This article looks at the differences between several words whose Greek meanings overlap quite a bit, but which Jesus seems to have used very differently. The view here about how Christ uses these words may be unique, but this evaluation does eliminate several problems with the way these words are currently translated inconsistently. The picture summarizes this article's explanation of Jesus' view of the components of human life. We will start with the most difficult component.
To summarize briefly, Jesus uses seven words in the Gospels to describe various parts of human existence. These words are translated in inconsistent ways in the English translation. There seem to be three basic elements : 1) the spirit or breath (pneuma), 2) the flesh (sarx), and 3) the mind (dianoia). There seem to be combinations of two of these elements: 1) the heart (kardia), a combination of mind and spirit, 2) life (zoe), a combination of the flesh and spirit, 3) and the body (soma), a combination of the flesh and mind. Finally, there is psyche, which is translated as soul and life, but it is a combination of all three: mind, flesh, and spirit. We might describe this as the "self,” our existence in this body, with these feeling and memories.
The Problem with Psyche as "Soul/Life"
The word psyche (ψυχὴν) creates a special problem for translators when they translate Christ's words because they translate it to mean two very different things: a person's "soul" and his "life.” In the NT, it is translated 58 times as "soul,” 40 times as "life,” and three times as "mind". Sometimes, the switch between the two is sudden, for example, in Matthew 16:25, it says, "For whoever will save his life shall lose it," translating psyche as "life," but then in the following verse, Matthew 16:26, it says, "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" translating psyche as "soul.”
What is interesting is that most of these translations only seem to work as one or the other. For example, Christ tells us not to worry about our "life," wondering about what we will eat or drink. It is hard to imagine the word "soul" applying to eating and drinking. However, Christ also tells us not to worry about those who would kill the body but not the "soul" using the same word translated as "life" above. This is a "life" that does not die when the body dies. So we have a paradox. A "life" that eats and drinks to survive but does not die when the body dies.
However, psyche doesn't seem to be a word (for example, like the Greek word translated as "judge") that has different meanings in different contexts. Rather it is a concept that is captured well by neither of these words.
There is an English meaning that does work, the psychological term of "self,” which means our worldly sense of self. However, before we discuss it, we should look at some related Greek words. From his use of all three of these words (plus his use of the word for "body,” which is much more straightforward), we get a clearer idea of what Christ means when he uses the word psyche.
Mind and Spirit
In Christ's words, psyche is translated like two other words that Christ commonly uses: pneuma, which is usually translated as "spirit," and zoe, which is usually translated as "life". There is also another word, dianoia, that is translated as "mind". And another word, kardia, that is translated as "heart" but which is described as the source of thoughts.
Both pneuma and psyche also mean "breath" as in the "breath of life". Both are from Greek verbs that mean "to breath" and "to blow.” The difference is the "spirit" of pneuma is often used to describe both God and "demons,” whereas the word psyche is never used by Christ that way. This is because these beings lack a body.
In another article, the word "spirit" is examined in conjunction with "holy" so no need to write about its use in that way extensively here. So pneuma is more like ideas that have a life of their own. Christ seems to view people as having more than one spirit within them, their own, that of God, and that of "demons.” These are the "voices" that pop into our minds as conscious thought. It is this consciousness that motivates action, so it is an animating force. Our awareness of our own thoughts is the piece of divinity within us.
We could say that Christ uses psyche to mean "the mind" in the sense of thought, but there is another word that Christ uses, dianoia, which is translated as "mind" (usually) and means "thought,” "intention,” "purpose,” "notion,” "process of thinking,” "thinking faculty," intelligence,” "understanding,” "thoughts expressed," and "meaning.” This word provides a useful boundary for thinking about what psyche isn't. It is important to note that Christ uses it, but rarely, basically as one of the three things we should use to love God (heart (kardia), soul/self(psyche), and mind (dianoia) (Matthew 22:37, Mar 12:30). Notice all three of these are elements that are part of the "mind".
Life and Mind
Zoe is another word Christ commonly uses that is translated as "life" and unlike "pysche,” it is always and only translated as "life". This is the only word here that has a verb form, zoa, meaning "to live" and "to be alive". This is physical life and the substance of life. This is the life that comes from our "substance,” "property," as well as our "existence.” When we talk about making a living, we are talking about zoe. In the verb form, it is a metaphor for "to be full of life," "to be strong," and "to be fresh.” The basic concept is the union of flesh with spirit, sarx with pneuma, to create a breathing body (discussed below.)
When a person is alive without having mind (dianoia,) say when you are unconscious and not dreaming, that is the life of zoe alone. This is the word that is used when Christ talks about "eternal life". So this active sense of doing things extends beyond our physical life of the flesh as we currently know it. It may be that all the elements arising from spirit (heart, self, life) exist beyond the flesh.
The word for "heart," kardia, is also a key part of a person's makeup and unlike "mind" (dianoia,) it is used frequently. Again, this is because it is part of spirit. Sometimes this word is used like we use the word "heart" to mean the "insides" of something ("heart" of the ocean or earth), but when it is used to refer to people, it is the seat of emotions. However, these emotions do clearly generate thoughts (Matthew 15:19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts), but it is the motivation for thought, the source of thought, not the thoughts themselves. The spirit gives rise to thoughts in the mind through urging of the heart.
One interesting aspect of this word is that Jesus often uses the singular, "the heart," to describe the thoughts or feelings of a group. For example, he uses the plural possessive "your" with the singular "heart" in Luke 24:38. Though the phrase is translated as "in your hearts" in the KJV, the Greek ἐν τῇκαρδίᾳ ὑμῶν; literally means "in that heart (singular) of yours (plural).
At this point, we should mention an important Greek concept Jesus only uses once, stethos ( στῆθος), which means "breast". The same concept is more frequently called thumos, (θυμός), which literally means "chest". This is another Greek concept of "soul," "spirit," "feeling and thought," and especially "of strong feeling and passion." Logically, the breath of pneuma goes into the breast or chest and from there to the heart. So, the heart is where spirit and mind are united. Lower animals are driven more by the belly.
The concept is perhaps closer to Jesus' concept of kardia than any of the other concepts here. This concept of thumos or "feelings of the chest" or, as we might say, feelings of the heart. These included the love of family and country, hatred of enemies, anger, passion for learning, etc. Jesus seems to use kardiato to describe all of this. The kardia/heart might be described as the desires of the mind in this context.
The Body and Flesh
Next, we have the physical body. There are two Greek words Jesus used to describe the physical body, sarx ("flesh") and soma ("body").
The Greek word, sarx (σαρκὸς) means "flesh," "the body," "the pulp of fruit," "meat," and "the physical and natural order of things". Christ uses this word to describe physical tissue of the body, the body as meat. This is the "flesh" that is weak. Without spirit or breath (pneuma), the flesh has no life. Without a mind, the body is unconscious.
"Body" is soma, (σῶμα) which in Greek means "body,” "dead body,” "the living body,” "animal body,” and several other meanings. However, Jesus uses this word more narrowly, specifically to mean the living body, our physical bodies that we identify as people. This body is a union of the flesh (sarx) and the mind (dianoia). This is the body of our physical feelings. It connects our flesh to our minds. Jesus joins the psyche, the self, with the life of the body. They are both part of the same life, one the flesh with a mind and the other, the union of flesh, mind, and spirit. Like our word "body,” the Greek word soma has special meanings such as "body" of proof and the "body" of a document.
The ancient Greeks divided motivational emotions into two parts, thumos above and koilia, the belly. The animal emotions were "feelings of the belly,” which included hunger, lust, fear, etc. In Jesus's language, the higher emotions of kardia were considered positive, especially if "pure" because they connect the mind (dianoia) to the eternal spirit (pneuma). The animal emotions were considered natural by the Greek and by Jesus, but of less importance, and less worthy. Jesus seems to use the term soma/body to reflect this idea. The body isn't just the flesh, but the desires of the body.
The Psyche of Self
So where does this leave the "life" or "soul" of psyche? It is our sense of self as the person we record in our memories in this world. It includes everything else, our flesh, mind, and spirit. The term "self" captures it well because it is our self-awareness but not our pure spirit, our awareness as part of the eternal. Our "self" is how we see the role we play in life. It is the person we are in our memories, playing a specific conscious role in human society.
This is a life that eats and drinks and remembers eating and drinking and remembers that it has all types of needs and obligations. So, this is the life that worries, because it contains mind and heart. It is also the "life" that people lose when they die, not because their awareness ceased but because the life they remember ceases when they lose their flesh and body. This is their personal life, the life of identity, being this specific person at this point time at a specific location.
The Soul and Eternal Life
Can this identity of "self" be called our "soul" in the current sense of the word? The problem is that Christ said that this psyche can be destroyed. The "earthly" components of spirit (heart, self, and life) can survive but don't necessarily do so. These parts of the spirit can go into the "trash heap" along with our physical flesh and body. This happens if we do not live worthwhile lives (Matthew 10:28).
However, the Christian concept of "soul" is indestructible. It is our divine spirit. The self of our conscious awareness (pneuma) that is bigger than our identity survives, but earthly identity, our relationships, and all we have done is lost to us.
One possibility is that it works like this. A human is created by a specific union of spirit/psyche, a brain/mind/dianoia, and the flesh/sarx. As we grow, we develop our bodies/sarx, our lives/zoe, our hearts/kardia, and our self/pysche. However, only the last three of these are connected with our eternal spirit/pneuma. When we live a worthy life, all four of these elements of our life, life-heart-self-spirit, can potentially survive. This is what Jesus called "eternal life". We survive knowing our past life. This is our soul.
However, if a life is unworthy, what happens? The spirit is eternal so it survives, but it goes into the trash heap of fire. What happens then? Eternal torment of tradition hell of Christianity. However, there is another possibility as well. The life-heart-self is burned off in the fire of the trash heap. In this context, the individual soul that survives is pure spirit, without the taint of an unworthy life. What happens to it? Possibly a rebirth in another life. Jesus makes several references to John as the rebirth of Elija.