Body, soul and spirit - and if the human being were only one?

Could it be that a human being in his or her essence is also one and not divided into spirit, soul and body? Let us examine key concepts in both Hebrew and Greek in order to discuss in further details the anthropological view that the biblical texts present.

Part I - the Hebrew concepts

The Old Testament uses a panoply of anthropological concepts to speak about a human being. There are not only two or three words that are used so that a person can be easily split up into two or three parts. Rûaḥ (רוּחַ) is used to describe the wind, God’s Spirit, a demon or the human spirit. But what is the semantic field of the anthropological rûaḥ in the Hebrews Scriptures?

Rûaḥ can be used for the thinking, for the relationship with God, for the emotions or just for life. The word rûaḥ starts out with a physical meaning and then has the capacity to refer to what is the inner life of a person, but also the relational life.

Nepeš (נֶפֶשׁ), often translated as soul or life refers to a living being, its life as such. Nepeš can be used to count individuals. Nepeš can also be used to describe emotions or relationships.

Bāśār (בָּשָׂר) is often translated by “flesh.” It has most often a physical meaning, but sometimes can have an ethical or relational meaning. It can be used in opposition to rûaḥ as for example in Isaiah 31:3, where it is opposed to God’s Spirit.

The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh (bāśār), and not spirit (rûaḥ). When the LORD stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, and they will all perish together. (ESV)

Bāśār is nowhere in the Hebrews text opposed to rûaḥ in the anthropological sense or to nepeš, or to emotions or to thinking. Bāśār nowhere communicates the idea of being one part of a human make-up. There is nowhere an opposition between rûaḥ and nepeš in the anthropological sense.


The idea of "body" is not opposed to terms such as nepeš or rûaḥ in the Hebrew texts. Also, the idea of a composition of two or three parts can nowhere be found in the Hebrew texts.

The OT uses different anthropological terms for “body” or parts of the body.* It uses gǝwîyâ a few times referring to the body of an angel where “flesh” would be inadequate (Ezek 1:11, 23; Dan 10:6); to a slave in the sense of persons as “manpower” (Gen 47:18; Neh 9:37), and to a corpse or carcass (Judg 14:8, 9; 1 Sam 31:10, 12; Nah 3:3; Ps 110:6; also gûpâ 1 Chr 10:12).

The chart below indicates the Hebrew terms that are commonly translated by “body”, but in many other texts by other English words due to the fact that the exact meaning of a word is always determined by context.

As the semantic circle shows, the English word “body” is the translation of a panoply of Hebrew terms. Obviously, this does not refer to one of two or three parts of the human make-up in the Hebrews text, otherwise only one word or absolute synonyms would be used to come to one specific part. However, these Hebrew terms are certainly everything else than synonyms and do not refer to one specific idea. The same principle is true for nepeš.


Nepeš, from the Akkadian napištu, "life" or "throat." Nepeš refers in general to life of a human being or animal. It then refers to the individual alive or dead. Nepeš further can refer to physical functions of a person, such as breath, throat, neck but also to emotions and the will but also to relationships. Nepeš itself shows that the vision of the Hebrew texts regarding the human being is a vision of the unity and undividedness of a person.

The noun occurs 754 times in Hebrews OT. The Greek Septuagint (LXX) translates nepeš 600 times with psychē (ψυχή). In following some suggested meanings of the semantic field of nepeš:

  • Life (280 times). In parralel to psychē in the NT (Mark 8:36; Gen 9:5; Ezek 22:27, Jer 40:14). The OT nepeš is different from the notion of "soul" in classical Greek. Nepeš captures in Hebrew more the sense of "life." Soul is rarely a good translation. Nepeš is in the blood, dām (דָּם), and is thus "life" of a living being (Gen 9:4; Lev 17:11; Deut 12:23; Isa 10:18).

"But you shall not eat flesh (bāśār ) with its life (nepeš ), that is, its blood (dām ). And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man." (ESV, Gen 9:4–5)
Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its throat (nepeš ) beyond measure and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude will go down. (ESV, Isa 5:14)
Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed (nāpaḥ) into his nostrils the breath of life (nǝšāmāh), and the man became a living creature (nepeš). (Gen 2:7)
And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures (nepeš ), and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens." (ESV Gen 1:20)


Rûaḥ in the global anthropological sense is used also for physical and spiritual aspects. Breath, life, emotions, relationships with people and with God are comprised in the semantic field. Rûaḥ is thereby another proof that the Hebrew texts view the human being as one.

The anthropological semantic field of spirit, rûaḥ and pneuma (πνεῦμα), covers the following:

  • Emotions Gen 26:35; 41:8; 45:27; Ex 6:9; 1 Kings 21:5; Es 54:6; Es 66:2.

  • Thoughts Gen 41:8; Es 19:14 (thoughts directing into action; here related to demonic activity?); Es 29:10 thoughts regarding the relationship with God or rebellion against God; 29:24 thoughts leading to to emotions and behaviour in relation with God or rebellion against God; attitude. Haggai 1:14; Hosea 4:12; Zech 13:2; Es 66:2.

  • Relationship with God or resistance to God Deut 2:30; Es 57:16; Haggai 1:14;

  • The whole person/individual Es 57:16 Judgment over the people of God, restoration for the humble רוּחַ and נְשָׁמָה are used as synonyms in this Hebrews parallelism evoking the motive of creation/recreation;


Lēb (לֵב) as well covers the whole range of physical sense, emotions, will, mind, conscience, relations. It even describes God and his thinking, emotions, will, and relations. Lēb is the most frequent and most important Hebrew anthropological term showing that the human being is one.

The term lēb occurs 601 times in 557 verses in the Hebrew Bible (250 times lēbāb/לֵבָבv, 600 times lēb). The semantic field of lēb includes amongst others the following aspects: one’s inner self, inclination, disposition, determination, courage, will, intention, attention, consideration, reason, conscience, the inside, middle, strength, God’s heart, rage, inner man, mind, will, and heart.


All analysed concepts of the Hebrew text indicate that there is no intention to divide the human being into component part but that aspects of human life such as his physical existence, emotions, thoughts, intentions, will, relationship with God and people concern the individual as one complete being.

------------------------------------------- * The OT and NT of the ESV together have 291 occurences of “body” in 254 verses.

[1] + [2] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000).

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