God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How to Love the Lord Your God – Part 1, “Heart”

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart [and] all your soul…” According to Jesus in Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, this is the most important commandment.

Jesus’ Greek is a quotation of Deuteronomy 6:5, and that Hebrew passage is so central to Jews that it’s part of what is inscribed on the parchment inside the mezuzah traditionally affixed to doorways.

But I don’t think “heart” (or “soul”) is what the original meant in either the Old Testament or the New Testament.

As a matter of anatomy, the Hebrew levav (“heart” in Deuteronomy) and the Greek kardia (“heart” in Mattherw, Mark and Luke) is what we would now call the heart in English. But as a matter of metaphor it is something very different.

“Heart” in English

In English, the word “heart” generally indicates emotion. And it’s the opposite of “brain” or “mind,” which represent rationality. For example, someone who is “thinking with his heart” is being emotional and not rational. “To follow your heart” is to do what you love, even if you don’t think it’s a good idea. “A sound mind in a sound body” refers to someone who can think clearly, not necessarily someone whose emotions are well organized. “Let the mind rule the heart” means to let rationality prevail over emotion. The expression “heart-broken” refers to emotions, while “his mind is gone” refers to rational thought.

It’s not that we think that emotion is literally in the heart or that thoughts are literally in the mind (though, in fact, as a matter of science, both are probably mostly in the brain). Rather, we use “heart” metaphorically to represent emotion and “mind” (or “brain”) metaphorically to represent thought.

In fact, this way of using “heart” and “mind” is part of a broader, more fundamental view of people: they have emotions (hope, fear, love, expectation, sorrow, etc.) and they have thoughts. And the two are distinct.

But this ontology is not the only way of divvying up what it means to be human.

“Heart” in the Bible


In the Bible, emotions and thoughts were considered to be closer in nature than they are now. For instance, in modern English “I love him” and “I fear him” are both statements about emotions, even though the emotions differ. Similarly, in the Bible, “I love him” and “I think he’s a capable ruler” were both the same kind of thing.

And the levav (Hebrew for “heart”) and kardia (Greek for “heart”) were used to represent both — that is, what we would now call emotions and also what we would now call thoughts.

We see levav used to represent cognition, for example, in Isaiah 6:10, which contains three pairs. “To see” goes with “eyes.” “To hear” goes with “ears.” And “to understand” goes with levav. (Matthew 13:15, quoting Isaiah, similarly pairs “understand” with kardia.) Deuteronomy 29:4 contains the same three pairs, though it has the alternative form lev instead of levav. In the same way, Isaiah 10:7 pairs “thinking” with levav. And in Ezekiel 38:10, when something enters your levav you think a certain way.

The levav, then, is the seat of thoughts and cognition. In this sense, levav is the opposite of the English “heart.” (Using the opposite of the word you want to translate is usually a bad idea.)

The Hebrew levav is also used for emotion, though. In Leviticus 19:17, the levav is where you should not “hate.” In Psalm 27:3, the levav is connected to “fear.” And so forth.

We see a particularly clear picture: while the English “heart” is used for “emotions and not thoughts,” the Hebrew levav is used for “emotions and thoughts.”


Greek works like Hebrew in this regard. We’ve already seen Matthew 13:15, but that’s a quote of Isaiah, so it’s not necessarily reliable. But there are plenty of other examples. In Matthew 9:4, when Jesus knows the scribes’ “thoughts,” he knows what is in their kardia. In Matthew 15:19, thoughts come from the kardia. Mark 8:17 connects a “hard kardia” with inability to understand.

And the kardia is also where people are happy (as in Acts 2:26), afraid (John 14:27), and so on.

So, as with Hebrew, Greek combines thoughts and emotions in the kardia. And again this is unlike English, which separates them, using “heart” not just to include emotions but, importantly, specifically to exclude thoughts.

“Love with All Your Heart”

So while it’s tempting to translate levav and kardia as “heart” — particularly because “love” and “heart” go together in a way that “love” and “mind” do not — it’s also a severe mistake, because “heart” excludes thoughts, and what we need is a word that specifically includes them, along with emotions.

In isolation, finding such a word in English is no easy task, as the issue is not just linguistic, but also ontological. Modern English speakers think there are (at least) two kinds of internal human events: thoughts and emotions. Ancient Greek and Hebrew speakers thought there was one. And the point of levav and kardia is to include them both.

Fortunately, the translation task gets easier when we take into account “soul” (which is also a major mistranslation), as I hope to address soon. [Update: the explanation of “soul” is here: “How to Love the Lord Your God — Part 2, Soul.”]

November 28, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 44 Comments

How Words Work Together in the Bible

There is something intuitively appealing about a translation that takes the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible and translates each one into English. But the premise behind such an approach is flawed, because words work together differently in different languages.

Here’s a simple example from Genesis 29:19: vayomer lavan tov titi ota lach mititi ota l’ish acher.

The Hebrew starts off vayomer lavan, which is quite clearly, “Laban said.” What did Laban say?

The next word in Hebrew is also easy: tov means “good.” What is good?

The next word is a bit more complicated, but still uncontroversial. The Hebrew titi is from the verb stem tet (“give”), and it means “my giving.” Then the Hebrew gets easy again: ota is “her” and lach is “to you.” So far we have, “my giving her to you is good” — a translation that is simple and straightforward, but wrong.

Even though that’s what the words mean, it’s not what the phrase means.

What’s going on is, also, uncontroversial. The next phrase in Hebrew is mititi ota l’ish acher, literally “from my giving her to another man.” The key factor here is knowing that Hebrew uses “from” to indicate comparison, or what is technically called “degree.” In English, we usually do this by changing the adjective, either with “more” and “most” or with the suffixes “-er” and “-est.”

For example, in the English “he is happier (than her)” the adjective “happier” expresses a comparison of happiness. Interestingly, it’s possible that “he is not happy,” but he’s still “happier than her.” That’s how degree works.

In Hebrew, the word would be just “happy” in both cases.

English indicates degree by changing the adjective. Hebrew uses “from” elsewhere in the sentence.

When we see mititi (“from my giving”) in the second part of the Hebrew sentence, that’s our clue that this sentence is a comparison. The way we indicate this comparison in English is with “better.” And, of course, that’s what every translation has: “it’s better that I give her to you than to some other man” (NIV).

The point is that Hebrew has one way of indicating degree and English has another. It’s a mistake to translate the words of Hebrew into English. Rather, the goal of the translator, in this case, is to translate the comparison. More generally, the goal of the translator is to figure out what the original words do, and then find a way of doing the same thing in English.

Some people think that the goal of “adding words in English” is just to make what would otherwise be nonsensical (“it is good, my giving her to you, from my giving her to another man”) into something that makes sense. But that’s not quite right. Rather, the goal is to make the English mean the same thing as the Hebrew.

Similarly, some people think that the “from” in the second part of the Hebrew sentence means that “we should translate tov as ‘better.’ ” But, again, that’s not quite right. We’re not translating tov. We’re translating the phrase.

We find another case of the same grammatical issue (degree) in Genesis 4:13: gadol avoni minso, literally, “big my crime from-bear,” with the obvious translation “my crime is too great to bear.” Again, we add the words “too” and “to” not just to make a coherent English sentence, but to make the right coherent English sentence, one that matches the Hebrew.

November 15, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 4 Comments


Last week’s freak snowstorm that blanketed the vibrant fall foliage with snow was truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I think it was even worth being without power for a week.

Driveway with Snow Foliage

Driveway with Snow Foliage

Snow Foliage

Snow Foliage

Snow Foliage

Snow Foliage

Driving Home

Driving Home

November 7, 2011 Posted by | Off Topic | | Comments Off on Snowtober

Translation Challenge: “With” and “For” in Isaiah 54:7

Isaiah 54:7 — part of the incredibly uplifting poetry of Isaiah 54 — has two parallel phrases, both starting with the Hebrew b-. First we find b- attached to rega (“moment”), and then next attached to rachamim (“mercy” or “love” or “compassion”). The effect is to underscore the contrast between God abandoning for a moment and taking back in mercy.

Yet every translation I know destroys the parallel structure, as, for example, the NRSV: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (my emphasis). In other words, for b’rega the translations have “for [a moment],” but “with [compassion]” for “b’rachamim.”

It’s true that the Hebrew prefix b- can mean both “for” and “with,” among many other possibilities. (It’s a bit like the ablative case — an observation which is likely to help only the people who already knew that.) But here, the whole point is to contrast two phrases that start the same way. So while the translations get the general point of the line, they butcher the poetic effect.

The contrast is further underscored through the Hebrew modifiers katon (“small”) after rega and gadol (“big”) after rachamim. (This is the “brief” and “great” in the NRSV translation.)

So here’s the challenge: Can you think of a way to express Isaiah’s thoughts here while also keeping the important poetic structure? (My best shot is in the comments.)

November 7, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , | 14 Comments