Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Biblical Anthropology: Part IV

In part I of this series I asked whether human beings were made up of separate parts, usually conceived as body, soul, and spirit.  In part II I looked at the Old Testament evidence and concluded that human beings were an essential unity: living beings (nefesh) animated by the spirit/breath of God.  When the spirit left, the human died.  As a result of this, as a good friend pointed out, the ancient Hebrews had no real sense of an afterlife.  Sure, the dead went to sheol, but this was not an afterlife in the sense that it is spoken about in the New Testament and in Christianity today.  In part III I discussed the Greek notion of the human as an essential duality, body and soul/spirit.  The world was also seen as a duality, material world bad, spiritual world good.  In this system, it is the material world which keeps our essential self, the soul/spirit from joining the spiritual world. The Greeks did have a full notion of the afterlife with rewards and punishments based upon actions undertaken on this earth.  The goal in life was to free the soul/spirit from the material world to join the spiritual reality.

So, when we get to the New Testament, what is the state of the matter?  Are the New Testament writers good Hebrews or Good Greeks, or both, or neither?

In looking at the New Testament evidence, I think that there are elements of both.  New Testament writers certainly had a notion of an afterlife with a place for rewards and a place for punishment.  In this sense they were like the Greeks.  Yet, when it comes to the view of the human, the New Testament is much closer to the Hebrew notion. 

First, two new words are used on a regular basis to refer to the human: σῶμα (soma, body) and σάρξ (sarx, flesh).  Now, if one just takes the Greek connotation of these words, then humans as bodies or flesh are instantly bad, they are a barrier keeping our souls/spirits from the spiritual reality.  Yet the New Testament doesn't take it that way.  First of all, the divine could not become flesh, as is stated in John 1:14.  Nor could the risen Christ have flesh as in the resurrection narratives in John.  It is the antichrists in 2 John 7 who deny that Christ came in the flesh. The resurrection of the body is the hope of Paul in I Corinthians 15. Thus, the ultimate triumph for Paul is not the liberation of the soul/spirit from the body, but rather the resurrection of the body in an incorruptible form.

In the New Testament, the body is the self, it is where the person acts.  Paul encourages Christians to glorify God in their bodies as it is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20). The body is a neutral concept, it is not a cage or a prison as with the Greeks.  The term flesh is slightly more complex.  We have seen that Christ came in the flesh, so it is not flesh itself that is the problem.  Yet, Paul talks about the flesh as the antithesis of the spirit.  Yet, I think in these instances it is not flesh, i.e, the stuff we are made of, that is the problem.  Rather, flesh here refers to a certain way of living, namely, an undisciplined way of living that follows one's own appetites and desires (Romans 13:14).  Paul sees the flesh as weak and subject to going after base appetites.  Yet, he is not looking for some ultimate escape from the material world, but rather, a new creation in which our bodies are not subject to evil desires.

This brings us to the terms ψυχή (psyche, soul) and πνεῦμα (pneuma spirit).  In the New Testament, psyche usually means the self.  In this sense NT writers are very close to the Hebrew concept of nefesh.  Here are some examples:

Rom. 2:9 “There will be anguish and distress for everyone (psyche) who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek.”
Luke 9:24 “For those who want to save their life (psyche) will lose it, and those who lose their life (psyche) for my sake will save it.”
2Cor. 1:23 “But I call on God as witness against me (psyche): it was to spare you that I did not come again to Corinth.”
Matt. 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life (psyche), what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body (soma), what you will wear. Is not life (psyche) more than food, and the body (soma) more than clothing?”
This is not the Greek concept of soul as inner essence that is seeking to be liberated from the body.  No, the psyche is the self, the "living being."  The New Testament writers used the Greek term, but adopted the Hebrew meaning.

The NT authors also do not latch on to the Greek meaning of spirit as a essential self as separated from the body.  Rather, when spirit is used to refer to humans at all, it is the realm of worshiping God.  For, Paul says he serves God with his spirit (pneuma) by preaching the gospel (Rom. 1:9), precisely an action he does in his body. 

In conclusion, I must say that according to both the Old and New Testaments, humans are an essential unity, not a collection of separate parts.  Humans are not a soul/spirit waiting to be liberated from a body.  While New Testament authors used Greek terminology, and had fashioned a notion of an afterlife, they did not adopt the Greek dualistic view of the world or the human.  In part V I will talk about implications of seeing the human as a unity.  In the mean time, what do you think?


  1. Keith,
    I've done some work on this issue of NT anthropology and am very interested in the matter myself. I'd love to know what you think of the Lukan Jesus who says to the thief on the cross: "Today you will be with me in paradise." Would this necessarily imply an anthropological dualism and a heaven without resurrection, or do you read this another way? Also, are there any modern authors in particular who are influential in your general conclusions on this issue?

  2. Eric, as to the Lukan Jesus' comment, you will have to wait for my next post, in which I will give several verses that may challenge my previous assertions. What really got me thinking about this was Talbert's NT theology class I took in my second year (were you here yet?). We read Bultmann's Theology of the NT and Conzelmann's NT theology in which they both have sections on the terms used for the human in the NT. I was shocked to find out that there was not really a dualism in humanity according to these authors and I was convinced. More recently, James Dunn's Introduction to NT theology has been helpful on this issue as well.