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Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary English. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993.
Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002.
The publisher of this version (NavPress) informs us that Eugene Peterson started out to become a scholar, but after earning a master's degree in Hebrew he changed his plans and entered the ministry, as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). There he served for some years before he retired to write. Peterson says that he began to create this version during a series of lessons on Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. He observed that his congregation was bored with the Biblical text as they knew it, and so, in order to stimulate them, he wrote a paraphrase of the Epistle, in which he tried to make it extraordinarily vivid and interesting to them. Later, he published this paraphrase as part of a devotional book, and it was noticed by an editor at NavPress. This editor persuaded Peterson to put the entire New Testament in the same kind of language. (1)
Peterson did most of the work on the New Testament during 1991, at which time he was "writer in residence" at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The New Testament was published in 1993, and became a best-seller. Peterson was persuaded to do the Old Testament, and, over a nine year period, he gradually completed the entire Bible. A volume containing The Old Testament Wisdom Books was published in 1998, followed by The Old Testament Prophets in 2000, the Pentateuch in 2001, the Books of History in 2002, and an edition of the complete Bible in 2002.
In evaluating this version, the author's purpose and audience must be kept in mind. Unfortunately, the publisher has advertised it as a "translation from the original languages" that "accurately communicates the original Hebrew and Greek" and brings out "the subtleties and nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages," being the work of a respected "exegetical scholar," etc., all of which gives an entirely false impression of the work. Instead, what we have here is a free paraphrase of the text, often very eccentric, with many unlikely renderings, lengthy insertions and omissions, and other problems; but to criticize this work for its many inaccuracies would be to miss the whole purpose of its author. Peterson's purpose in this is to present something new and provocative at every turn, something vivid and unusual, in order to stir up the dull minds of people who have become bored with their familiar Bibles.
His method is comparable to that of a preacher in the pulpit, who dwells on one thing for a while and then rushes over another, alternatingly serious and jocular, doing whatever he can to maintain the attention of his audience. The version incorporates a number of interesting but peculiar interpretations that can only be described as homiletic:
Matthew 1:22. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet
This would bring the prophet's embryonic sermon to full term
Matthew 5:13. You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
John 3:5. Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
Unless a person submits to this original creation—the 'wind hovering over the water' creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it's not possible to enter God's kingdom.
Such 'homiletic' elements of the version are sprinkled here and there on a translation which is for the most part extremely colloquial. Long and formal-sounding sentences in the original are often simply replaced with punchy phrases: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you" is replaced with a jovial "Enjoy the best of Jesus!" Many renderings can only be described as facetious: John 1:14 "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" becomes "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood." The language is spiced up with slangy and amusing idioms: 2 Corinthians 4:17 "These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times." In Acts 13:6 "crooked as a corkscrew" is used instead of the simple adjective "false."
Often the version portrays things in a more colorful way than the original, and it sometimes takes on a cartoonish quality. For example, in James 4:7 instead of "resist the Devil and he will flee from you" we have "Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper." This is intended to make us chuckle. In Acts 12:16 according to The Message the disciples were not only "amazed" when they saw Peter, they "went wild," which suggests an amusing scene of commotion that is not indicated in the original text. (At least they didn't go bananas!) Many renderings inject the same kind of breezy slang that provoked Alexander Tytler to ask, "What must we think of the translator, who makes the solemn and sententious Tacitus express himself in the low cant of the streets, or in the dialect of the waiters of a tavern?" (2)
A psychologizing tendency is evident in several places. In Luke 2:34-35 Simeon prophesies that Christ will be "spoken against" or opposed, and that by this opposition "the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed." Peterson analyzes these thoughts, and says that Christ will be a "misunderstood" figure, whose rejection will "force honesty" upon the opposers. Yet the Bible's own "psychology"—as reflected in its use of the word psyche (soul)—is muted in the version. For example, in Acts 14:22 instead of "strengthening the souls of the disciples" Peterson gives a bodily metaphor: "putting muscle and sinew in the lives of the disciples." In John 12:27 he eliminates Jesus' reference to his own soul. Instead of "Now is my soul troubled" we read "Right now I am storm-tossed." In a similar manner he avoids using the word "spirit" (pneuma), as in John 13:21, where the Greek says that Jesus was "troubled in his spirit (pneuma)" but Peterson says "visibly upset." In Luke 23:46 he writes "Father, I place my life in your hands" instead of "into your hands I commit my spirit." When Stephen is martyred in Acts 7:59 Peterson makes him cry "Master Jesus, take my life" instead of "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." The avoidance of the words "soul" and "spirit" in the version appears to be deliberate and systematic. (3) The same thing is done with the Hebrew word ruach "spirit" in the Old Testament. In Psalm 51:10 where it says "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit (ruach) within me" Peterson gives a very fanciful rendering—"God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life." Here Peterson plays with a concept suggested by the word bara "create" in the verse (same word as in Genesis 1:1), and his rendering may be appreciated as an interesting homiletic development, but it cannot be taken seriously as a translation of the Hebrew.
Sometimes Peterson obscures the main point of a passage by distracting attention from it with a homiletic flourish, as in Romans 9:27-28. Here the apostle Paul is dealing with the question of why the Church has so few Jews in it, and so he quotes Isaiah's prophecy concerning the relatively small remnant that will remain after God has dealt with them in judgment.
Romans 9:27-28. And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved. For the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.
Isaiah maintained this same emphasis: If each grain of sand on the seashore were numbered and the sum labeled "Chosen of God," they'de be numbers still, not names; salvation comes by personal selection. God doesn't count us; he calls us by name. Arithmetic is not his focus.
The reason for the citation is clear in the literal translation, but in Peterson's paraphrase it is strangely opaque. He fastens on the word "number" and he produces a little meditation on the contrast between numbering and naming by importing the concept "he calls us by name" into the passage. In the process of making his interesting homiletic point he neglects the main point of the passage. This sort of thing often happens in the pulpit, where it is quite forgiveable to expound "the right doctrine from the wrong text"—but it is another matter when homiletic excursions supplant the text itself.
There is a tendency in the version to transpose things into a modern context. In Matthew 10:29 Christ's question, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny" becomes "What's the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right?" Arguably the "loose change" here is actually more accurate than "a penny" as a translation of assarion, but the "pet canary" is completely anachronistic. An item from the experience of the modern American consumer is substituted for the "two sparrows" of the text. (4) Even the Holy Spirit seems to be transformed into a more familiar character in this version, when Peterson gives the word "Friend" as a translation of paraclete (John 14:16).
The reader who mistakes this cavalier treatment of the text for a reliable translation is in danger of being misled at many points. This danger is well illustrated by the following paragraph from a review of The Message which recently appeared on a religious homosexual website:
What about the passages against homosexuals, you might ask? Well, although we found his translation of Romans 1:26-27 a bit off, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 have been liberated from their heterosexual bias and are translated in ways that are much more inclusive and truer to their original intent. The text of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 reads as follows:
"Don't you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don't care about God will not be joining 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"
The text of 1 Timothy 1:9-10 reads as follows:
"It's obvious, isn't it, that the law code isn't primarily for people who live responsibly, but for the irresponsible, who defy all authority, riding roughshod over God, life, sex, truth, whatever!"
We at Spirit & Flesh say, nicely done!
But these passages really do condemn homosexuality, as may be seen in any reasonably accurate translation:
1 Cor 6:9-10. "Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God."
Don't you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don't care about God will not be joining 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.
1 Tim 1:9-10. "...realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching.
It's obvious, isn't it, that the law code isn't primarily for people who live responsibly, but for the irresponsible, who defy all authority, riding roughshod over God, life, sex, truth, whatever!
It would be unfair to suggest that Peterson has omitted the references to homosexuals because he disagreed with the indictment against them — he omitted many other things in these verses also. Are these omissions due simply to an attempt to make the passages more concise? It seems that something more is afoot, because in the midst of his severe abridgement of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 he adds, "use and abuse the earth and everything in it," which corresponds to nothing in the Greek text. Apparently Peterson has interpreted the passage as a merely conventional list of sins, in which the sins mentioned are of no particular importance, and so he passes over them, and he takes the liberty of inserting a new "sin" (earth abuse) (5) which he imagines is more relevant to the reader.
The treatment of 1 Peter 3:1-7 is interesting. This passage is rather offensive to modern ears when translated accurately, but Peterson's paraphrase solves the problem:
1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. 7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
The same goes for you wives: Be good wives to your husbands, responsive to their needs. There are husbands who, indifferent as they are to any words about God, will be captivated by your life of holy beauty. What matters is not your outer appearance — the styling of your hair, the jewelry you wear, the cut of your clothes — but your inner disposition. Cultivate inner beauty, the gentle, gracious kind that God delights in. The holy women of old were beautiful before God that way, and were good, loyal wives to their husbands. Sarah, for instance, taking care of Abraham, would address him as, "my dear husband." Youíll be true daughters of Sarah if you do the same, unanxious and unintimidated. The same goes for you husbands: Be good husbands to your wives. Honor them, delight in them. As women they lack some of your advantages. But in the new life of God's grace, you're equals. Treat your wives, then, as equals so your prayers don't run aground
We notice how Peterson's instruction to wives here differs somewhat from Peter's instructions. Peterson strips away any suggestion that the women are to subject themselves to their husbands, although obviously this is the main point of the passage, as written by Peter. Instead of "respecting," "submitting to," or "obeying" their husbands, the wives are to be "responsive to their needs," and "taking care" of them, like mothers. Turning to the men, Peterson puts the idea of wifely submission out of bounds by telling them, "you're equals." He explains that the woman is a "weaker vessel" only in a sociological sense — the women "lack some of your advantages." Here it seems that Peterson has simply replaced the teaching of the passage with its opposite.
On what theory of translation does he suppose he can do all this? We note that in his introduction he makes some statements that hint at a philosophy of translation which theorists have called contextualization, in which contemporary ideas and ways of thinking are substituted for the concepts of the original text: "The goal is ... to convert the tone, the rhythm, the events, the ideas, into the way we actually think and speak" (emphasis added), and he describes his work as "looking for an English way to make the biblical text relevant to the conditions of the people." This is the traditional function of a preacher, of course — the contemporization of the message. But it is not the proper function of a translator. Regarding his treatment of 1 Peter 3, it may be that Peterson felt that the passage was only meant to encourage women to conform to social expectations of the time, and so the 'meaning for today' would involve some corresponding affirmation of current morals.
Peterson's homiletic method of handling of the text should have been more clearly explained in the introduction, and in the advertising of the version. But it seems that Peterson himself has little awareness of how the message of the Bible has been transformed in his paraphrase. In one article that appeared in a publishing industry trade magazine, it was reported that
What Peterson says he has never done in any of The Message titles is to explain what needs clarification because of cultural and language barriers. If the text is obscure, he says, "I keep it obscure. If it's ambiguous, I keep it ambiguous. It has never been my intent to put my take on someone else's ancient writings." (6)
Nothing could be further from the truth, as the examples given above show. Putting his own "take" on the Bible is precisely what he has done throughout The Message. But on the other hand, in the same article he admits that he does "take considerable liberties" with the text. He says that when pastors have told him they have used it in preaching he warns them that "they miss the connection with the past with this translation." He indicates that it is for "first-time readers," and that these readers should quickly "get weaned from it." In an interview published in Christianity Today when he was asked, "Do you think The Message will be well suited for reading in worship?" he replied, "When I'm in a congregation where somebody uses it in the Scripture reading, it makes me a little uneasy. I would never recommend it be used as saying, 'Hear the Word of God from The Message.' But it surprises me how many do. You can't tell people they can't do it." (7)
Instead of giving any such warnings in the introduction, Peterson distracts attention from the problems and tries to justify his treatment of the text with an argument about historical and comparative linguistics. He asserts (wrongly) that the Greek New Testament itself was written "in the street language of the day, the idiom of the playground," the "informal idiom of everyday speech," etc., and implies that The Message is meant to correspond in style with the originals. (8) But clearly The Message does not use "street language" in any consistent way. Much of it is in colloquial style, but much of it is not. Who uses such phrases as "the prophet's embryonic sermon" or "God-flavors of this earth" in everyday speech? Who says things like, "Isaiah maintained this same emphasis" down at the barber shop? Surely this is not the language of the common man. Moreover, in the Christianity Today interview he says something quite different concerning the nature of the original: "The fact is, the Bible is hard. It's not an easy book. I don't think we should compromise the accuracy of the Bible just for ease of reading." Obviously the Bible cannot be both the "idiom of the playground" and a "hard" book. Which is it? And, we might ask, why shouldn't we read The Message in the worship service as "the Word of God" if the version is really as accurate as the introduction (and the publisher's advertising) implies?
Evidently Peterson finds himself in a difficult position trying to defend his paraphrase, which attained such unexpected popularity, while trying at the same time to indicate that it is not really the Word of God and not suitable for use in the church—without being very specific about why it isn't suitable. "You can't tell people they can't do it," he says, unable to articulate his reservations. Meanwhile, the publisher is doing everything it can to make it happen. By the end of 2003 almost nine million copies had been sold through aggressive marketing techniques. (9)
The Message has found a ready audience among "evangelicals" who are bored with the Bible, and who wanted a jazzy and fun paraphrase to take its place. Its popularity is just one more example of the levity of the contemporary church, and of its unhealthy taste for novelties and fads, which have become so much a part of ministry in evangelical churches in the past thirty years. As Peterson has written in one of his books on pastoral care, American church leaders have been "transformed into a company of shopkeepers with shopkeepers concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from the competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money." (10) And again, speaking of entertainment-driven ministry he says, "There are others who do not desert the place of worship, but in staying, they do something worse: they subvert it. They turn it in to a place of entertainment that will refresh bored and tired consumers and pump some zest into them." (11) But if there is one thing worse than turning the Sanctuary into a place of entertainment, it is turning the Sacred Page into a piece of entertainment.
This book should be recognized for what it is. It began as a stimulating paraphrase of the Epistle to the Galatians included in a popular devotional book, and it remains a piece of stimulating devotional literature. But it is not the Word of God. As Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary has put it, "it is freer even than a paraphrase. I think of it more as devotional literature than as a version of the Bible and wouldn't recommend it for any other role." (12)
1. This information is given on the publisher's website. But the publisher downplays the aggressiveness of its editors in soliciting the work. See the article by Hope McPherson, "Ten Years in the Making, The Message Was Released in Its Entirety This Summer," Seattle Pacific University Response 25/3 (Summer 2002). Mcpherson writes, "Peterson took on the task, in part, to appease a persistent NavPress editor. The editor had read Petersonís paraphrase of Galatians in his 1982 book, Traveling Light, and wanted more." See also the interview with Peterson by Doug LeBlanc, "I Didn't Want to Be Cute," Christianity Today, 46/11 (October 7, 2002), p. 15. LeBlanc quotes Peterson as saying, "I was a reluctant participant in this. I really didn't think that I could do it or that it could be done. But I agreed with my editor, John [Jon Stine], that I would. In some ways Paul is easy. There's a lot of challenge to Paul, but the gospels are something quite different. There's a kind of clean, lucid clarity to them, and I just didn't think I could do that. But I agreed to do 10 chapters of Matthew and then let John decide whether he thought we could do this. And so it was just as bad as I thought it would be. It was very wooden, and it just wasn't working. I just kind of let go and became playful."
2. Alexander Fraser Tytler, Essay on the Principles of Translation, third ed. (Edinburgh, 1813), p. 119.
3. Yet in John 19:30 he does translate accurately, "he offered up his spirit." Is this because John's Gospel is regarded as more "spiritual," more "Greek" in outlook? Peterson's avoidance of the words "soul" and "spirit" in so many places is probably due to his being influenced by theologians in his denomination, the PCUSA. Despite the fact that the New Testament clearly makes a distinction between "body" and "soul" in several places, many liberal and neo-orthodox theologians attribute the body-soul distinction to a kind of "Greek thinking" which they like to characterize as unbiblical. They assert that according to "Hebrew thought" (which they identify with biblical teachings) a human being is a "psychosomatic unity" in which the soul cannot be separated from the body. In some circles there is a very palpable discomfort with the word "soul." When I was a student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary there were at least two professors there who frowned upon any talk about the "soul." One of them flatly denied that there was any such thing as a soul in man. Eugene Peterson was "writer in residence" at this seminary in the year before I arrived, and he completed most of the work on the New Testament while there. It seems unlikely that his version's avoidance of the word "soul" is unrelated to the aversion to the word that I saw at the seminary.
4. In a review article published in The Bible Translator 46/1 (Jan 95), Robert G. Bratcher faults Peterson for "indulging in transculturation." He writes, "This New Testament lies somewhere between Kenneth Taylor's Living Bible and Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch New Testament: to the right of Jordan and the left of Taylor. Peterson goes beyond the acceptable bounds of dynamic equivalence in that he will often divest passages from their first-century Jewish context, so that Jesus, for example, sounds like a twentieth-century American. Look at Mt 5.41-42: 'And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.' No longer are we in first-century Judea, where the Roman occupation troops had the right to require Jews to carry their packs. In Jn 2.4 the money changers in the Court of the Gentiles become 'loan sharks.' Besides indulging in transculturation, Peterson at times pads the text with additional details for increased vividness and drama ..." (p. 155.)
5. Evidently Peterson is an "environmentalist." In at least one other place he seems to inject an environmentalist idea into the text of the Bible. In his version of Genesis 1:26 he makes God say that people were created to "be responsible for" the earth instead of "have dominion over" it — "Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth."
6. Michelle Bearden, "Eugene Peterson: Getting Out the Message," Publishers Weekly, October 9, 2000.
7. Doug LeBlanc, "I Didn't Want to Be Cute," Christianity Today, 46/11 (October 7, 2002), p. 15.
8. See also his article "The Message of Love in a World at War" published in Response 25/3 (Summer 2002), in which he argues along the same lines. Concerning this idea about New Testament Greek, which has so often been used as a fig leaf for colloquializing versions in recent years, we invite the reader to learn the true facts of the matter as given in the article Was the Bible Written in 'Street Language'?
9. As H. L. Mencken said, "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." Painful details of the marketing strategy are given in an article by Kimberly Winston, "You Can Judge A (Good) Book By Its Cover," Publishers Weekly, October 13, 2003.
10. Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 1.
11. Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 141.
12. Craig Blomberg, review of The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken, Denver Journal: An Online Review of Current Biblical and Theological Studies, volume 6 (July 2003).
Sometimes there's a fine line between paraphrase and translation. Eugene Peterson, author of the popular The Message series, believes his work falls into both categories. "I do take considerable liberties," admits Peterson, whose newest book, The Message: The Old Testament Prophets in Contemporary Language, due out this month from NavPress, translates the works of the Old Testament prophets into modern language. "But when you're working from original languages and trying to translate as close to the American idiom as you can, you sometimes have no choice," he adds.
What Peterson says he has never done in any of The Message titles is to explain what needs clarification because of cultural and language barriers. If the text is obscure, he says, "I keep it obscure. If it's ambiguous, I keep it ambiguous. It has never been my intent to put my take on someone else's ancient writings."
Peterson wants to introduce new readers or refresh longtime students of the Bible through The Message, which offers a contemporary rendering of the New Testament and other scriptures from the original languages. Although it was never his intention to create a publishing phenomenon, he did just that, obviously filling a void. To date, the 12-book The Message line has sold more than 6 million copies.
A onetime Presbyterian pastor who retired after 35 years to write full time, Peterson says there was nothing magical or marketing driven behind his plunge into making the Bible more accessible. It dates back to the early 1980s, when he gave a Sunday school class, followed by a series of sermons, on the book of Galatians. He looked out into the congregation and saw plenty of bored faces. "They just weren't getting it." He decided to use his knowledge of Greek and translate Galatians into contemporary English. When Paul launched into wild syntax with vigor and startling images, so did Peterson's modern translation. He managed to capture the spirit of the text without changing the message. When Peterson retired from pastoral work and moved back to the family home in Montana, he decided he had the time to tackle the whole New Testament in the same style, with the help of nothing more than his Hebrew Bible and the works of his favorite commentators. The result was The Message.
Peterson wouldn't recommend The Message as a study Bible because it has no concordance, and he doesn'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. "I actually prefer translations that are archaic and stay close to the syntax of the ancient language. It makes for awkward reading, but it preserves the uniqueness of the works."
NavPress has had enormous success repackaging its The Message contemporary-language Bible-as-novel by Eugene Peterson. First published in 1993, this retelling has sold more than 8.5 million copies in versions ranging from single books of the gospels to the New Testament and the entire Bible. Now Sarah Snelling, NavPress's new associate publisher for The Message Division, reports that The Message Remix (2003)—designed to appeal to younger readers but differing from the original only in its smaller format and the addition of verse numbers—has sold over 150,000 copies in its first month. NavPress will offer "collector's editions" of The Message Remix four times a year in different formats. Out this month is The Message Remix: Snack Mix Limited Edition, a lunchbox with the book inside. Due in January is The Message Remix: Limited Edition #2 / Trail Mix, which comes with a backpack. Other repackages include the just-published The Message: Slimline Edition and The Message: The Gospel of John. Snelling reports that sales for The Message show no signs of slowing—Wal-Mart ordered 15,000 copies in May and Sam's Club had sold more than 60,000 by late September. Snelling said key to keeping the product fresh is partnering with Christian celebrities and their pet causes. NavPress plans to promote The Message by sponsoring a tour with Christian singers Tobymac and Kirk Franklin to benefit at-risk youth. That helps fulfill NavPress's publishing mission. "We don't want people to just read the Bible, but to live it," she said. "That's the big push for us this fall, and that will be our marketing campaign in the spring."
The arrival of Jesus signaled the beginning of a new era. God entered history in a personal way, and made it unmistakably clear that he is on our side, doing everything possible to save us. It was all presented and worked out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It was, and is, hard to believe—seemingly too good to be true.
But one by one, men and women did believe it, believed Jesus was God alive among them and for them. Soon they would realize that he also lived in them. To their great surprise they found themselves living in a world where God called all the shots—had the first word on everything; had the last word on everything. That meant that everything, quite literally every thing, had to be re-centered, re-imagined, and re-thought.
They went at it with immense gusto. They told stories of Jesus and arranged his teachings in memorable form. They wrote letters. They sang songs. They prayed. One of them wrote an extraordinary poem based on holy visions. There was no apparent organization to any of this; it was all more or less spontaneous and, to the eye of the casual observer, haphazard. Over the course of about fifty years, these writings added up to what would later be compiled by the followers of Jesus and designated "The New Testament."
Three kinds of writing—eyewitness stories, personal letters, and a visionary poem—make up the book. Five stories, twenty-one letters, one poem. In the course of this writing and reading, collecting and arranging, with no one apparently in charge, the early Christians, whose lives were being changed and shaped by what they were reading, arrived at the conviction that there was, in fact, someone in charge—God's Holy Spirit was behind and in it all. In retrospect, they could see that it was not at all random or haphazard, that every word worked with every other word, and that all the separate documents worked in intricate harmony. There was nothing accidental in any of this, nothing merely circumstantial. They were bold to call what had been written "God's Word," and trusted their lives to it. They accepted its authority over their lives. Most of its readers since have been similarly convinced.
A striking feature in all this writing is that it was done in the street language of the day, the idiom of the playground and marketplace. In the Greek-speaking world of that day, there were two levels of language: formal and informal. Formal language was used to write philosophy and history, government decrees and epic poetry. If someone were to sit down and consciously write for posterity, it would of course be written in this formal language with its learned vocabulary and precise diction. But if the writing was routine—shopping lists, family letters, bills, and receipts—it was written in the common, informal idiom of everyday speech, street language.
And this is the language used throughout the New Testament. Some people are taken aback by this, supposing that language dealing with a holy God and holy things should be elevated—stately and ceremonial. But one good look at Jesus—his preference for down-to-earth stories and easy association with common people—gets rid of that supposition. For Jesus is the descent of God to our lives, just as they are, not the ascent of our lives to God, hoping he might approve when he sees how hard we try.
And that is why the followers of Jesus in their witness and preaching, translating and teaching, have always done their best to get the Message— the "good news"—into the language of whatever streets they happen to be living on. In order to understand the Message right, the language must be right—not a refined language that appeals to our aspirations after the best but a rough and earthy language that reveals God's presence and action where we least expect it, catching us when we are up to our elbows in the soiled ordinariness of our lives and God is the furthest thing from our minds.
This version of the New Testament in a contemporary idiom keeps the language of the Message current and fresh and understandable in the same language in which we do our shopping, talk with our friends, worry about world affairs, and teach our children their table manners. The goal is not to render a word-for-word conversion of Greek into English, but rather to convert the tone, the rhythm, the events, the ideas, into the way we actually think and speak.
In the midst of doing this work, I realized that this is exactly what I have been doing all my vocational life. For thirty-five years as a pastor I stood at the border between two languages, biblical Greek and everyday English, acting as a translator, providing the right phrases, getting the right words so that the men and women to whom I was pastor could find their way around and get along in this world where God has spoken so decisively and clearly in Jesus. I did it from the pulpit and in the kitchen, in hospitals and restaurants, on parking lots and at picnics, always looking for an English way to make the biblical text relevant to the conditions of the people.
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