Do Some Translations Skew our Understanding of Tradition?

I’m reading Edith Humphrey’s book Scripture and Tradition: What the Bible Really Says. Her first chapter is titled “Lost in Translation.” In this chapter she argues that modern translations have undermined the positive sense of tradition. In Greek we have the noun “tradition” (paradosis) and the verb sometimes translated as “to pass on” (paradidōmi) since we don’t really say “to tradition.” There are other terms but this will suffice for our purposes. Take for example 1 Cor. 11:2 which reads in the KJV “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” In the 1973 NIV it reads “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.” She notes the improvement over this in the 2011 NIV which reads “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.” Other passages she treats include 2 Thess. 3:6 and 1 Thess. 2:9. Where tradition is seen in a negative light (e.g., Col. 2:8 and Mark 7:3-9) modern translations translate the same words as “tradition.” From this data she concludes:

“My point in all this is to indicate that often, when the original Greek noun or verb is used with a positive meaning, English translators employ paraphrastic words or phrases: not ‘tradition,’ but deposit of faith, teaching, doctrine, and so on. From the get-go, then, we have two problems. The first is the genuine difficulty of rendering these passages in English, since there is no English verb ‘to pass on as tradition’ that is readily recognizable as there is in the Greek. (To put the word ‘tradition’ into a phrase like this is unwieldy, and I understand the reluctance of translators to do so. However, if we had, as a Church community, a robust understanding of the value of tradition to the apostles, we would hear such words as ‘deliver’ and ‘pass on’ and immediately understand that the Scriptures were alluding to valuable and life-giving tradition.) The second difficulty is the real one. It is a matter of predisposition, a Protestant ‘tradition’ of talking about tradition. We assume, because of the problems of the medieval Church, that tradition is itself a bad thing, a declension from the truth of the gospel, when that is an overreaction that is not borne out by Scripture itself. There remains, then, the difficulty of rendering the verb. (Can I persuade us to adopt the verb ‘to tradition’?) Couple with this, there is an ingrained prejudice against ‘tradition’ by some Christian ‘traditions.’ Because of our language and because of the way that translators influence us, English readers are frequently shaped to adopt a negative view of tradition, and this needs to be rethought.” (33-34)

As she closes this chapter she astutely anticipates an excellent question:

“I suspect that as we close this first chapter, some readers are demurring, ‘Well, fine, but all these things that have come by tradition are found written in the Bible now, aren’t they? Everything that they had by tradition, we now have written down in the canon. They may have needed tradition before the Old Testament was canonized, before the New Testament documents were written, but we have the solid, concrete, written material, to which we should give our deepest attention.’”  (44)

Not everyone will find Humphrey’s arguments compelling but I think she offers some serious food for thought.

Scripture and Tradition

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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