Transition to psuche in the New Testament
Could the meaning of N have gone through any evolution during the many centuries of the OT period? There is evidence that one important change occurred about the time of the Exile. Originally the singular form for N applied to either an individual or a group, but after the Exile there appeared a plural form as well. Murtonen considered this change to be an expression of the growing sense of individuality among the Israelites. (p. 58ff., 70-75) He stated that in the OT N appears in the plural form only 50 times with the oldest examples in Jeremiah and Ezekial. Psalms 122:13 and 97:10 are the only examples found in the psalms. H.W. Robinson wrote of the sense of 'corporate personality' common among the Israelites. (see Christian Doctrine of Man, p. 27ff.) In the context of that status which typified N this term meant individuals were mutually bound together in the same 'N experience'. Such a group could even cover more than a generation. "All the N belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt who were his own offspring not including Jacob's sonsi wives were 66 N in all." (Gen. 46:26) In such a 'head count' the emphasis is more a 'N of 66' than '66 N'. The singular form applied to the group was not abandoned after the Exile, but it no longer had a monopoly. Nonetheless, this later use of the plural form was not specifically a change in the meaning of N; it was a change that represented the growing sense of individuality in Israel.
Johnson noticed possible changes in ruah that "come from the exilic and post-exilic age" (p. 31), yet warned against over-emphasizing the point. He mentioned no changes in N during the OT period. Though he thought that N had its origin in throat, he claimed that any developments which began to emphasize vitality occurred before any of the OT was written. "These earlier meanings of the term N, however, have become obscured through its use to denote the more obviously animate forms of life." (P. 7)
There is really no significant change in the meaning of N during the period of time in which the OT was written. Some expressions using N are found in specific books from a certain time period, but this fact cannot be used to support the idea that a change in meaning actually occurred. All instances of N in the OT demonstrate a field of meaning held together by the theme of danger and deliverance and, therefore, do not remain apart from the unity and fluidity characteristic of N.
The question of a change in meaning from the OT period to the NT period is more complicated because the NT was written in Greek. Many authors have investigated whether the Greek word psuche (hereafter referred to as 'P') maintained the Hebrew meaning for N or if the Greek language became a vehicle to introduce Greek concepts into the Hebrew world. Though some scholars think this influence began at the time of the Exile, J. Robinson has given some excellent examples of how the Apostle Paul used the Greek language to convey Hebrew beliefs and has thereby demonstrated that the assimilation of the Greek anthropology into the Hebrew tradition occurred after the NT was written. He stated that the "mind of the flesh" from Col. 2:18 is an example of a combination of words that was impossible for'the Greek mind to fabricate. He added, "Though the actual word nous [mind] may be taken from Hellenistic terminology, we have here a good example of how, like every other term, it is drawn by Paul into his typically Hebraic usage." (p. 25) Furthermore, spiritual body in several verses in I Cor. 15 and the defilement of flesh and spirit in II Cor. 7:1 were also contradictions to the Greek mind. Lastly, psuchikos (from psuche was contrasted to pneumatikos (from pneuma or in Hebrew ruah) and identified with choikos (earthy). "Both the contrast and still more the identification would have been an absurdity to the Greeks." (p. 23) It appears that the anthropological viewpoint of the NT Hebrew, the Jew, was contrary to a Greek way of thinking during most of the Ist Century A.D.
The letter that the apostles and elders sent with Paul and his associates to settle the circumcision issue is an interesting example of how Hebrew anthropological terms maintained their heritage despite the presence of the Greco-Roman world. "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these four necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity." (Acts 15:28-29) It is of particular interest to this present study that the Gentile Christians were asked to abstain from blood and that which was strangled. The drinking of blood was forbidden because it still signified the consuming of N. Strangulation was still offensive to the Hebrews because it destroyed N via the direct choking of ruah. To tamper with N or ruah was still viewed as being offensive to God. This request in Acts 15 demonstrates that these particular Hebrew beliefs were still in vogue during NT times.
The continuity of the tradition regarding N from the OT to the NT is not the only evidence of a continuity in meaning from N to P. Five NT passages contain OT quotes in which P was used to translate N. (Mat. 12:18, Acts 2:27, Acts 3:23, Rom. 11:3, and Heb. 10:38) This fact does not necessarily prove that P was synonymous with N, but it does indicate that the use of the Greek language by the NT writers was imbedded in their own Hebrew tradition. Beginning with the Septuagint, the Greek version of the OT, P was used to translate N. There is, however, some disagreement among scholars as to how often. (see tiurtonen, p. 10 and Wolff, P. 10)
The NT writers also replaced N with P in various expressions common to the OT. Rom. 11:3 reaffirms the theme of danger and deliverance. "Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars and I alone am left, and they seek my P." P also faced the danger of excommunication. "And it shall be that every P that does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people." (Acts 3:23) P could receive deliverance too. "...whomever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his P from death." (James 5:20) P also de-noted living creatures that swarm in the sea (Rev. 8:9) and slaves in a situation like those of the OT. (Rev. 18:13) Furthermore, P reflected the more experiential side of being N. Rev. 18:14 records that P could experience its life-sustaining provisions removed. "The fruit for which thy P longed has gone from thee." The Apostle John here prophesied that this P would be lacking nourishing food. The Matthew and Mark accounts of Christ in the garden at Gethsemane record that his "P was distressed". (Mat. 26:38 and Mk. 14:34) His P was so sorrowful that he was to the point of perishing while his P-blood was dripping. The significance that N held for the Hebrew people was at least intended to be communicated in these passages. When viewed properly, these NT passages reveal a semantic continuity from N of the OT to P of the NT.
However, P was not limited to N; it also carried N into the NT setting. P was not simply synonymous with N nor was it only replacing it. P was given a new aspect, but this addition was not a transition into Greek thought; it was a development into the Good News of the NT. To begin to understand this development of the theme peculiar to N, one must first discover how Christ influenced P in light of the Hebrew meaning for N.