God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How to Love the Lord Your God – Part 3, “Heart and Soul”

In two previous postings (here and here) I show how “Love the Lord your God with all your heart [and] all your soul” — from Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 — actually refers to two specific aspects of being human: the intangible (levav in Hebrew or kardia in Greek) and the tangible (nefesh in Hebrew or psuche in Greek). Essentially, the words translated as “heart” and “soul” are like the computer terms “software” and “hardware,” but for people.

So “heart” in English is inaccurate as a translation, because it refers only to emotion, while the original includes intellect. And “soul” in English is even worse, because it suggests intangible qualities, but the original specifically referred to tangible things like the flesh, blood, and breath.

While we don’t have convenient words in English to express these “software” and “hardware” aspects in people, we are lucky that we have a pair of words that does. The English pair, like levav/nefesh or kardia/psuche, refers to the combination of these two concepts. And that pair is “mind and body.”

Normally the word “mind” in English indicates intellect to the exclusion of emotion, and normally “body” tends to focus on flesh rather than blood or breath. But taken together they assume broader meanings.

We see these broader meanings, for example, in the “mind-body connection,” which refers to the fact that both how we feel and what we think are connected to more physical matters. For instance, it’s becoming clear that losing a loved one can increase the risk of heart attack. That’s the mind-body connection. Taking deep breaths can help mitigate agony. That’s also the mind-body connection. And so forth.

So I would translate the first two parts of Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, as “love the Lord your God with all your mind and body…”


January 18, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I like your translation, Joel. It’s nice to see that a pair of words in English can, between the two of them, cover the same semantic space used by the Hebrew terms, even though neither English word by itself exactly matches the individual Hebrew words.

    This has been a helpful series. Thanks.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | January 18, 2012

  2. Your translation might work better as a rendering of the Hebrew than of the Greek. I’m quite sure that Aristotle did distinguish between kardia — or καρδία — psyke — or ψυχη — and nous — or νοῦς — See his entire treatise on the psyche or psuche — originally called Περὶ Ψυχῆς (or Perì Psūchês, if we want various transliterations). But he did not distinguish these as tangible and as intangible, as you do. And where he did it’s actually closer to the reverse of what you have: the heart was more tangible (with blood around it) than the soul, he wrote, or the kardia than the psuke. Moreover, going with the four terms in Luke 10:27, Aristotle writes of ischyros — or ἰσχυρός — in contrast to these other features of being, in his treatise Generation of Animals. Plato on the other hand, in a couple of his dialogues, has his characters conflating kardia and psuche, and psuche and ischyros. Aristotle was the scientist. Go figure.

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | January 18, 2012

    • I’m sure, in general, “[mind and] body” is more suited to the Hebrew than the Greek, because (as I point out in “Part 2,” and as you suggest here) the Greek psuche doesn’t always match the Hebrew nefesh. But as a translation for nefesh, I wonder to what extent the Greek did in this case.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 18, 2012

      • I suspect the LXX Greek matches the Hebrew distinctions pretty well. My understanding (from Naomi Seidman’s Faithful Renderings and Sylvie Honingman’s Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria) is that the diaspora translators in Alexandria were not following Aristotelian prescriptive Greek but were using the Greek of the poets and playwrights more. By the time the New Testament is written, especially the gospels — where spoken Aramaic in Jerusalem is also translated into Greek — it’s a little tougher to speculate what the translators there and then were doing with the Hellene. Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27 all do depart from the Septuagint’s Deuteronomy 6:5 in fairly unusual and respective ways, the differences mainly being around how/ whether there’s a Greek match to the Hebrew meod (מְאֹד).

        Comment by J. K. Gayle | January 19, 2012

  3. It seems to me that there are at least two questions about the Greek in the LXX:

    What were the translators trying to do; and

    What did they actually do.

    So, in this case, they were probably trying to match the Hebrew, but did they? How would a Greek speaker of the day have heard the Greek of the LXX?

    It’s not uncommon for translators to make up their own conventions, hoping that readers will somehow magically get the code-book needed to understand the translation, so it wouldn’t surprise me if this happened in the LXX.

    And all of this comes into play before we even look at m’od, which, at least for me, is the hardest of the three words.

    Comment by Joel H. | January 19, 2012

  4. I follow your argument for “mind and body”. While ‘nefesh’ is related to the physical realm as you have clearly shown, it seems odd to me that there wouldn’t be a straightforward English equivalent term for something that is physical in nature.

    If we put aside metonymy, for the moment, I understand that ‘nephesh’ is consistently rendered as “life” in most, if not all of the translations. And since (physical) life is visible and tangible, this translation resonates perfectly with what you have presented.

    On the other hand, when Moses described a man and his wife being joined together, he used ‘basar’ (flesh/body) rather than ‘nephesh’ to metaphorically express their unity.

    As such, my understanding is that ‘nephesh’ conveys the idea of (physical) life while ‘basar’ conveys the idea of bodily form/substance (mostly literal, but applied figuratively in the case of marriage). Both are tangible and physical in nature, yet clearly distinct from each other.

    So, my inclination is to translate Deut 6:5 as “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your mind, life and strength”. That is, it includes how we think and feel, how we conduct our lives, and how passionate we are in applying ourselves. I think this properly conveys all of the features that make us human – that is, cognition, human function, and desire/cravings.

    Comment by Robert Kan | January 20, 2012

  5. So, my inclination is to translate Deut 6:5 as “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your mind, life…”

    I understand where this is coming from, but I don’t think it captures the point of the original Hebrew, for two reasons.

    The word “mind” doesn’t do justice to levav, because “mind” usually specifically excludes emotion. The only reason I think we can go with “mind and body” is that in that phrase, “mind” includes emotion.

    And “life” for nefesh is way too broad. The nefesh is only one aspect of life. Using “life” for nefesh, I think, is as much a mistake as using “life” for levav.

    Or to think of it another way, basar (“flesh”) is part of nefesh, and nefesh is part of “life.” Other parts of nefesh are the blood and the breath; and other parts of “life” are levav.

    Comment by Joel H. | January 20, 2012

    • To address your first point, I think that “mind” is sufficient for capturing “thoughts & emotions”, if we agree that this is where we process our thoughts and emotions in today’s context. The use of “love with your heart” is more poetic, and seems to have little relevance to this discussion.

      Your second point is of some confusion to me. If the author wanted to simply convey the mind-body connection, why did he use the levav/nefesh pairing, instead of the levav/basar pairing? I am under the impression, correctly or incorrectly, that the author used ‘nefesh’ because he wanted to make it broad. By your own admission, ‘basar’ is a subset of ‘nefesh’. So ‘basar’ is specifically flesh/body and ‘nefesh’ is broader concept.

      What about: “You shall love the Lord your God with your entire mind and all that you are and with all of your strength”?

      Comment by Robert Kan | January 20, 2012

  6. So “basar” is specifically flesh/body and “nefesh” is a broader concept.

    Yes, but nefesh is still primarily physical and tangible, in opposition to levav which is intangible, and also in opposition to “soul” in English, which is even more ethereal.

    Returning the computer analogy, levav and basar would be like “software and monitor,” while levav and nefesh is like “software and hardware.”

    Comment by Joel H. | January 22, 2012

  7. […] The third part in this series is here.] Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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  8. I use “all your essence and all your being, and all your strength when I am free to use variant translations.

    Comment by Paula Goldberg | June 22, 2012

  9. the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (Gen 2:7 TNK)– the LXX uses psyche–not sure of the Hebrew–the good old King Jimmy has “soul”. I would take that to indicate that “soul” is not an intangible, but it is more than the tangible–it is the tangible animated by the intangible breath/life given by God.

    Comment by David | June 24, 2012

  10. How would you describe the original intention of God in Deut 6:5 while taking into account the fallibility of individuals who tries to express God’s thoughts in the translations?

    Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6)

    Faith without love means nothing to God (i Cor 13:2) so faith and love go together.

    Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God ( Rm 10:17) – so faith, scripture, love go together

    Knowledge without love is all academic and it puffs up (1 Cor 13:2) – so faith, scripture-knowledge, love go together

    And if love must emerge from the heart as God intended – then heart is the place where God’s love proposition about Himself through His Word/His Son has been consumated, faith developed and God’s work being done -like loving the neighbor.

    Back to my question, how should a new believer understand all you have been saying. Granted discussion are probabbly meant for the intellectuals of the scripture, but what about the new believer who wants to love God as in Det 6:5 and in Luke 10:27

    Comment by Abraham AJ | June 27, 2012

    • I think the answer depends on your approach.

      If you want to follow the original intent, I think you’d focus on the “mind and body”: human existence consists of physical and non-physical aspects, and the commandment stresses this duality and specifically applies to both.

      Alternatively, I believe it’s equally valid to follow a particular interpretive tradition. I think it’s important to know what the text originally meant, but I think that’s only part of forming a religious practice.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 28, 2012

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  12. […] Jer 7:31 And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. [the Hebrews understood heart and mind to be one and the same] […]

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