David Stern on Hebrews 8:6

David Stern, in his Jewish New Testament Commentary, points out that the traditional translation of Hebrews 8:6 obscures a vital theological element. A typical modern translation of Hebrews 8:6 is:

But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. Hebrews 8:6 (ESV)

What is often missed is the contextual meaning behind our English word enacted. Stern explains:

The New Covenant has been given as Torah. This is a virtually unknown theological truth of far-reaching importance. First, although there are many, both Jews and Christians, who suppose that the New Testament abrogated the Torah, the New Testament here explicitly states that it has itself been given as Torah.

That the New Covenant has become Torah is absolutely crucial for understanding the New Testament. Yet, so far as I know, not one existing translation brings out this truth; nor, to my knowledge, does any commentary so much as mention it. In fact, the issue is avoided altogether. To give a typical example, the Revised Standard Version in this verse says merely that the New Covenant “is enacted” on better promises.

A look at the Greek text will explain why the subject has been ignored. The phrase, “has been given as Torah,” is my rendering of the passive, perfect-tense verb, “nenomothetetai.” This is a compound word formed from “nomos” and “tithemi.” “Tithemi” is a common word meaning “lay, put, place, make”; and in general — that is, when there is no specifically Jewish context — “nomos” may be translated “law.” Thus “nenomothetetai” in a non-Jewish context means simply “to make law”; when it is used in connection with the Roman Senate or the Athenian Areopagus (see Ac 17:19-22) it is quite properly rendered “to legislate, enact, establish as law.”

But “nomos” is also the word used in the Septuagint and other Jewish literature written in Greek to render the Hebrew word “Torah.” Since the New Testament was written by Jews, the word “nomos” or any of its compounds must always be checked wherever it appears to see whether it refers to “law” in general or “Torah” in particular. (Not germane here are the meanings “legalism” and “the legal part of the Torah”; see Ro 3:20b; Ga 2:16b, 3:17, 3:23b.) The word “nomos” appears 14 times in the book of Messianic Jews; and every lime, without exception, it means “Torah” and never merely “law.”

Also, every place in the New Testament or the Septuagint where there appears a compound word related to “nenomothetetai” it always has to do with “Torah” and never with “law.” At Ya 4:12 the word “nomothetes,” the noun formed from the verb used in our verse, is used to describe God as the “one Giver of Torah, with the power to deliver and to destroy.” At Ro 9:4 “nomothesia” the verbal noun (gerund), is rendered “giving of the Torah.” In the Septuagint “nomothetein” which is the active voice of the verb in our verse, is used more than a dozen times to mean “instruct,” the context always implying “instruct in Torah” (and at the same time implying that instruction in Torah involves not only the legal component but the full range of God’s “Teaching” — the literal translation of “Torah”).

The word in our verse appears at only one other place in the New Testament, 7:11 above, where we read that the Jewish people “nenomothetetai,” that is, “were given the “Torah.” At 7:11, every translation, without exception, takes the “nomos” in “nenomothetetai” to be not “law” in general but “Torah” in particular — no one thinks an early version of the Knesset (the legislative body of the State of Israel) met on Mount Sinai to pass laws. But in the present verse, even though “nomos” and its compound “nenomothetetai” nowhere in the entire book of Messianic Jews (Hebrews) refer to “law” in general, but always to “Torah” in particular, not one translator or commentator has grasped the point that the New Covenant has been given as Torah.

…  a Gentile grafted into Israel by his faith in Yeshua the Messiah (Ro 11:17-24, Ep 2:8-16) has himself come into the framework of Israel’s Torah. Although what this Torah demands of him differs from what it demands of a Jew (see Ac 15:20), a Gentile Christian should never think of himself as “free from the Law,” as many do.

What Stern rightly points out is that this understanding of the New Covenant as Torah undermines the theological impulses behind Dispensationalism and Replacement/Fulfillment theology. Torah itself is not null-and-void, abrogated, or canceled. What Yeshua accomplishes in enacting and mediating the New Covenant is fully in-line with the promises of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 – writing Torah on the heart and permanently dealing with the issues of sin and shame.

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