This is the fourth and final blog in this series on Bible translations, aimed at helping readers choose among various Bibles. Today we look at the popular paraphrase, The Message, and a new, very accessible translation, the Common English Bible.
Some popular versions of the Bible are not translations at all, but paraphrases. In a paraphrase, the words of Scripture are freely reframed in contemporary language, using the forms of speech that we use every day. As a result, paraphrases are easy to read, and so can be very good for personal reading and devotions.
When I was a young Christian, my Bible of choice was The Living Bible (1971), a modern English paraphrase of the ASV (see “Which Bible? Part 2”, June 4, 2013) done by Kenneth Taylor, originally for his own children. My copy of The Way looked exactly like the one pictured here! In this paraphrase, Psalm 23:6 read, “Your goodness and unfailing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with you forever in your home.” Still today, as I read these words, I can hear in the back of my head Ralph Carmichael’s musical setting of Taylor’s paraphrase of this Psalm, called “The New 23rd.”
Today, many Christians enjoy reading The Message, by Eugene Petersen. This paraphrase is, as one would expect from Petersen, vigorous, creative, and pastorally sensitive. These features are amply demonstrated by Psalm 23:6 as rendered in The Message:
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.
However, Petersen’s paraphrase is still a paraphrase, not a translation. That means that it is not intended for serious study, or as text for preaching.
Why am I so insistent on this? A couple of examples will, I hope, make my point. I once heard a sermon, based on The Message, from Matthew 9:35–10:4, but particularly 9:38–10:1:
“What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples. “How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!” The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered. Jesus called twelve of his followers and sent them into the ripe fields. He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.
Petersen’s paraphrase makes numerous assumptions: that the commissioning of the disciples in Matthew 10 follows, chronologically, immediately upon Jesus’ statement about the harvest in 9:37-38; that the commissioning of the Twelve is an answer to the prayer in 9:38; that the healing ministry to which the disciples are called in 10:1 can be equated, in contemporary psychological jargon, to caring for “bruised and hurt lives.” None of these assumptions is warranted by a simple translation of the text–which is not a problem, if we understand that The Message is not Scripture, but rather Petersen’s meditations upon Scripture.
But when we use The Message as text for preaching, it does become a problem. The particular sermon I am describing had as its central theme the line, “The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered.” It was an interesting, dynamic message about being willing to be used by God as the answer to our own prayers. But the central focus of that message was a line of Petersen’s paraphrase that does not appear in the Greek text of the Gospel, and so is not found in any actual translation of this text. In short, this was not a sermon on a text from Scripture at all: it was a sermon on a meditation from Petersen. That, I propose, is a major problem.
In my own preaching, I often use insights and stories from scholars and colleagues. I use scenes from films and books, jokes, stories, poems, songs –anything that may help a congregation apply the message of a text to their situation. But it would be a very different matter if I set out to preach from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or if I used a scene from “Man of Steel,” or a line from “The Simpsons,” as my text. The Message too may be used very effectively as an illustration, to jolt an audience into hearing a familiar text with fresh ears. But it cannot be used as text for preaching, because it is not Scripture!
The problem with using The Message for Bible study may be illustrated by the conclusion of Paul’s famous Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13:13. In the CEB, this reads, “Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.”
Petersen’s paraphrase is much longer:
But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
Much of this is simply not in the text: again, not a problem if we regard this as Petersen’s own meditation on Paul. But this time, there is a major grammatical distinction between The Message and any translation of Paul’s Greek. In the text of 1 Corinthians, faith (pistis), hope (elpis), and love (agape) are nouns. These are gifts of God–carrying on the theme from 1 Corinthians 12 of the gifts of God’s Spirit–that endure into eternity. But in Petersen’s paraphrase, these become verbs–things that we must do “to lead us toward that consummation.” That reading conflicts with Paul’s own understanding of the gospel as based on God’s free gift in Jesus Christ, not on our own efforts (for example, see Romans 3:21-26; 4:1-5).
For casual reading, for devotional reflection, or as a source of sermon illustrations, The Message is an excellent resource–that, indeed, is what it is meant for. But no paraphrase can bear the weight of study, or serve as text for preaching: to use this paraphrase, or any other, for those purposes is to misuse them.
If you are looking for a text that is both easy to read and a responsible translation from the original languages, I recommend the Common English Bible (CEB).
The Common English Bible (2011) is the work of the CEB Committee,
an alliance of five denominational
publishers, and features the work of 117 translators from 22 faith traditions and 5 countries. The translation was vetted by 77 field testing groups with 400 participants in 13 denominations. As you may have noticed, it is the version I have been using for references in my blog. I made this choice because the CEB is one of the most accessible English Bibles available, aimed at a seventh grade reading level. This simplified vocabulary does not in any way mean that the translation is “dumbed down,” however. The translators have been very creative in their use of the words at their disposal, leading to intriguing translation choices.
For example, the expression “Son of Man” (Hebrew ben ‘adam, Aramaic bar ‘enosh, Greek houios tou anthropou) is a very difficult phrase to translate well. On the one hand, the masculine implications of the literal translation “son” are misleading. In Hebrew and Aramaic, “son of X” is a way of indicating membership in a group (for example, bene Yisra’el, literally “sons of Israel,” typically means “Israelites”), making “human” or “mortal” the best translation of this phrase in most contexts (compare Ezekiel 2:1 in the NRSV and the NIV). But on the other hand, as any reader of the Gospels knows, Jesus commonly refers to himself as Son of Man, so that this becomes a title for the Christ–making “human” a misleading translation (as the NRSV recognizes: see Mark 14:62). The CEB gets around this by rendering “Son of Man,” in most places that it appears, as “Human One” (for example, see Ezekiel 2:1 and Mark 14:62).
In the CEB, Psalm 23:6 reads:
Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD’s house
as long as I live.
Here, a footnote on “live” reads (with my explanatory comments in brackets) “LXX [the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of Jewish Scripture; see “Which Bible?”, May 28, 2013)]; MT [that, remember, stands for “Masoretic Text,” the Hebrew scribal tradition that gives us our Hebrew Bible] I will return.” All in all, this is the best rendering of the Hebrew for this verse in any English translation that I know!
The problems with the CEB are in many ways connected to its successes. Aiming for accessibility rather than poetic grandeur, the CEB has a casual feel: for example, the translators have chosen to use contractions (compare Matthew 28:16-20 in the KJV, NRSV, and CEB). To some ears, this informal tone may mean that the CEB lacks the gravitas necessary for public reading.
For ease and accessibility, it is hard to beat the CEB–though for serious study, I still recommend the NRSV. For a beautiful and fresh translation of the Hebrew Bible, I urge you to try the JPSV. But most of all, I urge you to find a Bible, pick it up, and read it, in big hunks; let the wisdom of Scripture fill your life!
For the next two weeks, I will be in Scotland for the International Society of Biblical Literature‘s annual meeting. Please pray for Wendy and for me as we travel! The Bible Guy will resume blogging at this address in the middle of July. See you then!