Shema / First Commandment / Great Commandment

An inquisitive, contemplative friend recently asked me, “Is it commonly cited in the first commandment, when they say to love the Lord, that they say with your heart, soul, and mind? All three things?”

Simply put, the answer is “sometimes.” 🙂 To be more precise, the answer is “it’s complicated.” 🙂

To explain the earliest history of the so-called First Commandment or Great Commandment, it is important to note three distinct stages.

Stage 1: The Shema in the Hebrew Bible

Deuteronomy 6:4-5, probably written around the late 7th century BCE, is the opening of the Shema. I would translate it as follows:

(6:4) Listen, Israel! YHWH our god, YHWH (is) one. (6:5) You will love YHWH your god with all your heart and with all your life and with all your might.

The words “life” (Hebrew, nefesh) and “might” (Hebrew, meod) are particularly fascinating and important. Often “life” gets translated as “soul,” but this Hebrew term should not be confused with Greek/Platonic notions of an invisible and immortal soul. It is instead the life-force within persons and animals. Meod is often translated as “strength,” but could also be translated as “force” or even “excess.” In Rabbinic interpretation, it was common to read meod as a command to demonstrate love for god with all of one’s financial means.

Stage 2: The Shema in the Septuagint (Hellenistic Jewish Bible)

The translation of the Hebrew Shema into Greek in the Septuagint (created 2nd century BCE) transformed its meaning in certain ways.

(6:4) Listen, Israel! Lord our god, Lord is one. (6:5) And you will love Lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your power.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew nefesh (“life”) as psyche (“soul”) lends itself to more Greek/Platonic notions of the soul, and the Greek translation of the Hebrew meod (“power/force/excess”) as dunamis (“power/strength/energy/ability”) may narrow its semantic potential and make financial/economic interpretations less likely.

Stage 3: The Great/First Commandment Identified by Jesus in the New Testament

In the Gospel of Mark (12:29-30), written around 70-75 AD/CE, Jesus is quoted as saying that the “first” (prote) commandment is that mentioned at the outset of the Shema:

(12:30) You shall love the lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your thought and with all your strength.

The text of this commandment is later followed/copied word for word by the Gospel of Matthew (22:37) and Luke (10:27). The word for “strength” here (ischuos) is slightly different than what is found in the Septuagint, but it probably doesn’t transform the meaning very much.

Far more significant is the addition of a fourth term, dianoias, which is typically translated into English as “mind” or “understanding,” but could also be translated as “thought” or “thinking.” Through the expansion of terms from three to four, the New Testament (proto-Christian) version of the Shema becomes more involved, more internalized, more a matter of patterns and habits of thought. In other words, the way we think becomes a way of worshiping, honoring, and loving God.

It should also be said that Matthew and Luke do recontextualize Mark’s quotation, though. Mark has Jesus quote it in response to scribes, but Matthew and Luke make it a response to a “lawyer” or “Torah-expert.” In Matthew, it is described as the “greatest” (not “first”) commandment, whereas in Luke it is not called “first” nor the “greatest” commandment, but is instead simply a response to a question about how to inherit eternal life. In other words, the custom to call this the “First Commandment” comes from Mark, but the custom to call it the “Great/Greatest Commandment” comes from Matthew.