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Bodies, Souls, and the Bible: The Frequency Test

January 14th, 2010 | 1 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

If Peter Leithart's latest writings are any indication, he's working on an essay or a book on the meaning of embodiment.  Which would be fantastic.  The topic is going to be increasingly popular as more work like Professor Smith's infiltrate the evangelical laity, and its certainly one of critical importance.

In an interesting analysis, Leithart points out that the Bible doesn't actually talk about bodies and souls as much as it talks about the relationship between--hands and feet!  Writes Leithart:

The word “soul” is used in the NASB just under 300x (a few dozen more than the number of times that the NASB uses “body,” which of course is used for “bodies” other than the individual human body. The word “soul” is used about as much as the word “foot/feet,” about half the number of times that the word “eye(s)” is used, and a third of the times that the word “hand(s)” is used (which is well over 1000). ”Mind” is used a bit about 140x, but a number of those are English idioms; in the Hebrew Old Testament, “mind” sometimes translates a body part (sometimes “face,” as in Exodus 10:10). ”Heart” is the “soul-word” used most frequently (680 times), but of course the heart is a body part.

Should we be spending as much time discussing the “foot-hand” relation as we do the “soul-body” relation?

Leithart points out that frequency is an imperfect indicator for what's important.  But it is telling.

But it's also worth pointing out that if we use the frequency test, then "image of God" arguments are going to suffer badly.  The word 'image' shows up only 71 times in the NASB, and many of those are referring to idols.

John Webster makes this point in the Q&A in the last of the Kantzer lectures.  And it's worth considering.  We should be nervous to make too much of categories that are relatively under-developed in Scripture, even if they show up in important places.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.