To understand the meaning of the Biblical terms generally rendered “soul” it is necessary to set aside many, perhaps most, of the meanings attributed to the English word and allow the original-language terms (Heb., neʹphesh [נֶפֶשׁ]; Gr., psy·kheʹ [ψυχή]) as used in the Scriptures to supply the meaning. This is because 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, Dr. H. M. Orlinsky of Hebrew Union College, stated (New York Times, October 12, 1962) that the word “soul” had been virtually eliminated from this translation because, “the Hebrew word in question here is ‘Nefesh.’” He added that: “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.”
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 [at death] . . . departs to the invisible world—to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she lives in bliss and is released from the error and folly of men . . . and forever dwells . . . in company with the gods.”—Phaedo, Vol. 2, pp. 73, 103.
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 (1967, Vol. 13, p. 467) 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 41.21), blood [Gn 9.4; Dt 12.23; Ps 140(141).8], desire (2 Sam 3.21; Prv 23.2). The Soul in the O[ld] T[estament] means not a part of man, but the whole man—man as a living being. Similarly, in the N[ew] T[estament] it signifies human life; the life of an individual, conscious subject (Mt 2.20; 6.25; Lk 12.22-23; 14.26; Jn 10.11, 15, 17; 13.37).”
The Roman Catholic translation, The New American Bible (1970), 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 “to breathe” and in a literal sense neʹphesh could be rendered as “a breather.” Koehler and Baumgartner’s Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (1953 ed., 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, 4 f 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, desire, and affections,” “a living being,” and show that even in non-Biblical Greek works the term was used “of animals.” (Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon, 1968, ninth ed., pp. 2026, 2027; Donnegan’s A New Greek and English Lexicon, p. 1404) 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 that, “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.”—“Thoughts on the Tripartite Theory of Human Nature,” by A. McCaig, in The Evangelical Quarterly, April 15, 1931, p. 121.
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 about 750 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, while psy·kheʹ appears 102 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, or a total of about 852 times. 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 which 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, such 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.”—Gen. 1:24.
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)].” (Gen. 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 hhay·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.” (Gen. 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.” (Gen. 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. (Gen. 1:26, 28) Man’s organism was more complex, as well as more versatile, than that of the animals. (Compare 1 Corinthians 15:39.) Likewise, Adam had, but lost, the prospect of eternal life; this is never stated with regard to the creatures lower than man.—Gen. 2:15-17; 3:22-24.
It is true that the account says that ‘God proceeded to blow into the man’s nostrils the breath [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 [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., ruʹahh; Gr., pneuʹma) or life force of man is not distinct from the life force in animals, as shown by Ecclesiastes 3:19-21, which states that “they all have but one spirit [ruʹahh].”
SOUL—A LIVING CREATURE
As stated, man “came to be a living soul”; hence man was a soul, he did not have a soul as something immaterial, invisible and intangible residing inside him. The apostle Paul shows that the Christian teaching did not differ from the earlier Hebrew teaching, for he quotes Genesis 2:7 in saying: “It is even so written: ‘The first man Adam became a living soul [psy·khenʹ zoʹsan].’ . . . The first man is out of the earth and made of dust.”—1 Cor. 15:45-47.
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 (ruʹahh), of life]” (Gen. 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 (Lev. 7:18, 20, 25, 27; 17:10, 12, 15; Deut. 23:24), being hungry for or craving food and drink (Deut. 12:15, 20, 21; Ps. 107:9; Prov. 19:15; 27:7; Isa. 29:8; 32:6; Mic. 7:1), being made fat (Prov. 11:25), fasting (Ps. 35:13), touching unclean things, such as a dead body (Lev. 5:2; 7:21; 17:15; 22:6; Num. 19:13), being ‘seized as a pledge’ or being ‘kidnapped’ (Deut. 24:6, 7), doing work (Lev. 23:30), being refreshed by cold water when tired (Prov. 25:25), being purchased (Lev. 22:11; Ezek. 27:13) or given as a vow offering (Lev. 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 Koehler and Baumgartner’s Lexicon states: “‘My néphesh’ means ‘I’ (Genesis 27:4, 25; Isaiah 1:14); ‘your [singular] néphesh’ means ‘thou’ or ‘you’ (Genesis 27:19, 31; Isaiah 43:4; 51:23); ‘his néphesh’ means ‘he, himself’ (Numbers 30:2; Isaiah 53:10); ‘her néphesh’ means ‘she, herself’ (Numbers 30:5-12),” and so forth.
The Greek term psy·kheʹ is used similarly. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Vol. IV, p. 54) says it may be used as: “the equivalent of the personal pronoun, used for emphasis and effect:—1st person, (John 10:24 (‘us’); Heb. 10:38; cp. [compare] Gen. 12:13; Num. 23:10; Jud. 16:30; Ps. 120:2 (‘me’); 2nd person, 2 Cor. 12:15; Heb. 13:17),” and so forth.
Represents life as a creature
Both neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ are also used to mean life—not merely as an abstract force or principle—but life as a creature, human or animal.
Thus when Rachel was giving birth to Benjamin, her neʹphesh (“soul” or life as a creature) went out from her and she died. (Gen. 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.—1 Ki. 17:17-23.
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 [Gen. 4:10; 2 Ki. 9:26; Ps. 9:12; Isa. 26:21]), the Scriptures speak of the neʹphesh (“soul”) as being “in the blood.” (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:11, 14; Deut. 12:23) This is, obviously, not meant literally, inasmuch as the Scriptures also speak of the “blood of your souls” (Gen. 9:5; compare Jeremiah 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” (Gen. 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?” (Mark 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.” (John 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 Luke 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, their loss of their “soul” or life as a creature is only temporary, not permanent.—Compare Revelation 12:11.
Mortal and destructible
On the other hand, the scripture quoted states that God “can destroy both soul [psy·kheʹ] and body in Gehenna.” (Matt. 10:28) 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 (Gen. 19:19, 20; Num. 23:10; Josh. 2:13, 14; Judg. 5:18; 16:16, 30; 1 Ki. 20:31, 32; Ps. 22:29; Ezek. 18:4, 20; Matt. 2:20; 26:38; Mark 3:4; Heb. 10:39; Jas. 5:20), as dying, being “cut off” or destroyed (Gen. 17:14; Ex. 12:15; Lev. 7:20; 23:29; Josh. 10:28-39; Ps. 78:50; Ezek. 13:19; 22:27; Acts 3:23; Rev. 8:9; 16:3), whether by sword (Josh. 10:37; Ezek. 33:6), or by suffocation (Job 7:15), or being in danger of death due to drowning (Jonah 2:5, 6) 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; Prov. 23:14.
The expression ‘deceased or dead soul’ also appears a number of times, meaning simply ‘a dead person.’—Lev. 19:28; 21:1, 11; 22:4; Num. 5:2; 6:6; Hag. 2:13; compare Numbers 19:11, 13.
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 Psalm 27:12; 35:25; 41:2.) Israel’s false shepherds are called “dogs strong in soul[ful desire],” who have known no satisfaction.—Isa. 56:11, 12; compare Proverbs 23:1-3; Habakkuk 2:5.
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’ (Deut. 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.” (Mark 12:30; Luke 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 Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 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.—Compare Matthew 5:28-30; Luke 21:34-36; Ephesians 6:6-9; Philippians 3:19; Colossians 3:23, 24.
SOUL AND SPIRIT ARE DISTINCT
The “spirit” (Heb., ruʹahh; Gr., pneu’ma) 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 Philippians 1:27; 1 Thessalonians 5:23.) As has been shown, the soul (neʹphesh; psy·kheʹ) is the creature itself. The spirit (ruʹahh; 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 the Christians until the time of their death have had 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. (1 Cor. 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) ”].”—Jude 19.
GOD AS HAVING SOUL
In view of the foregoing, it appears that the Scriptures in which God speaks of “my soul” (Lev. 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].”—John 4:24; see JEHOVAH (Descriptions of his presence), page 889.