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Friday, June 26, 2015

The Trouble with Traditions

     In the New Testament we read accounts about the criticism that Jesus received from the Pharisees. They criticized Jesus in part because he and his disciples did not follow their traditions (Matthew 15). It is easy for modern-day Christians to scoff at the traditions of the Pharisees. Yet, modern-day Christians have their own traditions, and those traditions do not necessarily conform to what the Bible teaches.

     For example, at one time Christians in the USA were told that each Christian receives a mansion as a heavenly reward. This belief was based on the KJV Bible’s use of the word mansions in John 14:2. Unfortunately, what the word mansion meant in 17th-Century England is not what the word means in the USA. When the KJV Bible was first published, the word mansion referred to a room within a house. In the USA, the definition of mansion was changed. Instead of referring to a room within a house, the word now referred to a large luxurious house with numerous rooms. So, when Christians in the USA were told that they had mansions waiting for them in Heaven, they believed that each of them would receive a large luxurious house with numerous rooms, which is not what John 14:2 teaches.
     Although the mansion-in-Heaven tradition has faded with time, another inaccurate church tradition still continues. It is the claim that Moses parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross it. This tradition is based on an inaccurate translation of the ancient Hebrew name Yam Suph. The literal translation of Yam Suph is Sea of Reeds, which is the translation still used by rabbis. Rabbi Sam Shor writes, “The parting of the Sea of Reeds left such an indelible mark on the Jewish conscience, that even after the Jewish People had traversed the Sea and had seen the cessation of this supernatural event, they were acutely aware of the presence of G-d, even in the subtle, less obvious miracles that occur each and every day.”[1]
     In a research paper published by American Scientific Affiliation (a Christian organization), geologist William Tanner uses both biblical and geological data to explain why the correct translation of Yam Suph is Sea of Reeds instead of Red Sea. Tanner also explains why the Sea of Reeds is not the Red Sea, but instead is another, smaller body of water within Egypt. Tanner concludes his paper with the following commentary:
“One of the most interesting aspects of this discussion is not whether “Sea of Reeds” is correct (it is, as is easy to verify), but rather why translators continue to use “Red Sea,” when the manuscripts provide a totally different identification, and when the additional details in the available sources require “Sea of Reeds” and do not permit “Red Sea.” How is it that, in many versions, the correct rendition can be given in footnotes, but not in the main text? How does a scholar justify a deliberate switch? And how does the reader, who has no access to the ancient languages, know which version is correct?”[2]

     Church traditions pertaining to mansions and the Red Sea are flawed but not necessarily destructive. Sadly, another tradition has been destructive. It is a tradition which says that English-speaking Christians must use the King James Version of the Bible only. Thankfully this particular tradition has been rejected by numerous churches. However, the tradition has caused harm to churches that have come under the tradition’s influence. In his book The King James Only Controversy, James R. White makes the following statement:
“Responsibility must be laid at the door of the KJV Only camp for the destruction of many Christian churches. Church splits have taken place as the direct result of the influence of KJV Only materials on elders, deacons, and other influential members. Many pastors have become quite wary of these materials, having experienced great troubles at the hands of those who become mesmerized by the KJV Only cry.”[3]

     The three aforementioned traditions are just a sample of the traditional teachings found in some churches. Although they are flawed, the aforementioned traditions were given life by pastors and other religious teachers, and ill-informed church members accepted the traditions without question. 

     That is the trouble with church traditions. They can take root even if they are flawed because pastors and other religious teachers promote the traditions, and pastors and other religious teachers are just as carnal and flawed as the people who sit in church pews. For this reason, we need to use critical thinking when reading or hearing what pastors and other religious teachers have to say. James R. White says it best:
“We all have our traditions. Yes, even those who claim to “go by the Bible alone” have their traditions, and the more aware we are of our traditions, the more fully we can test them by Scripture. Those who are blind to their own traditions are the least likely to be fully biblical in their beliefs. We all must constantly test our faith by Scripture, and we must pray for a willingness to abandon those beliefs that are found to be contrary to God’s revealed truth.”[4] 

[1] Sam Shor, “Making the most of Miraculous Moments; Celebrating the Gift of G-d’s Incredible Kindness...”, Timely Torah (Isralight: 2006), .

[2] William F. Tanner, Did Israel Cross the Red Sea? (The American Scientific Affiliation: 1998), .

[3] James R. White, The King James Only Controversy (Bethany House: 1995), p. V.
[4] Ibid., pp. VII-VIII.

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