How important is it to you that your Bible is an accurate translation of the manuscript copies of the Old and New Testament texts? I hope the answer is very important.
The collective books of the Bible, accurately translated from the manuscript copies of the original inspired texts, are a special revelation from God. In them we learn things we cannot learn from within ourselves or from nature. Though creation reveals aspects of God’s power and nature (Romans 1:20), it does not tell us that there is only one God and that God is triune. It also does not tell us his plan for salvation. Those glorious truths and many other things about God come to us through the Bible. This is why we must cherish and respect the manuscripts and choose Bible translations that present them accurately.
While there is a range of accuracy found in different Bible versions, I have come across a version of the Bible that I believe puts the special revelation of God in particular jeopardy. I am referring to The Message by Eugene H. Peterson published by NavPress. I have long held concerns about The Message. I first came across it years ago in an Advent program that a pastor friend shared with me. The program contained daily devotionals by various pastors, some of whom had chosen to use The Message as their Bible text. There were a number of verses that I couldn’t recognize because the word usage was so different from what I was used to. I got out my New American Standard Bible (NASB), a word-for-word translation, and looked them up side by side. What I found shocked me. I found wording in The Message that significantly changed the meaning of the verses. I was very surprised that any of the pastors had chosen to use it. Honestly, I was a bit unsettled. Since that Christmas I have done more comparisons. Each time I’ve looked into The Message I’ve found more reasons to be concerned. I have done what I can to make others aware of the problems and have added two pages in Bible Notes documenting some of them. They are Analysis of The Message Bible: Justification and Sanctification and The Message – Verse Comparisons.
Captivating Creativity Points in the Wrong Direction
On biblegateway.com, I read why Mr. Peterson wrote The Message.
“Why was The Message written? The best answer to that question comes from Eugene Peterson himself: “”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.'””¹
Desiring to engage new readers and to rekindle passion in veterans is admirable. The Message certainly offers colorful words and entertaining expressions to accomplish that goal. Case in point: “A banana peel lands them flat on their faces– slapstick figures in a moral circus.” (Psalms 37:15) Unfortunately, while Mr. Peterson’s readers are offered captivating and creative writing, The Message does not well represent what is written in the original in many places. By comparison here is Psalms 37:15 in the NASB, a version that seeks to stay very close to the original. “Their sword will enter their own heart, And their bows will be broken.” (Psalms 37:15) Since his readers are captivated by something so different, the approach he used to draw readers in actually backfires. The Message doesn’t make the “Bible” more engaging because it obscures the manuscripts known as the Bible!
There are many more verses in The Message that do not represent the original well. I do not think it is OK to ballpark the meaning of the original or to change it outright. Here is another quick example.
“Don’t, by the way, read too much into the differences here between men and women.”
1 Corinthians 11:10 (The Message)
Here is the same verse in the NASB.
“Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” 1 Corinthians 11:10 (NASB)
Try as I may, I cannot see how verse 10 or any of the surrounding verses mean we should not read too much into the difference between men and women. Is it wise to move so far away from the words that were inspired by God? A new Bible version is not like rewriting The Count of Monte Cristo or Pilgrim’s Progress for the sake of modern readers.
Back to engaging readers. I understand how important that is. A Bible is a vital way to touch lives with the gospel. To that end, I do not think the original words and the meaning they contain need altering to accomplish God’s purpose. I still trust the Holy Spirit to do his work with the original inspired words. He has been doing so for centuries. Of course that doesn’t mean that a Bible that is centuries old will be a good translation for everyone. The KJV is understandably difficult for some readers due to the fact that some if its language is out of common usage. There are modern versions like the NASB or ESV that are more suitable to today’s readers.
Popularity And Purpose
The popularity of the Message demonstrates that Mr. Peterson has been successful in providing a version that people enjoy reading. According to a list complied by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association it was in the top 10 Bible sales in the twelve months leading up to August 2013.² I have read positive reviews by readers. Since it is so popular, one might wonder if it serves a good purpose. Isn’t it good that people are reading the Bible? Well, as indicated above, readers of The Message are not actually reading the Bible because of how much it varies from the original. What about providing clarity? Since it was not paraphrased to be an easy read but an engaging one, I wouldn’t put it in the category of Bibles that are meant to consistently shed light on difficult passages. There are expressions and words in The Message that are not always clear. It is not free from the possibility of being misunderstood. As of yet, I have not seen a purpose that I would deem good in view of what is lost.
An article written when Mr. Peterson”s version contained only the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament sheds some light on what Mr. Peterson thinks The Message is and is not good for.
“Peterson wouldn’t recommend The Message as a study Bible because it has no concordance, and he dosn’t like to see fellow clergy use it for sermon preparation. “When pastors tell me they preach from it, I tell them they miss the connection with the past with this translation,” he says. So what purpose does The Message serve? Peterson says it’s a comfortable entry point for those who have been turned off by the institutional feel of the traditional text. With a translation that speaks in contemporary language, there’s no reason for first-time readers to fear the Bible. He hopes The Message will only be a launchpad into the standard translations. “Get weaned from it,” urges Peterson.”³
I’m happy to see that Mr. Peterson at least wants readers to “get weaned from it”, yet it is disappointing that he thinks The Message is good for newcomers especially since the same article quotes him as saying that he has taken “considerable liberties” with the text. From what I have seen, his readers will not be able to clearly see God’s will in some cases, like submission in marriage. Not only that, they will miss out on important doctrines and truths about God. That is something to fear, not a standard translation of the Bible. (We do have standard translations that are written in contemporary language.) When or if his readers make the switch to a standard translation, they will be bringing ideas with them that they will need to shed in order to be true to the word of God. That is confusing. I think it is best to begin with and stay as close as possible to that which God inspired. I want that for all who read the Bible, even those who are new to it.
The Percentage of Change is Too High
The articles that I have written only review a small portion of The Message. Though I have seen many variations from the original, I do not know what percentage of the book contains serious variations because I haven’t read the whole thing. I do know that the variations fall on a sliding scale of how damaging they are. The worst of them relate to doctrines traditionally held by the church. The Message makes it difficult to see some of them. I am referring to things like justification and sanctification. These are central to the gospel, and those who cannot see them clearly when they read The Message will suffer loss. Other variations have to do with living a godly life. From what I have seen, there is too great a percentage of change. For that reason I would never use The Message or recommend it to anyone. It deeply concerns me that it has been used by pastors. If someone does wish to use it, I pray they have an accurate Bible translation nearby.
If you do happen to use The Message, please do your own comparison between it and a well-respected Bible version like the KJV, NASB, or ESV. I understand The Message cannot be expected to match up well because it was written with different goals in mind, but the comparison will help you see how much it varies. When you have looked into it, ask yourself this question: How important is it to you that your Bible is an accurate translation of the manuscript copies of the Old and New Testament texts? Yes, it is the same question as above; but if you like The Message you might have your dander up by now. It may not be as easy to answer when one has a favorite version in mind. I wish not to offend, but to help shed light on a problem that may not have previously been known.
If you have don’t have time to do your own comparison, please see my articles Analysis of The Message Bible: Justification and Sanctification and The Message Bible – Verse Comparisons. They will take some time to go through, but an issue this important is worth the effort. I encourage you to read them both to the end to get a better picture of the problems within The Message. There are also other articles online. I have linked to some of them in my articles. Please prayerfully review the data and consider if The Message is a good choice.
I am jealous for the word of God and wish for you to have the best possible translation of it. God’s special revelation should be cherished, respected, and translated as accurately as possible. There is too much at stake to take this lightly. It is important that we see the scriptures for what they really are, supernatural.
“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12 (NASB)
When we move away from the inspired words, the supernatural power fades. We need the cutting that the sword of the Spirit is capable of. (Ephesians 6:17) The Message offers only a dull blade.
 The Message – Version Information on biblegateway.com
 Bible Translations Bestsellers, September 2013; christianbookexpo.com
 “Eugene Peterson: Getting Out the Message” by Michelle Bearden, Publishers Weekly