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The word "life" appears in most translations of John 12:25 three times. For example, in the ESV:

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

However, the Greek (SBL) uses two different words for these three instances:

ὁ φιλῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἀπολλύει αὐτήν, καὶ ὁ μισῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ τούτῳ εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον φυλάξει αὐτήν.

Obviously ζωὴ carries a theological weight that ψυχὴ does not in John's gospel, but I'm curious how they are used outside of it. Is "life" an appropriate translation for both? Are they essentially synonymous? Are there differences in their connotation?

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I would be interested to see how what each words translates in the Septuagint and if that shows a helpful pattern. –  Frank Luke Mar 8 '13 at 20:56

1 Answer 1

A word study that organizes how many different English translations for the word, and in what frequency splices the difference up fairly reasonably:

ψυχὴ is translated in many ways. Here in descending order. In other words mostly soul, souls, or life, lives:

soul, souls, life, lives, living, person, persons, mind, minds, being, me

ζωὴ is only translated three ways:

life, living, lifetime

According to Kittel, ψυχὴ is related to "ψύχω “to blow (to cool)” and ψῦχος “cold,” is on this view the vital force which resides in the members and which comes to expression especially in the breath." When you breath your last, you lose it.

On the other hand "ζωή (ζῆν) denotes in Greek the physical vitality of organic beings, animals, men and also plants. Life is understood, not as a thing, but as vitality, as the nature or manner which characterizes all living creatures as such. Hence ζωή cannot be used in the plural."

Conclusion: ψυχὴ is more or less 'our' life. ζωὴ is life itself.

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I think some of the Greek words got mixed up... ψυχὴ (psukhe) is what is translated as "soul/person/mind/etc." and refers to our own lives. ζωὴ (zoe) is translated as "life/living" and refers to the concept of life itself. –  Noam Sienna Mar 8 '13 at 16:12
@NoamSienna - thanks I had pasted backwards. fixed. –  Mike Mar 8 '13 at 17:07

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