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Body and Soul: Comparative Studies in Biblical Judaism, Greek Philosophy and Medieval Christianity

Fu Youde

Abstract: One of the crucial religious and philosophical problems is how to deal with the relation between human body and soul. Although many philosophers and theologians share the same proposition –“man is a union of body and soul”, they in effect understand it quite differently. What is human soul in essence? In what way are human soul and body united? The different answers to these two questions constituted monism and dualism of man in the histories of philosophy and religion. Roughly speaking, Judaism upholds monism and Greek philosophy and Christianity adopt dualism. The monistic answer in Biblical Judaism and its theoretic roots will be scrutinized more carefully and expounded in more detail than the dualistic answers in Greek philosophy and Christianity, which will be added and mainly regarded as a contrast of the former.

The Monism in Judaism


Concerning the origin of man, the Hebrew Scripture reads: “then the Lord formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) Again, “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created;”(Psalms 104: 29-30) These descriptions, which look very simple at first glance, are actually considerably significant to our question because they reveal the basic attitude towards the origin and essence of man in the earliest monotheism in the world. We are clearly informed by these two verses of the Bible that (1) man is created by God, therefore is ultimately divine in origin; and (2) man is a mixture of body and soul (spirit), and (3) human body is made of the dust of the ground, which implies that the earth is the mother of human being, and (4) human spirit or soul from God is essential to human life without which man could not live.

Now let us discuss the human soul or spirit in more detail. In Hebrew, soul or spirit may be expressed in the following five words: ruach, nephesh, neshamah, jechidah, chayyah. According to Genesis Rabba, none of the five words means rational soul or pure mind in a philosophical sense. We are informed that “Nephesh is the blood; as it is said, ‘for the blood is the life (nephesh)’(Deut. Xii. 23). Ruach is that which ascends and descends; as it is siad, ‘who knoweth the spirit (ruach) of man whether it goes upwards?’ (Eccles. Iii. 21). Neshamah is the disposition. Chayyah is so called because all the limbs die but it survives. Jechidah, ‘the only one’, indicates that all the limbs are in pairs, while the soul alone is unique in the body’ (Gen. R. XIV. 9) Those interpretations are fundamentally in accordance with the expositions of M. Maimonides, a great Medieval Jewish thinker and interpreter of the Bible favorable to Aristotelianism. According to him, Ruach is a homonym, signifying “air”, that is, one of the four elements. It also denotes “wind”. Next it signifies “breath” as in Psalms “ A breath (ruach) that passes away, and does not come again (128: 39) and in Genesis “ wherein is the breath (ruach) of life” (7: 15). It also signifies spirit which “remains of man after his death, and is not subject to destruction.” As regards the Hebrew word nephesh, Maimonides informs us that it, as a homonymous noun, signifies “the vitality which is common to all living, sentient beings.” It also denotes “blood”, “reason” and the part of man that remains after his death (nephesh, soul). Here reason as one of the meanings of nephesh is mentioned but it is neither fundamental nor emphasized in the context. Indeed, in ancient times Israel did not have the dichotomy of mind and body and therefore spirit in the Hebrew Scripture has no clear meaning of mind or reason which is in opposition to body. If we have to reduce the Hebrew spirit or soul to matter or mind, I would rather think that it belongs in the category of matter. Of course, it is not matter in a common sense. It is a sort of minute and refined matter with vitality. Maybe we can find an accurate interpretation from the Chinese tradition. Wang Chong in the East Han Dynasty says, “ man could not live but for refined air.” Dai Zhen in the Qing Dynasty says something similar: “ Man has sensation through action of the best of refined air.” In Chinese tradition, something that determines the existence of a living being is called “root of life”. Thus the refined air in the two Chinese philosophers was regarded as the root of human life. I think that in the Hebrew Bible, the human spirit or soul means nothing but refined air given by God by which man actualizes his life. The verses of the Psalms “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created”( Psalms 104: 29-30) explicitly shows this point.

Human spirit or soul is not an independent substance separable from body. The spirit is not, as a part of the whole, put together with the body; nor is it added to body externally and accidentally. Rather it enters body as living element. Therefore the combination of body and soul is a perfect internal union. In it soul cannot exist without body and in reverse, body cannot be body without its soul. In the Scriptural verse that “God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” ( Genesis 2: 7), nephesh is used to stand for “a living being”. It stresses the wholeness of human body and soul: the living being is a body with spirit or a soul with body. When interpreting Genesis 2: 7, Walter Brueggemann, an eminent scholar of the Old Testament, asserts that “ The articulation of ‘breathed on dust’ in order to become a ‘living being’ precludes any dualism. It is unfortunate that ‘living being’ (nephesh) is commonly rendered ‘soul’, which in classical thought has made a contrast to the ‘body’, a distinction precluded in Israel’s way of speaking. Thus the human person is a dependent, vitality-given unity, for which the term psychosomatic entity might be appropriate, if that phrasing did not itself reflect a legacy of dualism.” It might be controversial whether nephesh should be translated as “soul” and whether the term “psychosomatic entity” is appropriate. However, I agree to Brueggemann’s opinion that the Hebrew Genesis precludes dualism of man.

The wholeness and monism of man in ancient Israel can also be justified by the concept of leb in the Hebrew Bible. Leb is a Hebrew word for heart, which is rather different from nous or mind in Greek philosophy. Leb in Hebrew means a heart with blood and flesh, similar in meaning to the words ruach and nephesh mentioned above.  Heart in the Hebrew Scripture is basically not like mind or soul of reason, a knowing subject as meant in Greek philosophy. It mainly denotes the capability to produce human feelings such as fear, love, humility, piety, etc. which may lead to religious faith. As a result, Israel created monotheistic religion and morality. In Deuteronomy we find the following verse, “Hear. O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (6: 4-6) This quotation is the famous “shama” of Judaism, which is required to be recited every day by every Jew. In these verses leb is used for “heart”, meaning to love God with deep feeling and piety. Indeed, leb also means thinking, as Maimonides points out in his Guide for the Perplexed. However, it is not the basic but a derivative meaning. The word corresponding to the Hebrew leb is nous (mind) in Greek. It is a noun derived from verb noein (to think). Thus nous means the function of thinking. Since Anaxagoras raised it as a philosophical term, it has always signified mind, intellect or reason, against matter or body, in Western philosophy. Modern Italian Jewish thinker Luzzatto discovered the distinction between heart and mind and gave an interesting analysis. Judaism is a religion of heart rather than a religion of mind. All of the precepts and moral principles in Judaism are products of feelings that guide man to the good, justice and God. He declares, Western civilization is composed of two antithetical forces; Atticism, the culture of ancient Greece or Athens, and Abrahamism, the religious thought of the Jews. Mankind is indebted to Israel for morality and the love of the good. Such notions as justice, equity, and kindness were received as divine gifts from Sinai. On the other hand, Greece gave to the world philosophy, science, and art, a love of harmony and splendor. He criticizes the Greek elements in our civilization for having produced meaningless intellectuality which is suitable for philosophers, but not for the masses who require the vitamins of morality. Luzzatto’s remarks here are significant because he shows not only the difference of the Hebrew heart from the Greek mind, but also the role they played, their advantages and the disadvantages in Western civilization.

The Dualism in Greek Philosophy and Christianity
In contrast with the monism of man in Judaism is the dualism in some Greek philosophers. One of the characteristics of the dualism of man is to consider human soul is in essence different from body, the former is entirely spiritual or intellectual substance and the latter is the temporary house or grave. As found in Plato, the human soul is from the world of Ideas. Before it entered human body, the soul lived in the world of Ideas, an absolute spiritual world. On entering human body, the soul became the master of the man, as a steersman the master of a ship. As a well-known Platonic remark goes, "man is the soul which utilizes the body." This remark indicates the substantiality of soul and the insubstantiality of body. Human soul is divided into three parts, that is, reason, passion and desire, among which reason is the most important and essential part of the soul. It is in a position to control and guide passion or desire. Once a man dies his soul escapes from the body-grave and returns to the world of Ideas, waiting for another chance to reincarnate there. In Plato, human body may be ruined whereas the soul is immortal. Moreover the reincarnation of soul can repeat itself in endless cycles. Obviously Plato's doctrine of soul and body is dualistic.

Following Plato, Aristotle also divided soul into three parts, i.e. the soul of plant, the soul of animal and the soul of reason. He believed that although all of the three parts could be found in human soul, the essence of man is his rational soul. In this sense, "man is a rational animal." He also interpreted human soul with his concepts of matter and form, maintaining that an individual is a union of a body and a soul. However, even here he could not eliminate the dualistic elements because the soul inheres in the union as an aspect conflicting with body. Therefore, the so-called union of body and soul is not an internal combination, nor a harmonious unity. Modern German theologian Rudolf Karisch sum up the dualistic tradition originated from Plato as follows: In Plato and Descartes, man is divided into body and soul. The soul lives in the body as if it were in a house or a prison. "Homo est anima utens corpore." ( man is the soul using body). The two parts are mixed externally. In all aspects they, from the dualistic viewpoint, think of man as a dual being.

It is interesting to contrast the Jewish monism of man with the major Christian thought of man. As a daughter religion of Judaism, Christianity inherited the Jewish monotheism. However, regarding the relation between body and soul, it mainly accepted the dualistic outlook from Plato and Aristotle. As we all know, Christianity originated at the end of Biblical Judaism. As a great contributor to the formation and development of Christianity, the Apostle Paul based his doctrine of salvation on the dualism of human body and soul. For him, human body is sinful. But the soul is holy. The salvation of man is to free himself from the sinful body through refining his soul with the help of the Holy Spirit. During the formative period of Christian theology, some church fathers opposed the Platonic dualism of man. For instance, Tertullian (145-220 C.E) upheld the materiality of human soul, its co-existence and growth together with the body. But in the greatest theologians like Aurelius Augustine and Thomas Aquinas the dualism of body and soul won the advantage. In Augustine, man in essence is thought of as the rational soul that takes advantage of a destructible and worldly body, which is obviously from Plato. Unlike Plato, however, Augustine did not deny the human body as a substantial entity. On the contrary, he held that man is a union of both substantial entities--the body and the soul. But for him, different from the active and determining rational soul, human body is entirely passive and determined. Thus the union of body and soul is in reality an "unmixed combination". Therefore it is still dualistic. Thomas Aquinas is more Aristotelian in his theory of man. He declared that man is a being composed of body and soul. The human soul consists of the soul of reason, of animal, of plant and of things lower. The soul is filled in the whole body and functions in it. The soul may produce outer sense and inner sense by cooperation with the body. However, human soul is basically independent. The rational soul of man, as a "substantial form", is by nature independent of the body and take action of intellect, reason and will without body." Now we can see that like Aristotle, Aquinas lay stress on the soul of reason and its rational action and actually acknowledged dualism of body and soul. The dualistic theories of man in Augustine and Aquinas exerted great influence upon the Medieval Christianity and scholasticism and are still very influential in Christian theology today.

Analysis of Jewish Monism and Greek-Christian dualism


The monism of man in Judaism rooted in Israel's monotheist religion. As we all know, the ancient civilization of Israel is a fruit of natural development of the earlier Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations. According to a piece of Midrash, polytheistic cult prevailed in ancient Babylon, the sun, moon, stars being worshiped as gods among which the sun was regarded as the greatest. Abraham distinguished himself from the mass by declaring that there must be a deity who is greater than the sun. His viewpoint was despised as a heresy. Then he was firstly put into prison and finally exiled to Canaan, Palestine now. In Canaan Abraham destroyed idols of the local cult and worshiped the only God and therefore raised the first banner of monotheism in the history of mankind. Abraham and his wife Sarah stayed some time in Egypt in order to avoid famines, as recorded in the Bible. However, he did not accept the polytheism there and persisted in his monotheism. In Judaism God is the only deity and any other god was forbidden. As the first commandment of the Decalogue demands: "I am the Lord your God... you shall have no other gods before you." (Exod. 20; 2-3). Though we can find many names of God in the Hebrew Bible, such as Elohim, YHWH, El Shadai, all of the names denote the same one God, not many gods. In short, Judaism is a typical monotheist religion.

Generally speaking, a thorough monotheism is apt to result in a monistic world outlook in philosophy. In other words, the monotheism not only declares God as the only creator of the universe, but also tends to observe man, the history of mankind and the world from a perspective of wholeness and monism. As to the universe, it is a world full of variety of things such as living creatures and the lifeless. Each of the things, however, is from its own kind, not derived from the two great categories of mind or matter. The life and the lifeless, soul (mind) and physical entities are not treated as conflicting with each other. To sum up, In the Hebrew Scripture, the world is described as a whole, too. To divide spirit and matter or mind and body and to explore the first principle in the light of the division is the patent of the ancient Greeks.

The Jewish monism of man is also closely linked with the nature and goal of Judaism. Judaism is more a way of life than a system of faith. It demands the Jews to practice the religious precepts with heart and soul. The aim of Judaism is to teach the Jews "how to be human", that is, "how to act" in daily life. Two things are important in Judaism: first, to believe in God and the divine Torah; second, to practice the Torah. For the Orthodox Jews the beliefs in God and his revelation of Torah is inherited from his ancestors and their authenticity is beyond doubt. Now what is left is to practice Torah. In short, the gravity of Judaism is "action". Action is to follow the law in life and to follow the law is to emulate God. God is holy and just. Therefore, to act on the Torah is to emulate God, to be a holy and just man, i.e. a righteous man. To act on the Torah is a process of action to link with body and soul rather than mere thinking in the mind. What I am trying to make clear here is that, since the end of Judaism is to teach how to act, not how to obtain knowledge, the soul does not have to be a rational soul, the heart does not have to be a mind, the relation between soul and body should not be a separable or unmixed union. On the contrary, it should be a full union, an internal and harmonious unity, “a living man.”

The dualism of man in Plato and Aristotle is determined by the essence and goal of their philosophies. In ancient Greece, philosophy was defined as "the love of wisdom". Thai is to say, philosophy is an epistemological action, the purpose of which is to obtain the knowledge of the world. One of the early Greek philosophers Herakleitos once said that to find an interpretation of a cause of a thing was better than to be the king of Persia. It adequately manifests the extremely important position of seeking knowledge in the Greek minds. It reminds me of the disputations of action and knowledge in the history of Chinese philosophy. Then conflicting opinions like "action is precedent to knowledge" or " knowledge is precedent to action"; " knowledge is easier than action" or "action is easier than knowledge". For historical reason, no disputations occurred between the ancient Israel and Greeks. However, it is a fact that the gravity of Israel is action whereas the Greeks prefer knowledge. The difference between them is clear. For the Greeks of antiquity, even "knowledge is virtue" (Socrates), which means that a wise man is also a good man. Thus the goal of Greek philosophy is to teach how to be a wise man. It is the word "knowledge" that determined the orientation of Greek philosophy and its later development and finally produced a unique type of philosophy and sciences in the West which have considerably changed the world. Because of the knowledge-oriented philosophy prevailed in ancient Greece, the philosophers like Plato and Aristotle defined man as a rational animal and the rational soul as substantial entity was essential and dominant in its union with body, which leads to dualism. Of course, the dualism in Greek philosophy is also connected with the Oriental mystic religion Orphism that advocates a substantial soul and its immortality. Its influence can be found in Pythagoras, Plato and others. However, this religious aspect is not prominent in Greek Philosophy. Therefore, the dualism is in the main a result of its intellectualism.

The idea of the substantial and immortal soul in Greek philosophy was inherited by the Church fathers and gradually became indispensable in Christianity. It is a religion of eschatology that is one of the major differences from the Biblical Judaism. Since the goal of the Biblical Judaism is to train the righteous man in this world by practicing religious precepts, not to ascend to the Heavens, there are no manifest doctrines such as eschatology, last judgment, afterlife, eternal life, paradise, etc. Therefore the immortal soul, which is useful only to afterlife, is needless in Biblical Judaism. Unlike it, Christianity is, from the beginning, a religion of eschatology with an aim to regenerate, so a man can live an eternal life in the Heavens with God after he dies. Generally speaking, the Jews emphasize the importance of life in this world, while Christians lay stress on afterlife. For them the life in this world is nothing but a corridor leading to the bliss of afterlife. Thus how to attain the eternal life and bliss in paradise? Now an immortal soul is definitely needed. It is the immortal soul that is supposed to guarantee the continuance of human life after the death of the body and actualizes the eternal bliss in the other world. For that reason, the church fathers and theologians like Augustine and Aquinas succeeded the idea of Immortality of the soul mainly from the ancient Greek philosophers. On the basis of the Immortality, they developed the theology of soul and body with a clear dualistic characteristic. Theoretically this is why Christianity advocates dualism of man and its inner logic of development.


Quoted from Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud: the Major Teachings of the Rabbinic Sages, Schocken Books, New York, 1995, p.77

Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 40 and 41, Translated by M. Friedlander in 1904, Dover Publications, Inc. New York 1956

Wang Chong, Lun Heng: On Death. The translation is by the author of this article. Here “Refine air” can also be translated into energy.

Dai Zhen, Introduction (second part) to Yuan Shan. The translation is by the author of this article.

Walter brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1997, p.453

Cf. M. Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, chapter 39.

Cf. David Rudavsky, Modern Jewish Religious Movements: A History of Emancipation and Adjustment, Behrman House, Inc. New York, 1967, p.253, 258-259

Cf. Liu Xiaofeng ed. Collection of Western Religious Philosophy in 20'11 Century, Vol. I.Shanghai, 1991, p.174

Cf. Zhao Dunhua, Christian Philosophy in 1500 Years. Beijing, 1994, p.108-109


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Courtesy of: Dan (Thanks to my mother, Laura Kipnis, Ambrose Bierce and God Defined for inspiration.)
& Kevin (Special thanks to JP, and anyone else who has helped me think outside the box)