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

Hebrew

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

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.”]

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