This article is about the Bible translation The Message.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1996. 4 pages.

The Message - The New Testament in the language of the street

A long time ago, way back in the 1970s, I received a birthday gift which is still useful today — The New Testament in Four Versions — the King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips, and the New English Bible. Since that time our family has acquired several other versions of the complete Bible — the New International Version, as well as the New American Standard Bible, not to mention the New World Translation that I bought as a discard at the local library, before I realized that it was the Jehovah's Witness version. Add to that our dust-covered Dutch Bibles and an increasingly dog-eared Kurt Aland Greek New Testament, and one would think — "enough already!" Yet it was with interest that I took in hand The Message, the New Testament with the Psalms and Proverbs, as translated by Eugene Peterson, even though at the same time I did wonder..: "Another translation! What on earth for?"

That was also Peterson's first reaction when an editor of NavPress approached him to translate the New Testament into modern North American English. He dis­covered that since 1900, 287 translations and paraphrases of the Bible have been published in the English language. He did not feel all very qualified to try his hand at such a task, yet in 1993, The Message was published.

How it began🔗

The story of how Peterson got started is an intriguing one. It began about 15 years ago when Eugene Peterson, now professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, was a pastor of Christ Our King United Presbyterian Church in BelAir, Maryland. In addition to the weekly church services he led a Bible study class early each Sunday morn­ing. As a rule, about a dozen parishioners, out of a congregation of over 300, assem­bled faithfully in the cool, dark church basement, "the Presbyterian version of the catacombs." Before they arrived, Peterson would brew the coffee, put on water for the tea, place Bibles on the tables and spend time in prayer and preparation. He had been pastor of this particular congre­gation for more than a decade and thought it time that his parishioners — quite secure in the soft life of suburbia — deal with Galatians, Paul's angry, eloquent and pas­sionate letter. It was time to meet Paul in all his angry eloquence; Paul would force them to reveal themselves, to move from behind their carefully fabricated facades and disguises.

After a number of weeks it occurred to Peterson that these people "just weren't getting it!" There they were, reading sen­tences from a document that charted a revolution, while blandly stirring sugar and milk into their coffee. They seemed bored. Peterson was offended, mightily offended. At home, he fumed to his wife, "I'm going to teach it to them in Greek! I'll make them learn Greek! If they read it in Greek, their polite smiles will van­ish!" Jan smiled politely said nothing. Peterson realized, of course, that Greek would clear the church basement faster than a fire alarm.

During that week, Peterson began working with the Greek text — what he calls "doodling" with the Greek. He wanted his parishioners to hear it the way he heard it, the way Luther heard it, the way so many men and women throughout Christian history had heard it and, having heard it, had been set free by and for God. The next Sunday he brewed the coffee, made the tea, but omitted the Bibles on the tables. Instead he placed copies of the translation work he'd done that week on Galatians. Together they studied it, trying to get Paul's Greek into the language they spoke when they weren't in church but at home, at work, or playing with their kids. Every week, Peterson would bring another page or two. He felt they were getting somewhere when he did his weekly clean­up chores and found the coffee cups full of cold coffee, completely forgotten by parishioners too absorbed in their Bible study to take even one sip (Eugene Peter­son, The making of "The Message," Re­gent College Audio Tapes).

Everyday language🔗

Peterson is convinced that when peo­ple hear the New Testament in the idiom in which it was written, they are stopped in their tracks — the Holy Scripture, God's Word in my language. The striking feature of the New Testament is that it was writ­ten in the ordinary language of its day, in the idiom of the street and of the market­place. In the Greek speaking world of the New Testament there were two kinds of Greek, the formal and the informal. The formal, Classical Greek was used to write philosophy, history, government decrees and epic poems. For a long time Koine Greek, the Greek of the New Testament, confused many scholars. It was signifi­cantly different from Classical Greek. Some hypothesized that it was a combina­tion of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. Oth­ers attempted to explain it as a "Holy Ghost language," meaning that God creat­ed a special language just for the Bible. But discoveries of Egyptian papyri in the last 100 years have shown that this language was the informal language of the or­dinary people, as used in the writings of wills, personal letters, shopping lists, bills and receipts (William D. Mounce, Basis of Biblical Greek, Zondervan, 1993, p. 1).

Some people are taken aback by this, supposing that language that is dealing with the Holy God and with holy things should be elevated, stately, ceremonial. But one good look at Jesus, his preference for homely stories, and his easy associa­tion with the most common of people gets rid of that assumption. "For Jesus is the de­scent of God into our lives, just as they are, not the ascent of our lives to God, hoping that He might approve when He sees how hard we try," and how nicely we talk. "That is why the followers of Jesus in the witness and preaching, translating and teaching, have always done their best to get the Message — the "good news" — into the language of whatever streets they hap­pen to be living on. In order to understand the Message right, the language must be right — not a refined language that appeals to our aspirations after the best, but a rough and earthy language that reveals God's presence and action where we least expect it, catching us when we are up to our el­bows in the soiled ordinariness of our lives and God is the furthest thing from our minds" (The Message, p. 9).

Traveling Light published🔗

After a couple of years, the results of the BelAir Sunday morning collabora­tions on Galatians made their way into a book (Traveling Light. Colorado Springs: Helms and Howard. 1988). And shortly after that, an editor phoned and asked if Peterson would try his hand at the whole New Testament. This editor had been carrying around a photocopied version of Galatians for several years, and wanted more. Peterson's first response was neg­ative. It would take too long. He wasn't up on the latest Greek studies, a vast and exceedingly technical field. But then his vocational circumstances changed and he had a window of time available. He began the work.

Early in the course of doing the trans­lations, he realized that this was not really something new for him. He'd been doing it for years, all his vocational life. "For 35 years as a pastor I've stood at the border between two languages, biblical Greek and everyday English, acting as translator, pro­viding the right phrases, getting the right words so that men and women to whom I was pastor could find their way around, and get along in this world in which God has so decisively and clearly spoken in Jesus. I did it from the pulpit and in the kitchen, in hospitals and restaurants, on parking lots and at picnics, always look­ing for an English way to make the biblical text relevant to the conditions of the peo­ple" (The Message, p. 10).

Peterson worked directly from the Greek text, and did his best to stay scrupulously true to it. However, he felt free to depart from the exact wording when it did not fit the idiom of North America. He inserted phrases in order to make explicit to today's reader what was assumed knowledge for the original read­ers. He insists that he has never know­ingly strayed from the intent of any of the New Testament writings. His greatest fear and what he feels he has guarded against most is reduction. Reduction means that a translator in the interest of making a sentence clear, reduces the sen­tence by eliminating the difficulty, but thereby also inadvertently erasing a mys­tery. Peterson acknowledges, "There is the danger that in my attempt to make the sentences plain, I will have only cut them down to the size of my own under­standing ... there is still so much in the pages that my heart and faith aren't large enough to comprehend" (The Making of "The Message"). This is the very valid fear of any translator. None are truly ade­quate to this task. He states, "The original work is always superior to our attempts to get it translated from one time and culture and language to another. We necessarily fail often, but there is forgiveness also for translators."


Understandably, Peterson's work is not without its critics. Some simply can see no reason for yet another translation. Others will argue that Peterson's version is simply his own interpretation of the Greek text, and not a translation at all. He himself is not sure whether to call his efforts a translation or a paraphrase, but nevertheless seems unaffected by criti­cism. "I think the (criticism) sterns from a genuine concern that this is the Word of God, the authority of Scripture. So any­time someone does something like this, it deserves to be critiqued because peo­ple's lives are at stake here — the way they believe, the way they think, the way they live. Any time someone does this (Bible translation), it's dangerous work, risky work" (Release Ink, Dec/Jan. 1994/95).

Peterson suggests that any translating, from one language to another involves in­terpretation, because we don't speak in words; we speak in sentences and para­graphs. Good translation is not simply a matter of scientifically, grammatically tak­ing a word from one language and putting it into another language. Sometimes it takes three words to accurately translate what one word says in the original.

Peterson's work might be described as a dynamic equivalent translation. He at­tempts to take the Greek text and translate not just the words, but also the first centu­ry milieu, thoughts and meanings into to­day's late 20th century North American context and culture. His goal was to write in such a way that people who have never heard of God or Jesus would get it the first time. His work is dynamic and highly readable. Just like J.B. Phillips' version, it also tends to be very wordy in comparison to the other more literal translations. (See examples at the end of article) This lends validity to the arguments of those who consider this simply a paraphrase. Nevertheless, The Message certainly speaks the language common to our time. That is part of its charm, but may also prove to be a draw­back. The idiomatic expressions of this decade may quickly become dated in the next century.

A useful tool🔗

During this past summer's camping holiday at Shuswap Lake, we used The Message for our family mealtime devo­tions. Our twelve-year-old son frequently volunteered to read. It's written in his language. Peterson cites a similar experi­ence. A young girl met him at the Regent College bookstore and confided, "We're using The Message in our family devo­tions." She lowered her voice and whis­pered, "But I've been reading ahead." Would it be good to discard other ver­sions of the Bible (New Testament) in preference for The Message? Never! However, it can serve as a useful tool alongside our regular Bibles and Bible commentaries. It might also qualify as a good daily devotional book for adoles­cents and teens, better than a lot of the sentimental, moralistic material so typical of today's teen devotional fare. Never mind just the teens — their parents could well enjoy The Message, too.

In the U.S., The Message is also serv­ing as a useful evangelism tool. NavPress considers it more effective than any tract, video or evangelical crusade. In coopera­tion with an affiliation of independent book stores throughout the U.S., excerpts were taken from The Message and put into a booklet called The Message of Hope. Its non-threatening title and cover make it a booklet that is easy to give away. Some­thing to think about.

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