If you’re reading this post, I’m guessing you’ve heard of The Message Bible and you’re in one of three camps:
- You’ve heard it can be a good paraphrase and you’re curious what makes it different, fresh, etc. as well as what potential pitfalls it may have.
- You’ve heard it is NOT a good version of the Bible, that it’s a fake, fraud, heresy, whatever. BUT you’re curious and trying to figure out if it’s safe to read, if you’ll go to hell for touching it.
- You’re doing a research project for a Bible college course or seminary course, and you’re comparing it to other translations.
If you’re in camp #3, I can’t promise that this will qualify as solid academic research. However, I have graduated from Bible college, and I have been to seminary. I’ve also read through the Bible at least a handful of times, so you can definitely say I’m a student of the Word. If you want to cite this article, follow your professor’s requirements and know you can always argue with them later if they dock you for my article. 🙂
If you’re in camp #2, I can confirm you won’t go to hell for touching or reading The Message Bible. Going to heaven or hell has nothing to do with which translation of the Bible you read. It has everything to do with whether you believe what you’re reading, aka was Jesus who He said He was? Now, if we’re squared up on that, keep reading because I’m sure you’ll learn a thing or two.
If you’re in camp #1, read and enjoy.
Now, let’s get down to business.
I might break this into a couple articles eventually, or expand upon it later, but for now, I think there are three main points worth you knowing. I mention the first two points because it seems like the people who say, “The Message sucks,” or “The Message is heresy,” are actually the folks who have no clue how it came into being. And for those of you who have been told those things, I want you to know the facts.
First, Eugene Peterson, the “author” of The Message, was a linguist of the top order. He earned his Masters from John Hopkins University in ancient Semitic languages. If you aren’t sure what that means, he invested thousands of hours learning multiple languages that were around in Bible times. They were languages spoken in the Ancient Near East, in ancient Mesopotamia where the stories of the Old Testament originated. Peterson knew biblical Hebrew and Greek, and he was even a professor of those subjects for a time. These facts are important because he wasn’t just some random dude making up a new paraphrase of the Bible with his own thoughts. He actually knew the original Bible languages, he knew other languages, and he knew them so well that he was paid to teach them in universities. One could rightly say he understood the mechanics, the ins and outs, the nuances of these ancient languages, especially Hebrew and Greek.
Second, Eugene Peterson also served as a pastor for almost three decades. Why does this matter? Because he wasn’t just a scholar in an ivory tower; he also knew the day in, day out lives of common people. The Message was born out of that work. He was trying to connect the ancient text with the daily lives of the people in his congregation. He saw there was a disconnect between people’s understanding of the text and how it played out in their lives, so he translated individual books of the Bible into modern language for his church. People loved it, so he kept doing it. Ultimately, he saw that using the current vernacular helped people better understand and more appropriately apply the Scriptures. From that deep desire to see people live more closely to God and from the proof he saw in his congregation, not only did he translate the entire Bible, he also wrote 30+ books to help. Good on him for all of those efforts!
Now that you know the background and history, what are the pros and cons of using The Message? The Message can be very useful for a variety of reasons. If you’ve grown up reading traditional translations like King James or New American Standard, or even some of the newer ones like the New International Version or New Living Translation, The Message can come in like a breath of fresh air. It’s so unique because Peterson started at the ground level. In essence, he asked if the text was written and read in today’s language, with our current turns of phrase, idioms, and the like, what would it sound like? He wanted to get to the heart of what was being said and capture the tone and emotion and poetry of it. So, if you’ve been studying a passage to prepare for teaching, and you’ve been struggling to get the heart of it or struggling with understanding the fuller context, The Message can help you get to the heart of it. The Message can help you capture the tone, the emotion, the thrust of it.
As for cons, the only two I’ve found are if you’re looking for a specific verse, most versions I’ve seen only have clusters or groups of verses, so you need to read whole paragraphs to find the single verse you’re looking for. Honestly, that could be a pro though because it forces you to get back into the context. The only other downside is judgmental people look down on you if they see you reading it or hear you mention that you read it. Can’t help that!
It’s funny looking at The Message now, and you realize Eugene Peterson was made or prepared for this exact work. A trained linguist and professor of the Biblical languages turned pastor for 30 years, turned author and respected leader, he was very much like a modern-day Paul. But instead of writing most of the New Testament like Paul, he translated the New and Old Testaments.
I wish I could have met Eugene Peterson. He and I would have talked for days. But I can imagine he and Jesus are having a good time together right now, and I can imagine that God is proud of him for the work he did.
To degrade and denounce him or his work is a travesty and tragedy. He was a great man with a great heart, who fully invested his talents and skills to help millions of people re-access their Bibles and be reinvigorated in their faith.
May you dive in, enjoy, and be reinvigorated yourself!
5 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of The Message Bible”
I really enjoyed your article. It did help allay some of my worries. I guess what’s going through my mind is a piano analogy. Apparently if you don’t learn good habits from the start, they can be really hard to unlearn. In thinking about diving into this, I don’t want to get things into my mind that might get in my way later when I’m doing serious study. Not sure if this makes sense. I imagine you are very busy, but I would be interested if you had thoughts on this comment.
Hi Cindy, thank you for the kind words and for sharing your thoughts. I’m not sure if you’re a pastor / teacher, but based on how your thoughts and implicit question are arranged, I would guess you are. I’ll answer based on that vantage point.
As a pastor / teacher, I’m sure you and others in your position feel a strong responsibility for how you deliver the Scriptures to your people. In my opinion, The Message actually helps with this. It can help you get to the heart of the passage quicker. From there, if you want to do specific word studies on Greek and Hebrew, you can use another translation and concordance to dive into the nuances. You can also use another translation to see the passage from another angle. Turning the gem, as our Jewish friends would say. It’s very important to do this, and it helps us from getting stagnant. I’ve found The Message can shed new light on familiar passages, just by tweaking a turn of phrase.
At the end of the day, a pastor / teacher’s responsibility is to deliver the Word of God in a way that connects. We take ancient history lessons and apply them to modern-day situations so that people can live in a way that makes more heaven on earth and less hell on earth.
Great article. I’m a liberal Episcopalian who loves language. I was raised on the old RSV, and the inherited rhythms of the KJV are indelible parts of my consciousness, and those turns of phrase truly are timeless. But I also love Bob Dylan, Walt Whitman, and the wildness and excitement of contemporary poetry—and Eugene Peterson brings that to the text often. I see so many try to tear The Message down, but every time I try another translation for devotional reading, I end up returning to it.
Thanks for sharing this! It sounds like we’d be good friends 🙂
I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan and actually wrote about him 10 years ago. Here’s the link:
I take issue with you. Peterson has no true understanding of Hebrew and has no Ruach to guide him in his translation. I teach biblical Hebrew and have analyzed the message and it is in serious error with no basis in the biblical text. Period.