Recently someone asked me about Dr. David Stern's Jewish New Testament translation (which was later appended to the older JPS translation of the Tanakh (1917) to form the "Complete Jewish Bible"). Is it a good translation? Do I recommend it?
First, it should be noted that the Jewish New Testament (JNT) is essentially a paraphrase of the Greek New Testament -- not a formal, academic translation. The JNT offers various needed cultural corrections to the standard "Gentile" versions common today (e.g., KJV, NASB, NIV, etc.). For example, the JNT uses Jewish names for the disciples (e.g., Ya'akov for James) and holidays (e.g., "Chanukah" for "the feast of dedication," "Pesach" instead of "Passover") and provides other cultural helps (e.g., "tzitzit" instead of "fringes," etc.). In this regard, the JNT provides a worthy service for those Christians steeped in "Goyishe" ways of reading the Jewish Scriptures... Understanding the cultural context of the New Testament means understanding its inherent Jewishness, and Dr. Stern does a excellent job restoring this way of reading for non-Jews. In this regard, I unconditionally recommend this work!
That said -- and perhaps more controversially -- it must be acknowledged that the JNT can indicate some theological bias, especially concerning certain interpretations regarding the word "law" (νομος) as used in the New Testament (especially in the writings of Paul). Particularly difficult is Dr. Stern's translation of the phrase "under the law" (υπο νομον) as being "dynamically equivalent" to rather wordy phrase "in subjection to the system which results from perverting the Torah into legalism." But why this lengthy "circumlocution" of a simple Greek phrase? Perhaps we can shorten Dr. Stern's meaning to say, "under legalism," i.e., that followers of Yeshua are "not to be legalistic," especially as advocated by certain of the Torah sages. Despite Dr. Stern's attempt to distinguish between "true Torah" and legalistic interpretations of it, it should be obvious that the classical Jewish viewpoint considers the covenant made with Israel at Sinai (i.e., the "sefer ha-brit" that was sprinkled with blood and ratified by the elders of Israel) to indeed be a legal arrangement. Think of the Kol Nidre service, for example. Traditional Judaism, in short, is a form of "meritocracy" based on the performance of various mitzvot (commandments) and adherence to a Torah-based lifestyle... Simply put, the entire Masorah (tradition) of Judaism is unthinkable apart from the idea of law.
On the other hand, perhaps Dr. Stern's peculiar translation of υπο νομον ("under the law") was intended to endorse the idea that the Torah still has binding application upon the life of the Christian (or Messianic Jew). If so, there is a danger here of confusing the idea of Torah ("instruction") with that of Brit ("covenant," see below for more information). Regarding this distinction it is vital to remember that the more basic (and unconditional) covenant with Israel was made with Abraham -- not with Moses at Sinai. The Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 15), or "Covenant between the Parts" (brit bein ha-chatarim) is based on faith in God's grace alone. When God asked Abraham to number the stars, he was declared righteous because he believed God's word that said, "So shall your offspring be."
The Apostle Paul later referred to this covenant as the basis for the doctrine that later became popularly known as "justification by faith." Followers of Yeshua are called "children of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7-9; Rom. 4:12-16). Perhaps it would be reassuring to Jewish believers in Yeshua that saying that the Sinai Covenant has been made obsolete by the New Covenant does not in any way entail the noxious doctrine of "Replacement Theology" or imply the loss of Jewish cultural identity. "Grace" is a Jewish concept, after all.
At any rate, according to Dr. Stern, when the Torah is "rightly" interpreted, i.e., in a "non-legalistic" manner (whatever that means!), Christians and Messianic Jews apparently are still under the terms of the former covenant, despite the sacrificial work of Yeshua as the High Priest of what is called the "Better Covenant" (Heb. 8:6,13). In charity we might ask if perhaps Dr. Stern is referring to the moral aspects of the law, since the civil and ceremonial laws are obviously impracticable today, even for religious Jews living in Israel. If so, it needs to be remembered that the entire content of the moral law has been subsumed under Yeshua's greater ethic of love (John 13:34, Rom. 13:8-10, Gal. 5:14, 1 Jn. 3:23), so there is little fear of promoting "antinomianism" by arguing that the Sinaitic Covenant has been rendered obsolete by means of the New Covenant (Heb. 8:13). Dr. Stern's hidden assumption seems to imply that the Sinai covenant is not entirely obsolete, despite the "tetelestai" ("it is finished!") moment upon the cross, and hints that personal sanctification is (somehow) tied to the observance of the moral aspects of the covenant given to Israel at Sinai (i.e., the Ten Commandments or some other set of laws, such as keeping a kosher diet). This is puzzling, especially since his definition of υπο νομον seems carefully constructed to get away from the idea of legalism!
Some critics of the JNT have said that Dr. Stern's translation of Romans 10:4 (τελος γαρ νομου Χριστος εις δικαιοσυνην παντι τω πιστευοντι) -- and in particular the word "telos" in this verse -- has been incorrectly translated as, "For the Messiah is the goal (telos) at which the Torah aims..." instead of "For Messiah is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." This might be quibbling on their part, since "teleology" implies the design or the causative purposes for something, and it surely is true that Yeshua is the Goal of Torah in that sense. Indeed, Yeshua is the Living Torah Himself -- it's very Author and Perfector.... Yeshua is our Torah-righteousness in the Heavenly Courtroom of God's justice and truth. He is our Advocate, our "defense attorney," and our intercessor at the bar of the Judgment.
The bigger problem with understanding that Christians/Messianic Jews are under the terms of the "Book of the Covenant" (i.e., the sefer ha-brit that was ratified by the 70 elders of ancient Israel during the blood sprinkling ceremony at the foot of Sinai) is that this tends to confuse the ideas of Torah and Covenant... "Torah" is a general term meaning "instruction in God's way" and is always a function of covenant with God. But if God's covenant changes, so would the consequent idea of what constitutes Torah. If it is countered that the brit made at Sinai is "olam," or everlasting, then account must be given of the changes made to the Torah itself -- by Moses, by King David, by the prophets, by Ezra and the later sages of Israel, and by the Messiah Himself. Indeed, in the world to come, there will be no need for certain aspects of the moral requirements of Torah (e.g., laws against incest, murder, and so on). If so, it should be clear that Torah is to be understood as a means of restraining evil that is intended for law-breakers. As Paul wrote, "Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane..." (1 Tim. 1:8-9). For more information about this crucial point, please see my article Olam Ha-Torah.
Ironically, the JNT can lead the uncritical Christian into a legalistic understanding that undermines the very Gospel message itself (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:3). For example, using the JNT circumlocution, the idea of being "dead" to the law and married to another (Gal. 2:19, Rom. 7:4) doesn't make much sense. This is no small matter. The analogy of marriage is significant. If you "marry another" while you are still married you are an adulterer:
Or do you not know, brothers - for I am speaking to those who know the law - that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom. 7:1-4)
The key verb in the phrase, "you also have died to the law" (εθανατωθητε τω νομω) is an aorist passive, indicating a completed action in the past (i.e., "you have been made dead to the law"). How so? "Through the body of Christ" (δια του σωματος του Χριστου), that is, by means of the death of Yeshua on the cross. Your identification and union with the Messiah's sacrifice (by faith alone) performs a double exchange: 1) He bore your sins and 2) His righteousness was imputed to you (2 Cor. 5:21). When Messiah died; you died with Him (Rom. 6:8). The life of faith in Messiah says, "for to me to live is Christ" -- not "for me to live is the Law." We are not "born again" by means of self-effort any more than we are sanctified by such. In other words, the entire Christian life begins, abides, and culminates by the agency of God's grace... The life of faith in Yeshua is not perfected by human effort, but is "all of grace" -- from beginning to end.
And intuitively we know this to be true. The Law is "holy, just, and good" (Rom. 7:12) but it is powerless to change the human heart... It can merely reveal the truth, report the facts, and mirror spiritual reality back to ourselves (1 Tim. 1:8-9). If you honestly perform self-examination of your life, you will find this to be tragically axiomatic (Rom. 7:9). There is no sin in the Law (both the moral law of God and the concrete expression of such embodied in the Ten Commandments) but rather there is sin within the human heart, and the truth has no power to avail the sinner apart from the intervention of God's grace.
Therefore, we say "Amen" to the words of the Apostle Paul preached long ago to the Jewish people in a synagogue at Antioch:
Let it therefore be known to you, brothers, that through this one is the forgiveness of sins proclaimed to you, and from all things from which you were not able in the law of Moses to be declared righteous (απο παντων ων ουκ ηδυνηθητε εν τω νομω Μωυσεως δικαιωθηναι), in Him all who believe are declared righteous (εν τουτω πας ο πιστευων δικαιουται). - Acts 13:38-39
Dr. Stern is to be sincerely commended for helping many people come to a better understanding of the Jewishness of the Gospel and the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. As a study aid or supplement to your own translation work of the Greek texts, the JNT can indeed be worthwhile to read and study. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that there are some implicit theological assumptions at work in this work that affect the plain sense of various crucial Greek texts of the New Testament.