How not to translate the New Testament: Concerning Resolution A061

In The Blue Book of The Episcopal Church’s 77th General Convention, Resolution A061 is proposed by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. This proposal is to add two new renderings of the Bible to the translations already authorized for use in public worship in the church.

I certainly do not have any objection against the Common English Bible. It is a translation of the Bible into clear, relatively simple English. I know or know of several of the translators. I hope that the part of Resolution A061 including the Common English Bible is approved.

I am opposed to the authorization of The Message, whose author is Eugene Peterson, as a translation authorized for use in public worship. There are several reasons for my opposition to the public use of The Message as a version of the Bible to be read from in public liturgies in The Episcopal Church.

First of all, and most importantly, The Message is not a translation of the Bible. It is a paraphrase. At times it is an extremely loose paraphrase at very best. It is my understanding that The Episcopal Church has never authorized a paraphrase to be used in public worship, not even the well-known and excellent paraphrase by J. B. Phillips known as The New Testament in Modern English.

Another reason not to approve The Message is that it is inaccurate. There are a number of passages in The Message where it appears that the Rev. Mr. Peterson either did not understand the Greek text of Paul or was unable or unwilling to convey it in the kind of flip language that frequently characterizes The Message.

One case in point is Mark 5:37-40a. My translation from the Greek text of Mark is as follows: “And he allowed no one else to accompany him except Peter and James and John, the brother of James. They went into the house of the synagogue ruler, and they witnessed a commotion with weeping and much loud mourning, and he said to them, ‘Why are you are you in an uproar and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping. And they ridiculed him.” The rendering of this passage in The Message is as follows: “He permitted no one to go in with him except Peter, James, and John. They entered the leader’s house and pushed their way through the gossips looking for a story and neighbors bringing in casseroles. Jesus was abrupt: ‘Why all this busybody grief and gossip? This child isn’t dead; she’s sleeping.’ Provoked to sarcasm, they told him he didn’t know what he was talking about.” Yes, it is possible to interpret θόρυβον to mean “uproar” in the sense of a gossipy gathering, but it can also be taken as simply a gathering which is loud because of professional mourners and flute-players. Certainly the detail of “gossips looking for a story and neighbors bringing in casseroles” goes very far beyond what I believe most biblical scholars would think of as a translation of the Greek text of the Gospel According to Mark.

Another passage of interest is 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2. A literal translation from the Greek would be as follows: “For the rest, therefore, brothers [and sisters], we ask you and we exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that just as you received from us how it is necessary to walk and to please God, just as you are indeed doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.” In The Message, Peterson has rendered this passage as follows: “One final word, friends. We ask you—urge is more like it—that you keep on doing what we told you to do to please God, not in a dogged religious plod, but in a living, spirited dance. You know the guidelines we laid out for you from the Master Jesus.” Peterson may have understood the metaphorical meaning of περιπατεῖν (“to walk” in the sense of “to live one’s life” or “behave oneself”), but if he did so, this strongly ethical meaning is completely obscured by his fanciful introduction of “spirited dance,” which is not traceable to anything in the Greek text either in 1 Thessalonians 4 or anywhere else in Paul’s authentic letters.

Romans 12:11-13 also is rendered by English phrases which seem to have no relationship with the Greek original that the Apostle wrote. The Greek text can be translated as follows: “. . . do not be lazy in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be vigilant in prayer. Share in the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality.” Peterson’s paraphrase is as follows: “Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.” The modern notion of “burning out” has nothing whatsoever to do with being shrinking, lazy, or timid (ὀκνηροί) in zeal. Maybe “don’t burn out” is good advice for people in the twenty-first century, but it is not advice that Paul gave any congregation in any letter that we have from him.

It is one thing to translate an ancient text, and it is quite another to rewrite the text.

Finally, since there are many good and several excellent translations of the Bible into English available to members of The Episcopal Church, I fervently hope that Committee 13 of the 77th General Convention will not approve the paraphrase known as The Message as a translation of Holy Scripture to be used in the public worship of the church. We have always done better than this for Bible translations, and there is every indication that we will continue to do so in the future.

[Quotations from The Message as indicated above are taken from The Message, copyright (c) 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.]

4 thoughts on “How not to translate the New Testament: Concerning Resolution A061

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  1. I couldn’t agree more. I have to admit, I’m already somewhat put out by the arbitrary inaccuracies and political correctnesses of the NRSV; The Message is entirely beyond the pale. This is not to say that it might not be worth reading just as a way of rattling some cages and putting things into contemporary contexts for those who find that kind of “you-are-there” envisioning useful. I sometimes find myself doing that kind of thing in sermons. But using it in worship gives it an unwarranted sanction: mistaking it for — or passing it off as — the original text causes us to lose focus on the objective core of the scriptures, in exchange for a fleeting advantage that will itself become dated in relatively short order. Just one old classicist’s perspective…

      1. Not being primarily (at least directly) a Biblical scholar, my perceptions there would necessarily be very general. I can say that I include the Gospel of Mark entire early in the spring in my Western Literature to Dante course (through Scholars Online — primarily aimed at motivated high school students []). Not only is it (I find) a powerful shot in the arm for my own faith, but it is also a case study on how and why the gospels can (and should) be persuasive.

        Of course it is the most compressed of the gospels, and that has its own advantages just in terms of the concentration of the message; but it also expresses in its halting Greek and awkward narrative the driving urgency that motivated the authors of these remarkable documents. If we had only the Gospel of John surviving, for example, one could believe that the Good News was a mere fiction or the product of a conspiracy, written by someone who was very clever. The Gospel of Mark, however, is, in its own way, powerfully clear-sighted and convincing, the way sometimes the less articulate but completely convicted witness can outweigh the elaborations of the experts. One ought never lose sight of the fact that the Gospels are all, from first to last, attestations or (effectively) depositions. They are written, in John’s terms, “in order that you might believe.”

        In the course I mentioned above, I tend to set it against the backdrop outlined by Erich Auerbach in the first chapter of Mimesis, where he compares a piece of the Odyssey with the story of Abraham in Genesis. He pronounces the latter “tyrannical”, which sometimes puts my students off, but I think his essential point is correct: it exercises a kind of ineluctable claim over the reader. It is impossible to read that story (and especially would have been impossible as an early Jew to read it) without oneself taking a position on it. It does not, like the Odyssey, allow distance or neutrality. Much the same thing can be said for Mark as well. In his narrative voice, and the way he collars the reader with his short, punchy sentences, he doesn’t give us any position from which we can nod agreeably, listen to the narrative more or less as entertainment, and turn and walk away unchanged. It requires rejection or acceptance.

        That probably has almost nothing to do with traditional scholarship on Mark…but it’s my own two cents.

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