I don’t want to exaggerate, but it is important to realize how much of a role bias plays in translation of the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into modern languages. All people are biased. We cannot escape that.
Sometimes subtle biases affect the English translations of the Bible in ways that are fairly easy to notice. One bias that has been common in Christendom since the days of Justin Martyr (and even before) and a penchant for disrespecting the Torah, the Law of Moses, the Pentateuch, the covenant between God and Israel.
The following is one of the more obvious examples and one of the reasons the Complete Jewish Bible was undertaken . . .
I have been in a number of conversations, trying to help Christian friends understand what Messianic Judaism is all about, when someone brings up the line, “But the law is only a shadow.” There is a book by Vern Poythress called The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses that takes this concept and justifies centuries of supersessionist reading of the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures (supersessionist refers to the belief that Christians have taken Israel’s place as God’s people and that God is through with Israel). On amazon.com a reviewer of Poythress’s book puts it this way, “Christianity is not continuation of Judaism. In fact, Judaism today only started after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Ancient Israelite religion in the Old Testament is a different religion altogether.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Is this a fitting statement from those who follow a Jewish Messiah? Is it historically feasible to claim that Judaism today has little or no continuity with Moses, Samuel, David, and Elijah? Of course not.
Lying behind the shadowy view of the Torah is an important verse in a much-misunderstood book of the New Testament: The Letter to the Hebrews.
The verse in question is Hebrews 10:1. Let me cite it for you in the NIV:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (Heb. 10:1, NIV).
Did you notice that word “only”? What is the Greek word which led the NIV translators to put the word “only” there?
There is no word “only” in the Greek.
Check out how a few other translations deal with it:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. (Heb. 10:1, ESV).
Since the law has |only| a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of those realities, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year. (Heb. 10:1, HCSB).
Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. (Heb. 10:1, NRSV).
For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. (Heb. 10:1, NASB).
To summarize these results, ESV has “but a shadow,” while HCSB, NRSV, and NASB have “only a shadow,” though HCSB has the decency to put “only” in brackets.
There are two English translations that do it much better. The first is a Christian translation called the NET Bible (New English Translation) and which has extensive notes about the language of the Bible:
For the law possesses a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and is therefore completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, year after year, to perfect those who come to worship. (Heb. 10:1, NET).
This is a good positive translation of the point that the writer of Hebrews is making. He is not saying, “The Law is bad and the Good News of Jesus is good.” He is saying to a group of Jews who are thinking of abandoning their faith in Messiah, “It is true that the Torah possesses a shadow of the Good News we now know in Messiah, but don’t go back to the Torah without Messiah, because the Torah was incomplete.”
Those are very different points.
And all of that leads me to the Complete Jewish Bible and its rendering. The Complete Jewish Bible (see my earlier post this week about the CJB) is the work of Dr. David Stern and has is its goal overcoming anti-Semitism in Christian thought, teaching Christians the connection between Jesus-faith and Judaism, and teaching Jews that the New Testament completes the Hebrew scriptures. Consider how the CJB translates Hebrews 10:1:
For the Torah has in it a shadow of the good things to come, but not the actual manifestation of the originals. Therefore, it can never, by means of the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, bring to the goal those who approach the Holy Place to offer them. (Heb. 10:1, CJB).
This is one of the things I love the CJB for. When few Christian translations can see the connection, the CJB again and again gets it right.
We should not be saying, “the law is only a shadow” or “merely a shadow” or “but a shadow.” The Torah has in it a shadow of the Good News of Messiah! This is a positive point to be appreciated.
Yet the Torah, without Messiah and the Good News, is incomplete. The Torah leaves Israel near to God but banished outside the tent, with God hidden in the back room (called the Holy of Holies). The Torah draws you near, but not into direct contact, with God. The Torah hints at something more, a time when hearts are circumcised and people are directly with God.
If you don’t have a copy of the Complete Jewish Bible, I encourage you to get one at www.messianicjewish.net.