The Greek word, psyche (ψυχὴν). creates philosophical problems for English Bible translators when they translate Jesus's words. Christianity requires that this word be translated is two very different things: our "souls" and our "lives.” In this article, we are going to discuss how much easier it is to understand Jesus if we translated this word more accurately.
In the KJV, it is translated 58 times as "soul,” 40 times as "life,” and three times as "mind." Jesus himself only used this word thirty-three times, about one-third of the time these words are used in the NT. And these words appear in some verses that are very important for Christian philosophy. And, as we shall see, though Jesus is always referring to the same thing with this word, today’s Christians don’t want to hear what he really said.
It never helps matters when other Greek words are also translated as “life,” “soul,” and “mind.” In this earlier article, I discuss many other related words that are translated as "life," "soul," "mind," "heart", and "spirit." I cover these related words that are also translated as "soul" such as pneuma and "life," such as zoe. and “mind” such as dianoia.
A Fun Example
Let us look at an example where “life” is used in one verse, but “soul” is used in the following verse. Jesus hasn’t changed the topic, but the translators can’t deal in a consistent way with what he said. So the words have to change. Why is the change necessary? The reason is apparent when we look at the verses.
In the KJV, Matthew 16:25, Jesus is translated as saying:
For whoever will save his life shall lose it: and whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
In this verse, the translators translate psyche as "life."
However, then in the following verse, Matthew 16:26, Jesus is translated as saying:
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
Hre, psyche as translated as "soul.”
Is either word acceptable? What if we were to switch them? We would get:
For whoever will save his soul shall lose it: and whoever will lose his soul for my sake shall find it.
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own life? or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?
Clearly, we don't want Christians thinking that trying to save our souls causes us to lose them. Or that we should lose our souls for Jesus’s sake. People do, however, exchange their lives for things, sometimes for very noble reasons. Jesus is one example as he seems to say (but not really) in John 10:11. Asking what is worth that exchange is an interesting question, but that isn’t what Jesus is asking here.
Matthew 10:28, a verse that is part of the same conversation, raises more theological problems when Jesus says:
And do not fear those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Fear yourselves, however, but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Even translating psyche as “soul” has problems here because Jesus says that the soul can be destroyed in “hell” (actually a trash dump, see this article) but modern Christianity doesn’t teach that the soul is destroyed but simply tortured for eternity. But obviously, “hell” is not where the body is destroyed because it is destroyed here.
But “soul” is chosen because the problems get worse if we try to translate psyche as “life.”
And do not fear those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the life. Fear yourselves, however, but rather fear him who is able to destroy both life and body in hell.
“You can play a little game in reading the rest of this article. When the word “life” appears, replace it with “soul.” And vice versa. It creates some very entertaining stuff.
Let us look at a few problems created by avoiding the real meaning of this word and using “life” and “soul” to get around that meaning.
For example, in Matthew 6:25, Jesus tells us:
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink;
So, this “life” of the psyche is sustained by for and drink. I have problems with the idea that we shouldn’t care about sustaining “life” with food and drink, but let’s put those aside for a moment. So people cannot kill the psyche but just the body (Matthew 10:28), but the psyche of the body that is sustained by food a drink? Does this make sense?
This brings us to Matthew 20:28:
Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
This verse doesn’t work at all as “soul.” I don’t think many Christians think that Jesus sacrifices his soul on the cross, but does it even work as “life.” Didn’t Jesus predict his resurrection as well as his death? Wasn’t he trying to prove that “life” goes on perpetually? So how did Jesus sacrifice his life?
I could go on citing almost every verse that uses the word psyche. Almost all of them have problems. Why? Because the Bible’s chosen translations for this word, either “life” or “soul” and occasionally “mind” do not make sense. There are verses that are translated with these words to make certain theological points, but we cannot look at the actual words too closely if we want those points to stand. Jesus may have died for us, but he didn’t give up his life. The whole point of his death, at least to me, was to prove that his life continued.
A Better Translation
There are some Greek words that cannot be easily translated into a single English word, but psyche isn’t one of them. The way Jesus uses psyche is the concept of "self,” in the sense of our “conscious self.” Our word “psychology” actually comes from this word. This self is the center of our experiences and the source of all our memories. This “self” is a connection point of our mind, our emotions, our body, and our spirits. This “self” is our awareness that we have a heart, mind, body, spirit, and the temporary life of the flesh. This is the self that eats and drinks and wants to. It 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 a mind and a heart. This is a personal life, the life of identity, being this specific person at this point time at this specific location. No one else knows this self except the Divine.
So where does this leave the "life" or "soul" of psyche? For me, it is this life as Gary Gagliardi, but for you, it is the life of someone different, someone unique. Our "self" is the role we play in this life. However, my soul is more than myself. I don’t know if my soul existed before myself, but I trust that it will exist after my death, but my life will be different after my death. It is more akin to my spirit, the Divine spark within me. My “self” with its place in this world will no longer exist. My soul may exist, but most of what makes this self, my body, my relationships, and who knows what else, will not be part of it.
This psyche, the “self” can be destroyed with death, but it isn't necessarily destroyed. What is the destruction of the “self?” The loss of memory. For some, this happens even before death. When people lose their memories, they lose themselves, no matter what else they retain. Perhaps our memories define all of our “selves” that can be lost in death. We can still be conscious without our memories, but not as ourselves. A failed life is one where our memory of that life is burnt away in the trash heap.
All of these verses where Jesus talked about psyche become more interesting and more informative is we translated the Greek word as “self’ instead of alternating between the words of “life” and “soul.” Neither of those words works consistently to explain what Jesus was saying, but the word “life” does.