Which one are we: soul spirit flesh or body heart and mind?
Our everyday understanding and usage of the terms soul, spirit and flesh – and sometimes mind – are sometimes so influenced by biblical mindset that some degree of confusion arises in the course of any ordinary conversation. There is no doubt that the bible uses the terms quite often in some technical sense – especially the New Testament. Furthermore, the bible itself gives various meanings to each of the terms and so the context in which it is used must be taken into consideration.
In the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament:
Let us begin with soul, in the Hebrew origin, nefesh, and often with the adjective hai or haiim,- living or alive.
In Genesis 1:20, for example, where God says, "Let the water team with living creatures...", this is translated from "nefesh haiim", the same expression as in Genesis 1:21, 24. Notice that in Genesis 2:7 when God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils, he became "a living being", or "nefesh hai".
It is the same expression in Swahili when we talk of "nafsi hai", meaning an individual, but only humans.
The biblical nefesh makes no distinction between the human being and the rest of the living creatures. However, there is something special in the breathing by God into the human being's nostrils and not into the other creatures. We will return to that later.
In the Hebrew Bible, nefesh is used for a variety of meanings, but never as a part – always as the whole being. The notion of an individual who is part soul, spirit and flesh is incompatible with the picture we see of nefesh. It is equally inconceivable that nefesh exists apart from the body or after the body dies.
The word translated spirit is ruah in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. It, too is used in a variety of ways to include wind and breath (as noted above with God breathing into the human being).
In all the various uses of ruah, the most significant point to note is that it is mostly used with God, not with human beings. Thus in Genesis 1:2, for example, before creation, "...the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit (ruah) of God was hovering over the waters".
What we are emphasizing here is that God is the source of the spirit and human beings cannot see themselves independent of God. In other words, there is a link between the human spirit and the divine, the latter being the source of the former.
Flesh,or basar is the more common word used in the Hebrew Bible to denote the external matter with seer appearing less frequently. The context in which these words are used is very important because of their variety in meaning.
The flesh is used as the external matter, for example in Genesis 2:21 where God closed up the in the man's side with "flesh". Similarly, in Genesis 9:2-4, animal flesh is used for food. Thus flesh here applies to human beings as well as other earthly creatures.
Another use of flesh connotes relationship, for example in Genesis 2:23-24 where the man remarks, with reference to the female, "this is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh". Indeed this usage is extended to include all humans as "all flesh" (Psalm 65:2; Isaiah 40:5 and 49:26).
In the New Testament:
The equivalent, or counterpart of the Hebrew nefesh in the New Testament is psuche. Its frequency, in the New Testament, though, is rare in comparison to the extensive usage of nefesh in the Old Testament. Even Paul in his epistles does not refer to soul – psuche – but almost creates dualism in his references to flesh, or soma, and spirit, or pneuma.
Broadly, the word signifies life, as in John 13:37 where Peter says to Jesus, "I will lay down my life for you".Paul uses the word in the same meaning, twice: In Romans 16:4 he says Aquila and Priscilla "risked their lives" for him, and in Philippians 2:30 Epaphroditus "almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help" the Philippians were unable to give him".
As in the Old Testament, psyche can also connote the individual, for example in Acts 2:41 where "about three thousand souls were baptized".
We should point out too that psyche can also be used as the immortal part of a person, for example in Matthew 10:28 where Jesus gives the advice not to "be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul", psyche.
Spirit in the New Testament:
The New Testament spirit, or pneuma, in some references, corresponds to the Old Testament ruah, for example in Matthew 27:50 where Jesus gave up his spirit – he died – or in John 3:8 where "the wind blows wherever it pleases".
The most usage of spirit in the New Testament, though, is in a sense of the intelligence, for example in Luke 1:47 where, in the Magnificat, Mary's spirit rejoices in the Lord.. Similarly, when Paul did not find Titus at Troas, he did not have "peace of mind".
Furthermore, as already alluded to, the New Testament uses spirit as that special aspect or dimension of a human being that is capable of relating to God. It is this use, in contrast to the flesh, that Paul emphasizes in his letters. There is a good example in Romans 8:7 where Paul writes, "the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so".
The word sarx is the chief New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament basar. It is a favorite word with Paul, especially in his epistles to the Romans and to Galatians. The flesh is depicted in opposition to the spirit, and as that human dimension that is rebellious against God.
For Paul, the flesh cannot respond to God's grace; rather it responds to the law – which includes everything that is not grace: punishment, imprisonment, force, deprivation of freedom, etc.
A full discussion of the flesh and the spirit in the New Testament is a special subject in itself. We will devote a full hub page on it in the near future.
Theological Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Walter A. Elwell.