And as anyone who has read this blog regularly knows, I’m a great cheerleader for translations that speak contemporary English. Peterson’s English is great. He has the writer’s ear. But still I have some big problems with the Message.
First, The Message is monotonic.
When you read Peterson there is a single colloquial — even slangy — voice. It’s very engaging, true. But read the Greek and the NT has many voices writing in multiple genres. Paul is erudite, like a rabbi. He’s writing letters that go from colloquial to literary. The writer of Hebrews is eloquent. He writes beautiful Greek in an essay on theology. John has flashes of poetry, but it’s in the spare voice of a second language speaker. Mark and Matthew also have the undertone that Greek is not their native language. Luke, an educated Greek, is self-consciously writing history.
Secondly, half the NT is written by second language speakers and second language speakers don’t do slang.
Both of these objections come down to the fact that The Message just doesn’t fall on the English ear the way the original fell on the Greek ear, and to me that’s as much of a problem as the sacred-sounding archaisms of the KJV.
Getting that right is actually point of accuracy.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean accuracy in terms of literalism. I mean that Peterson misses things that a Greek speaker would hear (or not hear) in the text — things that can readily be captured in modern English.
Let’s take an old chestnut of mistranslation, John 3:16-18.
Here’s The Message:
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. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
and here’s the Greek:
3:16 οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον 17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον ἀλλ’ ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι’ αὐτοῦ 18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ
But … the Greek doesn’t say
This is how much God loved the world: …
it says literally
This is the way God loved the world: …
or with the information implied in Greek but required for normal English
This is how God showed that he loved the world: …
Looking further down in the passage, the Greek doesn’t have anything that suggests the slanginess of “go to all the trouble” or “point an accusing finger”. In fact, just from the point of view of referential accuracy, both these phrases are too weak.
“Go to all the trouble” is rather namby pamby when you think that the reference is to sending one’s child to be executed in the most excruciating way.
“Point an accusing finger” is what disapproving grandmothers do. Somehow it doesn’t measure up to the judgment that awaits everyone outside of the saving work of Jesus.
I don’t have a problem at all with translations that are more explicit in English, than the Greek appears at first blush to be. In comparison to the contemporary standards of English communication, Greek is painful terse. This is especially true of John and Mark. There’s no spiritual or theological value to following the terseness. It can even be misleading.
It is well known in anthropological circles that the norms of explicitness can vary widely from culture to culture. Roman era Levantine cultures, like most of their descendant cultures, are HIGH CONTEXT. That means that they put the barest necessities into words and expect the hearer to fill in the blanks.
In contrast northern European cultures, especially Germanic cultures, are LOW CONTEXT. They want everything to be spelled out in language.
For example, I have a friend who owns an apartment in Berlin in a building that was built around the turn of the last century. The elevator is the meticulously maintained original. You know, with wooden doors that open in and out, locked with an old fashioned skeleton key and a cabin entirely of wood.
By the buttons that control the thing is a little sign that spells out what is legal and illegal in the elevator. It includes sentences about it being illegal for humans to ride in freight elevators. For months, I was completely puzzled by this sign. The elevator in which it is posted is not a freight elevator. But did it mean that if I used this elevator to move, say, furniture, that I wasn’t allowed to ride in it as well. When I finally asked about it, my friend laughed. It was obvious to her German way of thinking that if you are going to say anything about the laws governing this elevator, you have to give the whole elevator law. The fact that I had expections about being told only what is relevant, caused me to misinterpret what was said.
So it’s not a problem to me if there are more words in the English low context translation than in the Greek high context original. That doesn’t make it a paraphrase. But it is a problem if those extra words aren’t warranted by the reference and context of the passage.
And that’s where The Message fails.