Scripture's Heart:

An Empirical Study of the Word 'Heart' in the Bible

  1. Preface
  2. Introduction
  3. Methods
  4. Results
  5. Discussion/Conclusions
  6. References
  7. Links


In October 2007, 138 Islamic scholars and clerics did something remarkable. In an unprecedented step to build bridges between Muslim and Christian worlds, they sent an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, titled A Common Word Between Us and You. The letter sought to establish a basis for cooperation and dialogue on issues of faith. It prompted numerous positive and enthusiastic replies by Christian leaders and scholars. The "Common Word" movement is a continuing, active force in establishing friendship and harmony between these two great religions.

One interesting feature of A Common Word, was its emphasis on the heart in the Qur'an and the Bible. The subject of the heart remains surprisingly unexplored in any rigorous sense. It is significant that so much attention is paid to the heart in scripture, and yet this dimension of human experience is little investigated by scientists or philosophers.

This neglect is especially evident in the case of psychology. Modern psychology, a field still dominated by radical empiricism, would seem to deny that the heart is a suitable subject for scientific study. Indeed, this seems to be the prevailing cultural view, as a narrow materialistic reductionism constrains our outlook and thought.

Yet, as we are human beings first and scientists only after that, it cannot be denied that there exists an important and essential dimension of existence that we describe in terms of the heart. Eventually psychology will have to come to terms with this, or else the discipline will remain severely lacking in relevance, credibility and effect.

The challenge and opportunity for modern culture, as implied by A Common Word, is to use the commonalities between Christian and Islamic traditions to deepen and enrich our understanding of each other, but also to prompt deeper investigation of our nature as human beings. That is, it presents us an opportunity and motivation to improve our understanding of religious anthropology: What is man? What is our essence? Our purpose?

Within each tradition individually there are constraints to this inquiry. The Christian, for example, will proceed only so far before engrained patterns of doctrinal thinking become an obstacle to unencumbered discovery. But a joint consideration to two traditions frees the mind from such constraints, casts the problem in a new light, helps us to break free of old habits of thought, and stimulates creative discovery .


This article describes a brief study of the use and meaning of the word, "heart" in the Bible. The analyses, as will be seen, are simple and basic. The principle, well established in physical sciences, that theorizing must be preceded by observation, applies here as well. At the very least perhaps the present article might stimulate or encourage others to explore this subject.

Mark 12:30 states the first half of the Great Commandment is as follows:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

(Cf. Mat 22:37, Luk 10:27; Deu 6:5, 10:12, 11:13, 13:3, 30:6; Jos 22:5).

In order to love God with all ones heart, soul, mind, and strength, one ought to have as clear an idea as possible about what these things are. By analogy, a man who was uncertain of the meaning of the word, "hand", might have difficulty distinguishing his hand from his arm, and, in general, using his hands effectively.

It is only prudent, therefore, to inquire what is meant by words like "heart", "mind", "soul" and "strength." What do they specifically refer to? Are they metaphors only, or do they denote specific, observable and definable parts of the human person? Are these four separate and distinct entities, or do their meanings overlap? What is their functional relationship to one another?

It is possible, of course, that these are things we cannot understand by analytical reasoning; perhaps they are amenable only to intuitive understanding. But fullest knowledge is gotten by combining the scientific with the intuitive; and we cannot exclude the possibility of scientific understanding unless, by making the effort and failing, it be demonstrated impossible.

A reasonable place to begin such inquiry is to examine how these terms are used throughout the Bible. Here we focus attention on the meaning of the word "heart" as implied by its usage in the Bible. Should this prove successful, similar methods could be used with the other terms.

As this is only a preliminary study, much of its value may consist of the summary tables and original data. Accordingly, discussion will be kept to a minimum.


1. Sources

The source text was the King James Version (KJV; 1611) of the Bible. This version was chosen because of (1) its age and long tradition; (2) its uniquely poetic and beautiful manner of expression; and (3) its general acceptability across Christian denominations.

For the present analyses, the books of the Bible were divided into three groups: the New Testament (NT), the Protocanon (first canon) of the Old Testament (OT), and the Old Testament Apocrypha (AP).

The Old Testament Protocanon contains all Old Testament books that are considered canonical by Protestants and Catholics alike. What we here call the Apocrypha contains those Old Testament parts that were included in the King James Version but are not considered canonical by Protestants. Of these, some are considered canonical by Catholics (i.e., the so-called Deuterocanon or second canon). A list and classification of the books of Apocrypha may be found in Appendix 1. Note that many editions of the KJV omit the Apocrypha, although these books were included in the original version of 1611.

2. Procedures

Tabulations. The first step was to identify all relevant words, single and compound, with "heart" as the root. Once these were identified, computerized text searches identified all verses in the Bible in which at least one target word appears. These are termed heart verses.

Simple statistical tabulations were made of the number and percent of heart verses by Book and major division (i.e., OT, AP, NT) of the Bible. Books were also grouped into minor divisions (Pentateuch, Historical, etc.; see Appendix 2 for description) and the number and percent of heart verses in each minor division tabulated.

Thematic dimensions. All heart verses were placed in a spreadsheet file and categorized according to the general sense in which the heart seemed to be intended. The aim was to devise a set of content categories or thematic dimensions that describe the general nature or functions of the heart, to assign each verse according to these categories, and then to examine in more detail the verses assigned to each category. This was a 'bootstrap' process, in the sense that choice of the categories and categorization of verses proceeded jointly and over several iterations.

Finally, phrases that seemed to best illustrate the nature of each thematic dimension of the heart were collected.

The next section summarizes the results of these steps.

A spreadsheet containing the raw data -- viz. all verses that contain the word 'heart' -- can be downloaded here.

3. Results

Table 1 shows all relevant heart words identified in the King James Version.

Table 1
Heart Words in the King James Version

Term No. of verses with term
heart hundreds
hearts hundreds
hearted eight: wise hearted (7), willing hearted (1); all in Exodus
fainthearted six: Deut 20:8, Isa 7:4, Jer 49:23, Sir 2:13, 4:9, 7:10
brokenhearted Isa 61:1, Luke 4:18
heartily 2Mac 4:37, Col 3:23
tenderhearted 2Chr 13:7, Eph 4:32
hardhearted Ezek 3:7
merryhearted Isa 24:7
stiffhearted Ezek 2:4

Table 2 summarizes the number and percent of heart verses for each major division of the Bible.

Table 2
Statistics by Major Division

Section Verses Heart Verses % Heart Verses
Old Testament 23145 727 3.1%
Apocrypha 5718 189 3.3%
New Testament 7957 162 2.0%
All 36820 1078 2.9%

As indicated, the overall percent of verses that contain a heart word is roughly three percent. The rate is noticeably lower in the New Testament than in the Old Testament and Apocrypha.

Table 3 summarizes the number and percent of heart verses for each minor division of the Bible.

Table 3
Statistics by Minor Division

Section Verses Heart Verses % Heart Verses
Pentateuch 5852 105 1.8%
Historical Books 7018 172 2.5%
Wisdom Literature 4785 272 5.7%
Major Prophets 4440 154 3.5%
Minor Prophets 1050 24 2.3%
Gospels and Acts 4786 83 1.7%
Pauline Epistles 2033 53 2.6%
General Epistles 734 23 3.1%
Book of Revelation 404 3 0.7%

The most noteworthy feature of these result is the much higher rate of heart words in the Wisdom Books.

Table 4 lists the Books with the highest percentages of heart verses.

Table 4
Books with Highest Rates of Heart Verses

Book No. of Verses No. of Heart Verses Pct. of Heart Verses
Ecclesiastes 222 32 14.4%
Proverbs 915 82 9.0%
Sirach 1372 95 6.9%
Colossians 95 6 6.3%
Lamentations 154 9 5.8%
Zephaniah 53 3 5.7%
Psalms 2461 130 5.3%
Hosea 197 10 5.1%

Finally, Table 5 lists the thematic dimensions identified during the content categorization process (see Methods), along with specific examples.

Table 5
Thematic Dimensions of the Heart

Dimension Examples
Cognitive The heart: knows, thinks, sees, is wise (or foolish, darkened, 'veil upon heart'), understands, speaks, meditates, devises, imagines, reasons, ponders, believes, doubts, dissembles, counsels, considers, is illumined.
Desire, interest The heart: desires, wishes for, lusts, envies, covets, is enticed, turns to or away from God, inclines.
Intention The heart: intends, is set on things, is 'with' another, things put into the heart.
Emotional The heart

(a) Loves: loves, cares, feels compassion, forgives, is ravished, is joined in love, is knit unto another;

(b) Feels positive affect: is glad, is merry, cheers, trusts, has courage, is encouraged (e.g. 'take heart'), is gentle, humble, comforted; fills with joy, rejoices, delights, sings or makes music;

(c) Feels negative affect: hates, despises, is 'hot', feels wrath, is vengeful; sorrows, despairs, feels anguish, pants with worry or grief, is wounded, is broken; is troubled, vexed, has strife; is cut with remorse, is pricked, smites one; fails one, melts like wax; burns, abhors, trembles.

Good The heart may be

(a) Pure or whole: pure (and purified), clean (and cleansed), reformed, circumcised, new, perfect, sincere, right, aright, upright, true, whole, good, sound, single, 'integrity of heart', 'all the heart', simple, open, enlarged, proved, strengthened, tender; firm, constant; may store good.

(b) Holy: full of godliness, Christ dwells in, Christ's peace rules, receives the Spirit of the Son; God directs, established in holiness, established by advised counsel, fixed in trust.

Hardness The heart may be: hard, stony, stubborn, calloused, unrepentant, slow, uncircumcised, gross, fat, obstinate, double, divided, full of deceit, heavy, 'heart of flesh'.
Wickedness The heart may: commit adultery; store evil; be perverse, whorish, "froward," proud.

Conclusions: Towards a Scientific and Existentially Meaningful Anthropology

The heart appears so often in art and religion that our failure to study it scientifically, or even to attempt it, is curious. It is a concept that plainly means much to us as human beings. Why should we not try to apply the powerful tool of science to its study? When we say science, we do not mean narrow minded empiricism, but a systematic approach, based on observation, collection of data, consistent terminology and logical reasoning. One principle advantage of a more scientific approach is that it promotes a cumulative advancement of knowledge. Further, a scientific approach focuses the mind in ways that poetry does not. Science sharpens the critical eye.

An important question, of course, is whether such an approach is suitable here. Perhaps investigation of the heart must remain exclusively in the realms of poetry, art and intuition. Yet it seems advantageous to try, whenever possible, to integrate analytical, scientific thinking with intuition. This seems, in fact, like an essential part of our nature as knowing and feeling beings.

That said, our conclusions here, as already noted, will be limited. The aim is to suggest general lines of further inquiry, mainly by posing questions:

  1. Consistent meaning. One important initial question is whether in the Bible the word 'heart' means a single, or several different things.

  2. Relationship of heart and mind. In the Bible, in literature and human culture generally, we often find a contrast made between the heart, as a locus or source of feelings, and the mind as the realm of reasoning and discursive thought. What is the relationship between the mind and the heart?

      2.1. Peers. Are the heart and mind two 'peer' departments of the human person, that is, of comparable ontological status?

      2.2. Cognitive heart. In the Bible we found frequent allusions to an intellective or cognitive aspect of the heart. This suggests the potential for conflict between the heart's cognitions and those of the mind. We sometimes say, 'my heart says this, but my head says that.' What are the implications of this?

      2.3. Integration. In Alchemical iconography, in Rosicrucianism. and probably elsewhere, we find the motif of a marriage between two human principles - solar and lunar - whose union produces a superior state of being, consciousness or personality integration. It seems plausible to associate the solar and lunar principles here with mind and heart, respectively. Does this motif represent a psychological truth? Can it be understood or investigated in modern, scientific terms?

      2.4. Heart as core. Another possibility is that the heart is ontologically more fundamental than the mind. This view would rest on the meaning of heart (Latin; cor; French: coeur) as the core or center of the person (cf. the heart of hearts). Thus, in a Neoplatonic framework, with its model of a One, from which emanates Intellect (Nous), from which, in turn, emanates Soul (Psyche), the heart might be the One of a person. Or, alternatively, would the heart, in its feeling aspects, might correspond to Soul, and hence and be of a lower ontological order, than the Intellect?

  3. Dynamics. What is the relationship between the heart's cognitive, intentional, and desiring functions? More broadly, how do these different aspects of the heart interact with various functions and levels of the mind?

    To understand the function and inter-relation between heart and mind, it might help to take an example behavior, say performance of a charitable act; and to trace it's development from initial impulse to completion of the action. In theory, this is an experiment that can be conducted by a sufficiently attentive introspection.

  4. Division. We saw considerable attention paid to wholeness or purity of the heart. Of what does dividedness of heart consist? Why is it so wholeness of heart so essential to the process of salvation, psychological and spiritual? How is it obtained?

  5. Nomenclature. Is failure to have a canonical nomenclature in such matters a serious hindrance or not? If so, can it be remedied, and how? A forced attempt to do this could easily produce arbitrary and ineffective terms. We must also be wary of a dry and unproductive scholasticism.

  6. Further research. How might we pursue further study? One avenue would be to extend investigation to other literary sources. A catalog of common phrases involving 'heart', based on literature and common English idioms has been made by the present author.

    Methods similar to those used here could be easily applied to sacred scriptures of other religions. Most notably, a similar study of the word 'heart' as it appears in the Qur'an could be made, and comparisons made with the present ones.

If these questions do nothing else than prompt better questions, the purpose is served.




Appendix 1
King James Version Apocrypha

  Esther 10:4-16:24
  Wisdom of Solomon
  Sirach (Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus)
  Baruch, including the Letter of Jeremiah
  Song of the Three Children (Daniel 3:24-90)
  Story of Susanna (Daniel 13)
  Bel and the Dragon (Daniel 14)
  1 Maccabees
  2 Maccabees
  1 Esdras (Vulgate 3 Esdras)
  2 Esdras (Vulgate 4 Esdras)
  Prayer of Manasses
aNot considered canonical by Protestants
bNot considered canonical by Catholics or Protestants
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Appendix 2
Minor Divisions of the Bible

Minor division Book(s) and section(s)
Pentateuch Gen, Ex, Lev, Num, Deut
Historical Books Josh, Judg, Ruth, 1 Sam, 2 Sam, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chr, 2 Chr, Ezra, Neh, Esth
Wisdom Books Job, Ps, Prov, Eccles, Cant
Major Prophets Isa, Jer, Lam, Ezek, Dan
Minor Prophets Hos, Joel, Amos, Obad, Jon, Mic, Nah, Hab, Zeph, Hag, Zech, Mal
Gospels and Acts Matt, Mark, Luke, John, Acts
Pauline Epistles Rom, 1 Cor, 2 Cor, Gal, Eph, Phil, Col, 1 Thess, 2 Thess, 1 Tim, 2 Tim, Tit, Philem
General Epistles Heb, Jas, 1 Pet, 2 Pet, 1 Jn, 2 Jn, 3 Jn, Jude
Revelations Rev
Apocrypha Tob, Jdt, Wis, Sir, Bar, Sus, 1 Macc, 2 Macc, 1 Esd, 2 Esd, Esth (Apocr), Song 3 Childr, Bel and Dr, Pr Man
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To Cite this Article

Uebersax, John S. Scripture's heart: an empirical study of the word 'heart' in the Bible. <> 2012. Retrieved <month day, year>.

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Copyright © 2012 - John S. Uebersax
Vers. 1.0 - second draft: 15 May 2009
Vers. 1.1 - final draft: 02 Feb 2012
Vers. 1.2 - 1st published version: 15 Feb 2012