Omnis Traductor Traditor!

That’s Latin for “Every translator is a traitor!” Since the diversification of human language at Babel, the art and science of translating human language has been the assumed necessity of human communication. It’s entirely possible because all humanity derives from a mother tongue, but it can be problematic because our tongues have been “confused.” Hence, translation is never cut-and-dry, it requires nuance, understanding, and the exact sense of meaning in the original language, as well as how it would be most aptly rendered in the receptor (translated) language – which often does not have the same concept or reference of the original language. That’s why, for example, there are so few Hebrew words for snow and so many for dirt and sand!

This means that translators must be always aware of the danger of violating the original meaning like a “traitor.” Since we have been translating the Bible into English for going-on 5 centuries, the sense among Christians that they’re reading a “translated text” can be lost on many English Bible-readers. But A.T. Robertson was surely right to remind us:

The real New Testament is the Greek New Testament. The English is simply a translation of the New Testament, not the actual New Testament. It is good that the New Testament has been translated into so many languages… But there is much that cannot be translated. It is not possible to reproduce the delicate turns of thought, the nuances of language, in translation. The freshness of the strawberry cannot be preserved in any extract. This is inevitable (The Minister and His Greek New Testament [1923], p. 17).

Of course, the same is true of the Old Testament, it is really the Hebrew Old Testament.

Translating 2 Corinthians 2:14a

I was reminded of the danger in translation from 2 Corinthians 2:14, the first clause of which really reads:

But which may be translated, as the NASB:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ

The real challenge is the meaning of , from , “to lead in triumphal procession.” What does Paul mean by saying God “leads us in triumph“?

is a word that the Greeks borrowed from the Latin, triumphare.It was a specific, technical term in first century Rome that referenced the elaborate parades of conquering generals and Caesars, following military conquest.

Archaeology has uncovered over 300 references to Roman “triumphs,” which were vast civic events that could last days. They would involve the victorious general draped in purple in a horse (even elephant!) drawn chariot, followed by musicians, incense-bearing priests, the spoils plundered from the enemy lands, and… the conquered soldiers of the enemy. These captives would be lead in shame through Rome as they marched to their public execution, in sacrifice to the Roman gods.

In Paul’s day, to be “led in triumph” was to be captive on a death march to testifies to the greatness and glory of your Captor. Paul died daily (1 Cor 15:13; 4:9), suffering in the ministry of the Gospel, testifying to the glory of Christ and spreading the knowledge of God in every place (2 Cor 2:14b). Paul was Christ’s slave (not “servant,” in Rom 1:1, etc.)

Traitorizing 2 Corinthians 2:14a

Some translators have had problems with what Paul wrote, it’s such a startling and obviously “defeatist” approach to the Christian life. Even venerable translations, like the King James Version, have rendered it as “to cause to triumph,” which has spurred expositions of 2 Cor 2:14 that suggest Paul means “triumphant faith” or “victorious Christian living.”

While that may help some cope with the shock and harmonize with such biblical themes as Christian victory (e.g., Rom 8:37), that’s not what meant – by any stretch. My initial hunch on this was confirmed, in spades. Here’s just a few comments from Greek commentators, on trying to render it as “cause to triumph”:

… it can scarcely mean, cause to triumph'” (C.K. Barrett, 2 Corinthians, p. 98).

“… has no lexical support” (Victor Furnish, II Corinthians, 174).

“… we do not know that ever means ‘I cause to triumph'” (Alfred Plummer, II Corinthians, 68).

“… means ‘to lead in triumph,’ not, as in AV, ‘to cause to triumph'” (Hughes, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 78, n. 10).

“… the linguistic evidence for this meaning is weak or nonexistent (Thrall, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 1:192).

“… linguistically impossible” (Scott Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, p. 108).

“… never elsewhere the reference of the word” (Alford, 2 Corinthians, Alford’s Greek New Testament, 2:639).

“…must be abandoned, as no clear instance of in such a signification has been produced” (Bernard, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Greek Testament, 3:50).

Sentiments which are roundly confirmed by the entries for in all major Greek dictionaries (e.g., Delling,Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 3:159; Dahn, Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1:649-50); Abbott-Smith, Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, 208-09; Liddell, Greek-English Lexicon, 369; etc.).

So what gives with the “cause to triumph” idea? Another commentator, David Garland, hit the nail on the head:

We must allow the first century meaning of the word to guide our interpretation before trying to make it match what we think Paul ought to be saying (2 Corinthians, 140-41).

We must bring our audience back to Paul’s day, not try to make Paul’s day fit our audience’s. Ironically, this need justifies paraphrased renderings to maintain the literal meaning. For us, “triumph” connotes victory, not defeat. So several versions have added “captives” in 2 Cor 2:14 to get the sense:

But thanks be to God, who continually leads us about, captives in Christs triumphal procession (New English Bible)

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christs triumphal procession (NIV)

But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christs triumphal procession (New Living Translation)

Our Defeat is Our Victory

One of my favorite interpretive comrades, Henry Alford, explains the truth and translation necessity of 2 Corinthians 2:14, wonderfully:

In our spiritual course, our only true triumphs are, God’s triumphs over us. His defeats of us, are our only real victories. I own that this yet appears to me to be the only admissible rendering. We must not violate the known usage of a word, and invent another for which there is no precedent, merely for the sake of imagined perspicuity (Alford’s Greek New Testament, 2:640).

In other words, give us translators, not traitors! Let the real New Testament be unleashed on its readers and hearers… even in English.

4 thoughts on “Omnis Traductor Traditor!

  1. Hi Steve,

    At first your sermon was a bit of a jolt (Christians as P.O.W.’s and Christ as the triumphant Roman Captain?). That’s draconian!

    But, looking the dictionary section of my UBS 4th Ed. Greek N.T., it is interesting to see the first definition of Triambeuw is “lead (someone) as a prisoner in a victory procession.” So your argument has merit. Albeit, later on it does say “perhaps cause (someone) to triumph.”

    I believe the less-trying interpretation may also have to do with Paul’s positive sounding verse 14b, “and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him [Christ] everywhere.” I doubt this is referring to the stench of prisoners…most likely it is the lit incense of the parade which would be much well received.

    I want to hear you more on the fragrance-side of the argument because I think you would agree our Christian witness is welcoming to some and a nauseous odor to those loving darkness…

    Thanks for opening this discussion.


    • Hi Jon:

      Thanks for your comment and question. I am grateful for your critical mind, but I have to admit that you made me chuckle.

      I cited nearly every major commentator on the Greek text of 2 Cor over the last 200 years – who summarily dismiss the ’cause to triumph’ as even a potential (there are many more, but I had to stop somewhere), a handful of major Greek-English lexicons, as well as English versions, and you only concede it “has merit.” Your standard of scrutiny, brother, is steep, indeed – we need more justices like you on the Supreme Court. 🙂

      If you require more, explore Col 2:15, the only other place where Paul uses , and he does so in reference to triumphing over “rulers and authorities,” demonic principalities! I’m sure you’d agree that it’s doubtful Paul meant to suggest that Christ “caused demons to triumph.”

      Also, a brief technical note on the UBS “dictionary,” of whose gloss of I am aware. That “dictionary” is really just a collection of glosses, a time saver of “known uses,” if you will – and, as I note, “cause to triumph” is a known use. We use it for our devotions in the Greek NT, for example, but not as a lexical authority. When you look at the lexical standards for Greek – some of which I cite, above – “cause to triumph” is not even referenced as a potential meaning… because, again, there is no evidence of it ever meaning that. I think what substantiates this is that even the UBS glossers hedged their bets with “perhaps” – an entry I suspect to be a nod to “KJV-readers,” if you will.

      If we are primarily concerned with what something meant in Paul’s day, then the only conclusion with any merit is that in 2 Cor 2:14 means being led in triumph as a captive of God in Christ. This is completely in line with the whole point of 2 Corinthians – another argument in its favor. This epistle is not about “victorious Christian living,” but sharing the suffering of Christ (1:5-6), power of God in earthen vessels (4:8), dying so Christ’s life is revealed (4:10-11), and boasting in weakness, in which God’s power is made perfect (12:9). Being led on a death march is quite in line with the entire letter – and what Paul has said elsewhere (cf. 1 Cor 4:9; 15:13) – including Rom 8:36-37, where Paul says we die daily for His sake, but “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” But what is that victory? The absence of daily death? No, but that nothing is “able to separate us from the love of God in Christ” (v. 39), as we die for His sake. Or, we might add with 2 Cor 14a, as we are being led to death for His sake.

      We could go on, but suffice to say, “cause to triumph” in 2 Cor 2:14 is really without merit at all. It is entirely lacking in external evidence, as well as internal consistency with the near and far context of the NT. Even Jesus’ words to “take up your cross” – march to your death while carrying the very instrument of your execution – should’ve told us this, too.

      The problem, as you note, is really with the “jolt.” But we must not allow our shock at the NT to lead us on a search for other meanings. That’s why Kierkegaard suggested we “Kill the Commentators!” a great essay, to be sure.

      To the “fragrance” and “aroma,” its quite simple – Paul is transitioning metaphors. He moves from the captivity to God in Christ in triumphal procession, to the “fragrance,” of the incense in the procession. Then, in v. 15, to the “aroma” of a pleasing sacrifice, and back again to “fragrance” in v. 16. 3 related metaphors, none of which cancel the potency of the other two. Quite the contrary, they all join together to indicate that Paul’s ministry and message are a testimony to the glory of Christ – they vindicate his ministry, not question it (as the Corinthians were doing).

      In the first (v. 14a), he’s captive to Christ’s will, obedience to the point of suffering, then (v. 14b) he’s demonstrating the knowledge of God everywhere as he obeys to the point of suffering (again, see parallels in 4:9-10; 12:9-10), and then (v. 15) he’s the fruit of the sacrifice of Christ, the smoke of the cross! And this, again, by obeying to the point of suffering. Paul’s not tied to any single metaphor, as the later use of “clay pots” (4:7) or “ambassadors” (5:20) shows, but he is tied to sincere Christian life and ministry being obedience to the will of God revealed in the Gospel to the point of suffering. Some people who watch Paul are saved, “from life to life,” while others perish, “from death to death.”

      Perhaps it’s “draconian,” but I would suggest we just call it “Christian.” For we are indeed “fellow heirs with Christ,” but there is a catch: “…provided we suffer with him” (Rom 8:17). I’d rather be a POW in the Kingdom of God, than have all the kingdoms of the world by bowing to the evil one!

      There is no crown without the cross. Unfortunately, American Christianity has been so nursed on cross-less, crowned “Christianity” that we are shocked by what the Bible actually says.

      Hope this expansion, helps, Jon. Thanks, again, for the question.

      • Hi Steve,

        Actually that was very helpful — esp. Rom. 8:17 and your closing note..

        Thanks again,


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