24 Jan 2019

“Soul” … Moses vs. Plato: The Biblical Worldview

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Christian hope, Exegesis, Faith, Gnosticism, Heaven, Hebrew Bible, Paul, resurrection, Salvation


The way we talk reveals deeply held beliefs. These beliefs are sometimes so deep, in fact, that we never consciously think about them.  When this happens, that belief is part of the structure of the house hidden from plain view. 

The way we speak projects the worldview – the structural frame – for how we see and interact with the world around us.  Several years ago one of my shepherds, Monroe Hawley, wrote about the significance of language or speech for uncovering our deeper ways of thinking.  His chapter “Your Speech Betrays You” in his classic Redigging the Wells: Seeking Undenominational Christianity, offers this perceptive example, when a person says,

I’m Church of Christ all the way” (i.e. pp. 83-94).

This was an example of a conservative, traditional, Bible believing, and denominational disliking, sister whose speech betrayed an incredibly denominational view of the family of God, even as she denied holding such a position.  While clearly using a “scriptural” term, she had recontextualized that term (“Church of Christ”) thus redefining it in radically anti-biblical ways. 

Modern, western, believers often do the same with the word “soul” and with just as deadly consequences to a biblical understanding of the term. Our use of the word “soul” reveals an entire hidden structure to our understanding of faith. Christians, preachers, and churches constantly speak of “soul winning” or “saving souls” or being a “soul winner.” 

The word “soul” is usually not defined but is simply assumed to be the part of humanity that matters to God that survives the death of the body.  It is the unseen reality of a person that experiences “salvation.” It is the part of us that “goes to heaven”  (i.e. gets saved).

Since we cannot see a “soul” and it is immaterial, our hidden understanding of “soul” is what lies behind such inquiries as “will we know one another in heaven?”  After all how do you “know” what you cannot see or otherwise sense?  But though we cannot see or sense it, the “soul” is of the utmost importance and really the only part of a human that matters at all. This hidden understanding of “soul” is what lies behind our speaking of “spiritual blessings” as opposed to material blessings.  As with the person in Monroe Hawley’s example, the word “soul” has come to mean something different by being placed in a new frame has deadly consequences.  

What I just described, and I do not think it is a caricature nor is that my intent, reveals an understanding that comes from the West’s Greek heritage far more than the Bible.

That Greek heritage celebrates the influence of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other pagan philosophers.  It is Plato in particular who has shaped the way many people think about the “soul.”  Indeed for Plato the soul was “immortal.” The “soul” can, and does, exist prior to and apart from the body. In fact “salvation” in Plato’s thinking is ultimately setting the “soul” free from the body that encumbers it.

But simply because the Bible uses the word “soul” does not mean that it remotely means what Plato meant by the word. The Bible, Old and New Testaments, reflects a Hebraic structure or worldview and not a Greek one.  When it comes to the matter of saving the soul this is of utmost importance.  Our father in the faith, Alexander Campbell, grasped this point with precision,

Immortality, in the sacred writings, is never applied to the spirit of man. It is not the doctrine of Plato which the resurrection of Jesus proposes. It is the IMMORTALITY OF THE BODY of which his resurrection is a proof and pledge” (Millennial Harbinger – Extra, [August 5, 1833], 359). 

Campbell understood something many of his heirs do not, the NT writers were not Greek philosophers but Jewish folk nourished on the doctrine of Moses not Plato.  So Campbell can say that though the language of the NT is Greek “it has the soul of Hebrew” (nicely done there Alexander!). 

So what does the word “soul” mean in the Bible?

In Hebrew the word most often rendered “soul” in our English Bible is the nephesh and in Greek it is psyche. The word psyche occurs in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible over 900x (including the Apocrypha). New Testament writers get the word from the Septuagint.

Most of the time psyche is a rendering of nephesh. If one opens up a standard Hebrew dictionary such as The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed William VanGemeren to the article on “Nephesh” we read “Care should be taken not to import a Greek paradigm of psychology to nepes” (vol 3, p. 133).  We should heed this warning because to ignore it changes what the Bible says and means.

In Hebrew nephesh stands for the whole person and sometimes simply means “I.” It is life itself.  So completely identified with the notion of a whole person that we can read of a corpse, that is a dead BODY, as a “soul/nephesh.”  “He shall not go where there is a dead body” (Lev 21.11, NRSV).  We shall not go near a dead soul, that is a person! In Leviticus 4.2 we read “when anyone sins unintentionally against me” (NRSV) but it is literally when a “soul/nephesh sins against me.”  That is when a person sins against me.  

In the Psalms we come across the notion of “soul” frequently and Westerners unconsciously, reading through the hidden Platonic structure of our Modern world, understand the text as a pagan philosopher might.  We come across famous lines like “Save me, O God, for the waters come into my soul” (Ps 69, KJV). Or in Psalm 44 “For our soul is bowed down to the dust” (KJV).  Or we read that haunting image in Psalm 42 which is prone to misunderstanding

As a deer pants for the living water,  
so my soul thirsts for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God
” (vv. 1-2, NRSV)s

Some read this and think the psalmist is speaking of her immortal soul, the hidden, non-material, valuable part that God loves and wants to save.  But this is, as our brief analysis above shows us, not what is meant at all.  The psalmist is not speaking of anything unseen or hidden.  Rather he is talking about himself, “I.” 

Robert Alter’s translation of The Book of Psalms renders correctly (Alter has a brief discussion on translating the Psalms in which he discusses among other things nephesh (pp. xxxi-xxxiii),

As a dear years for streams of water, so I yearn for You, O God. 
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God

In fact to render nephesh this way (i.e. soul) is misleading in our modern contexts. A number of English translations have corrected it. So the TEV reads, 

As a deer longs for a stream of cool water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for you, the living God
” (cf. NEB, REB, CEV, CSB, NCV, etc)

In the Hebraic worldview, human beings are a psycho-somatic unity.  There is no dichotomy between the spiritual and nonspiritual.  God is the Creator of all and the giver of life.  Life is given as a gift (souls).  There is no “soul” without a body and not body without the nephesh.  When the body and nephesh are not together there is “death.”

The whole personality of the psalmist in Ps 42 is dying for God.  His body is experiencing a drought because of separation from God’s gracious presence. It is a gross misunderstanding to think this is just inner anguish, or mental turmoil, or some hidden part of his being that yearns for God.  He is saying every “fabric of his/her identity” is aching for God. In the words, his or her whole being is afire for the Lord. 

The New Testament 

The notion we see in the Hebrew Bible, carried clearly over into the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Septuagint, is shot through the New Testament.  The NT does not import Greek notions for “soul.”  There is no trading of Moses for Plato.  I will give numerous examples in order to demonstrate that this Hebrew doctrine for humanity remains. As a standard Greek dictionary like The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed Colin Brown, reminds us (as noted with the Hebrew above) “psyche” is “the seat of life, or life itself” or the person (see vol 3, pp. 676-687).

In Mark 8.35 and the identical parallel in Matthew 16.25/Luke 9.24 we read “whoever would save his life/soul/psyche will loose it” … soul clearly means the “life” of the person and not some hidden “secret” part of the person. 

In Matthew 10.39 we read this same Hebraic notion “those who find their life/psyche/soul will lose it …” 

In Matthew 20.28 we read these interesting words “Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his SOUL/LIFE/psyche as a ransom for many.” Clearly the doctrine of Plato needs to be shunned in understanding what the very Jewish Jesus was saying here. It was no invisible Jesus on the Cross. 

In Jesus’s parable of the Rich Fool, he uses the same understanding of “nephesh” in the Psalms, and other places, to tell us how the Fool described himself. “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12.19,NRSV).  This is just as easily translated as “And I said to myself, Self ...” or to make it personal, “And I said to myself, Bobby …” The Today’s English Version renders the passage as “Then I will say to myself, Lucky Man! …”  The Rich Fool is clearly having a conversation with himself.  We humans do these things all the time.  “psyche” simply refers to the Rich Fool.

In recounting the cost of discipleship our Exalted Jewish Rabbi spoke in these words in the Gospel of Luke. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own SOUL/psyche/LIFE, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14.26). 

Speaking of the Good Shepherd’s ultimate sacrifice for the sheep, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his SOUL/LIFE/psyche for the sheep” (John 10.11).  We certainly do not want to import Plato’s doctrine here!

When Peter, a good Jew, was speaking to Jesus, zealously proclaiming his unending devotion we hear these words that make no sense in a Platonic context, “Peter said to him, Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will day down my SOUL for you.” (John 13.37). 

If the soul, as is commonly understood and used in Evangelical/Restoration piety, means that part of the human being most valuable to God and is subject to “salvation” then Peter is speaking pure nonsense. But Peter is not just dedicating PART of himself to Jesus but declaring his “total commitment” (to use a metaphor) to Jesus.  He is giving it all.  There is no dichotomy between soul/body.  It is the whole person that is devoted to Jesus unto death. 

Paul was just as Jewish as Jesus and Peter. He never left Moses for Plato. He uses the word psyche in the same pattern we have observed throughout the Bible so far.  Paul was always grateful to his fellow workers.  For example he testifies that Prisca and Aquila “risked their necks for my SOUL/life/psyche” (Romans 16.4).  

Rabbi Paul loved his Thessalonian (=Macedonian)  brothers and sisters dearly.  It was not only an honor to share the “gospel of God” with them but his psyche.  “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own SOUL/psyche, because you have become very dear to me” (1 Thess 2.8).  Paul has shared himself with his Thessalonian friends. Or as most English translations rightly render here, “Because our love for you we were ready to share with you not only the Good News from God but even our own lives! (TEV, cf. NIV, NRSV, etc)

The very Jewish apostle Peter tells us that on Noah’s ark there were “eight souls” saved in the Flood (1 Peter 3.20).  This clearly means, as in the Hebrew Bible, there were eight people that were on Noah’s ark. 

The only Gentile writer in the New Testament is Luke (and it is not at all clear that Luke was not at least a proselyte) yet he retains this Hebraic understanding of psyche … just as he learned it out of the Septuagint.  Luke records the sending of a letter from the Jerusalem Council to believers in Antioch and other places.  In that letter we read “we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their SOULS/psyche for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15.25-26).  Barnabas and Paul risked themselves, their lives, for the sake of Jesus.  

Luke relates the sea voyage of Paul and the wreck at Malta.  Just before the ship was wrecked we are told that Paul gathers the folks around for a feast in good Jewish fashion (clear echoes of the feasts of Jesus in the Gospel and the Last Supper too).  “We were in all two hundred seventy six SOULS on the ship” (Acts 27.37).   I do not think that Luke meant there were 276 spirits or ghosts or nonmaterial beings on the boat.  The word “psyche” meant the people who were complete people filled with life.  This is in complete harmony with the Hebraic understanding of “soul.”


The word psyche occurs 101x in the whole NT.  The vast majority of these are in the Gospels (37 in the Synoptics and 10 in John) and Acts (15x). Surprisingly, Paul only uses the word 13x across all of his epistles.  With this survey of both Old and NT, we see that the NT retains the meaning and usage of the Hebrew and does not even smell like the Greek understanding of the immortality of the soul (Campbell was correct). The proper frame for understanding “soul” in the Bible is Moses (Hebrew Bible) and not our Greek heritage exemplified in Plato.

A misunderstanding of the word “soul” and the doctrine of humanity results in a corresponding misunderstanding of salvation.  With a pagan definition, ministry focuses upon nothing more than dying and escaping to heaven. In this paradigm we tend to focus on that part of a human being we think actually matters to God and everything is subservient to that.

This is why some churches place great stress on going to church as the “spiritual” duty of humanity. Feeding the poor and caring for the sick may be good but all we are doing is caring for the “physical” needs in order to “save their soul.”

And some actually minimize the “physical” as antithetical to salvation.  This is completely unbiblical, no matter who claims otherwise. Churches in the 1950s and 1960s refused to address racial issues because they were “social” and not “spiritual” (i.e. not a matter of the soul and salvation).  But this is false doctrine.  It is in fact paganism. 

I realize many people hold this view unaware, so I am not accusing them of consciously being a pagan. But the hidden structure holding up our faith comes tumbling down when we try to impose Platonic categories onto these biblical texts. 

In the Bible, the Creator does not simply love souls, as Plato understood that and used that term. There is not a single verse that holds this point of view.  In the Bible, the Creator does not simply save souls either, as Plato understood and use that term. 

Rather in the Bible, the Creator becomes the Redeemer and he loves WHOLES.  In the Bible, the Creator becomes the Redeemer and does not save SOULS but WHOLES! If we mean by soul what the Psalms, Jesus and Paul mean by soul then God loves “souls” because souls are complete persons. God loves every thing about human beings.  He loves our bodies.  He loves our limbs. He loves us inside and outside.  Enfleshed Humans as WHOLES – not as mere souls – are created in the image of God.  The ministry of Jesus is completely consistent with this Hebraic understanding of human beings as a whole.  Jesus’s understanding of salvation, as presented in the Gospels, is incredibly anti-platonic.  The declaration of his ministry is the Year of Jubilee in Luke 4.16-19 (cf. 7.18-23) is manifestly physical in that it address people as wholes.  Note these examples in Luke …

When the Centurion’s servant was deathly ill, Jesus is called to “save” him (7.3)

When Jesus encounters the demoniac and restores him to wholeness, Luke says that Jesus “saved” him (8.36)

When Jesus went to the little girl who had died, he restores life to her body and Luke says that Jesus “saved” her (8.50)

When Paul speaks of salvation, or redemption, he speaks out of this Hebraic worldview.  Romans 8 completely deconstructs false understandings that lead to truncated ministries and half-gospels. Christians believe in resurrection of the body not that part of us gets to return to some whispy ethereal pagan bliss. Paul declares “we who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8.23; cf. 8.11). 

The Gospel of God, the Gospel of Christ, embraces the complete human being not simply part of a human being. This is incredibly Good News.  The actual Gospel of Christ does save souls because in the Bible the word soul refers to living, breathing, flesh and blood people!

The Gospel addresses our souls because it address us as a whole.  The Gospel addressed withered hands because that was the need of a person. The Gospel addressed ostracized women with issues of blood because that was the need of a person. The Gospel addressed those who had no food to eat.  The Gospel addressed those who had not place to stay.  The Gospel addressed those who were left out because of their race and color.

The Gospel addressed souls because they are the whole in the flesh people – the objects of God’s unending infinite love.  When we embrace what the Bible actually says about the “soul” then suddenly our mandate to make a difference in our world is actually something the Gospel of Christ commands. 

Some well known preachers want to claim that Jesus and the New Testament “unhitched” themselves and their teachings from the Hebrew Bible and Judaism. That did not happen on the fundamental matter of “soul” and all that goes with it.  In fact when the New Testament is “unhitched” on this matter we have Gnosticism, not New Testament Christianity. 

The New Testament writers never abdicate to Plato.  The world Moses told us about, and the living beings God placed within it, is the same world and living beings God sent his Son to save …

8 Responses to ““Soul” … Moses vs. Plato: The Biblical Worldview”

  1. Michael Waymon Summers Says:

    Is the “It has the soul of Hebrew” quote from Alexander Campbell taken from the same Millenial Harbinger Extra as the quote before it? If not what is the citation for it. I thought is was a great quote. Thanks for finding it.

  2. Ed Dodds Says:

    One of the practical implications with a cessationist worldview is a truly crappy comprehension of flesh, body, iniquity, soul, spirit, Holy Spirit, etc. I’ve found Watchman Nee immensely helpful about how God the Father uses scripture, within the context of ekklesia, help use learn our particular personal gifting (call, commission, etc.) — and how to collaborate with (and when not to) other believers. The NT saw folks called out of the world, into community, mentored, and sent back out. Sometimes, the sending requires an army to come and destroy your capital city (see Jerusalem’s Temple) and or a persecution and scattering of your seminaries (apostles).

  3. Andrew Says:

    Great post, Bobby. I first heard about this concept while at my Christian university. Then when I found the Pre-Nicene Christians, I discovered how important this topic is.

    This faulty doctrine from Platoism/Gnosticism completely NEGATES the Resurrection. I have asked people, “If we are just going to be ‘floating spirits’ in heaven, then what is the point of the Resurrection?” To that, they don’t have an answer.

    Now, I would not go as far to say that this is a “deadly” doctrine, but the damage is that the Great Resurrection has been dropped from the gospel. Read through Acts and note how many times the Resurrection was included in the gospel. I’m not talking about Christ’s resurrection (though it was also preached often) but the Great Resurrection. I feel that the travesty today is that we have lost the significance and HOPE in preaching the Resurrection of the dead.

    The Pre-Nicene Christians were as bold as one could be to stress the importance of the body. They taught that deeds done in the body will determine your bodily experience in the afterlife!

  4. Steve Hopkins Says:

    Excellent article that reflects some thoughts I’ve wrestled with myself. I’m curious how this fits in with the several passages in Deuteronomy that have the phrase “with all your heart and all your soul.” If “soul” here is the same as presented above, what is “heart”? Also, Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
    Are there better translations of those passages that would make them easier to line up with the thoughts above?

  5. Jonathan Says:

    The next myth derived from Platonic dualism that we need to address is that the earth will be destroyed when Christ returns. Here is another quote from Alexander Campbell: “God recreates, regenerates, but annihilates nothing; therefore, the present earth is not to be annihilated.” (The Christian System, page 371) That was the majority belief among restoration churches until the 1920’s/30’s. If we believe that everything is going to be destroyed, we don’t need to take care of the environment or the poor and needy. Remember that in the judgment God will “destroy those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18).

  6. R.J. Says:

    Perhaps this is why(at least partly) that the church fathers started condemning musical instruments.

  7. Lisa Johnson Says:

    Thank you for this great and thought provoking article! I have a question: How would you understand Matthew 10:28?

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