18 thoughts on “How to translate the word torah?

  1. iver larsen says:

    As I looked briefly at our Danish translation, I found that we had translated “torah” with words like “instructions”, “rules”, “regulations” “tora”, “the law of Moses” and “law” in the OT. We did not attempt to be consistent or concordant, but were led by the context.
    For the NT, we used either “law” or “tora” or “Jewish laws” or “law of the Jews” or “the law of Moses”. (The word tora is fairly well-known among Danish Christians, and it is included in any Danish dictionary.)
    We could have been more consistent.

  2. Jesús S. says:

    At first, I found shocking the idea of translating Torah as Instruction in the Old Testament and Law in the New Testament. But the more I think about it the more I like it.

    It is both accurate and faithful to the original in both instances. Besides it provides a lot of contextual information to the reader.

  3. John Hobbins says:

    I am not happy with the instruction God gave to Moses being referred to as “Instruction” in the OT, and “Law” in the NT.

    It severs the connection between the two Testaments. It makes it that much harder for Christians to read the NT in light of the OT, and vice-versa.

    The Bible is a gift offered by the church to the church in the form of a double-sided coin, a gift, however, that some Christians seem to want to “return to sender,” with devastating consequences.

  4. EricW says:

    While “law” would most likely have to do for nomos in the New Testament, as the CEB discussion/research indicates, maybe when it comes to the Old Testament it’s time to stop translating torah and simply transliterate it – after all, most English readers know or know of the word – with a note/explanation at the beginning of the Bible re: the meaning of “torah” and why it’s not translated simply as “law.”

  5. Diego Santos says:

    I totally disagree with the word “Instruction”. The Torah, with its set of rules and sanctions (including capital punishment), is far more similar to other ancient laws like the Code of Hammurabi than just than “just some teachings to know about, but you don’t need to practice. Sometimes etymology is not a good reason to adopt certain word in a translation.

  6. Don Johnson says:

    This gets tricky. I like Torah in the OT but one needs to know it means instructions/teachings. For the NT and nomos, one needs to discern what is being discussed, for these possibilities:

    1. Civil law
    2. Torah of Moses, the Pentateuch
    3. Tanakh, what Christians call the OT.
    4. Oral Torah, what the Pharisees taught on how to interpret Tanakh.

    So I think all this should be explained somewhere in a section of a Bible, and similar things like this. All do not know that nomos might have very different meanings.

  7. John Hobbins says:

    I would note that in Joshua 1:7-8 torah is translated “Law” in the KJV tradition up to and including ESV and NRSV, in REB, NAB, NJB, NIV, all the way to NLT.

    I don’t see how the Torah God gave to Moses can be glossed one way in the OT, and in a quite different way in the NT. Surely this quite problematic.

    If my Bible consisted of the Hebrew Bible only, I would definitely go for torah = instruction/teaching, since, in Proverbs for example, the torah of a mother is referred to. This is what NJPSV does, and rightly so. Preserving concordance across such passages is clarifying to the average reader.

    The best translation of all is Buber/Rosenzweig’s die Weisung “direction,” but “direction” doesn’t quite work in more than a few contexts.

  8. EricW says:

    I don’t see how the Torah God gave to Moses can be glossed one way in the OT, and in a quite different way in the NT. Surely this quite problematic.

    I think it’s unavoidable if one wants to be honest about the fact that nomos does not perfectly map to torah.

    I suspect that an effect or result of translating the OT into Greek was to influence, even if only in small ways, the theology and interpretation/application of the OT of succeeding generations of Jews (including the NT authors) and the early Christians and Church Fathers, for if Greek readers read or learned from the Greek OT, they naturally would interpret it according to what those words meant to them. And when the word torah is changed to nomos, there is a semantic shift of some sort(s). Which is why I don’t think one has to gloss nomos in the NT with the same word you gloss it with in the OT.

  9. EricW says:

    I meant to write for my last sentence: Which is why I don’t think one has to gloss nomos in the NT with the same word you gloss torah with in the OT.

  10. J. K. Gayle says:

    It’s important to see that nomos is profoundly Old Testament, deeply Jewish. Then we can read that forward into the (Jewish) New Testament.

    Likewise, it’s critical to see that the Hebraic Hellene nomos does not just mean “law” (either in our more Christianized senses or in the post-Homeric connotations of Plato and Aristotle). A simple (not simplistic) way to think of this is to understand that there are many and multivalent Jewish uses of nomos prior to and including the NT. The word mirrors the various Semitic notions of torah. The “law” vs. “instruction” binary is a late, Christian (and perhaps an anti-Semitic) construct. To let our English translations perpetuate the distinction is dangerous.

    That said, given the English Bible tradition, with the separations (i.e., Jew v Christian, OT v NT, torah v law), it’s probably a real good idea to rework the English NT so that it more conforms to the OT language. Willis Barnstone has done much of this work already with his Restored New Testament. He calls the OT “the first bible” and the NT “the second bible.” Barnstone also translates nomos as “Torah”. But he renders it not only as “Torah law” (a common phrase in his RNT) but also as instruction and also as profound perspective and likewise as a deep practice. There’s plenty of Jewish Greek wordplay. Here’s an example (Romans 2:14-15) as Barnstone (a Jew himself but also a wonderful Greek scholar and translator) renders Paul’s writing in literary style:

    When gentiles who do not possess the Torah
    Practice it naturally, these without Torah
    Are themselves Torah. They show that the work
    Of Torah is, as Yirmaiyahu writes:
    ..Written in their hearts.
    And their own conscience also bears it witness.

    In a fn, Barnstone explains,

    “According to ‘their own conscience’ is key to Paul’s thinking. Paul was trained by the highest Pharisee priests, the most liberal sect of Jews, who were given to oral instruction and which was superior to the written law in Torah or the whole Tanak. Here, in Pharisee tradition, Paul suggests that gentiles can practice a law written in their hears, which will be seen as not only equal to but also above the written Torah. In such a way Paul was able to use his Pharisidic training to change and reform Jewish law for Jews like himself as well as for the Greek genitles in ways to accommodate their entry into the new Judaism. Such reform was accomplished through his innovations with respect to … many other tenets of Torah.”

  11. John Hobbins says:

    Hi Eric,

    You say:

    “I think it’s unavoidable if one wants to be honest about the fact that nomos does not perfectly map to torah.”

    None of the key OT terms map perfectly from ancient Hebrew to Koine Greek, or from either to English for that matter. Your remark is not a strong argument for translating torah one way and nomos another way, especially when the denotative meaning is identical or nearly identical.

    At some point, strategic choices have to be made. If Scripture is understood as a canon in which scripture interprets scripture and even collides with scripture, then one is going to translate in such a way that homologies and collisions are transparent to the reader in translation. This will involve a relatively high commitment to concordance in translation.

    If you think the NT can or should be read apart from the OT, and/or that each individual book or passage should be read for all its worth apart from the canonical context, then you will feel free to translate any old way.

    For specific exegetical purposes, it is obligatory to treat individual passages apart from the echo chamber of the entire scriptures. That is the only way to grasp their particular voices in full. Extremely context-sensitive translation in deliberate dis-cordance with canonical context is then order.

    There is a place for both kinds of translation, and many more. I look forward to using CEB in a parallel edition someday, alongside of other translations that aim for 7th-9th grade reading levels.

    But for more serious study, I will stick with translations that clock in at much higher reading levels, translations like KJV, NRSV, REB, NJPSV, NAB, and NJB.

  12. Don Johnson says:

    P.S. There are other words that refer to Written Torah or Oral Torah, such as lawful/exesti/G1832.

  13. EricW says:

    If you think the NT can or should be read apart from the OT, and/or that each individual book or passage should be read for all its worth apart from the canonical context, then you will feel free to translate any old way.

    I would say that “any old way” goes beyond what even the most radical translator of the NT would consider acceptable. I suspect even Hugh Schonfield with his The Authentic New Testament and Clarence Jordan with his Cotton Patch New Testament didn’t feel free to translate the writings “any old way.”

    But you were using hyperbole, yes? 🙂

  14. Bill says:

    This translation decision is another reason why – so far at least – I have very little confidence in the “Common English Bible”.

    So far, I just don’t trust them, though I’m willing to let them prove me wrong.

    I suppose I think the best hope for a truly “Common English Bible” with a true international impact in the NIV 2011 if that translation team can get it’s act together.

  15. jkgayle says:

    David Rosenberg, in his An Educated Man (2010), has a good bit to say about “the word torah” even in “the Old Testament and its Greek equivalent, nomos,” even in “the New Testament.” I think Bible translators would do well to consider all of the nuance and plurality and hermenuetical liberty with force that Rosenberg’s history brings to the Torah, as laws turned into life teachings (and not as a move in the reverse direction of that):

    So when we look at the Covenant at Sinai today, grounded in recent historical studies, its resemblance to Hittite (Asia Minor) treaties of earlier centuries is at first almost shocking…. There is a Hittite list of stipulations…. Yet a poetic leap is required to comprehend the transformation of these stipulations into the Torah…. [A] history is recounted of how a complete corpus of laws comes to be written in the Torah, and it remains a further negotiation of the Covenant….

    Moses, whose name is associated with the Torah’s laws, is not the source of this Covenant, like pagan kings and pharoahs had been. He merely writes them down, and in the process presents a figure of a great writer that will be interpreted and emulated throughout many centuries of Hebraic culture–all the way down to the first century AD, when Jesus begins to speak in the writerly parables found in the New Testament….

    The books that come before Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Leviticus, must also fall under this heading “Teaching.” Nevertheless, the real teaching begins when Moses’ written text is read to the people, who are instructed to hear and study it every seven years, and to know it well enough to teach their children.

    So although the priest and the “elders” are in charge of the written text, the entire people are to become literate in it. This has never happened before, as far as we know, because all other sacred books, whatever their religion, were to be used only by the priests. And now these recently freed slaves are not only to “read” (hear) this volumous text of Moses but to learn how to interpret it and all its laws concerning justice and how to live, as well as history. Furthermore, aside from the priests, those of the intellectual class who could read and write, or those born into a class of spiritual or hereditary elites, are not responsible for the entire people being taught their history and their God’s laws. Everyone … for the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant that originally elaborated it are meant for the people as a whole, even the lowliest, and including women, children, and strangers!…

    Just as historical events are used to elucidate Moses’ text, the same text will be used to imaginatively interpret the sermons delivered in the synagogues of Jesus’ day — and there, the writing of the rabbis will be known as midrash. Yet we can see that from the beginning in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses himself was already writing in a midrashic frame of mind.

    So in a way it is mistaken to refer to “laws.” They are more like what is desired by YHWH to make the Covenant valid than commands to subjects [i.e. than “LAW” as is typically the way contemporary Bible translators tend to translate the Hebraic Greek nomos, and Moses elucidates them [i.e., these teachings, these desires of God] as an interpreter or writer…. Clearly the literary quality of Deuteronomy requires an educated writer; who else could draw together the many layers?….

    The Pharisees taught the Torah by transmission from rabbi to disciple, in circles resembling the Greek philosophers who established their own schools…. So it would be hard to believe the Pharisees did not read some Plato, as the Hellenists did, and be inspired by his perpetual influence among teachers and students. Thus, when Jesus instructs his disciples to privilege their “family” of rabbi and disciple, he is not out of step with prevailing custom [i.e., the Mosaic Torah tradition acknowledging didactic models of literary cultures, which]… also reflects an acquaintance with Greek philosophy, as it was known in Israel of Jesus’ day, and this could be found in the Hellenistic education that was available in most of Israel’s cities….

    Shortly after his death, the Greek influence would intensify upon Jesus’ disciples and we see it more clearly in the Gospels, which echo the Platonic intellectualizing of the Roman author Plutarch…. Plutarch was perhaps at the margins, but the Jesus we find in the finished [Greek] gospels of the New Testament is much less like a noble Greek or Roman — and far more like the humble and deeply educated [i.e., Egyptian educated, Hittite educated] Moses. (pages 134-39)

  16. doug says:

    There was a man who wrote another man a letter. Man #2 received the letter, while reading the letter he noticed that the word “Holy Spirit” was spelled several different ways. Months later the two men had fellowship with one another face to face. Man #1 ask man#2 ” did you get my letter”? Man #2 said, “yes I did, did you know that you spelled the word “Holy Spirit” several different ways”? Man #1 was not well educated and at this point a little agitated, and said, “so what!, did you understand what I was saying in the letter”? Man #2 said, “yes I did”. Man #1 said, that’s all that matters”! We know what YHWH is saying to us in His Torah (Word, instructions, teachings,) when we get on our faces before Him and allow His Spirit to teach us His Torah, it’s when we rebel against His Torah that it becomes “law”. Let the Holy Spirit take care of the details, He knows how to translate everything. “Man #1 was Smith Wigglesworth” (read his autobiography)

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