The Message has become one of the most popular bible translations in the Western World, with an particular following (in my experience) amongst younger Christians as well as those who have been Christians for a long time and want to refresh their Bible reading. The Message, translated by Eugene. H. Peterson, sells itself as ‘The Bible in Contemporary Language’. A good intention. I’m sure many of you have read parts of The Message, and some of you may even use it as your primary Bible. I am the proud owner of an NIV and Message Parallel Bible – given to me by a late great uncle before my first Crusader Camp. For many years, it was my main study bible, as it had the two translations side by side. The NIV is obviously a battleground for some and the only version for others – but in this post I want to focus on The Message.
The Bible translation that isn’t.
You read that correctly.
I don’t think The Message is a good Bible translation, and at the outset of this post I would challenge you if you are one of those who uses it as a main translation to switch to another – personally I would recommend the ESV, NRSV or NIV.
So why have I bothered to write this post? It’s quite simple really – The Message occasionally distorts what the Bible says, including in a few key areas. One of these is regarding the relationship between the Father and the Son. Consider these few verses from John’s Gospel:
John 10:30 (ESV): “I and the Father are one” compared to The Message: “I and the Father are one heart and mind” – this may not look like much but is a big difference. The Bible teaches that Jesus and the Father are one – part of the trinity. The Message translation warps this – separating into two beings in accord with each other. This is quite a distinction. I and my friends can be of one heart and mind on one issue, but not on another, and so that is a difference from saying ‘we are one’. On the Contemporary language front – how is the latter a better translation?
John 14:28 (ESV): “… the Father is greater than I” compared to The Message: “The Father is the Goal and Purpose of my life“. This is completely different! To the extent that there is heirarchy or order within the Trinity, The Message disrupts that, as well as distorting Jesus purpose. One could argue that Peterson means that the Father’s will and aim is the Goal of Jesus – but why not say it? This is an over-mystical approach that arguably distorts what scripture says.
You might think that I am deliberately picking examples that make me look clever, and are involved with technical doctrinal points – but that is not the case. One area where many ‘serious’ theologians don’t like to tread is on the issue of the devil and demons. Scripture is full of this sort of thing – and The Message changes words. Consider this example:
1 Tim 4:1 (ESV) “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” to The Message: “The Spirit makes it clear that as time goes on, some are going to give up on the faith and chase after demonic illusions put forth by professional liars“. The Message removes all reference to the reality of the occult, to evil spirits and teachings of demons – by using human, finite language. This is concerning, and exactly what the Devil would want – people to take him less seriously.
Another area where The Message is slightly unhelpful is where it puts an agenda above that of the original text. Or removing specific words, specific sins, in the name of a more politically correct agenda or message. Don’t believe me? Compare these:
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV): “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” compared to The Message: “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“. There are a lot of issues here. The removal of sins that society allows – drunkards, idolaters, adultery, the practice of homosexuality – is unfortunate, but so is the notion that we have to qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. This is clearly changing Scripture – for an agenda or not is not clear – and it’s something that God explicitly commands us not to do.
The Bible is brilliant. And for everyone and anyone to read. But it does have a clear message. Sometimes it is murky and requires and rewards study. Sometimes it flies in the face of society, in the face of political correctness. But it is still Gods word. And we have to respect that.
I personally will continue to utilise The Message sometimes – it offers useful insights. But it is not a very good Bible translation. Not a very helpful one. If you are using solely The Message, might I humbly challenge you to use at least one other translation as well, if not replacing it with another most of the time?
The Bible is important, so lets read it with the respect and care that God’s words deserve.