(Updated) The Hebrew concept of the soul / Η Εβραϊκή αντίληψη περί ψυχής

“He did not know her”. This is the classical Hebrew expression used in the Bible to describe or signify the physical union between a man and a woman. It is an admirable expression because such a physical union is indeed an authentic form of mutual “knowledge” between a man and a woman; it is a sensible, experiential form of knowing; but it was also a spiritual one for the ancient Hebrews because, as I demonstrated long ago in my Essai sur la Pensée Hébraïque (Essay on Hebrew Thought), it never occurred to them to try to separate or dissociate the soul from the body, as the Platonists, the NeoPlatonists, and the Cartesians all attempted to do.

In ancient Hebrew there is not even a particular word distinguish the body as a separate entity from the soul. There was a very good reason for the lack of such a word; for the ancient Hebrews, there was not any such thing as a body without a soul; there never had been, and there never could be. As the positivists in the Vienna Circle used to say, the phrase “a body without a soul” was devoid of meaning, was meaningless. If there is a body or organism at all, it has to be animated by a living soul. That is why physical union for the Hebrews was also a union of souls. And the expression “know”, used to describe this physical union, was evidently a translation of the Hebrew iada.

Claude Tresmontant, The Hebrew Christ, σελ. 29, 30.

We have already taken note of the very specific view of the nature of man that is assumed by the Hebrew language. The Hebraic expression kol basar that is normally translated as “all flesh” really means all living beings, and, in particular, all human beings. It is in fact strictly synonymous with another common Hebrew expression kol adam which also means “all men,” “all human beings”.

The expression “flesh and blood” in a Hebrew context must not be understood exactly as we would understand it, given our assumptions about the nature of man. Our understanding includes elements that go back to Plato and the Platonists and to Descartes and the Cartesians. With them the flesh is contrasted with the soul or spirit. In Hebrew, however, “flesh” does not refer to the body as distinct from the soul; it refers to the total human being, what we sometimes call in our twentieth-century jargon the psychosomatic unity. “Flesh” in Hebrew designates the whole man, man as he is encountered in nature, man who emerged some tens of thousands of years ago, according to modern palaeontologists, and has now been classified according to scientific nomenclature as Homo sapiens.

Claude Tresmontant, The Hebrew Christ, σελ. 70.