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The concept of body in the Old Testament

The Old Testament uses various names for parts and organs of the body to signify the physical, temporal, spatial and tactual aspect of man. Many of these are used in a complex system of parallel poetic structures where the actual use of the word depends on its “A” or “B” characteristic and its extended meaning. (M. Held, “Additional pairs of words in Synonymous Parallelism in Biblical Hebrew and Ugaritic,” Leshonenu [1953], 144-160, in Hebrew) In the English VSS some ten Hebrew words are loosely translated “body.” In most cases this is incorrect. The terms are:

2. בֶּ֫טֶן, H1061, an ancient Western Semitic word attested in Amarna Letter 232:10, “ina bantê (glossed) baṭnūma, “on my belly.” M. Held has proven Akkad. bāntu, “rib cage” to be equivalent to Ugaritic-Canaanite, baṭnu (Studies in Comparative Semitic Lexicography [1965], 406). It is used often in the Old Testament as a euphemism or substitute for the generative organs (Exod 28:4, et al.). In all such passages the rib cage or thorax and the abdomen are intended.

3. גְּשֵׁם, H10151, an Aram word appearing in the Aram. portion of Dan. only, and means some part of the body, possibly “back” in a synecdochal usage.

4. נֶ֫פֶשׁ, H5883, as discussed above, used for the self-conscious personality, tr. “body” in the prohibitions against ritual defilement through contact with the dead (Lev 21:11).

5. עֶ֫צֶם, H6795, a common Semitic term for “bone,” “bony frame=skeleton,” used in this latter sense in Exodus 24:10 (KJV) and Lamentations 4:7.

6. גּוּפָה, H1590, appears only once (1 Chron 10:12), however, the nearly exact parallel text (1 Sam 31:12) reads גְּוִיַּ֣ת, a variation of # 1. above. It may be that the word in 1 Chronicles is simply an orthographic error in transition or transmission of the text. On the other hand, caution must be taken in emendation as it may be simply a root as yet unknown from other sources.

7. בָּשָׂר, H1414, the common Hebrew word for “flesh,” ‘meat” (used in Isaiah 10:18) in contrast with nepes, # 4. above, in the distinction “flesh” vs. “spirit.” It appears also in Ezekiel 10:12 (KJV) where it is contrasted with # 1. above, so that the pair is, “flesh” vs. “back” in the sense of frame.

8. שְׁאֵר, H8638, another common word for “flesh” like # 7. above. In KJV it is tr. “body” only in Proverbs 5:11, meaning “meat,” “flesh.” In effect the author of Proverbs expressing the totality of the destruction by contrasting two synonyms, not unlike Eng. “great, big, large” and such expressions.

9. יָרֵכְ, H3751, the common Hebrew word for “thigh” (Exod 29:22, 27), used as a euphemism for the generative organs, Judges 14:8 where alone the RSV tr. “body.”

10. נִדְנֶה, H10464, an Aram. term for “shelter,” “sheath” as in Daniel 7:15 its only usage in the Old Testament, KJV tr. “body.” In many passages the above terms are used fig. of cosmological features.

The concept of body in the New Testament

Additional Material

Source 1

As there is a physical body for this life, so there is a spiritual body for the life of the age to come after the resurrection (1Cor.15.38ff.). The present body, which is affected by sin, will be replaced by a body whose nature is spirit and which is pure and glorious—like Christ’s resurrection body.

In the Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper the bread symbolizes the body of Jesus offered as a sacrifice for sin (Mark.14.22; 1Cor.11.24). Further, the local church, which meets for the Lord’s Supper as believing disciples, is called by Paul a “body” (Rom.12.4-Rom.12.5; 1Cor.12.12ff.) as is the universal church, “the body of Christ” (Eph.4.12).

The Old Testament does not have one word that has the range of meaning possessed by sōma.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)



1. In the Old Testament:

soma, Latin corpus: The term "body" is not found in the Hebrew of the Old Testament in the sense in which it occurs in the Greek "The Hebrew word for `body’ is gewiyah, which is sometimes used for the `living’ body (Eze 1:11), `bodies of the cherubim’ (Ge 47:18; Ne 9:37), but usually for the dead body or carcass. Properly speaking the Hebrew has no term for `body.’ The Hebrew term around which questions relating to the body must gather is flesh" (Davidson, Old Testament Theology, 188). Various terms are used in the Old Testament to indicate certain elements or component parts of the body, such as "flesh," "bones," "bowels," "belly," etc., some of which have received a new meaning in the New Testament. Thus the Old Testament "belly" (Hebrew beTen, Greek koilia), "Our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly cleaveth unto the earth" (Ps 44:25 the King James Version)--as the seat of carnal appetite--has its counterpart in the New Testament: "They serve .... their own belly" (Ro 16:18). So also the word translated "bowels" (meim, rachamim) in the sense of compassion, as in Jer 31:20, King James Version: "Therefore my bowels are troubled for him," is found in more than one place in the New Testament. Thus in Php 1:8 the King James Version, "I long after you all in the bowels (splagchna) of Christ," and again, "if there be any bowels (splagchna) and mercies" (Php 2:1 the King James Version).

2. In the New Testament:

"Body" in the New Testament is largely used in a figurative sense, either as indicating the "whole man" (Ro 6:12; Heb 10:5), or as that which is morally corrupt--"the body of this death" (Ro 6:6; 7:24). Hence, the expression, "buffet my body" (1Co 9:27, hupopiazo, a word adopted from the prize-ring, palaestra), the body being considered as the lurking-place and instrument of evil. (Compare Ro 8:13 the King James Version "Mortify the deeds of the body.")

3. Other Meanings:

4. The Body and Sin:

From all this it is apparent that the body in itself is not necessarily evil, a doctrine which is taught in Greek philosophy, but nowhere in the Old Testament and New Testament. The rigid and harsh dualism met with in Plato is absent from Paul’s writings, and is utterly foreign to the whole of Scripture. Here we are distinctly taught, on the one hand, that the body is subordinated to the soul, but on the other, with equal clearness, that the human body has a dignity, originally conferred upon it by the Creator, who shaped it out of earth, and glorified it by the incarnation of Christ, the sinless One, though born of a woman. Julius Muller has well said: "Paul denies the presence of evil in Christ, who was partaker of our fleshly nature (Ga 4:4), and he recognizes it in spirits who are not partakers thereof (Eph 6:12 the King James Version, `spiritual wickedness in high places’). Is it not therefore in the highest degree probable that according to him evil does not necessarily pertain to man’s sensuous nature, and that sarx (say body) denotes something different from this?" (The Christian Doctrine of Sin, I, 321, English edition). He further shows that the derivation of sin from sense is utterly irreconcilable with the central principle of the apostle’s doctrine as to the perfect holiness of the Redeemer, and that "the doctrine of the future resurrection--even taking into account the distinction between the soma psuchikon and the soma pneumatikon (1Co 15:44)--is clearly at variance with the doctrine that sin springs from the corporal nature as its source" (318).

5. The First Sin:


In the New Testament (soma, "the body" both of men and animals) the word has a rich figurative and spiritual use:

(1) the temporary home of the soul (2Co 5:6);

(2) "the temple of the Holy Spirit" (1Co 6:19);

(3) "temple" (Joh 2:21);

(4) "the old man," the flesh as the servant of sin or the sphere in which moral evil comes to outward expression (Ro 6:6; 7:7; compare Paul’s use of sarx, "flesh");

(5) the "church" as Christ’s body, the organism through which He manifests His life and in which H is spirit dwells (Eph 1:23; Col 1:24);

(6) the spiritual "unity" of believers, one redeemed society or organism (Eph 2:16; a corpus mysticum, Eph 4:4);

(7) "substance" (spiritual reality or life in Christ) versus "shadow" (Col 2:17);

(8) the ascended and glorified body of Jesus (Php 3:21);

(9) the resurrection or "spiritual" (v. natural) body of the redeemed in heaven (1Co 15:44);

(10) the whole personality, e.g. the spiritual presence, power and sacrificial work of Christ, the mystical meaning of "the body and the blood" symbolized in the bread and cup of the sacrament (1Co 11:27).

The term body is exceptionally rich in connection with the selfgiving, sacrificial, atoning work of Christ. It was the outward sphere or manifestation of His suffering. Through the physical He revealed the extent of His redeeming and sacrificial love. He "bare our sins in his body upon the tree" (1Pe 2:24), thus forever displacing all the ceaseless and costly sacrifices of the old dispensation (Heb 9:24-28). Special terms, "body of his flesh" (Col 1:22); "body of sin" (Ro 6:6); "body of this death" (Ro 7:24); "body of his glory" (Php 3:21).

ptoma, used only of fallen, i.e. dead bodies (Re 11:8,9).


  • H. Holma, “Die Namen der Körperteile im Assyrisch-Babylonischen,” Suomalaisen Tiedeakatemian Toimituksia (1913);

  • Sarja B, Nid. VII, 1-185; A. L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (1964), 198-204;

  • cf. The author’s review, WTJ, XXVIII 2, [1966], 174-179;

  • H. van Riessen, Mondigheid ne de Machten (1967).

  • R. H. Gundry, Sōma in Biblical Theology, 1976.