Viewpoint: New Bible Translation – The Message – Is a Notable Achievement

by M. Francis Mannion

Recently, I completed a 30-day Ignatian retreat in Los Angeles (I hope you are all impressed!). The central feature of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is intensive reading of key scripture passages on Jesus’ life a number of times a day. I must say that I often found the exercise hard going for the reason that I already knew the scripture passages almost by heart and could not find much new material for reflection.

I told my retreat director about this, and he gave me a copy of a Bible translation entitled The Message, a new version in modern language that seeks to render the scriptures in a fresh and striking manner. He said I should use it alongside the New American Bible I was using for the retreat.

At first I was skeptical of a Bible version with the title The Message, never having been a fan of modern popular versions such as the Good News Bible. But, I was won over. Reading the fresh and popular language of The Message, alongside the more formal style of the New American Bible, enabled me to find much food for thought.

For example, this is how Psalm 23 is translated:

God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.

You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from.

True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.

The Message is not well known among Catholics, as it was produced by Eugene H. Peterson, a respected Protestant scripture scholar and pastor, with the assistance of an impressive list of expert advisors. As expected, it lacks the additional books found in the Catholic Bible.

However, a Catholic version has now been published, called The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition. This edition takes Peterson’s translation and adds the Catholic books missing from the Protestant Bible (including Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach, and additions to Esther and Daniel).

The translator of the additional books is William Griffin, a Catholic friend of Peterson’s. Griffin said he used the New Latin Vulgate (the official Latin translation). As a Latinist, the Vulgate posed no difficulty for him; the challenge was in finding contemporary English words, expression, and idioms to complete the work.

The Message has not been without its critics. Some have judged it watered down, distorted, and misleading–sometimes using language guaranteed to shock. Blogger J.R. Miller is highly critical: “By updating the Scriptures in modern street language, Peterson removes the historical and religious content, resulting in a book far removed from the day and culture in which it was written.”

Peterson does not reject such criticism out of hand, but states that his purpose was to overcome his frustration as a pastor in trying to communicate the message of the Bible in language familiar to his readers, However, he told Robert McClory of the National Catholic Reporter:  “I do not recommend . . . [that]  passages from The Message be read at church services, and I feel uneasy when I hear it’s been used in that way.”

I recommend highly The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition, and find it very helpful for reading alongside The New American Bible, with which we are familiar from the liturgy. This edition is available from Acta Publications; the hardcover costs $28.87 and the paperback is $24.59.

 

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

13 comments

  1. I’m delighted to hear there’s FINALLY a Catholic version available, as I’ve been using the “Protestant” version for over a decade.

    I think Peterson does a masterful job with his translation, and he’s quite the wordsmith, so I’m curious to see how Griffin compares.

    You might want to update your pricing though. Unless you’re getting some kind of discount, the retail price for the hardcover is $37.95, and the paperback is $29.95.

  2. This reminds me of the early 70’s when I was introduced to the hip new Living Bible. Here’s some info:
    The Living Bible (TLB) is an English version of the Bible created by Kenneth N. Taylor. It was first published in 1971. Unlike most English Bibles, The Living Bible is a paraphrase. Taylor used the American Standard Version of 1901 as his base text.[1]

    Taylor explained the inspiration for preparing The Living Bible:
    “The children were one of the chief inspirations for producing the Living Bible. Our family devotions were tough going because of the difficulty we had understanding the King James Version, which we were then using, or the Revised Standard Version, which we used later. All too often I would ask questions to be sure the children understood, and they would shrug their shoulders—they didn’t know what the passage was talking about. So I would explain it. I would paraphrase it for them and give them the thought. It suddenly occurred to me one afternoon that I should write out the reading for that evening thought by thought, rather than doing it on the spot during our devotional time. So I did, and read the chapter to the family that evening with exciting results—they knew the answers to all the questions I asked!”

    Sounds familiar… I’m pleased they have come out with a Catholic version.

  3. Glad to hear there’s now a version for the deuterocanonical books. And its interesting to ponder The Message being used for the spiritual exercises. Considering that Ignatius urged his exercitants to visualize and place themselves in the Bible passages, that strikes me as a “version” at least as far afield scholastically as this modern language version. But deeply effective for allowing inspiration to penetrate.

    It also illustrates that one size does not fit all when it comes to the Bible. What is needed for scholarship is not the same as what is needed for liturgy (a more artful rendering into the vernacular, ICEL?!) and not the same as what is needed for either the basic kerygma or personal inspiration.

    Thumbs up to this.

  4. An observation: During the school year we have twice-monthly weekday Masses with grades K-4. For these liturgies, I usually select readings from the Children’s Lectionary, drawn from the Contemporary English Version of the bible. There’s a clear theme to each set of readings which lend themselves naturally to music and preaching on that theme. The children respond very well to these readings, but actually so do the adults in attendance. Hearing a familiar passage in clear, contemporary language can bring home its message to even experienced ears.

    Then for Masses with grades 5-8, or all-school Masses, we use the lectionary readings. Sometimes they convey a clear message, but often they don’t. On Wednesday the students might hear the middle of some continuous letter, having missed the first part of the story from Tuesday and the conclusion on Thursday. Then we complain that the kids don’t listen to the readings and don’t know scripture. Hmmm.

  5. Sounds like a great resource for paraphrasing the scriptures, whether for meditation, teaching or preaching. It does seem, though, that the author’s use of Death Valley in Psalm 23 would immediately take my mind to a desert in Eastern California rather than to the rich poetry of “the valley of the shadow of death.”

  6. Jan Larson : the author’s use of Death Valley in Psalm 23 would immediately take my mind to a desert in Eastern California rather than to the rich poetry of “the valley of the shadow of death.”

    But that is precisely the value of translations like this! Peterson wants people to hear about a scary place where they could actually die. Beautiful and well-cadenced words can distract the mind from the point of the message.

    1. @Thomas Strickland – comment #6:
      Granted. But people can hear about a scary place where they could actually die by simply alluding to a “waterless desert” or “an deadly wasteland.” I just thought Death Valley was a little too geo-graphic.

      1. @Jan Larson – comment #8:

        Agreed. Is there going to be an African version that says “Sahara” or a version for Oceania that lists some lifeless atoll?

        IMHO, if you are going to amplify the language or make it more modern, don’t make it ethno-centric, as that would seem to remove the essential universality of the content.

  7. I have been using “The Message” for years at workshops, working with college students, and at rehearsals. Years ago, we published the Message version of the Magnificat and Psalm 22 in Today’s LIturgy from OCP. My personal bible is a parallel bible with NIV and Message translations. They are difficult to find. The parallel bible allows for creative adaption and comparison. Perhaps the Catholic version will inspire a new parallel bible!

  8. This is the version that gave us “all creation is standing on tip toes just to see the sons of God come into their own,” isn’t it? That line has always stood out to me as wonderfully evocative of the feel of Rom 8.

  9. I am the publisher of the Catholic/Ecumenical Edition and the editor of the Deutercanonical books and additions, which were translated by William Griffin from the New Latin Vulgate. To me it is great to see people talking about the Bible in this way, whether they like The Message translation or not. We should all be passionate about the Scriptures!

    It has always seemed to me that people have to fall in love with the Scriptures BEFORE they would want to study them. That is what I think The Message is for.

    I also believe that if we are going to turn young people on with the beauty and power of the Bible, they have to hear it proclaimed by young adults like themselves. Remember, the Scriptures were originally meant to be spoken, not read. So my company has put together a script of ten scenes from The Message translation that can be performed by four young-adult actors and one musician. We call it “Hallelujah! The Message Proclaimed.” It is about 45 minutes long, and I’d like to see it performed in every Catholic college, high school, parish, and conference in the country.

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