I have made a personal goal for myself to read through a different translation of the Bible each year for the last several years. So far, I have read “word-for-word” translations (e.g. NASB, ESV, NKJV) as well as translations that tend toward “thought-for-thought” renderings (e.g. NLT, NIV, NET). This year, I decided to read Eugene Peterson’s popular paraphrase of the Bible, “The Message.”
Side note 1: for those of my readers who might now question my salvation, fret not; I kept last year’s NASB on hand for comparison. Side note 2: when I began this project, I had no idea that Peterson was in the last year of his life (he died October 22, 2018).
Eugene Peterson wanted to make a version of the Bible that was readable, and in that goal, he was quite successful. I think that Peterson’s impetus was pastoral. His reasoning seemed to be that people want to read the Bible, but are often put off by the inherent murkiness of translation English. To me, I think the problem is deeper–that people do not, in their natural sinful state, want to read the Bible. But I digress.
As I indicated, the Message is eminently readable; it was written at a 4th-grade reading level, which makes it one of the easiest-to-read versions available. This readability is aided by its layout: single-column pages, no verse numbers, no study helps like cross-references. Only chapter numbers and section headers remain, and the only footnote indicated the longer ending of Mark. If I had to make a guess, I would say that the Message could be credited with popularizing the reader’s Bible format.
Peterson included his own introduction to each book of the Bible, which vary wildly in helpfulness. His introduction to Obadiah, for example, clarifies the background relationship between Israel and Edom. By contrast, his introduction to Micah rambles about the role of prophets in general, with little information pertinent to this particular book.
At the risk of overly generalizing, The Message works best for the narrative genre, gets fanciful on the poetic genre, and misses the mark on the didactic genre. The most effective portion might be Proverbs; Peterson clearly had a gift rewording pithy sayings. By the same token, his idiosyncratic rewording detracts from the Gospels, rendering certain portions unrecognizable.
At times, Peterson’s commitment to capturing the rhetorical affect of a passage simply undermines the intended meaning expressed in “word-for-word” translations; other times, he outright contradicts the original author’s intent. For example, in Joshua 10:14 the author remarks on God causing the sun to stand still at the battle of the valley of Aijalon. Here’s the NASB (note the bold portion of each rendering):
There was no day like that before it or after it, when the LORD listened to the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel.
And here’s the Message:
There’s never been a day like that before or since—GOD took orders from a human voice! Truly, GOD fought for Israel.
To say that God “listened to the voice of a man” is not to diminish the ultimate sovereignty of God; to say that God “took orders from a human voice” comes close to denying God as the supreme authority over humanity.
Any Bible paraphrase, by its nature, reveals the theological leanings of its author. Despite his noble intentions of wanting people to read the Bible for themselves, Peterson has–however unintentionally–introduced his readers to a god of his own invention. At his memorial service, Peterson’s son asserted that his father only ever had one sermon throughout his life and ministry: God loves you. This “one sermon” reverberates through the pages of The Message. In its proper context, this is a right and true understanding of God. But divorced from other, more central truths like the sovereignty of God, this truth becomes a half-truth.
The Message is a decent-enough retelling of the story of the Bible (akin, in its own way, to “The Jesus Storybook Bible”). As a faithful version of the Bible, it falls short. Readability does not equal reliability. If you truly desire to know God in His fullness, and if you can’t read the original languages of the Bible, get a proper translation.
There is a shelf in our house dedicated exclusively to Bibles. From now on, I will no longer keep The Message on that shelf.
P.S. for a more in-depth review of The Message, read this: The Message is Not a Bible Translation: Peterson’s Philosophy