Problem Passages in The Message

By Gary Manning Jr Nov. 29, 2016 3:05 p.m. Church Life, New Testament

My friend Ken Berding wrote a recent blog post explaining his concerns about using The Message. As he pointed out, people often treat it as a Bible translation, when it is actually a very loose paraphrase. One of Ken’s observations is that The Message routinely adds meaning to or subtracts meaning from the original Greek and Hebrew text.

While doing detailed work in the Greek New Testament and in several English translations, I have repeatedly found this to be true. For the past several months, I have been working with a team of scholars on a Bible app (Wave Parallel Bible) that links the words in the original Greek and Hebrew to their equivalent words and phrases in nine major Bible translations, including The Message.[1] I often am unable to link certain portions of The Message to anything in the Greek text, which means that meaning was added. At other times, ideas found in the Greek text cannot be linked to anything in The Message, which means that meaning has been lost. I have had no problems linking any other translation to the Greek text, including “dynamic" translations[2] such as the NIV and NLT.

Here are five places where The Message either adds to or loses significant meaning from the Greek text of the New Testament. I find other examples on a daily basis as I work on this project.


Ephesians 2:2

     Greek Text     

     “Literal” Translation         

     The Message     

ἐν αἷς ποτε περιεπατήσατε κατὰ τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου, κατὰ τὸν ἄρχοντα τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ ἀέρος, τοῦ πνεύματος τοῦ νῦν ἐνεργοῦντος ἐν τοῖς υἱοῖς τῆς ἀπειθείας·

in which you once walked, according to the way of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the children of disobedience.

It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience.

Meaning lost: Paul tells us that before we were saved by grace (Eph 2:8-9), our conduct followed the pattern of our world and of Satan, the evil power that rules the world. The Message loses the idea of an evil demonic power in these verses.


Matthew 3:7

     Greek Text     

     “Literal” Translation         

     The Message     

γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς;

You brood of vipers, who directed you to flee from the coming wrath?

Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference?

Meaning lost: In Matt 3:7, John the Baptist challenges the sincerity of the Pharisees in requesting baptism and warns that they face God’s wrath. The Message communicates their lack of sincerity, but it loses the message of God’s coming wrath.  


Matthew 5:11-12

     Greek Text     

     “Literal” Translation         

     The Message     

μακάριοί ἐστε ὅταν ὀνειδίσωσιν ὑμᾶς καὶ διώξωσιν καὶ εἴπωσιν πᾶν πονηρὸν καθʼ ὑμῶν ψευδόμενοι ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ. χαίρετε καὶ ἀγαλλιᾶσθε, ὅτι ὁ μισθὸς ὑμῶν πολὺς ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·

 

You are blessed when they revile you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you for my sake. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds.

Meaning lost and added: Jesus encourages persecuted disciples that they will be rewarded in heaven. The Message moves that entirely to the present: “heaven applauds.” The idea of future reward is lost. At the same time, The Message adds a phrase attempting to explain why people persecute ("What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort"); that idea is not found at all in the Greek text.


Matthew 6:20

     Greek Text     

     “Literal” Translation         

     The Message     

Ὁ λύχνος τοῦ σώματός ἐστιν ὁ ὀφθαλμός. ἐὰν οὖν ᾖ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ἁπλοῦς, ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου φωτεινὸν ἔσται·

The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is whole/ generous, your whole body is full of light

Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light.

Meaning added: Jesus' saying about the whole/ generous eye probably refers to God’s blessing on those who are generous (see my explanation here; another interpretation is that it refers to sincerity). The Message adds the idea of “wonder and belief,” which is not a possible interpretation of the phrase.

To be fair, in the next verse (Matt 6:21), The Message does a great job of getting across the idea that bad eye means stinginess: “If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar.


Matthew 6:27-28

     Greek Text     

     “Literal” Translation         

     The Message     

τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν μεριμνῶν δύναται προσθεῖναι ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλικίαν αὐτοῦ πῆχυν ἕνα;  καὶ περὶ ἐνδύματος τί μεριμνᾶτε; καταμάθετε τὰ κρίνα τοῦ ἀγροῦ πῶς αὐξάνουσιν· οὐ κοπιῶσιν οὐδὲ νήθουσιν·

And which of you by worrying is able to add one cubit to his stature/life? And why do you worry about clothing? Learn from the lilies of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin.

Has anyone by fussing in front of a mirror ever gotten taller…? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it?

Meaning added and lost: In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages his disciples not to worry about how they will pay for basic necessities such as food and clothing (6:25, 31), because they can trust God to provide. The Message removes that idea of worrying about paying for clothing and replaces it with a warning against vanity and attention to fancy clothing.

I want to stress that the author of The Message, Eugene Peterson, is highly respected. I hear only good things about him from those who know him. He produced The Message out of a desire to help the Bible come alive for readers. So this post is not meant to attack him, but rather to express my concern that The Message should not be used as if it were a translation. Most Christians will have some difficulty recognizing when meaning is being added or subtracted, and so I hesitate to recommend it. The Message may be helpful as a supplement for careful readers of Scripture who compare it to standard translations and are aware of how often it adds meaning and loses meaning. 

[1] Wave Bible App is available for free now, but the linking component I describe here will be available in a later edition.

[2] The terms “dynamic translation” and “literal translation” are problematic, but commonly used, which is why I have placed them in quotation marks.

Comments

  • Daniel E. Kim Nov. 29, 2016 at 10:15 PM

    Thanks so much for this, Gary. Hard evidence that can be directly seen is hard to argue with and speaks for itself. Thanks for going through work to post this!

  • John C. Burt Nov. 30, 2016 at 9:24 AM

    I have never been led to purchase a copy of The Message. After reading your work I don't think that I ever will. I don't think we should take editorial liberties with God's Word. Thank you for your efforts.

  • Ken Berding Nov. 30, 2016 at 12:45 PM

    Thanks, Gary. This is very helpful.

  • Agam Iheanyi-Igwe Dec. 20, 2016 at 2:43 PM

    Excellent post Gary!

    I have seen several complaints about the Message but I have not seen any that give very clear instances of the way meaning is lost or added in the paraphrase. I also enjoyed the irenic tone of the post especially as seen in the last paragraph.

    Blessings

  • John Harrington Jan. 18, 2017 at 11:23 AM

    I like your approach....the way you address the issue.

  • Keoki Liftee-Kau Feb. 10, 2017 at 11:56 AM

    Dr. Manning, mahalo nui for this post!

    What a great complement to your friend, Ken Berding's post as well. I have long lamented the way the widespread use of this "very loose paraphrase" (if we can even use the term "paraphrase" according to Mr. Berding) has affected biblical study and devotions. There certainly seems to be a lack of proper perspective of The Message and how, if at all, it should be viewed/used.

    Agam Iheanyi-Igwe, thank you for teaching me the word "irenic"!


  • Karen Manning Jul. 13, 2017 at 10:55 AM

    Dear Gary, this will not be a theological discourse on your blog (something I'm incapable of doing anyway); but, I'd like to say I thank my God daily for you and your love for God's Word and the study of it. I can always trust that you will have a good answer for my many questions on the Word. God blessed me abundantly when He chose me to be your mother. How many moms have their own Bible scholar to get all their questions answered!! Blessings.

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