Chris Thayer is the Director of Discipleship at Good Shepherd Church in Charlotte, NC where he oversees adult life groups and Biblical education. On Thursdays I share his weekly “Thayer’s Thoughts” for small group leaders, which are based on the previous Sunday’s sermon. Click HERE to watch or listen to the accompanying sermon.
The Bible wasn’t originally written in English. Not even Elizabethan English (i.e. the King James). The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Koine (common) Greek. Since most of us don’t have a working knowledge of Biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek, we rely on scholars who translate from the original languages into modern English to understand what’s written. On your Bible, you’ll notice it has (usually) three or four letters on the front and/or spine such as NIV, ESV, NASB, KJV, etc. These represent the name of the translation of your Bible. These specific examples are: New International Version, English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, and King James Version.
If you’ve ever translated from one language to another or learned another language-you know it’s not easy. One of the reasons it’s difficult is due to idioms. Expressions that have an intended figurative meaning that is often not recognized by non-native speakers. For instance, in Biblical Hebrew there is an expression that translates literally: “he was long of nose.” When we read that, it looks like the author’s talking about Pinocchio. However, it’s a Hebrew idiom. It means “he was angry.” So when a Bible translator translates that phrase into English, they write “he was angry” to avoid unnecessary confusion and faithfully represent what is intended by the text.
What does this have to do with today’s passage of scripture? In your LifeGroups or among your neighbors on Sunday mornings, you may notice that what the NIV translates as “and what no human mind has conceived” (1 Corinthians 2:9) is worded differently in other translations. Particularly, the word “mind” is replaced with “heart” in the NASB, KJV, and ESV while other translations such as the CEB and NLT go along with the NIV in translating it as “mind.” So which is it? Heart or mind? Both.
The Greek word in question is καρδια (transliterated: Kardia). You may notice that this sounds very similar to the English word “cardiac.” This is because this Greek word is the root for the word cardiac (of or relating to the heart). Literally translated, Kardia, is “heart.” So why do the NIV, CEB, NLT (and others) translate it as mind?
The answer is because of the differences in how we idiomatically use the word “heart” and how it was understood when Paul used it. For 21st century Americans, the heart is the seat of emotions. We speak of an unrequited love “breaking our heart” or say that we’re especially sad by proclaiming “my heart hurts.” These sayings have nothing to do with the actual heart muscle. We use “heart” when we speak of our emotions (as opposed to our mind which we use to describe our rationality). However, as scholar Ben Witherington notes in his Socio Rhetorical Commentary on Corinthians: “…the heart in Hebrew thinking is the center of reflection and thought as well as of will and feelings.” For the Hebrew, the heart encompassed more than just emotions.
So knowing that we would likely miss Paul’s intended meaning if they translated kardia as heart: some translators chose to translate it as mind. Other translators leave it as heart-leaving it to the reader to know the background. Neither is incorrect. Both are striving to be faithful to the text.