In my blog post, “Was Paul the Founder of Christianity,” I pointed out that a number of key passages from Paul’s Epistles were mistranslated into modern English, reflecting “a Christian bias” on the part of the translators. I mentioned that “dozens of examples” could be cited, but provided only one. In this posting, I would like to give another example. My intent is not to slam the translators. They have a tough job choosing the appropriate English words to convey an accurate reflection of someone communicating to an audience within a culture from 2000 years ago. They must rely on their knowledge of ancient Greek, ancient Hebrew, cultural norms of the time, the political climate of the day, colloquial terms, historical events, ancient technology, archaeological evidence, and much more. Furthermore, the translators of the Gospels and Epistles must be fully versed in the Hebrew scriptures, the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Torah and Prophets), and Targumim (Aramaic translations of the scriptures).
As you can see, simply knowing Greek is not sufficient. Being a biblical translator requires a unique set of skills. Therefore, I want to qualify my criticism of their work since I certainly don’t meet that long list of qualifications. Instead, I’ve had to rely on the expertise of others. Making no claims of having superior knowledge, let’s examine a new example.
The passage I want to review is found in Hebrews 8:6. The second part of this verse typically reads, “the covenant of which he is mediator, is founded on better promises.” The English word “founded” comes from the Greek nenomothetêtai. We find this word in only one other place, occurring in Hebrews 7:11. There we find a parenthetical statement that typically reads, “through it the people received the Law.” The same nenomothetêtai appears in this phrase, translated as “received the Law.” Why do so many translators of the 7:11 verse bring out the word “Law” from the Greek but ignore it in Hebrews 8:6? Perhaps one of them will read this post and respond.
The word under review here is actually a compound word in the Greek, composed of nomos (the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Torah) and tithêmi (meaning put, place, or make). We could perhaps view it as “Law-Giver.” What I find a little too disturbing is the fact that only half of the compound word is translated in Hebrews 8:6. Again, the question is why the omission. Let’s bring it out and see how the meaning of the verse might change. Here are some possibilities:
- The covenant…has made law on better promises.
- The covenant…has received the Law on better promises. [taking a cue from 7:11]
- The covenant…has been legally given on better promises.
- The covenant…has been established as the Law on better promises.
Of these, the possibility that makes the most sense to me is the last one. The author (Paul, in my opinion) seems to be connecting Yeshua to Moses. Just as the Covenant of Moses was given in the form of the Torah on Mount Sinai, so the New Covenant is given in the form of Torah from Mount Zion. Moses himself said, “Out of your midst, Hashem your G-d will raise up a prophet like me, from your brethren; to him you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 18:15). For those who accept him, Yeshua is the prophet like Moses. Therefore, we should be able to compare them to each other. Just as Moses gave us the Torah, so Yeshua affirms the Torah, albeit with necessary alterations to Levitical emphasis. Accordingly, we should not be surprised to learn that the word for “New” Covenant, in both the Hebrew and Greek, does not mean something brand new but rather something rebuilt. Thus, the English would be better translated as Renewed Covenant because the New Covenant is really a renewal of the old, not a replacement for it.
The inclusion of this one word radically alters the meaning of the verse and goes against at least 1,700 years of Christian teaching. Such tradition is so ingrained in the hearts and minds of Christians that I can see why translators may be reluctant to reveal it. Out of a dozen or so translations I’ve read, only two translate the nomos half of nenomothetêtai. The first is the Holman Christian Standard Bible and the other is the Jewish New Testament (JNT). Of these two, Holman waters down the translation, stating the covenant was “legally enacted.” In my opinion, nomos in this instance is a noun, not an adjective. Only the JNT clearly identifies nomos as referring to Torah. There we read, “For this covenant has been given as Torah on the basis of better promises.” Put in this light, the prophet Isaiah’s declaration in 2:3 suddenly has new meaning. There we read, “For from Zion will the Torah go forth and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.”
Holman Christian Standard Bible
Jewish New Testament
Jewish New Testament Commentary