In the parlance of Judaism, what we Christians usually call “The Old Testament” is the TaNaKh. The word is an acronym for the three-part Jewish Holy Scriptures. It consists of the Torah (Teaching), the Nevi’im(Prophets) and the K’tuvim (The Writings).
In our Protestant Bibles, there are 39 documents called “books” in the Tanakh. The New Covenant writings, emanating from the early Church, contain another 26 documents, making 66 in all. In this article, we will learn what, if anything, the “Old Testament” tells us about the immortality of the soul. As Christians, we ought to give weight to what these verses say. Paul viewed them as a reliable guide to doctrine. He wrote to one of his pastors, “…from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which in Christ Jesus. All scripture [in context, the Tanakh] is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be throughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 3:15-17).
Timothy had been raised in a Jewish synagogue where he had been exposed to the Sabbath readings from the Torah and the corresponding haftarah readings from the Prophets (Nevi’im). The word haftarah means “conclusion.”
The authoritative Jewish Encyclopedia in its article on the Immortality of the Soul tells us this: “The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in the Holy Scripture.”
Paul and Timothy did not grow up in the synagogue believing in the natural immortality of the human soul based on Scripture. The idea simply isn’t explicitly found in the Tanakh.
The Hebraic Concept of Soul
Initially, the soul – nefesh or neshama – was viewed merely as a breath and inseparably connected, if not identified with, the life blood (ibid.). Compare Genesis 9:4 with Genesis 4:11. In the creation account we read, “…the Lord God formed the man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [neshamah] of life, and the man became a living being [nephesh] (Genesis 2:7).”
The JE says, “As long as the soul was conceived to be merely a breath [nephesh]…no real substance could be ascribed to it.”
The spirit or breath (ruah hayyim) of God was believed to keep body and soul together. This was true both of man and beast (Genesis 2:7; 6:17; 7:22 & Job 27:3). At death, the spirit returned to God who gave it, and the soul went down to Sheol (Hades in Greek) there to lead a shadowy existence without life or consciousness (Job 14:21; Psalm 6:6; 115:17; Eccl. 9:5&10).
The notion of the continued life of the soul underlay the forbidden practices of necromancy and ancestor worship – both of which were practiced in ancient Israel (I Samuel 28:13 ff. & Isaiah 8:19).
The Jewish Encyclopedia (JE) further tells us, “As a matter of fact, eternal life was ascribed exclusively to God and to celestial beings who ‘eat of the tree of life and live forever’ (Gen. 3:22, Hebr.), whereas man by being driven out of the Garden of Eden was deprived of eating the food of immortality. This is an important point verified in the New Covenant writings. Only Jesus has achieved immortality, “…God who gives life to everything, and of Jesus Christ…the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time – God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (I Timothy 6:13-16, excerpts).
God is the life-giver. He alone is immortal. Immortality must be granted by God – otherwise no one but God has it.
We see then, that in Old Testament texts, breath, blood and spirit are all connected. God breathed the initial breath of lie into Adam. Job, who may have been a gentile contemporary of Abraham, made the connection when he said, “…as long as I have breath within me, the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness…” (Job 27:3). “Breath” and “breath of God” are the equivalent of each other – a parallelism. In Leviticus 17:11 we read, “For the life of the creature is in the blood…”
Over the millennia of Israel’s history, other ideas began to seep in from without, In the JE we read, “The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato, its principle exponent…” Plato, in turn, got his ideas from a strange blending of Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries which originated in Babylon and Egypt (ibid.).
Many of the ideas about the immortality of the soul, heaven and hell, and eternal punishment that have drifted into Judaism and Christianity are products of the religious imagination of ancient peoples including the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians. The Greek philosophers took many of these ideas and updated them.
The JE suggests that “It was only in connection with the Messianic hope that, under the influence of Persian ideas, the belief in resurrection lent to the disembodied soul a continuous existence (Isa. xxv.6-8; Dan. Xii.2…).”
Put simply, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, as it is taught in churches today, is not found in the TaNaKh. It is an extra-biblical idea that came to us via Greek philosophy. The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible confirms the Old Testament view: “In the OT it never means the immortal soul, but is essentially the life principle, or the living being, or the self as the subject of appetite and emotion, occasionally of volition,” (Vol. 4, p.428).
The notion that man is born with an immortal soul comes to us, not from the TaNaKh, but from the worlds of pagan religion and philosophy.