Translating "Law" in the New Testament

An important term in the New Testament is the Greek word nomos which the King James Version translates law in all of its 195 occurrences. However, this term conveys a wider range of meaning in the New Testament than many people realize, including the following:

1. law in general
2. the normal order of things
3. the guidelines God gave people so they could enjoy a better life
4. the traditions which contradict God’s guidelines
5. the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament)
6. the Old Testament as a whole
7. the teachings of Christ

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he uses this term 67 times to convey several of these meanings in various contexts. The problem with translating the term as law in every instance is that the reader may apply a meaning that Paul did not intend. The reader might even conclude that Paul contradicts himself, since in Romans 7:6 he says, we have been delivered from the law, implying that the law is bad, while in verse 12 he says, the law is holy, and in verse 16, the law is good.

In my translation of Romans in The Better Life Bible, I tried to clarify the meaning Paul intended for each context so the reader does not become confused. For example, I clarified that Paul’s remark in Romans 7:6 is a reference to delivering people from traditions which contradict God’s guidelines.

10 thoughts on “Translating "Law" in the New Testament

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    The problem with translating the term as law in every instance is that the reader may apply a meaning that Paul did not intend. The reader might even conclude that Paul contradicts himself

    Dan,
    I just looked at your translation of Romans 7 and can appreciate how you’re wanting to disambiguate “the Greek word nomos.” But can you really control how the reader of Paul’s Greek, by your English translation, will apply meanings? Seems in the whole of Romans, for example, you use the word tradition multiple times, not always with a single meaning. I the reader can apply my own meanings to “tradition” and, worse, conclude that you the translator have contradicted yourself. And what if I now were to translate your English (“traditions,” “guidelines,” and–in your chapter 13–“law”) into, say, Vietnamese? Have I helped the reader of your English not misunderstand you? And do I prevent my Vietnamese reader from reading ambiguities in the new language?

  2. Admin says:

    That’s a noble ambition, but I doubt that’s actually what Paul meant. I would suggest you read N.T. Wright’s Climax of the Covenant and some other works before you posit this as the correct interpretation of nomos here.

    Chuck

  3. Dan Sindlinger says:

    J.K., Thanks for your comments. Your point is well taken. However, I wouldn’t recommend translating my translation into any other language. Ideally, a Vietnamese translation should be made directly from Greek.

  4. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Chuck, Thanks for your suggestion. Do you know what Wright posits as the correct interpretation of nomos here?

  5. Keith Schooley says:

    The problem with trying to disambiguate each instance of a word like this is that it ruins the ambiguity and wordplay that the original writer may have intended by using the same word.

    In the passage you cite, Paul is trying to disentangle good and bad aspects of the Law (I’ll leave it at that, given the variety of specific interpretations there are), as viewed in a New Covenant context. That disentangling would be lost if one translated “law” in different ways. Sometimes this is unavoidable when the lexical range of the word in the original language is too dissimilar to the lexical range of any one word in the receptor language, but that is not the case here.

    Moreover, making an interpretive decision on what “law” means in each case destroys the ambiguity in the original which has led to the variety of interpretations that are held. The translator is committing his or her readers to a particular interpretation that may or may not actually be correct.

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    Keith,
    You make excellent points about “the lexical range” of meanings and their interplay, within any language and across translation into another language.

    Dan,
    Must translation always ideally “be made directly from Greek”? Even in Romans 7, isn’t Paul not always writing originally in Greek? Isn’t he translating “law” from Hebrew (i.e., from Exodus or Deuteronomy or both)? Yes, I know “Exodus” and “Deuteronomy” are Hebrew book titles translated into Greek (and transliterated into English), and I see that Paul may actually be quoting from the Greek “Septuagint.” But behind the Greek nomos are the Hebrew halakha and mitzvot and torah. Paul surely knows what he’s talking about (from the Hebrew); but even if we must insist he deals ideally “in Greek,” doesn’t he know how differently Homer, Hesiod, Isocrates, Plato, and Aristotle use nomos? The point is that the reader (and you the translator as a reader too) comes to the text, to the single word even, with your various interpretations. Going ideally “directly from Greek” does not lock down “the one singular meaning” of, say, nomos in any given sentence in Paul’s Romans 7, does it? Paul had the choice to write to Jews in Rome in Aramaic Hebrew, didn’t he? And he could have written them in Latin, which might have thrilled the imperial types there. But he chooses to use the former empire’s lingua franca, having to make or to use some translation as if directly from the ancient Hebrew. (And I was trying to complicate your translation/ interpretation decisions even more by saying this: that just as soon as you tell us in English what Paul surely and ideally means in Greek [forget the old or newer Hebrew behind that], we have to interpret your newer English.)

  7. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Keith,
    I agree that disambiguating each instance of a word eliminates the ambiguity and wordplay that the original writer may have intended.
    However, I’m concerned that my target audience — English speakers who have never read (or rarely read) the Bible — are very likely not aware that the lexical range of nomos does not correspond to their concept of law .

  8. Dan Sindlinger says:

    J.K.,
    I think I agree with what you said. I’m just suggesting that it’s preferable to translate the NT into language X from Greek than from a translation, which has already made interpretational decisions for its target audience. (Please note how I described my target audience to Keith.)

  9. Kevin says:

    3. the guidelines God gave people so they could enjoy a better life

    I’ve heard people say that law can better be translated as “instruction.” This doesn’t give the connotation that God ‘s nomos is only a law-giver but a God who loves to guide his people into the right direction.

    Your translation really simplifies the text and makes it easy to understand. That’s good.

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