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“The Law” in the NT: Word Stats

February 6, 2018

Tools such as BibleWorks (and I am the grateful recipient of a copy of version 9) allow one to perform some quick analysis of word-usage and comparative frequency.  Here are some raw numbers, with little by way of comment.

Greek forms of the word for “law” (νομος, νομον, νομου, νομῳ) appear some 191 times in the Greek NT.  Of this total, the distribution is interesting:  Romans (74x), Galatians (32x), Acts (16x), John (15x), Hebrews (12x), James (10x), 1 Corinthians (9x, 6 of these in chapter 9 ), Luke (9), Matthew (8x), Philippians (3x), 1 Timothy (2x), Ephesians (1x).  No uses at all in Mark, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Jude, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, or Revelation.

It’s particularly interesting to me to note the figures for the Pauline Corpus:  In the undisputed epistles, the word appears 118x, in four epistles.  The 74x in Romans accounts for 62% of this total, and uses in Romans and Galatians comprise 90% of the total.  Clearly, Paul’s focus on “the law” was not characteristic of most of his letters.  So, was the “law/gospel” theme quite so central for Paul as it became for Luther??

Of the Gospels, GJohn has the largest usage (15x), followed by GLuke (9x) and then GMatthew (8x).  Interesting:  that very “Judaic” looking GMatthew has a comparatively modest number of uses of “law”.  But the combative tone of GJohn (featuring conflicts between Jesus and Jewish authorities and crowds) is reflected in the greater number of uses of “law”.

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24 Comments
  1. Larry, how would a Jew by birth know that a man was not justified by observing the law? (Gal.2.15,16)

    • Gal 2:15-16 is one Jewish *Jesus-believer* speaking to another. As such, Paul says, by their faith and baptism they have shown their agreement that the Law does not suffice to justify. REad more carefully Geoff.

      • Why would a Jew say he was a Jew by birth?

      • Geoff: READ THE TEXT of Galatians! It’s written to Gentile believers, and the scene in question (Gal 2) is where Jewish believers “from James” arrive in Antioch and insist that the Gentile believers should not be treated as full partners in faith. Paul portrays a confrontation with Peter about the issue, and his argument proceeds on the basis of a shared premise. “We, Kephas, are Jews by birth (not proselytes, or hangers-on). Yet we (by our faith in Christ) demonstrate that the Torah does not justify us, and that faith in Christ does.” But, as I say, Geoff, read the text of Galatins.

  2. John Mitrosky permalink

    Well, I find interesting Boyarin’s speculation on the Jewish Jesus in Mark 7 Larry, which has little (or almost nothing) to do with Enoch, or a non-Jewish Jesus my friend. What do you think of Boyarin here?…..

    https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/jesus-kept-kosher-by-prof-daniel-boyarin-ucla-berkeley/

    • Whatever you make of the Mark text in question, Jesus was an observant Jew of Galilee. His clash wasn’t over Torah, but over the interpretations of it, and, more pointedly, his emphasis that the coming kingdom of God introduced a situation in which God’s eschatological mercy trumped the merits of halakhic issues.

  3. Griffin permalink

    I often wonder what the effect would have been on Christianity, if the original word for “law” – Torah – had consistently been left untranslated. Since the original term had a slightly different meaning.

    Any speculations? Has the word “law” been a good translation?

    • The Hebrew “Torah” is regularly translated as “nomos” in Greek writers of the period: e.g., Josephus, Philo, etc.

      • Griffin permalink

        Interestingly, there had long been much discussion in Greek, about nomos. So almost any educated person reading this term, would also be recalling, hearing, a whole series of historical and philosophical resonances.

      • Yes, but more to the point, “nomos” had long been used among Greek speaking Jews and in Jewish Greek texts (e.g., the LXX) for “Torah”. Remember: the early Christian texts that we have in the NT weren’t sold in the market place to interested people, but were directed to circles of baptized and taught believers, irrespective of their particular cultural background.

      • Griffin permalink

        The New Testament pictures many ordinary people of many cultures – including Greeks and Romans – becoming believers. But even the earliest New Testament copies extant, appear to have been written by a slightly more elite, maybe clerical class: literate persons with at least a rudimentary knowledge of Greek; with the ability to write Greek.

        When such persons used Greek, many – especially say, a later generation of clerical editors –
        would have been at least somewhat familiar with many elements of Greek culture. Including knowledge of the “nomos” controversy. Since even Plato mentioned it.

      • Griffin: Aside from the anachronism in your comments (“clerical class”), your comments are beside the point. We establish how a word is used by reading its usage. And the NT writings clearly make reference to “nomos” as being the law of Moses, not Plato! For heaven’s sake, do trouble yourself to learn something about a matter before spouting off on it. It’s a bad habit of yours.

  4. If you feel able to offer a reflection on it, I think the most interesting aspect of those statistics is he complete absence of nomos from 2 Corinthians, when a Moses / letter – Christ / spirit contrast is so central to the argument.

    • Doug: I have no thoughts on this at present, but it’s a possible topic for someone to investigate.

  5. John Mitrosky permalink

    I was wondering if you have given much thought to the idea of dating NT writings and other 1st century Jewish documents in relation to thoughts on the law?

    For example, Paul and Mark can be dated earlier than Matthew and are anti-law, or unconcerned with law, in comparison to Matthew. The Parables of Enoch matches Mark in silence about law, but Matthew matches 4rth Ezra in what looks like a renewed concern for law a decade or two later. I think here of the notion sometimes attributed to the historical Jesus, but may actually belong to this later time: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law, but rather, I have come to fulfill it.” Similarly, 4rth Ezra’s Messiah is a Messiah of law, whereas Mark and the Parables of Enoch is not..

    • John: Your question rests on faulty premises. Paul wasn’t “anti-law” or “unconcerned” with it. So, no. We can’t date texts on your basis.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        Given you are right and I am wrong about Paul and law, in the Gospel of Mark I think it is fair to say that law is absent, because all law is now “the Son of Man” law. What you believe about him and his authority according to what Mark says about him, that is the only law in Mark. Yes?

      • John: Please! In Mark “the son of man” isn’t some office, it’s simply Jesus’ preferred self-designation. We’ve been over this oodles of times. It’s tiresome that you keep trying to drag 1 Enoch into everything, and keep speaking of “the Son of Man” as if it were some known figure.
        Now, as to Mark, Jesus is portrayed as an observant Jew: He attends synagogue, he wears his tassels, he goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Temple, and even lays claim to the Temple on behalf of God. As Mark was written mainly for Gentiles, however, the author doesn’t refer to the Torah as an issue, except in Mark 7. And there, Jesus’ complaint is that the Jewish scribes he criticizes “ignore the commandment of God” (i.e., Torah) in favor of their own halakhah. So, I’m afraid that you’ve vastly oversimplified the matter.

  6. Was Luther right? Inquiring minds want to Know?

  7. I would suggest you also need to look at other words, especially εντολη, “commandment”

    • Richard: Here are the figures for εντολη
      1 John (10x, though none of the instances refer to Torah)
      GJohn (9x)
      Romans (7x)
      Matthew (6x)
      Mark (6x)
      Luke (4x)
      2 John (3x)
      1 Cor, Eph, 2 Peter, Revelation (2x each)
      Acts, Colossians, 1 Timothy, Titus (1x each)

  8. That’s very interesting. But I wonder whether the focus of Revelation needs some correction by looking at the importance of ‘works’ or ‘deeds’ (ergoi) which seem very closely related to ‘law’, and are linked clearly in James…? Ergoi are central to the messages to the seven ‘assemblies’, as well as differentiating those who refuse to repent, and having a key function in final judgement.

    • “Deeds/works” is a broader term than “Law/Torah”. The issue of Torah-observance isn’t in Revelation.

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