By Rosa Rubicondior | 23 December 2022
Rosa Rubicondior Blog
In a fascinating analysis of how the Christian notion of the ‘soul’ evolved to suit local political needs and to pander to popular demand, Professor Philip C. Almond, Emeritus Professor in the History of Religious Thought, The University of Queensland, explains how Christian ideas about the soul have changed since the notion was adopted from the Greek Platonists in the late second century CE, the idea of an immortal soul being absent from both the Old and New Testaments. Until then, Christians had used the Hebrew notion of a human being a single entity composed of both spiritual and physical parts.
In the history of human identity, meanings of "man" and "woman" have been as much socially constructed as biologically determined – including the soul.
— The Conversation (@ConversationEDU) December 25, 2022
For ‘spiritual’ parts read ‘magic ingredient’ making it alive. In fact we can see remnants of the lack of belief in immortality in verses such as this The following bible verses that seem to have escaped the editors’ notice and been included in the modern editions.
From the Old Testament from a time when ideas of God’s omniscience hadn’t formed and death was seen as the end:
Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.
And doth thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me into judgment with thee? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.
Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass; Turn from him, that he may rest, till he shall accomplish, as an hireling, his day. For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.
But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up: So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.
So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them.
All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.
As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.
This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope — even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.
Clearly, the idea that it didn’t matter how you lived your life as it made no different in the long run, was not what the church authorities needed the masses to believe. What they needed was the ability to promise a reward for good behaviour, unquestioning obedience and compliance with dogma, which the dead couldn’t complain about and couldn’t report back to the living and reveal that it was a false promise and what they’d been sold was a pig in a poke.
— HumanitiesUQ (@HASSUQ) April 15, 2021
So, the idea of an immortal soul was pinched from the Greek Platonists and inserted into Christianity, complete with the idea that the soul doesn’t have a gender.
The following article is reprinted from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence and reformatted for stylistic consistency. The original may be read here:
Within Christianity, the question of the nature of human identity has been a messy and complex one.
For its first 200 years, Christianity adopted the Hebrew understanding of human identity as a unity of physical and spiritual parts, not divided into body and soul. There is no concept of the immortal soul in the Hebrew Old Testament nor in the Christian New Testament.
But in the late second century, Christianity happily absorbed the doctrine of the soul from the Greek Platonic tradition. From that time on, humans were thought of as hybrids – consisting of an immortal soul united with a mortal body.
How body and soul related to each other has been, in Western thought, a never ending matter for philosophical speculation.
Clearly, bodies were gendered male or female. But souls were not. They were, after all, non-corporeal, spiritual entities. And thus, there was nothing to differentiate the sexes. As Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (c. 315-86), put it, “the soul is immortal, and all souls are alike both of men and women; for only the members of the body are distinguishable”.
In this way souls were rather like angels who were also, as spiritual creatures, non-gendered.
Angels, however, could assume virtual, ethereal bodies. But, even then, they were generally imagined as assuming male bodies. For this reason, angels have traditionally had men’s names – Gabriel, Michael, Raphael.
Then, in the 19th century in the Romantic movement especially, angels became less attached to the Christian tradition. They shifted from supporting kings and enabling sorcerers to benign beings whose activities remained in heaven. They were feminised and ethereal, less based on their representation in the Bible and more on classical Greek sources, They began to assume female, even androgynous, bodies. From then on, women (but no longer men) could be and would be called (metaphorically, at least) “angels”.
By the middle of the 19th century, the idea of the afterlife as an eternity spent worshipping God was replaced in popular culture by an eternity where we would spend time with former friends, families, and even pets. Heaven became a place of companionship, of amiable conversation, of spiritual progress, and intellectual development.
So, the modern heaven is a secular one in which God, and for that matter souls, play little role. It is no longer one of “embodied” souls but of “spiritual” bodies, enjoying for eternity the best of this world in the next. And, in this vision of the afterlife, we essentially and eternally are gendered in spiritual bodies in a way that reflects our physical bodies in this life, whatever form that may have taken.
This muddle is a muddle of religion’s own making because it tries to make do without evidence, calling it ‘faith’. So, superstation builds on superstition, guesses become dogma and none of it is grounded in reality. This is the same reason religions continually fragment and split over little more than the ‘correct’ interpretation of an ambiguous phrase, or the convoluted reasoning of a charismatic ‘philosopher’, whose ideas become law for no better reasons than ancestor worship and deference to ancient authority.
Rosa Rubicondior (a pseudonym) is a retired data analyst, biologist, blogger, author and atheist.
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