Skip to main content
Bible Q

What does “kill the body but cannot kill the soul” mean? (Matthew 10:28)

A contradiction with the Old Testament?

Most readers finding Matthew 10:28 strange will probably already be in aware that in the Old Testament souls can die and be killed. Sometimes it is not clear from English translations where ‘soul’ (Hebrew nephesh) in phrases such as “all the souls died”, killing “souls” with the sword, and so on, have been modernized to ‘being’ or ‘life’. Nevertheless for most readers a basic knowledge of death in the Old Testament will include the knowledge that Adam became a “living soul”, and that on death, the soul dies.

Genesis 2:7 dust + breath = living soul
Genesis 3:19 living soul – breath = dust

So how do we explain that Matthew 10:28 states that the soul cannot be killed by men, when all through the Old Testament the ‘souls’ of men were being killed.

“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)

A change in Jewish background

Some have explained the difference by saying that the Old Testament word for soul (Hebrew nephesh) has a narrow range of meanings from the New Testament word for soul (Greek psyche). And this is, not surprisingly, true enough if we compare a Hebrew dictionary based on Jewish texts with a Greek dictionary based on pagan ones. But this is not really a language problem because in the Greek translation of the Old Testament we still have ‘souls’ (psyche in Greek) being killed by the sword, and in the translations of Matthew 10:28 into Semitic languages (Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew) the equivalent word ‘nephesh’ is a soul which Matthew 10:28 says can’t be killed. So language (a supposed difference between Hebrew and Greek) is not the answer to the problem.

There are two more convincing answers.

The first solution is simply that Second Temple Judaism, that is after the Maccabees in particular, had taken into into the religious culture far more references to spirits, ghosts, souls, but also more thinking of soul in metaphysical terms, soul as life, soul as identity. Of course there are uses relating to “my soul” as meaning “my life”, “my heart”, “my identity” in the Old Testament too, but falling short of the statement “cannot kill the soul”. Outside of the New Testament in other Jewish texts of the period, either apocryphal or apocalyptic, the term “soul” was being used in ways that sometimes border on Greek ideas. This is part of the background to the New Testament.

The second answer is more challenging…

Did Jesus deliberately say something that challenged his audience?

The key to Jesus’ statement 10:28A lies in the following statement 10:28B

“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)

“Hell” there in the Greek text is a place name, Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom outside the south-eastern wall of Jerusalem where Jeremiah promised the hypocrites a destruction in fire equivalent to king Josiah having destroyed the temple of Moloch, or the Tophet there (Jeremiah 19:2-6, 19:11-14).

Christ had already connected Gehenna to the last day fire destroying the wicked at the resurrection in  Mark 9 when he cites “where their worm does not die” from the last verse of Isaiah:

47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’  (Mark 9:47-48)

24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:24)

From that it can be seen that Gehenna is a future event. Unlike Hades/Sheol/the Grave which is an ongoing term for the sleep of death.

Seen in this light, Jesus is using ‘body’ in Matthew 10:28 to mean the first death – natural death, before sleep in the dust, and then a resurrection to judgement:

29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:29)

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2)

15 having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. (Acts 24:15)

Putting those verses together with Matthew 10:28 suggests that Jesus is warning that then God will destroy both body (having raised the body) and soul (the life) in Gehenna.



No Comments yet!