Support For Torah Observance in Romans – “The Law”: Νόμος and תורה (Nomos and Torah)

This second post on Torah observance as supported by Paul’s epistle to the Romans is necessary for an understanding of the term he used in the epistle.

If you have not already read the introduction, please see it here.

Νόμος and תורה (Nomos and Torah)

In the New Testament, the Greek word νόμος (nomos) is almost always translated as “law.”  In the Septuagint (LXX), νόμος is used as a translation for the Hebrew תורה (torah), a word which is usually translated as “law” in the NASB, but is sometimes translated as “instruction” or “teaching.”  The English “law” has a number of connotations in our modern-day usage that do not mesh well with the meaning of nomos or torah.  Because nomos and torah are used interchangeably in the biblical texts, when they or ‘”law” are used throughout this paper, the proper meaning of the words is assumed to be in line with that of the earliest, the Hebrew torah.  This meaning is to be understood as “a divine decree with the intention of teaching and guiding one along the right path.”

What is Torah?

Présentation_de_la_Loi,_Edouard_Moyse_(1860)_-_Musée_d'art_et_d'histoire_du_Judaïsme

Torah has many meanings to Jewish people today.  It can refer to a single teaching, the written Mosaic law, the oral law – the Mishnah, or rabbinical law in the Talmud.  It can also be used to refer to the whole of the Tanakh, or to all of these things in general.  Most often it is used to refer to the first five books of the Bible, referred to as the Pentateuch by Christians, and also called the books of Moses.

Biblically, torah refers to any teaching, but in the vast majority of its usage, it refers to a divine decree from God.  Torah comes from the root word yarah, an ancient archery term.  When studied closely, the word is best understood as “the mark at which one should aim.”  Applying this definition to the decrees of YHWH, brings a light to the intended meaning of the text that is otherwise stifled by simply translating it as “law.”  No matter the English translation used in the various parts of the Hebrew scriptures, this meaning is applicable.

 

What Is the Law/Nomos?

In the New Testament nomos has various meanings, but it is almost universally translated as “law.”  Of the gospel writers, John used it most often and Mark did not use it at all.  Jesus has some very strong statements concerning the law:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:17-18)

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 7:12)

“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”[1] (Matt 7:23)

“The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness” (Matt 13:41)

“And He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the great and foremost commandment.  The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.’” (Matt 22:37-40)

“Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.” (Matt 24:12)

“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.” (Luke 16:17)

For brevity’s sake, not every verse has been listed, but the meaning of nomos in the context of the unlisted verses agrees with those shown.  The first thing that should be evident is that in every case where it is used in the gospels, the meaning is clearly the Mosaic Law.  Additionally, Luke 2:22-39 and 24:44 specify the “law of Moses” and the “law of the Lord,” and in many instances John also connects “law” to Moses.  The second observation is that Jesus plainly endorses keeping the law and condemns those who do not keep it.

Outside of the gospels, nomos is used frequently in Acts.  In most instances, there is no doubt that it is referring to the law of Moses, but in a few places it could be argued that it is possibly referring to Pharisaic law.  Of special note to the purpose of this paper is Acts 21:17-26.  In this passage Paul is urged to take a Nazarite vow to show his dedication to keeping the law of Moses.  Moreover, not only does he take a vow, but he pays the expenses for four other men who are taking the vow, and he makes the requisite sacrifices at the temple after his days of purification.

In the epistles nomos is used often – primarily in the Pauline epistles, but also in James.  (Special attention will be given to Paul’s epistles in a later section.)  James also refers to the Mosaic law in his statements, but there are also some interesting points to consider.  He writes:

“But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.” (Jas 1:25)

“If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.” (Jas 2:8-12)

“Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it.” (Jas 4:11)

In describing the law, he calls it: perfect, a law of liberty, and a royal law.  He also says those who keep it are blessed, those who break even one commandment are convicted, and those who speak against a fellow believer are judging the law instead of keeping it.  The “law of liberty” that he speaks of is the most interesting.  Paul does not use the phrase in Romans or any of his writings, but Both Paul and Peter speak of a liberty found in Christ through living by the Spirit; however, they both warn believers not to sin. (Gal 5:13; 1 Pet 2:16)  In Gal 5:1-4, Paul contrasts the freedom found in Christ to the yoke of slavery on those who are attempting to be justified by works.  This passage is very similar to concepts he expresses in Romans, and will be addressed in a later section.

Although nomos is not used by Peter and John, anomia is found in two instances.  In 2 Peter 2:8 Peter recounts how “righteous” Lot lived among those without the law – implying that Lot knew the law.  John, on the other hand, gives the most basic definition of sin to be found in the Bible when he writes, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.” (1 John 3:4) From these two verses, one can extrapolate: To be righteous, one must keep the law; but to go against or fail to keep the law is to sin.

Continue on to Part 3 – Common Contemporary Responses to “the Law”


[1] “Lawlessness” in these passages is a translation of the Greek anomia, which literally means “without the law.”  Because it is a cognate and helps to understand the context of nomos, a number of verses containing it have been included.

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