why it's ok to read the message {and why you shouldn't judge others who do!} a guest post.

Hello and good morning!

This is LONG but worth reading.  Please go grab a cup of coffee and sit in a comfy chair!

As you may or may not know, I've been reading through the Bible again this year.  This makes my 4th or 5th time through and this time I am reading The Message translation (on purpose).  A translation written with the purpose of making the Bible approachable to all.  Every morning of the week, and sometimes on weekends, I put the verse of the day up on my Instagram feed as a way to share the word with others in a way that allows them to receive it or not with the scroll of a thumb.  I've shared some of those verses HERE where you can print and use them.  To date, reading The Message has put me on the receiving end of more scorn and criticism than any act I've ever done online.  It's been shocking really.

And I kind of love it honestly.

Do you know why?  Because for every rude critic, I've gotten two thank yous.  I've lost count of the emails, comments, messages I have received since the beginning of this journey telling me that because of this approachable, easy to understand translation that I have shared publicly, without judgment or expectation, they've either started to read the Bible on their own for the first time ever, or it's made them very curious about this loving Jesus I have shared about.  I share that not to toot my own horn in any way, I am humbled that God would even give me, a sinner, the chance to bring one of His children closer to Him in some way but to show you that there is fruit, where critics claim is only disgust and fruitlessness.  Being criticized and attacked verbally is worth it to me.

I recognize that God is creative and endless in His pursuit of us.  He can use a phone book to call to us if need be.  Running around criticizing others for how they read the word is unattractive, it does nothing but shame a (possibly fragile new) believer at the expense of puffing ourselves up.  To think we should tell others how to believe or seek Him is arrogant on our part.  I do my best to present my view point in a non-confrontational, loving way and it's usually met with "yeah, but really, reading the Message is evil" so to speak.  It's legalistic to think we should take our life rules and apply them to others.  Yes, each is entitled to and encouraged to have their own opinions and paths, but they should have no bearing on how another lives.  I've grown weary of explaining myself so I've called in my big guns.

Enter the author of this post, my friend Ryan, whom I've recently talked into starting a blog he calls "Homecooked Jesus".  Usually the biggest argument that people give me against The Message, is that we should be reading "the original" text, referring to the New King James version.  My response is usually "so you read Greek and Hebrew", which is actually the "original text"?  They don't.  And Ryan actually does.  He's is super Bible smart, understands context and is getting a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  I asked him to write a post explaining why The Messages should not be a point of contention, and is definitely not a salvation issue.  I think he does a wonderful job.  And please, if you have any questions or comments, Ryan has agreed to come back and respond in the comments, so please feel free to ask or comment, respectfully of course.  And here is Ryan:                   

Hi, my name is Ryan.  I like romantic-comedies (particularly Warm Bodies, which I’ve dubbed a zom-rom-com), candle-lit dinners, long walks on the beach, reading the Bible in Greek and Hebrew…and the Message translation of the Bible. 

Confused?  Is THIS how you feel right now (definitely click on that link)?  I get it.  I have friends who call the NIV the “nearly inspired version.”  I understand.  But we need to be careful here.  If these translations are horrible, then maybe people should be warned against them.  But if it’s just a matter of preference…well then we should all chill out a little.

So…which is it?  Well, my cards are on the table already.  I like the Message.  Why?  We’ll get to that.  But first I’d like to talk about translation in general.  Here are a few of the problems with the common perception of translation:

First, there is no such thing as a literal translation.  Here’s how Merriam-Webster describes literal: “reproduced word for word.”  There’s the problem.  You can’t do that in translation.  Let’s use an uncontroversial example.  Here’s Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew.  


בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

For those of you playing along at home, that’s seven words (and two of them aren’t really words as much as they are grammatical markers…).  Now, in the good old King Jimmy…
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”


That’s ten (even the Message is closer here with only 8 words).  So right away…where did the extra words come from?  Is the King James adding words to the Bible?!??!  No.  That’s just what happens in translation.  See, the first word in the Bible, which is just one word in Hebrew (בְּרֵאשִׁית) means “in the beginning.”  One word in Hebrew, three in English.  There just isn’t a single word in English that means the exact same thing as בְּרֵאשִׁית.  That’s because English is a different language.  If all the words in one language directly corresponded to another…they’d be the same language.  So the notion of literal or word for word translation needs to be scrubbed from our vocabulary.  It doesn’t exist.  


Not even good old King Jimmy lives up to that.

Second, all translations are interpretations.  Let’s look at Lamentations 3:22. 
KJV - It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
NIV - Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
ESV - The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
NASB - The Lord’s loving kindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail.
 

Notice, the KJV and the NIV are in agreement.  The Lord’s mercies/great love are the reason that Israel was not consumed.  The ESV and the NASB see it differently.  It is the steadfast love/loving kindnesses of the Lord that do not cease.  Neither of these translations says anything about ‘us’ (referring to Israel).  That’s a significant difference.  And two of the strictest English translations available (KJV and NASB) disagree.  And if that wasn’t strange enough, the NIV (which also has a bad reputation in some circles) sides with the KJV.  Why is there a difference?  Well it’s because the Hebrew here is not particularly easy, and there is significant disagreement as to how we ought to understand it.  [By the way, it is more than a little interesting to me that the Message agrees with the ESV and the NASB here.  “God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.”]
 

Now that we’ve dismissed a few misconceptions, let’s look at the positive side of translation.  What exactly are we trying to do when we translate?  We’re taking a phrase or phrases in one language and trying to convey the same idea in another language.  So בָּרָ֣א becomes created.  That’s simple.  But what do we do when we have a more complicated sentence?  For instance, a literal translation of Amos 4:6 is “And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your places: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.” (KJV)  What on earth does “cleanness of teeth” mean?  Is God brushing our teeth for us?  This could also be translated “I gave you freedom of teeth…”  Well that doesn’t help.  But if we look at the context, it is talking about famine.  So the NIV translation tries to help us with that.  “"I gave you empty stomachs…”  The word ‘stomach’ isn’t here.  They are interpreting ‘cleanness of teeth’ for us, to help us understand what is happening.  And they get it right (*cough, so does the Message, *cough *cough…I should get that cough looked at). 
 

That’s the fundamental difference in the type of translations available.  Are they trying to stick as closely to the Greek and Hebrew as possible (and thus leave us with “cleanness of teeth”) or are they trying to help us understand where possible (and thus give us “empty stomachs”)?  A translation like the KJV, ESV, NASB, etc are trying to stick closely to the Greek and Hebrew (even with word order), whereas the NIV, NLT, and the Message are trying to help us out to varying degrees.
 

So we’re left with two possible problems.  When reading the KJV, you may not understand what it says.  When reading the Message, it may not be saying the right thing.  So what do you do?  You read multiple translations, and you use different translations depending on your situation.  When I’m talking to middle-schoolers…there’s no way I’m using the KJV.  But when I’m doing careful study of a text, I’m definitely not going to just read the Message and call it a day.
 

So why do I actually like the Message? 
 

First, I like that the chapter and verse numbers aren’t in my way.  Sure that’s makes it tough when I read it in church and I’m trying to find a specific verse, but it makes it better when I’m at home.  These divisions aren’t original to the text, and they have fostered a lack of context in the minds of many Christians.  Translations like the Message help us move away from that.
 

Second, I like it because it often captures the tone of the passage in a way that other translations just can’t.  It gives me God’s word as if He’s using the language I use on a daily basis.  For instance, Philippians 2:1-4 reads this way in the KJV:
 

1“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies,
2 Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be like minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.
3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.”
 

Now, I get what he’s saying, but I’ve spent a lot of time studying this passage.  If I read this to a youth group…their eyes gloss over and they tune out.  Also, notice the separation of verses…just saying. 
 

But…here’s the Message of the same passage:
 

“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”
 

Yup.  Got it.  That makes sense.  Is it interpretive?  You betcha.  But is it understandable?  Absolutely.  If I’m talking to a new believer, I’m giving them the Message.  Why?  Because they can read this passage and say, “Oh…Paul is saying that what I’ve received from Christianity ought to motivate me to act a certain way towards other people.  Well that certainly makes sense.”  It helps them get into the text.  They can ease into other translations eventually.  But do you know, when they are tired…they will probably come back to the Message, and that’s a good thing.  When they share a verse on Facebook, it will probably be from the Message, and that’s a good thing.  Why?  Because it is easy to understand.
 

I know, for some of you, that the Message is a serious problem.  I know it’s really popular in some circles to talk about how horrible the Message is.  It’s inaccurate.  It removes things or adds things.  It encourages dogs and cats to live with one another.  You know…mass hysteria.  I get it.  But I want you to consider something.  Think about what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 8:11 “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.”  Before you jump in to tell people about the horrors of the Message, remember that this is someone for whom Christ died.  Remember that He loves them just as much as he loves you.  And consider for a moment that even if you are right, your knowledge in this circumstance might do more to destruction than building, and that is a disaster of Biblical proportions.

13 comments:

City Girl said...

Thanks for this post, Ryan! I appreciate you clarifying your position- it’s helpful to have someone familiar with translation procedures and practices defend The Message, as most arguments over this issue can be somewhat irrational.
In the interest of making sure those who are following this discussion hear both sides, and always with the motivation of knowing the truth, I hope I can disagree respectfully and be heard- I’m assuming this isn’t a one-sided argument but a two-sided conversation and that I’ll be permitted to chime in?

I first wanted to clarify that even the man who wrote The Message, Eugene Peterson, does not refer to it as a “translation.” Even calling his version a “paraphrase” is a loose use of the word. It was not intended to be regarded in the same way as translations that have been produced by a team of expert ancient language scholars. This is one reason why The Message has been scorned by many Christians- they are concerned about reading God’s Word, not one man’s interpretation (and, they fear, perversion) of it. While choosing to use or not use The Message is a personal preference, I think you nailed it when you said that consulting many translations is the wisest way to pursue knowledge of God. I’m concerned about the idea of regarding The Message as a kind of “go-to” version when even it’s writer acknowledges how loosely it handles the original meaning. With all due respect, I think you over-simplified your assessment of Bible translations by conflating paraphrasing with the translation philosophy of dynamic equivalence, putting you at risk of misleading people about the “degree” to which The Message is “helping us out,” as compared to the NIV and NLT.

I also want to address your point that opponents of The Message want everyone to read the KJV- this is untrue. I will concede that it is true that most people willing to take the time to publish a venomous anti-Message website are likely KJV-exclusivists. But there are many Christians within the mainstream who have voiced concerns over The Message and warned against using it as we would traditional translations. I cannot emphasize enough how strongly I agree with you that the KJV is inaccessible to most people of this generation and emphatically agree with you that it is inappropriate for use with, for example, youth. But this is, again, quite personal. I have friends who were brought up in KJV-exclusive churches who know the Word and its Author well- the Holy Spirit bridges these gaps.

And, ultimately, I pray that the Holy Spirit will bridge the gap for people using The Message, too. But the gap here is different- not one of being inaccessible but being diluted and potentially perverted. I feel the warning against using it exclusively is valid. Another problem with the liberties of Peterson’s philosophy is that the vocabulary is misleading at best and could be deceiving at worst. For example, take a look at John 3:16 (“destroyed” would support an annihilationist view); or Romans 1:27 (“all lust, no love” seems to suggest that the sinfulness of homosexuality is the lust aspect, not the perversion of God’s design). At the risk of opening two other cans of worms, those are just two I have highlighted in my copy of The Message as being problematic.

Jenny said...

People should read whatever they want but I disagree with calling The Message a translation - even after reading Ryan's definition of translation. I consider The Message a paraphrase. It's not my 1st choice & I've been disappointed with the shallowness of it's phrasing. The KJV & NKJV are written so beautifully if we take the time to understand it.

I do agree with what you're saying using I Cor. 8:11 but I think encouraging someone to read The Message above other translations does not encourage growth. Don't criticize someone for reading it but encourage them to read others alongside it.

I was talking with a friend on this subject & she pointed out something to me that I'd never considered before - do we want weak-minded Christians? Do we want to be the kind of Christian who can only understand Scripture loosely paraphrased or do we want to pursue God's Word enough to really learn what He said originally? That means reading the more difficult to understand translations, learning what it says in the original languages, ect. Getting out your dictionary & looking words up - actually pray & ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand it. I think if someone is reading The Message & something in it speaks to them they need to be encouraged to go deeper by comparing it to other versions. I think that gives a clearer picture of what a passage is saying.

I also think that we limit the Holy Spirit by totally ignoring Him in the process of learning. We look for what we want it to say instead of asking Him to show us what He wants us to understand. We can dig in our heels on either side of this subject & cause harm to others & ourselves or we can encourage people to just read God's Word & know Him better.

Ryan Lytton said...

City Girl,

Thank you for joining the conversation. You are more than permitted to chime in, you are encouraged to do so! :)

I’ve quoted you below, and nested my responses in-line so we can preserve context. I hope that is acceptable to you. Also, my response will need to be broken in two sections. Stupid character limit. :)

“I first wanted to clarify that even the man who wrote The Message, Eugene Peterson, does not refer to it as a “translation.””

Can you provide a source for this? I can’t find any reference to Eugene Peterson calling the Message anything but a translation. For instance, see this (http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/03/01/lost-translation-eugene-peterson-and-his-message) interview. Here’s an excerpt: ““I love translating Paul,” Peterson said. “He has these wild metaphors and his syntax gest all tangled up sometimes. … He’s a very poetic writer.”” Emphasis added. It’s hard to imagine that he’s referring to anything here but the Message, since that is the topic of the interview.

“Even calling his version a “paraphrase” is a loose use of the word.”

I don’t see how “paraphrase” is inaccurate. Here’s Meriam-Webster: a statement that says something that another person has said or written in a different way. That sounds almost synonymous with translation. Again, Meriam-Webster: words that have been changed from one language into a different language. So a paraphrase that involves two languages would indeed be a translation. And the Message qualifies. Certainly its approach to translation varies significantly, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a translation. It is words that have been changed from one language into a different language. It isn’t as if Peterson took the King James and reworded it. That would be the Living Bible.

Also, consider the following Bible College or Seminary textbooks which classifies the Message as a translation.
-How to Read the Bible for all its Worth (page 42)
-Grasping God’s Word (page 168)
- Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (page 130)

“It was not intended to be regarded in the same way as translations that have been produced by a team of expert ancient language scholars.”

Again, I’d appreciate a reference. I can’t find anything from Peterson which indicates that this is true. The closest that I can find is this, from the Preface to the Reader in the intro to the Message:

“The Message is a reading Bible. It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available. My intent here (as it was earlier in my congregation and community) is simply to get people reading it who don’t know that the Bible is readable at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again.”

Notice, he doesn’t say that it isn’t to be regarded in the same way as those translations. He only says it isn’t meant to replace them. But no translation is intended to fully replace all other translations.

Also…Peterson IS an expert ancient language scholar.

“I’m concerned about the idea of regarding The Message as a kind of “go-to” version when even it’s [sic] writer acknowledges how loosely it handles the original meaning.”

Again, I’d love to see a source for this. I don’t see Peterson ever saying, “I was pretty loose with the original meaning.” To the contrary, again in the preface to the Message:

“And all the time those old biblical languages, those powerful and vivid Hebrew and Greek originals, kept working their way underground in my speech, giving energy and sharpness to words and phrases…”

Ryan Lytton said...

“With all due respect, I think you over-simplified your assessment of Bible translations by conflating paraphrasing with the translation philosophy of dynamic equivalence, putting you at risk of misleading people about the “degree” to which The Message is “helping us out,” as compared to the NIV and NLT.”

A paraphrase (as stated before) is simply the restatement of one thing with different words. The Message is NOT less of a translation than the NIV or NLT (or any other). It may be more interpretive, but it isn’t less of a translation. Further, it isn’t much more interpretive than the NLT, and that is the opinion of just about every textbook on the subject of Bible translations.

“I also want to address your point that opponents of The Message want everyone to read the KJV- this is untrue.”

I…I didn’t make this point. I used the KJV as an example several times, but I also used the NASB, NIV and ESV. I’m not out to hunt KJV-onlyers, though I’m sure they will find me nonetheless.

“And, ultimately, I pray that the Holy Spirit will bridge the gap for people using The Message, too. But the gap here is different- not one of being inaccessible but being diluted and potentially perverted.”

That’s a pretty strong charge. Maybe he got it wrong in a few places, but I can point out errors in most modern translations pretty easily. Getting something wrong doesn’t mean that it is diluted or perverted.

And I suppose that’s the heart of my issue with this conversation. I’m not trying to convince anyone to read the Message. I’m just saying the rhetoric needs to be toned down. Calling this translation diluted and potentially perverted is pretty insulting to Eugene Peterson, a man who is a serious scholar…serious enough for one of the world’s leading conservative seminaries to hire him as a professor.

“Another problem with the liberties of Peterson’s philosophy is that the vocabulary is misleading at best and could be deceiving at worst. For example, take a look at John 3:16 (“destroyed” would support an annihilationist view); or Romans 1:27 (“all lust, no love” seems to suggest that the sinfulness of homosexuality is the lust aspect, not the perversion of God’s design). At the risk of opening two other cans of worms, those are just two I have highlighted in my copy of The Message as being problematic.”

The same issues can be pointed out in scores of other translations. Again, a mistake doesn’t automatically equate to perversion, misleading or deceiving. He’s human. Maybe he made a mistake. Or maybe he didn’t.
For instance, here’s the Greek text of John 3:16 ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. The word ἀπόληται here is a form of ἀπόλλυμι, and it’s first meaning in a lexicon is…destroy. So while you can say that you disagree with his translation of it here, you can’t say it is misleading, deceiving, perverted, diluted, etc. It’s a legitimate translation of the verse. That’s one of the things that ἀπόλλυμι means. If anything the translation of perish is the interpretive choice. In this text, with this word, Peterson gave us the best formal equivalence, and all other translations are being interpretive.

Regarding Romans 1:27, I don't think your inference stands. If Peterson says that homosexuality is a lust issue, he isn’t saying that it isn’t also a perversion of God’s design. He could believe it's both. And since the text doesn't explicitly say anything about "God's design", neither should his translation.

We have to keep in mind that translations aren’t perfect. None of them are. Each of them has little mistakes here and there. But pointing out those mistakes don’t make the translation misleading or perverse. The same type of argument has been made against the NIV. There are tons of people out there that will talk your ear off about how it downplays the deity of Christ. But it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. It’s a fine translation for what it is, and so is the Message.

Ryan Lytton said...

Jenny,

Thanks for joining the conversation as well! As with my response to City Girl, I’ll quote you and respond to each statement.

“I disagree with calling The Message a translation - even after reading Ryan's definition of translation. I consider The Message a paraphrase.”

I’ve responded to this in detail above. For the sake of space, I’ll just refer you to that comment. If you have specific objections, I’d be happy to respond to them.

“I do agree with what you're saying using I Cor. 8:11 but I think encouraging someone to read The Message above other translations does not encourage growth. Don't criticize someone for reading it but encourage them to read others alongside it.”

There are plenty of people who would not read the Bible at all if it were not for the Message. So from my perspective, that does encourage growth. Also, even from a mature Christians standpoint, we can become used to scripture and a translation like the Message can give us a fresh perspective. Also, speaking from my experience teaching the Bible, we often don’t really think about what scripture is saying. Reading a translation like the Message helps us to find the tone of the passage, which encourages us to think about what it is saying instead of just reading through it mindlessly.

“I was talking with a friend on this subject & she pointed out something to me that I'd never considered before - do we want weak-minded Christians?”

This is fairly insulting. I’m assuming you didn’t intend it to be, so I’m not mad. But the implication here is that anyone who wants or needs to read the Message is weak-minded. That is simply not the case.

“Do we want to be the kind of Christian who can only understand Scripture loosely paraphrased or do we want to pursue God's Word enough to really learn what He said originally?”

If we take that to its logical conclusion, then everyone should learn Greek and Hebrew. And while that would absolutely make my day…it just isn’t going to happen.

Also, no one is saying that we want Christians who can “only understand Scripture loosely paraphrased.” We’re saying that the Message does a really great job of helping people understand the Bible. There is also an implication to your two options that you may not have considered. You put a loose paraphrase on one hand, and what God said originally on the other. This seems to imply that the loose paraphrase isn’t what God said originally. But that isn’t the case. The Message is accurate. It has mistakes just like any other translation. But it is not bad. So, contrary to your friend’s dilemma, reading the Message is someone pursuing God’s Word…because the Message is God’s Word.

“We can dig in our heels on either side of this subject & cause harm to others & ourselves or we can encourage people to just read God's Word & know Him better.”

Right. That’s why we encourage people to read the Message.

City Girl said...

Quite right, you did not say it was KJV-only advocates who dislike the use of the Message. The comment I reacted to came from LBF who said the biggest opponents to the Message she has encountered are people advocating reading the NKJ. The point is still valid: my issue with the Message has nothing to do with wanting people to read the NKJV, or any other version, in particular. I wanted those following this discussion to see the positions clearly and not be distracted by straw men.
I realize you are coming from a scholarship background that most of us are not, but I think the understanding of the average Christian is that there are basically three categories of Bible versions, some translated “word-for-word”, others “paraphrased” and some in the middle that we’d call “thought-for-thought.” Certainly, categories are passé and spectrums are all the rage. It is artificial to try to lump into categories. I think I understand you: because The Message was Peterson’s rendering from the original languages, he “translated” it. Fair enough. I see my copy of Fee&Stuart (mine is old- 2nd edition) dubs it “free translation” and notes it’s sometimes called a paraphrase. I still think that in your argument, you conflated dynamic equivalence with “free translation” (usually termed “paraphrase” by those in the pew) in a misleading way that places The Message next to the NIV to those who are not more familiar with the categories. I guess I’m wrongly differentiating between translation the verb, and translation the noun, as opposed to a paraphrase. My understanding has always been that, for a version of a Bible to be deemed a “translation,” it needed to meet certain criteria in its translation philosophy. I’m sure you know more than I do. My point still stands. It is not as close to the original meaning of the text as any other version that has been mentioned, and, in my opinion, you are misrepresenting how far it strays.
My copy of Fee&Stuart is old so it doesn’t mention the Message at all. However, at least in the 2nd edition, they warn strongly against using a paraphrase as one’s primary Bible. Their warnings are exactly those I am giving: paraphrases are too liberal and tend to mislead. (And I’m “paraphrasing” the better part of a chapter in that sentence.) You said, “The Message is NOT less of a translation than the NIV or NLT (or any other). It may be more interpretive, but it isn’t less of a translation.” I think this is a misrepresentation of facts. To the average Christian, there are translations and then there are paraphrases, but I think we’ve established that we aren’t using the categories familiar to me. We’ll have to agree to disagree here; I consider something that takes such liberty to be a lesser translation. Call it a translation if you want to, The Message does not have the authority of the ESV or NIV because it is translated by a single person, not a team, and a single person who’s translation philosophy took much greater liberty in his renderings.

City Girl said...

Regardless of Peterson’s level of knowledge of the languages, he is only one man. Translation done by TEAMS of people with expert knowledge of the languages is, plain and simple, more reliable. This is also why versions translated by teams are less likely to contain errors; more expertise, more consistency, more minds to notice and correct mistakes. It was also my understanding that Peterson left the world of scholarship for a long period before writing the Message, but I suppose this is neither here nor there.
We agree that all translations have errors. It’s the Word that’s inspired, not the translation. However, the Message is far more problematic than the more literal translations done by teams of scholars. I think this is a point you have to concede. I don’t think the KJV or ESV or NIV are inspired, either, but are far more reliable than Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase. Simply take the verse that sparked this round of the controversy: “He gives proud skeptics a cold shoulder, but if you’re down on your luck, he’s right there to help. Wise living gets rewarded with honor; stupid living gets the booby prize”. Compare to the ESV: “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor. The wise will inherit honor, but fools get disgrace.” Prov 3:34-35. The meaning of “humility” here is equivalent to being “down on your luck”?! What does booby prize even mean? However, we could debate the whole book; I have no time or desire to go point by point here with you. The two examples I gave previously I found just by finding places I’d marked in my own copy that had red-flagged me as problematic as I read. The verses I cited are, in my opinion, too liberally translated and too open to interpretation.
I can’t find any direct quotes where Peterson will categorize the Message as either dynamic equivalent or paraphrase. My assertion was that he concedes it falls into the paraphrase category. I realize his paraphrase was produced through his reading of the original languages. Still, I had the impression that Peterson has been very wary about the authoritativeness of the Message, acknowledging how liberal he was in interpreting the text. His preface says, “The Message is a reading Bible… it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study.” The Wikipedia article (the source requires a subscription) for the Message quotes him saying, “When I'm in a congregation where somebody uses [The Message] in the Scripture reading, it makes me a little uneasy. I would never recommend it be used as saying, ‘Hear the Word of God from The Message.’ But it surprises me how many do.” He described the start of his translation process in an interview with Christianity Today (Oct 7/02), “I just kind of let go and became playful. And that was when the Sermon on the Mount started. I remember I was down in my basement study, and I did the Beatitudes in about 10 minutes.” This doesn’t have the ring of serious scholarly translation to me.

At this point, I plan to let this argument go because I need to be a mom to my kids, not debating on the internet. I just wanted to step in here to voice the other side of this argument for those reading who aren’t aware or are undecided. You should not look to the Message as your source for the Word of God- it is highly interpreted, and that by its sole translator.

Susan Jeffries said...

So here is my little two cents worth. I have never heard of The Message - I use the NIV translation - which I have read through 3 times now. We also have had debates at church regarding if we should use an actual Bible or an electronic device that has the Bible as an app. My thinking has always been that if you are reading the Bible - the literal God-inspired word - you are working to have a personal relationship with Christ. There are no perfect Christians, ans those who judge others in their walk are doing nothing but repelling others from Christ. Although the words may not be exact in every translation, if you are reading your Bible, power on sister!!

Ryan Lytton said...

Thanks for the response. I respect your desire to withdraw from the conversation to be a Mom. I am currently a stay at home dad, so I understand. Fortunately my little one is in a milk-coma right now, so I can spare the time to respond. However, I do so for the sake of the conversation because you’ve made some points I’d like to address. Please do not feel obligated to respond. Your kids need you. :)

“Quite right, you did not say it was KJV-only advocates who dislike the use of the Message. The comment I reacted to came from LBF who said the biggest opponents to the Message she has encountered are people advocating reading the NKJ. The point is still valid: my issue with the Message has nothing to do with wanting people to read the NKJV, or any other version, in particular. I wanted those following this discussion to see the positions clearly and not be distracted by straw men.”

Oh I see. But she wasn’t attempting to create a straw man argument, implying that anyone opposed to the Message must also love the King James. She was merely stating that the majority of those who have opposed the Message in conversation with her have actually been somewhere on the spectrum of KJV-onlyism. That isn’t a faulty argument; it’s a statement of fact from her experience.

“I realize you are coming from a scholarship background that most of us are not, but I think the understanding of the average Christian is that there are basically three categories of Bible versions some translated “word-for-word”, others “paraphrased” and some in the middle that we’d call “thought-for-thought.” Certainly, categories are passé and spectrums are all the rage.”

Let’s say you are right about the understanding of the average Christian. That doesn’t make their understanding correct. And given that your position has been that believers ought to challenge other believers when they see error…shouldn’t you be on my side here?

“It is artificial to try to lump into categories. I think I understand you: because The Message was Peterson’s rendering from the original languages, he “translated” it. Fair enough. I see my copy of Fee&Stuart (mine is old- 2nd edition) dubs it “free translation” and notes it’s sometimes called a paraphrase.”

First, the quotes around translated aren’t helpful here. He translated it. When someone takes a text from one language and renders the meaning of that text in another language, it is a translation. Whether that translation is formally equivalent, dynamically equivalent or free…doesn’t matter. It’s still a translation.

“I still think that in your argument, you conflated dynamic equivalence with “free translation” (usually termed “paraphrase” by those in the pew) in a misleading way that places The Message next to the NIV to those who are not more familiar with the categories.”

Well, it is next to the NIV. In the 4th edition of Fee & Stuart the spectrum of translation is laid out thusly (leaving out a handful of extras, so as to simplify the conversation a bit):

Formal Equivalent Dynamic Equivalent Free
KJV NASB RSV NIV NAB GNB NLT The Message

Notice my original statement: “A translation like the KJV, ESV, NASB, etc are trying to stick closely to the Greek and Hebrew (even with word order), whereas the NIV, NLT, and the Message are trying to help us out to varying degrees.” To varying degrees. That’s a pretty important clause. It could easily be argued that the NLT is far more interpretive than the NIV, and it is in my opinion. And it could easily be argued that the Message is far more interpretive than the NLT, and it is in my opinion. So, when dealing with translations that are “helping us out,” we have the NIV, then a little more “help” from the NLT, then even more “help” from the Message. Since this post wasn’t intended as an exhaustive treatment of translation philosophy, I felt it was best to speak generally and focus on why the Message is translated the way it is.

Ryan Lytton said...

“I guess I’m wrongly differentiating between translation the verb, and translation the noun, as opposed to a paraphrase. My understanding has always been that, for a version of a Bible to be deemed a “translation,” it needed to meet certain criteria in its translation philosophy. I’m sure you know more than I do.”

Well, I can’t speak to how much I know in comparison with how much you know. Here are my qualifications in this area. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies, where I took five Greek courses and three Hebrew courses. These courses resulted in producing a fair amount of original translation of scripture direct from the original languages. I’m about 75% through a Master’s degree in Christian Thought, where I’ve taken three Greek courses and two Hebrew courses (with a few more of each to follow). Again, this has resulted more original translation from Greek and Hebrew. I also teach a few classes at a local Bible College on various topics, including how to study the Bible (one of my classes uses Fee & Stuart as a textbook).

From all this experience I can tell you that the Message is a translation. Even if we were to say it is a bad translation, it is still a translation. This is backed up by the fact that Fee & Stuart (along with plenty of other texts) list it as a translation.

“My point still stands. It is not as close to the original meaning of the text as any other version that has been mentioned, and, in my opinion, you are misrepresenting how far it strays.”

I don’t see how I’ve misrepresented it. I specifically stated “So we’re left with two possible problems. When reading the KJV, you may not understand what it says. When reading the Message, it may not be saying the right thing.” I don’t know how I can be more clear. The Message gets it wrong in a lot of places. That’s why I go on to encourage the usage of other translations.

“My copy of Fee&Stuart is old so it doesn’t mention the Message at all. However, at least in the 2nd edition, they warn strongly against using a paraphrase as one’s primary Bible.”

I don’t see any such warning in the 4th edition. The closest that I see is “as stimulating as these [translations] can sometimes be, they are never intended to be one’s only Bible.” I would agree. But there is a sharp difference between warning against it being your only Bible and it being your primary Bible. I don’t see a problem with the Message being a primary Bible (and apparently neither do Fee & Stuart). I do see the following:

“If the best translational theory is functional equivalence [also called dynamic equivalence], a translation that adheres to formal equivalence is often helpful as a second source; it can give the reader some confidence as to what the Hebrew or Greek actually looked like. A free translation also can be helpful – to stimulate thinking about the possible meaning of a text. But the basic translation for reading and studying should be something in the NIV/NRSV range.”

I agree with them. Although, I think people should work towards using the ESV, because I think it is closer to the original than the NIV (or NRSV) while remaining far more readable than either the (N)KJV or the NASB. But that isn’t the point here. The point here is that people have to start somewhere, and the Message is an excellent place to start. And beyond that, there is nothing wrong with continued usage of the Message after one has moved on to the ESV, NIV, etc. It is helpful. Fee & Stuart say exactly that. I’d venture to guess that they said no such thing in earlier versions of the book because earlier “free translations” were terrible. For instance, the Living Bible (not the NLT, but the original Living Bible) was completed by one guy paraphrasing the King James. That is NOT a translation. That is a paraphrase. That’s why I don’t think people should call the Message a paraphrase.

Ryan Lytton said...

“You said, “The Message is NOT less of a translation than the NIV or NLT (or any other). It may be more interpretive, but it isn’t less of a translation.” I think this is a misrepresentation of facts. To the average Christian, there are translations and then there are paraphrases, but I think we’ve established that we aren’t using the categories familiar to me. We’ll have to agree to disagree here; I consider something that takes such liberty to be a lesser translation. Call it a translation if you want to, The Message does not have the authority of the ESV or NIV because it is translated by a single person, not a team, and a single person who’s translation philosophy took much greater liberty in his renderings.”

That’s fine. Then don’t read it. That doesn’t bother me a bit. My problem is when people discourage others from reading it, particularly when they haven’t done any research on the topic at all. It bothers me greatly when someone remarks that a translation “departs from the Greek and Hebrew significantly” and yet that person doesn’t know any Greek or Hebrew. And yet that consistently happens when people demonize the Message. To be clear, I don’t get that from you. I don’t think you are demonizing it. I think you are undervaluing it as a resource, but that is your call.

“Regardless of Peterson’s level of knowledge of the languages, he is only one man. Translation done by TEAMS of people with expert knowledge of the languages is, plain and simple, more reliable. This is also why versions translated by teams are less likely to contain errors; more expertise, more consistency, more minds to notice and correct mistakes.”

This isn’t always true. For instance, consider the following from Greek for the Rest of Us by William Mounce about his experience on the ESV translation committee (page 38):
“The “translation history of a passage – how it has always been translated – is one thing that blindsided me. I didn’t really care how everyone else translates a passage. I’m willing to change anything if I think it makes it more accurate, more understandable, and more readable. And so we came to the Lord’s prayer, “Hallowed be thy name.”

I said, “I’m sorry but nobody knows what the word ‘hallowed’ means.”

“Yes they do, next verse,” was the response.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “We can’t translate it ‘hallowed.’ Almost nobody today knows what ‘hallowed’ means.”

But the argument was, “this is such a well-known verse that we can’t change it.”

See, Mounce (and the rest of the committee) had their hands tied. They were afraid that people would read this verse in their translation and think, “That’s not what it’s supposed to say!” in spite of the fact that they were moving towards a more accurate translation. But Peterson was under no such obligation. He was free to translate as he saw fit. Certainly that counts against him in some places, but it also is a good thing sometimes. And so Peterson translates this verse, “Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are.” And despite complaints, “reveal who you are” is a legitimate rendering of ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου.

“It was also my understanding that Peterson left the world of scholarship for a long period before writing the Message, but I suppose this is neither here nor there.”

Actually, he left the pastorate in 1991 (where he had been for about 30 years), when he started working on the Message. He was a professor at Regent College (Vancouver) from the early 90’s until 2006. But you are right, that point is irrelevant to the conversation. The bottom line is that he does have the educational requirements for competent translation.

Ryan Lytton said...

“However, the Message is far more problematic than the more literal translations done by teams of scholars. I think this is a point you have to concede. I don’t think the KJV or ESV or NIV are inspired, either, but are far more reliable than Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase.”

It just depends on what you mean by “reliable.” Sometimes giving the strict literal meaning of every word in the sentence, while reliable in one sense, makes for incomprehensible English, causing it to be unreliable in another way. Bottom line: all translations have significant flaws as well as significant benefits. To re-quote Fee & Stuart: “A free translation also can be helpful – to stimulate thinking about the possible meaning of a text.” No one is advocating that any Christian anywhere should get rid of all of their Bibles and only use the Message. We aren’t even advocating that every Christian should start reading the Message. All we are saying is that there is nothing wrong with using it for those of us who choose to do so, and further there is nothing wrong with us recommending it to our friends. If other Christians are not interested in it, they are free to not read it. If they would like to display how it is damaging to our faith, they are free to do so.

“However, we could debate the whole book; I have no time or desire to go point by point here with you. The two examples I gave previously I found just by finding places I’d marked in my own copy that had red-flagged me as problematic as I read. The verses I cited are, in my opinion, too liberally translated and too open to interpretation.”

Okay. Well if you don’t want to go point for point, I can respect that. However, if you’d like to continue posting passages as examples of places which are “too liberally translated” I’d be happy to discuss them individually, exploring the original text and motivating factors that could lead to Petersons translation.

“At this point, I plan to let this argument go because I need to be a mom to my kids, not debating on the internet. I just wanted to step in here to voice the other side of this argument for those reading who aren’t aware or are undecided. You should not look to the Message as your source for the Word of God- it is highly interpreted, and that by its sole translator.”

That’s fair. As I stated before, I’m a stay at home dad. I understand the demands of parenthood. Please do not feel as though my response requires you to come back to this if it is a detriment to your children. I would like to make a concluding remark, as I think you continue to misunderstand my position.

I’m not saying that the Message is an appropriate study Bible. I’m not saying the Message is better than any other translation. I’m not saying that the Message is more accurate (or even as accurate) as other translations. I’m not saying that everyone should use the Message, enjoy the Message, or recommend the Message.

I am saying that the Message is a legitimate translation, from the original languages (albeit by one man). That translation is useful, even if it has its problems. It generates interest in scripture where there was none. It encourages people by helping them to see that they can understand the Bible for themselves. And it provokes thought among Christians who have read the Bible all their lives. It is worth using, worth recommending, and worth defending. I hope that you (and other brothers and sisters in Christ) will respect our decision to continue using it and recommending it.

Thanks for the dialogue. Feel free to respond. It is not my intention to shut down the conversation. Rather, I wanted to give us a possible stopping point, since you said you wanted to let it go.

May the Lord richly bless you!

Jill B. said...

Having used various Bible translations, NIV, NKJ, Holman, to name a few, I found the exchange of opinions on the use of the Message here refreshing. I appreciate the well-thought out "arguments" as great food for thought and wish more people would propose their opinions in a like, respectful manner. I was under the impression that social media could not sustain such a wonderful, courteous debate style, which has an opportunity to edify all who engage. Thank you.

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