Posted by: mattcolvin | June 21, 2019

Trinity Lecture Series 2019, 1

Here are my lecture notes for the first of the two talks I delivered for Trinity REC. They are sketchy in places, and omit much ad libbing especially about Greek philosophy. They draw heavily on Jon Levenson, Alastair Roberts, and Thomas McDaniel. The audience ranged from age 8 to 80, so I tried to keep things clear and entertaining. MC

I don’t know how many times now the REC and Trinity Church have paid my airfare to fetch me home to Cincinnati from the jungles of Mindanao and the volcanoes of Java, and even such savage places as Vancouver Island, but I am deeply grateful. One of these visits was in late 2013, when I returned to be ordained a priest the same weekend that Bishop Manto was consecrated as a bishop. Watching that ceremony, there were two things that stood out for me. One was the ritual in which Bishop Peter prostrated himself completely, lying on the ground as a acted offering of his own body, inert and as it were, dead, for Jesus Christ to take him up and put him to work in the office of Bishop.

The other was the way the late Bishop Royal Grote pronounced the prayer of oblation when he was celebrating Holy Communion. He was zipping along: “beseeching thee to grant that, by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we, and all thy whole Church, may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion…” But in the next sentence, he paused very pregnantly: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, … our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.”

This struck me greatly at the time, particularly in its contrast with Greek philosophical ideas of the relation of soul and body. In this first talk, I want to draw out the contrast between the Greek idea of soul and body and the Biblical view of them. Then in the second talk, we will investigate what difference this ought to make for the way the Church does things.

We need to make a distinction here between the archaic Greek world picture and the later, classical and Hellenistic view informed by philosophy. Homer, for instance, in the opening of the Iliad, describes how the rage of Achilles “hurled down to the house of Hades so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls” – and then most English translators say something like, “but made their bodies carrion, food for the dogs and birds.” But this is not an accurate translation. Instead, the line reads “αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν…” – “made THEM carrion for the dogs.” A Homeric hero IS his body; the “burned out husks” in Hades are described as rustling like leaves; they have no strength; the shade of Achilles would rather be a slave on earth for the poorest man alive than rule over all the restless dead. Homeric heroes don’t say, “Meh, that’s just Patroclus’ body lying on the battlefield. No need to trouble ourselves about that.” No, they fight to recover his body. Damage done to Hector’s body is understood to be done to Hector himself, while the disembodied shade in Hades is not a life at all. The difference is made clearest when Odysseus visits Hades:

“And next I caught a glimpse of powerful Heracles —his ghost, I mean: the man himself delights in the grand feasts of the deathless gods on high” (Fagles)

Thus, Homer clearly thinks that the self is embodied; you are not a shade driving around in a car made of meat. This does not last, however, and the ancient Greeks later developed philosophical views to explain what the soul is and where it comes from:


• Transmigration (Pythagoras)

• Pre-existence, persists through bodily changes (Plato)

• Vapor from blood, tenor or tension like a resonant frequency (Stoics). “Souls are exhaled from moist things.” Plutarch reports that “[Chrysippus] believes that the foetus is nourished in the womb by nature just like a plant, but when it is born, its spirit, being chilled by the air and tempered, changes and becomes animal; hence ‘soul’ [ψυχη is not inappositely named from this process of cooling [ψυξις]. (Plutarch, Stoic. repugn. 1052 f)

• “Whatever this is that I am, it is flesh and a little spirit and an intelligence. Throw away your books; stop letting yourself be distracted. That is not allowed. Instead, as if you were dying right now, despise your flesh. A mess of blood, pieces of bone, a woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries. Consider what the spirit is: air, and never the same air, but vomited out and gulped in again every instant. Finally, the intelligence. Think of it this way: You are an old man. Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.2. This teaches a hierarchy of human composition: we have material bodies, vapourous souls, and reason that is part of the cosmic divine fire. And if we are Stoics, we try to be led by the divine, the Logos, and to despise and rise superior to the flesh.

Epicureans held that the soul Material network of fine atoms dispersed at death, very rarefied and swift, so as to be able to communicate to all the parts of the body and the senses.

• Relation of soul and body, nature of soul.

Stoic has come to be a byword for stern impassivity in the face of misfortune, the “stiff upper lip” of the sage, usually an old Roman patrician like Seneca or Cato, who continues to be happy even under torture, because he is so stuffed full of virtue.

• Marcus Aurelius: “Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. Then where is harm to be found? In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone—bad and good alike—is neither good nor bad. That what happens in every life—lived naturally or not—is neither natural nor unnatural.” (4.39) Or again: “Things have no hold on the soul. They have no access to it, cannot move or direct it. It is moved and directed by itself alone. It takes the things before it and interprets them as it sees fit.” (5.19). The Stoics thus advocate a sort of mind over matter discipline.

• Many of the Greek philosophical schools – the Stoics, Cynics, and Academics – held up Socrates as the best example of a man living and dying with virtue. He was looking forward to escaping from embodied existence, which he saw as a drag upon his soul, forcing it ever downward and away from truth by its nagging insistence on physical things – food, water, sleep, sex. “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; pay it, and do not forget.”

The Greek view is thus a fairly hard dualism of soul and body, with the soul being either an immortal and immaterial principle, as in Plato and Aristotle, or a material entity, as in Stoicism and Epicureanism. The human personality and consciousness is identified with the soul, and not with he body.

With this hard division, we may also ask when the soul comes to be in the human body. The Stoics actually held that this happened at the newborn baby’s first breath, and that prior to that point, the infant had only a animal or vegetable level existence. Plato, with his doctrine of pre-existence likewise had to pinpoint a moment when the soul was united to the body. Obviously, if you are your soul, and there is a point at which the soul comes to be in the body, then before that point, you aren’t human, and are fair game to be aborted or killed as an infant.

The Greek philosophical view of the soul and body is radically untrue to human nature. It is not the case that we are impervious souls that can let the things that befall our bodies wash off us like water off a duck’s back. And we look in vain for any moment that we can identify as the point of ensoulment.

The Biblical View

How is the Biblical picture of human nature different from these Greek views? We can start by clarifying the words that are used. Harvard’s Jon Levenson explains about the Hebrew word usually translated “soul”:

“What exactly is the nepheš? At the level of plain sense, the traditional translation “soul” is highly problematic, since, as usually construed, it starkly contradicts the general ancient Israelite understanding of human identity. Beginning in ancient Greece, Western philosophers and theologians have generally understood the soul to refer to an immortal component of the human self that is at odds with the perishable component that is the body. But in the Bible, nepheš “is never given the meaning of an indestructible core of being, in contra-distinction to the physical life .  . . [that is] capable of living when cut off from that life.” (Levenson, The Love of God)

Again, he emphasizes that “The biblical nepheš can die. When the non-Israelite prophet Balaam expresses his wish to “die the death of the upright, ” it is his nepheš that he hopes will share their fate (Num 23:10), and the same applies to Samson when he voices his desire to die with the Philistines whose temple he then topples upon all (Judg 16:30). Indeed, “to kill the nepheš” functions as a term for homicide in biblical Hebrew, in which context, as elsewhere, it indeed has a meaning like that of the English “person” (for example, Num 31:19; Ezek 13:19).”

We see this in the Genesis 2:7’s account of the creation of man: “the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living nephesh.”

Note, please: it does not say, what many Christians assume that it says, that God made man’s body out of the dust, and then put a living, immortal soul inside it. Rather, both the original Hebrew and the Greek of the LXX are unambiguous about translating the final words, “וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה” or εγενετο ο ανθρωπος εις ψυχην ζωσαν – the man, whom God had already formed, became a living being.

That is, man does not have have a nephesh; he is a nephesh. Countless times, the nephesh is used as a mere synonym for the person: “O keep my soul (נַ֭פְשִׁי), and deliver me: let me not be ashamed; for I put my trust in thee.” -Psalms 25:20

The NT usage of ψυχή is similar. Jesus affirms that “God can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” The rich man who builds bigger barns talks to his soul and says, “Soul, you have much foods laid up for many years,” before being called a fool and informed that “this very night your life/soul will be demanded of you.”

Matthew 10:28 is sometimes thought to teach a soul/body dualism, but it is really an echo of Jewish martyr theology:

When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned aloud and said: “It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul (psuchēn) I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him.” (2 Macc. 6:30; cf. 7:37)

Each of them and all of them together looking at one another, cheerful and undaunted, said, “Let us with all our hearts consecrate ourselves to God, who gave us our lives (psuchas), and let us use our bodies as a bulwark for the law. 14 Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us…. (4 Macc. 13:13)

The soul in these verses is not a separate and indestructible part, but is the person of the martyr considered as a living being, in light of the Jewish doctrine of resurrection. They expect to live again, not because they have immortal souls, but because God is able to make them alive again. And he will do that by raising their bodies from he dead.

The Bible’s account of the origin and development of individual human beings is also in contrast to the Greek philosophers. The philosophers make the soul a constituent of the person, giving rise ultimately to Plato’s charioteer metaphor, and thence to Cartesian mind-body dualism. This raises the question of ensoulment: when does a developing human get a soul? Thomas Aquinas, for instance, used quite a large dollop of Greek philosophy in his answer to that question:

Thomas Aquinas (Contra Gentiles): “This is why in the generation of an animal – or a man, in which the form [=soul] is most perfect – there are multiple intermediate forms and generations, and consequently corruptions, since the generation of one is the corruption of another. Therefore, the vegetative soul, which comes first, when the embryo lives the life of a plant, is corrupted and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, which is both nutritive and sensitive; and, then, the embryo lives an animal life; and when this is corrupted, it is succeeded by the rational soul, introduced from without”

We see in Aquinas a developmental answer, progressing from a soul that is vegetative to one that is nutritive and sensitive, then animal, and last of all rational. St. Anselm of Canterbury (Virgin Conception and Original Sin) is similar:

“…no human intellect accepts the view that an infant has a rational soul from the moment of his conception.”

Other instances could be multiplied. One of the things this meant was that medieval canon law did not regard abortion as murder until after quickening, usually around 16 weeks gestation, which was when “ensoulment” was thought to happen. The result was that the English Common Law punished abortion as murder after quickening and only as a lesser misdemeanour if it was committed before quickening. Thus William Blackstone comments:

Life… begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb. For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion, or otherwise, killeth it in her womb; or if any one beat her, whereby the child dieth in her body, and she is delivered of a dead child; this, though not murder, was by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter. But at present it is not looked upon in quite so atrocious a light, though it remains a very heinous misdemeanor.

Quickening is merely the first perception of fetal movement by the mother; it does not mean that the unborn child is not yet alive before that point; from a scientific standpoint, quickening is just as arbitrary a cutoff for human rights as birth is.

All this goes back to a misunderstanding of Old Testament Law, specifically of Exodus 21:22-24, which punished accidental infliction of miscarriage or accidental abortion:

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, -Exodus 21:22-24

There has been much strife over how to understand this law. Pro-lifers have preferred to understand the first half, verse 22, as describing a safe but premature delivery of a healthy baby, so that the clause “yet no mischief follow” rules out harm to the child. Pro-abortion interpreters have insisted that the word “mischief” denotes only harm to the mother, not the child, as though losing a baby were no serious harm so long as the mother were healthy afterwards; they then take verses 23-24 as specifying lex talionis punishment for harm to the mother.

Who is right? They’re both wrong. The pro-abortion side is utterly mistaken, in that the law does not say anything about the mother’s health: it is only talking about the unborn child, and says nothing about harm to the mother at all. But the pro-life side is mistaken too, since the law also is not talking about a healthy but premature delivery.

As Thomas McDaniel has shown, the phrase “and yet no mischief follow” is a mistranslation, a confusion of two Hebrew homophones, both spelled אָסֹ֑ון, but one pronounced asown and the other eswon. The correct translation is preserved in the Septuagint and in Philo of Alexandria, who writes:

… the following law has been enacted with great beauty and propriety: “If while two men are fighting one should strike a woman who is great with child, and her child should come from her before it is formed, he shall be mulcted in a fine, according to what the husband of the woman shall impose on him, and he shall pay the fine deservedly. But if the child be formed, he shall pay life for life.”.” (Congressu Quaerendae Eruditionis Gratia, xxiv 137, 23)

The LXX and Philo render the word אָסֹ֑ון with ἐξεικονίσμενον, in which you can hear the root eikon, meaning image or shape. Just like contemporary Hittite laws, this passage of Exodus is distinguishing between more and less severe offences: on the one hand causing death of an as yet unformed embryo, which is a tort and punishable by a fine or indemnity; on the other hand, causing the death of a recognizably human fetus, which is treated as a full person, with the right to be avenged by lex talionis punishment.

The distinction between human personhood and not-yet personhood is, in the Bible, not a moment of “ensoulment” but the formation of the human body. You are your body. The embryo has all its fingers by 10 weeks, and all its fingernails by 12 weeks.

What sort of miscarried baby would not qualify for lex talionis retribution under Exodus 21:22-24? I can imagine two cases that would fall under verse 22: an embryo not yet distinguishable from the other material of the miscarriage, and an embryo or fetus that has evidently died for other reasons. For instance, when Aaron and Miriam rebel against Moses, God strikes Miriam with leprosy, and Aaron intercedes for her:

“Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother’s womb.” (Num 12:12)

If two men had fought and accidentally injured a pregnant woman, and she gave birth to a dead fetus matching the description applied to the leprous Miriam by Aaron, such a miscarriage would be recognized as “not eswon”; there would be an indemnity, but no lex talionis.

I expect there will be questions about this law, so I will hope to field those later. For right now, note that all this is about accidentally causing an abortion, not deliberately. If accidental manslaughter of an unborn baby is a capital offence, how much more when done with malice aforethought.

Do any other passages of the Bible describe human embryonic and fetal development? When we look at the Hebrew Bible’s descriptions of human development in the womb, two passages stand out: Job 10:10 and Psalm 139.

In Job 10:9-12, we have a description of God’s activity in making a human being:

“Your hands fashioned me and made me,

  and then You turn round and destroy me!

9 Recall, pray, that   like clay You worked me,

  and to the dust You will make me return.

10 Why, You   poured me out like milk

and like cheese You curdled me.

11 With skin and flesh You clothed me,

with bones and sinews entwined me.

12 Life and kindness you gave me,

  and Your precept my spirit kept.”

Significantly missing is any moment of imparting a soul. Instead, all God’s craftsmanlike activity is bent upon making Job’s body. God knits, God “entwines”, God moulds and works like a potter. The cheese curdling analogy is quite striking: from soupy, liquid there apparently develops a solid form, bones and muscles and limbs and fingernails.

Psalm 139 is similar:

“You created my innermost parts,

wove me in my mother’s womb.

14 I acclaim You, for fearsomely I am set apart,

wondrous are Your acts,

and my nephesh deeply knows it.

15 My frame was not hidden from You,

when I was made in a secret place,

knitted in the utmost depths.

16 My unformed shape Your eyes did see,

and in Your book all was written down.”

In verse 14, most of you are familiar with the translation “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”; these versions assume that the Hebrew verb “nifleiyti is a variant spelling of nifleiyta, a verb whose root means “wonder.” But it does not mean “wonderfully made”, and at any rate, it is not from that verb. Spelled with a heh and not an aleph, it has to be from a different verb means “to be set apart” or “to be distinct.” The psalmist is saying that he developed in the womb from an unformed embryo to a particular human being with discrete body parts. God’s craftsmanlike action was to form the body. That is how He makes a person. The result, in verse 14, is that the Psalmist is a nephesh, and knows the wondrous work of God.

Let’s draw some conclusions: first, the Hebrew Bible does not say that man has a nephesh, but that he is a nephesh. When it speaks of man’s creation, it does not say that God puts a soul into the body, as though it were a separate part or ingredient, but that He makes a living being a nephesh by making a body, shaping all its parts, and forming it. We have seen that the forming of a body is the distinguishing feature of personhood, so that if a body has been formed in a mother’s womb, it counts as a person and is entitled to the protection of the lex talionis. In other words, abortion is murder, not after some arbitrary moment of “ensoulment”, but from the time there is a body to abort.

It should be no surprise, then, to find that Israel alone in the ancient world believed in a a doctrine of resurrection. Not reincarnation, not a disembodied “life after death,” not the immortality of the soul – none of these Greek doctrines – but the power of Israel’s God who created the body to make it anew.

Thus, Job’s professed hope, in the verse that I have taken as the title of this series, in Job 19:26, is that “though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God, Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.” Both Rabbinic Judaism and Christians have taken this verse as an expression of hope in bodily resurrection. That can be debated, but I want to get something else out of it. Note how Job argues from the body to the personal identity: because he will see God in his flesh, therefore it will be Job himself who sees Him, “mine eyes shall behold, I and not another.”

You are your body. That is why the Biblical faith teaches that God will raise your body from the dead. In the second lecture, we will consider what this means for the sacraments and for Christian ethics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s