In Jewish spirituality, the Shema is the most primary part of their confession of faith – that there is but one God, that he is the Lord, and that it is the responsibility of his people to love the Lord God with every fiber of their being. Found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the very essence of the Shema reads:
The three parts of God’s command for his peoples’ commitment to this love involves theirs hearts, their souls, and all of their might. The Hebrew word for “heart” here is lebab, and it indicates the innermost core of a human being. “Soul” is a translation of the world nephesh, and means the life, the person and all of his or her desires, appetites, and emotions. Meod is the Hebrew word for “might,” and scholar Bernard L. Levinson tells us that while the word’s basic meaning is “might” or “strength,” it also meant “property” and “wealth” in some contexts, and so “each call for full commitment to God, whether psychology or practical (Jewish Study Bible, p. 380).”
When Jesus is asked about the greatest of the commandments, he brings us back to the Shema.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40.
Instead of heart, soul, and might, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus lists heart, soul, and mind – kardia, psuche, and dianoia in Greek. At first, it seems as if Matthew has gotten the Shema wrong somehow, which wouldn’t make sense if the sacred author was actually an observant Jew – someone who had been in the habit of professing the Shema two times a day, every day, for all of his life, as was the custom (Kaufmann). Matthew, who was writing in Greek, didn’t even copy the version found in the Septuagint, which used kardia, psuche, and dunamis – easily translated as heart, soul, and might. What could be going on in this text?
The first thing to remember is that what is being dealt with is a translation, which is also a matter of interpretation. Jesus and the people he knew typically spoke Aramaic, though most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, including the Shema. The Septuagint was the standard translation of the Old Testament in Greek during the time of Jesus and the apostles, but often the sacred writers were either quoting from memory or, just as likely, were working at translating not only words, but meaning. This is what we find in Matthew and also in Mark. Mark’s Gospel, for instance, gives us four words by way of trying to interpret the three terms found in the Shema:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31.
Using four words broke the rhythm of the original Hebrew, but Mark was after clarity, not poetry. In recording the words of Jesus, Matthew kept the rhythm of the original Hebrew, finished with a word to translate meod that would also imply strength – dianoia, and he wrote in a more exact form of Greek than Mark used. Dianoia implies strength because it is used in regard to critical thinking. It is loving God with all of our ability to think rationally.
On the more exact nature of Matthew’s Greek, Tresmontant explains that a literal translation of the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy would be to love the Lord your God in all of your heart, in all of your soul, and in all of your might rather than with. In the Greek of Matthew’s Gospel, the author uses the word en, which is closer to the original meaning than Mark’s version, which uses ex, presumably following the translation of Deuteronomy found in the Septuagint (Tresmontant, p. 515).
To sum it all up, in the Gospel of Matthew, the sacred author improved on the text of the standard Greek translation of Deuteronomy. He also sought to keep the rhythm of Deuteronomy’s tripartite commitment to loving God, and he used a word that would note a specific kind of mental strength, dianoia. This was a different kind of interior life than the words “heart” or “soul” would convey. He was not just being redundant or careless.
“Deuteronomion,” Peters, Melvin K.H.,, tr., A New English Translation of the Septuagint, https://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/05-deut-nets.pdf
Kaufmann, Kohler, and Eisenstein, Judah David, “Shema,” Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906.
Levinson, Bernard M., The Jewish Study Bible, Berlin, Adele, and Brettler, Marc Zvi, editors, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Tresmontant, Claude, The Gospel of Matthew, Whitehead, K.D., tr., Christendom Press, 1996.
1 May 2022