) as primarily = breath.

1. Self-originated movement, especially as seen in locomotion and breathing, were naturally the earliest criteria of life. So still, scientists are investigating life as merely a ‘mode of motion.’ Life, however, has not yet yielded up its secret to human inquiry; not yet has life, by any experiment, been produced from purely inorganic origins. Meantime those who do not stumble at a theistic view of creation hold an entirely worthy and satisfactory position in following the Genesis Creation narratives, and ascribing the origin of all life to God, who ‘giveth to all life and breath and all things’ ( Acts 17:25 ). The mystery of life abides, but it is not in the least likely that any results of scientific investigation will ever really conflict with this position.

Life as a physical phenomenon is pre-eminently associated with animals the living creatures of the sea, the land, and the air (Genesis 1:21 ff.). Plant-life is hardly recognized as such. OT writers do not go so far as to predicate life of trees in much the same way as of animals, as is the case with some of the early Greek philosophers ( e.g . Aristotle, Eth. Nic . i. 7, 12). Still ‘green’ and ‘dry,’ as applied to plants, correspond to ‘living’ and ‘dead.’ There is the feeling that trees possess ‘a sort of’ life; and such references to trees as that concerning the fresh sprouting of a stock or root ( Job 14:7 ff., Isaiah 11:1 ) are very significant. Notice also the way in which the prosperity of man is likened to that of a flourishing tree ( Psalms 1:3 etc.), and other frequent illustrative uses.

Physical life is not only primitively connected with the breath, but also with the blood. The effect of the draining away of the blood (as from a wound) in the lessening vitality of the body and finally death a matter of early observation naturally explains this. A certain sacredness thus attaches to the blood ( 1 Samuel 14:33 ff.), and definite prohibitive legislation relating to the eating of flesh with the blood becomes incorporated in the laws of Israel ( Leviticus 3:17; Leviticus 7:25 etc.). This primitive conception of blood as the seat of life lies at the root of the whole OT system of sacrifices and of all the Scripture Ideas and teachings based thereupon.

The sacredness of life as such is strongly emphasized. The great value ascribed to human life is indicated by the numerous laws relating to manslaughter and to offences which interfere in any way with a man’s right to live and with his reasonable use and enjoyment of life. The feeling extends to other creatures. See the suggestive words ‘and also much cattle’ in Jonah 4:11 . The beasts are associated with man’s humiliations and privations ( Jonah 3:7 f., Joel 1:18; Joel 1:20 ); their life is a thing to be considered. We find the ground of this feeling in the view that God is not only the original Creator or Source of life, but directly its Sustainer in all its forms ( Psalms 36:6 , Psalms 104:1-35; Psalms 145:1-21 passim ). This seems also to be the fundamental significance of the very common expression ‘the living God’ (lit. ‘God of life’).

2 . Life is predominantly set forth as man’s summum bonum . Life and death are respectively ‘the blessing and the curse,’ and that uniquely ( Deuteronomy 30:19 ). ‘Choose life’ is the appeal pointing to the one desirable boon. Every man should answer to the description in Psalms 34:12 . The language which disparages life and praises death ( e.g . Job 7:16 , Ecclesiastes 4:1 ff. etc.) is the expression of an abnormal state of feeling, the outcome of man’s experience of misery in one form and another. But it is not mere existence that is in itself desirable. As Orr points out, life in its Scripture use has ‘a moral and spiritual connotation’ ( Christian View [1893], p. 393); and it is only the godly and righteous life that is a boon from the Scripture point of view. Such is the burden of the Wisdom books, when they speak of ‘finding life,’ and describe wisdom as a ‘tree of life’ ( Proverbs 3:18; Proverbs 8:35 ).

3. The idea of a life to come is in many portions of the OT conspicuous by its absence. There is nothing anywhere that will compare with the NT conception of ‘ eternal life. ’ The latter expression, it is true, is found in the OT, but only once, and that in the late-Hebrew Book of Daniel ( Daniel 12:2 ). It is to be remembered that, though this book is in EV [Note: English Version.] numbered among the Major Prophets, its affinities are not with that group but rather with later post-Biblical Jewish writings. In these writings the use of this expression is best illustrated. Enoch, Ps.-Sol., 4 Mac. furnish examples. See also in Apocrypha, 2Ma 7:9; 2Ma 7:36 . ‘Life’ alone in this later use comes to be used as = ‘life eternal.’ (See, e.g ., 2Ma 7:14; cf. in NT, Matthew 7:14; Matthew 19:17 ). Later Jewish use, however, prefers the clearer phrase, ‘life of the age to come’: and along this line the genesis of the term ‘eternal life’ must be explained. (Cf. the last clause in the Nicene Creed: ‘the life of the world to come’). Jewish eschatological hopes, first for the nation and afterwards for the individual, contributed largely to the development of this idea.

At the same time, though in some parts of the OT the hope of life hereafter seems expressly excluded (see, e.g ., Isaiah 38:11; Isaiah 38:18 , Ecclesiastes 9:5; Ecclesiastes 9:10 [ Ecclesiastes 12:7 is not in conflict, for it embodies the idea of ‘re-absorption,’ and is not to be read in the light of Christian hope and teaching]), and this world alone is known as’ the land of the living,’ the very asking of the question in Job 14:14 is significant, and the language of Psalms 16:1-11 concerning ‘the path of life’ lends itself readily to an interpretation looking to life beyond death.

II. In the Apocrypha. Chs. 1 5 of Wis. yield much that is of interest relating to contemporary Jewish thought; e.g . God is the author of life but not of death ( Wis 1:13 f., Wis 2:23 f.). The wicked live in harmony with the saying, ‘Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die’ (ch. 2). The righteous have immortality as their inheritance, whilst the wicked shall be brought to judgment and shall be destroyed (chs. 3 5). For an impressive presentment of a foolish appreciation of life, see also Wis 15:7 ff. In Sir 15:17 ‘Before man is life and death,’ we have an echo of Deuteronomy 30:19 . The conception of life (‘soul’) as a loan that can be recalled is found in Wis 15:8; Wis 15:18 , a close parallel with Luke 12:20 . Such phrases as ‘the fountain of life’ ( Sir 21:13 ) and ‘the tree of life’ ( 2E Esther 2:12; 2Es 8:52 ) recall their use in both OT and NT. For the former, see Psalms 36:8 , Proverbs 10:11 , John 4:10; John 4:14; for the latter Genesis 2:9 , Revelation 2:7; Revelation 22:2 etc. 2Es 7:1-70 furnishes a notable and picturesque view of life beyond death, with the judgment of the righteous and the unrighteous. See especially the long passage beginning at v. 75. The return of the spirit ‘to him who gave it,’ v. 78, has none of the limitations that attend a similar reference to death in Ecclesiastes 12:7 . (See above.)


The term ‘life’ is the Eng. equivalent of three terms used in the original (1) zôç . This is of most frequent occurrence; generally corresponding to chayyim in OT; = life in the absolute: vitality: full, active existence. It is the term capable of embodying all progressive conceptions as to what constitutes life, and so regularly occurring in the phrase ‘eternal life.’ (2) psychç , generally = OT nephesh , but the fluctuation between ‘life’ and ‘soul’ (see, e.g ., the well-known passage Matthew 16:25 f.) as its rendering in English is significant. The primary notion is that of the animating principle (in contrast to the ‘body’). It further denotes the specific life or existence of any individual. By an easy transition it comes to stand for a man’s ‘self’ (roughly ‘soul’). (3) bios , occurring only a few times. = the present state of existence, this life; as in Luke 8:14 , 1 Timothy 2:2 , 2 Timothy 2:4 , 1 John 2:16; 1 John 3:17 ( zôç , however, is sometimes used in this sense, with ‘this’ or ‘the present’ qualifying it, e.g . 1 Corinthians 15:19 ); also = means of subsistence; and so = ‘living’ ( Luke 8:43; Luke 15:12 etc.).

1. The teaching of Jesus . As regards the present life we gather from the Gospels that Jesus never bewailed its brevity and vanity. The mournful notes of some of the OT Scriptures, the pensive commonplaces of so much of man’s thoughts and moralizings, find no echo here. On the contrary, in His own life He graciously exemplifies the joie de vivre . This in one respect was made even a ground of complaint against Him ( Matthew 11:19 ). The sacredness of life is insisted on, and the Sixth Commandment is accentuated ( Matthew 5:21 ). The preciousness of life, even in its humblest forms (‘sparrows,’ Matthew 10:29 || Luke 12:6 ), appears in connexion with our Lord’s arresting doctrine of Divine Providence, which stands in such unhesitating defiance of the sterner features of the world of life ( In Memoriam , lv. f.).

Very conspicuously Jesus condemns over-anxiety about this life and its ‘goods.’ Simplicity and detachment in regard to these things are repeatedly insisted on (see, e.g ., Matthew 6:19; Matthew 6:31 , Luke 12:15 ). Certainly the accumulation of a superabundance of the ‘goods’ of life at the expense of others’ deprivation and want is in direct opposition to the spirit of His teaching. The deep, paradoxical saying ( Matthew 16:25 f.) about losing and finding one’s life is of significance here a saying found not only in the three Synoptics (see Mark 8:35 , Luke 9:24 ), but also in its substance in John 12:25 .

Eternal life figures conspicuously in the teaching of Jesus. He did not originate the expression: it was already established in the Rabbinical vocabulary. The subject was, and continued to be, one greatly discussed among the Jews. The phrasing of Jesus as when He speaks of ‘inheriting’ ( Matthew 19:29 ), ‘having’ (Jn. passim ), ‘receiving’ ( Mark 10:30 ), ‘entering into,’ or ‘attaining’ ( Matthew 19:17 ), eternal life, or life simply is also that of the Jewish teachers of His own and a later day. (Note even the significance of the wording in Mark 10:17 ||). ‘Life’ alone as = ‘eternal life’ is used in Matthew 7:14 , Mark 9:43 etc.; also in John’s Gospel (as John 3:36; John 10:10 etc.). (See above.)

The Johannine Gospel conspicuously gives ‘eternal life’ as a chief topic of Christ’s teaching; whilst in the Synoptics ‘the kingdom of God’ holds the corresponding place. The connexion between the two conceptions is intimate and vital. The primary characteristic of eternal life is that it is life lived under the rule of God. The definition found in John 17:3 (with which Wis 15:3 invites comparison) shows how essentially it is a matter of moral and spiritual interests. The notion of ever-lastingness rather follows from this: the feeling that death cannot destroy what is precious in God’s sight. Cf. Tennyson:

‘ Transplanted human worth

Shall bloom to profit otherwhere.’

But the life is a present possession, an actual fact of experience (John 3:35; John 5:24; John 6:47 etc.). We have, however, the indication of a special association of eternal life with the hereafter in Mark 10:30 (‘in the world to come’) Matthew 25:40 . Cf. also p. 490 a .

It is the teaching of Christ that has caused the words ‘eternal life’ to be written, as it were, across the face of the NT. Still more are we to notice the unique claim made as to His relation to that life. The keynote of the Johannine presentation is ‘in him was life’ (John 1:4 ), and throughout He is consistently represented as giving and imparting this life to His people. Note also, it is eternal life as predicated of these that is principally, if not exclusively, in view in the Evangelical teaching there is little or nothing on human immortality in the widest sense.

2. The rest of the NT. The leading theme of. l Jn . is ‘eternal life,’ and it is handled in complete accord with the Fourth Gospel. St. Paul is in agreement with the Johannine teaching on the cardinal topic of eternal life. His Epistles throb with this theme, and he conspicuously presents Christ as the source of this life in its fullest conception, or the One through whom it is mediated. See Romans 6:23 , and note his strong way of identifying Christ with this life, as in Galatians 2:20 , Philippians 1:21 , Colossians 3:3-4 . Christ is also presented as author or mediator of life in the widest sense, the life that moves in all created things ( Colossians 1:16-17; cf. John 1:3 ). St. Paul, again, uses ‘life’ alone as containing all the implicates of ‘eternal life’ ( Romans 5:17 , 2 Corinthians 5:4 , Philippians 2:16 ). The supremely ethical value associated with life is seen in the definition given in Romans 8:6 , with which cf. John 17:3 . The new life of the Spirit as a dynamic in the present and as having the promise of full fruition in eternity, is central in the Apostle’s exposition of Christianity. For the rest, the Apocalypse should be noticed for its use of such images as ‘crown of life,’ ‘book of life,’ ‘fountain,’ ‘river,’ and ‘water of life,’ and the ‘book of life’ (which we also meet with elsewhere) all embodying the Christian hope of immortality.

J. S. Clemens.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Life'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​l/life.html. 1909.
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