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Robbing Paul to Pay Peterson (or Who put the Mess in "the Message")

July 27, 2006

“Today,” the preacher said, “our topic is the Christian life, or as Jesus put it: ‘The unforced rhythms of grace’.”

Cool! I couldn’t recall where Jesus said that, but I wanted to mark that one in my Bible. Flipping through the concordance, I was still coming up blank. Thank goodness for Power Point.

And there it was in living color. Matthew 11:28-30:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Got it! Line drive for Matthew 11… Wait. There must be something wrong with my Bible. It doesn’t have Jesus’ great bumper sticker slogan.

Okay, the foregoing was fictionalized, but represent something I’ve encountered more and more frequently: the publishing phenomenon known as The Message, written by Eugene Peterson not only being employed as the text of the Sunday sermon, but its innovative phraseology being exegeted as if they were actually mouthed by Jesus or the apostles.

“I just love The Message,” the lady said, her face all aglow. “I’ve has such a hard time reading the Bible, but now that I’ve started reading The Message, I just can’t put it down!” Surfing the net yields similar paeans of praise for this book. Names you know in the Christian community from Chuck Swindoll to Rebecca St. James chime in to heartily recommend The Message.

The bandwagon is waiting. Shall we too jump on? It’s just that there’s that pesky little notion in the back of my mind that when the translator’s own distinctive voice is heard so prominently as he renders another’s words, something may be amiss.

So what do we do with The Message? Clearly the book has power. It “speaks” to people in a fresh and engaging way. It gets them back into the Bible, doesn’t it? What kind of a boor is going to “attack” such a wonderful product? True, you can also find negative reviews on the internet. Some of them though are just KJV-only folk, who will never approve of any but the Authorized Version.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it depends entirely on what you decide that The Message is. Well, it’s a Bible right? Go to your local Christian bookstore. The Bibles are lined up version by version: the King James, the New King James, the New American Standard, the New International Version, the New Living Translation…and there it is The Message. It’s in a very elite fraternity: it is one version of the Bible in English. Right?

Well, if The Message is a translation of The Bible it has to be judged by objective criteria of what makes for a good translation of any kind (not just of the Bible), and by any reasonable criteria as a translation The Message is not just questionable; it is appalling, disastrous, repugnant. (I don’t think I’ll be seeing my blurbs on the back cover any time soon.)

I’m not talking about “literal” versus “paraphrase.” Just for your information, The Message is not a paraphrase. A paraphrase is a restatement using different words of a text within the same language. It’s a bit absurd to use this term in cross-language rendering: when you change the language, every word is different—it’s in a different language after all. I don’t even have much to say in terms of the familiar dichotomy “formal equivalence” and “dynamic equivalence.” I don’t really find these terms all that helpful. The primordial thing about a translation is that it means the same thing as the original, not that it matches the structure of the original language’s syntax, which usually presents very different features from the target language. A translation made with it’s primary goal to match the meaning of the original as exactly as possible will be less likely to also match the structure of the original (unless they are quite closely related languages—and by the way Greek is closer to English than you may think).

Conversely, set out with the primary goal to match the structure of the original as closely as possible, and fidelity to the meaning will suffer, as will clarity and readability. Such a translation is more like the bottom line of an interlinear (which can be useful too, as long as we know what it is.)

Now take an approach like Peterson’s, where not only is readability is the goal, but also “freshness,” seeing the text in a new light, and grabbing our attention, and you have another recipe for missing faithfulness. Some of the introductory material claims that The Message conveys to the modern English-speaking reader the vibrancy of the original koine Greek (and of the Hebrew too, naturally). Sad to say, claim it’s “in the Greek” and you can pull the wool over the eyes of most. Peterson’s cutesy, cliché-laden, often quirky prose doesn’t sound remotely like the Greek of the New Testament, much less the Hebrew. However, The Message’s main failing as a version of the Bible is in it’s lack of fidelity to the meaning of the original.

A few examples will suffice. Take a good look at it yourself alongside a more conventional translation and you will certainly find more. I admit beforehand that I am supplying some of the more egregious examples. Some of Peterson’s renderings go fairly well for some while before wavering off track, so there is some baby in the tub, along with some pretty disgusting bathwater.

My “favorite” is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: for comparison, I’ll present the Message version and then a very literal translation, the NASB.

Message: Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start.

NASB: Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

In The Message every single specific sin in Paul’s list is suppressed, in favor of some generic categories they are supposed to fit in. Yet how apt are these categories in fact? Specifically he puts pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, and homosexuality (as expressed by two different terms in the original) into “using and abusing sex.” and “using and abusing each other,” I guess. Apparently this latter category also covers theft, coveting, swindling, and reviling. Drunkenness alone, I suppose, is left for the category of “use and abuse [of] the earth and everything in it,” (since alcohol is a natural substance). How is the reader supposed to get back to the specific items in Paul’s list. Aren’t the specifics of what Paul said here important? If this is your Bible, how are you supposed to know (from this passage) that sleeping with your neighbor’s wife is either using or abusing sex? In short, meaning is massively dropped.

And what can we say about Romans 2:9-11?

Message: If you go against the grain, you get splinters, regardless of which neighborhood you’re from, what your parents taught you, what schools you attended. But if you embrace the way God does things, there are wonderful payoffs, again without regard to where you are from or how you were brought up. Being a Jew won’t give you an automatic stamp of approval. God pays no attention to what others say (or what you think) about you. He makes up his own mind.

NASB: There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.

The image of splinters, what your parents taught you, what school you went to are pure innovations by Peterson. They have no counterpart in the meaning of the original text. Now parental values and formal education are perhaps analogous to the cultural differences between a Jew and a Greek in some ways, but the substitution is totally unjustified, especially in light of the important thematic level of the Jewish/Gentile division in the book of Romans. Yet it isn’t just cultural differences, different upbringings that is in focus here. The point is the covenant versus non-covenant, the circumcised versus the uncircumcised. If you are going to fill out some implications, this is the direction to go, not just pitting neighborhood versus neighborhood.

Also this passage covers some massively heavy material, eternal bliss and eternal damnation. Does “you get splinters” really convey the gravitas of trouble and distress. Sounds more like a mild annoyance. Likewise “glory, honor, and peace” vastly more than “wonderful payoffs.” Doing good and doing evil is a fairly basic dichotomy, but aren’t “going against the grain” and “embracing the way God does things” a tad insipid for these fundamental categories?

Do you really imagine this is the way Jesus sounds in Greek, in Aramaic? This is the Lord’s Prayer, in case you don’t recognize it (Matthew 6:9-11):

Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

Imagine watching a Biblical epic in which Cecil B. DeMille pops onscreen every few minutes to mug at the audience and say “Hi, Mom, ” and you’ll have some idea of what it is like to read The Message. To the extent that the translator becomes a co-author by inserting his own material he is being unfaithful to the original. Isn’t this obvious?Now my main point is not to bring gloom and doom to those multitudes who have gone gaga over The Message. I have a solution that will put everything to rights. Let’s all agree that your copy of The Message is not “a Bible.” It is something else but not a Bible.

Provocative rewording, modernized contextualization, innovative imagery, memorable mnemonics, encapsulating summaries, amplified expansions—these are the stuff of sermons, of commentaries, of many kinds of creative adjuncts to the Bible to elucidate and draw out its meaning. After an in-depth study of a Bible passage it is very helpful to formulate a personal restatement, an exegetical summary. That is what The Message is: a long, Bible-length running expository restatement of the text. The expositor has a far different responsibility than the translator. He still needs to be true to the text, but he has far more freedom in putting his “message” across. This is what Eugene Peterson has been doing lo these many years, and the fruit of his diligent pastoral efforts have yielded a Bible tool, that is to be judged on far different criteria from a Bible translation.

You may well judge on these grounds that it is superb. I have to imagine that the flurry of enthusiastic reviews for The Message are for what it can do for the reader alongside an actual Bible translation. The introductory material to the work, including Peterson’s own remarks, is ambiguous on this point. It seems he originally did not think of what he was doing in terms of “translation” at all and yet he otherwise seems to think his book is a Bible. Publicity blurbs say it is suitable for preaching and teaching. Yeah, use in within lessons and sermons. Just don’t preach from it. You preach or teach the Bible and you’re really bringing your hearers face to face with a text in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. You won’t get them there using The Message as a preaching text. Use it as support all day long if you want. Get the folks humming in that good ol’ “unforced rhythm of grace.” Just, PLEASE, don’t tell them (or leave the impression) that it was Jesus who said this.

Other uses to avoid: personal Bible study (again except as a tool), memorization, scripture meditation. Bumper stickers: if you must. Citations in books: okay, just let them know it isn’t the Bible. Daily devotions: why not. Occasional reading in the smallest room in the house: that’s up to you.

You know what, though: Bible translations sell. Bible study tools are much less in demand.

My prediction? The Message will continue to be sold in the stores as a Bible. Preachers will still use it as a text for sermons. People will be quoting it as authoritative to prove things you never imagined evangelicals would embrace.

Call me cynical, but I’ve been watching the way it works out there.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. DavidD permalink
    August 5, 2006 3:17 pm

    I was doing a search on one of your quotes and was directed here.

    I find the direction you went here more interesting than what I was looking at. That business of “Jesus said so” is important, isn’t it? Yet who says the Spirit can’t have helped make the Message be more like what Jesus actually said in Aramaic than the Greek of the canonical gospels? And if the Spirit can’t do that, then how did the Spirit make the canonical gospels to be the transcripts of what Jesus said that so many take them to be?

    I am a liberal, so I don’t care how someone answers that. I don’t find the Bible to be inerrant either way, New or Old Testament. I think it is all of our lives that go to learning who and what God is, and what we are to do about it. I believe that following Jesus, as best as I understand how to do that, has been the best way for me to live, while for so many “Jesus” is just the name they give to their pride and idolatries. I am charismatic as well as liberal, so I have been impressed with many things God can do. Yet He doesn’t make one “instruction manual”, with which people can try to get along without Him. I don’t know if He can’t do that or won’t, knowing that people need to live by God, through prayer, through service, through many ways, in the Spirit, not just through a book (Romans 8: 9).

    Yet people do paint themselves into a corner saying one book is God’s book, and everything else is Satan’s. How in the world would God let that happen? The contradictions in that are an invitation to see far beyond the idea that God dropped off an instruction manual and left. I think anyone can pray to God themselves about that. I don’t know why more don’t do that.

  2. marv permalink
    August 5, 2006 8:25 pm

    Thanks for the comment. You are my official first commentator on my brand new blog. Please feel free to hang out here from time to time. The concept of a liberal charismatic is new to me and does strike me as odd, I must confess.

    You ask “who says the Spirit can’t have helped make the Message be more like what Jesus actually said in Aramaic than the Greek of the canonical gospels.” Forgive me if I find this also rather bizarre. Of course, the Holy Spirit can do whatever he likes of course, but my question is what would even suggest that he did so here. There is not the slightest indication that The Message is inspired (far from it I’d say). At any rate Eugene Peterson is hardly likely to render an Aramaic original that neither he nor anyone now living has ever seen better than John, Mark, or Matthew, who were Aramaic speakers and actually heard what Jesus said, or Luke who had access to many eye witnesses.

    At any rate it is not all from Aramaic, and I personally am not overly impressed with his rendering from the Greek.

    As far as the gospels are concerned, the point is anyway that he is translating Greek documents written by the four evangelists not the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. My point is that Peterson’s translation technique is faulty. The most accurate tranlation is likely to be freer than many versions, if the translation focuses on meaning primarily. That doesn’t mean of course that a free translation will be faithful, no matter how “readable” it is. Again, The Message is too unfaithful to be called “a Bible” in my opinion, though it may be useful as a tool in many ways.

  3. DavidD permalink
    August 6, 2006 10:53 am

    “Of course, the Holy Spirit can do whatever he likes of course, but my question is what would even suggest that he did so here.”

    Why now that you mention it, the Message does sound like a modern person speaking, doesn’t it? But then there’s the same problem with saying gospels written at least a generation after Jesus are a transcipt of what He said. One can either go at this naturally or with the idea that the Spirit can do anything, but to say that the canonical gospels, in Greek, are transcripts of what Jesus said and anything putting another sort of language in Jesus’ mouth, not just words and grammar, but how it’s said, is dangerous is a bizarre idea to me. People who feel comfortable seeing the gospels as transcripts do so because everyone they know sees it this way. That doesn’t mean it makes sense, naturally or spiritually.

    My alternative is not the Message. I have encountered endorsements for it as you mention, but I prefer the NKJV Bible I’ve had for some time. I don’t want to assume that to be God’s Word either, though. I want to pray for direction frequently, live in the Spirit, and make my whole life for the understanding of God and for service according to His will. This is how God led me to live my life. I notice from the Bible and other sources that I wasn’t first at this, yet the Bible is not enough to tranform anyone’s life. Anyone can see that just looking at enough people.

    If I needed the Message as part of what makes that transformation, fine. If my more traditional Bible works well within that, which it does for me, also fine. I would just like it clear what the bigger picture is, and it’s not that traditional Bibles are prefect and the Message is corrupt. It’s that God, the living Jesus Christ, and the Spirit are what someone can trust, not any words.

    PS It was odd to me to wind up liberal and charismatic. Neither was really my choice, but something I accepted. If you are thoroughly committed to taking what God gives you, one can end up in an odd place. Then again, if the Spirit is here with me, maybe it’s everyone else who is odd or more accurately living a more natural life. And I have much evidence that the Spirit lives in me.

  4. marv permalink
    August 6, 2006 8:24 pm

    Actually, I don’t think the message really does sound like a real person speaking contemporary English. A tad too cutesy and clever for me. Okay, maybe there are plenty of people who try to write cutesy and clever. Hey, maybe I do.

    On the other hand to have Jesus ending “the Lord’s Prayer” with “yes, yes, yes…” Sounds more like “When Harry Met Sally” than something our Lord is likely to have said.

    Asking about the appropriateness of the Holy Spirit’s recording Jesus’ words in Greek instead of Aramaic, which of course entails one level of interpretation is certainly a legitimate question. My point in this regard is that as much as we might have liked a book or two BY Jesus. What we have is four compositions by early followers of Jesus. Apart from some possibilities of Matthew having a Hebrew (or Aramaic) original, what we have is these four texts and 23 others written in the language of wider communication of the Eastern half of the empire, Greek.

    Among my points about Peterson and the message are: it may be pretty useful in showing the flow of argument of these passages and encapulating some key points, as well as communicating them in thought-provoking ways.

    On the other hand I am not ultra sanguine about his acutal command of Greek (I haven’t looked at his OT that much) to handle a translation task of this kind single-handedly. Certainly his assertion that it sounds like the first century Greek of the street is (in my subjective judgment) off the mark.

    Mostly there is too much of the content/information/meaning that is added/missing/different to be judged a faithful translation. The quality of being easy to read, provocative, popular, or insightful does not change any of this.

    NKJV is a perfectly decent choice in my opinion. I am currently enjoying the ESV. Certainly none of these Bibles are perfectly translated, but at least they are done with enough care to be called Bibles. Moving from text to meaning to translated text involves rigorous proceedures, and I just don’t see that much evidence of any of this behind Peterson’s work. It has a shoot-from-the-hip quality (again in my admittedly subjective judgment). I am extremely skeptical about it landing anywhere near first century Aramaic Messianic proclamations. And I am not ready to blame the Holy Spirit for his results.

    I don’t attribute, the ESV, NKJV, KJV, NASB, NLT, etc. to any kind of direct work of the Holy Spirit. I do with Matthaios, Markos, Loukas, and Ioannes.

  5. Andii permalink
    September 13, 2006 8:49 am

    I just came across this and ended up adding it as a link to my lens on matters arising from the so-called translations of the ‘original’ Aramaic Lord’s prayer. The issues, it seems to me, are pretty similar to what you say here. It’s in the ‘linguistic resources’ section.

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