Word Study #28 — Life:Eternal and otherwise

*Note: The following treatise is only a brief summary of this matter.  A closer examination of the component parts may come later:  especially if some of you all join in the study effort!

For probably as long as they have had the intellectual and linguistic capacity to do so, people have wondered – and speculated – about “life”: and their philosophical, religious, and even physiological conclusions have differed greatly.
This is an instance where the same English word  has been applied to three distinctly different Greek terms, resulting in the blurring, if not the complete loss, of important elements of understanding.  Especially interesting in this regard is the sharp departure from classical usages that we see in the New Testament.

Bios (source of the English “biology”), in classical writings, referred to one’s mode or manner of life, his livelihood, or merely his physical existence.  The term was used of animals, as well as people.  Some writers used it of the “real world” as opposed to mere philosophical speculation.  It appears only 10 times in the New Testament, translated 5 times as “life” and 5 as “living.”

Zoe (source of “zoology”) is even less common in the classics.  Homer used it of physical existence; others referred to one’s substance or property, or even a term of endearment, “my Life!!”  It may also refer to one’s chosen way of life.  This is the term that dominates in the New Testament – there are 133 occurrences.

Psuche (source of “psychology”), although a favorite of the 5th and 6th century BC philosophers, used by Homer denoting “ghosts, or departed spirits”, and as an entity that leaves the body if a person faints, more frequently referred to someone’s personality, or conscious self.  At times it was used simply to count individuals.  Some philosophers used it of one’s moral or intellectual self.  Early physicians used it as the source of life and consciousness.  It was the Stoics and Epicureans who divided the concept of psuche (“soul”) from soma (“body”).  For Plato, it was “the immaterial principle of movement and life”.  Hippocrates referred it to the emotions.  Please note: these all date prior to the third century BCthey are NOT “Christian” ideas! There are 103 uses of psuche in the New Testament, with widely varying translations, the most common of which are “life” and “soul.”

Interesting cultural observations can be made on the basis of words that are commonly used together: in this case, specifically, the combination with aion (n.) and aionios (adj.), which are usually translated with some form of “eternal.”  Although aion was also used of a lifetime, age, or generation, or any clearly defined epoch, Epicurus often preferred the concept of “perpetuity.”  For other uses of aion , please see #86.

The only classical incidence of aionios noted in Liddell/Scott as being used with bios was in reference to Egyptian monarchs.  This fits well with the ancient Egyptian cultural practice of carefully preserving bodies and organs, and providing them with artifacts, wealth, food, pets, and even servants for their welfare in the afterlife.   It was the physical life that they expected to be continued or replicated.  No pairing of bios and aionios occurs anywhere in New Testament writings.

Pindarus, Plato, Epicurus, Homer, and many other Greek writers/philosophers wrote of the psuche – a disembodied entity that existed in a shadowy realm after death, occasionally interacting with the living; but their primary use of “eternal” (or, more frequently, “immortal”) referred almost exclusively to gods and heroes.  This pairing, also, never occurs in the New Testament, even in the places where traditional translators rendered psuche as “soul,” the 3rd to 5th century BC pagan term.

In all the New Testament writings, only zoe is used in conjunction with any form of aion – a combination that never occurred in the classical writings.  The consistency of this choice indicates with unusual clarity that a very different concept is in view.  Zoe appears with aion or aionion 43 times, and the idea of something quite beyond ordinary existence is present in at least that many more of the uses.  Might this not be a deliberate, overt rejection of the pagan concept of disembodied “souls”, in favor of Jesus’ statements, “I AM the …life” (Jn.14:6), “I have come that they might have life” (Jn.10:10)?  All of these employ a form of zoe, as do Jn.8:12, “The one who is following me shall have the light of life”, and Jn.11:25, “I AM the resurrection and the life.”  Many years later, as an elderly man, John put it very simply: (I Jn.5:11-12) “God gave us eternal life!  This life is in his Son.  The person who has [holds on to] the Son has life; the one who doesn’t have [hold on to] the Son, doesn’t have the life!”  Here too, zoe is used throughout.

So where did all the rhetoric about “eternal souls” come from?  Not from the New Testament!  Psuche and aionion are never used together there.   The English words do not appear together, even in traditional translations that arbitrarily use “soul” instead of “life” in about half of the appearances.  To be fair, we must note that there are four places (yes, only four in the entire New Testament) where the traditional translators refer to “saving souls”:  Heb.10:39, Jas.1:21 and 5:20, I Pet.1:9.  Please refer to W.S. #5 for a discussion of the concept of “save”.  I can only conclude that those translators were more heavily influenced by the “Golden Age” of Greek philosophy than by the message of Jesus, who had offered his followers the privilege to “enter into life (zoe)!”  And Jesus spoke of “life (zoe)” – with or without the addition of aionion (“eternal”) – primarily in the present tense!

He spoke of “laying down his psuche for his sheep, maintaining that he had the authority both to lay it down and to reclaim it (Jn.10:15-17).  Yet it was his “spirit” (pneuma) that he committed to his Father from the cross (Lk.23:46), and Stephen offered the same commitment to Jesus himself at the time of his own death.  I could not find any references to “the spirit of God” or “the spirit” of a person outside of the LXX (Septuagint) or the New Testament.  The deliberate choice of pneuma – classically more generally used of wind, or simple respiration – instead of psuche may have been a further gesture of rejection of the pagan implications of psuche.  Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews notes the difficulty of distinguishing between the two (4:12), and relegates that task to the Word of God!  If only his people today had the grace to do likewise!

The focus of the New Testament is clearly upon zoe – which is represented as originating in (“invented” by?) the Lord Jesus himself (Jn.1:21).  Fully half of the references in the Gospels are specifically paired with a form of aion/aionion, and many of the rest definitely imply a higher order of living.
Even more significant is the fact that most of these occur with present tense verbs.  Even statements like Jesus’ telling his opponents (Jn.5:40), “You don’t want to come to me in order that you may have life,” does not use a future tense, as is often assumed by those who use only English, but a present subjunctive form, which is required in this kind of a statement of purpose or intent.  The same structure occurs in the much-quoted Jn.3:16, and also in John’s statement of the evangelistic purpose of his gospel (20:31).  These are all talking about the present, not the future!
Yes, there are a handful of references to “in the world to come,” such as Mk.10:30 and its parallel in Lk.18:30, but these are the exception.  Additionally, they express a continuation of what has already begun, not something that only begins in the future.
More common is Paul’s expression in I Tim.4:8, “a promise of life both now and in the future.” Both Gospels and Epistles are concerned with the quality, not just the duration, of life.

I will close this brief summary with a few of the passages where “eternal life” is succinctly defined – all using “zoe”:
Jn.6:63 (Jesus speaking) “The messages I have spoken to you all are spirit, and they are life!
Jn.11:25 (Jesus) “I AM the resurrection and the life!”
Jn.14:6 (Jesus) “I AM the way, the truth, and the life!”
Jn.10:28 (Jesus, of his “sheep”) I am giving them eternal life, and they will never be destroyed!”
Jn.12:50 (Jesus, of his Father) “His command IS eternal life!”
Jn.17:3 (Jesus) “This is eternal life, that they may be acquainted with you, the only true [real, genuine] God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.”
Col.3:4 “Christ, who is our life…
II Cor.4:10 “In order that Jesus’ life may be revealed in our mortal flesh [human nature]”
I Jn 5:20 “We have our very existence in the True One, in his Son, Jesus Christ!


5 Responses to Word Study #28 — Life:Eternal and otherwise

  1. dwmtractor says:

    I am fascinated, Mom, by one comment you made here that I don’t recall hearing before, despite the fact that we’ve talked about the bios/zoe/psuche issue for more than three quarters of my life:

    Am I correct in understanding you that the concept of “pneuma” to refer to a being’s life/breath/spirit does not occur in classical Greek literature? If so, I wonder if perhaps it’s a novelty that comes from the interaction of Judaism with the Greek language, since it’s also found in Genesis 2:7, which tells us that man did not become “a living soul” (psuchen zosan in LXX) until God breathed into him the breath of life (pnoen zoes). It seems perhaps the translators of the Septuagint get the credit for this innovation, if innovation it is.

    Of course, it’s also an important concept for understanding the source of that “zoe” for believers now, as Jesus symbolized when he “breathed on” the disciples in John 20:22. I am convinced that this action was a deliberate mirroring of Genesis 2, meant to illustrate the new life to which his followers were called and into which they were initiated by his Breath.

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    The Oxford lexicon, which tracks most classical uses, does not list it used that way. Seems to me I may have seen it used in the “ghost” idea somewhere, but I am not sure. It certainly is not prominent in classical uses.
    I think the connection to the LXX is very probably correct. It is interesting to note that it says “man BECAME a living soul” — not “received” or “acquired” one — as a result of God’s breath.
    This fits with the other observations that psuche was often used simply to count or indicate individuals.
    “Breath”, of course, does appear: it is in the list with “wind.”
    The whole thing requires some adjusted thinking/vocabulary, if we are to be “Scriptural.”

  3. dwmtractor says:

    I agree and should have mentioned in my own post…the point that man “became,” not “received” a living soul is quite important in that passage, and militates strongly against the dichotomist (body/soul) and trichotomist (body/soul/spirit) views on which many love to pontificate.

    I am interested, though, to realize that this concept is a pre-Christian Jewish understanding. It might be enlightening to tease the concept out with a rabbi or someone versed in Second-Temple Jewish thought–a field in which I have essentially no knowledge.

  4. ruthpmartin says:

    I suspect that it is probably simply that the early Jewish writers did not share the Greek, Platonic concept of “soul” as a disembodied spook of some sort.

  5. […] actually a useful foundation for some things I’m going to be writing soon.  She has just posted a word study on the various Greek words that are sometimes translated as “Life” or […]

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