And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 ESV
Destroy – It is my intention, over the next several days, to deal with the concept of body and soul. We can begin with this verse since it is often used to support a Christian separation of body and soul. This study will take some time as it is difficult to articulate the changes in thought between Greek and Hebrew on these topics. Both languages lack words that allow us to translate from one paradigm to the other. Furthermore, the implications for our views of death, heaven, the afterlife and many eschatological topics are quite significant. We begin with Epictetus.
Epictetus, a Greek philosopher of the first century (born 55 AD), said that the death of the body is not to be feared, but only the death of the soul. Does that sound familiar? You thought that Yeshua’s statement was unique, but what about Epictetus? Are we to assume that Yeshua did nothing more than mimic what Greek philosophy was already thinking? After all, Epictetus’ statement comes from a chain thought among the Greeks that goes back to at least pre-Platonic views. Is this verse, so often used to support a body-soul dualism, just warmed-over Greek thinking?
As soon as we begin to examine the ideas, we are confronted with monumental translation problems in this verse in Matthew. The problems are not simply about which words to use to translate the Greek text into English. Nor are the problems simply about translating Matthew’s Greek back into the original language of Yeshua. In this verse, translation must arise from understanding the opposing paradigms of the Greek and Hebrew world. The result of an investigation into the thought structures behind the words leaves us, perhaps, with an entirely different understanding of what Yeshua really said. All of the difficulties begin with the fact that in Hebrew there is no word for body. If that is the case, then how is it possible for the Greek translation of Yeshua’s speech to include the dualism of “body and soul”?
When we read this verse from the paradigm of the Church, we often think Yeshua is expressing a warning about our spiritual condition. We are seduced by the “body and soul” dichotomy inherent in Greek thought. Therefore, we conclude that Yeshua must also embrace this dichotomy. Because we assume that the Platonic distinction between the material and the spiritual is a biblical idea, we imagine Yeshua is concentrating on the “soul” of a man rather than a man’s physical body. We then conclude that the most important thing in life is not life here (which is transient, corrupt and without eternal value) but rather life somewhere else – in heaven, of course. This philosophical orientation causes us to read this verse as if Yeshua is saying, “Don’t worry about your life in this world. Worry about your life in the next world,” or “Don’t worry about men who can only kill your physical existence. Worry about God who can destroy both the physical and spiritual in hell.”
Even without the issues that arise when we try to back-translate this text into Hebrew, we are left with internal contradictions in the Greek itself. First, we should notice that this verse opposes “to kill” (apokteino) with “to destroy” (apollumi). While the meaning of the two verbs is similar, it is not identical. If it were, there would be no reason to use two different Greek verbs in the same sentence. Whatever Yeshua actually said, the Greek translator thought it necessary to use two different verbs to capture that thought. But even the use of apollumi is problematic. In what sense is the body and soul destroyed in hell? The adoption of the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul stands in opposition to the plain meaning of this statement. According to Christian-Platonic doctrine, the soul is eternal. It cannot be destroyed. Therefore, the translation of apolesai as “who can destroy” contradicts the Christian idea of the soul. Even if we are tempted to reduce the strength of the translation to “who can kill,” then we must ignore the intensive apo attached to the verb (apo + ollumi) and we must offer some reasonable explanation why this verb isn’t the same as apokteino, used in the opening phrase.
You can’t have it both ways. If this verse is an accurate rendering of Yeshua’s statement, then either the soul is eternal and cannot be destroyed (or killed) or Yeshua is correct and the soul can be destroyed. Is the doctrine of the eternal soul correct, and Yeshua wrong, or is it the other way around? Are we really facing theological contradictions or is something else amiss?
It seems to me that the real problem is not in these apparent contradictions but rather in the Greek rendering of Yeshua’s Hebraic thought.
Topical Index: Matthew 10:28, apollumi, destroy, apokteino, kill, body, soul
 Eduard Schweizer, soma, TDNT, Vol. 7, p. 1036 referencing Epictetus, Discourses, I, 5, 4.
YESTERDAY I FORGOT to post a Today’s Word. To make up for this oversight, here is a short audio file about the final lessons we learn from our study of Ruth.
If you haven’t followed the audio study of Ruth, you can do so by clicking here.