The Message


I noticed that Cynthia (Reverend Mom) quoted from the paraphrased Bible translation The Message in her latest blog posting. The UCC pastor of a church I have sometimes attended also quotes occasionally from The Message. I have to admit that I like the blunt, idiomatic language that is often used in this version of the Bible, and just recently I bought a high quality used hardback copy of The Message for about $15 or so, which seemed like a bargain.

There is, however, a part of me that is wary of paraphrased Bibles. My concern goes back to my experience as a teenager with The Living Bible, which my family had a copy of in the house. It was a paraphrased Bible, fairly popular in the early 1970s, and, as I recall, completely biased in favor of conservative, evangelical theology. That's the danger of paraphrases. It is hard to avoid the biases of the translators when they give themselves free reign to write whatever sounds good. I haven't been able to discover, from my random internet research, how scholarly or accurate The Message is considered to be, or what biases might show up within it. Some cursory glances at a few passages shows what can be gained and what can be lost from paraphrases.

Sometimes, I think The Message tries too hard. For example, in the section of Luke that contains the parable of the Good Samaritan, the NRSV has the lawyer asking Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" The Message, on the other hand, strives to make the question more conversational, by phrasing it as, "And just how would you define 'neighbor'?" I like the more succinct way that NRSV phrases the question; it simply has a more direct, memorable punch to it. The story of the Good Samaritan isn't about who we "define" as our neighbor--but about who, quite simply, is our neighbor.

Another example of the problem of this sort paraphrasing can be found earlier in the book of Luke, where Jesus casts unclean spirits out of a madman. When Jesus asks the man his name, the NRSV reports his response as "Legion", which clearly suggests a dig at the Roman Empire, whose troops were organized into legions; the dig becomes bolder when the spirits invade a group of pigs--unclean animals--who then throw themselves down an embankment into a lake and drown. The Message, on the other hand, completely loses the political import of that dialogue, instead changing the response to "Mob". While "Legion" might not be a word used all that much in modern English, I think that most educated people are familiar with the concept of Roman legions.

Another example of a problematic paraphrase can be found in Mark 1. The NRSV has John the Baptist saying about Jesus, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." In The Message, on the other hand, John says, "The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I'm a mere stagehand, will change your life. I'm baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out." The language that The Message uses is great, and yet...I don't know--I just like the phrase about not being worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. The Message just threw that reference to the sandals out altogether. I'm not sure why--people do wear sandals in the twenty first century.

I don't want to be a stick in the mud about these matters. Indeed, there is something to be said for rephrasing biblical passages that we've all heard a million times. Hearing it said a different way helps to break through the staleness sometimes. It no longer seems trite, but instead it becomes fresh, and we have a chance to reconsider the meaning that is conveyed. I sometimes do like certain kinds of paraphrased translations of Bible passages. In fact, I have in my possession two different paraphrased translations of the Psalms--"Psalms for Praying" by Nan C. Merrill, and "Opening To You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms", both of which offer fresh, innovative takes on the Psalms. The Taizé services I attend regularly include readings from both of those Psalms translations.

The blunt and informal language of The Message sometimes has a nice way of getting to the point. In Luke 10, for example, The Message has Jesus saying "Don't loiter and make small talk with everyone you meet along the way." I can't imagine the NSRV ever using the phrase "make small talk". What the NRSV gains through accuracy, it sometimes loses through its formality.

I think that these kinds of passages in The Message can be fun to read. I would never use this sort of Bible as a primary reference, any more than I would use the Zen-inspired Psalms as a primary source, but it can serve as a kind of secondary creative riff on the Bible, and improvisation isn't always such a bad thing, as long as one recognizes such riffs for what they are.


Jan said...

I like the Message for reading, not for scholarly work. However, I know that Eugene Peterson translated from the Greek when he put the wording into modern idioms and translation. Sometimes it helps me in study to look at the Message passage and then on to the NRSV, which I prefer. I also like Nan Merrill's Psalms. I'd never heard of the other and will look that one up. Thanks.

Cynthia said...

The Message is also just fun to read out loud in Bible study as another voice added to the NRSV text.

I don't think I've ever found one translation that I am totally in love with. The NRSV took a lot of the poetry out of the text but the RSV was also antiquated in its own way.