Recently, the subject of scripture translations came up, and someone I know mentioned a version for which I have very little respect: The Message by Eugene Peterson. Although in that same conversation an Orthodox friend defended the Reformers’ removing of books from the Bible when it didn’t agree with their novel opinions — an outrageously unorthodox opinion in itself — that has not consumed me in the intervening weeks. Rather, it is articulating what bothers me about Peterson’s version that has gnawed at me.
In the prefatory material of his Bible, Peterson explains that he does not wish to replace serious Bible study. He only wants to make the Bible readable. I sympathize, of course, with the desire to make the Bible readable. In fact, there is a great tradition of saints who desired the same — Jerome, Cyril, Methodius — plus a host of others who have not been glorified — Erasmus, Wycliffe, Tyndale, the translators of the Authorized Version (King James Version). Many of these suffered for their desire to make the Scriptures readable for their people. It is especially sad that their suffering was at the hands of other Christians and that it became — out of sinful pride in both the Romans and the Reformers — an occasion for further schism and fragmentation.
However, translators of the Scriptures have always tread a fine line between translating and paraphrasing. It is especially important to be mindful of this distinction when dealing with passages which have a direct theological bearing on the everyday life of the Christian reader.
Compare, for example, two passages with a direct bearing on the life of the Christian, John 6.51-58 and 2 Peter 1.4. I will quote first from a fairly literal translation, the NASB:
“I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
“For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.
“As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.
“This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” (Jn 6.51-58 NASB)
Compare that with this, the same passage from the The Message:
“I am the Bread—living Bread!-who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.”
At this, the Jews started fighting among themselves: “How can this man serve up his flesh for a meal?”
But Jesus didn’t give an inch. “Only insofar as you eat and drink flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, do you have life within you. The one who brings a hearty appetite to this eating and drinking has eternal life and will be fit and ready for the Final Day. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. By eating my flesh and drinking my blood you enter into me and I into you. In the same way that the fully alive Father sent me here and I live because of him, so the one who makes a meal of me lives because of me. This is the Bread from heaven. Your ancestors ate bread and later died. Whoever eats this Bread will live always.” (Jn 6.51-58 MSG)
You can see that the paraphrasing in this crucial passage skews it toward a Reformed understanding of its content. Look at the first verse. Instead of “This bread is my flesh,” (NIV, NLT) Peterson tells us that what Christ really said was, “This bread is my self.” While it is indeed true that we do partake of the entirety of Christ in the eucharist, softening the passage like this removes the stumbling block of offense for Protestants. Then, the offending phrase is fully weakened by making it a kind of English idiom, “…my flesh-and-blood self.” When the Jews argue among themselves and say, “How can this man serve up his flesh to eat?” it is we, the modern readers, who are confused: We have no idea why they should get mad. There’s nothing left to be angry about. And, by opening this way, the clear language of the rest of the passage has been reframed as a metaphor. When the disciples leave over this “hard saying” which is not so hard anymore, we almost expect to see Jesus say, “You weren’t listening. I wasn’t really talking about my flesh, I was talking about my self, this flesh-and-blood self. See? Are we cool now?”
Now, let’s look at another passage that has vast implications for the life of Joe Sixpack: 2 Peter 1.4. We start again by looking at the NASB:
For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. (2Pt 1.4 NASB)
And again, Mr Peterson:
We were also given absolutely terrific promises to pass on to you—your tickets to participation in the life of God after you turned your back on a world corrupted by lust. (2Pt 1.4 MSG)
It must be admitted at the outset that this is a difficult passage to translate. There is some dispute about how the clauses interact. However, no translation save Peterson’s paraphrase exchanges the technical term “nature” (physeos/φυσεως) for some other word that the translator fancies more. Perhaps because this word is stained with blood. The Church, through martyrs and saints, fought to defend the reality for which this word stands. Perhaps because it was so central to the universal Church gathered together in a little town called Chalcedon, where the doctrine of the Incarnation was saved from oblivion at the hands of heretics.
The Church has ever prized understanding in her members. But the Word of God is expressed in precise, theological words over which our spiritual fathers have fought and bled, receiving tortures, being mamed, and even tasting death. In making it easier to understand, do not under such a pretense thereby whitewash over the bloodstains on our doorposts. Wake up! The Word of God is not your private property! It belongs to the whole people of God, from every moment up until this very hour — and it includes our children and our children’s children, until the end of time. As a colaborer with God, you hold in your hands a sacred treasure; you must take care to guard it.