Holistic Concepts of Soul in the Ancient Mediterranean World

Holistic Concepts of Soul in the Ancient Mediterranean World

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This paper will deliver a fresh approach to holistic concepts of the soul in the Ancient Mediterranean World, with special focuses on Ancient Egyptian, Hebrew and Greek sources. In order to gain a differentiated view a short survey of Ancient literal and iconographic material that supports non-holistic concepts will also be given as a sort of contrast folio.

“We are accustomed to speak of the human being as consisting of body and soul, that is to say, that man has a mortal, material body which is subject to growth and development, to injury and disease, to deterioration and to death. This body has weight and extension, it is located at one place at a time. In many respects it resembles the bodies of the higher animals. We also believe that man has an immortal soul which is not material, not subject to growth and development, not subject to physical injury or disease, will not deteriorate and cannot die. It has no weight or extension, is not limited by time and space in the same manner as the body, but during the lifetime of the individual on earth is intimately connected with the body. In fact, it is the soul which gives life to the body. When the soul is separated from the body, the body dies, that is, it ceases to function as it should and begins to disintegrate…

I suppose that most of us have always regarded man as consisting of body and soul, and would unhesitatingly say that this is what Scripture teaches concerning man from cover to cover. Today, however, there are those who call these self-evident facts into question. Proceeding from the standpoint of the Evolutionist who regards man as a very highly developed animal many so-called theologians today believe that religious thought too has developed from very simple beginnings to the complex religious systems we have today. They contend that in earlier ages man did not have this concept of a human soul which we today have. If that is the case, then there must be a development of this concept which can be traced in history, yes, which can be traced in Biblical literature…

The practical value of a study such as this lies in the consequences or deductions which may be drawn from these various aspects of the concept of the soul.”
(Vogel 1963, 1)

The body-soul-dualism seems to be widespread in religion and philosophy. The Gnostic Christian Valentinus (ca. 100 – ca. 160 CE) conceived the human being even as a triple entity, consisting of body (Greek: soma, hyle), soul (Greek: psyche) and spirit (Greek: pneuma). According to a series of scholars this trichotomism equates to the division they find in Paul’s Epistles (e.g. in 1 Thessalonians 5:23), and therefore also in concepts of Christian anthropology. But only a minority of theologians argue that human beings are made up of three distinct components: body/flesh, soul, and spirit. Traditional Christian anthropologies are rather concepts of a body-soul-dichotomy, distinguishing between material (body/flesh) and spiritual elements (soul/spirit). At death the soul/spirit departs from the body, being reunited with the body at the resurrection.

“Modern theologians increasingly hold to the view that the human being is an indissoluble unity. This is known as holism or monism. The body and soul are not considered separate components of a person, but rather as two facets of a united whole. It is argued that this more accurately represents Hebrew thought, whereas body-soul dualism is more characteristic of Greek philosophy and Platonic thought. Monism also appears to be more consistent with modern neuroscience, which has revealed that the so-called ‘higher functions’ of the mind are emergent from the brain, rather than being based in an immaterial soul as was previously thought” (wikipedia “Christian Anthropology”).

The Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 484 BC–ca. 425 BC) wrote that the Egyptians have been the first who stated the immortality of the human soul, and its leaving of human corpses after death. An overview over Ancient Egyptian concepts of the soul, including iconographic developments of the so called “soul bird” from early beginnings (see PowerPoint presentation in Madrid, e.g. Hinterhuber 2001, 26-27), shows the complexity of Ancient Egyptian anthropology. They distinguish different types of the soul and the body.

Assmann (2001, 156ff) tried to outline a systematic structure behind the Ancient Egyptian terms: A person lives in a bodily sphere as well as in a social sphere (in this world and also in the underworld). Each sphere is constituted by two aspects: the body and the soul. In the bodily sphere of a person we can identify the ha as the body (occasionally a plural haw, meaning approximately sum of bodily parts) and the sheut (shadow) and the ba (personality) as the soul, whereas in the social sphere sch (mummy dignity) stands for the body and ka (life force) and ren (name) for the soul.

So the Ancient Egyptian concepts seem to provide a double dualistic structure: bodily and social sphere, body and soul. It is striking that there is also a double dichotomy concerning the soul: on the one hand sheut (shadow) and ba (personality), on the other hand ka (life force) and ren (name). Ancient Egyptians probably conceived not only of a body-soul-dualism, but furthermore also of a dual soul in each of the two spheres. So they could distinguish four types of the soul at least.

In contrast to the body-soul-dualism in Ancient Egyptian thought we can find holistic (or monistic) concepts of living beings in the Hebrew Bible and in its Greek version, the Septuagint.

The most important keyword for concepts of soul in the Hebrew Bible is nephesh (mostly translated with the Greek term psyche in the Septuagint). References of nephesh in the Hebrew Bible are originally related to the concept of breath (resembling the Hebrew term ruah and similar to the Pre-Socratic use of psyche), e.g. Genesis 1:30; 2:7; Jeremiah 2:24. The literal meaning of nephesh is “throat, gorge” (e.g. Isaiah 5:14; Proverbs 10:3; 13:25) and then “breath” or “breathing being”, in some cases “appetite, hunger” (e.g. Deuteronomy 23:25; Hosea 9:4;), but also “desire”, “cupidity” or “lust” (e.g. Genesis 34:4.8). The term nephesh designates the person as a whole (e.g. Genesis 12:13; 19:19-20; 1 Kings 20:32). In some cases it means “life” or “living” as such (e.g. Proverbs 8:35-36). Occasionally nephesh is also combined with dam, the Hebrew term for “blood” (e.g. Leviticus 17:11; Deuteronomy 12:23). It is possible that nephesh serves as a personal pronoun, and it can describe the “vital self”, e.g. Psalm 103:1.2.22; 104:1.35. Nevertheless, nephesh does not denote an incorporeal part of a living being surviving death of the body.

The Hebrew Bible provides us with concepts of the soul that do not separate it from the body. In later Jewish writings, especially in the Hellenistic period after Alexander’s conquest (333/332 BC), the idea of the soul was developed further (including dualistic concepts, e.g. Sapientia Salomonis 9:15, explicitly dealt with later, see below).

In most parts of the Septuagint (LXX) we can also find holistic anthropological concepts. The semantic domain of „soul” in the Septuagint is based on the Greek psyche. In 680 of 754 possible cases it serves as the translation of Hebrew nephesh. (the other Hebrew terms are isch “human being”; chajjah “life, living being”; leb, lebab “heart” and ruach “breath, spirit”, see Lys 1966). It adopts the variety of meanings that are tied to nephesh in the Hebrew Bible (Lys 1966, 228).

This observation corresponds to concepts of soul that are proposed by Pre-Socratic philosophers and authors (e.g. Aischylos, Antiphon, Aristides, Euripides, Hesiod, Pindar, Sophokles) as well as by the post-Platonic philosopher Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), especially in his De Anima. The works of Aristotle had a great influence on the holistic concept of the soul that the Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225 –1274 CE) developed in his Summa Theologica.

In Pre-Socratic texts psyche is connoted with the following meanings:

  • breath of animals (e.g. Job 41:13 LXX) and human beings, e.g. in Euripides and Pindar (Bratsiotis 1966, 63 fn. 8 and 9),
  • base or bearer of life (e.g. Genesis 9:5; Leviticus 24:17 LXX), e.g. in Antiphon and Aristides (Bratsiotis 1966, 64 fn. 8 and 65 fn. 1),
  • also explicitly for the life of animals, e.g. inHesiod and Pindar (Bratsiotis 1966, 64 fn. 8 and 65 fn. 1),
  • base of feeling, perception, sensation (e.g. Isaiah 29:8; Psalm 105:9 LXX), e.g. inAischylos, Persai 840ff, and Sophokles, Elektra 902-903 (Bratsiotis 1966, 66 fn. 11.14 and 67 fn. 4.8).

Like Hebrew nephesh Greek psyche can be combined with the term “blood” (Greek haima), e.g. in Aristophanes and Sophokles, Elektra 784ff (Bratsiotis 1966, 68 fn. 9 and 10).


Most parts of the Septuagint provide us with concepts of the soul that do not separate it from the body, similar to concepts of Pre-Socratic authors and philosophers. Only in Jewish writings of the late Hellenistic period we find dualistic concepts. Very prominent is the concept of the soul in the apocryphal/deuterocanonical book Sapientia Salomonis (“Wisdom of Solomon”). The book is probably written in Alexandria in the 1st Century BC.

For many Biblical scholars SapSal 9:15 states clearly a body-soul-dualism: “9:14 For the reasoning of mortals is worthless, and our designs are likely to fail; 15 for a perishable body weighs down the soul and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind” (NRSV). But this dualistic concept can only be understood in the horizon of questions about God’s justice (like the parallel development of concepts of immortality and resurrection).

As SapSal 3:1-9 points it out: “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. 2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, 3 and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. 4 For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. 5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself …”

The Destiny of the Ungodly is described in SapSal 3:10-13:

“10 But the ungodly will be punished as their reasoning deserves, those who disregarded the righteous and rebelled against the Lord; 11 for those who despise wisdom and instruction are miserable. Their hope is vain, their labors are unprofitable, and their works are useless. 12 Their wives are foolish, and their children evil; 13 their offspring are accursed. For blessed is the barren woman who is undefiled, who has not entered into a sinful union; she will have fruit when God examines souls.” (RSNV)

In the scriptures of Philo of Alexandria, (20 BC – 50 CE) we can also find traces of a body-soul-dualism (see gig. 14), e.g. the doctrine of the body as the source of all evil and the concept of the soul as a divine emanation (logos), similar to Plato’s nous.

Philo used allegory in order to harmonize Greek philosophy (especially their ideas about physis “nature”) and Judaism (especially its torah, nomos “law”). He formed the term nomos physeos “natural law” (Koester 2007). Yet, his work was not widely accepted among Greeks and Jews in Antiquity. Nevertheless, some early Christian theologians, like Origen of Alexandria (185 – ca. 254 CE), picked up Philo’s ideas.

Philo’s concept of the soul was similar to that of Plato. For the Platonic school, the soul was an immaterial and incorporeal substance. Plato (see “soul”, wikipedia) considered the soul as the essence of a person. He considered this essence as an incorporeal, eternal occupant of our being. As bodies die, the soul is continually reborn in subsequent bodies. The Platonic soul comprises three parts: logos (mind, nous, or reason), thymos (emotion, or spiritedness), and eros (appetitive, or desire). Each of these has a function in a balanced and peaceful soul.

Aristotle (see “soul”, wikipedia) stated that the soul was a form inseparable from the body. He defined the soul as the core essence of a being, but argued against its having a separate existence. For instance, if a knife had a soul, the act of cutting would be that soul, because ‘cutting’ is the essence of what it is to be a knife. Unlike Plato and some religious traditions, Aristotle did not consider the soul as some kind of separate, ghostly occupant of the body (just as we cannot separate the activity of cutting from the knife). As the soul, in Aristotle’s view, is an actuality of a living body, it cannot be immortal (when a knife is destroyed, the cutting stops). More precisely, the soul is the “first actuality” of a naturally organized body. This is a state, or a potential for actual, or ‘second’, activity. “The axe has an edge for cutting” was, for Aristotle, analogous to “humans have bodies for rational activity,” and the potential for rational activity thus constituted the essence of a human soul. Aristotle used his concept of the soul in many of his works; especially in De Anima (On the Soul).

Most parts of the New Testament follow the terminology of the Septuagint, and use the word psyche with the holistic Hebrew semantic domain and not the dualistic Platonic.

Towards the end of the 2nd century CE some Christian Theologians understood psyche in more a Greek than a Hebrew way, contrasting it with the body. In the 3rd century CE, influenced by Origen of Alexandria (185 – ca. 254 CE), the doctrine of the inherent immortality of the soul and its divine nature was established.

In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas returned to Aristotle’s concept of the soul as a motivating principle of the body, independent but requiring the substance of the body to make an individual.

The central point Aquinas makes is that the individuation of a human being, say Homer, is a specific substantial form of a human being; and a substantial form of a material entity such as Homer is this specific substantial form in virtue of the fact that it configures the matter of this determinate material entity. For Aquinas the soul is, we might say, an individual “configurer of matter” which in its turn was configured by God.

The traditional talk about the soul should thus be re-interpreted in a dialogic and communicative way. In short, it is God constituting and guaranteeing our identity by entering in a process of communication with us. As true as such statements may be, we are still confronted with the question how our diachronic identity has to be conceived.

It is helpful to explore non-naturalistic concepts of the human person which are at the same time non-dualistic. The background is the Aristotelian concept of the soul. In the Aristotelian context the soul was considered to be the particular “forma substantialis” of a living organism. “Forma” refers to the nature of an individual determining its identity-, continuity-, and existence-conditions and identifying its typical powers and capacities.

In the field o (neuro-) biological descriptions there are findings which seem to fit well into a Biblical and Aristotelian framework. These findings stress the importance of the organizational and functional structure of the human organism for an adequate conception of human identity. “No component remains the same for very long, and most of the cells and tissues that constitute our bodies today are not the same we owned when we entered college. What remains the same, in good parts, is the constitution plan for our organism structure and the set points for the operation of its parts.” (Damasio 1999, 144)

Although we change permanently throughout life, the structure and functional principle of our organism remains largely unchanged. Bodily processes are grounded in a unifying principle, which persists soundly from the beginning to the end of our life (see also De Presster, Knockaert 2005). Because of these scientific data we consider the Biblical and Aristotelian concept of the soul superior to the concept of self. The notion of the soul refers to functional organisation as well as to biological and cognitive capacities of the human person and their mutual interdependence. The notion of self, instead, is traditionally bound to cognitive processes alone.

The explanatory gain of the concept of soul becomes obvious in cases of dramatic personality changes: Even if a person suffers from multiple personality disorder, it can still be claimed that this person is identical with him/herself because he/she still has the same soul. Hence, the challenge can be met that while there are situations which dissolve the conscious appraisal of one’s personal identity into a loose sequence of psychological states or even the loss of psychological activity altogether, this does not preclude us from accepting the diachronic identity of persons themselves. Taking the concept of soul as starting point of our argumentation, we do not have to claim that psychological states constitute a person and her identity. Psychological states reveal an essential characteristic of human nature under suitable circumstances.

We take the soul to be a useful concept for conceiving the human being as psycho-physical unity. There is just one subject – the animate organism – which in virtue of its nature is able to do the things a living being of this specific kind typically does (if circumstances permit).

Spelling out how such a concept of personal identity has to be thought can be undertaken only in an interdisciplinary endeavour. Natural sciences are able to tell about the physical conditions which are to be met for our identity, as the reference to Damasio’s work has shown. Natural sciences give us concepts that tie the concept of the soul to our concrete existence in the here and now. Philosophy is important because it is the discipline which analyses concepts of personal identity and the ontological commitments coming along with them. Theology and religious sciences study Biblical anthropology, God’s relation to mankind and how these creeds developed and changed over time our notions and concepts of the soul.

I appreciate the discussions with my colleagues and friends, Josef Quitterer, Georg Gasser and Mathias Stefan, Institute of Christian Philosophy, University of Innsbruck (Austria), and I am grateful for their support concerning my knowledge about Aristotle’s and Aquinas` concept of the soul and the consequences for the dialogue with natural sciences, especially neuroscience.



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