Did Lamsa Teach Reincarnation?
By James Scott Trimm
Originally Published in
The Aramaic Journal Jan-Mar 1996 Vol. 1 No. 3
Published by the Aramaic Bible Society
[This article should not be taken as an endorcement of the teachings of George M. Lamsa.]
When we use the term “reincarnation” we usually speak of the theory of “transmigration of the soul.” This is the belief that souls are being recycled and reborn, or “reincarnated,” in new bodies. Certainly some of George M. Lamsa’s sympathizers, such as Edgar Cayce, taught this doctrine. It has however also been alleged that Lamsa taught this doctrine.
The claim that Lamsa taught the doctrine of the “transmigration of the soul” is based primarily on Lamsa’s comment to Malachi 4:5 in his book Old Testament Light which says in part:
According to this teaching of the Hebrew Prophets, the reincarnation is of the spirit and not of the flesh, for the spirit is eternal and immortal, but the body turns into dust. Jesus said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the body is of no account [John 6:63, Eastern text].”
But did Lamsa intend by this statement to teach transmigration of the soul? To better understand what Lamsa was saying we should examine the context of Lamsa’s comment. Furthermore, Lamsa cites Matthew 11:13-15, John 6:63 and Luke 9:27 in his explanation, and we should examine his comments to these passages as well as his comment to 2Kings 2:9.
In his comment to Malachi 4:5 Lamsa also states:
“Elijah the prophet” here means “the spirit of Elijah”, that is, a new prophet like Elijah, with strength and courage to reform the people…
To Lamsa the word “Spirit” (Aramaic: Rukha) could be used idiomatically to refer to strength, power and courage (See Lamsa, Gospel Light, Revised Edition, p. 401). Thus when Lamsa states that the “reincarnation” would be “of the spirit and not of the flesh” Lamsa was taking issue with those who taught that this “reincarnation” would be literal, or “of the flesh.” Lamsa refers to “the unlearned men and women [who] expected Elijah to return in the flesh.” He states, “even in the time of Jesus, Elijah was expected to return in person…” Lamsa then cites John 1:21, where John denies being Elijah. Certainly Lamsa did not mean that Elijah’s soul would transmigrate and that Elijah would return in person, in the flesh. Lamsa taught that instead “a new prophet” would come who was “like Elijah” in that he would have the “spirit” or “strength and courage” of Elijah.
Lamsa cites John 6:63 as evidence to support his teaching on Malachi 4:5. I his comments to John 6:63 (Gospel Light, pp. 353-354) Lamsa defines “spirit” as “life,” and “life” as “the divine spark of God in the body.” Thus, by “spirit” (rukha) Lamsa does not refer to a persons soul or self (nafsha) but to their life force from God, the source of their strength, power and courage.
Lamsa’s comment to Luke 9:27 sheds even more light on the subject. Returning to Lamsa’s comments on Malachi 4:5 we read:
…Jesus threw more light on this subject when he said, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God” [Luke 9:27]. The spirit of his disciples who stood near him when he said these words is still living and more active than it was during the time of Jesus. Elijah’s spirit dwelt in the prophets who carried on Elijah’s mission. John the Baptist was Elijah.
In his comments to Luke 9:27 (Gospel Light, p. 255) Lamsa states that “Such statements are not to be taken literally.” He states that “Such statements are used as an expression of commendation concerning persons who have made some distinguished contribution to humanity.” He goes on to say “Moses and Elijah… were alive in the hearts of men and women who looked forward to their coming.” Of Messiah’s statement that certain of his disciples “shall not taste death,” Lamsa writes “These disciples died physically but they have been living spiritually in the hearts of men and women who honor them.” Thus, to Lamsa, John was Elijah in the same way that Elijah’s spirit dwelt in the prophets who carried on Elijah’s mission, and in the same way that the disciples’ spirit lives in the hearts of men and women who honor them.
Lamsa’s comment to Matthew 11:13-15 is actually found in his comment to Matthew 11:10 (New Testament Light pp. 12-13). Here Lamsa explains:
…Elijah was John… that is to say, the spirit of Elijah was imbedded in John the Baptist, who denounced King Herod Antipas and his wife Herodia, just as Elijah had denounced Ahab, the King of Israel, and his wife Jezebel.
Again, Lamsa does not teach that Elijah’s soul had transmigrated to be reborn as John, but only that John acted in the same spirit in which Elijah had.
Final evidence of Lamsa’s position can be found in his comment to 2Kings 2:9 (Old Testament Light, pp. 359-360). In this passage Elisha asks Elijah for a double portion of his “spirit” when Elijah ascends to heaven. Lamsa interprets this to mean “a double portion of his master’s spirit and power. In other words he wanted to be recognized as the successor to Elijah. Elisha was determined to reform Israel… [he] needed a double portion of the power of his master in order to save Israel.” Here Elisha, who was born before Elijah’s ascension, receives “the spirit of Elijah” just as John had, but could not have been a reborn vessel of Elijah’s transmigrated soul. Moreover, Lamsa’s description of Elisha’s receiving “the spirit of Elijah” agrees closely with his description of John’s receiving of “the spirit of Elijah.”
Lamsa’s true views on life in the hereafter are to be found in his comments to Daniel 12:2, Isaiah 26:19 (Old Testament Light, pp. 661-662, 861) and John 11:25-26 (New Testament Light p. 135). From these comments it is apparent that Lamsa believed that man has an immortal soul (nafsha) which would be resurrected and face eternal judgment, and not transmigrate to another body to be born all over again.
Lamsa must have known that the passage in question (Malachi 4:5 and Matthew 11:13-15) had been used by others to teach transmigration of the soul, that is reincarnation of the flesh. These teachers had claimed that Elijah’s soul had transmigrated and been reborn in John’s body. Lamsa clearly opposed this idea and explained this alleged “reincarnation” as being figurative rather than literal.
And just as it is appointed for men to die once,
and after their death, the judgment.
(Heb. 9:27; Lamsa Translation of Aramaic Peshitta)
1. Old Testament Light, George M. Lamsa, HarperSanFransisco, New York, 1964.
2. New Testament Light, George M. Lamsa, HarperSanFransisco, New York, 1968.
3. Gospel Light, Revised Edition, George M. Lamsa, HarperSanFransisco, New York, 1964.
4. Holy Bible, From the Ancient Eastern Text, George M. Lamsa, HarperSanFransisco, New York, 1968.