In the New Testament the Greek term "psyche" often, if not always, gets translated as "soul." Would the original author using that term have meant "psyche" like we mean it today? Or, more precisely, what is the semantic range that "psyche" would have originally signified?

For example, when in Matthew 22:37 when Jesus references Deuteronomy 6:5:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind'

is he being redundant? If "soul" refers to "psyche" as we think of it today, then what does "mind" refer to?

Or take, as another example, Matthew 16:26:

"What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

Is this text saying implying that "gaining the whole world" can result in mental instability?

And lastly, when 1 Peter 2:11 advises the reader to

abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.

Is this text making a statement about how sinful desires affect the "psyche"?

I want to be careful not to impose a 21st century understanding onto an ancient word, yet I can't help but wonder if we don't know what we're talking about when we refer to the soul sometimes. Thoughts?

  • 2
    Hello and welcome. Here questions like this need to be focused on a specific passage. If you could edit this to give an example of a place where this is an issue, we could see about re-opening. Thanks.
    – Susan
    Jan 20, 2016 at 17:10
  • Oops! Sorry. I'd added in three specific texts to clarify the question. Let me know if I'm off the mark. Jan 20, 2016 at 20:49
  • 5
    Thank you for editing, but IMO this is now too broad. The use of psyche in the NT is quite diverse, in no small part because the semantic range of the corresponding Hebrew word impinges on the normal Greek usage to an inconsistent degree. I would think this needs to be focused on a single usage in order to be answered reasonably.
    – Susan
    Apr 22, 2016 at 8:20
  • Agreed --> too broad with all these passages. It needs to at least focus on a single author's usage of the term, but even then the context matters.
    – Dan
    Feb 21, 2018 at 5:38
  • In the Greek speaking world of the time, “psyche” had several very different meanings, some of which occur in the Bible, in various contexts. For a comprehensive outlook please consider Liddell&Scott’s Greek-English lexicon: perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/… On the left there is a column with 161 references, including OT and NT. That would perhaps fully answer your question. Feb 21, 2018 at 16:05

4 Answers 4



When reading the scriptures , the Hebrew word "ne'phesh" and the Greek word " phy'khe" meaning " Soul", we notice that it is basically used to refer to " Living Creatures","People" and "Life".

From my research into the topic, I noticed that translators are not always consistent , meaning that in many cases they use the word "life", "people" , or " creatures" for the word soul ,on many other occasions they opt to leave the word "soul". So to understand which meaning is used, we have to read the verse in context.


After being anointed with holy Spirit , Peter stood with the other eleven and spoke to the crowds , many were pierced in the heart and accepted his message. Here the word soul clearly stands for persons or people.

Acts 2:41 " Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day".(NABRE)

Acts 2:41 " Those then who had accepted his word were baptized; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls. (DARBY)

Likewise in the days of Noah eight persons,or people were saved.

1Peter 3:20 " Who sometime disbelieved, when once the long-suffering of God did wait, in days of Noah -- an ark being preparing -- in which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water." (YTL)

1 Peter 3:20 "Who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the [a]water."(NASB)

1 Peter 3:20 "To those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water."(NIV)


From the account of creation , the word "soul" is used, to refers to living creatures, birds , animals etc.

Genesis 1:20 "And God said, Let the waters swarm with swarms of living souls, and let fowl fly above the earth in the expanse of the heavens."(DARBY) Also Gen. 1:24

Genesis 1:20 "Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens".( NASB) Also Gen 1:24.

Genesis 9:10 "And with every living soul which is with you, fowl as well as cattle, and all the animals of the earth with you, of all that has gone out of the ark—every animal of the earth".(DARBY)

Genesis 9:10 "And with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth."(NASB).

Revelation 16:3 "and every living thing in the sea died".( YTL) "and every living soul died in the sea".(NET) " and every living creature that was in the sea died."


Jesus stresses the need for his followers to take up his cross and follow him, if need be to be put to shame,torture or even death for being a Christian. that is forfeit his soul/life

Mark 8:36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul."(NASB)

Mark 8:36 "For what shall it profit a man, if he may gain the whole world, and forfeit his life?(YLT)

John 10:11 “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep". (NASB)

John 10:11 Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός· ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλὸς τὴν ψυχὴν (soul) αὐτοῦ τίθησιν ὑπὲρ τῶν προβάτων·(SBLGNT)


Revelation 16:3

"And the second messenger did pour out his vial to the sea, and there came blood as of dead, and every living soul died in the sea."(YLT)

"The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood like that of a dead man; and every living thing in the sea died."(NASB)

Ezekiel 18:4 "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die".(NASB) Also Acts 3:23 .

Matthew 10:28 "And be not afraid of those killing the body, and are not able to kill the soul, but fear rather Him who is able both soul and body to destroy in gehenna".(YLT).

Exodus 21:23 "But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life." (ne,phesh for ne,phesh) (NASB)

Job 7:15 "So that my soul would choose suffocation, Death rather than my pains.(NASB)

Leviticus 7:18 "And if [any] of the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace-offering be eaten at all on the third day, it shall not be accepted, it shall not be reckoned to him that hath presented it; it shall be an unclean thing, and the soul that eateth of it shall bear his iniquity."(DARBY)

Jesus said:

"This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. " John 17:3 (NASB)
The Greek text implies a continues effort.

Paul comments:

Philipians 1:9 "And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment,"(NASB)


The common belief as stated below by the Greek philosopher Plato , IS NOT A SCRIPTURAL TEACHING. No where in the scriptures there is a mention that the soul is immortal.

Some point to the parable " Lazarus and the Rich Man" to support their belief in "Hell". A close look at it ,if taken literally , it not only contradicts the scriptures (John3:13), but also the laws of nature, the rich man was buried,whilst Lazarus was not buried, but whisked by the angels to the bosom of Abraham.How on earth could this be possible?.

Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in Greece 427-347 B.C.E., believed in the afterlife and coined the theory of the immortality of the soul.


"What did Plato believe about the human soul?

Socrates, Plato, and Augustine were all dualists who believed the soul to be immortal. Socrates believed the soul is immortal. ... He asserted that upon physical death of the body, the soul moves onto another body. Building on this belief, he called the body the prison of the soul."

  • I'm sorry you have received a downvote and no explanation. However, I don't know enough to upvote you and even it out. It is things like this which led to my inactivity on this particular SE. Unless they are rectified this site will become useless. Thank you for your work. Mar 23, 2018 at 4:13
  • Rubellite Fae, thanks for your comment, the same thought has passed my mind, basically I use the scriptures to answer the sciptures and the down vote is disheardening . Mar 23, 2018 at 19:20
  • Don’t be disheartened. A vote doesn’t prove nor validated that what you said is correct or valid and vice versa. If it’s true it would be nice to be acknowledge but truth is truth whether acknowledged or not. I’m curious if you ascribe to the soul being the housing of the will, emotions and the mind? The body thus housing the soul and the spirit. Feb 8, 2019 at 17:30
  • Autodidact: 6:3 Genesis it is "spirit" not "Spirit" The NRSV has "My spirit". which is a correct rendering. Regarding the soul ,according to bible usage shows that soul to be a person, or an animal or the life that the person or the animal enjoys.The spirit you mentioned above,is the housing of the will, that is the figurative heart that make a person say and do things in a certain way.. Feb 8, 2019 at 19:27
  • I like this answer and upvoted it. Well done.
    – Dottard
    Jan 24, 2021 at 3:23

ψυχή is used ambiguously in the New Testament, as it is sometimes in English. It can mean, as it does in English, the spiritual or immaterial part of a person1, but it can also mean a human life. This latter usage has become less common in English, but it is found, for example, it something like, "The ship went down with all souls aboard."

One discussion of the word from a Greek text on the subject2 states:

"The word 'soul' [ψυχή] is one of the most difficult words in the Bible and in Christian literature."3 'Soul' has many meanings in Holy Scripture and in patristic literature. Professor Christos Yannaras says: "The Septuagint translators of the Old Testament carried over into Greek with the word 'psyche' ('soul') the Hebrew 'nephesh', a term with many meanings. Anything which has life is called a soul, every animal, but more commonly it pertains to man. It signifies the way in which life is manifested in man. It does not refer to just one department of human existence - the spiritual in opposition to the material - but signifies the whole man, as a single living hypostatis."4

Soul is also the life which is expressed within the spiritual element in our existence.5

The Byzantine (Greek) theologian Gregory Palamas (ca 1296-1359) wrote:

Just as the soul communicates life to the animated body and we call this life 'soul', while realizing that the soul which is in us and which communicates life to the body is distinct from that life, so God, Who dwells in the God-bearing soul, communicates the light to it.6

The following summarizes different uses of the term in the New Testament, following the NIV (which seems to be the version the OP is consulting). Words which translate ψυχή are in bold.

Soul as "life"

Matthew 2:20

Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.

John 10:11

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Romans 16:4

They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.

Soul as the spiritual element of our existence

Matthew 10:28

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

This verse refers to the ability of the devil to kill man's soul by separating it from the Holy Spirit (viz. Hebrews 4:12).

Matthew 15:25

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

Most translation renders this verse as shown, but it might be more accurate to interpret it as referring to both soul as life and soul as our spiritual element. An alternative translation might be:

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever 'loses' their soul for my sake will find it.

Another example:

Revelation 6:9

I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.

1. Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th ed.)
2. Met. Nafpatkos Hierotheos, Ορθόδοξη Ψυχοθεραπεία (Orthodox Psychotherapy)
3. C. Yannaras, Elements of Faith (in Greek), p.55 4. Ibid. 5. Orthodox Psychotherapy (English translation from the Greek), pp.97-98 6. Triads, I.III.23


In Matthew 22:37, it does not seem to be the case that "heart", "soul" and "mind" here represent a redundant triplet, rather, they stand for different shades, faculties of inner, invisible part of human reality. Those invisible aspects entail desires (longing for, craving), cf. "heart"; thoughts (logical reasoning, contemplation, conscience), cf. "mind"; emotions (like, wander, fear, adoration), cf.soul; thus those words "heart", "soul" and "intellect" can stand for that entire, all-inclusive versatility of human inner, invisible self. Those faculties and features are not, I guess, here precisely defined and demarcated, like in a more scientific-philosophical jargon of Neoplatonists, where ψυχή (soul) is clearly demarcated and put lower than νοῦς (intellect), the first given an activity of discursive logical reasoning, while to the second a higher contemplative-intuitive cognition. Since this is hardly so in the given passage of Matthew, we can say that the features implied in those three terms somehow merge with each other and even they are sort of interchangeable, representing a hendiatrion (i.e. one notion expressed by three words), simply giving a richer representation of this one notion and inner reality of man, like in an expression: "we fought enemy with all power, might and fortitude", we could have said only one of the three words, but the three gave it some bigger riches and more shades to basically the same meaning.

However, in Matthew 16:26, the "soul" stands for the everlasting aspect, or rather everlasting kernel of human being, of which health depends on connectedness to God, for only this accounts for its well-being; so, paradoxically as it may sound, it is created and finite, but its health and bliss depends on its connectedness with the Infinite and Uncreated, the very Creator. Now, if this connectedness with the Infinite God is overshadowed and damaged by anything non-eternal and non-divine, then what good is for us in acquiring this non-eternal and non-divine thing? It will pass as all transient things and we shall be left disappointed and unhappy, with that in us that is created to be eternally connected to the Creator - damaged and suffering, being tormented for finding itself unfit for this connectedness, which torment is called in the Biblical language "hell" and "fire of Gehenna".

That it is better to forfeit everything transient in ourselves, if it is the only way to rescue that in ourselves, that can and must be connected in love and contemplation with the eternal God, i.e. soul, is said in Gospels by clear metaphors: "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, for it is better for you to enter Kingdom one-eyed, than to go to hell two-eyed" (Mark 9:47), or: "I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him" (Luke 12:4-5). But that, which after the murder of a body is thrown to hell and suffers cannot be body, but it can be only that invisible aspect of our selves, that is most important aspect because it, or rather he (for this aspect represents the crux of human personality and is rather 'he' than 'it'; /sorry for not using politically correct 's/he' monstrosity, matter of taste/) can and must participate in God and His eternal Kingdom, and this undying aspect in us, who survives the bodily death and by the end of history will again be united with the resurrected body, is called "soul".

Plato was 100% correct in his dialectical discovery (just try to repel his magnificent arguments!) that this aspect of our personality, called by him "soul" survives the death of body. I wrote this above as a comment to Mr. Ozzie Ozzie's exegetical post, but here will repeat it, because it is pertinent: death is caused always by a damage. That in us that does not bow to Satan but choses a physical death is not damaged, for it would be only damaged had it sinned; if not damaged, than it is impossible for it to die. Thus, when a martyr is killed for Christ, that in him that was retained undamaged (for it escaped apostasy that would have damaged it) cannot die in principle. And that can be called "soul", or "true self", or "man's inner, immaterial essence", you name it, but it is created by God as immortal, or at least potentially immortal, pending on its not being infected by sin.

Plato simply could not know about the importance of also body and that the dead body will also be resurrected and re-united with its undying soul, at the Second Coming of Christ, for this knowledge, unlike the knowledge of immortality and immateriality of soul, cannot be reached by human dialectical powers, but needs a divine grace of revelation.


Like all words, the Hebrew word נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh) and the Greek word ψυχή (psychē) are used in different ways. To imagine that words are only used to mean a single thing is to commit the Etymological Fallacy. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists eight glosses for the English noun, "soul". So in one sense, translating as "soul" does "cover all the bases" for the Hebrew and Greek, in another sense it simply invites confusion by being too vague.

On the other hand, always rendering the Hebrew and Greek words as "psyche" (which is a direct transliteration of the Greek word in question) is specific and does not cover all the biblical usages. It also has a somewhat anachronistic feel to it, to my sensibilities at least.

I've provided links to Gesenius for the Hebrew and Thayer's for the Greek above. Each provides the various usages and glosses. As is always the case, the specific meaning is entirely dependent on the context.

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