Science in Christian Perspective
Letter to the Editor
Source of Error In English Bible
Oscar L. Brauer,
Professor of Chemistry and Physics, Emeritus
San Jose State College San Jose, California
From: JASA 23 (June 1971): 78-79.
In the discussion of the inerrancy of the Bible (Journal ASA 21, No. 4 (1969) ) one possible source of error seems to have been overlooked. Some error could have crept in during the translations from the language in which the Scriptures were first written to the modern languages. The original authors were inspired but
the translators were not. The King James version of the Bible was translated in 1611. Many times the translators were confronted with a choice among three or four words in translating a given Hebrew or Greek word. Naturally they chose the synonym that agreed with their personal religious philosophy or understanding.
One word that many believe was wrongfully translated in many places in both The Old Testament and the New Testament is the word "soul." The American College Dictionary defines soul as follows:
1. The principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in man, regarded as a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to he separate in existence from the body, the spiritual part of man as distinct from the physical. 2. The spiritual part of man regarded as the moral aspect or as believed to survive death and be subject to happiness or misery in a life to come. 3. A disembodied spirit of a deceased person.
The Bible defines soul in an entirely different way. Since the Bible
inspired by the Holy Ghost no one else has authority to define it any
Genesis 2:7 is the only place in the Scriptures where a soul is defined. A living soul is nothing more than a living person. It is correctly used many times in the Bible; e.g. Acts 7:14, 27:37.
Matthew 16:26 is an illustration of where the word "soul" is used when it should have been "life." How do we know this should have been translated "life" instead of "soul?" The previous verse is talking about life. There is nothing to indicate a change in subject matter, so verse 26 is still talking about life. The revised Standard Version of the Bible caught this error. Unfortunately there are dozens of verses with similar errors where they have not been corrected.
Let us see how such errors happened. Back in prehistoric times the concept of soul as a disembodied spirit or an entity separate from the body, was invented. In some ways this concept has become almost universal. It is even believed in Christian churches today.
Recently I was reading an article in the National Geographic Magazine about the island of Bali. I ran across this quotation: "As one Balinese expressed it, 'We consider the body merely the basket of the soul, and once released that soul is free to ascend into higher worlds, awaiting reincarnation.' "1
A similar idea could probably be duplicated in almost any country of the world, civilized or uncivilized.
The Hebrew word often translated "soul" is nephesh.
Besides being translated soul 446 times, it was translated 101 times as life or lives, 24 times as person, 15 times as heart, 8 times as creature, 4 times as body, and 3 times as dead. The translators had to choose. In a large number of cases where they used soul it should have been life or some other choice. They believed in soul as defined by the dictionary so they used that word. This often made the verse suggest something that does not exist.
In the New Testament, soul is translated 57 times from the Greek word psuche. But this same Greek word has been translated 41 times as life, 3 times as mind, and 1 time as heart.2 If the context fits it, we have just as much right to translate psuche life or mind as the original translators did to translate it soul. Translating it life does not suggest the non-Biblical entity called the soul.
Associated in the popular mind with the general concept of soul is the idea that the soul is immortal. When a man dies his soul is ordinarily thought to be able to leave the body. If it is righteous it is thought to go to heaven and if it is wicked it is supposed to burn eternally in hell.
This wild idea is so inconsistent with the character of God and Christ that we cannot countenance it for a minute. If God permitted a mild sinner to agonize forever in hell God would be a super cruel monster. Such an abhorrent thought is all the more terrible when we remember that "God is love." If souls went anywhere at death, they would have to be immortal. There are dozens of verses that preclude any immortal souls before the resurrection at Christ's second coming. (I Cor, 15:51-58.)
If a person reading the Bible comes across the word soul and it suggests the dictionary concept of soul, he can be sure that the word should not have been translated soul. Then he should see if one of the other possible synonyms makes sense without suggesting an immortal soul.