Sunday, August 29, 2010

Which is the Great Commandment?

By Dan Cathcart

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus (Yeshua) was asked by a Jewish leader (a Pharisee) a key question about the law (Torah)

Matthew 22:34-37 KJV But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Before we can understand the answer that Yeshua gave, we must first understand the question. The main body of manuscripts of New Testament writings that we have today is written in Greek. But it is a strange form of Greek. They are not written in proper classical Greek of the day, but are in a form that closely resembles the Septuagint, the 3rd century BCE Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, what many scholars refer to as “Jewish Greek” because of its many anomalies that make it read as if it were in Hebrew. When analyzing the Greek NT manuscripts, it is beneficial to refer to the Septuagint for guidance. Most biblical scholars today would agree that many of the writings of the NT were most likely originally written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek. The Greek NT writings and the Septuagint are written in a style that retains much of the original Hebraic syntax and idioms.

Since Yeshua himself was Jewish, lived his entire life among the Jewish people and chose His disciples from among the Jewish men, it is safe to assume that he spoke and taught his disciples in Hebrew. We know that Hebrew was the common language in the religious circles of the 1st century and Hebrew is the language that the Torah is written in to this very day.

So let’s look at the question asked of Yeshua in the passage above.

In the Greek manuscript it is this:
(The numbers above the text are Strong’s Dictionary and Concordance reference numbers)

    1320             4169            1785                    3137                            3551
Δάσκαλος    ποία      εντολή          μεγάλος    στ ην    νόμος
  Master,    which   command (is)   great      in the     law?

The first word is Δάσκαλος "didaskolos" which more correctly means "teacher or instructor" and is the equivalent to the Hebrew word מורה "moreh".

The second word is ποία "poios" is an individualizing interrogative and is normally translated as "what" as in “what sort of”. The Hebrew word here would be מה "mah".

Next is the Greek word εντολή "entole" which in Hebrew is the word מצוה "mitsvah". Mitsvah is most often translated as "commandment", but it more accurately means "precept" in this context. Mitsvot (the plural form of mitzvah) in the Bible refers to lifestyle, culture and attitude. In Hebraic thought, mitsvot are about doing “good works”, not just hearing. When the bible speaks of “good works”, it is speaking of doing “mitsvot”, of living by the precepts of the Torah.

Next is the English “is”, this word is inserted in the English translations and is not found in the Greek manuscripts. Although Classical Greek has a word for “is”, it is not included here. This makes the Greek read more like Hebrew where there is no individual word for “is”, thus giving the Greek manuscripts a definite Hebraic flavor.

The next word here is μεγάλος “megalos”, where we get our English word “mega” whish means big or exceedingly large. It is equivalent to the Hebrew word גדולה "gadolah".

Next is the phrase στ ην "en to". It is not found as a separate word in Hebrew but is found in the form of the prefix b (a single Hebrew letter ב beit, in this case pronounced “ba”) added to the root word rendering the meaning “in the” or “within the”.

The last Greek word is νόμος “nomos”. In the bible this word is most frequently translated as "law". But it doesn’t mean “law” in our modern legal sense. It more accurately means "teachings or a principle”, which is the Hebrew word תורה “Torah”, or in this case “in the Torah” בתורה.

So now we have the Hebrew translation of the Greek text in Matthew 22:
מורה מה מצוה גדולה בתורה
moreh mah mitsvah gadolah batorah

Now we can translate this Hebrew text into English and we get:

“Teacher, what is the great precept of the teachings”?

When we translate the question directly from the Greek to English, the implication is that the speaker (the Pharisee) is asking for one commandment found in the Torah that is above all the others. But when we look at the embedded Hebraic nature of the Greek translation, we can clearly see above that it is an entirely different question. The question becomes much clearer when we translate the Hebrew directly to English!

Now, when we use the same method to translate Yeshua’s answer found in Matthew 22:37-40 we get the following:

“You shall love YHWH (“The LORD” in English) your God with all your heart and with all your soul (being or life) and with all your mind (faculties or possessions) this is the beginning and great precept, and another like it is 'You shall love your companions as yourself'. Within these two precepts hang all of the Torah, the Prophets and the writings".

So what is Yeshua telling us here? In answering the Pharisee’s question, He is explaining the overriding precept of the 613 “commandments” in the Torah. Not the one “greatest” that we should pay the most attention to. Yeshua was explaining that the Torah is not about a set of “laws” dictated by an angry god against a rebellious and backslidden people, or a set of “rules” to be followed as a means of receiving salvation, but that the Torah is a “road map” to a relationship with a loving God and to each other. It is the set of “instructions” from God to be incorporated into our lives to draw nearer to Him. As we look at the order of events of the Exodus from Egypt, we see that redemption from Egypt or sin came first, passing through the Red Sea or baptism came second, followed by receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. He takes us out of bondage to sin and teaches us how to live a holy life set apart for His service.

As you can see, much is lost in translation. But it can be restored once we decide to dig a little deeper and study the original language and culture of Yeshua’s day. We clearly see the Hebraic nature of the NT scriptures. The “bad Greek” is a deliberate attempt by the early Greek translators to retain the Hebraic structure and idioms of the original documents just as the scholars of the 3rd century BCE translated the Hebrew Bible into the Greek Septuagint.

Shalom and Be Blessed
Dan and Brenda Cathcart

1 comment:

  1. Nice post.Very inspiring.Learning different languages is hard but fun.We were able to grasps the culture of every languages we translate.We have learned to earn, grow, and live a fulfilled and happy life in the Spirit.I think interpreting our lives would mean on how we live our christian life more than any translation company could ever offer.


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