Meaning of heart in the bible

Yes you do interpret the Bible with science

Evolutionary creation raises the ire of conservatives who are prone to insist that since God cannot lie (Titus 1:2) it follows the account of Genesis 1-3 must be understood as “literal in all its details” (per the South Australian IEAC Reaffirmation Statement).  They claim the testimony of God’s creation (as explained by science) cannot be correct if it contradicts their literal reading.  There are a host of problems with this approach, including the unrecognized self-referencing standard of truth (“their literal reading”).  It is also inconsistent with their approach to the Bible, an issue we will explore.

To demonstrate this inconsistency, we will take one example, the biblical use of the heart.  The heart is used as the place of thought, although medically it is not.  The problem for the literalist is significant:

  1. If the heart demonstrates the bible accommodates the original audience misunderstandings then their demands for the literality of Gen 1 fails, as the text could be accommodating the first audience
  2. If they claim the bible uses the heart symbolically not literally, then they should be able to articulate the basis of identifying the literal versus symbolic use. This basis should differentiate Genesis 1 from say the heart – otherwise they making arbitrarily interpretive decisions
  3. If they are unable to show from the text why the heart was clearly a metaphor whilst maintaining it is, then they are relying on external knowledge (i.e. science) to identify it as such. This is grossly inconsistent with their demand that science not interpret the bible (like say for Genesis 1).


The heart is the place of thought in the Bible

The very first time we run into the word heart is in Genesis 6:5

God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually

Clearly the heart is being used of the place of thought and imagination.  The passage reads as prose (not poetry).  God’s interest in the heart, as the place of man’s thought, is not restricted to Genesis.  It continues through the Bible, e.g.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?  I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins [literally “try the kidneys”], even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.”  Jer 17:9-10 KJV

In our culture we sometimes use the heart as a symbol of emotion, especially love.  This is not the biblical use.  In the Bible the heart is used of the internal thinking.  The heart is occasionally used of emotions but more specifically, emotions were located in the bowels, or to be precise, the kidneys.  This can cause confusion when people try to project our cultural imagery back 2,000 plus years.  Jeremiah is not an isolated case either, e.g. David invited God to test his heart and kidneys in Psalm 26:2.

The Bible consistently and explicitly speaks of the heart as the place of thought e.g. Deut 15:9, Psa 33:11, Heb 4:12 and many more.  In addition to being used of a place of thought, the word is also used in a clearly figurative way – e.g. the heart melting Isa 13:7.  What is absent from scripture is the heart being used in a way which describes its true function i.e. as a pump.


What do the Lexicons & dictionaries say?

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says of the Hebrew that the word means

 “heart, understanding, mind (also used in idioms such as “to set the heart upon” meaning to think about or “to want”)”

TWOT goes through the many idiomatic uses of the heart – which build off the initial incorrect understanding – and notes that

“thought functions may be attributed to the heart.  In such cases it is likely to be translated as mind or understanding…The heart is the seat of will”

Bible dictionaries generally (Easton’s, Naves, Torreys, Vines) all point to the same understanding, the heart is the centre of the individual/thought and is used in additional metaphoric ways.  The physical/scientific reality of such descriptions being technically incorrect is not considered significant.  Some of the expressions have moved (with modifications) into English as common figures of speech (apart from the kidneys, the kidneys always miss out!).

The constant through all bible dictionaries is the actual function of the heart is not given in the Bible.  It is described as the centre of the man, the place of thought and self.  True it is also used in many overtly figuratively ways which build off this misunderstanding of the heart as the place of thought.  But the Bible doesn’t reveal the correct function of the heart, or connect the head/brain with the mind or thought.


Literalist Objection – The Bible does not accommodate errors by the listeners

Yes, we have heard this said.  And seen it in writing.  People (including well known speakers) have said this accommodation cannot happen because it makes God a liar – but He can’t lie per Titus 1:2.

This is an example of creationists throwing any argument regardless of its merits.  It is totally inconsistent with the long-standing understanding of the Bible in the Christadelphian community.  We have always accepted the bible does accommodate the errors of the listeners.  E.g. demons as used in the synoptic gospels, Acts and James (a subject with marked theological overtones) I and all Christadelphians take it to refer to the source of mental illness and afflictions.  As Bro Ron Abel noted, “Jesus simply used the vernacular of the times”[1].  This assessment is well founded, there is no doubt about the beliefs of Jesus contemporaries.  Josephus clearly believed in demons, recounting stories of Solomon driving them out in Antiquities[2] and mentioning demons again in Wars [3].  The Dead Sea Scroll 4Q560 demonstrates the belief in demons driving disease of many types was not limited to Josephus’ circle[4].

Bro Roberts stated that speaking of demons was

“conformity to the language in which such afflictions were described in the days of Jesus.  That language no doubt had its foundation in the Pagan and widespread belief that mental maladies were attributable to the presence of “demons”—(myths of Pagan imagination); but the employment of the language does not carry with it a profession of faith in the idea expressed[5].

Boulton states plainly “the language used is accommodated to the thoughts and ideas of the times then current[6].  Similarly, Bro C Crawford & E Whittaker recognised that “Christadelphians usually subscribe to… [the view that Jesus] accommodated himself to the idea held at the time”[7].  Bro Harry Tennant put it that

“Jesus had to use for the sufferer language which was helpful to him. The sufferer had been told by those around him that his trouble was demon possession. Jesus had to deal with that fact in the process of his healing work. …It is very difficult to see what other kind of language the Lord could have used when speaking to a deluded person.[8]

Snobelen notes this accommodation of error had a geographic tendency, reinforcing the point this is about the audience rather than the facts:

Demon-possession in the Gospel accounts is not a geographically-uniform phenomenon. Specific cases of demon-possession in the synoptics occur in regional clusters, always in northern environs such as Galilee[9]

The long-standing Christadelphian approach to the bible was set out by Bro Clement in 1884:

“The Bible does not speak in the literal and strictly scientific language of the nineteenth century, but in the language of the day in which it was written”[10]

A right understanding of the whole of Scripture would dispel any notion of literal demons.  However, at the time of interaction, and when it was recorded, Christ and NT writers under inspiration used factually incorrect terminology which echoed the misunderstandings of the local audience.

The argument by literalists that talk of accommodation is making God a liar is inconsistent with our community history and inconsistent with their own explanation of other examples.  That such a statement can be made is telling.


Literalist Objection – The heart is used in a figurative way (so it is always figurative)

Literalists seize on the fact that most bible dictionaries, after defining the heart as the place of thought, note the heart is used figuratively.  This is obvious from the bible.  The heart is clearly used in a manner which cannot be understood literally.  E.g. a heart doesn’t melt and the original audience knew this.  It does not follow that because SOME uses are figurative that ALL uses are figurative.  Such a position reflects poor logic.

On what grounds does the conservative insist the heart is used as a metaphor or figure of speech in every case?  If something is a metaphor or figure, we should be able to identify it as such from the text.  What are the exegetical principles?  If the principles cannot be articulated then either the decision is arbitrary or external evidence is being used (like modern medical science).

This is a dilemma for the literalist.  If there are no clear rules that jump off the page, how can they claim Genesis 1 is literal?  It too could be figurative like the heart?  Alternatively, if they admit the heart is a metaphor due to external knowledge (science), well science (including medical science) says Genesis 1 is not literal.…


Literalist Objection – Everyone knew it was symbol back then

Sometimes this objection is conveyed in an aggressive wrapper ‘you are saying ancient people were stupid/ill-informed/etc’.  Good rhetoric but is it good logic?  Until comparatively recent time the earth was flat, space time didn’t curve, human flight was impossible (let alone space travel) and apples didn’t need recharging.  Previous generations’ knowledge was significantly less than ours.  That doesn’t make them stupid, just less knowledgeable.

Did everyone know the heart was really a pump and not the centre of thought?  Did they understand it was a symbol?  After all we use it as a symbol now right?  Note that given the literalist is making the claim about facts which are not evident from the Bible, the burden of proof rests with them.  They don’t rise to the challenge though, just make assertions…

Our culture is significantly impacted by the bible, its language and ideas.  We cannot project this backwards as evidence of what they thought.  Pointing to pop songs and poems of today referring to the heart does not prove everyone has knowing used the symbol this way since the garden of Eden. Sadly such exercises miss the point, even leaving aside the dearth of poets declaring their kidneys belong forever to their muse.  Perhaps there is a commercial opportunity for a biblically based music genre here – kidney love?  Not likely.

As the literalists make assertions without fulfilling their burden of proof, let us volunteer some critical information to the discussion.  Western medicine took a long time to finally crack the circulatory system.  Describing the system correctly is often attributed to William Harvey in 1628 although in fairness Ibn al-Nafis got pretty close in 1242[11].  Others made significant contributions, but were seemingly hampered by the need to have the blood as the seat of life and convey the spirit through the body (i.e. they were trying to use the Bible to make sense of the body, and saw it was part of theology, e.g. Michael Servetus[12]).

weighing the heart egyptian

Weighing the heart (ie the character of a person) in Egyptian mythology

Going back in history to the time the Bible was written and we find misunderstanding was the norm.  The incorrect understanding of the function of various body organs is consistent with the medical misunderstandings of cultures around Israel.  As depicted, Egyptians believed the heart was weighed against a feather as part of the judgment process post-death (language reflected in the bible e.g. Prov 21:2 where “every way of a man is right in his own eyes but God weighs the heart” and similarly in Prov 24:12).  The heart was believed to the centre of the person and their intelligence – the same way it is used in the Old Testament.[13]

The brain, by contrast, was regarded as worthless and discarded as almost the first step of the embalming process.  The first medical mention of the brain appears to be an Egyptian army field surgeon dealing with various head wounds.  Despite these observations and much dissection in the mummification process in

“Egyptian medical writings…the heart, not the brain, is the most important organ, the seat of the mind and center of intellectual activity”[14]

This incorrect understanding of the brain and heart remained in place until the 6th and 5th century BC (ie after most conservatives believe the majority of Old Testament was completed) when some Greeks began to place intelligence in the brain.  This was not widely accepted with influential figures like Aristotle holding out for the heart as the organ of thought.[15]

The evidence says the literalist assertion that everyone knew the heart was a figure of speech is incorrect.  If they wish to promote the ‘everyone knew the functions of the heart/brain’ they need to provide evidence rather than assertion.  They don’t provide such evidence, just assertions that it must be so to match their reading of the bible.  The evidence from ancient time is, once again, very much against them.


Literalist Objection – The mind is in the Bible, so they knew the head was the place of thinking

Sometimes the literalist will claim the bible does in fact reveal that thinking occurred in the head rather than the heart.  Let’s examine some of the claimed proof texts:

  • Daniel 4:5 records the prophet saying “the thoughts upon my bed, and the visions of my head troubled me”. The literalist assumes the thoughts and visions are occurring in the same place.  However, the language, which is exclusive to Daniel, of seeing things in the head is consistent with the location of the eyes.  We know from Luke 6:22 the eyes were considered the lamp of the body, i.e. a light source.  This doesn’t prove thought was understood to occur in the head, just vision. This explanation upsets the literalist, one of whom responded saying “dreams and visions are in the head. This is where the imagination is. Do you seriously believe that visions occur in the head because the eyes are there? When visions took place the eyes were open but they weren’t seeing anything (Numb 24:4)”  Um yes.  How do you know dreams and visions happen in the head?  Because of science, not the Bible…
  • In Genesis 26:35 spirit/ruach is translated mind. It is used of the disposition of an individual (e.g. Prov 29:11 and Ezek 11:5).  One literalist pointed out that this means the mind generated thoughts, to prove the function of the brain was understood.  Unwittingly this is again using science to understand the bible.  The issue is the location of the mind, which ruach does nothing to help with.  These quotes are literally useless to the discussion, yet they are raised.  Why?  Because there is literally no sound Bible support for their position so they resort to strange leaps of logic.
  • A brother claimed “In Jeremiah 31:33 God says He will put His law in Israel’s inward parts and write it in their hearts. When this is quoted in Heb 8:10 Paul states ‘I will put their law in their mind and write it in their hearts.’ When he re-quotes this in Heb 10:16 he writes ‘I will put my laws into their hearts and minds.’ The interchange of expressions indicates that ‘inward parts’, ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ are all used interchangeably and basically equivalent.[16] This argument was very curious. As the creationist notes, the mind and heart are used interchangeably.  This is the point exactly, proven nicely.  I can’t imagine why they argued it, but thank you.  The head or brain on the other hand is not mentioned in any of the three passages.  In defending their position the literalist demonstrates that heart/mind/thought are interchangeable through the Old Testament and into the New.  QED.
  • Mark 5:15 – when Legion was healed he was in his right mind, Mark 14:72 – Peter called to mind the word, Rom 7:23 – the law of my mind, Rom 12:1 the renewing of your mind, Eph 2:3 the desires of the flesh and mind, Col 1:21 enemies in your mind. These quotes were brought forward specifically in support of the claim that “the inspired writers were not scientifically ignorant of where thoughts came from

It is evident in every single one of these quotes that the location of the mind is not detailed.  Instead the conservative’s own scientific knowledge is influencing their reading and understanding.  The Bible does not locate the mind in the head.  When thought is located it is in the heart – as this same individual proved comprehensively with their use of Jeremiah 31.  The lack of consistency in the argument is perplexing.

It is evident that the literalist argues not only inconsistently but fundamentally is unwittingly using science to interpret the Bible.  Seizing on the word mind as evidence of thinking occurring in the brain is blatantly inserting their medical knowledge into the text.


Literalist Objection – The head is used as the seat of thinking in the Bible

No it isn’t.  As any review of dictionaries etc would show.  Here is the whole entry in The Complete Word Study Dictionary:

  1. רֹאשׁ rōʾš: A masculine noun meaning a head, hair, a person, a point, the top, the beginning, the best, a chief, a leader. It is clear from the multitude of legitimate translations of this word that it has many metaphorical meanings. In Scripture, the word is used to refer to a human head (Gen. 40:16); it also refers to animal heads as well, such as the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15); a dog; an ass; a living being (2 Sam. 3:8; 2 Kgs. 6:25; Ezek. 1:22). It regularly indicates the heads of animals being sacrificed (Ex. 12:9; 29:15, 19).

This word is used in several Hebrew idioms: to bring something down on someone’s head is to get vengeance (Ezek. 9:10); and to sprinkle dust on one’s head is to mourn and show despair (Josh. 7:6; Ezek. 27:30).

The word can designate an individual person: It refers to Joseph’s head as representative of his whole tribe (Gen. 49:26; Deut. 33:16). It refers to the top or peak of things and indicates the tops of mountains (Gen. 8:5); such as the top of Mount Olives in 2 Samuel 15:32 or even the top of a bed (Gen. 47:31).

This Hebrew word commonly designates the beginning of something: It refers to the head or beginning of the year (Ezek. 40:1); or month (Ex. 12:2). Its use extends to describing the best of something. The best spices or myrrh were depicted by this word (Ex. 30:23), as were the most influential persons: commanders (Deut. 20:9; Ezek. 10:11); the heads or leaders of families and chiefs (1 Kgs. 8:1; 1 Chr. 24:31); the chief priest of Israel (1 Chr. 27:5). It is used with a superlative connotation to describe the chief cornerstone (Ps. 118:22); or the most lofty stars (Job 22:12).

In some places, the word is best translated to indicate the entire or complete amount of something: the Lord made the chief part of the dust of the earth, i.e., all of it (Prov. 8:26). It also meant to take (or lift up) the total number of people, i.e., take a census (Ex. 30:12). The psalmist asserted that the sum total of God’s words are righteous forever (Ps. 119:160).

It also indicates the source of a river or branch as its head (Gen. 2:10). When combined with the noun dog, it expresses a major insult. Abner used the term of himself, a dog’s head, as a term of disgust (2 Sam. 3:8[17]

It means the head, the top, the chief or ruler.  Not the place of thinking.

Often the literalist will point to Gen 3:15, claiming it was the head of the serpent crushed not the heart and Jesus crushed the thinking of the flesh.  Yes Jesus conquered sin, in the flesh.  Once again though, the literalist is taking current knowledge and retrospectively imposing it on the text.  Jesus broke the dominion/headship of sin, he served God not sin.

Another popular claim is that king “Uzziah was smitten with leprosy as a symbol of the origin of the problem – his heart did not become leprous; his head did” in the incident in 2 Chron 26:19-20.  Does this argument hold water?  No.  Uzziah was overreaching his royal authority and taking the position of the priests.  His authority was struck down.  Whereas the high priest worn a plate on his forehead saying “holiness to Yahweh” (Exod 39:30), the king was now publicly unclean.  The assumption of it being a judgement on his thoughts is not in the text.  Indeed he was not struck in the head with leprosy but rather the forehead – which is an important difference.  Instead it was a visible witness to God’s judgement on the king who wanted the authority of the priest.

A third example used by some, is Jeremiah 3:3.  They claim “Israel had a whore’s forehead which is equated with the thoughts of stubborn shamelessness”.  However what does the passage say:

you have the forehead of a whore,

you refuse to be ashamed

Does this teach us the forehead is the seat of thought?  No.  The meaning is simple and obvious.  Rather than be ashamed by their immorality/unfaithfulness, the nation, like a professional whore, was publicly set in their ways.  The force of the passage is they refused to be ashamed.  Similar language is used in Isa 48:4

Because I know that you are obstinate,

and your neck is an iron sinew

and your forehead brass

The same language is used again in Ezek 3:7

they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart

Rather than identifying the forehead as the location of the thoughts, the language is clearly using the forehead for the stubbornness/obstinacy as does an iron neck.  This of course feeds straight back to the passage on Uzziah as well.  His forehead (not brain) was struck with leprously because he stubbornly refused to listen to the rebuke of the priests and sought authority which was not his.


Literalist Objection Rebutted – The heart does impact emotions and stuff…

 No it doesn’t, not in the way the occasional quack claims.  People make claims suggesting there may be a connection between the thinking process and the heart.  Well yes there is, as there is with the lungs and the thinking process.  If someone’s IQ changed after a heart attack, or their entire personality changed following a heart transplant every time, there might be cause to investigate.  But there is none.  Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t claim a connection, it claims priority.  The heart does the thinking (not ‘is vaguely connected to it’).

Anecdotes of people being more emotional post heart surgery is not only inconsistent with the medical realities (and posttraumatic stress syndrome is far more likely relevant here) it also misses the point that biblically the kidneys are the centre of emotion.  Not the heart.  Making these false claims is not only bad science, it is bad interpretation.



The heart was used in the Bible for the place of though, reflecting the incorrect understanding of the first audience.  Despite the claims of some, the mind was not located in the brain, but the heart.  This misunderstanding was consistent with surrounding cultures as evidenced from archaeological evidence.  While there are clear instances of the heart being used in idiom/figures of speech, these are rooted in this misunderstanding of its function.  The Bible gives no basis on which to read every use as a figure of speech.  Every modern-day reader who takes the heart as a figure of speech, or those who think the Bible accommodates the audience are both taking their understanding of science to interpret the Bible.  Demanding a literal reading of Genesis 1, while adopting a non-literal reading of the heart is an inconsistent approach.


[1] Abel, Ron “Wrested Scriptures” first edition, page 163

[2] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged (p. 214). Peabody: Hendrickson.

[3] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged (p. 759). Peabody: Hendrickson.

[4] Wise, M. O., Aberg, M. G., Jr., & Cook, E. M. (2005). The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (p. 566). New York: HarperOne.

[5] Roberts, R “The devils and the swine” The Christadelphian, 8(electronic ed.), page 98 (1871).

[6] Boulton WH “Jesus as Luke portrayed him” The Christadelphian, Volume 84 page 193 (1947).

[7] Crawford, CK & Whittaker E “The problem of demons”  The Testimony Magazine volume 35 page 117 (1965)

[8] Tennant, H. “The Christadelphians: What They Believe and Preach” (1986), 167

[9] Snobelen, S. (n.d.). The Geographical Distribution of Demon-Possession: Mapping Demon Belief in the New Testament.

[10] Clement, D. “The Christadelphian” Vol 21 Page 176 (1884)




[14] Gross, Charles G. (1987), “Neuroscience, Early History of”, in Adelman, George, Encyclopedia of Neuroscience (PDF), Birkhauser Verlag AG, pp. 843–847, ISBN 3764333332


[16] The correspondence was not public so we won’t specify the individual

[17] Baker, W., & Carpenter, E. E. (2003). The complete word study dictionary: Old Testament (pp. 1025–1026). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.


One thought on “Yes you do interpret the Bible with science

  1. Pingback: Creationist responses to the heart in the bible | Christadelphians Origins Discussion

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