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?

  • I would be interested to see how what each words translates in the Septuagint and if that shows a helpful pattern.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 20:56
  • Soldamal - (A.) Could you clarify if you are asking "philosophically, and in general", or specifically how THIS writer, JOHN, uses these terms? It is very dependent dependent on the author. (B.) For example, "life / ζωὴ" is an attribute/quality that a Soul may possess: Rev. 16:3 - καὶ πᾶσα ψυχὴ ζωῆς, [living soul] ἀπέθανεν; (C.) Heb. 4:12 presupposes there is a very fine line between "soul and spirit"; In other places, Spirit precedes Life, which a soul can have; (D.) Aristotle and others go to great lengths to make distinctions -- none of which are consistent; Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 0:22

4 Answers 4


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.


Question Restatement

What distinctions does "John", (and other New Testament writers), make between the terms, "ζωὴ, (Life)" and "ψυχὴ, (Soul)"?


There are a /lot/ of texts regarding these philosophical concepts. Aristotle, Plato, the Hebrew Scriptures, different authors in the New Testament, etc.

So, this is just about "John" and "other New Testament writers" -- a "Common Denominator", and evidently consistent ...


The Verse in Question, (John 12:25), is presented last, and actually the conclusion ...

This answer avoids the "contested" properties in order to highlight the "concrete" qualities, affirmed in different contexts.

Life, (ζωὴ) - is a "Property", an Attribute of "Soul":

Rev. 16:3, NASB -

The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood like that of a dead man; and every living thing,[lit. Living Soul, from: ψυχὴ ζωῆς] in the sea died.

Life, (ζωὴ) - is Quantifiable, Can be Increased, Diminished, and Measured:

John 10:10, NASB -

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Just because a "Human Soul" ceases to live / ζωὴ -- they do not become any "less human".

Life, (ζωὴ) - is Subject to the Natural; the Soul is Subject to the Transcendent:

Matt. 10:28, NASB -

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

The Soul, (ψυχὴ) - is the Seat of Human Will:

Surrendering the Soul, is the ultimate expression of surrender, not simply dying.

John 12:27 - NASB-

Now My soul, [ψυχή] has become troubled;

Rev. 12:11, NASB -

"And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their *[life, ψυχὴν -- actually Soul] even when faced with death.

The Soul, (ψυχὴν) - is to be the Focus, and Safeguarded -- "Life" follows Consequently:

John 12:25, NASB -

He who loves his life, [lit. Soul, from ψυχὴν] loses it, and he who hates his life, [lit. Soul, from ψυχὴν] in this world will KEEP, [lit. Guard / Protect, from: φυλάξει] - it, [the Soul] - to life, [from ζωὴν] eternal.

The word "Keep / φυλάξει" - is certainly an ambiguous translation -- but literally denotes "to protect and safeguard" -- not to "keep or retain".

This is not about "staying alive" -- by avoiding death.

This is about safeguarding the Soul.

According to the texts, by submitting "the Will", (even hating the inclinations of the Soul) -- the Soul can be safeguarded, and thereby enter into eternal life.


What is difficult with the word ψυχή is soul has developed a much different meaning than what it meant to the first century Jew. Look at how we use the word psyche, which is a transliteration of ψυχή and the word psychology. It can be rather shocking to a Greek student reading the John 15:13.

μείζονα ταύτης ἀγάπην οὐδεὶς ἔχει, ἵνα °τις τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ θῇ ὑπὲρ τῶν φίλων αὐτοῦ. (NA28)

Dying is equated with laying down one’s ψυχή. Part of the conflict in meaning is with Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy viewed life after death as the separation of the ψυχή from the body. A bodily resurrection was absurd to them (Acts 17:32, 1 Cor. 15). Thus, we cannot depend of the Greek usage of ψυχή to determine its usage in the New Testament.

In Luke 12:19 the translation of ψυχή that makes the most sense is self.

καὶ ἐρῶ τῇ ψυχῇ μου·* ψυχή, ἔχεις πολλὰ ἀγαθὰ κείμενα εἰς ἔτη πολλά· ἀναπαύου, φάγε, πίε, εὐφραίνου. (NA28)

A translation of ψυχή as self isn’t smooth English in John 12:25. However, look at Matt. 10:39.

ὁ εὑρὼν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἀπολέσει αὐτήν, καὶ ὁ ἀπολέσας τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ εὑρήσει αὐτήν. (NA28)

Whoever finds himself will lose it, but whoever loses himself for my sake will find himself.

For most listeners the meaning life would make more sense in Matt. 16;26.

τί γὰρ ⸀ὠφεληθήσεται ἄνθρωπος ἐὰν τὸν κόσμον ὅλον κερδήσῃ τὴν δὲ ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ζημιωθῇ;* ἢ τί δώσει ἄνθρωπος ἀντάλλαγμα τῆς ψυχῆς αὐτοῦ; (NA28)

A translation of life is also more consistent with Luke 12:20, referring to the person dying:

εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ θεός· ἄφρων, ταύτῃ τῇ νυκτὶ τὴν ψυχήν σου ἀπαιτοῦσιν ἀπὸ σοῦ· ἃ δὲ ἡτοίμασας, τίνι ἔσται; (NA28)

Note that ψυχή is only used for life in the sense of a living being. Thus, self sometimes is a smoother translation. The other way we use the English term life is the meaning of ζωή, e.g. eternal life.

Note Jesus’ use of the term. “Has eternal life” is present tense now, and “passed from death to life” is perfect tense (continuing results of a past action).

ὁ πιστεύων εἰς τὸν υἱὸν ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον· ὁ °δὲ ἀπειθῶν τῷ υἱῷ οὐκ ὄψεται ζωήν, ἀλλʼ ἡ ὀργὴ τοῦ θεοῦ μένει ἐπʼ αὐτόν. (John 3:36, NA28)

Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ὁ τὸν λόγον μου ἀκούων καὶ πιστεύων τῷ πέμψαντί με ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον καὶ εἰς κρίσιν οὐκ ἔρχεται, ἀλλὰ μεταβέβηκεν ἐκ τοῦ θανάτου εἰς τὴν ζωήν. (John 5:24, NA28).

Thus, separating soul from life as if the status of ψυχή is something in the future doesn’t fit. Thus, life is a good translation of ψυχή in John 12:25. However, the life not lost but kept in John 12:25 is eternal; thus continues after death.

But, also note Jesus’ statement:

Διὰ τοῦτό με ὁ πατὴρ ἀγαπᾷ ὅτι ἐγὼ τίθημι τὴν ψυχήν μου, ἵνα πάλιν λάβω αὐτήν. οὐδεὶς αἴρει αὐτὴν ἀπʼ ἐμοῦ, ἀλλʼ ἐγὼ τίθημι αὐτὴν ἀπʼ ἐμαυτοῦ. ἐξουσίαν ἔχω θεῖναι αὐτήν, καὶ ἐξουσίαν ἔχω πάλιν λαβεῖν αὐτήν· ταύτην τὴν ἐντολὴν ἔλαβον παρὰ τοῦ πατρός μου. (John 10:17–18, NA28)


Please identify any glaring errors in an edifying manner.

John 12:25

ο | φιλων | την | ψυχην | αυτου | απολεσει | αυτην
he | befriending | the | soul | of his | will lose | it
και | ο | μισων | την | ψυχην | αυτου | εν | τω
and | he | destesting | the | soul | of his | in | the
κοσμω | τουτω | εις | ζωην | αιωνιον | φυλαξει | αυτην
world | this (one) | into | life | eternal | will keep | it


He who loves his soul, will lose it, and he who hates his soul in this world, into eternal life, will keep it.

The use of soul (ψυχὴν) and life (ζωην) comes from Genesis 2:7, where we are told:

και | εγενετο | ο | ανθρωπος | εις | ψυχην | ζωσαν
and | became | the | man | into | soul | living

and the man became a living soul

The usage of ψυχην in Genesis 2:7, unambiguously informs us that a soul is what the man (Adam) IS, not what he HAS. A "soul" is collection of atoms, the fundamental elements of the ground, which God fashioned and gave form (shape) - a body, that which Jesus refers to as flesh (see below).

The usage of ζωσαν in Genesis 2:7, unambiguously informs us that, prior to God breathing into his nostrils, Adam was a lifeless body, but afterwards, he "became into", was transformed into, a living soul - a human being/a person.

Jesus says:

John 6:63

το | πνευμα | εστιν | το | ζωοποιουν | η | σαρξ
The | breath | it is | the | livingness | the | flesh
ουκ | ωφελει | ουδεν | τα | ρηματα | α | εγω
not | profits | nothing | the | words | that | I
λελαληκα | υμιν | πνευμα | εστιν | και | ζωη | εστιν
have spoken | you(s) | breath | they are | and | life | they are

The spirit is that which brings life, the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you, they spirit and they are life.

Jesus identifies two aspects of being, here: ζωην (1. life), which is imparted by means of the πνευμα (breath) of God to the σαρξ (2. flesh), and the flesh is of no profit - it might as well not have been animated at all - unless his words breathe life into it anew.


ψυχὴν and ζωην are not synonymous, they are two distinct aspects of being. ψυχὴν (soul) is a collection of atoms - a body, or flesh as Jesus refers to it. ζωην (life) is imparted by means of the πνευμα (breath) of God, transforming the body into a living body - one that is self-moving. How self-movement works is a subject that requires a different question.

In English, "person" is probably the best word to use for what Genesis 2:7 refers to as "a living soul".

  • 4
    Glaringly wrong is the methodology employed here. This site is more about methods and the process of applying interpretation techniques than it is about specific conclusions. Even wrong-conclusions are sometimes up-vote worthy if they teach something useful about methodology. This is the opposite of that. Parsing an interlinear Bible is simply not the tool for this job. You really need to learn the limitations of —and appropriate applications for— the available tools so you don't end up in a broken hermeneutic circle.
    – Caleb
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 13:30
  • @Caleb I have shown what the difference is between the words ψυχὴν and ζωην, so my answer addresses the question. If you have something different to say, then answer the question yourself and let the readers decide which answer is best. Your comment is inappropriate and simply a justification for the poor form of you comrades, which makes it very poor form for you.
    – enegue
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 18:46

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