Do the Gospels misquote Deuteronomy?

Someone recently asked me the astute question, “Why does Deuteronomy seem to differ with the Synoptic[1] Gospel accounts of the first part of the Great Commandment? What does it all mean? How are humans made up? (well, that might be the occasion of another blog post).

Let’s do some Bible digging to answer these questions. First, compare the three Synoptic accounts of Jesus quoting Deuteronomy below.

*All quotes are taken from the ESV.

Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (the Shema,[2] 1st half) Matthew 22:37

(1st half of the GC)

Mark 12:29–30 Luke 10:27a
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.[3] You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…. (The first and greatest commandment): You shall love the Lord[4] your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. The most important [commandment] is, ‘Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And 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. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind…
Some copies of the LXX[5] include “mind.” Mind instead of might. Matthew leaves out the opening of the Shema. Mark includes “might” in the form of its synonym “strength” used in the LXX but inserts “mind” before it.

Mark includes the opening of the Shema.

Luke, like Mark, includes mind but unlike Mark has mind last after strength (syn. of might used in the LXX). Luke does not quote the opening of the Shema.

Let’s begin by quickly looking at Deuteronomy. Two things immerge from this. The first is the exclusive relationship the Israelites were to have with the LORD. Verse 4 is not referring to monotheism or the internal nature of God (while those are true), but rather that the Israelites were to worship the LORD alone, unlike the Canaanites who worshipped many different gods (c.f. Dt 4 and Dt 5:7). It is also a statement of devotion. “All,” and the various descriptors that capture aspects of our wholeness, is used to underscore the demand of exclusivity and entire devotion to Him.

What about the Synoptic Gospels? How do the Gospels quote Deuteronomy and what do they mean? First, we must remember the Gospels are not like a modern biography or history, whilst they are faithfully given, involve facts and realities, and have been given by the Lord (and so are completely trustworthy) so we might know Jesus, believe in and follow Him, they are real people’s eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s life and they are seeking to make (primarily) theological truth claims (rooted in real events). The analogy of witnesses at the scene of an accident is often helpfully given. All truthful witnesses will essentially agree on what they saw, even if their accounts differ slightly. Similarly, the Synoptics are in essential agreement on this saying.[6] Where they differ is in the wording from Dt 6:5. Firstly, we must remember they are not primarily referring to “rigid compartments of human existence” but rather together refer to the whole person. That is not to say that they don’t speak to questions of metaphysics,[7] just that their main point is to highlight total devotion as in Deuteronomy. Because Greeks (Gentiles) did not have the same view of the whole person as Hebrews (who saw the mind as part of the heart), the use of mind was probably a way to translate one Hebrew word into two Greek words to relate to non-Jews. Matthew’s use of mind instead of might or strength is, however, interesting. He appears to be following an OT version that had an additional word. Alternatively, he may have alluded to the power of the mind as a synonym for personal moral strength or the strength of the will?

In a nutshell though, the Synoptic Gospel writers are recalling Jesus capturing the essence of the first and greatest moral principle of the universe expressed in Deuteronomy—to be exclusively or entirely devoted to the Lord—to flee idolatry in all its forms and to be completely devoted to the Lord with the entirety of our being.

The Lord’s Sweetest Blessings,

Pastor Chris

[1] A term used to refer to three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) because they share many qualities that make them distinct from John. It literally means “seeing together” indicating they all share the same general summary and can be easily lined up together.

[2] The Shema is repeated twice daily by observant Jews. Shema means “hear.” It is taken from the opening word of the verse.

[3] The Hebrew is ambiguous. The ESV team has given the most plausible option but others (given in most Bible footnotes) include: The LORD our God is one LORD; or The LORD is our God, the LORD is one; or The Lord is our God, the LORD alone.

[4] Because the Greek word for “lord” is kurios and not YAHWEH like in Hebrew, the OT convention of LORD is not used.

[5] The Septuagint or the Greek version of the Old Testament. In Greek or Roman numerals it litterally means 70 for the seventy scholars who translated it.

[6] Context is different for in Matthew it is Jesus who says this, Mark a scribe and Luke a lawyer.

[7] Here used to mean, how we are made up. I.e. mind, body, soul [and spirit]. What about the will and affections [emotions]?