Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun ψυχη (psuche) means soul: the nature and character of a living being — all the qualities that set a living thing apart from some inanimate object of the same mass. In the flow of a translation this word may be translated with: "live-one" (Acts 2:42, 27:37), or simply "life" (Matthew 2:20, Mark 3:4, Luke 14:26) or, in the case of reasonable humans, "mind" (John 10:24, Acts 14:2, 2 Peter 2:8). But our word denotes the essential intelligence, not the active or intellectual one — that function of the human mind was known as διανοια, dianoia, or "through-knowing"; both words occur in Matthew 22:37, "...with all your heart, all your psuche and all your dianoia". Mark 12:33 juxtaposes our word with συνεσις (sunesis), to comprehend. In other words: living humans are homo sapiens, regardless of whether they ponder a lot.
Our noun derives from the verb ψυχω (psucho), which means to breathe, and a ψυχη (psuche) is simply something that breathes (a live one). In Genesis 2:7, the Lord breathed his breath into Adam and the latter became a living soul; he didn't get one.
Please see our article on our noun's parent verb for an exciting stroll through its verbal neighborhood (including its own much revealing derivations). In this article we'll continue to look at the usages of our word in the New Testament — it occurs 105 times; see full concordance.
The pagan soul
The popular idea of a personal soul that resides somewhere inside every human being, and escapes at death to go on a journey through the afterlife, is positively pagan. It is certainly not a Hebrew idea, which is why the Old Testament never speaks of "heaven and hell" (it's always "heaven and earth") or of humans living in heaven (read our article on the Hebrew word for "soul", namely the noun נפש, nepesh for a closer look).
Neither individuality nor the continuum of the biosphere is commonly very well understood, and neither are the concepts of time and eternity. But the Bible is very clear that mankind's final destiny is on earth (see Revelation 21:1 to Revelation 22:5), whether a whole new one or a renovated old one — here at Abarim Publications we surmise that the old one will be repaired, see this same principle at work in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
Perhaps all this means that our deceased ancestors indeed presently reside in a kind of intermediate holding pen, but here at Abarim Publications we guess that this idea is as lame and botched as its negative counterpart of Purgatory. Any references to this structure (such as the poor Lazarus in Abraham's bosom, but also Revelation 6:9 and 20:4) are obviously highly allegorical and play out on the stage of the audience's imagination (like preaching the gospel on the Klingon Home World).
The smart soul
The Bible obviously supports the notion of a "life after death" (Matthew 22:32, Luke 23:43), but instead of souls wandering either of two spiritual realms, the Bible strongly favors the concept of the resurrection (Mark 12:8-27, John 5:28-29, John 11:25, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, Philippians 3:10).
Resurrection is also a difficult principle, but it predominantly has to do with one's long decayed body being reassembled at some point in the future. This concept has always been as spacey and mysterious as the wandering soul idea, until people discovered that all organic bodies are based on DNA, and all you need to resurrect one's body is a modest flash drive worth of data (less than 1 Gigabyte). Every living human's mind is pervaded by the ills of our world, so it's not clear whether or how one's personal memory will be uploaded into one's resurrected body, but that idea too is probably nonsensical.
Our present ideas about individuality are probably not correct or even helpful. Instead, it may very well be that the Bible supports that whatever was worth saving of a deceased ancestor's mind, lives on as collective personality of his offspring or followers (albeit polluted by the offspring's subsequent failures). This too is scientifically defendable; since the 1990's we know, for instance, that a swarm of individual bees utilizes the same kind of decision-making principles as does the brain of a single mammal — this phenomenon was dubbed "smart swarm".
That means that we can be reasonable sure that a "swarm" of individual human brains functions like the mind of a much higher creature (hence the phenomenon of the "wisdom of crowds"). For two millennia, folks have been saying that Christ is incarnate in his people, but since the late 20th century we have the scientific theory to back this up.
The Biblical soul
In the Bible, the "soul" of a human being is equal to his/her condition of being alive, which in turn is demonstrated by this person's breathing. When one dies, one's ψυχη (psuche) departs, and that is nothing but a fancy way of saying that the person has stopped breathing. It does not suggest that the person's breathing has gone somewhere.
In the Bible our noun ψυχη (psuche) is the same as "a living, breathing and particularly mentally active being", and covers God (Matthew 12:8, also see Isaiah 42:1, Jeremiah 6:8), humans (Luke 12:20, Acts 20:10), animals (Revelation 8:9, also see Genesis 1:30). In the narrative of the Bible, our word often occurs as broad synonym for:
- The noun αγωγη (agoge), which denotes the way one leads his/her life.
- The noun βιος (bios), which denotes one's personal life in the sense of how one lives (as in the word biography: the story of one's life).
- The noun ζωη (zoe), which denotes the principle of life, as opposed to the class of existence of things like stones. Our noun ψυχη (psuche), which denotes a breathing thing, comprises a subset of ζωη (zoe), which comprises also non-breathing living things such as plants.
- The noun νους (nous), meaning mind, or rather one's intelligent and reasonable faculty. Since one needs a neocortex to have a conscious mind, and not all breathing things have either, this word covers a subset of ψυχη (psuche).
- The noun πνευμα (pneuma), which is another much overelaborated concept: the spirit, which also has nothing to do with some ethereal entity. It comes from the verb πνεω (pneo), which means to blow, and basically covers the interaction between living things, including making verbal sounds versus hearing, gesturing and sporting flashy colors versus seeing, and wafting versus detecting smells. Our noun πνευμα (pneuma) covers those things that allow breathing things to form bonds. The deceased ancestor we discussed above, who lives on in his posterity, is a spirit. And so are glittering schools of sardines and those magnificent flocks of starlings one may observe in autumn.
Imagine a light bulb. Its glass and metal components are its body. When it's turned on, its glowing is its soul. Its emission of light is its spirit.
See our article on πνευμα (pneuma) for a handy table that relates water (matter), blood (soul and body), and spirit.