Saturday, July 11, 2009

Lost in Translation

Throughout nearly all Christian-published Bibles, I find the word Law used over and over again. What does this word mean? In the Gospels and Epistles, the English word "law" is translated from the Greek word "nomos." In the Hebrew scriptures, law is usually translated from the Hebrew word torah. Nomos and law are very similar in meaning. However, Torah means much more than law. It connotes instruction or teaching. It originates from the Hebrew word yarah, which means to throw or shoot, in the sense of an archer aiming for his target. Yarah can also be defined as laying a foundation. The Torah is the teacher aiming for the student's heart, the bullseye. It also the foundation upon which we should build our very lives.

The English "law" falls short of conveying this sense. Fortunately, we have a wonderful tool for associating Greek words with their Hebrew counterparts. It's called the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek during the third century B.C. The name Septuagint (pronouced sep-te-jent) means seventy, so named because of the seventy Hebrew sages conscripted by Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt to translate the scriptures into Greek for his famous library at Alexandria.

The seventy scholars realized that many important Hebrew words would not translate well to Greek, causing a loss of meaning. Torah was one of those words. In an attempt to overcome this obstacle, they designated certain Greek words to serve as markers for the Hebrew original. The marker words would serve as a reminders to the reader to ignore the literal Greek sense and to apply the Hebrew meaning instead. Nomos served as one of these markers. Other examples include Christos, corresponding to the Hebrew Mashiach and ecclesia, corresponding to the Hebrew kahal.

The Apostolic writers were aware of this approach and likely meant to convey the same sense to their audiences. They certainly quoted often from the Septuagint, leading me to draw such a conclusion. Modern biblical translators, at least non-Jewish ones, seem to be unaware of this custom. Their omission is understandable in translating the Gospels and Epistles, although I wish they would overcome this weakness. What I don't understand, however, is why these modern scholars, when translating the Torah and Prophets, favor the English word Law over the better choices of Teaching and Instruction. One would think that they were translating from the Septuagint instead of the original Hebrew. The practice has become so entrenched, that I'm beginning to think it betrays an anti-Judaic bias on the part of the translators.

Separation of Church and Faith, Vol. 1
Gesenius Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon
501 Hebrew Verbs

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