The original-language terms (Heb., neʹphesh [נֶפֶשׁ]; Gr., psy·kheʹ [ψυχή]) as used in the Scriptures show “soul” to be a person, an animal, or the life that a person or an animal enjoys.
The connotations that the English “soul” commonly carries in the minds of most persons are not in agreement with the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words as used by the inspired Bible writers. This fact has steadily gained wider acknowledgment. Back in 1897, in the Journal of Biblical Literature (Vol. XVI, p. 30), Professor C. A. Briggs, as a result of detailed analysis of the use of neʹphesh, observed: “Soul in English usage at the present time conveys usually a very different meaning from נפש [neʹphesh] in Hebrew, and it is easy for the incautious reader to misinterpret.”
More recently, when The Jewish Publication Society of America issued a new translation of the Torah, or first five books of the Bible, the editor-in-chief, H. M. Orlinsky of Hebrew Union College, stated that the word “soul” had been virtually eliminated from this translation because, “the Hebrew word in question here is ‘Nefesh.’” He added: “Other translators have interpreted it to mean ‘soul,’ which is completely inaccurate. The Bible does not say we have a soul. ‘Nefesh’ is the person himself, his need for food, the very blood in his veins, his being.”
What is the origin of the teaching that the human soul is invisible and immortal?
The difficulty lies in the fact that the meanings popularly attached to the English word “soul” stem primarily, not from the Hebrew or Christian Greek Scriptures, but from ancient Greek philosophy, actually pagan religious thought. Greek philosopher Plato, for example, quotes Socrates as saying: “The soul, . . . if it departs pure, dragging with it nothing of the body, . . . goes away into that which is like itself, into the invisible, divine, immortal, and wise, and when it arrives there it is happy, freed from error and folly and fear . . . and all the other human ills, and . . . lives in truth through all after time with the gods.”
In direct contrast with the Greek teaching of the psy·kheʹ (soul) as being immaterial, intangible, invisible, and immortal, the Scriptures show that both psy·kheʹ and neʹphesh, as used with reference to earthly creatures, refer to that which is material, tangible, visible, and mortal.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia says: “Nepes [neʹphesh] is a term of far greater extension than our ‘soul,’ signifying life (Ex 21.23; Dt 19.21) and its various vital manifestations: breathing (Gn 35.18; Jb 41.13), blood [Gn 9.4; Dt 12.23; Ps 140(141).8], desire (2 Sm 3.21; Prv 23.2). The soul in the O[ld] T[estament] means not a part of man, but the whole man
The Roman Catholic translation, The New American Bible, in its “Glossary of Biblical Theology Terms” (pp. 27, 28), says: “In the New Testament, to ‘save one’s soul’ (Mk 8:35) does not mean to save some ‘spiritual’ part of man, as opposed to his ‘body’ (in the Platonic sense) but the whole person with emphasis on the fact that the person is living, desiring, loving and willing, etc., in addition to being concrete and physical.”
Neʹphesh evidently comes from a root meaning “breathe” and in a literal sense neʹphesh could be rendered as “a breather.” Koehler and Baumgartner’s Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (Leiden, 1958, p. 627) defines it as: “the breathing substance, making man a[nd] animal living beings Gn 1, 20, the soul (strictly distinct from the greek notion of soul) the seat of which is the blood Gn 9, 4f Lv 17, 11 Dt 12, 23: (249 X) . . . soul = living being, individual, person.”
As for the Greek word psy·kheʹ, Greek-English lexicons give such definitions as “life,” and “the conscious self or personality as centre of emotions, desires, and affections,” “a living being,” and they show that even in non-Biblical Greek works the term was used “of animals.” Of course, such sources, treating as they do primarily of classical Greek writings, include all the meanings that the pagan Greek philosophers gave to the word, including that of “departed spirit,” “the immaterial and immortal soul,” “the spirit of the universe,” and “the immaterial principle of movement and life.” Evidently because some of the pagan philosophers taught that the soul emerged from the body at death, the term psy·kheʹ was also applied to the “butterfly or moth,” which creatures go through a metamorphosis, changing from caterpillar to winged creature.
The ancient Greek writers applied psy·kheʹ in various ways and were not consistent, their personal and religious philosophies influencing their use of the term. Of Plato, to whose philosophy the common ideas about the English “soul” may be attributed (as is generally acknowledged), it is stated: “While he sometimes speaks of one of [the alleged] three parts of the soul, the ‘intelligible,’ as necessarily immortal, while the other two parts are mortal, he also speaks as if there were two souls in one body, one immortal and divine, the other mortal.”
In view of such inconsistency in non-Biblical writings, it is essential to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, showing what the inspired writers meant by their use of the term psy·kheʹ, as well as by neʹphesh. Neʹphesh occurs 754 times in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Scriptures, while psy·kheʹ appears by itself 102 times in the Westcott and Hort text of the Christian Greek Scriptures, giving a total of 856 occurrences. (See NW appendix, p. 1573.) This frequency of occurrence makes possible a clear concept of the sense that these terms conveyed to the minds of the inspired Bible writers and the sense their writings should convey to our mind. An examination shows that, while the sense of these terms is broad, with different shades of meaning, among the Bible writers there was no inconsistency, confusion, or disharmony as to man’s nature, as existed among the Grecian philosophers of the so-called Classical Period.
Earth’s First Souls. The initial occurrences of neʹphesh are found at Genesis 1:20-23. On the fifth creative “day” God said: “‘Let the waters swarm forth a swarm of living souls [neʹphesh] and let flying creatures fly over the earth . . .’ And God proceeded to create the great sea monsters and every living soul [neʹphesh] that moves about, which the waters swarmed forth according to their kinds, and every winged flying creature according to its kind.” Similarly on the sixth creative “day” neʹphesh is applied to the “domestic animal and moving animal and wild beast of the earth” as “living souls.”
After man’s creation, God’s instruction to him again used the term neʹphesh with regard to the animal creation, “everything moving upon the earth in which there is life as a soul [literally, in which there is living soul (neʹphesh)].” (Ge 1:30) Other examples of animals being so designated are found at Genesis 2:19; 9:10-16; Leviticus 11:10, 46; 24:18; Numbers 31:28; Ezekiel 47:9. Notably, the Christian Greek Scriptures coincide in applying the Greek psy·kheʹ to animals, as at Revelation 8:9; 16:3, where it is used of creatures in the sea.
Thus, the Scriptures clearly show that neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ are used to designate the animal creation lower than man. The same terms apply to man.
The Human Soul. Precisely the same Hebrew phrase used of the animal creation, namely, neʹphesh chai·yahʹ (living soul), is applied to Adam, when, after God formed man out of dust from the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, “the man came to be a living soul.” (Ge 2:7) Man was distinct from the animal creation, but that distinction was not because he was a neʹphesh (soul) and they were not. Rather, the record shows that it was because man alone was created “in God’s image.” (Ge 1:26, 27) He was created with moral qualities like those of God, with power and wisdom far superior to the animals; hence he could have in subjection all the lower forms of creature life. (Ge 1:26, 28) Man’s organism was more complex, as well as more versatile, than that of the animals. (Compare 1Co 15:39.) Likewise, Adam had, but lost, the prospect of eternal life; this is never stated with regard to the creatures lower than man.
It is true that the account says that ‘God proceeded to blow into the man’s nostrils the breath [form of nesha·mahʹ] of life,’ whereas this is not stated in the account of the animal creation. Clearly, however, the account of the creation of man is much more detailed than that of the creation of animals. Moreover, Genesis 7:21-23, in describing the Flood’s destruction of “all flesh” outside the ark, lists the animal creatures along with mankind and says: “Everything in which the breath [form of nesha·mahʹ] of the force of life was active in its nostrils, namely, all that were on the dry ground, died.” Obviously, the breath of life of the animal creatures also originally came from the Creator, Jehovah God.
So, too, the “spirit” (Heb., ruʹach; Gr., pneuʹma), or life-force, of man is not distinct from the life-force in animals, as is shown by Ecclesiastes 3:19-21, which states that “they all have but one spirit [weruʹach].”
The Genesis account shows that a living soul results from the combination of the earthly body with the breath of life. The expression “breath of the force of life [literally, breath of the spirit, or active force (ruʹach), of life]” (Ge 7:22) indicates that it is by breathing air (with its oxygen) that the life-force, or “spirit,” in all creatures, man and animals, is sustained. This life-force is found in every cell of the creature’s body, as is discussed under LIFE; SPIRIT.
Since the term neʹphesh refers to the creature itself, we should expect to find the normal physical functions or characteristics of fleshly creatures attributed to it. This is exactly the case. Neʹphesh (soul) is spoken of as eating flesh, fat, blood, or similar material things (Le 7:18, 20, 25, 27; 17:10, 12, 15; De 23:24); being hungry for or craving food and drink (De 12:15, 20, 21; Ps 107:9; Pr 19:15; 27:7; Isa 29:8; 32:6; Mic 7:1); being made fat (Pr 11:25); fasting (Ps 35:13); touching unclean things, such as a dead body (Le 5:2; 7:21; 17:15; 22:6; Nu 19:13); being ‘seized as a pledge’ or being ‘kidnapped’ (De 24:6, 7); doing work (Le 23:30); being refreshed by cold water when tired (Pr 25:25); being purchased (Le 22:11; Eze 27:13); being given as a vow offering (Le 27:2); being put in irons (Ps 105:18); being sleepless (Ps 119:28); and struggling for breath (Jer 15:9).
It may be noted that in many texts reference is made to “my soul,” “his [or her] soul,” “your soul,” and so forth. This is because neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ can mean one’s own self as a soul. The sense of the term can therefore often be expressed in English by use of personal pronouns. Thus Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (p. 627) shows that “my neʹphesh” means “I” (Ge 27:4, 25; Isa 1:14); “your [singular] neʹphesh” means “thou” or “you” (Ge 27:19, 31; Isa 43:4; 51:23); “his neʹphesh” means “he, himself” (Nu 30:2; Isa 53:10); “her neʹphesh” means “she, herself” (Nu 30:5-12), and so forth.
The Greek term psy·kheʹ is used similarly. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (1981, Vol. 4, p. 54) says it may be used as “the equivalent of the personal pronoun, used for emphasis and effect:
Represents life as a creature. Both neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ are also used to mean life
Thus when Rachel was giving birth to Benjamin, her neʹphesh (“soul,” or life as a creature) went out from her and she died. (Ge 35:16-19) She ceased to be a living creature. Similarly, when the prophet Elijah performed a miracle regarding the dead son of the widow of Zarephath, the child’s neʹphesh (“soul,” or life as a creature) came back into him and “he came to life,” was again a living creature.
Because the creature’s life is so inseparably connected with and dependent on blood (shed blood standing for the life of the person or creature [Ge 4:10; 2Ki 9:26; Ps 9:12; Isa 26:21]), the Scriptures speak of the neʹphesh (soul) as being “in the blood.” (Ge 9:4; Le 17:11, 14; De 12:23) This is, obviously, not meant literally, inasmuch as the Scriptures also speak of the “blood of your souls” (Ge 9:5; compare Jer 2:34) and the many references already considered could not reasonably be applied solely to the blood or its life-supporting qualities.
Neʹphesh (soul) is not used with reference to the creation of vegetable life on the third creative “day” (Ge 1:11-13) or thereafter, since vegetation is bloodless.
Examples of the use of the Greek psy·kheʹ to mean “life as a creature” may be found at Matthew 6:25; 10:39; 16:25, 26; Luke 12:20; John 10:11, 15; 13:37, 38; 15:13; Acts 20:10. Since God’s servants have the hope of a resurrection in the event of death, they have the hope of living again as “souls,” or living creatures. For that reason Jesus could say that “whoever loses his soul [his life as a creature] for the sake of me and the good news will save it. Really, of what benefit is it for a man to gain the whole world and to forfeit his soul? What, really, would a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mr 8:35-37) Similarly, he stated: “He that is fond of his soul destroys it, but he that hates his soul in this world will safeguard it for everlasting life.” (Joh 12:25) These texts, and others like them, show the correct understanding of Jesus’ words at Matthew 10:28: “Do not become fearful of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather be in fear of him that can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” While men can kill the body, they cannot kill the person for all time, inasmuch as he lives in God’s purpose (compare Lu 20:37, 38) and God can and will restore such faithful one to life as a creature by means of a resurrection. For God’s servants, the loss of their “soul,” or life as a creature, is only temporary, not permanent.
Mortal and destructible. On the other hand, Matthew 10:28 states that God “can destroy both soul [psy·khenʹ] and body in Gehenna.” This shows that psy·kheʹ does not refer to something immortal or indestructible. There is, in fact, not one case in the entire Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek, in which the words neʹphesh or psy·kheʹ are modified by terms such as immortal, indestructible, imperishable, deathless, or the like. (See IMMORTALITY; INCORRUPTION.) On the other hand, there are scores of texts in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures that speak of the neʹphesh or psy·kheʹ (soul) as mortal and subject to death (Ge 19:19, 20; Nu 23:10; Jos 2:13, 14; Jg 5:18; 16:16, 30; 1Ki 20:31, 32; Ps 22:29; Eze 18:4, 20; Mt 2:20; 26:38; Mr 3:4; Heb 10:39; Jas 5:20); as dying, being “cut off” or destroyed (Ge 17:14; Ex 12:15; Le 7:20; 23:29; Jos 10:28-39; Ps 78:50; Eze 13:19; 22:27; Ac 3:23; Re 8:9; 16:3), whether by sword (Jos 10:37; Eze 33:6) or by suffocation (Job 7:15), or being in danger of death due to drowning (Jon 2:5); and also as going down into the pit or into Sheol (Job 33:22; Ps 89:48) or being delivered therefrom (Ps 16:10; 30:3; 49:15; Pr 23:14).
Desire. At times the word neʹphesh is used to express the desire of the individual, one that fills him and then occupies him in achieving its goal. Proverbs 13:2, for example, says of those dealing treacherously that ‘their very soul is violence,’ that is, that they are ‘all out’ for violence, in effect, become violence personified. (Compare Ge 34:3, ftn; Ps 27:12; 35:25; 41:2.) Israel’s false shepherds are called “dogs strong in soul[ful desire],” who have known no satisfaction.
Serving With One’s Whole Soul. The “soul” basically means the entire person, as has been shown. Yet certain texts exhort us to seek for, love, and serve God with ‘all our heart and all our soul’ (De 4:29; 11:13, 18), while Deuteronomy 6:5 says: “You must love Jehovah your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your vital force.” Jesus said it was necessary to serve with one’s whole soul and strength and, additionally, “with your whole mind.” (Mr 12:30; Lu 10:27) The question arises as to why these other things are mentioned with the soul, since it embraces them all. To illustrate the probable meaning: A person might sell himself (his soul) into slavery to another, thereby becoming the possession of his owner and master. Yet he might not serve his master wholeheartedly, with full motivation and desire to please him, and thus he might not use his full strength or his full mental capacity to advance his master’s interests. (Compare Eph 6:5; Col 3:22.) Hence these other facets are evidently mentioned to focus attention on them so that we do not fail to remember and consider them in our service to God, to whom we belong, and to his Son, whose life was the ransom price that bought us. “Whole-souled” service to God involves the entire person, no bodily part, function, capacity, or desire being left out.
Soul and Spirit Are Distinct. The “spirit” (Heb., ruʹach; Gr., pneuʹma) should not be confused with the “soul” (Heb., neʹphesh; Gr., psy·kheʹ), for they refer to different things. Thus, Hebrews 4:12 speaks of the Word of God as ‘piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of joints and their marrow.’ (Compare also Php 1:27; 1Th 5:23.) As has been shown, the soul (neʹphesh; psy·kheʹ) is the creature itself. The spirit (ruʹach; pneuʹma) generally refers to the life-force of the living creature or soul, though the original-language terms may also have other meanings.
Illustrating further the distinction between the Greek psy·kheʹ and pneuʹma is the apostle Paul’s discussion, in his first letter to the Corinthians, of the resurrection of Christians to spirit life. Here he contrasts “that which is physical [psy·khi·konʹ, literally, soulical]” with “that which is spiritual [pneu·ma·ti·konʹ].” Thus, he shows that Christians until the time of their death have a “soulical” body, even as did the first man Adam; whereas, in their resurrection such anointed Christians receive a spiritual body like that of the glorified Jesus Christ. (1Co 15:42-49) Jude makes a somewhat similar comparison in speaking of “animalistic men [psy·khi·koiʹ, literally, soulical (men)], not having spirituality [literally, not having spirit (pneuʹma)].”
God as Having Soul. In view of the foregoing, it appears that the scriptures in which God speaks of “my soul” (Le 26:11, 30; Ps 24:4; Isa 42:1) are yet another instance of an anthropomorphic usage, that is, the attributing of physical and human characteristics to God to facilitate understanding, as when God is spoken of as having eyes, hands, and so forth. By speaking of ‘my neʹphesh,’ Jehovah clearly means “myself” or “my person.” “God is a Spirit [Pneuʹma].”