Nephesh and the Fulfillment It Receives as Psuche

     This study investigates the relation between the Old Testament (OT) Hebrew word nephesh, the New Testament (NT) word psuche, and soul, the English word often used to translate nephesh and psuche.

     Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines soul as the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actual cause of an individual life. Other definitions are 1) the spiritual principle embodied in human beings 2) a person's total self 3) an active or essential part 4) mans moral and emotional nature or the quality that arouses emotion and sentiment. It adds, "both soul and spirit refer to an immaterial entity distinguishable from the body but the word soul is preferred when the emphasis is on the entity having functions, responsibilities, aspects, or a destiny, or when its connection with the body is in view."

     The understanding of soul pervasive in contemporary Western culture and here defined in Webster's is similar to the Platonic view of soul prominent in ancient Greek culture. The basic framework for each definition is the same: immaterial entity in contrast to physical body. The growing emphasis from 20th Century scholarship argues against this body/soul dualism that has dominated the history of Western thought. (see van Peursen, Body, Soul, Spirit Intellectuals have argued for the unity of man as opposed to a Platonic or Cartesian dualism. Man is then viewed as essentially one whole organism and not as two substantial entities.

     This trend in affirming the 'wholeness' of man has had its influence upon Christian philosophy and Biblical studies. An increasing number of Christians point to differences between Hebrew views and those of the Greco-Roman world. The tendency is to emphasize that the ancient Hebrews did not approach man dualistically as have the Greeks nor, by implication, the general public of contemporary Western society. Claude Tresmontant in A Study of Hebrew Thought is representative of this development.  

Once again we must be careful to avoid interpreting the Hebrew notion of soul in terms of Platonic dualism. Because they recognized no body-soul dichotomy, the Hebrews did not consider the soul the discarnate thing that we imagine it to be. And it is just because we oppose it to 'body' that we think of it in this way. In Hebrew the soul is the man. Indeed we should  not say that man has a soul, but that he is a soul; nor consequently that he has a body, but that he is a body. (p. 94)


     H.W. Robinson wrote a now famous phrase in Hebrew Psychology. "The Hebrew idea of personality is an animated body, and not an incarnated soul." (p. 362) (For a detailed examination of the distinction between Greek and Hebrew thought and the influence of Greek thought on the history ofWestern thought, see also Lev Shestov's Athens and Jerusalem, D.R.G. Owen's Body and Soul, and 0. Cullman's "Immortality of-the Soul or-Resurrection of the Dead".)

     The investigation of the Hebrew view of man has focused on certain anthropological terms. Central to the discussion regarding soul is the Hebrew word nephesh (hereafter referred to as 'N'). Biblical scholars are becoming aware that they face the problem of using the contemporary view of soul to interpret N. Taking today's understanding of soul into a study of N can only distort the meaning of N in a way that is foreign to the actual Hebrew tradition. As Tresmontant put it, "By applying to the Hebrew N the characteristics of the Platonic psuche.... we let the real meaning of N escape us and furthermore, we are left with innumerable pseudo-problems." (p. 94)

     Once the basic framework of immaterial entity/physical body is included in an approach to the study of N, certain OT instances appear to conform to Webster's definition for soul while others do not. That is why N is sometimes, though not usually, translated in the OT with the word 'soul'. N becomes a very enigmatic word supposedly meaning soul yet often not--even to the point of referring to a human corpse. Such confusion will always remain as long as one views N in light of today's popular conception of soul which has its origin in ancient Greek thought.

     Some problems 20th-Century scholars face when doing a study on a word in the language of a society existing two or three thousand years ago might become more clear if one entertains the hypothetical situation of a scholar in 5000 A.D. trying to understand how the ancient English used their anthropological term 'hand'. Given his perspective, the English word may initially appear just as diffuse and discrete in its various uses as the Hebrew word 'N' does from a 20th-Century viewpoint. He would discover seemingly unrelated things such as a 'second-hand object', a 'handicraft', a 'hand of cards', and an 'on one hand and not the other'. At best he could list the various uses of hand into categories according to parts of speech or similarity of phrases. Only a moment's reflection by the native English speaker is needed in order to recall that each of these examples tie together through a concept of 'hand'. The hypothetical scholar could only reconstruct the linguistic unity and fluidity of a constellation or field of meaning for 'hand' once he had gained some insight into how the 20th-Century English speaker perceived himself and the world he lived in. Otherwise, the term would appear as several smaller constellations that display little or no relationship.

     Influenced by contemporary philosophy, Biblical scholars have turned to their own subject and found reason to emphasize that N referred to the 'whole man'. The thrust of the argument has been that N cannot possibly be understood in dualistic terms. However, the realization that N somehow referred to the 'whole man' does not automatically result in rediscovering the views of the ancient Hebrews. Nonetheless, this did free scholars to take a new approach to the subject of N, and thereby begin to better understand how the ancient Hebrews perceived themselves and their world.

     In the first decades of this century the influence of cultural anthropology aided the new approach of early classics in Biblical anthropology such as H.W. Robinson's Christian Doctrine of Man (1911) and Hebrew Psychology (1925), and J. Pedersen's Israel (1920T Studies during this early period approached the OT as a book containing information about a specific culture with its societal structures and way of life.  The work in cultural anthropology on primitive societies gave OT scholars a new way to look at the ancient world of the Hebrews.  Though OT scholars then learned from monographs on primitive societies, they perhaps understood ancient Israel too much as another primitive society in the 20th Century. For instance, H.W. Robinson began Hebrew Psychology by stating, "The modern study of anthropology has done as much for the elucidation of the OT as that of archaeology. Just as we re-date the fall of Nineveh from 606 B.C. to 612 B.C., on the evidence of a Babylonian tablet, so we interpret the Hebrew idea of 'soul' from parallel ideas about the breath-soul amongst primitive peoples." (p. 353)  Yet these classics did attempt to understand Hebrew living on its own terms rather than impose preconceived notions.  Nonetheless, though N as referring to the person himself was emphasized, it was viewed too much through a view of the 'breath-soul' obtained from research on present-day 'primitives'.

     The lasting contribution of the classics on Hebrew culture proved to be a deeper realization that understanding the OT involves more than a naive translation of Hebrew words into one's own language; classics on Hebrew culture saw the need to understand the setting in which the OT was written.  The cultural context of the OT words is as important as the words themselves.  Each can potentially aid in understanding the other.  Perhaps an accurate translation of words is impossible unless the cultural context is sufficiently grasped.  Is it that an understanding of an ancient culture must precede a translation of words in order to capture the significance of what was written down?  The dilemma is that the words preserved from a deceased culture are often one of the few tools available for rediscovering that culture.

     More recent scholars have continued, by and large, to perfect the view that N referred to the 'whole man' and have thereby further distinguished Greek and Hebrew thought.  A.R. Johnson in Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel was particularly sensitive to the confusion between conceptions surrounding the English word soul and the Hebrew use of N.  He repeatedly made references to "a questionable use of the term 'soul"' (notes pp. 2, 3, 21) in the works of previous authors. H.W. Wolff in Anthropology of the Old Testament was also aware of this confusion. In his Preliminary Remarks he stated:

When the most frequent substantiatives are as a general rule translated by 'heart', 'soul', 'flesh', and 'spirit', misunderstandings arise which have important consequences.  These translations go back to the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation, and they lead in the false direction of a dichotomic or trichotomic anthropology, in which body, soul and spirit are in opposition to one another. The question still has to be investigated of how, with the Greek language, a Greek philosophy has here supplanted Semitic biblical views, overwhelming them with foreign influence.  Old Testament lin­guistic usage must be clarified at this point. (p. 7)


     Once Biblical scholars rejected the traditional notion of body/soul, they needed a more accurate starting point. Using their understanding of the Biblical 'cultural context', they reached a consensus that the fact that the Hebrew could use N to refer to the 'whole man' demonstrated a thought form which "is to grasp a totality". (Pedersen, p. 108) This grasping of a totality was seen as a form of 'synthetic thinking'. Johnson began his book with the statement, "Any attempt at a successful interpretation of the Bible seems bound to take note of the fact that Israelite thinking, like that of the so-called 'primitive' peoples of the present day, is predominantly synthetic. It is characterized in large measure by what has been called the grasping of a totality." (p. 1) Johnson also articulated the Hebrew perspective for N in terms of the phrase 'grasping of a totality' and not through the traditional body/soul dualism. To him the phrase suggested that the Israelites believed "psychical functions had close physical associations." (p. 4) This awareness of totality that the Hebrew had in common with primitive people of today meant "a potential unity is thought to exist between the whole and any such part". (p. 3)

     J. Robinson in The Body commented, "Johnson sees the constant representation of the whole bi the part as an instance of the 'grasping of a totality' so characteristic of Hebrew thought..." (p. 13, n. 1) Robinson added, "...though there are about 80 parts of the body named in the OT, there is no word for the whole." (p. 13) Scholars have concluded that the Hebrews employed a figure of speech called 'synecdoche' in which the part is put for the whole or vice versa, and thereby meant the 'whole man' when referring to a part of the body. For example, on the use of the Hebrew term for hand, Johnson wrote, "As already indicated, what we have here is again no more than that simple form of synecdoche whereby in certain circumstances an important part of one's N or person, as being the temporary focus of attention, may be used picturesquely and graphically with reference to the individual as a whole." (p. 64; also pp. 40, 52, 71f., 80f.)

     In his preliminary remarks to Anthropology of the Old Testament, Wolff presented two premises of the Semitic imagination and mind. "1. Concepts like heart, soul, flesh and spirit (but also ear and mouth, hand and arm) are not infrequently interchangeable in Hebrew poetry. In poetic parallelism, they can be used by turns for the whole man, almost like pronouns. (p. 7) He cited Ps. 84:2, "My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of Yahweh, my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God," and he viewed its parallelism between soul and heart and flesh as an example of stereometric thinking'. He then added, "2. Stereometric thinking thus simultaneously presupposes a synopsis of the members and organs of the human body with their capacities and functions. It is synthetic thinking, which by naming the part of the body means its function. When the prophet cries (Is. 52:7): 'How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings,' it is not the graceful form of the feet that he means, but their swift movement: 'How beautiful it is that the messenger is hurrying over the mountains. "' (P. 8)

     Wolff's discussion of synthetic thinking gives the impression that stereometry is peculiar to the Hebrew perspective or the Semitic people in general. However, this linguistic characteristic of Hebrew anthropological terms is typical of language usage in general and is not unique to the Hebrew language. Much of what Wolff wrote about the lingual char­acteristics of N are also found among English words designating a part of the body. For instance, 'hand', that word to be pondered by the hypothetical scholar of 5000 A.D., first denotes a certain part of the body. Yet the use of this word in the English language is not confined to just an anatomical structure; its use includes how that body part functions in human activity. Thus, the expressions 'a ranch hand', 'all hands on deck', 'try his hands at', and 'an old hand at' all suggest manual activity of which skill with the hands is very central. To say that someone has 'good hands' can mean that that person is good with his or her hands rather than one who has good-looking hands just as much as the beautiful feet of Is. 52:7 could suggest the runner is good with his feet. Thus the English language, as well as Hebrew, employs terms for parts of the body in a manner that includes imagery capturing the functioning of those parts. Anthropological terms indicating organ functioning is not evidence, by itself, for a way of thinking that is different than the native speaker of English.

     Similarly, the above examples exhibit the fact that the English word 'hand' designates a body part which can stand for the whole person. The linguistic use of synecdoche does not necessarily indicate synthetic thinking on the part of one speaking that language. When the bride 'gives her hand in marriage' the groom is obviously marrying the 'whole woman' and not just her hand. That N was a part of the body which could stand for the whole cannot support the argument that the ancient Israelites did not have a dualistic view of man. The linguistic use of both hand and N enable each to allude to the whole man or whole woman as the case may be. Wolff's argument that stereometry presupposes synthetic thinking and that only synthetic thinking is able to allow a term for a body part to include the capabilities of the part breads down because the English language also demonstrates the same phenomenon. This linguistic use of N was something common to language in general.

     The noun 'hand' also has the corresponding verb 'handle' just as N had the verb nph which meant to blow or breathe. In both cases the noun denotes a certain body structure but at the same time, through use of synecdoche, can allude to the functioning of that body part in the activities of the whole person. The verbs focus more on what that body part does; it emphasizes the functional aspect. The lingust B.L. Whorf noted the fact that certain nouns in many languages have corresponding verbs; he even termed them stavitations (or nominalizations) and verbations instead of nouns and verbs because of their close lexical relations.

     It is a knowledge of Hebrew synthetic thinking which grasped a totality that has provided a key for Biblical scholars to unlock the Hebrew anthropological puzzle. Johnson wrote, "It is, perhaps, hardly too much to say that it is the 'Open Sesame' which unlocks the secrets of the Biblical language and reveals the riches of the Israelite mind." (p. 2) The synthetic thinking is considered the key for developing a context in which to understand, and then translate, Hebrew anthropological terms. However, this key must be viewed as embracing more than a use of synecdoche.