When the Apostle Paul prayed that God would keep the “whole spirit and soul and body”1 of the Thessalonian believers blameless, was he purporting a trichotomous anthropology? Would Paul agree with Scofield’s comments on the apostle’s words that “Because man is ‘spirit’ he is capable of God-consciousness…because he has ‘soul’ he has self-consciousness…because he has ‘body’ he has…world consciousness?”2 The answers to these questions lie not only in a proper exegesis of the apostle’s words but also in an understanding of Paul’s anthropology as revealed throughout his epistles. This paper attempts to show that Paul’s anthropology was fundamentally Hebraic in construction. By exploring the Biblical understanding of Hebrew anthropology as it informed Paul’s anthropology, it is apparent that the idea of an ontologically organized person as body, soul and spirit is foreign to the Hebrew way of thinking and thus incompatible with Paul’s anthropology.
The Old Testament begins by relating man to his Creator. With the words, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,”3 God created humankind in his image. The Genesis account celebrates the fact that God created humanity into his image by the use of such phrases as “God formed man” and “God breathed the breath of life” and “man became a living soul.”4 Biblical commentators, as Watchman Nee, have claimed that the trichotomous nature of man as body, soul and spirit is evidenced by the distinct use of such phrases.5 However, this paper will argue that these claims are based on an improper exegesis of the Genesis account in combination with Hellenistic presuppositions, such as Christian Platonism,6 that are foreign to the Hebraic way of thinking. By taking a brief survey of Old Testament anthropological terms this paper will show that Paul’s anthropology was informed by a Hebrew understanding of humanity. Furthermore, this paper will demonstrate, through Paul’s own words, that an Old Testament anthropology fit with Paul’s personal eschatology and the eschatology he described in his New Testament writings.
“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”, said humpty dumpty.
“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means?”
“I meant by impenetrability that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”, said humpty dumpty.
“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty replied, “When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra.”
“Oh, said Alice, too puzzled to make any other remark.”7
By analogy, many Old Testament anthropological words have been “paid extra” by theologians for the expansive use of their meaning. For example, Watchman Nee says, “The word "life" in the expression "the breath of life" is chay; it is plural in number. This tells us that God's breathing produces two lives, a spiritual one and a soulish one.”8 How does Nee know that by the plurality of a word its meaning is limited to producing two things? Why not three or more things? Such linguistic “slight of hand”, as used by Nee, is usually based on the presuppositions of Christian Platonism by the interpreter, namely a body-soul dichotomy, and is of no use when it comes to understanding the Hebraic meaning of Old Testament anthropological terms.9 Perhaps a more thorough look at the varied Old Testament use of the words for “soul”, “spirit”, “flesh”, and “heart” will give a better understanding of their Hebraic meaning.
The Hebrew word nephesh is most commonly interpreted as “soul”, however it has a variety of other meanings.10 Anatomically nephesh can mean “throat”, “neck” or “stomach”, as in “his nephesh was put in a collar of iron” (Ps. 105:18, ESV). It can be interpreted as a life force, as in “the nephesh of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11). It can also refer to a corpse (Num. 5:2, 6:11). And in conflict with the Greek understanding, nephesh is used of animals as well as people.11 The nephesh is cited as the center of rationality (1 Sam. 2:35), the emotions (Job 7:11, Ps. 6:3), the will (Gen 23:8), and various passions (Ps. 10:3, Prov. 21:10).
Ruach refers to the wind or moving air and is associated with breath. It is frequently translated as “spirit”. Often ruach is used in conjunction with another word neshama to mean “the breath of life.”12 Similar to nephesh, rauch neshama is used in reference to animals (Gen. 6:17, 7:22). The ruach is used to refer to the center of rationality (Deut. 34:9), spiritual understanding (Job 20:3), jealousy (Num. 5:14, 30), the emotions (Ps. 77:3) and the will (Dan. 5:20).
Basar is translated in the Old Testament as “flesh” and has a variety of meanings.13 It can refer to bones, fat, tendons and sinews (Ezek. 37). However, basar never refers to a corpse. It can also signify types of human relationships – the “one flesh” bond between husband and wife, the solidarity of “all flesh” in the human race, and blood ties of kinship. The term also infers weakness and vulnerability when the prophet Isaiah cries, “All flesh is as grass” (Isa. 40:6).
A term that most western cultures no longer associate with human anthropology but was very much a part of Hebrew anthropology is qereb, “bowels” or “inner parts”.14 The stomach, liver, bile, bowels, kidneys, and heart are the locations and sources of higher human capacities. “My kidneys will rejoice when your lips speak what is right” (Prov. 23:16). In this manner the kidneys parallel the heart by discerning wisdom; “…for the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins[kidneys]” (Ps. 7:9). On this point the heart (leb or lebab) in the Old Testament is the most referred to of the inner organs, occurring 814 times.15 However, the post-Enlightenment romanticizing of the heart as the seat of emotions is not in line with an Old Testament anthropology. John Cooper warns that, “modern attempts to romanticize, psychologize, or irrationalize [the heart] are no more consistent with the Old Testament than classical rationalism is.”16 Cooper also notes, “there is a great deal more stress in the Old Testament on ‘getting a heart of wisdom’ than on having certain feelings.”17
It is obvious from a cursory comparison that nephesh and ruach and lebab significantly overlap in their Old Testament usage. Gordan Clark notes that in many cases “nephesh and ruach are synonyms and interchangeable.”18 Feeling, knowing, thinking, willing, loving, recognizing moral demands, keeping commitments, as well as praising and praying – the entire roster of human capacities – are sometimes attributed to the “spiritual” organs of nephesh and ruach; and at least as often they are attributed to the bodily organ of the heart, and occasionally to the kidneys and bowels.19 This overlap is because the Old Testament does not set out to establish a systematic use of anthropological terms in its description of man. The idea that a full biblical anthropology can be achieved by listing all the references in Scripture to “body”, “soul” and “heart” is misguided on linguistic grounds.20 As Lewis and Demarest attest, “frequently spirit, soul, and heart denote the same immaterial center of the person’s being. As such, these three terms are differentiated not from one another but from the physical body. In sum, the Old Testament words describing the person are not technically precise by modern standards. Considerable flexibility in usage and overlapping of meanings occurs.”21
Failure to recognize that Old Testament anthropological terms are used in such a variety of ways is the starting point for the linguistic error of reading Hellenistic meaning back into every word in the Genesis account of man’s creation. Greeks posited the human self as an immortal soul temporarily encased in a mortal body.22 Hebrews did not make this distinction between body and soul. To the Hebrew a human person is a unity of personal life, with both body (material) and “soul” (immaterial) participating in that personal unity of being.23 Hence the Hebrews did not speak with an ontologically separated concept of man in mind. The way of thinking which sees man as two separate and distinct parts is likely the result of Greek dualism24 which later influenced early church leaders in the form of Christian Platonism.25
Such dualism is often read by Christian Platonists into the Genesis 1:26 and 2:7 accounts of man’s creation. In Genesis 1:26, Christian Platonists divide man’s being into parts through the interpretation of the phrase “in our image, after our likeness.”26 The Septuagint 27 and the Vulgate 28 both insert an and between the two phrases to give the impression that “image” and “likeness” refer to two distinct parts of man.29 However, the Hebrew text contains no such conjunction. The two phrases are merely similar ways of saying the same thing. As Derrick Kidner notes, “The words image and likeness reinforce one another…Scripture does not use them as technically distinct expressions”30 . Furthermore, Genesis 1:26 uses image and likeness, but Gen. 1:27 uses only image and Gen. 5:1 uses only likeness. In Gen. 5:3 both words are used but in reversed order and in Gen. 9:6 only image is used.31 As Hoekema points out “the Hebrew text makes it clear that…’after our likeness’ is only a different way of saying ‘in our image’”.32
Similarly, in Genesis 2:7 man is seen by trichotomists as body (dust of the earth) fused with spirit (breath of life) to become a living soul. As Lewis and Demarest point out, “Trichotomists appear to hold that a person is made up of a body and two kinds of nonphysical entities: one referred to as the spirit and the other as the soul.”33 Again such a reading of the text relies on an interpretation that is foreign both to the text itself and to the Hebraic way of thinking. As was previously noted, to ascribe the phrase “breath of life” as God’s unique creation of Adam’s spirit is to ignore the same use of the phrase in Genesis 6:17 and Genesis 7:22 where the reference is clearly to animals. Likewise, as noted above, the phrase “living soul” is used to refer to animal life in Genesis 1:20, 24, 30. It is clear that Genesis 2:7 is asserting the two fold creative act of breathing life into formed dust by God to create a human being. But what is not asserted by the text is that a third elemental part of humanity, called a soul, is created in this process. As Lewis and Demarest show “…‘soul’ (nephesh) is not a constituent part of the person, but the person or self in the totality of his being...”34 The proper translation of the phrase ‘living soul’ (nephesh hayyah) is ‘a living being’.35 However, this does not mean humans are no different than animals. The uniqueness of man’s creation is in the fact that he is created in God’s image, not in the distinct creation of a spirit and soul.36 A comprehensive discussion of the imago dei and how man bears God’s image is beyond the scope of this paper, but the Genesis account is clear that man alone bears God’s image and not the animals.37
In light of the evidence demonstrating that the Old Testament does not use anthropological terms in a systematic way, some existential theologians have concluded that the Hebrew concept of humanness is radically monistic.38 Theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, J. A. T. Robinson, and Rudolf Bultmann argue that man is always seen in his totality, which is quickened by a unitary life.39 These scholars imply that all instances of Old Testament anthropological terms are cases of part-for-whole expressions. Edmond Jacob says, “Israelite anthropology is monistic.”40 However, such an extreme monistic view of humanity creates problems for a personal eschatology. What happens when we die? Clearly Christians anticipate a Resurrection, but what part or whole of a person is resurrected? George Carey claims, “…it is a false trail to look within the human body for an immortal soul, mind or residual self which somehow survives the destruction of the flesh.”41 Was such a mindset apart of Hebrew anthropology? According to John Cooper, while Hebrews where holistic in their anthropology of man they were not monistic, case in point, Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel 37 portrays the coming together of bones, flesh, sinew and skin to form a human body. However, the body is still lifeless until “a second ingredient is added: the ruach or neshema, the life force or power of breath which comes from God.”42 It is impossible to read the account of Ezekiel and ignore the fact that two kinds of ingredients are necessary to create one holistic human being. As H. Wheeler Robinson concurs, “Man’s nature is a product of the two factors – the breath-soul which is his principle of life, and the complex of physical organs which this animates.” 43 Cooper calls this “holistic dualism” which views a human as a functional unity in its totality, but does not necessarily imply that if the whole is broken up, all the parts disintegrate into chaos or nothingness. It affirms phenomenological, existential and functional unity, but does not conceptually entail monism or personal extinction at death.44 While the Hebrews viewed the living holistically it is clear that some form of dualistic existence is required in order for human persons to exist after death.45 That Hebrews embraced an afterlife seems apparent since the Old Testament references a place for the dead, Sheol, and the Old Testament writers expressed hope in a resurrection. The references are too numerous to mention here, but a short sample includes Jacob’s lament, “I will go down to Sheol to my son”.46 Job laments his miserable life by noting that in Sheol, “…I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest…”47 Hezekiah bargains with God, reminding him that “…Sheol cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness.”48 Likewise, several Psalms express hope beyond Sheol: Psalm 49:15, 73:26. In Psalm 16:10 David confesses, “you will not abandon me to Sheol, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” Peter applies this verse to the resurrected Christ in Acts 2, but even for David this was an expression of hope beyond the grave. No argument can made against a Hebraic hope in a resurrection based on the words of Daniel, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”49
In summary, Hebrews viewed a living human being as an integrated whole, using no dichotomous categories which compartmentalize body, mind, emotions and will. Biological processes are not just functions of the body as distinct from the soul or spirit, and mental and spiritual capacities are not seated exclusively in the soul or spirit. All capacities and functions belong to the human being as a whole, a fleshly-spiritual totality. However, the dead do go to a specific place where the righteous await a return to bodily life by the miraculous power of God.50 In short, the Old Testament view of a person was functionally holistic, as a complex blend of material-immaterial unity, while allowing for something of personal existence to survive biological death and await resurrection.
As a result of this Hebraic view of humanity it was not a problem for Old Testament writers to reference specific parts of a person in order to represent the whole human being. When Moses wrote, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,”51 this represented a Hebrew parallelism where each anthropological term reinforces the idea of the whole person, rather than a compartmentalized way of describing a human.52 That this Hebraic view of humanity was carried over into the New Testament is substantiated by Jesus’ repeating of Deuteronomy 6:5 three times in the Gospels. In each case Jesus uses different anthropological terms to quote the command of Moses.53 Emphasizing that the specific terms were not important to the understanding of Jesus’ Hebrew audience, as much as, the principle of loving God with your whole being. As it shall be demonstrated, Paul’s anthropology followed that of the Hebrews in Jesus’ day including Paul’s own religious upbringing as a Pharisee.
A Hebrew of Hebrews
If Paul were alive today he would need a twin in order to please both extremes of the anthropological debate. Both Monists and Dualists place Paul in their camp and cite the words of Paul as “concrete proof” of their position.54 However, the previous argument showed that Hebraic thinking was not entrenched in dichotomous or monistic anthropological concepts, and since the New Testament was written by Hebrews it stands to reason that an Old Testament understanding of anthropology is the New Testament norm, including for the Apostle Paul. It is generally agreed upon that like the Old Testament, the New Testament does not teach a systematically consistent anthropology.55 The definitions of body, mind, soul and spirit have a variety of meanings which can vary considerably. Therfore, before taking a look at Paul’s anthropology it is helpful to consider the Greek words used for the New Testament anthropological terms, as was done for their Old Testament counterparts.
Psyche is most often translated as “soul” in the New Testament. It can denote the entire person.56 More commonly is represents the immaterial life-principle of a person and is translated as “life”.57 The psyche is the seat of intellect, memory, emotions, and volition.58
The word for “spirit” is Pneuma. Like its Old Testament counterpart, ruach, it means the immaterial life-force that animates the physical body.59 In the New Testament pneuma takes on an extended sense of the immaterial self in relation to God.60 On one occasion when Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection, they thought he was a ghost (pneuma). Jesus used the word spirit in distinction from flesh and bones in an attempt to reassure them: “a pneuma does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” On occasion psyche approaches pneuma in meaning. In Luke 1:46-47 Mary exclaims, “my psyche magnifies the Lord, and my pneuma rejoices in God my Savior.”61 Here as in the Old Testament a parallelism is employed to refer to the whole person, not two distinct parts of Mary’s being. Finally, kardia, “heart,” corresponds to the Old Testament notion of the governing center of the person, and not the seat of emotions as deposited by the post-Enlightenment romanticizing of the heart.62 Ben Witherington notes that “heart and mind are basically interchangeable…since the heart in Hebrew is the center of reflection and thought…”63 All of these anthropological terms are used by Paul in his epistles, but his understanding of their meanings is wholly Hebraic.
There is no making Paul into a Greek.64 When Paul listed his pedigree to the Philippian church he described himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee”.65 Luke gives insight into the impact Paul’s pharisaical upbringing had on Paul’s eschatology. In Acts 23, Luke gives the account of Paul standing before the Sanhedrin. Noticing that both Pharisees and Sadducees were present, Paul said, “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.”66 This declaration created an uproar. In verse 8 Luke explains the reason for the uproar: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.” Here Paul places his eschatology squarely with the Pharisees. Perhaps his statement was a defense lawyer’s ploy in this instance, but in other instances Paul uses the same statement to make his case.67 This declaration of Paul’s personal eschatology, which he does not try to dissociate from after his conversion to Christianity, shows that Paul still embraced certain aspects of the rabbinic view of the afterlife. Paul was educated by Gamaliel, who was successor to and likely the grandson of the great Hillel.68 F.F. Bruce argues that Pharisees could convert to Christianity without greatly modifying their eschatology, which was an intermediate state-resurrection eschatology.69 It has been claimed that Paul was a “Helleniser of Christianity,”70 but given Paul’s Jewish upbringing and his declarations of Pharisaical eschatology it is unlikely that he reverted to Greek constructs of anthropology in his New Testament writings. To understand the anthropology of Paul a survey of his writings to the early church regarding eschatology is helpful. These passages in chronological order are I Thessalonians 4:13-18, I Corinthians 15, and II Corinthians 5:1-10, 12:1-4.71
The earliest New Testament writing of Paul’s regarding eschatology was to the Thessalonian church. It seems that the Thessalonians mistakenly thought that all Christians would live until the return of Christ. They were therefore confused by the death of some in their church. Paul comforts them with the words, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”72 Among Jewish believers “asleep” meant conscious or unconscious existence until the resurrection.73 These words of Paul allow for a holistic dualism in his anthropology. Clearly Paul sees the deceased Thessolonian believers as still existing without their physical bodies. He does not refer to them as immortal souls but as persons asleep. In I Thessalonians 5:10 Paul claims, “whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”
In I Corinthians 15, Paul offers his most extensive discourse on the resurrection. This chapter shows Paul using the same basic picture of a sleep-resurrection sequence as in I Thessolonians: “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed…the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (vv. 51-52). It is clear that Paul views the resurrection as a corporate not personal event. Therefore, those who are asleep have not yet received their resurrected body, and yet according to the same sleep metaphor Paul used in 1 Thessalonians the sleeping dead are “living together with Christ” in the intermediate state. Such an intermediate state of existence without a resurrected body implies a dualistic nature of personhood, while the material self decays in the ground the immaterial self goes on existing. It should be noted that while Paul affirms the possibility of a person existing without a body, he does not do so by adopting the Greek dualistic concept of the immortal soul against the mortal body. As Robert Gundry points out, “For Paul, the true man is the whole man. The true man is not the inner man alone, for although the body is outward, it is not unessential. The body is to be sanctified and will be resurrected.”74 Paul’s vernacular is not hatred towards the physical body, but rather of one body being “swallowed up” by another body.75 This is a vernacular that he will keep and use again when he writes to the Corinthians the second time. Incidentaly, I Corinthians 15 also makes it clear that Bultmann’s famous dictum, “Man does not have a soma (body); man is soma (body),” will not work for every Pauline passage.76 Furthermore, Paul’s soul-spirit vernacular in this passage creates challenges for trichotomist. In I Corinthians 15:44-45 the pneuma is set over against the psyche. As Ben Witherington notes, “psyche should not be translated “soul” in most instances in the Pauline corpus, if by that translation one means the spiritual side of the human being.”77 In this case psyche is the physical life principal, not an immaterial soul or spirit.78 Throughout I Corinthians 15, Paul embraces holistic dualism, he concedes that upon death people can exist in an immaterial state while holding true to a holistic view of persons in their earthly existence.
F.F. Bruce contends that by the time Paul writes again to the Corinthian’s he has changed his view on what occurs at death for the Christian.79 Bruce believes that between the writing of I and II Corinthians, Paul’s close calls with death during his missionary travels have motivated a change in his eschatology. Bruce tries to interpret Paul’s use of the words “tent” and “tabernacle” in II Corinthians 5:1-10 as Paul’s embracing of an immediate resurrection upon death rather than entering an intermediate state, such a change would mean Paul has embraced monism. Similarly Ray Anderson claims that “a disembodied soul is a concept which strikes the apostle Paul with apprehension and anxiety.”80 However, Paul uses the same phrases in II Corinthians 5 as he did in I Corinthians 15, namely, the idea of a mortal body being “swallowed up” by an immortal body.81 The evidence here is not in favor of Paul having changed his perspective. It seems improbable that he would communicate a change in so few words, in light of the lengthy discourse he gave on the subject in his first letter to the Corinthians. Furthermore, by the end of the letter Paul provides a fascinating passage that concludes his perspective on the anthropology of man.
In II Corinthians 12:1-4 Paul describes an ecstatic experience in which he was “caught up to the third heaven” (v. 2), that is, “caught up to paradise” (v. 4). “Whether in the body or out of the body” (v. 2), “in the body or apart from the body” (v. 3), he does not know.82 Butlmann notes, Paul “is clearly reckoning with the possibility that the self can separate from the soma even in the present life, and this soma can only be the physical body.”83 Modern readers may infer that Paul could have stayed in his body and had a trance like experience, but as Cooper notes, “He twice asserts he was taken up to heaven or paradise. The only question is whether his body came along or remained behind.”84 This inference clearly shows that Paul does not see his mortal body as the enemy of his immortal soul. Otherwise, he could not have imagined the possibility of his body making the journey into heaven. Furthermore, Paul recognizes that it was his being, not a part of his being, that ascended. Once again Paul allows for the separation of the material and the immaterial while preserving the concept of a holistic person.
This paper has attempted to explore the Biblical understanding of Hebrew anthropology as it informed the Apostle Paul’s anthropology. Taking all the Biblical evidence into consideration, it appears that the best description of Old and New Testament anthropology is one of holistic dualism. This view holds two important concepts in tension: the composite being of humans with complex material and immaterial aspects; and the Scriptural portrayal of a unified person. Holistic dualism shows that what a person does with her body involves her spirit and the motions of her spirit engage her body. This view also seems to best fit with the Apostle Paul’s anthropology. It is therefore the conclusion of this paper that Paul would not purport a trichotomous anthropology as is suggested by the reading of I Thessalonians 5:23 by Watchman Nee. Rather an interpretation that is more in line with the other anthropological references of Paul and his Hebrew upbringing is to interpret body, soul and spirit as a type of Hebrew parallelism intended to emphasize the whole person.