[Milton-L] Crucial punctuation in The Book of Common Prayer

rfeld_zn at keh.co.il rfeld_zn at keh.co.il
Sat Sep 15 05:48:05 EDT 2007

Dear Jeffrey,

Re "ruach" and "nefesh": I may be the fool who rushes in, but here goes. There are distinctions between "ruach" and "nefesh," though any discussion of the development of the concepts in the Hebrew Bible might be like opening the proverbial can of worms. What I think can safely be said, though, is that "ruach," as used in Genesis 1:2 means--in our terms--both "wind" and "breath," the latter in the sense of "breath of life." I checked a number of translations, all of which render "ruach Elohim" as "the Spirit of God," but I tend to agree with you that "God is presented as imparting ... the breath of life." 

I'm not sure, though, that the biblical redactors would have understood the continuation of your thought--"which gives man a soul but not a spirit"--in the way that you (we?) understand it. The word "nefesh" is used in the Hebrew Bible, of course, but the possibility of an eternal soul, one which is not "housed" in a physical body, as it were, isn't given much play--if any. On the contrary; at a number of points we have the almost formulaic: "Return, O Lord, deliver my soul ["nafshi"]: oh save me for thy mercies' sake. For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?" (Ps. 6:4-5, for example). Although "nafshi" is translated as "my soul," it seems clear that the speaker doesn't expect this "soul" to have any existence after the death of the body. In other words, the development of the concept of an extra-physical soul in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and beyond, is complicated, and I don't have the expertise needed to take this any further. 

It's a valid assumption, though, that Milton had enough Hebrew to be highly sensitive to differences between "ruach" and "nefesh." If you're interested in checking out the words, you might consult "The New Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament" (1981); my neighbor, who owns a copy, is away so I can't check it for you. Anyway, I hope this is of some help. All the best,
Nancy Rosenfeld, PhD. 
English Studies Unit, Max Stern Academic College of Emek Yezreel, Israel.
Dept. of English Language and Literature, University of Haifa, Mt. Carmel, Israel.  
  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Horace Jeffery Hodges 
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  Sent: Friday, September 14, 2007 9:48 PM
  Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Crucial punctuation in The Book of Common Prayer

  Is no distinction made between "spirit" (ruach/pneuma) and "soul" (nefesh/psyche)? The biblical texts seem to distinguish the two. My impression is that God is presented as imparting not His Spirit but the breath of life, which gives man a soul but not a spirit. From my reading, the spirit is understood by Paul as something imparted at the resurrection, providing the body with immortality.

  I haven't studied this point in detail, but my somewhat cursory reading of the biblical texts leads me think this.

  Anybody know more on this point? What did Milton think about spirit and soul? Or the Anglican church, for that matter?

  Jeffery Hodges

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