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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Biblical heart burn

Luke 24:13-35 records the fascinating story of how Jesus interacted with two of his followers on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. At first the men did not recognize Jesus but they drank in what he told them as they walked along on the road. After they recognized Jesus, the men reflected on how they felt as Jesus spoke to them on the road.

English Bibles which I have used all my life translate their exclamation as:
And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures? (Luke 24:32, KJV)
I have assumed that I understood what is meant by the English translation "Did not our heart burn within us," in particular, the collocation of the two words "heart" and "burn." Recently, however, as part of an ongoing project to compile lists of biblical idioms, I realized that I didn't know what it meant in Greek for one's "heart" to "burn".

I know what the English expression "heart burn" refers to and I get heart burn fairly often (Pepcid works well for me to take care of it). But I didn't know if biblical "heart burn" has the same meaning as "heart burn" does for me today in English.

I checked the Greek text and the translation of the biblical idiom is precise and accurate, at least on the word level. But it did not take long to realize that almost for sure the literal translation of the biblical idiom does not have the same meaning as the English idiom, "heart burn."

I've understood all my life that "heart" in this verse was not talking about the literal body organ that pumps blood. And, obviously, whatever kind of heart is being referred to in the text, it is not literally burning.

I've examined a number of English Bible versions to see if I could find out from them what the idiomatic (non-literal) meaning of the biblical idiom is. I didn't get very much help from English Bibles. Most simply have the two followers of Jesus speaking about their hearts burning within them. Only a couple of them had any figurative translation of the figurative language about the heart in Luke 24:32.

What do you think the biblical idiom meant and how might we word that meaning in English?

12 Comments:

At Tue Apr 03, 10:02:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

"Heartburn" is a single word. If our hearts burn, that is surely something different (unless you claim there is no difference between nouns and verbs in English.)

 
At Tue Apr 03, 10:41:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

unless you claim there is no difference between nouns and verbs in English

Oh, no, I would never claim that. There's definitely a difference between nouns and verbs in English, at least structurally, formally. And structure is an important part of language. Now when it comes to semantics, we have a whole different ball game. Hmm, maybe that's ballgame!

:-)

Linguists have been studying the semantics of nouns and verbs for several decades. Some of the best research has come out of UCLA, from Sandy Thompson and her colleagues. Surprisingly, perhaps, there are often fewer differences between nouns and verbs than I would have assumed from my strong structural, prescriptivist background from grammar school.

I don't think that the answer to the question about the meaning of the Greek idiom of Luke 24:32 can be found in the structural differences between nouns and verbs or whether or not heartburn is a single word or two. (Lexicographers probably have had trouble deciding that question, just as they don't know for sure whether to hyphenate or treat as a single or two words a number of other compound nouns.)

I think the answer to the questions raised by my post has to be found in the semantics of the Greek idiom. What is the semantic range of the Greek verb for 'burn'? What figurative meanings did it have? How can they map to English?

 
At Tue Apr 03, 11:36:00 PM, Blogger Charity said...

A literal translation into English of the French "Semeur" Bible says:

"Didn't we feel like a fire in our heart..."

This pretty much represents what I've always understood this verse to mean, i.e. the disciples weren't talking about a medical complaint, but about a feeling of excitement and conviction that they got when Jesus was talking to them. Another extra-biblical example of this, is Blaise Pascal's conversion experience:

"FEU. Dieu d'Abraham, Dieu d'Isaac, Dieu de Jacob. Non des philosophes et des savants. Certitude. Certitude. Sentiment. Joie. Paix."

(Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not philosophers and scholars. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.)

 
At Wed Apr 04, 01:54:00 AM, Blogger Bryan Riley said...

I've never thought of it as the medical term we discuss when discussing heartburn. Instead, I've always thought of it as intense emotion burning within them, but because they did not recognize Jesus as Jesus they did not understand why. It was identification at the heart/spirit level, but their flesh prevented them from truly seeing at first.

www.fjministries.com

 
At Wed Apr 04, 02:56:00 AM, Blogger morgan said...

yea...like a fire.
I've always thought of it like a burning passion or longing inside of them. They were responding to what Jesus was saying on the inside and it was so strong that
"hearts burn" were the best words to describe it

 
At Wed Apr 04, 06:20:00 AM, Blogger Jay said...

“like a fire burning” GNT

“Didn’t we feel on fire” The Message

Their words point to how emotional the exposition had been for them, like a message being sown into the soul. IVP NT C

‘we were profoundly moved’ Handbook on Luke

Like an inward witness?

John Wesley’s “My heart was strangely warmed”

 
At Wed Apr 04, 07:15:00 AM, Blogger Beyond Words said...

I've never had trouble understanding this burning heart idiom from an English persepctive. But I've been told the Hebrew seat of emotion was the kidneys, not the heart, although we never see that translated literally :) --and the heart sometimes refers to the intellect. What was the Greeks'understanding of the heart as an idiom?

 
At Wed Apr 04, 08:14:00 AM, Blogger David Lang said...

I'm not sure I would classify the imagery of one's heart burning or being on fire as a Greek idiom at all. An idiom is a phrase which has a meaning which is not immediately "deducible" from the normal meaning of the words themselves, such as "it's raining cats and dogs."

The burning heart of Luke 24:32 is simply a verbal image--figurative language used for purposes of being descriptive. The fact that every one of us seems to understand the emotional state which this expression describes is a pretty good indication that this is not an idiom, but an image which is almost universally understood.

In cases where figurative language does not carry over clearly in the receptor language (e.g.: would an eskimo understand the expression, "all we like sheep have gone astray"?), it is usually necessary to translate the expression dynamically. But if the figurative expression is clearly understandable in the receptor language, it may be best to translate the expression relatively word-for-word, and let the verbal imagery speak for itself.

 
At Wed Apr 04, 09:19:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

David Lang commented:

I'm not sure I would classify the imagery of one's heart burning or being on fire as a Greek idiom at all. An idiom is a phrase which has a meaning which is not immediately "deducible" from the normal meaning of the words themselves, such as "it's raining cats and dogs."

Very good, David. Your example of an English idiom is a clear one, a prototypical idiom. Lately, as I have been compiling my lists of biblical idioms I have had difficulty deciding whether some figurative expressions are multi-word metaphors or idioms. I'm starting to wonder if there is a fuzzy boundary between metaphors and idioms. We have the clear-cut prototypical cases such as "It's raining cats and dogs" and then we have less prototypical ones such as "I'm down in the dumps."

Then you wrote:

The fact that every one of us seems to understand the emotional state which this expression describes is a pretty good indication that this is not an idiom, but an image which is almost universally understood.

Well, as I wrote in my post, I thought I used to understand the meaning of the Greek figurative expression, but recently I'm not convinced that I actually did. I asked the question at the end sincerely because I don't clearly know the meaning of the Greek expression. I couldn't prove it without field testing, but I suspect that I am not alone in this.

I appreciate each of the suggestions given in the comments for what the meaning of the Greek expression likely is. They all seem reasonable to me. I wish there were a way that we could know its meaning with greater confidence. I prefer confidence about the meaning of the biblical text, as often as possible, so that we can translate as accurately as possible.

 
At Wed Apr 04, 09:35:00 AM, Blogger daniel reed said...

Good question(s). I think the answer is to be found in the semantic range of the Greek for 'heart' (not so much in 'burn' - although if that has other figurative uses, it could be interesting, too).

Like Beyond Words, I have heard that the 'heart' is not where emotions are depicted as originating (as it is in my understanding of English) - although I heard that it was the stomach.

What comes from the [Greek for] 'heart'? Do you have a resource like the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery handy? (I have one at home - if you haven't figured it out by tonight, I may look it up...)

 
At Wed Apr 04, 11:01:00 AM, Blogger Jay said...

καρδία , ας f heart, inner self; mind; will, desire, intention; interior (of the earth)
Concise Greek-English dictionary of the New Testament
Kardia – possible seat of emotions?

 
At Wed Apr 04, 02:19:00 PM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

I agree with Charity that this refers to "a feeling of excitement and conviction that they got when Jesus was talking to them." I expressed it this way in The Better Life Bible: "After remarking how excited they were earlier that day when Jesus clarified what God’s spokesmen had written long ago ..."

 

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