Tag Archives: Bible versions

“The Message” isn’t always a translation

There’s some debate about whether Eugene Peterson’s The Message is a translation or a paraphrase. I’d argue that it’s both, in some ways.

That is, Peterson translated from the Greek without consulting English translations, according to him. That’s a translation. Yet it seems to me that he then took that translation and “riffed on it,” producing a paraphrase of his own work!

Look at Paul’s question to the Ephesians in Acts 19:2. Here’s how the NIV translates it:

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

I’m no Greek expert, but looking at the GNT, the question seems to consist of 5 words which basically state what is above. Now look what Peterson did with the question:

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? Did you take God into your mind only, or did you also embrace him with your heart? Did he get inside you?”

See what I mean? The first sentence is the translation. The next two… have no basis in the Greek text. They aren’t translation. At best they are paraphrase. Essentially they are Peterson’s commentary on the translation.

How is the reader to know that? How is the reader supposed to know when Peterson is merely injecting things into the text?

Look at Romans 8:38-39. In “translating” this verse, Peterson writes:

Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: (Tim: underline mine)

As a reminder, here’s how the NIV does it:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In another post, I’ll note how Peterson avoids discussion of spiritual powers; that’s a definite problem. What I’ve underlined shows a major theological point that Peterson has inserted into this passage… with no textual basis. Depending on what Peterson means in what he has authored here, I very well may agree with him. However… that’s not Romans 8. That’s not translation.

Again… how is the reader supposed to know?

So what do we do with The Message?

I’ve been taking a closer look at The Message after some awkward moments in Bible class the last few Sundays. In each case, someone read from The Message, and what was read led the class away from what Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount (our subject material).

I’ve been looking more closely and like less and less of what I see. The Message is a version of the Bible produced by Christian author Eugene Peterson. Peterson is a masterful author that I’ve enjoyed for years. The Message is his attempt to produce a Bible in the “street language” (his term) of the late 20th century.

Colloquial speech Bibles have been around for a long time. J.B. Phillips’ New Testament is a joy to read; I love gaining new insights into biblical passages from reading Phillips’ interpretation. Take Romans 8:19 for example:

The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the songs of God coming into their own.

Yet, I think we need some awareness when reading such texts. Clarence Jordan, who wrote the intriguing Cotton Patch Version, stated:

obviously the ‘cotton patch’ version must not be used as a historical text. The Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible are excellent for this purpose.

I personally wish Peterson had put a similar warning somewhere in The Message. I’ll spend some time next week looking at some of the things that trouble me about this version of the Bible. But I’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences. How do you see The Message?

Farewell NIV

The NIV is going away. How weird is that? That is, the 1984 version is going away, the version that has dominated the Protestant landscape for several decades. The 2011 version is supplanting it.

I did my formative Bible study on the NIV (admittedly starting with an earlier version than the 1984 one). It’s the main version I used while getting my degrees in college.

Whereas the 1984 version made cosmetic changes to the earlier versions (so much so that I can’t think of any except for John 1:18), the 2011 makes widespread major changes, some for better, some for worse. (The official word from the publisher: “In this update, about 95% of the text remains exactly the same as the 1984 NIV that it replaces, based on the number of word changes.”)

What jolted me to the reality of the transition was this announcement from Accordance Bible Software:

At the publisher’s request, we are required to stop selling the NIV 1984 edition and the TNIV after January 16, 2012. That means there is just over a week left to purchase these Bibles if you would like them. This also applies to the bundles that include them.
We understand that many of our customers are interested in these versions, so please be sure to act now if you want to be able to use these Bibles in Accordance. After Monday, January 16, 2012, we will no longer be able to sell the NIV84 and TNIV.
We will also be required to stop supporting backups (Easy Install) for these Bibles after one year, so be sure to backup these files so that you will always have access to them.

Version replacement is common. Most KJV readers don’t use the 1611 version. It just caught me by surprise, I guess.

Do more people prefer the KJV?

OK, I fell for USA Today’s headline. “Bible readers prefer King James version,” it said. And the story itself even said: “82% of those who read the Good Book at least once a month rely on the translation that first brought the Scripture to the English-speaking masses worldwide.” Now, as Peter Kirk over at Better Bibles blog pointed out, unless the USA Today is talking about the Geneva Bible, that sentence isn’t very accurate. But it’s inaccurate for another reason: the Lifeway Research study on which the article is based doesn’t say that!

Here’s how Lifeway put it:

Among those who read the Bible regularly the percentage of KJV owners is even higher. A full 82 percent of Americans who read the Bible at least once a month own a KJV.

That’s a far cry from saying that 82% prefer the KJV. Lots of people own a King James Bible; how many of them read it? How many prefer to read it? That’s not reported. Which is why the USA Today headline was totally misleading.

I’m not looking to bash the KJV. I’m merely pointing out the fallacy, which I fell into, of relying on second-hand media reports. When possible, check the original source. As I’ve said before, I’m uneasy when someone says “Paul says…” or “the Bible teaches…” unless what is reported is a direct quote from the Bible. Because you always run the risk of someone misinterpreting a passage and reporting it as the truth from the Bible. Like USA Today did with this report from Lifeway.

Photo by Ove Tøpfer; from Stock Xchange

Talking About What We Don’t Understand

I rarely read those group e-mails that get sent out. If someone wants to send me something, they can send it to me personally. I especially avoid anything that says “Fwd:” in the subject line.

But the other day I read an article that a brother was sending to a lot of us who work among Spanish speakers. When I got to the bottom of the article, I realized that it had merely been copied from a web site.

The writer was attacking the “modern versions,” especially focusing on Acts 20:28. He was defending the 1602 Valera version in Spanish and the 1611 King James version in English — not realizing, of course, that these two versions disagree with one another on the translation of this particular verse. The article railed against Westcott and Hort and the Alexandrian texts that they followed, praising the integrity of the Byzantine texts. It accused later versions of wanting to deny the deity of Jesus by changing “church of God” to “church of the Lord” in this verse.

Unfortunately, whoever wrote this particular piece apparently hadn’t done their homework. Several Alexandrian texts read “church of God” in this passage. Several Byzantine texts read “church of the Lord.” And there are lots of variants from there. In English, it’s the King James that reads “church of the Lord” and the modern texts which read “church of God.” It just so happened that that trend was reversed in Spanish.

What I find sad is that people can be so intent on arguing about something that they will argue even when they have little understanding of the subject they are arguing about! I especially tire of this when it comes to versions, as accusations are thrown around about “they made this change to promote ___.”

I have long said that I in my years of study I have only found one version that made intentional changes while translating: the New World Translations produced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Admittedly, there may be some that I haven’t seen. And I know that the Conservative Bible Project is doing their level best to produce a “translation” that will match their views. But in general, translators are trying to do just that: translate.

I’m going to try and do better about giving people the benefit of the doubt, especially those that disagree with me. I hope you’ll do the same.