The idea of the human person, so important in modern times thanks especially to the study of psychology, was not a focus of ancient Israelite thought. Because of the corporate identity of the people of Israel, the individual person did not receive much attention in the literature of Israel. However, as Israel moved into a later period, and particularly after its encounter with Hellenism, the nature of the individual and his or her fate became much more prominent both in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity.
The Hebrew word for the human being is nepeš, which among its wide range of meanings connotes both flesh and soul as inseparable components of a person. A nepeš, or person, is first of all a living being, animated by breath. The life of a person is seen as residing in the blood as well as in the breath (Deut. 12.23, 24); therefore, it is unlawful to shed or to eat blood. Thus, an essential component of the person is the flesh (Hebr. bāśār), which is separate from God and carries a connotation of weakness. All animals are composed of flesh, and the human animal is no different in this regard.
However, a person is also composed of “soul,” so that less concrete attributes also belong to the person. Appetites such as hunger and thirst, emotions like desire, loathing, sorrow, joy, and love, and thought or mental activity all belong to the nepeš. This is how the human differs from animals, who are only flesh; the human, who has been animated by the breath of God (Gen. 2.7), shares in the attributes of God.
At death, the person's flesh dies, and the soul dwells in Sheol, a shadowy place for the dead (see Afterlife and Immortality; Hell). There is no notion in what may be called orthodox Israelite religion of a separate existence for the soul after death. Death is accepted as a natural part of the life cycle, but it is not welcomed, for the person who dies loses his or her being. In a prayer of thanksgiving, the psalmist says to the Lord, “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” (Ps. 30.9). Death is thus perceived to be the end of all sentient life. In later times, a doctrine of the resurrection of the dead developed, so that the best hope of the person after death lay in resurrection, when the soul and body would be reunited and live again (Dan. 12.2).
With the introduction of Hellenism into the ancient Near East, Israelite thought began to espouse the notion of a separation of soul and body. In Greek thought, body (sōma) is separate from soul (psychē), and the soul contains the true essence of a person. At death, the soul flees the prison of the body to seek a higher life, so that death is truly the liberation of the soul. As Jewish thought began to be influenced by Greek, these concepts emerge in its literature. Philo, an Alexandrian Jewish philosopher of the first century CE, assumes throughout his works a complete separation of soul and body, with flesh the chief cause of ignorance and soul the vehicle for a higher life. Josephus, the first‐century CE Jewish historian, states that the Pharisees believe that souls have the power to survive death (Ant. 18.1.14), and that the Essenes believe that the soul is immortal (Ant. 18.1.18). It is probable, however, that the immortality both of these groups anticipate includes a bodily resurrection.
In the New Testament, the still prominent idea of bodily resurrection (see especially the resurrection narratives in the Gospels and also 1 Cor. 15) implies that the soul and body are inseparable, but the notion of a human being composed of a separate soul and body slowly gains ascendancy. There are several Greek words used to explain different aspects of the human person. The Greek word sarx, the equivalent of Hebrew bāśār, denotes the flesh of both animals and humans. It often appears with the word “blood,” as in “flesh and blood,” to signify the physical being of the human (as opposed to a supernatural being such as an angel, which is not composed of flesh and blood). As early as Paul, the word “flesh” begins to receive negative connotations, as the vehicle for sin in the human being (Rom. 7.5).
The body (Grk. sōma) is the physical being of the person animated by the soul. As such, it is both physical and spiritual, and sometimes is used as the equivalent of nepeš. Paul uses the term sōma in his metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, animated by Christ's spirit (1 Cor. 12.13).
The word psychē, or soul, occurs over a hundred times in the New Testament, illustrating its importance in early Christian thought. The soul is the seat and center of the inner life of the human, and the location of the feelings and emotions, especially love (1 Thess. 2.8). The soul is that part of the human person that survives after the death of the body, and receives the rewards and punishments of the afterlife (cf. Luke 16.19–31). Thus the soul is the vehicle of salvation. It cannot be injured by human instrumentality, but God can hand it over for destruction. Therefore the soul is the most important possession a person has (Mark 8.36–37). Thus the New Testament has moved beyond the Hebrew Bible concept of an inseparable nepeš, to the idea of a separate soul and body. The soul survives after death, but may be reunited with the body in a physical resurrection (John 11.25).
The last word associated with the makeup of the human being in the New Testament is pneuma, or spirit. The spirit is the breath, that which gives life to the body; in fact, it is often used with “flesh” or “body” to denote the whole person (1 Cor. 5.3–5). The spirit is the seat of insight, often giving persons glimpses of things not visible to the naked eye (e.g., John 13.21). The spirit is also the location of feeling (particularly of love and grief) and will, so that at times the spirit and the flesh are in conflict: “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26.41). The usage of the word “spirit” often overlaps with that of “soul,” and the two together divide the inner life between them. However, the use of the term “spirit” in connection with Jesus emphasizes the most important aspect of “spirit”: it is the divine attribute of the human being. God, who is spiritual, breathed his own spirit into the human at creation, and now the human spirit and the divine spirit are related. Often, it is the spirit of God that animates the life of the Christian, as at Pentecost (Acts 2.2–4). And it is the Holy Spirit which calls to the human spirit: “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8.16). Thus, early Christian writers pictured the human person as composed of flesh, soul, and spirit, with the flesh, as the vehicle of sin, as something to be tamed, and the soul and spirit, as the vehicles for salvation and participation in the divine, as those parts of the human to be emphasized and nurtured.
Sidnie Ann White