Arbitrary Bias in the NIV Bible Translation Against “Tradition”

Arbitrary Bias in the NIV Bible Translation Against “Tradition” September 18, 2015


Abandoned Bible (photograph by Patrick Feller, 4-20-09) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

It was brought to my attention today by a friend, that the NIV may be injecting its usual strong evangelical Protestant bias into Bible passages having to do with “good” and “bad” tradition. The first chapter of my latest book, Proving the Catholic Faith is Biblical, is entitled, “Tradition is Not Always a Bad Word in Scripture.” It shows how the Bible uses “tradition” in two ways: a positive way, in terms of it being sacred, apostolic [true] tradition, passed down through history; received by by Jesus and the apostles. The second way is “traditions of men,” or “corrupt traditions,” which are falsehoods, over against true traditions.

The translators of the New International Bible (NIV) apparently came up with the notion in their heads that the very word “tradition” sounds “Catholic” and bad to evangelical ears. Evangelicals often think of (religious) “tradition” solely as a corrupt, undesirable thing, that almost invariably sets itself up against Scripture and genuine, heartfelt Christian piety. In other words, they seem to casually assume that the Bible always or almost always uses it in the bad sense.

Therefore, whereas the standard practice of English Bibles is to use the word “tradition” (for the Greek, paradosis), whether it was good or bad tradition being referred to, the NIV decided to arbitrarily use a word other than “tradition,” when the latter is intended in the good sense.

The Revised Standard Version, on the other hand, translates paradosis as “tradition[s]” every time it appears (13 times) in the New Testament. I have grouped these instances into “good” and “bad” uses of tradition:

Good Tradition

1 Corinthians 11:2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.

[same in NASB, Amplified, NRSV, NEB; “ordinances” in KJV]

NIV: “teachings”

2 Thessalonians 2:15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

[same in KJV, NASB, NRSV, NEB; “traditions and instructions” in Amplified]

NIV: “teachings”

2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.

[same in KJV, NASB, NRSV, NEB; “traditions and instructions” in Amplified]

NIV: “teaching”

Bad Tradition

Matthew 15:2-3 “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Matthew 15:6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.

Mark 7:3, 5 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; . . . [5] And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?”

Mark 7:8-9 “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” [9] And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!

Mark 7:13thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”

Galatians 1:14 and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.

Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

* * * * *

We observe that in all three instances of good “tradition” (paradosis), the NIV translates “teaching[s]”, whereas other standard literal (and non-Catholic) translations render it as “tradition[s]”. But in all ten instances of bad tradition, the NIV retains the word “tradition.” In this way it seeks to make an association of “tradition” only with bad, false teachings.

Moreover, it’s interesting to note that this rendering of “teachings” in English never appears a single time in the KJV, and”teaching” never occurs as a noun. “Teachings” appears once in RSV, and refers (ironically) to bad traditions or false doctrines: “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; . . .” (Heb 13:9). There are two Greek words frequently and routinely translated as “doctrine[s]” in KJV and RSV: didakee and didaskalia. This seems close to what NIV is trying to convey by “teachings.” Yet Paul chose not to use either one at 1 Corinthians 11:2, and 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6. He chose paradosis.

It’s unacceptable translation bias. There is no linguistic or contextual reason to make these arbitrary translations. But it’s indicative of a prior evangelical strain of thought: “tradition is a dirty word” and only that. It supposedly has no good sense in Scripture or Christianity in general. Thus, when evangelicals who are taught in this fashion hear Catholics refer to tradition, they automatically think, from past conditioning and understanding, “bad word!”

If we are truly open to what inspired Sacred Scripture: the infallible revelation from God, teaches us, we have to objectively translate it and let it speak for itself, not smuggle our own preconceived notions into it, thus unacceptably twisting an objective translation procedure.


[additions from 5-21-17]

Peter Rowe commented on my Facebook page and I replied. His words will be in blue.

In my copy of the NIV, in the textual note in 2 Thess 2: 15; 3: 6; and 1 Cor. 11:2, it states in the text note: “or traditions”, which is not exactly hiding the possible translation difference; third, the Catholic Confraternity Version of the NT translates 2 Thess. 2 :15 and 3: 6 as “teachings”, not “traditions”, and 1 Corinthians 11: 2 as “precepts”, with a text note stating the Greek has “traditions.” I state this, because it is important that our apologetic arguments are good, and slamming the NIV, a very good Protestant translation is not exactly the best path in dialogue with our Protestant brethren.

1. Arguments about the relative worth of translations are not necessarily a “Protestant vs. Catholic” thing, since Protestants make plenty of criticisms of various translations as well. Therefore, it shouldn’t have any adverse effect on ecumenism.

2. I think the Catholic NAB is a terrible translation: virtually a travesty of the English language. The notes are even worse, and often are truly “liberal.” Does that make me “anti-Catholic”? No; it makes me a critic of what I believe to be atrocious English and of heterodox, theologically liberal footnotes that do not accurately reflect Catholic doctrines.

3. The Preface for the NIV, written in 2010 states:

In obedience to its mandate, the committee has issued periodic updates to the NIV. An initial revision was released in 1984. A more thorough revision process was completed in 2005, resulting in the separately published TNIV. The updated NIV you now have in your hands builds on both the original NIV and the TNIV and represents the latest effort of the committee to articulate God’s unchanging Word in the way the original authors might have said it had they been speaking in English to the global English-speaking audience today.

The first concern of the translators has continued to be the accuracy of the translation and its faithfulness to the intended meaning of the biblical writers.

4. Accordingly, I have discovered just now that the NIV revision has adopted “traditions” for 1 Corinthians 11:2.

The footnote for 2 Thessalonians 2:15 has “Or ‘traditions'” and the footnote for 2 Thessalonians 3: 6 says “Or ‘tradition'”.

The 1973 version also notes this in footnotes for these three verses.

That’s good, but I (along with the vast majority of all English translations) still maintain that “tradition” is the most accurate English rendering of paradosis in these verses. The fact that a footnote acknowledges another possible rendering does not nullify the decision to use “teachings.” I didn’t contend in my paper that the NIV was trying to “hide” anything in the first place, so that is neither here nor there. It’s simply biased in this regard, while offering a footnote that indicates what is actually the mainstream rendering.

The fact that the revision moved from “teachings” to “traditions” in 1 Corinthians 11:2 partially vindicates my criticism, as this was their own choice (at length) as the superior translation. So it is that much less biased than before.

I still maintain that there is evangelical bias; just less so now than before. This is no big deal. There are all sorts of Protestant analyses about Catholic bias in our translations, too, such as (one example), the use of “do penance” rather than “repent” in places. I would agree, myself, that this is an inferior and biased rendering.

5. Your documentation regarding the Confraternity Bible is interesting and a good point. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I don’t think it overturns my argument regarding the NIV, which shows evangelical bias in many places, according to several critics (and by no means not all Catholics). For example, Michael Marlowe is a Protestant Bible scholar, who is “conservative and Reformed”.

He wrote a review of the NIV, in which he stated: “the NIV does reflect to some extent a Protestant theological bias” and “we may speak of an “evangelical” bias in the version.” He cites the well-known Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright, making a scathing criticism of its bias, even using the word “deception” (going far beyond my criticism) and observing:

I discovered that the translators had had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said … [I]f a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about.


Marlowe then makes the argument about “tradition” that seems to be virtually quoting my post above:

Roman Catholic critics have also pointed out that the NIV seems to show a Protestant bias in its treatment of the Greek word παραδοσις “tradition.” The word is literally translated “tradition” in places where traditions are being criticized (e.g. Matthew 15:3, Colossians 2:8), but it is translated with “teachings” where traditions are being recommended (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6). In this, there seems to be an avoidance of giving any positive connotation to the word “tradition.” Kenneth Barker has explained that in the NIV, “When paradosis was used in a positive way to refer to the passing on of apostolic teachings, we did not want the reader to think of ‘the tradition of the elders’ (Matt. 15:2) or of traditions in general, but of apostolic teachings in particular. So when we believed that reference was to the latter, we usually rendered the term as ‘teachings’ to make that meaning clear to readers. All words must be contextually nuanced.”

[footnote 9: Kenneth L. Barker, The Balance of the NIV: What Makes a Good Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000). Nevertheless, as Gregory Martin pointed out long ago, “If they translate one and the same Greek word (παραδοσις), ‘Tradition,’ whensoever the Scripture speaks of evil traditions: and never translate it so, whensoever it speaks of good and Apostolical traditions: their intention is evident against the authority of Traditions.” (Gregory Martin, A Discovery of the Manifold Corruptions of the Holy Scriptures by the Heretics of our days, especially the English Sectaries, and of their foul dealing herein, by partial and false translations to the advantage of their heresies, in their English Bibles used and authorized since the time of Schism [Rheims: John Fogny, 1582].) ]

It does seem, however, that the NIV here reflects (and reinforces) a lack of appreciation for “tradition” in general among evangelicals, so that it has become a dirty word. Barker even avoids using the word “tradition” in a positive sense in his explanation. It may be doubted whether any reader would think that Paul was urging Christians to observe the ‘the tradition of the elders’ in 1 Corinthians 11:2 and 2 Thessalonians 2:15, because the context itself prevents this misunderstanding. A more literal translation, in which “tradition” is used in a positive sense in these places, would probably serve a good purpose.


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