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Paul’s Jewish-Christian use of Hellenistic terms: soma – psyche – pneuma
The Christian Scriptures proclaim Christ’s message of salvation addressed to humans,
without dealing too much about the nature of the human being. Nonetheless, one does find in them
an insight to who the human person is in the light of Jesus Christ, the “new man”. It is an insight
about the human person seen from the perspective of salvation. In this soteriological context, man is a sinner in need of redemption. Man is thus called to salvation; Jesus Christ is God’s offer of
Paul, articulating the Christian theology of salvation in the light of Christ’s death and
resurrection, developed a soteriological anthropology implicit in the gospels. Humankind before Christ was unredeemed but now in Christ, redeemed; was under the law, but now in faith; was under
the dominion of sin, but now enjoying the freedom of God’s daughters and sons.1
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes:
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you whol y; and may your spirit
be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (RSV: 1
In this Pauline verse, which has the form of a blessing, the three terms pneuma
appear together to refer to man. God is being invoked to sanctify and preserve the integrity of the believers. It is a holistic sanctification – of the person in al her/his aspects – that is being petitioned
here. Biblical commentator see in this verse Paul’s tripartite anthropology. Each term actual y
denotes the whole human person, seen however under one aspect. These terms speak of three
different aspects of the same human being. This, they said, would be more consistent with the typical Jewish anthropology.2
Of these three terms, soma
are not really significant from the theological point of
view. Yet it is important to note that soma
(body) is not just how the human person appears. Soma
the entire person as a corporal and social being. Psyche
too refers to the whole human person as a vital being.
, like another Pauline term – sarx
, is a theologically significant term in Paul and thus
For Paul, Pneuma
5 is the “power of faith” that mediates the understanding of the gospel of
the cross. It is the Spirit representing “new life” or “new creation” characterized by “being with
Christ” through his cross and resurrection. As opposed to “soma”, pneuma points to the interior
2 Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., New Jerome Biblical
(New Jersey: Prentice Hal , Inc., 1990), 779.
3 Horst Balz and Gerard Schneider, eds., Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament
, vol. 3 (Michigan:
W.B.Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 321-325.
aspect of man; the former, to the exterior aspect (1 Cor. 5:5). As opposed to “sarx” (human
weakness), pneuma is the “divine power communicated to man”. This power is the “liberating norm of the Spirit”, and the “principle of life” for the believer in Christ (Gal 5:15-18; Rom. 8:2-6). It is a
“gift for the baptized”; not human possession. Yet, pneuma too is man’s “response to God and
neighbor”. It is the “spirit of sonship” in Christ (Gal 4:6), thus the “spirit of spirit” and “freedom”.
It is the freedom from the law, but freedom for love. Moreover, pneuma is the “divine force”, the “Holy Spirit”, the “spirit of God”, the “spirit of Jesus” and the “gift of the risen Christ”.
More anthropologically, pneuma affects the whole person. It refers to man’s disposition as
“inspired by the Spirit of God” (Rom 8:15). It refers to “man in union with Christ” (1 Cor. 6:17). It
also refers to “man who is moved by the divine force or spirit” (Rom 8:14).
It is really hard to determine whether pneuma is applied to God or to man or to the
relationship between God and man. At any rate, pneuma besides denoting “divine force” also refers
to the human person seen under the essential aspect of her/his relatedness with God. It is a
relatedness which, as already mentioned, is not a human possession, but a “divinely given possibility” in Christ.
6 occurs 147 times in the Christian Scriptures. 72 of these occurrences are found in Paul.
It’s meaning ranges from the substance “flesh” to the human body, the entire person, and the whole
humankind. Note that the Christian Scriptures maintain the Hebrew intuition of the essential unity of the human person, far different from the trichotomous or dualistic view of Hel enistic
Sarx, for Paul, is “man under the dominion of sin”, thus “separated from God”. Humankind
is bound to a sinful existence hostile to God, incapable of saving itself. But God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” for the sake of sin, to condemn sin “in the flesh”. Because of this, humans
though living “in the flesh” are no longer condemned to live “according to the flesh”. Man’s former
hostile existence is now overcome by the sphere of the pneuma, and only in obedience to this
pneuma that humans can perform works of the Pneuma or Spirit.7
Summing al up, Paul - representing the Christian thought- conceives of the human person
essential y as unity in the plurality of her/his dimensions. Thus soma is not merely the “body”, but
“bodily man” as psyche refers to the “vital or living man”. Theologically, sarx refers not merely to
the “flesh” of man, but to the “unredeemed man” living under the influence of sin, while pneuma is the “redeemed man” living under the powerful influence of the divine Pneuma.
6 Balz and Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary
, 230-233; see esp. 231-232 for Paul’s usage of sarx
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