Shall We Read The Message?
Eugene Peterson published The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary English in 1993. A whole Bible version was finally completed in 2002. The casual shopper in the average Christian book shop today could be forgiven for thinking that it is yet another of the veritable flood of English translations of the Bible that have been released since the 1970s. Increasingly popular among evangelicals, The Message may even be found in pulpits, and is used by many as their Bible version of choice in personal reading and even study. There is no denying the popularity of The Message, and at our Church book shop in Hanley we have had several customers come in and ask if we stock it. We do not, and this for good reason.
Some people may ask, ‘why are you so picky? Isn’t it a good thing that people are reading the Bible?’ Well, that is just the problem; someone reading The Message is getting the false impression that he or she is actually reading the Bible, when in fact they are doing nothing of the sort; they are actually reading one man’s explanation of the Bible. To put it more forcefully, they may be getting The Message, but they are not getting God’s message.
Although increasingly marketed as a Bible translation, and treated as such, The Message is not a translation at all, but a paraphrase of the biblical text. Though the publishers market it as a ‘translation from the original languages’ that ‘communicates the original Hebrew and Greek’, the fact is that it is nothing of the kind. Though Peterson worked from the original languages when he wrote it, The Message is Peterson’s putting what he thinks is the message of the Bible into his own words. Paraphrases have their place, but it is certainly not the same place as belongs to an accurate translation of the Bible from the original languages.
Anyone comparing Peterson’s work with an actual translation will find very quickly that it departs widely and very quickly from the text. In place of the majestic opening of the Authorised Version,
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
The Message reads,
First this: God created the Heavens and Earth — all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was like a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.
It sets the tone for the rest of the work, the rather debased style, the unnecessary expansion of the text, and the introduction of striking imagery (‘a soup of nothingness’) that in fact adds nothing and has no basis in the original text.
No translation of the Bible can convey everything that is in the original text; there are for example cases of word-play in a number of places, something that is almost always impossible to convey in translation. Nevertheless, the goal of all translation is to convey as much as possible what is in the original text and nothing more. The Message fails here, for not only does Peterson omit certain passages, but he also adds new passages.
One of the most helpful critiques of The Message is an article by the Methodist scholar Neil Richardson entitled ‘Should Eugene Peterson’s The Message be Read in Church?’ that was published in The Epworth Review in October 2009.1 Though by no means a conservative evangelical, Richardson’s conclusion is that it should not be, and his reasoning is sound. Though I had always been suspicious of The Message, and therefore avoided it, I was truly shocked at how bad it really is. In his article, Richardson identifies nine different types of problem with The Message’s renderings of the Epistles of Paul: inaccuracies of translation, misleading rendering, references to Jews and Judaism, colloquialisms and anachronisms, additions, disappearances, a general blandness, unnecessary paraphrase, and reductionist renderings. For the sake of brevity, I will use the same headings.
1. Inaccuracies of translation
There are many places where, though a direct equivalent of a word should be used (lists in particular), Peterson gives a less-than-equivalent rendering. So in Galatians 5:19-21, Peterson renders Paul’s description of ‘the works of the flesh’ as:
It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.
It would be difficult to find the equivalents for some of these in the original text or indeed in a decent English translation. In Romans 1:18 Peterson writes that, ‘But God’s angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate’. The original word here is apokaluptetai, which means ‘is being revealed’, and is significantly the same word used in the preceding verse of God’s righteousness. For the sake of a striking metaphor, Peterson has actually abandoned what Paul wrote. Romans 8:35 is another example of a list where Peterson has significantly amended what Paul wrote, ‘Bullying threats’ is not a satisfactory equivalent to the more accurate ‘danger’ in the ESV. In Romans 8:38, rather than the accurate (and sublime) ‘neither life nor death’, Peterson has ‘nothing living or dead,’ which is flat and dull.
2. Misleading readings
These are paraphrases that misunderstand Paul. The first example Richardson gives is Romans 2:10, where The Message reads, ‘if you embrace the way God does things, there are wonderful payoffs’. The context shows however that Paul’s perspective is the future, the Second Advent, not the present. To describe the eternal glories of God’s presence as ‘wonderful payoffs’ is frankly painful. In Romans 8:26, we read, ‘If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter’. The words ‘it doesn’t matter’ have no antecedent in the Greek at all.
At times Peterson is trying to smooth out Paul’s style, which is never a good idea. Romans 5:10 in The Message reads: ‘If, when we were at our worst, we were put on friendly terms with God by the sacrificial death of his Son, now that we’re at our best, just think of how our lives will expand and deepen by means of his resurrection life!’ Even if ‘while we were at our worst’ is accepted as a half-way decent rendering of the Greek, ‘now that we’re at our best’ is by no means an acceptable rendering of what should be translated ‘now that we are reconciled.’ Paul is often uneven in his writing style, but that is Paul; one should not try to smooth Paul out, for then he ceases to be Paul. Worse, Peterson’s reading encourages the believer to look at his own state (‘now we’re at our best’) rather than to the finished work of Christ (‘having been reconciled’). While such language is all too common in evangelicalism, it comes from Arminianism and encourages us to think that the gospel is what gets us ‘saved’, but that once we have believed, our standing with God is based on our works and level of sanctification. It brings the law back in and instead of pointing to Christ points to ourselves.
3. References to Jews and Judaism
Peterson is not a proponent of the New Perspective on Paul. He is however far too ready to overplay the legalism of Pharisaism, so that in Romans 7:6, instead of ‘Letter’, we have, ‘oppressive regulations and fine print’. The rendering of 2 Corinthians 3:15, ‘Whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds,’ as ‘Even today when the proclamations of that old, bankrupt government are read out, they can’t see through it’ is simply awful, almost Marcionite in its portrayal of the relationship of the Old and New Testaments. Then there are such gratuitous additions to the original as ‘all their talk about the law is gas’ in Galatians 6:13. There is simply no need to do this; Paul knew what he wanted to say, and God knew what he wanted Paul to write.
4. Colloquialisms and anachronisms
In Romans 8:3-4 the Authorised Version reads:
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
In The Message this is changed out of all recognition to,
God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that. The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.
It is hard to tell that the second is meant to be rendering the same text as the first! The imagery may be striking, but it is completely unwarranted by the original text. To deal with the first metaphor, ‘God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son’, Paul often uses sporting metaphors, but here there is no such metaphor. The ‘Band-Aid’ (‘sticking plaster’) is of course quite anachronistic as well as an American colloquialism that does not travel well.
There are some places where a colloquialism obscures the meaning of the text, such as 2 Corinthians 7:13, ‘That’s what happened — and we felt just great.’ Which is all very well, but the original literally reads, ‘Because of this, we have been comforted.’ The anachronisms include a reference to sandwiches in 1 Corinthians 11:33. Anachronism is always a danger in a paraphrase of didactic material like the Pauline letters, but should be avoided as much as possible due to the danger of distorting the original and distracting the reader. Introducing sandwiches in 1 Corinthians 11 is a good example of unnecessary anachronism: ‘go home and eat’ would have been just as understandable, if not more so.
A paraphrase is bound to be longer than the original, but Peterson is guilty of addition for the sake of addition in many places, and many of these are misleading and distort rather than clarify Paul. For example in Galatians 6:14-15 we read, ‘I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate.’ Gone is Paul’s striking image of the world crucified to him, and in its place is this long ‘explanation’ of the idea of Paul being crucified to the world that in fact explains nothing. One gets the impression that there are places where Peterson is making Paul say what he thinks Paul ought to have said, rather than what Paul actually meant to say.
Paul’s striking words, ‘And the world is crucified to me’ are certainly not the only omission. What is striking in fact is that the phrases that are missing are often ones that are somewhat difficult; one cannot avoid the impression that where Peterson did not understand what Paul was saying and knew that he did not, he just left that bit out. The phrase ‘God will destroy him’ is lacking in 1 Corinthians 3:17. In Romans 12:20-21 Paul’s striking metaphor of heaping coals on an enemy’s head by kindness is excised. In 1 Corinthians 10:6 the phrase ‘These things happened as examples for us’ has been replaced with the rather bland, ‘the same thing could happen to us.’ The troubling thing is that phrases and passages are being omitted despite the fact that they appear in every Greek manuscript; the omissions are not textual choices, they are entirely at Peterson’s pleasure.
Though in places Peterson has introduced striking (though often misleading and always unnecessary) metaphors, overall The Message tends in the opposite direction, replacing Paul’s own striking language with bland platitudes, something that makes Peterson’s introduction of his own striking phrases all the more egregious. So in Romans 5, where Paul wrote, ‘Where sin abounded, grace abounded far more’, Peterson renders it, ‘When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down.’ ‘Abba! Father!’ at Romans 8:15 becomes, ‘What’s next, Papa?’ At Romans 8:18, ‘The revelation of the children of God’ becomes the appallingly banal ‘what’s coming next?’ The language is more fitting for a question at a variety performance, or at the dinner table than it is for Paul’s great theme! In Romans 8:37, instead of ‘more than conquerors’ we have, ‘None of this phazes us.’ The rendering of 1 Corinthians 4:8 completely eliminates Paul’s biting sarcasm, something that happens time and time again in The Message.
Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you.
But Peterson writes,
So what’s the point of all this comparing and competing? You already have all you need. You already have more access to God than you can handle. Without bringing either Apollos or me into it, you’re sitting on top of the world — at least God’s world — and we’re right there, sitting alongside you!
This is simply not Paul’s point here; Paul’s point is they are not reigning, they only think that they are! But apparently sarcasm is too much for Eugene Peterson, or at least he feels his readers cannot handle it.
In 1 Corinthians 7:29 an eschatological reference, ‘the time is short’ becomes, ‘Time is of the essence’, and worst of all, in Romans 2:4, ‘the riches of his kindness’ becomes, ‘because he’s such a nice God.’ One gets the impression that Peterson really is not competent to paraphrase Paul.
There are places where some of the additional material is just unnecessary. Peterson seems to have let himself go and often paraphrased for the sake of paraphrasing rather than just where it makes the text clearer. There is no need to paraphrase where the original is clear enough already, and it only makes the resulting text more obscure rather than less so. So why add ‘How can they render justice if they do not believe in the God of Justice?’ to 1 Corinthians 6:6? That has nothing to do with Paul’s point, and the text is clear enough without it. In 1 Corinthians 15:4-9 Paul refers to the resurrection appearances of Christ; in verse 7 Paul writes that Christ was ‘seen of James . . .’ Peterson writes that Christ ‘spent time with James . . .’ There is just no reason to change ‘seen’ to ‘spent time with’, it does not make the text any clearer. And of course ‘The Message’ is not an adequate, or clearer, substitute for ‘The Gospel’, lacking as it does entirely the concept of good news. If the word is to be put into modern English, then the time-honoured ‘Good News’ is freely available.
9. Reductionist renderings
Richardson explains, ‘By this I mean paraphrases which reduce or remove the extraordinary, eschatalogical, counter-cultural nature of Paul’s writings.’ Peterson does not always do this, of course, but he does it a lot. ‘Affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity’ are just not adequate replacements for, ‘Love, joy, peace’ in Galatians 5:22, and the list of the fruit of the Spirit gets worse from there. ‘Be cheerful’ is not the same as ‘be joyful’ (1 Thess. 5:16). Again, Peterson’s tendency is to reduce the Bible to his own level, rather than being lifted by it.
So what is to be done? The Message is obviously not a Bible translation, or even a terribly good paraphrase. Rather than allowing the Bible to expand his understanding, Peterson has often contracted the Bible to fit his own ideas, omitting those bits that he cannot fit, and adding his own material in far too many places. With the aim of making the Bible and the gospel comprehensible, he has actually done something quite different; he has made them manageable, which is not to be done. While paraphrases can be useful in their proper place, they must be faithful to the original material, and that is precisely where The Message falls down. To read The Message in church as if it is a Bible translation is misleading and wrong. When The Message is read, the reader must be aware that he is reading what Eugene Peterson thinks God meant to say, not what God actually said. The charge may sound harsh, but it is quite accurate.
The Message should not be marketed as a Bible at all, and there the publisher is emphatically to blame. What ought to be marketed as a paraphrase (because it is) is being marketed as a Bible version (which it emphatically is not), and being read in churches. Preachers are making points based on The Message, points based on things that the original text does not say. It would be funny, if it was not so deadly serious. The Message does not belong in the pulpit. No-one should use it as their primary Bible, because it is not a Bible. If a person reads only The Message, then he is not getting all of God’s message, and what he does get is heavily filtered through Eugene Peterson.
So why has it been marketed as a Bible version? The simple answer is because of the desire of all the major American Christian publishers to have an ‘in-house’ Bible version that they can use in their publications. Crossway has the ESV, Zondervan the NIV, Broadman and Holman the ‘God’s Word’ Translation, and Thomas Nelson the NKJV. Navpress have The Message, and are determined to use it as if it were a Bible translation. So we have as their offering in the lucrative study Bible market, The Message Study Bible. So much for comments that ‘The Message is not meant to take the place of study Bibles’ (introduction to the 2003 edition of The Message).
Brethren, these things ought not to be so. The Message is not a translation of the Bible; it is not a Bible at all, it is one man’s personal paraphrase of the Bible. There it differs from every Bible version, in that it is one man’s interpretation, and one that is far from adequate.
There is another reason why The Message should not be treated as a Bible version; there is no lack of people who would like to reimagine the Bible for their own purposes, creating a ‘Bible’ that leaves out or completely re-works passages they find difficult or challenging. Treating The Message as though it were a Bible makes such projects seem that much more acceptable in our postmodern age. Peterson is relatively innocuous compared to those ideologues who would alter the biblical text in a few key places to remove the condemnation of certain specific sins, and whom an acceptance of Peterson’s work as a Bible would encourage to do just that.
- Neil Richardson’s original piece is found in The Epworth Review Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 71-77.
Taken with permission from Peace and Truth 2013:4, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union.