In a recent article discussing the New Living Translation, Daniel Block argues in favor of dynamic equivalence translation (“thought for thought”) over formal equivalence translation (“word for word”). He claims that Jesus himself favored this translation philosophy, citing the differences between Luke 10.27 and Deuteronomy 6.5 as evidence. Block says:
Jesus’ quotation of Deuteronomy 6:5 demonstrates that the Savior himself had adopted NLT’s translation theory:Deuteronomy 6:5
You must love the LORD your God
with all your heart (leb),
all your soul (nephesh),
and all your strength (me’od).Luke 10:27
You must love the LORD your God
with all your heart (kardia),
all your soul (psyche),
all your strength (ischus),
and all your mind (dianoia).
How could Jesus render a statement that had three critical elements in the Hebrew original with four Greek words? The answer is obvious when we realize that Hebrew leb cannot be fully represented with a single word “heart.” In almost half the occurrences in the Old Testament, the word represents primarily the seat of thought, rather than the seat of the will or emotion. Therefore to represent it with only one word in the target language is to skew the meaning, which apparently led Jesus to add “with all your mind” at the end. Here a word for word translation would have been lexically precise, but inaccurate in meaning.
Block makes an important point but wraps it in a bad argument. Dynamic translation is a worthy translation philosophy, but to cite Jesus as essentially endorsing the NLT is going a step too far.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t say those words, it’s the expert in the Law who says them. Jesus agrees with the answer (Lk. 10.28), but he’s not the one who actually puts forth that translation of Deuteronomy 6.5. In Matthew 22.37 Jesus does say “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and in Mark 12.30 he says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (NIV2011) We have in the Gospels three citations of Deuteronomy 6.5 (two of them spoken by Jesus) and each uses different wording.
It’s important to realize that these three verses might not all be describing the same event. Jesus surely would have been questioned many times by the experts in the Law and it seems entirely plausible that this question would have been asked at different times by different people. Jesus would have given essentially the same response, but he didn’t have to use the exact same words each time.
But regardless of whether or not these are accounts of the same event, we don’t necessarily have the exact words that Jesus spoke, or even know if they were originally in Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. The gospel authors record Jesus’ message in Greek (a dynamic translation?) but for the most part we simply don’t know precisely what Jesus said. The message that the Gospel writers are trying to convey is that Jesus replied by quoting Deuteronomy 6.5, not that he added or subtracted from the exact words of the Law in order to make a subtle theological point. And to properly understand the significance of Jesus’ answer, one must try to properly understand what that Law really says.
Deuteronomy 6.5, in a very general sense, simply says “love God with all of yourself.” The NET Bible translates it like this: “You must love the LORD your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength.” It’s meant to be a command that captures the essence of who we are. We can’t fully love God if we only love him emotionally, we can’t fully love God if we only intellectually support him — we can only truly and fully love God if we do so with everything we have available to give him.
If a dynamic translation is the best, and Jesus himself actually provides the definitive translation of Deut. 6.5 in Mark 12.30, why then does the NLT translate Deut. 6.5 as “And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength”? Rather than capturing the “true meaning” of the text, as supposedly provided by Jesus, the NLT sticks with a word for word translation! A truly dynamic “translation” is given in The Message, which renders Deut 6.5 as “Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!”
But, as one drifts into the land of paraphrase (and The Message is certainly a paraphrase), one loses something valuable: gone is the chance to interpret the text for ourselves. The translator/paraphraser has made important interpretive decisions for us. We’ve lost the direct connection to the words of the original documents and instead are given someone else’s understanding of what the original words really meant. If we rely solely on the interpretations of others, we will never be able to fully interact with the text and will be settling for a less-than-complete experience.
Block is entirely correct that the Hebrew “heart” isn’t merely a physiological or emotional description. Alex Luc, in the NIDOTTE, says that the Hebrew word leb has “a dominant metaphorical use in reference to the center of human psychical and spiritual life, to the entire inner life of a person.” But the Greek kardia has an equally inclusive meaning: BDAG offers a lengthy and nuanced entry that begins with a definition of kardia as the “center and source of the whole inner life, w. its thinking, feeling, and volition.” This is hardly a reductive meaning that necessitated Jesus adding “mind” to his answer in order to capture the totality of our obligation to love God. Deuteronomy 6.5, whether in Hebrew or in Greek, whether cited in Matthew, Mark or Luke, whether quoted by Jesus or the expert, all mean essentially the same thing.
D.A. Carson, in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary sums up this point nicely: “From the viewpoint of biblical anthropology, ‘heart,’ ‘soul,’ and ‘mind’ (Mt 22:37) are not mutually exclusive but overlapping categories, together demanding our love for God to come from our whole person, our every faculty and capacity.”
To return to Block’s original point — a dynamic translation is an appropriate and noble goal, but we also must guard against over-interpreting the text. In the case of Deuteronomy 6.5, if we were to reduce it down to just the skeleton of its meaning, we’d be left with “Love God with all of yourself.” Not only does such a “dynamic” paraphrase ignore the richness of the underlying text, it also ignores the richness of who we are as humans. Jesus didn’t advocate a specific translation philosophy and certainly doesn’t favor a specific Bible version — what’s important to God is not what Bible we read, but that we love him with all we have: all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength.