Soul or Life? The Double Meaning of Psychē

Soul or Life? The Double Meaning of Psychē May 14, 2018

Soul, or life? Such is the choice we must make in translating the New Testament word psychē, which we have borrowed into English as our term “psyche,” and from which we get our word “psychology.”

Eye as Window of Psychē
Photo: James Baker, “Women’s Black Mascara.” Creative Common License, via, cropped.

Psychē is easily distinguished from the other two Greek words most often used to mean “life.” Zōē (from which we get “zoology”) is best described as the antithesis of death. It is the standard word used for eternal life (John 3:16), the word to which Jesus turns in John 6:35 when he says “I am the bread of life.”  Bios, a word used only ten times in the New Testament, is used for physical existence, including livelihood; the poor widow in Mark 12:44 gave her whole bios to God (two copper coins), while the hemorrhaging woman in Luke 8:43 spent her whole bios on doctors.

“Conscious personal experience” would be a good nine-syllable way to describe psychē. Because it can be read either way, we should try to keep that double meaning in mind wherever possible. In a verse like Matthew 2:20, “those who seek the child’s life are dead,” we know Herod was just trying to kill Jesus, not condemn his “soul” eternally. Likewise, when Jesus says, “Don’t worry about your life” (Matthew 6:25= Luke 12:22), his next few words make it clear that he is talking about our earthly existence; plus, we can hardly imagine Jesus telling us not to be concerned about the eternal destiny of our soul! Both Acts 15:26 and Philippians 2:30 refer to people who have risked their “lives,” not their eternal states. And in Revelation 12:11 (“they did not love their lives unto death”), again, the emphasis is on one’s share in earthly experience.

In Matthew 10:28, Jesus warns us about those who can kill the body and can’t kill the psychē, a verse which seems to indicate that a “life” cannot be extinguished as easily as a flame can be. In Revelation 6:9, John says he saw the souls of those who died (we never see a dead “spirit” in the Bible). So in verses like these, the psychē refers to the inner person that lives on after death, as we see in Peter’s quote from Psalms in Acts 2:27, “You will not abandon my soul to Hades,” where the context is what God will do for the psalm writer after death.

Numerous verses employ psychē to refer to the inner person and its condition. Hebrews 6:19 speaks of the “anchor of the soul,” while James 1:21 speaks of the “word that is able to save your souls,” and 1 Peter 1:9 speaks of “the salvation of your souls.” First Peter 2:11 speaks of forces “which war against the soul.” The writer of Hebrews 12:3 is concerned for his readers, “lest you become weary in your souls.”  In the same sense, Jesus says in Matthew 26:38 (= Mark 14:34), “My soul is sorrowful, even to death,” while he says in John 12:27, “Now my soul is troubled,” and in Matthew 11:29, “you shall find rest for your souls.” Acts 4:32 stretches our imagination by telling us that the earliest believers were “one soul” (= one mind), which is also Paul’s prayer for his readers in Philippians 1:27.

In Matthew 16:25-26 (= Mark 8:35-37 = Luke 9:24), Jesus uses the word psychē ambiguously four times: “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. For what shall it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul/life? Or what shall a person give in exchange for their life/soul?” A similar use may be found in James 5:20, where restoring a sinner from error “will save his soul/life from death.” In all of these verses, one can argue for either meaning.

When Jesus says in Matthew 20:28 (= Mark 10:45), “The Son of Man came…to give his life as a ransom for many,” both meanings of psychē come into play, in that Jesus not only suffers physical death but also bears the penalty of hell in his soul in his atoning work on the cross.

In a verse like Luke 12:20 (“Fool! This very night your soul/ life is required of you!”), both meanings are possible, but the eternal destiny of the man’s “soul” is easy for the modern reader to see as the issue.

In John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that a person lay down their life for their friends,” Jesus is probably not recommending that we should offer ourselves to be eternally condemned. The same is true for John 10:11 (“the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”) and 1 John 3:16 (“we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers/sisters”).

Sometimes the word “soul/life” is used simply as a means of counting individuals, where our Bibles may gloss over the presence of the word. So Acts 2:41 reports that on the first Pentecost there were added to the church “about 3000 souls,” and in Acts 27:37, it says “we were 276 souls in the ship.” In the same sense, Paul writes in Romans 13:1, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.” In Acts 2:43, “fear came upon every soul,” this sense is less clear. In Revelation 16:3, the expression extends even to animals: “every living soul (= creature) in the sea died.”

In Colossians 3:23 (= Ephesians 6:6), Paul tells slaves, “Whatever you do, work from the soul” (i.e. from the heart of who you are), much like in the Greatest Commandment, “Love the Lord…with all your soul” (Matthew 22:37 = Mk 12:30 = Luke 10:27). The same intensity would seem to apply to the meaning of 1 Thessalonians 2:8, where Paul reminds his readers, “We were pleased to share with you…our own lives.”

First Thessalonians 5:23 is the only New Testament verse where “spirit and soul and body” are all differentiated. In 1 Corinthians 15:45, Paul writes, “The first Adam became a living soul; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (pneuma). Finally, in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-7), “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit (pneuma) rejoices in God my Savior,” we have a poetic pair, where the two terms psychē and pneuma are not identical – which sets the table for my upcoming Pentecost post on the word “Spirit.”

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