Found In Translation
I have been involved in a long and profitable conversation with some old friends who have left the Christian faith and are now living a “Torah-observant”* lifestyle. The reason I’ve been engaging with this religious movement, which I call Torahism, is that it is a dangerous heresy for current believers in Christ and a malicious stumbling block for future believers. And those who preach Torahism are (often aggressively) trying to put the “yoke” of slavery (Acts 15:10, Gal 5:1) back around the necks of Christians who have found freedom in Christ (Col 2:16-17, Eph 3:12, 2 Cor 3:17).
My Torah-following friends have been gracious enough to engage with me at a deep level, which has really expanded my understanding of the belief system of Torahism. In a recent exchange, we stumbled onto an important issue I believe is at the heart of our theological disagreement. I’ve changed my friend’s name to Justin for purposes of anonymity. And I’ve edited our exchange for clarity and brevity by fixing typos and removing tangential comments.
I’ll pick up our discussion at the point where I was challenging Justin that he had not yet provided any sound reasoning or compelling scriptural examples in favor of his position. I said, “There have been many claims, assertions, and theories but zero actual evidence. Which is why I am asking the direct question: Can you provide a specific example where Paul’s writing was twisted into a false doctrine by Rome?”
Justin replied, “The false doctrine of Roman Christianity was (and is) derived from any twisting of the words of the apostles or of Paul to create any doctrine that abolishes Torah.” He explained, “‘Sin is the violation of Torah’ (1 John 3:4), and the Torah clearly states, ‘Do not add to or take away from the Torah.’ (Deuteronomy 4:2)”
He then proceeded to lay out his case. “If Paul, Yeshua, the church fathers, a Pope, or a preacher adds to (or takes away from) the Torah, according to the New Testament, they are committing sin; they are violating the Torah! Abolishing Torah is a false doctrine that Roman Christianity promotes and practices to this day. What you practice and call ‘orthodox’ is actually Roman Orthodox Christianity. And if it is what you want to continue practicing, then keep going with it! However, I do not want to live my life in violation of the Torah anymore.”
“Thank you for providing a specific scriptural example in 1 John 3:4. It’s a great one! One thing I noticed is that you inserted the word ‘Torah,’ but that’s not what that verse actually says. Instead of injecting our personal bias into Scripture, I think it’s important we step back and let Scripture say what Scripture says. And I see no evidence in this passage that the phrase ‘the law’ is referring to the Torah. The verse you quoted is found in a larger passage that runs from 1 John 2:28 through 1 John 3:10. In that full passage, John is urging Christ-followers to ‘continue in Christ,’ and he is teaching how Christ came to take away our sins. Taken in light of the theme of the entire passage, it seems to me that the verse you quoted would be more accurately interpreted as referring to what Paul called ‘the law of Christ’ (1 Cor 9:21, Gal 6:2) rather than the Torah, which is commonly referred to in the New Testament as the ‘law of Moses’ (Luke 2:22; John 7:23; Acts 13:39, 15:5,21; 1 Corinthians 9:9; Heb 10:28).
“What’s more, if you look at the CSB, ESV, or Codex Sinaiticus translations of 1 John 3:4, they do not even use the word ‘law.’ Rather they mention the general concept of lawlessness: ‘Everyone who commits sin practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.’ So replacing the word ‘law’ with the word ‘Torah’ is, at best, ill-advised.”
Lost In Translation
Justin replied to my post by saying, “You say the word ‘Torah’ isn’t found anywhere in the Bible? You are resistant to the truth and now you are twisting the truth so as to not obey it and accusing me of substituting words on my own???” And then he quoted the verse in question again, this time citing his source: “Everyone who keeps sinning is violating Torah – indeed, sin is a violation of Torah (1 John 3:4, The Complete Jewish Bible)”
The Complete Jewish Bible? To be honest, I’d never checked that translation. So I looked it up, and sure enough, there was the word “Torah.” I did some additional research and discovered that the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) was translated by an Israel-based Messianic Jewish theologian named David H. Stern. The translation claims to be “Jewish in manner and presentation.” For example, the names of the books are listed in both Jewish and English, and it incorporates Hebrew and Yiddish expressions, which Stern refers to as “Jewish English.” The CJB translation was written predominantly by Jews and to a Jewish audience. (And for the record, I think restoring the “Jewishness” of the Bible is a good thing if done accurately.)
However, as I looked briefly through the CJB New Testament (which is supposedly an original translation from the ancient Greek), I noticed it tends to be fairly free in its renderings, often interpreting instead of translating. (Similar to Eugene Peterson’s Message Bible.) So I decided to take a closer look at a particular passage from 1 Corinthians that Justin and I had previously discussed at great length. It’s a short passage that mentions the “law” multiple times, and I thought it would be a perfect candidate for analyzing how the CJB translation treats the word “law.”
After carefully analyzing the passage, I posted my results to our ongoing Facebook conversation:
“Sorry, Justin! I stand corrected on your use of the word Torah. I thought you substituted it yourself because it’s not found in the original Greek, nor any of the principal Bible translations such as Codex Sinaiticus, ASV, AMP, BRG, CSB, CEB, CEV, ESV, GNV, GNT, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NLT, RSV, TLB, or WYC. But you are correct that the word ‘Torah’ is used in the Complete Jewish Bible translation. (And it’s also used in the Orthodox Jewish Bible translation.) I apologize for accusing you of something you did not do!
“It makes sense that a Jewish Bible translation would substitute the word ‘Torah’ for ‘law.’ But that does not necessarily make it an accurate translation. In fact, the CJB translation seems noticeably biased if you look at 1 Cor 9:20-21, which in the NIV translation reads as follows:
‘To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.’
“In these two verses, the word ‘law’ is used nine times. And if you look at it in the original Greek, the same root word for law is used every time: νόμον (nomon). Yet in the CJB translation, that one Greek word is translated multiple ways to mean very different things! This is tell-tale evidence of a biblical translator injecting their personal bias into their translation, rather than faithfully translating the original words of the author. Here’s what I mean:
“In the original text of 1 Cor 9:20-21, the Greek word nomon is used by itself seven times and within longer phrases twice. In all of the traditional translations, when used as a single word, nomon is translated as the English word ‘law’ each time. The CJB translation, on the other hand, translates that one Greek word to mean three very different things:
- Twice nomon is translated as “a legalistic perversion of the Torah.”
- Twice nomon is translated as “legalism.”
- Three times nomon is translated as “Torah.”
“That’s all within just two sentences! And then we have the phrase ‘without the law of God’, which in Greek is ἀνόμους θεοῦ (anomous theou). Note the use of the same root word for law (nomon) with the addition of the prefix ‘a’ to mean ‘without’, followed by the word ‘God’. So the literal English translation would be ‘without the law of God’, which is what the traditional translations render. But the CJB translates that phrase to mean ‘outside the framework of God’s Torah.’ Where did that come from? Not the original text.
“Same thing with the phrase ‘under the law of Christ.’ In Greek, this is ἔννομος Χριστοῦ (ennomos christou). Note the use of the same root word for law (nomon) with the addition of the prefix ‘en,’ which means ‘within,’ followed by the word ‘Christ.’ So the literal translation is ‘within (or under) the law of Christ’. But the CJB translates that phrase to mean ‘within the framework of Torah as upheld by the Messiah’. Where the heck did that come from? Not the original text.
“Here’s a side-by-side comparison I put together while studying this passage. It’s color-coded. You can see how the translation on the left is faithful to the original Greek, while the thought-for-thought translation on the right is chocked-full of the author’s personal opinions about what the original text might have meant:
“I’ll admit that the CJB does add an interesting Jewish perspective, which could be helpful at times. But because of its “free and loose” approach to rendering, it’s a dangerous translation on which to build one’s theology.”
End Of The Road
Justin responded to my post by saying, “I deleted your last comment. Stop preaching your Roman-rooted heresy on this page.” He then proceeded to delete the next two comments I posted in reply. And that was that. After more than 300 posts and 35,000+ words exchanged between us, it ended with Justin deleting my side of the discussion. It seems he had come to the end of his willingness to defend Torahism. So I replied, “Fair enough, Justin. Thanks for lending us your Facebook real estate for so long! May God richly bless you, sir.” And I meant that sincerely.
I pray that I was able to “put a pebble in Justin’s shoe” in terms of his current heretical faith walk. Justin and his family used to be strong Christian believers. It breaks my heart to see that in the last few years, they have adopted a belief system that denies the deity of Christ, claims Jesus should not be worshipped, and denounces the Holy Trinity as a “Roman corruption” of Scripture. And they don’t just believe this; many preach it aggressively to all their Christian friends. And now, it seems they have begun censoring opposing viewpoints. This is why I feel so strongly that the warning bell needs to be sounded to alert faithful, thoughtful Christians that there is a heresy in our midst.
“For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”Hebrews 9:15
*Living a “Torah-observant” lifestyle has been technically impossible for anyone to do since AD 70. As Jewish scholars Seth Postell, Eitan Bar, and Erez Soref explain in their book Reading Moses, Seeing Jesus, “There is no longer a priesthood, no temple, and no sacrificial system—all of which comprise the heart and essence of the Law. We cannot separate the Sinai covenant from the Law. The laws are merely an outgrowth of the covenant; they cannot stand on their own…Without the sacrificial system, we are unable to keep the Sinai covenant. Those who want to can only pick out a few laws to keep that are not related to the temple, the priesthood, or the sacrificial system.”