In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
John 1:1, 14
A few weeks ago, I used a Biblical quote from The Message, a different translation of the Bible than I usually use. Most often I use the English Standard Version, but I have always been partial to the King James Version. I love to read the Bible in the KJV Elizabethan English, for its beauty, but it can be a bit difficult to fully comprehend at times unless you are an Elizabethan scholar. It’s one of the reasons I love teaching my literature students Shakespeare. However, sometimes I want to read a version that gives a close word-for-word correspondence between the original languages and English.
The Message was written by Eugene Peterson and to best understand this particular biblical translation, here is what Peterson himself said: “While I was teaching a class on Galatians, I began to realize that the adults in my class weren’t feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek. Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.'” Eugene Peterson recognized that the original sentence structure is very different from that of contemporary English. He decided to strive for the spirit of the original manuscripts—to express the rhythm of the voices, the flavor of the idiomatic expressions, the subtle connotations of meaning that are often lost in English translations.
Language changes. New words are formed. Old words take on new meaning. There is a need in every generation to keep the language of the gospel message current, fresh, and understandable—the way it was for its very first readers. That is what The Message seeks to accomplish for contemporary readers. It is a version for our time—designed to be read by contemporary people in the same way as the original koin Greek and Hebrew manuscripts were savored by people thousands of years ago.
Some biblical scholars have denounced The Message because they say that Peterson did not just translate the Bible but changed portions of it to fit his on biblical beliefs. Other critics declare The Message to be not a paraphrase of what the Bible says, but more of a rendering of what Peterson would like it to say. However, I would have to disagree. Peterson captures the Word of God like no other translation I have ever read, but sometimes he does seem to be a bit too idiomatic. The goal of The Message is to engage people in the reading process and help them understand what they read. This is not a study Bible, but rather “”a reading Bible.”” The verse numbers, which are not in the original documents, were left out of the original print version to facilitate easy and enjoyable reading, but have since been added so that readers can compare biblical versions. The original books of the Bible were not written in formal language. The Message tries to recapture the Word in the words we use today.
Here are a few comparisons between the King James Version, the English Standard Version, and The Message:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John 1:1, 14 (KJV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1, 14 (ESV)
The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish. John 1:1, 14 (MSG)
In the instance of John 1:1, 14, there is not a great deal of difference, but I want to give a few more examples of passages where I think many modern translations have gone astray and Peterson has brought back the intent of the Word.
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (KJV)
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (ESV)
Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (MSG)
If you read the three different versions, you will see that modern translations, such as the ESV, translate arsenokoitai as homosexual, most true scholars realize that the world was one that was created by Paul, and we can be fairly certain that this is not the meaning that Paul wanted to convey. If he had, he would have used the word “paiderasste.” That was the standard Greek term at the time for sexual activity between males. Add to that the fact that homosexuality was not a word or a concept of sexual orientation in ancient times, and there is no doubt that the modern translations of “clobber passages” are incorrect. We can conclude that Paul probably meant something different than people who engaged in male-male adult sexual behavior, for which I think Peterson translates better than most.
There are numerous examples of translational differences, but I think that Peterson creates an imminently readable translation of the Bible. I agree with Peterson that it is not a study Bible but a reading Bible. I think that the most important aspect of Peterson’s translation is that he writes with the intent of the Word, and it makes it a beautiful translation, at least in parts.