What do you think about The Message?

Every now and then I get questions. Earlier today I was asked my opinion about The Message a translation by Eugene Peterson. This was my response. I wonder if it might be helpful for someone?

There are generally two types of translations (these are the “formal” names) – formal equivalence and functional equivalence. You might have also heard the functional equivalence referred to as dynamic equivalence. The same person coined all of these phrases, Eugene Nida.

The formal equivalence is often said to be a word-for-word translation. While that is the goal, it is never accomplished – ever. No two languages have word-for-word equivalences all of the time. I’d bet that some of the different dialects of Spanish would even struggle with literal word-for-word translations. So if someone says that they have a literal word-for-word translation (i.e. KJV or NKJV or NAS or ESV) they probably don’t realize what they are saying. It just doesn’t exist.

The Greek word ‘sarx’ is a good example of this. Even though there are five definitions of this word to choose from, the formal equivalence translations (particularly the KJV and NKJV) almost always translate the word as ‘flesh’ – even though it sometimes does not mean that. Here are the different popular translations for Romans 6:19a.

NKJV – 19 I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.

KJV – 19I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh:

NAS – 19 I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.

ESV – I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.

NIV – 19 I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations.

NLT – 19 Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this.

In this case, the word ‘sarx’ doesn’t mean flesh, as in “your skin is so pretty.” The problem is that when we use the word flesh (which is rare in our everyday or slang language) it almost always means skin. I guess Doctors or people who have a need to speak technically would use the word flesh regularly – but never like this. We just don’t speak like that. And that’s not the point Paul was trying to make. He wasn’t talking about the ‘weakness of their skin’. So in this instance, not only is this NOT a literal word-for-word translation, it’s also a poor translation to use the word ‘flesh’.

Now about The Message. Here’s the same verse.

MSG – 19I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing.

It’s clear that there are a lot of differences in this translation. Is the same meaning conveyed? Yes, I think so. But it’s easy to see that this is a true Paraphrase, which in my opinion doesn’t fit in the category of functional equivalence (NIV, NLT). It’s a step beyond. Is it just semantics, probably, but the difference is that The Message has more interpretation in it than the others. Now to be fair, that’s the argument that KJV proponents have against the NIV – that it has interpretations in it instead of translations. Here’s the problem with that argument: when you’re translating anything, you can’t help but interpret a little. Why, because there is not always a direct word-for-word correlation. So back to the Romans 6:19 example, if I were translating it, I would have to interpret what Paul meant in order to pick which one of the five definitions of ‘sarx’ I was going to use.

My only problem with The Message is that it seems to do this a little too often – even when it’s not necessary. Why would it be necessary, to make it as readable as possible. The author of this translation, Eugene Peterson, is a scholar and a preacher. And, unless I’m mistaken, he was trying to translate the Bible in such a way that ANYONE (even someone who had never read the Bible before) could pick it up, read it and understand God’s will. I have a great deal of appreciation for these intentions as well as all the hard work he put in. I just wish he hadn’t taken quite as many liberties as he did. I do love the sentence structure, grammar and vocabulary though. It is VERY readable and understandable – which is the point of having a Bible!

Does he do more harm than good (as some people argue)? In other words, does he distort and misrepresent the Holy Spirit in such a manner that people are led astray? Well, two answers. First, I don’t think he distorts or misrepresents the Holy Spirit at all. Whenever a single person translates the Bible (instead of a committee) there are going to be more questions and challenges about the translation – simply because there’s not a group people who can challenge each others ideas prior to publishing. Second, I haven’t found any major doctrinal errors that would lead people away from God’s will. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, I just haven’t found them.

As far as practical advice on it: read it devotionally. In other words, read it when you’re not studying. Read it just to read it. I am confident that God will speak to you through this translation just as he does through the others that are less maligned. In fact, I would think that it would be especially helpful in reading the OT where many people are not as familiar with the text. I would not use it to study. In fact, I would strongly urge that you not use it to study. There are just too many other readable translations that are much more accurate.

I have a copy myself though; and I enjoy reading it. Sometimes, when I am studying a text I will even pull it out to see what Peterson says about it. One last word (whether or not The Message is for you), think about all the people that may have been introduced to God because they read the Bible from this translation. How many of those people tried and failed to read through the more standard translations? Just a question.


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