Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Message: Is It a Reliable Bible? Is It a Bible at All?

          The Bible is defined in different ways by different denominations.  In the fellowship of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, the Bible is generally defined as a collection of 66 books which were produced by individuals operating under the special inspiration of God so that the resultant texts were exactly what God wanted them to be.  The Bible is considered the church’s authoritative standard for faith and practice. 
          For most Christians, however, when the Bible is consulted and studied, the text being read is a translation that was designed to convey the meaning of the inspired Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts; the proportion of Christians who interact daily with Biblical texts in their original languages is relatively low. 
          It is practical to emphasize the meaning of the inspired text:  the use of a translation allows those who do not know Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to know and apply the message which those ancient texts convey.  The translation of the Bible into many languages has greatly advanced the spread of the gospel.  But with the benefit comes a risk:  the risk that if the base-text – the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text – is not compiled correctly, and is not translated correctly, then the result will not convey the message that was conveyed by the original text, and that where a translation contains shortcomings, its users will not possess the Word of God. 
Most of the Bible in Contemporary English,
blended with Eugene Peterson's
comments and interpretations.
          No English translation perfectly conveys the full sense of every nuance of every word and phrase in the original text, but several English versions are sufficient for the needs of most readers.  The Message, however, is so inaccurate that it does not deserve to be considered a Bible.  To see why this is the case, let’s compare the Greek base-text of the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew to The Message.  (In the following comparison, the text of The Message is from The Message:  Remix:  The Bible in Contemporary Language, Copyright © 2003 by Eugene H. Peterson.  All rights reserved.)    

10:1a – “The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered.” – This sentence has no parallel in the Greek text. 

10:1b – “and sent them out into the ripe fields” – This phrase has no parallel in the Greek text.

10:1c – “and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.” – This is not a translation, but rather a replacement of what Matthew wrote, stating that the disciples were given power to heal every disease and every sickness.  The emphasis on healing in the original text has been obscured.

10:5a – “harvest hands” – This term has no parallel in the Greek text.

10:5b – “Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers.” – Jesus’ words did not pertain to distance; instead, He told His disciples on this occasion not to preach to the Gentiles – εις οδον εθνων μη απέλθητε:  into the nations’ way do not go. 

10:5c – “And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy.” – This is simply not what Jesus said.  He told them not to enter into any city of the Samaritans – και εις πόλιν Σαμαριτων μη εισέλθητε.  This is a very simple sentence.  The prohibitions against being dramatic and against tackling “some public enemy” were made up by Peterson out of thin air.

10:6 – “Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood.” – What Jesus said was, “But go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  The distinction that Jesus drew on this occasion was pretty simple:  minister to those in need among fellow-Jews, not to Gentiles and Samaritans.  This is not a difficult concept to understand; nor is the sentence difficult to translate accurately – but instead of doing so, Peterson replaced the specific reference to “the house of Israel” to the vague and inaccurate, “right here in the neighborhood,” as if Jesus was referring to a place rather than an ethnic group.

10:8 – “Touch the untouchables.” – The base-text says, “Cleanse lepers” (λεπρους καθαρίζετε).  This is not a command to touch; it is a command to heal; it is about applying divine power, not human pity.  

10:9a – “Don’t think you have to put on a fund-raising campaign before you start.” – This resembles the original text only to the extent that they both are about not acquiring money.  Jesus’ words are considerably different:  “Do not acquire gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts.”  There is nothing in The Message to correspond specifically to gold, or to silver, or to copper, or to belts.

10:9b, e – “You don’t need a lot of equipment” and, at the end of the verse, “Travel light.” – Jesus’ instructions were not this vague.  He specified that the disciples were not to take along a knapsack for the road, nor two shirts, nor sandals, nor a staff (or, in the Byzantine Text, staffs).  The Message’s paraphrase blurs Jesus’ sentence and makes it impossible for readers to perceive what He specified to His disciples.

10:9c – “You are the equipment.” – This is entirely from Peterson; nothing in the original text corresponds to this sentence.

10:9d – “and all you need to keep that going is three meals a day.” – Jesus said nothing to His disciples about eating three meals a day.  Jesus said that the worker is worthy of his food.  The reference to three daily meals is just something that Peterson threw in without any textual basis, except the reference to food.

10:10 – “don’t insist on staying at a luxury inn.  Get a modest place with some modest people” – This is not what Jesus said.  He told the disciples that whenever they enter a city or village, they should inquire about who is worthy.  No parameters are given about whether the residence is large or small, or about whether or not it is “modest.” 

10:14a – “If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw.  Don’t make a scene.  Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.” – Jesus’ instructions were very different.  He told His disciples that if they were not received and their words were not heeded, they were to shake the dust off their feet as they departed.  How did the early church interpret Jesus’ statement?  We do not have to guess, because Acts 13 provides an account of how Paul and Barnabas acted when their message was rejected in the city of Antioch-in-Pisidia:  in Acts 13:46, they boldly answered the Jews who opposed their message, and in Acts 13:51 “they shook the dust from their feet in protest.”  This is a far cry from the quiet shrugging of shoulders that Peterson made up out of thin air.

10:15a – “You can be sure that on Judgment Day they’ll be mighty sorry’ – Here Peterson has subtracted and added.  Jesus said that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for such a city.  The Message completely skips this reference to Sodom and Gomorrah.  This does not mean that Peterson undertook his task with an agenda to eliminate or significantly reduce Biblical condemnations of sodomy, but when references such as this one in Matthew 10:15 are deliberately obscured, one wonders how different a version made with such an agenda would be from what is encountered in The Message.  

10:15b – “but it’s no concern of yours now.” – Nothing in the Greek text of Matthew 10:14 corresponds to these words.  Peterson just threw them in.

10:16 – “This is hazardous work I’m assigning you.” – This entire sentence is an insertion; once again, nothing in the Greek text corresponds to these words.

10:17 – “Some people will impugn your motives; others will smear your reputation.” – Jesus said that His disciples will be handed over to councils and that His disciples will be scourged in the synagogues.  Motive-impugning and reputation-smearing are not the actions described by Jesus in this verse, and the base-text does not justify mentioning them.  Does anyone imagine that smearing your reputation is the equivalent of scourging?    

10:18 – “Without knowing it, they’ve done you – and me – a favor” – None of this has a basis in the base-text; it is all an insertion.  Meanwhile, the phrase και τοις εθνεσιν (“and the Gentiles”) is not represented in The Message in any way.

10:21a – “When people realize that it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good” – There is nothing in the base-text that corresponds to any of this.

10:21b – “They are going to turn on you, even people in your own family.” – This is an extremely blurry summary of what Jesus said.  The base-text says, “Brother will betray brother to be killed, and a father his child, and children will rise up against their parents and have them killed.”  This verse has been thoroughly abbreviated and adulterated.

10:22b – “But don’t quit.  Don’t cave in.  It is all well worth it in the end.” – This is all a fine sentiment, but it is ridiculous as a translation of what Jesus said in this verse, which is simply, “The one who endures to the end, that one shall be saved.” 

10:23 – “Be survivors!  Before you’ve run out of options, the Son of Man will have arrived.” – The imprecision here is completely unnecessary.  Did Peterson feel that the meaning of Jesus’ sentence to the disciples was deficient, and must be put at a distance?  There is a lot more to the Greek text of this verse, as follows:  “And when they persecute you in this city, flee to another.  For truly I say to you, you will not have gone through all the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

10:24a – “A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher.” – Jesus’ actual sentence lack any reference to a female student; it also lacks any reference to a desk.
10:25b – The entire phrase (present in the Greek base-text), “and for the slave to be like his master,” is not represented.  It is as if a sentence in the base-text has simply vanished.

10:25c – “If they call me, the Master, ‘Dungface,’ what can the workers expect?” – The Greek word that Peterson rendered “Dungface” is Βεελζεβουλ (Beelzeboul), which is the name of a demon.  Peterson’s mistranslation completely obscures the connection between 10:25 and the Pharisees’ actions in 9:34.  In addition, the term οικοδεσποτην simply means house-master, not capital-M “Master,” as if Jesus is some sort of Ascended Master or Jedi Master.

10:27 – “So don’t hesitate to go public now.” – Can anyone seriously consider this an adequate representation of the base-text???  Here is the sentence:  “What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light, and what you hear in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops.”  (Unnecessary abridgments such as this one occur frequently in The Message.)

10:28a – “Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.” – This is a fine sentiment, but it leaves out a significant part of what Jesus said:  “And do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.”  The opponents in view here are not schoolyard bullies; they are individuals with the means to kill.

10:28b – “Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life – body and soul – in his hands.”  It is difficult to overstate the inaccuracy of The Message in this verse.  Here is the Greek text of the last sentence:  Φοβεισθε δε μαλλον τον δυναμενον και ψυχην και σωμα απολέσαι εν Γεέννη, that is, “Fear, instead, the one with power to destroy both soul and body in hell.”  Besides significantly altering the nuance of the sentence, Peterson completely removed the reference to hell. 

10:29 – “What’s the price of a pet canary?  Some loose change, right?” – In the real world, Jesus referred to the price of two sparrows, not to the price of a pet canary.  (And have you seen how much canaries actually cost?  It’s more like $20, not “some loose change.”)  A literal translation of the base-text would not be difficult to understand.  Peterson’s translational choice here, as in a multitude of other passages, seems as irreverently flippant and capricious as it is inaccurate and unnecessary.

10:31 – “of all this bully talk.” – There is no basis for this in the base-text.  Peterson just threw that in there.

10:33 – “If you turn tail and run, do you think I’ll cover for you?” – Peterson has sacrificed accuracy for the sake of stylistic flair, and left a significant part of the base-text unrepresented.  Here is the sentence that he has mauled:  “And whoever will deny me before people, I also will deny him before my Father in heaven.”  Three things have happened here:  (1)  the act of making a candid denial of Christ has been turned into the act of turning tail and running, (2)  Jesus’ affirmation has been turned into a question, and (3) a reference to “my Father in heaven” has completely disappeared.

Matthew 10:38:  where did the cross go?
I thought there was something here
about taking up your cross.
10:38 – “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me.” – Where did the cross go???  In the real world, this verse says, “And the one who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  It’s right there:  σταυρον (“cross”).  Is Peterson’s translation-technique actual sorcery, or just sleight-of-hand?  Either way, he makes a clear reference to the cross disappear!

10:40 – “We are intimately linked in this harvest work.” – This entire sentence is an addition; nothing corresponds to it in the base-text.  Here and elsewhere, it is almost as if Peterson wrote thematic titles for various paragraphs, and inserted them into the text, slightly changed as if they were the words of Christ.

10:41 – “This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it.  It’s best to start small.” – Both of these sentences have no parallel in the base-text.  Jesus did not say these words that The Message attributes to him.  They are insertions by Eugene Peterson.

10:41 – “Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help.” – Peterson just made this up.  The Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew does not contain this, or anything like this.

10:42 – “The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice.” – This sentence has no parallel in the base-text.  It is an insertion, originating not with Jesus but with Eugene Peterson.

          So:  in Matthew 10, The Message contains 37 flaws (or more, depending on how they’re counted).  Peterson freely adds phrases and sentences which have no textual foundation.  He repeatedly fails to translate entire phrases and sentences that are in the base-text (no matter which text-type is being consulted).  He omits two references to the cross, two references to Israel, a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, and a reference to hell. 
          These inaccuracies in Matthew 10 are not exceptions.  They are typical.  Elsewhere, The Message refers to casseroles, telescopes, pajamas, the dictionary, and on and on.  The New Testament's references to hell have been consistently watered down.  Some of Peterson’s theological biases have been smuggled in.  Inspired sentences have been left out.  From beginning to end, this version is blatantly inaccurate. 
          Can any responsible, well-informed Christian recommend The Message?  Certainly:  as a representation of Eugene Peterson’s interpretations of the Bible, it’s terrific!  If it were being marketed as a commentary, many aspects of it would be commendable.  When it is read discerningly, as a commentary, The Message can be a source of edification.  But as a Bible translation – which is what NavPress is marketing it as, and which is what many preachers treat it as – it is a disaster.  It is like a shipwreck at the bottom of the sea, with barnacles and holes from beginning to end.   
          Thus ends my review of The Message.  But there is an implication of this that should not be ignored:  the people who helped make The Message and the people who still promote it as a Bible translation must be extremely untrustworthy as evaluators of the quality and accuracy of Bible translations.  (I daresay that if you meet any scholar who recommends making The Message your primary translation for doctrinal study, run away fast and far.) 
          These individuals include – as consultants for The MessageDarrell Bock (Dallas Theological Seminary), Peter Ennes (Eastern University), Duane Garrett (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), William Klein (Denver Seminary), Tremper Longman III (Westmont College), and Rodney Whitacre (Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry).  They also include – as public promoters for The Message – Gordon FeeMichael CardLeith Anderson, and Jerry B. Jenkins.
          The individuals in these lists may be fellow believers, with impeccable credentials of every kind, and they may have wonderfully fruitful ministries; nevertheless, as evaluators of the accuracy of Bible translations, each and every one is demonstrably unworthy of the church’s trust.  


Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE, Copyright © 1993, 21994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002.  Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.  
[Normally I would not refer to The Message as Scripture, 
but this notice is probably legally required and I don’t want to get sued.]


Jason said...

Maybe we could think of it as a modern day equivelent to the Targumim?

James Snapp Jr said...

NavPress thinks of it, and promotes it, as a translation: see .
So I treated it in my review as a translation; that is what it is being marketed and sold as.

Ron and Connie Rilee said...

Consider the way Peterson hacked up the Lord's prayer also.

Unknown said...


Ahamed said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John Podgorney said...

Thanks James. People are quoting from it and some take it literally. That is tragic.

Daniel Buck said...

Although you may be able to pick up a canary for less than US$50 at a distress sale, they typically cost in the range of two or three times that. That's quite a pile of loose change.