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The New Testament View of Human Nature

In our Bibles, the first page of the New Testament follows immediately the last page of the Old Testament. This may suggest to uninformed readers that there is no time gap between the two Testaments. In reality, about four centuries separate them. During this inter-testamental period, the Jewish people were exposed, both at home in Palestine and abroad in the diaspora (dispersion), to the very influential Hellenistic (Greek) culture and philosophies. The impact of Hellenism on Judaism is evident in many areas, including the adoption of Greek dualism by some Jewish literary works produced at that time.

The Jewish literature produced during the inter-testamental period is generally known as apocryphal and the pseudepigraphal.1 Most Christians do not regard these non-canonical books as divinely inspired and authoritative as the books of the Bible. This does not diminish their historical value, since they are a major source of information about historical and ideological developments of the time.

Regarding human nature and destiny, two major schools of Jewish thought developed during the inter-testamental period. The first, Palestinian Judaism, remained true to the Old Testament wholistic view of human nature and provides the major background for the understanding of the New Testament. Palestinian Judaism viewed death as an unconscious sleep of the whole person and emphasized the necessity of the final resurrection of the body. The importance of this view for the study of the New Testament may be illustrated by the apocryphal Apocalypse of Baruch (known as 2 Baruch), which was written by a Palestinian Jew in the latter half of the first century of the Christian era. The author teaches that the dead "sleep in the earth" and when Messiah returns "all who have fallen asleep in hope of Him shall rise again."2 All the righteous will be gathered in a moment and the wicked will grieve because the time of their torment has arrived.3 Such a view is strikingly similar to the New Testament teaching of the resurrection of the body which is part of the complex of ideas that was "foolishness" to the Greeks (1 Cor 1:23).

The second school of thought is Hellenistic Judaism, which was largely influenced by Greek dualism. Hellenistic Judaism flourished especially in Alexandria, the home of Philo, the well-known Jewish philosopher who attempted to work out a synthesis of Greek and Hebrew ideas. In the writings of Hellenistic Jews, we find clear references to the survival and immortality of the soul. Disembodied existence seems to be the eternal destiny of the saved. For example, the apocryphal Book of Jubilees (about 135 B. C.) teaches that "the bones" rest in the grave while the "spirits" live independently: "And their bones shall rest in the earth, and their spirits shall have much joy, and they shall know that it is the Lord who executes judgment, and shows mercy to . . . all that love Him" (23:31).4

In a similar vein The Wisdom of Solomon, written by a Hellenistic Jew between 50 and 30 B. C., says that "the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them . . . they are at peace . . . their hope is full of immortality" (3:1, 3, 4).5 The same view is found in 4 Maccabees, a philosophical treatise written by a Hellenistic Jew just before the Christian era. The righteous dead ascend immediately to eternal bliss, 6 while the wicked descend to eternal torment, varying in intensity.7

In summation, during the inter-testamental period, as aptly expressed by Wheeler Robinson: "The dualistic interpretation of the relation of body and soul (or spirit) is found in the Hellenistic line of Judaism (Wisd. 9:15); but it is alien to the Palestinian line, which directly links the thought of the Old Testament with that of much of the New."8

In approaching the study of the New Testament view of human nature, we cannot ignore the possible influence of Hellenistic Judaism on the writers of the New Testament books. After all, with the possible exception of Matthew, all the New Testament books were written in Greek and use the four great Greek anthropological words: psyche-soul, pneuma-spirit, soma-body, and sarx-flesh. These words were commonly used in New Testament times with a Greek dualistic meaning. The soul and spirit denoted the immaterial and immortal part of human nature, while the body and the flesh described the material and mortal part.

The question then is: To what extent is the dualistic meaning of these important Greek words reflected in the writings of the New Testament? Surprisingly, as we shall see in this chapter, the dualistic meaning and usage of these terms is absent in the New Testament. Even those passages which appear to be dualistic in their contrast between flesh and spirit, upon closer scrutiny reveal a wholistic understanding of human nature. Flesh and spirit do not stand for two separate and opposing parts of human nature, but rather for two different kinds of lifestyle: self-centered versus God-centered.

The reason for the absence of dualistic influence in the New Testament is that its writers used the important Greek words of human nature in accordance to their original equivalents in the Old Testament, where the ideas originated, and not according to the meanings prevailing in Hellenistic society.

We need always to bear in mind that "the link between the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament is the great Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament made at Alexandria in the third century B. C. The translation was made by Jews, who of course understood the meaning of the Hebrew words and intended the Greek they used to answer it. Thus the Septuagint follows the Hebrew and the New Testament follows the Septuagint. The Septuagint version was not inspired, but in the providence of God it provided this valuable linguistic link between the Old and New Testaments."9

The assimilation of Greek dualism into the Christian tradition occurred after the New Testament was written. J. Robinson gives some excellent examples of how Paul used Greek words according to the meaning of the corresponding Hebrew words, and not according to the prevailing Greek usage. For example, Paul's phrase "the mind of the flesh" (Col 2:18), made no sense to the Greek mind, because the mind (nous) was always associated with the soul (psyche) and never with the flesh. Similarly, Paul's references to the spiritual body (1 Cor 15:44, 46) and to the defilement of flesh and spirit (2 Cor 7:1) "would have been an absurdity to the Greeks"10 becauseaccording to them the body was not spiritual and the spirit could not be defiled. Indications such as these show that the New Testament view of human nature reflects the Hebrew (Old Testament) and not the Greek way of thinking.

Objectives of the Chapter. This chapter seeks to understand the New Testament view of human nature by examining the four prominent anthropological terms, namely, soul, spirit, body, and heart. These are the same four terms that we examined in the previous chapter in our study of the Old Testament view of human nature. The various meanings and usages of these terms are studied to determine if they follow the meanings and usages of the corresponding Hebrew terms in the Old Testament.

Our study shows that a definite continuity exists between the Old and New Testaments in the wholistic understanding of human nature. The notion of the immortality of the soul, though popularly believed by others at the time the New Testament was written, is absent from the writings of the New Testament because its writers were faithful to the teachings of the Old Testament.

The New Testament reveals not only continuity with the Old Testament in the understanding of human nature and destiny, but also an expanded understanding in the light of the incarnation and teachings of Christ. After all, Christ is the real head of the human race, since Adam "was a type of the one who was to come" (Rom 5:14). While in the Old Testament human nature is related primarily to Adam by virtue of creation and the Fall, in the New Testament human nature is related to Christ by virtue of His incarnation and redemption. Christ is the fullness of revelation about human nature, meaning, and destiny. Christ gives a deeper meaning to the human soul, body, and spirit because the immediate effect of His redemption was the giving of His Spirit who "dwells with you and will be in you" (John 14:17).


                             [PART I: HUMAN NATURE AS SOUL]