Friday, May 02, 2014

Comments on Ecclesiastes 3:19 (Edward Feser)

The question of whether man has a soul or not has captured my attention here recently since a Catholic philosopher named Edward Feser sets forth involved and logically developed arguments for the soul. In truth, I don't have time to address every argument made by Feser--I've had a private conversation with a Catholic colleague and friend, who posited similar arguments. That conversation got derailed because of my infirmities and time constraints. But I want to finish our discussion one day also. In any event, I'm trying to adduce biblical evidence to prove that the soul is not immortal. I'm going to offer rational evidence as well in the future. Feser is a nice guy: it just seems that he's wrong about the soul.

One text to consider is Eccl 3:19 which reads:

"For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity" (NASB).

Some commentators try to explain this verse by making a distinction between "soul" and "breath":

"For that which befalleth, &c. — They are subject to the same diseases, pains, and casualties. So dieth the other — As certainly, and no less painfully. They have all one breath — One breath of life, which is in their nostrils; by which the beasts perform the same animal functions. For he speaks not here of man's rational and immortal spirit, nor of the future life. So that a man hath no pre-eminence, &c. — In respect of the present life" (Benson Commentary).

See JFB Bible Commentary and Gill's Exposition of the Bible for similar attempts to exegete this passage. Matthew Poole's Commentary likewise claims that Eccl 3:19 means:

"one breath of life, which is in their nostrils; one and the same living soul, by which the beasts perform the same vital and animal operations. For he speaks not here of man's rational and immortal spirit, nor of the future life."

However, we have to ask what point Qoheleth is making here. Furthermore, does he suggest that man is composed of a soul/spirit that explains our "animal functions," and a rational spirit/soul that differentiates us from the (other) animals? Commentators apparently read that idea into Eccl 3:19. More recent scholars have pointed out that the verse is emphasizing our mortality or the sense in which we're just like earthly beasts. We must ask ourselves which interpretation of Eccl 3:19 harmonizes with other statements about death found in this Bible book (cf. 9:5, 10). We can account for Eccl 12:7 as well when we take into consideration how the writer is employing the word "breath" or "spirit."

Compare Duane Garrett's perceptive observations concerning this passage:

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