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"The Message" and "Jehovah's Witnesses"

reviewed by John R. Kohlenberger III and David A. Reed

from the Book Reviews column of the Christian Research Journal, Spring/Summer 1994, page 43. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

A Summary Critique: The Message
Eugene Peterson
(NavPress, 1993)

As of 1992 the Bible had been translated into 329 languages, the New Testament into an additional 758 tongues. In English alone, there are more than 60 Bible versions and New Testament translations in print -- not counting thousands of different formats and bindings. Yet new versions continue to appear every year, the latest being Eugene Peterson's The Message (NavPress), which already has sold more than 110,000 copies. Its wide distribution and extravagant endorsements identify it as a version to reckon with, and to examine carefully.


Before commenting on the specifics of The Message, it would be helpful to survey various approaches to the style and substance of Bible translation as seen in the best-selling modern versions. More detailed discussion and critiques of English versions are available in So Many Versions? by Sakae Kubo and Walter F. Specht (Zondervan, 1983) and The English Bible from KJV to NIV by Jack P. Lewis (Baker, 1991).

As to style, some feel a Bible should be translated word for word, as is attempted in the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Others believe no accuracy is lost in a less rigid, more idiomatic translation such as the New International Version (NIV). (The King James Version [KJV] and New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] stand somewhere between the NASB and NIV.) Still others think translation remains faithful in a free and idiomatic rendering such as Today's English Version (TEV) or J. B. Phillips's New Testament in Modern English. The Message definitely falls in this latter category, but is freer and more expansive than either Phillips or the TEV.

Word-for-word translation is a practical impossibility. This is because no two languages use words and grammar in exactly the same way. Even the simple sentence "God is love" from 1 John 4:16, identical in most English versions, is not a word-for-word rendering: the Greek reads, "The God love is." That may be good Greek, but it is not good English. Recognizing this reality, the NRSV translators followed the maxim, "As literal as possible, as free as necessary." The working maxim of The Message appears to be "As free as possible; literal only when necessary."

As to substance, most of the best-selling Bibles use a traditional, ecclesiastical vocabulary in addition to generic English terms. Some simple-English versions, such as the International Children's Bible (ICB), use traditional terms like "blasphemy," "gospel," and "tabernacle," but have a dictionary to introduce readers to these technical and theological terms. Other basic translations attempt to avoid words that are not in everyday English, using footnotes to explain concepts like "righteousness" and "repentance," as is the case with the Contemporary English Version (CEV). Still other versions build their explanations and interpretations into the text itself, as do The Living Bible (LB) and The Message. This latter approach is popularly called "paraphrase," although the expansive comments of these versions often go way beyond the requirements of simple restatement.

Of course, all translation involves interpretation. Even when translating word for word, one must decide what a word means in a specific context. The English word "trunk," for example, can be the front end of an elephant, the back end of a car, the bottom of a tree, the middle of a person, or the entirety of a suitcase. Recognizing that words can have a wide range of meaning, translators must take great care not to overload a word or passage, especially with theological interpretation. The most criticized word choice in the NIV is the rendering of the Greek word sarx as "sinful nature" (25 times, including Romans 7:5, 18, 25), a rendering incompatible with several denominational perspectives. Many wish the NIV had stuck with the traditional and theologically neutral "flesh," and offered "sinful nature" in its footnotes instead of the other way around.

Interpretation often adds to the text. The KJV renders John 1:17, "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." By inserting the word "but," which is not in the Greek, the translators force the reader to see a contrast between law and grace and between Moses and Jesus, whereas John may have intended to show a continuity. Nowhere is this assumed contrast more evident than in the expansive paraphrase of the LB, "For Moses gave us only the Law with its rigid demands and merciless justice, while Jesus Christ brought us loving forgiveness as well." The italicized words come not from the Greek but from the theology of the paraphraser, Kenneth N. Taylor.

The major problem with this kind of paraphrase, which also characterizes The Message, is that the reader does not know where the text ends and the commentary begins. The LB does note in its preface, "There are dangers in paraphrases...a possibility that the translator, however honest, may be giving the English reader something that the original writer did not mean to say." No such cautions are offered in the introduction to or advertisements for The Message. Nor in the work itself is it ever called a paraphrase. Rather, the translator's ability in Greek is lauded as "a second mother tongue" and his translation applauded as "accurate" and "authentic" to the degree that one widely used commendation states, "If the New Testament were written today, this is what it would sound like."


Translation Style. As already noted, The Message is a very free rendering of the Greek. The text has chapter numbers, but no verses. This is not explained, but verse numbers are probably omitted to make the text look more like normal English literature, and because the translation often combines and transposes verses in a way that would be difficult or impossible to represent (as in 1 Cor. 11:1-16, pp. 354-55).

Sometimes the translation is straightforward in its simplicity. Nothing is added to the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. The institution of the Lord's Supper in Luke 22:17-20 is clear and concise. Narrative texts in the Gospels and Acts tend to be conservatively rendered.

Some paraphrastic renderings help to clarify words and grammar in a way many would agree reflects well the intention of the original. Take, for example, the classic John 3:16 (KJV): "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." The Message reads (p. 190): "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life." While some scholars would prefer "This is the way God loved the world," or might ask for a stronger result statement than "whole and lasting life," this is a good paraphrase in contemporary English.

Peterson himself characterizes the language of The Message as "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" (p. 7). But it is often self-consciously literary and idiosyncratic. For example, after explaining the significance of the verb "fulfill" in the introduction to Matthew's gospel (p. 8), Peterson chooses not to use "fulfill" to translate the word's first occurrence in Matthew 1:22 (p. 10). Instead, he renders the text, "This would bring the prophet's embryonic sermon to full term." Such is hardly "the language of the street." Many traditional and theological words, such as "repent(ance)" and "righteous(ness)," are avoided, while similar terms like "baptize," "blasphemy," and "covenant" are retained. In the place of some traditional terms are the author's own coined vocabulary, often hyphenated composite terms such as "God-Expression," "God-news," "God-pointing," "good-hearts," "Life-Light," and "Priest-Friend." I am not certain that such terms are any more contemporary or require less explanation than the traditional vocabulary they replace.

Expansive Paraphrase. The Message regularly adds significantly to the text. Joseph is characterized as a "righteous" or "just" man in most English versions of Matthew 1:19. The Message has him "chagrined but noble" (p. 10), half of which is presumed by the translator rather than stated in the text. In Luke 3:7 (p. 122), the crowds are said to be coming for baptism "because it was the popular thing to do" (compare Matt. 3:7, p. 13). "You are the salt of the earth" (Matt. 5:13, NRSV) becomes "Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth" (p. 16). Paul's simple question in Acts 19:2 (NIV), "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" is expanded to "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?" (p. 280). Again, readers have no clue when the text ends and the commentary begins.

Anachronisms and Transcultural Renderings. The Message sometimes retains terminology that reflects ancient biblical culture, while at other times it uses terms that reflect modern culture. The Prodigal Son wears "sandals" (Luke 15:22, p. 159), but Peter wears "shoes" (Acts 12:8, p. 263). Jesus reads the "scroll" of Isaiah (Luke 4:17, p. 125), but Paul reads "books" (2 Tim. 4:13, p. 450). Upon seeing "loan sharks" and people selling cattle in the temple, Jesus exclaims, "Stop turning my Father's house into a shopping mall!" (John 2:16, p. 188). The parable of the mustard seed becomes the parable of the "pine nut" (Luke 13:19, p. 154), but faith needs to be the size of a "poppy seed" (Luke 17:6, p. 162). A servant must wait to eat until his master finishes his "coffee" (Luke 17:8, p. 162). In Luke 20:46 (p. 171), Jesus warns against "religion scholars" who wear "academic gowns" and "sit at the head table at every church function" -- renderings that cross both cultural and religious lines.

Interpretive Patterns. It is the translator's duty to resist the temptation to overload the text with theological interpretation or to make vague what is concrete in the text. The Original New Testament, translated by Jewish scholar Hugh Schonfield, has extreme examples of such tendencies. He obscures the concept of the Virgin Birth by referring to Mary as a "maiden" in Luke 1:27 and as "unwed" in 1:34, and he totally omits it from Matthew by failing to translate 1:22-23!

Thankfully, The Message is not so extreme. Peterson enjoys an impeccable reputation as an orthodox evangelical. He believes he has not imposed himself upon the text. In an interview with Publisher's Weekly (February 14, 1994, pp. 49-50), Peterson says "the work wasn't really mine...I felt as if I was a servant to the text for two years, and I was compelled to obey." It should be noted, however, that not all of his paraphrase follows the mainstream of biblical interpretation.

Some texts exclude or demand specific theological orientation. "Grow up" for the traditional "Be perfect" in Matthew 5:48 (p. 19) excludes the holiness/perfectionist perspective. Acts 22:16 is translated in such a way as would please baptismal regenerationists (p. 289), but not so in 1 Peter 3:21 (pp. 491-92). The subhead "Prayer Language" for 1 Corinthians 14 and the consistent reference to "praying in a private 'prayer language'" throughout the chapter reflects modern charismatic theology and practice. The office(s) of bishop/elder/overseer are usually generalized to "leader," as in 1 Timothy 3:1-2, 5:17, 19 (pp. 441, 443), and Titus 1:5-6 (p. 451); deacon is often rendered "servant" as in 1 Timothy 3:8 (p. 441). These renderings would not fit all perspectives on church government. The Arminian understanding of loss of salvation could not easily be seen in James 5:19-20 (p. 485) or 1 John 5:16 (p. 508).

The Greek word kurios is usually rendered "Lord" in English versions; it reflects both the proper name of God Yahweh (LORD) and the positional title Adonay (Lord) from the Old Testament. Some biblical scholars avoid "Lord" as a male-oriented, sexist term. The Message rarely uses "Lord," preferring to call Jesus "the Master" (John 20:20) and to translate OT references to Yahweh as "God" (Matt. 3:3, p. 13; but note Matt. 4:7, 10, p. 14). This limits the interpretation of passages that might refer to Jesus as both Yahweh and Adonay -- as God and as Sovereign -- such as Romans 10:9-13 (p. 323, compare Joel 2:32) and Philippians 2:11 (p. 414, compare Isaiah 45:18-25).

The Message also fails to consistently handle role relations between men and women. Some passages that address husband-wife role relations use the word "submit," such as Ephesians 5:22-24 (p. 409) and Colossians 3:18 (p. 426) (although they seem to qualify submission to certain situations). Other texts have been rendered in such a way that the traditional, hierarchical interpretation is no longer possible, especially 1 Peter 3:1-7 (p. 490), where women are simply admonished to "be good wives." The first paragraph on page 355 (1 Corinthians 11) begins, "Don't, by the way, read too much into the differences here between men and women," a statement which has no clear textual base. These may be defensible interpretations, but they disallow other understandings.

Texts traditionally understood as condemning homosexual conduct -- 1 Corinthians 6:9 (p. 345) and 1 Timothy 1:10 (p. 439) -- are generalized to "sex abuse" (see CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL, Winter 1993, pp. 8-15). Romans 1:27, rendered "Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men -- all lust, no love" (p. 305), leaves room for the allowance of loving homosexual relationships.


So how are we to view The Message? It is an expansive paraphrase that is not so labeled, as is The Living Bible. Beset with inconsistencies, its idiom is not always "street language"; its terminology is often idiosyncratic to its author. Compared by noted literary figures to the groundbreaking translation of J. B. Phillips, I believe The Message often lacks Phillips's creativity and conciseness.

In the introduction, Eugene Peterson compares his pastoral ministry to his work as a translator: "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" (p. 7). Much of The Message reads like a sermon: text plus interpretation and application. Unlike a sermon, however, the reader does not know where the text ends and the sermon begins.

Because of its interpretive and idiosyncratic nature, The Message should not be used for study. If read for enlightenment or entertainment, the reader should follow the advice of Saint Augustine, as quoted in the original preface to the KJV, "Variety of translations is profitable for finding out the sense of the Scriptures." Acts 17:11 commends the Bereans for evaluating Paul's teaching with the Old Testament Scriptures. In the same spirit, The Message needs to be evaluated against more consistent and traditional translations, especially when its renderings evoke a response such as, "I didn't know the Bible said that!" or, "Now I understand what it means."

In sum: while the phrase "the Message" is Eugene Peterson's translation of "the Gospel," not everything in The Message should be treated as gospel.

About the Author

John R. Kohlenberger III is the author or co-editor of 25 biblical reference books, including Words about the Word: A Guide to Choosing and Using Your Bible (Zondervan), All about Bibles (Oxford University Press), The NIV Exhaustive Concordance and The Greek New Testament: UBS4 With NRSV & NIV (Zondervan).

Jehovah's Witnesses -- Proclaimers of God's Kingdom
(Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1993)

This is the most significant book Jehovah's Witnesses have published in nearly half a century. In 1950 their New World Translation revised the New Testament to support the sect's theology; now Jehovah's Witnesses -- Proclaimers of God's Kingdom reinterprets Watchtower history to thwart criticism.

Christians versed in evangelizing JWs know that the most effective approaches begin not with biblical discussion but with exposure to the sect's disturbing history. Documentation of failed prophecies, doctrinal flip-flops, and bizarre teachings weakens confidence in the Watchtower organization and forces Witnesses to reexamine their faith. The new Proclaimers book, as JWs refer to it, is designed to protect them from such assaults.

Most JWs reading Proclaimers will be coming face-to-face for the first time with information about failed prophecies of the world's end in 1914, 1925, and 1975 (pp. 62, 78, 104, 632-33), founder Charles Taze Russell's failed marriage (645), second president Joseph F. Rutherford's estranged wife Mary and their son Malcolm (89), the role Egyptian pyramids once played in Watchtower teachings (201), and numerous doctrinal reversals and other embarrassing episodes. But why would the Watchtower Society want to expose Witnesses to the very material opposers confront them with? Evidently, for the same reason doctors expose people to flu vaccine -- immunization.

Vaccine introduces a weakened virus and allows the immune system to develop antibodies under nonthreatening circumstances; similarly, Proclaimers introduces damaging information in muted form. It sugarcoats some embarrassing episodes with euphemistic language. For example, rather than admit that Russell promulgated false prophecies, the book minimizes his role and shifts blame to the membership by saying "the Bible Students" innocently "thought," "expected," and "hoped" certain things would happen in 1914 (134-36).

Moreover, by arranging the sect's history topically rather than chronologically the book chops up unpleasant stories into bite-size pieces easier to swallow. Consider the embarrassing doctrinal flip-flop on the identity of the "higher powers" of Romans 13:1. The Watchtower Society taught for decades that these were the secular governments; then during the 1930s-1950s it identified them as Jehovah God and Jesus Christ; finally in 1962 it decided once again that they were secular governments. The new history hides the back-and-forth aspect by omitting the first part of the story and presenting the change in 1962 as "progressive understanding" -- even though the "progress" actually took them backwards to a view held formerly (147).

The book's topical format also allows it to pull an episode out of the context of surrounding events and insert it into another context according to topic. In the process it can alter facts in a manner that would have been impossible had the story been kept within its chronological framework. For example, consideration of Russell's religious affiliation during the 1870s is broken up into discussions on pages 43-48, 120-22, 132-35, 204, and 236-37. So, when the book says on page 204 that "the operation of the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses has undergone significant changes since Charles Taze Russell and his associates first began to study the Bible together in 1870," readers may have forgotten what earlier chapters revealed: Russell remained part of an Adventist organization until 1879; no JW organization existed prior to that date.

Elsewhere, the casual reader is given the impression that Russell came up with the idea of Christ's invisible "presence" from an interlinear rendering of the Greek word parousia and then later encountered N. H. Barbour's group, which believed similarly. In actuality, it was the other way around. According to the 1959 official history book, Jehovah's Witnesses in the Divine Purpose (18), it was "one of Barbour's group" who came up with that interpretation and then Russell learned it from Barbour. (Proclaimers does not actually lie about this; it simply begins page 133 with events of "1877" and then goes on to events of "1876" -- technically accurate, but worded so most readers will be misled.)

Besides rewriting history and doing cosmetic restoration on skeletons in the Watchtower closet, Proclaimers actually does reveal more about the organization than any prior Watchtower publication. Notably, it departs from recent custom to provide extensive photographic coverage of past and present leadership -- including individual color portraits of Governing Body members (116).

It also devotes 50 of its 750 pages (352-401) to photos of factory and office facilities around the world. With the Brooklyn properties alone (pictured on four pages) valued at $186 million (see "Looking Beyond Brooklyn Heights Toward Heaven," New York Times, 29 Nov. 1992, p. 46), the other major holdings shown no doubt add up to billions of dollars.

Although described in its foreword as "objective" and "candid," Proclaimers could more appropriately be termed clever and convincing. It was obviously forged as a powerful defensive weapon. And it will certainly strengthen the Watchtower fortress. But it can also be turned against its owner.

First, it can be used to show a JW that certain things actually did happen. For example, in the past, Witnesses often dismissed information about Rutherford's San Diego mansion "Beth-Sarim" and the sect's preoccupation with pyramids as stories fabricated by apostates. Now abbreviated accounts of such matters in Proclaimers (76, 89, 201) can serve as common ground -- a jumping-off point to introduce what radio commentator Paul Harvey would call "the rest of the story."

Second, after a JW has seen the necessary documentation, attention can be focused once again on Proclaimers -- this time to notice how its carefully crafted accounts conceal important facts. The JW will be forced to think about whether writers who manifest such disregard for truth can join in saying, "But [we] have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:2 KJV).

End of document, CRJ0176A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"The Message" and "Jehovah's Witnesses -- Proclaimers of God's Kingdom"
release A, February 28, 1995
R. Poll, CRI

A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.

Copyright 1995 by the Christian Research Institute.

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