soul searching

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I’m involved in a translation project now, which will take me a few years. As I go from text to text of scripture, it gives me opportunity to test my presuppositions about the meaning of certain words. One of those words is “soul.” I trust the Bible to give me an understanding of what a soul is, and what it does. I do not trust the popular understanding of the term. I think the popular understanding draws from the wrong well. We will see.

The Hebrew word translated “soul” in the Old Testament is nefesh, and its Greek equivalent in the New Testament is psuché. The Hebrew term appears 757 times in 686 verses, and the Greek term appears 103 times in 93 verses. However, most of those references do not really help to define the word. They simply use the term in reference to people, either saying that so and so is a soul, or using the phrase “my soul” or “his soul” as another way of saying “me” or “him.” That is, they use the word pronominally.

Of particular importance to me are those instances where the terms are not translated “soul” by the ancient and modern translators. These texts where the terms are present in the original but “hidden” in translation are significant. Their numbers are significant as well. If one looks at the total occurrences of nefesh/psuché (860) compared to the number of times a translation renders it as “soul” this is what one finds:

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None of the translations use the word “soul” exclusively to translate nefesh/psuché. The version that is the most literal is (of course) Young’s Literal Translation, but even it translates with some other terms besides “soul” 35% of the time. The older versions tend to use the term “soul” more readily than the newer ones do. But even the older versions had trouble translating a significant percentage of texts where nefesh/psuché appear utilizing the English word soul.

I am guessing that the problem these translators had related to their theological understanding of the word soul. If they assumed that a soul is an immortal, imperishable inner being of a human person, they would have trouble using the term if the passages they are translating rule out or do not suggest that idea.

My original question as a translator was “how shall I translate these terms?” I have decided to try to be consistent with a word-for-word approach, and see what happens. My theological understanding is that there is no immortal entity thriving inside each human body. For that reason, I assume that the word “soul” will not give me the translation problems others have struggled with. As I said, we will see.

Examples from Genesis

And God said, “Let the water swarm with swarms of living souls, and let birds fly above the land across the divider of the sky.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living soul that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. [1]

The very first instances of nefesh are indicative that the popular definition needs help. It appears before the creation of Adam, so does not refer to human beings at all. God uses the term to indicate fish and other sea animals. The Geneva Bible translates the plural of nefesh here as “every creeping thing.” Most translations simply render it as “creatures.” There is no hint of immortality here.

And God said, “Let the land bring forth living souls according to their kinds- livestock and creeping things and animals of the land according to their kinds.” And it became that way.[2]

The land was filled with living souls too, before humanity. Here again, most translators chose to render the word as creature or living thing. If having a soul makes one immortal, then the animals are too.

And to every beast of the land and to every bird of the sky and to everything that creeps on the land, everything that has a living soul in it, I have given all flora for food.” And it became that way.[3]

Anything capable of eating a salad has a soul in it. That hardly narrows the definition. It certainly does not exclude anything but humans.

And out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living soul, that was its name.[4]

Adam named every living soul. Of course, if only humans are souls, that would be easy. All he would have had to say was “Adam.”

But you shall not eat flesh with its soul, that is, its blood. And for the blood of your souls I will require the same: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require the same for killing the soul of man.[5]

Fast-forward to the story of Noah, and God is telling us not to eat animals with their souls still in them. In other words, do not eat anything that is still alive, with their blood still pumping through their veins. He also warns all his creatures that he will vindicate those who are murdered. He implies that such murder is killing the soul. Our translations could not handle this way of putting it, so they steered away from the idea of killing a soul.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “See, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living soul that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the land with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the land. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the land.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living soul that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the land. When I place clouds over the land and the rainbow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living soul of all flesh. And the water shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the rainbow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living soul of all flesh that is on the land.”[6]

God establishes his covenant with Noah, his family, and every living soul on the planet. But there were no humans besides Noah and his family left alive. Who were those living souls? They were the animals who came out of the ark. Once again, the translators could not be consistent, but the texts are. They show that “living soul” refers to anything alive, not just humans.

So Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had accumulated, and the souls that they had made in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.[7]

OK, now it gets really interesting. The translators consistently interpret the reference to souls here as the servants acquired from outside the family, and added to Abram’s household while they were sojourning in Haran. But the verb they usually translate as “acquired” is the simple verb “to make.” It is translated that way numerous times in Genesis prior to this text.[8] But the translators must have had problems with the idea of Abraham’s clan making souls. So, instead, they translate the verse as if it refers to new servants being added to the clan. Actually, it seems to refer to new souls being born into the clan. If a soul is simply a living being, not an immortal essence given by God himself, there is no problem to speak of making that soul through the reproductive process. Chew on that for a while!

Say you are my sister, that things may go well with me because of you, and that my soul may be kept alive for your sake.[9]

Young’s translates the word soul, but all the others surveyed use the word life instead. Abram obviously was not in fear of losing his immortal essence (as if he had one). No, he was afraid that the Egyptians would see his life as an obstacle to getting what they wanted – his beautiful wife. So he asked her to tell them that she was his sister. Saving his soul meant keeping himself alive. That is all it has ever meant.

And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the souls, but take the property for yourself.[10]

The king of Sodom used the term soul consistent with how Moses uses it elsewhere in Genesis – in reference to a living being as opposed to a piece of property. But the translators of our Bibles (even Young, here) could not bring themselves to do so. For them, the word soul was a technical theological term describing the inward being, not a general term identifying a person. But it is clear that the king of Sodom is asking for the persons, not the property. So, all of the translators use the term persons or people for nefesh here.

Traditionalist theologians have grappled with this problem. They usually respond to it be saying that the term as used here is an example of metonymy: where a term indicating a part of a thing is used to signify the whole. Thus, they say, the souls are the inward beings of these men, but the king would ask for them, knowing that the bodies would come with them. That is inferring a great deal of modern theological understanding on the part of this ancient near eastern king. It is also an unnecessary assumption. The translators are right, of course, if by accident. Souls does mean persons in this case. But the translators’ refusal to use the term souls in this verse also shows that they probably have bought into an unproven theological premise about the nature of human souls.

Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul will be cut off from his people by death; he has broken my covenant.[11]

This is one of the many circumstances where reference to a person as a soul is simply taken by the translators as pronominal. But it is significant that the LORD refers to people’s souls being cut off – a metaphor for death. Parents who dare not circumcise their children are marking them for death. The soul dying is a reference to the whole person dying.

And as they brought them out, one said, “Escape for your soul. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, so you will not be swept away.” But Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords. See, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my soul. But I cannot escape to the hills, or the disaster will overtake me and I will die. See, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there- is it not a little one?- and my soul will be saved!”[12]

The angels rescuing Lot from Sodom apparently felt that Lot’s soul was in danger of being destroyed, not just his body. This makes perfect sense if destruction kills the soul. If the soul is impervious to death – not so much. But translating this passage literally would entail giving an entirely unacceptable meaning to saving one’s soul, and that would never do. So, some of the translators hid the idea of soul using other language. Kudos for the ancient translations (Geneva and King James) and for Young’s, who kept the word soul, regardless.

And he said to them, “If your souls are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.”[13]

Sarah has died and Abraham is negotiating a burial place with the Hittites. This use of nefesh is taken by all the translators as pronominal, and rightfully so. It was not necessary for them to exclude the term soul, but it is understandable. For so many, the term soul has an exclusive meaning that does not fit all of these generic uses. My point is that that exclusive meaning flies in the face of hundreds of times, like this, when it appears in the Bible. We should be taking our understanding of its meaning from its uses in the texts. Instead, translators have brought their understanding to the text, and so often avoid using the term soul if that understanding does not fit the text. That is a translation fault and is a product of eisegesis.

Examples from Matthew

The New Testament use of psuché is just as telling as the Old Testament use of nefesh is. How do the translators fare in their literal rendering of it, and in what circumstances do they find it necessary to use some other word? We shall see.

But after the dying of Herod, see, an angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, He is saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who wanted to kill the soul of the child are dead.”[14]

Herod was doing a little soul searching of his own. Matthew described him as pursuing the soul of baby Jesus in order to kill it. It is quite obvious why traditionalist translators would steer away from a literal rendering here. It suggests that even Jesus had a mortal soul that could be killed by a soldier’s sword. This statement Matthew makes is consistent with Moses’ uses of the term in Genesis. The soul is a life that can be taken. That is what Herod wanted to do.

“Therefore I tell you, do not be distracted by your soul, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor by your body, what you will put on. Is not the soul more than what it eats, and the body more than what it wears?[15]

Wow, Matthew is confused. Could Jesus have ever made that mistake? Matthew has him saying that the body wears clothing, but it is the soul that eats food. Huh? The translators help Matthew with his embarrassment by consistently rendering the word psuché as life here. He really flubbed up there.

But, wait a minute. Luke records Jesus as saying essentially the same thing!

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be distracted by your soul, what you will eat, nor by your body, what you will put on.[16]

Could it be that Jesus himself did not know that souls are incorporeal, and cannot eat anything? Didn’t he read Plato in Rabbi school? It seems clear that Jesus is using the term psuché in a way that is consistent with the Old Testament usage of nefesh, but inconsistent with the way the Greeks conceived the soul. Plato regarding the soul as an incorporeal entity inside the shell of the body, destined to be set free from bodily restraints and appetites by death. But Matthew has told us (so far) two things about the soul that oppose that view: the soul can be killed by a sword, and the soul needs food to live.

Whoever finds his soul will lose it, and whoever loses his soul for my sake will find it.[17]

Here, Jesus is telling us that if we really want to find our souls, we have to be prepared to lose them. The Greek concept of psuché is quite clear on the subject: you cannot lose your soul. Even if you die, your incorporeal entity is going to hang around forever, being essentially you without an outer shell. So, this use by Jesus of the term psuché is problematic for the translators as well. They consistently substitute the word life for psuché, even though they all use the word soul for the same word eleven verses earlier in the same chapter.

Because whoever wants to save his soul will lose it, but whoever loses his soul for my sake will find it. For what would it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?[18]

This is essentially an elaboration on the previous text, six chapters later. The phrase appears four times in the two verses of text. Each version surveyed always uses the word life to translate psuché in verse 25. Five of the versions then consistently retranslate that same word as soul in verse 26! Three of the modern translations (ESV,NET, and NRSV) at least consistently use the phrase his life in all four occurrences. Why the consistent inconsistency? Well, one answer would be that the translators felt that it was possible to forfeit one’s soul (to hell), but not possible to lose it (because it stays alive even in hell). Their traditionalist theology prevented them from translating the same term consistently in four connected statements. However, eliminate the foreign presupposition of the soul’s immortality, and these two verses can be translated quite easily.

…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give away his soul as a ransom for many.[19]

Here is another text in which the translators consistently use the word life instead of soul. Jesus said that he came for the purpose of giving away his soul as a ransom for the lost that his sacrifice will save. But traditionalist theology sees giving away one’s soul as an entirely negative thing. It is forfeiting one’s soul to burn in hell. Jesus did not do that. He was talking about his death on the cross. His bodily death on the cross was what he described as giving his soul as a sacrifice. The translators all recognize that, so they – again, consistently — translate the word psuché in the text as life. My point is that the fact that requires the translators to render psuché as life here is the theological misunderstanding of the translators. Rather than accept that Jesus was talking about giving away his soul, they purposely chose a term that they could use which would not challenge their understanding of the meaning of psuché.

Jesus anticipated his soul dying. In Gethsemane, he told his disciples that his soul was very sorrowful, “crushed with grief to the point of death.”[20] The translators did not mess with that one. But it, too, speaks of the psuché as potentially dying. Every reference to psuché in Matthew speaks of the soul as dying along with the body, with the apparent exception of Matthew 10:28.

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.

Traditionalist theology makes much of this verse, which appears to show a distinction between the body and the soul. At first glance, it seems to be saying what Plato said about the human soul, that it cannot be killed, and so will live on forever, no matter what it believes, or whom it fears. But, wait, that cannot be right either. The verse goes on to say that God can destroy the soul, and will do so in hell. That is why we should fear him, and not the people around us.

People are able to “kill the body” but only God can kill the soul. So, rather than saying that hell is going to be filled with undying souls, this verse teaches that it will be filled with dead souls – destroyed souls and bodies. It will be a lake of fire that consumes everything thrown into it.

Responding to this, traditionalists simply choose to redefine yet another word – the word destroy. They say that God will destroy souls in hell by keeping them alive forever in agony. Someone has already translated away all of those pesky passages for them that might indicate that souls can die, so they seem to have no choice but to hold this view.

Here are the words of Jesus as Luke recorded them:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who can only kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will advise you whom you should fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has the right to cast you into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”[21]

Matthew’s text is an abbreviation of what Jesus said, as recorded in Luke. Also, Luke, being a Gentile, and more acquainted with the Greek concept of the immortal soul, took pains not to give it credence. Jesus is contrasting not two parts of humanity, but two kinds of death. The death of the body is real, but not permanent. Death in Gehenna hell will be permanent. Therefore, fear God, not man.

Our soul searching has shown us evidence which has been hidden in many texts of scripture – evidence that the soul can be killed, lost, taken away, or given away as a sacrifice. That evidence contradicts the doctrine of humanity that many Christians believe. It contradicts, Plato, Augustine, Calvin, Wesley and many others. But it is right there in the texts of the Bible where those of us who dare to look can see. Will we dare to let the text triumph over tradition?


[1] Genesis 1:20-21.

[2] Genesis 1:24.

[3] Genesis 1:30.

[4] Genesis 2:19.

[5] Genesis 9:4-5.

[6] Genesis 9:8-16.

[7] Genesis 12:5.

[8] Genesis 1:7, 16, 25f, 31; 2:2ff, 18; 3:1, 7, 21; 5:1; 6:6f, 14ff; 7:4; 8:6; 9:6; 11:4; 12:2.

[9] Genesis 12:13.

[10] Genesis 14:21.

[11] Genesis 17:14.

[12] Genesis 19:17-20.

[13] Genesis 23:8-9.

[14] Matthew 2:19-20.

[15] Matthew 6:25.

[16] Luke 12:22.

[17] Matthew 10:39. {I have not forgotten 10:28. We will come back to that. This survey is of those passages which contain psuché but which the translators typically use some other term besides soul to translate it.}

[18] Matthew 16:25-26.

[19] Matthew 20:28.

[20] Matthew 26:38 NLT.

[21] Luke 12:4-5.

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