More Sketchy Translations by the NIV

In an earlier post, I talked about how the NIV (which I generally like) plays unfortunate sectarian games with its translations.  The example I gave was this one: the word paradosis means “tradition,” and the NIV translates it as “tradition” when its used in a negative sense in Scripture (when Christ condemns the Pharisees’ adherence to traditions of men over the word of God in Mt. 15:1-9).  But when St. Paul talks about the Traditions we’re bound to hold, in 1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6, the NIV translates the exact same word as “teachings,”  instead.

This reinforces the Evangelical error that Christ condemns Tradition, rather than condemning specific traditions which were obstructing obedience to the Gospel.  And it fuels ignorance: St. Paul says we’re called to obey Apostolic Tradition, whether passed on in Scripture (“by epistle”) or word of mouth (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Protestantism has long been uncomfortable with that passage, but the NIV’s solution to simply change what it says is obviously unacceptable.  (For the record, there is a Greek word for “teachings”: it’s didaktos, and it’s used in Matthew 15:9).

Well, Patrick Vandapool, who has a hilarious blog, makes a quite serious point: that the NIV also does this in dealing with works, as well as Tradition.  In translating the same word, ergon (which means “works”), here’s what Patrick found:.

If the word ἔργον is used in a negative sense, it is translated as “work” 10 times and as “deed” 7 times.

More revealing is…

If the word ἔργον is used in a positive sense, it is translated as “work” 0 (zero) times and and as “deed” 17 times.

I haven’t researched this one myself, but given what I’ve seen, it’s not altogether surprising.  Certainly, Bibles are translated by teams of translators who don’t always translate the same word consistently.  And sometimes, there are even good reasons to translate the same word in two (or more) different ways, depending on the context.

But here, the translation seems obviously sectarian.  Evangelicals accuses Catholics of defying Scripture by (1) holding to Sacred Tradition in addition to Scripture, and (2) by allegedly practicing “works-righteousness,” or in having too high a view of the role of works, generally. What the NIV editors have done is stack the Scriptural deck, and in the process, have introduced two new teachings:

  • “Teachings” are good, but “traditions” are bad;
  • “Deeds” can be good, but “works” are bad.

Significantly, these teachings weren’t taught in the Bible, until the NIV changed what the Bible said!


  1. I took Old Testament Theology from one of the nations foremost OT (evangelical) scholars. He would regularly “correct” various word translations in the NIV and ESV then expand the criticism to others. Occasionally he’d even criticize the NLT word translation, when he’d in fact been on the most recent NLT translation team! KJV and NKJV or RNKJV got little respect from him.

    I pointed out one day after class that it seemed to me this whole translation thing is an utter mess. That even though I’ve always liked his translation corrections, I’m not him, and I’ll never be him. What am I is someone who very much wants to know the Word of God. How am I to do that when according to him, sometimes there is no translation that “gets it right!” How am I to know what’s what?

    His reply was, either continue my studies and figure it out (become him)…or don’t.

    It was then I realized reading and and intellectual studying would never be enough as I pursued the Word. Eventually I accepted that I needed to meditate on it. I needed to pray it. I needed to experience it. I needed to allow it inside me and allow it to change me. I needed to engage the Word in the context of personal relationship. As painful as it was, I realized that my intellectual study (if that’s all there was) would always be limited, and might or could become a source of prideful sinfulness…or even idolatry.

    As for the issue you raised here, I agree. I wouldn’t say “the translation seems obviously sectarian,” however. That is a bit accusatory considering the baggage of the word ‘sectarian.” Instead, I would say it’s ‘systematic.’

    Another professor once drew on the board a graphic of an eye looking through a lens at the Bible which sat within/on top an image of a man with a halo. It was a caricature representing Jesus. Everyone…everyone looks through the lens of our world view at the Bible which is the Word and the Word is Jesus. Jesus is the redeemer, the healer, the perfecter of our souls…so as such, EVERYTIME we engage Him, our eye/vision ‘should’ be redeemed/healed/perfected and as such our worldview/lens and as such our understanding of the Word that is Jesus. The cycle should never end. There’s even no reason to believe it will end in the afterlife. He’s infinite. We are not. Our view and understanding of Him will never cease to be advanced or perfected.

    If we fail to engage the Bible with this kind of humility, that our system for engagement must always be redeemed/healed/made more clear by the very Word we engage, then…eventually, we will become sectarian…in all the negative, prideful, and sinful ways the baggage of that word contains.


  2. Personally, I’ve been very impressed with the Navarre Bible series. I’ve got the Pentateuch and the New Testament. They use the RSV: Catholic Edition, and have incredible footnotes, chock full of useful information. The RSV:CE is easier to read than the Duoay, without being dumbed down.

    The only downside (besides the cost) is that the footnotes are so interesting that I get “Wikipedia syndrome,” where I focus on something for thirty seconds before getting distracted by some other fascinating thing. So I’ve started using a regular RSV:CE, and switching to the Navarre where I hit a spot I’m confused about, or want to delve in deeper.

    Hope that helps, and God bless!

  3. Glad to find another Catholic who (on the whole) likes the NIV. I still have my NIV Study Bible from my days paddling around in the shallows on the other side of the Tiber.

    “Wikipedia syndrome”

    hahaha…I’ve given away a few copies of the RSV:CE and, when handing them over, I’ve always done the same thing.

    I open up a page and point to the text at the top and say “This top bit is the Word of God – it has the power to transform your life – you want to spend more time here than you do down here in the footnotes”

  4. If “παραδοσις” means “teachings” then “αθανατος” means “zombies”.

    I wonder if there was any malice on the part of the translators for the NIV.

    There are other instances of things like that that are lost in translation(s). They convey the vast differences between our culture, and the culture and the mindset of the authors of Sacred Scripture, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers, but they can only be found in the original Greek/Latin.

    Newadvent ( if the only one that I’ve found that really conveys some of those differences into English.

    John 20:26 is a good example, the NIV has it as “A week later…”

    while Newadvent has it as: “And after eight days…”

    which is what the original Greek actually says, and gets across the the Ancient Hellenic world counted weeks inclusively, ie: they include the current day, and don’t start counting on tomorrow.

  5. I am not a fan of the NIV primarily because it is “for market” translation. $$$$$ Besides, it is a thought-for-thought, somewhat dynamic which creates a less reliable translation. However, I would like to take issue with the 2 points made and see if anything I post has a smidgen of merit–humbly I submit:

    1. paradosis – briefly, you state the claim that your points reflect a sectarian (i.e., deliberate) bias in order to poison the Catholic Tradition. First, it is an atrocity to ever “fix” a translation to cover a theological bent. No excuses for anyone. Second, let’s review Mt 15:1-9 for starters. 3x “traditions” records the words of our Lord as He brings fear and trembling to the Pharisees. However, vs 9 has the word “teachings”. Why? Primarily this is due to a quote from Isaiah 29:13 where “rules” is the term. Now, time for some English grammar. The technique used here is called METONYMY. Here a word or an idea substitutes for one closely associated with it. But the key is not the FORM but the SOURCE. (Paul will declare the same as to his source). Pharisees used the many additions to the OT as doctrine imposed upon Israel (Mishna, I think). Christ knew this and rightly called it rules or teaching because that is what they were. The religious elite clearly configured a way to overrule the OT teachings.

    Next, tradition with Paul: 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6. He is distinctly declaring that the words and thoughts he educates them with are not original with him but were passed along–hence teaching [written or oral]. 1 Cor 11:2, 23, and 15:3 (context my com-padres) states unequivocally where he got it from (RECEIVED FROM THE LORD). The same is true for 2 Thess 2:15 as well as 3:6 (context).

    1. ergou – Only 2 sitations for brevity: Titus 1:16 and James 1:25. First, the former–context again and again. what is the purpose? “Believers” who claim to be disciples BUT THEIR ACTIONS/DEEDS/WORKS are all corrupt. Note the adjectives used: detestable, disobedient, and unfit. The latter verse creates a word picture of a man who not only hears the Word but acts upon it. He is a doer of good works.

    Now, I did read both of the prior posts and found them a bit touchy (on your part). I am content that the word choices in the NIV, in these instances (and the others you mentioned) are within the realm of credible and surely not a conspiracy against Tradition as RCC defines. Quit looking for athanotos (zombies) which really don’t exist. It really detracts from some great blogs both of you have written. Peace

  6. Not to start a rabbit hole, but ….

    Some time ago, I added RefTagger; however, it wasn’t until I read this post that I found you could get it to use RSV instead of NIV. RSV doesn’t show up as one of the choices when you get the code! Which makes me wonder about NAB and Douay-Rheims ….

    Anyway, Joe, I noticed the same thing about paradōsis as you did. Ironically, one of my favorite sola scriptura arguments centers around St. Paul’s use of paradidōmi and paralambanō in 1 Corinthians 11:23, both of which are words associated with the passing on of oral tradition … a fact I got from Dr. Timothy Paul Johnson, an Evangelical! (I’m not sure he ever saw the implications for sola scriptura ….)

  7. Restless Pilgrim, well said!

    Rob: your first sentence was hilarious, particularly once I looked up what “αθανατος” means. Well played.

    Anthony, it’s even cooler than that. If you want to, you can set it so that it lets your readers chose their version of choice (see for more details). That said, I don’t know about NAB or Douay, but I doubt it. Significantly, though, RSV includes the Deuterocanon – that’s why I switched default versions.

    The argument you mention is a good one: Mark Shea makes it well in one of his books (either By What Authority? or, more likely, This is My Body).

    God bless,


  8. Joe: Thanks for the link. I’m going to add that option as well. I may also drop them a line and see if they have plans for any other versions with the deuterocanonicals … though, like you said, I doubt it because they appear to be oriented towards Protestants.

  9. Lagniappe,

    It’s great to see you back! I was just thinking about you yesterday, and about how I’d been too brusque with you in my very first reply. I’m glad you’re still around.

    I don’t want to sound touchy, much less conspiratorial. I don’t imagine that this was a deliberate “bias in order to poison the Catholic Tradition.” I just think that the NIV translators have strong feelings about “works” and “tradition,” born out of Catholic-Protestant disputes. They seem to have let those biases get the better of them, and the translation suffers as a result.

    I don’t think that “traditions” and “teachings” mean the same thing, and I don’t think that paradosis ever means “teachings” in Scripture. If we speak of the traditions of the Pharisees, we’re implying that the Pharisees got them from older generations; but if we speak of the teachings of the Pharisees, that could just be the doctrines they’ve created. A tradition is something passed on from someone else, while teaching doesn’t seem to have that same “I got this from someone else” connotation.

    In Matthew 11, to which you refer, when Jesus refers to the teachings of the Pharisees, He doesn’t say paradosis. He says didaktos, which actually does mean “teachings.”

    I agree with you that when St. Paul uses paradosis in 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6, he’s saying that “the words and thoughts he educates them with are not original with him but were passed along.” But that strikes me as a reason to translate it as tradition instead: to show that these words and thoughts have been handed on, and aren’t just his own teachings.

    While I disagree with some of the things you said, your comment was good food for thought, and I think you presented the opposite side about as well as it can be presented. God bless,


    P.S. Glad I wasn’t the only one who got a kick out of the zombie joke.

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