What is our soul? Souls are on the way out. Not just in our culture or in science, where some Christians may suspect “naturalism” as the culprit, but souls are on the way out of our Bibles. This is because of the ways in which our translations are getting better at conveying what was originally intended.
In the King James Version of the Bible, translated in 1611 and the mainstay for Protestants until the 20th century, the English word “soul” appears 537 times. The New American Bible (1986) features the word 171 times, the NIV (1984) features it just 139 times, the NRSV (1989) features it 252 times, but that includes the Deuterocanonical books, and even the ESV (2001), which hearkens back to older more literal translations, features the word just 281 times. The difference is not because of any difference in the manuscripts that these versions are using but because of a better understanding of what the Hebrew and Greek words actually mean. So what is our soul?
The word nephesh (נֶפֶשׁ) is very often used in biblical Hebrew as something like a personal pronoun; words like “I,” “me,” “you,” “he,” “she” etc. In this way it means something like “self.” “My nephesh,” although awkward because we’re hopping between two languages, would mean “my self” or “me.” “Your nephesh” would mean “you,” and so on.
Older English translations, however, translate many examples like this with the word “soul.” There are many examples of this, so we’ll look at just a few.
In Genesis 12, Abram and Sarai his wife went to stay in Egypt, and Abram asked his wife to say that she was his sister, as follows (KJV): “And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon: Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.”
My soul shall live? In 1611 when this translation of the Bible was made, Christian readers who believed in souls didn’t think that the soul died with the body, so of course Abram’s soul would live, even if he was killed. Now look at how the NIV translates this verse: “Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” This is less literal, as “spared” does not answer to anything in the Hebrew, but the meaning is certainly more accurate and is reflected in other modern translations. A literal translation would be something like “Say that you are my sister, so that it will be well with me for your sake, and I shall live because of you.”
In Genesis 19:20, Lot asks to flee to a nearby city before Sodom and Gomorah are destroyed, saying “Behold now, this city is near to flee unto, and it is a little one: Oh, let me escape thither, (is it not a little one?) and my soul shall live.” Because of the context, we know what is really meant, but references to a “soul” certainly do not point us in the right direction. The NIV gives us “my life will be spared,” which is not quite literal, as the verb for “live” is gone altogether. Literally, Lot is saying that My X shall live (חָיָה – chayah). But still, our translations are managing to convey what the writer was saying without introducing the idea of a soul, something quite out of place here.
Leviticus 5 contains instructions about speaking up when you are a witness and you know that wrong has been done. Verse 1 is a typical example: “And if a soul sin, and hear the voice of swearing, and is a witness, whether he hath seen or known of it; if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity” (KJV). Here even the ESV, traditional in its approach, purges the language of souls: “If anyone sins in that he hears a public adjuration to testify, and though he is a witness, whether he has seen or come to know the matter, yet does not speak, he shall bear his iniquity;” Instead of talking about souls, the writer is just talking, not specifically about me (where the KJV might say “my soul”) or you (where the KJV might say “thy soul”), but anyone.
Another well-known example where nephesh functions this way is in Ezekiel 18:4. Here, the prophet is saying that people should not blame former generations for the suffering that they now endure, and that God holds people accountable for their own actions. “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Now why should God want to stress that the soul belongs to him? Doesn’t the body belong to God as well? And what’s this about souls dying for their sins? Do souls die? Here the NIV still uses the word “soul,” but the NRSV gives us this: “Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.” The NRSV finds two meanings of nephesh here, both “life” and “person.” Given the widely used idiom of “his nephesh” etc, the nephesh of the parent more likely just means “the parent.” But thankfully, “soul” is gone and the meaning is much clearer.
Shoe-horning a “soul” into passages like this can have bizarre, confusing, even highly misleading consequences. Think of Peter’s public speech on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. When describing how Jesus’ resurrection is an echo of the language of the Psalms, he quotes the psalmist, saying, according to the King James Version, “thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” Not only a soul, but a soul in hell! With a better appreciation of the Hebrew idiom (as this is a quote from the Hebrew Scripture) as well as a better translation of hades, here translating sheol or the grave, the NIV offers the reader something far more helpful: “you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” In context of course this makes much more sense, because Peter here contrasts Jesus with King David, who is still in his physical grave (2:29), whereas Jesus is not, because he was raised from the dead.
Sometimes, the word “soul” in our older translations is really an example where the writer was trying to refer to a creature, whether a human creature or a different creature (we call them animals, which, interestingly, is closely related to the Latin word anima, which is also translated “soul”).
The first example of this is a striking inconsistency that existed in older translations in the creation narratives in Genesis. Historically there has been a widely held view among Christian theologians that while humans have souls, animals do not (clearly these people have never been greeted by an adoring dog). This theological point of view spilled over into the way Bible translators approached the creation of Adam in Genesis 2 and the creation of the other creatures in Genesis 1.
In the King James Version, browse through Genesis 1 and look at the creation of the animals and the sea creatures. You won’t see the word “soul” appear once. When you see the creation of the animals in Genesis 1:20-25, you see this:
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth. And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
Now read on a little further – still in the KJV – to the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7. There, after God forms Adam from the dust and breathes the breath of life into him, Adam becomes “a living soul.” That’s the first occurrence of the word “soul” in the KJV, but it is not the first occurrence of the Hebrew word nephesh. The “creatures” in chapter 1 – the sea creatures and land animals – there are all referred to in the same way as Adam in Hebrew, nephesh. Why did the translators choose to call the animals “creatures” but Adam a “soul” when they were translating the same word in each instance? I think we know why. This was a case of theological presuppositions seeping through into the finished translation. People didn’t think of animals as having souls, so they we called “creatures.” Humans have souls, the translators thought, so they used the word “soul.” It’s still awkward that even this skewed translation said that Adam “became” a living soul, suggesting that this physical entity made from dust and made alive by the breath of God is a soul, but that aside, this inconsistency should never have arisen. Modern translations have put things right here, telling us in Genesis 2:7 that Adam became “a living being” (NIV, NRSV) or “living creature” (ESV).
So for example, Numbers 19:13 (KJV) gives instructions concerning “Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead” without ritually purifying themselves. “Body” here is nephesh, which is not at all what the word means, but in context gets the point across. Is it a dead “creature”? In this case probably not. This is probably a case where the “nephesh of John” just means John, but in this case, John is dead. Touching the nephesh of a person who is dead, then, just means touching a person who is dead. At least the translators managed to keep “soul” out of this one.
Having the words for a person, me, you, or creature, translated as “soul,” is a problem mostly confined to English translations of the Old Testament. But there is a common example that affects both the Old and New Testaments, namely examples where the writer is trying to write about a person’s life (or an animal’s life for that matter). Not the life that a person lives (where a “life” may be, say, 80 years long), but the life a person has, that stuff that keeps them from being dead. Here too, at times, translators have dragged in the idea of a soul – although less often, thankfully.
Luke 12:20 is a memorable example like this, where Jesus tells a story of a man who accumulates goods for himself to live a comfortable life, only for God to say to him, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee.” Modern translations understand this simply to refer to a person giving up their life and losing all their goods: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you” (NIV). Here the Greek word is psuche (ψυχή), which is used to translate nephesh into Greek.
The need for change
The changes – improvements, I am convinced – that modern translations have made were necessary ones. A much more holistic view of human beings is biblical and a dualistic picture of immaterial souls living in material bodies is not biblical. Older translations and their use of the word “soul” sometimes obscured this fact, and our modern translations – whatever other flaws we might think they have – better reflect the intent of the biblical writers in this regard.
When I was introduced to the biblical, holistic view of human persons – and since then as well – a number of holistically minded people coped with the older language of “souls” in the Bible by accepting it and explaining whenever they used that language that they don’t mean what other people mean when they use the same language. As a result, we find ourselves saying things like:
“It’s not that we have a soul. Instead, according to the Bible I am a soul, and so are you.”
“Biblically speaking, your soul is your life.”
I can understand people doing this, but I no longer speak this way, nor do I think it is helpful. If we had no choice but to accept “soul” as an English word used in all these instances our Bibles, then we would need to offer explanations like this. The trouble is, there’s a pre-existing meaning of “soul,” and the truth is that we just don’t believe in those things. When English Bibles were being translated by Wycliffe, Tyndale and then the translators of the King James Bible, the readers of the text already had a view of what the soul is. We know this because we have a wealth of theological writing from that time, and people just didn’t use the word “soul” to refer to our life, neither did they say things like “we don’t have a soul, we are a soul.” Instead, they generally understood the word to refer to an immaterial part of us added to our body, and which may survive the death of the body.
In the same century in which the King James Bible was translated, the Westminster Confession of Faith was written (1647). In that confession, chapter 32, we are told that “The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them.” Even early, in the Heidleberg Catechism (1563), we read that “not only my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its head; but also, that this my body, being raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul, and made like unto the glorious body of Christ” (question 57). It is just not helpful – and was not helpful – to sally forth into this world of English speakers using the word “soul” – a word they already understand – in a way that means something quite different, where we have other words perfectly capable of getting the meaning across. English speakers in the seventeenth century were quite capable of saying “myself,” “living creature” and “life” without talking about souls – but they talked about souls because they believed in souls.
We may as well simply acknowledge that because this is what English speakers usually mean by soul, we do not believe in souls. It makes our communication so much simpler when we don’t have to say “Now, I’m going to say that I believe in something that you say you believe in, but then I’m going to tell you that when I say I believe in that thing, I really mean something completely different from what you mean.”
Given what people generally mean when they say “soul,” it is not true that “according to the Bible, I am a soul.” This just invites confusion when people reply “yes, I agree. I am a soul, and I live inside a body.” Biblically speaking I am a living creature, as are other living creatures like you and your cat. Unlike some other living creatures (for example, your cat), God relates to us in a unique way, wants to reconcile us to himself, and become one of us in Christ, dying for us and rising again to give us new life. Similarly, given what most people mean by “soul,” it is not true that according to the Bible, my soul is my life. Biblically speaking, I do not need a soul in order to have life. The changes we are now seeing should have been made long ago, but as the saying goes – better late than never.
The change away from the more archaic and less accurate English translation of “soul” and towards words that more properly convey the meaning of the text is a very positive move, removing one more barrier between the modern reader and the mind of the author. But the task is not complete yet, and there are still examples where more consistency is required in this reform of older translations.
Sometimes the state of modern translations is very mixed, and although some get it right on one instance, most do not. It is never easy to see why a translation uses older language, but undoubtedly it sometimes happens because particular turns of phrase have become part of our vocabulary. Who is not familiar with that challenging question: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) Some translations have remedied this one, but many have not – quite possibly because it is so well-known. In context, though, it should be obvious that “life” is a better translation. Here is an inconsistency that some translations perpetuate, beginning with the prior verse: “For whosoever will save his life (psuche) shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life (psuche) for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul (psuche)?” The word is used three times in the same breath, but given a different translation. In light of wider biblical theology, a person does not lose their “soul,” as though their soul is lost into the pits of hell forever. Instead, salvation truly is a matter of losing – or gaining – life forever. The NIV and the ESV, frustratingly, follow the KJV in this inconsistency, giving the misleading impression that the Jesus is talking about life on the one hand and the “soul” on the other, when in reality he is talking about life the whole time.
One further example is a common one when hearing about how the Bible supposedly teaches a dualism of body and soul. In John’s Revelation, he describes the following (Revelation 6:9-11):
When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the people slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. They cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” So a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until the number would be completed of their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been.
I have quoted here from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which as far as I can tell is unique among contemporary English translations for not using the word “souls” here. Other translations read similar to the ESV: “… I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God…” The impression created by the majority of English translations is unmistakable: These people were killed, and while their bodies are dead, their souls are now elsewhere, calling out for justice.
What a difference one word makes! Reading the Holman Christian Standard Bible’s translation does not use the word soul, so that the impression is quite a different one. The fact that these people have been killed should not make any difference to the question of what “the psuchai of” means. In fact, we have examples in the Hebrew Scripture where this language is used of people who have died. Recall the example we saw in Numbers 19:13, where touching a dead body is referred to as touching “the nephesh of” a person who has died. There the phrase simple means to touch someone who has died (where “the nephesh of John” just means “John”). Whether a person is still alive or not really makes no difference, because the purpose of the phrase “the nephesh/psuche of” is not to tell us which part of a person we are talking about. Instead, the phrase is used to tell us who we are talking about. For example, if the question is: “Who is it?” then the answer might be “he nephesh or Jonathan” or “My nephesh or “the psuchai of those who who went to Jerusalem,” or, as in this case, “the psuchai of those who had been martyred.”
True, the martyrs under the altar (or “at the foot of the altar,” as some translators say, making the parallel to Leviticus 4:7 clear, where the blood of the bullock is poured at the foot of the altar) are depicted as being alive, which some might take to depict a kind of disembodied life after death – because they have been killed. But this is a rhetorical device, rather than a literal truth. The martyrs are not out there somewhere under an altar, nor, in this vision, are they depicted as disembodied (on the contrary, they are given a white robe to wear!). Instead, they are depicted as being alive so that their voice in this vision can be heard. If they could speak, this is what they would say. A number of commentators have made the comparison between the martyrs crying out to God here in John’s vision, and the blood of Abel, as God describes it in Genesis 4:10, crying out to God after he was murdered by Cain. In neither cases are these literal truths, but they convey literal truths to us: Injustice has been done, and for the sake of the victim, things must be put right.
All that aside, in just the same way that our translators have made other corrections to previous translations of verses like Acts 2:27, “souls” need to disappear from Revelation 6:9. Other translations need to follow the Holman Christian Standard Bible here. Appreciating the Hebrew idiom that lies behind John’s description, this verse should read: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.”
How far should we go?
Should the word “soul” disappear from the Bible altogether? If I’m honest, I have to say that I wouldn’t miss it. To English readers today it has a meaning that conveys a patently false view of human nature. Because the purpose of English translations is to faithfully convey what the biblical writer said, translations that convey an unbiblical view of human nature are wanting. The difficulty is in coming up with alternatives, and while I am sure this can be done, it may take some creative thinking. “Praise the Lord, Oh my soul.” We know what it means: The Psalmist is calling on himself to praise the Lord. But how do we say it in a way that retains the poetry while getting the meaning right? “Praise the Lord, Oh myself.” This gets the right meaning across, but it’s frankly ugly by comparison.
Unless somebody comes up with an elegant way of making the change, we may just have to grit our teeth and live with some less than ideal translations. We can be thankful, however, that biblical translations are slowly but surely losing their references to “souls,” meaning that we have less explaining to do of why these verses don’t mean what they appear to mean to many readers. Baby steps are fine, as long as they are in the right direction.