Eugene Hoiland Peterson (1932 –2018) was a Presbyterian minister, as well as a scholar, theologian, author, and poet. He is probably best known for his translation of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Peterson’s goal was to make the word of God easily understood by everyone. Peterson explained that “When Paul of Tarsus wrote a letter, the people who received it understood it instantly. When the prophet Isaiah preached a sermon, I can't imagine that people went to the library to figure it out. That was the basic premise under which I worked. I began with the New Testament in the Greek — a rough and jagged language, not so grammatically clean. I just typed out a page the way I thought it would have sounded to the Galatians.”
In other words, Peterson has provided us with a paraphrase, a word sometimes used in a negative sense, especially if one is convinced that everything the authors wrote in the original languages should be translated literally, (except when it can’t be). One writer and scholar (Don Stewart) contrasts a paraphrase with a literal translation as follows: “Though many people think a paraphrase is the same thing as a translation, this is not the case. While a translation attempts to tell the reader what the original text says, a paraphrase attempts to tell the reader what the passage means. Therefore, a paraphrase is more of a commentary on the text of Scripture than it is an accurate rendering of what the text actually says.”
According to that definition, a paraphrase is not what the text says but rather what it means. However, as readers, do we want to know what the text means or simply what it says? Or can a text “say” something and not “mean” something?
The Greek text was written for the Greeks, not for English (or other language) speakers. Therefore, to completely understand what the Greek means upon reading it, the reader must be familiar with not only the language but also the cultural context within which it was written. Otherwise, it is like consulting a doctor and getting a diagnosis with medical terminology and not knowing what he means. Unless the doctor can tell us in plain English what those Latin words mean, we are lost. He can ‘say’ what the diagnosis is in medical terms, but he must explain its meaning in common, everyday English. Peterson’s translation has provided us with the everyday meaning of the text.
In 2014 I wrote a book (a message) for Joice to commemorate 56 years of our marriage and to celebrate her birthday. I used this quotation from Isaiah 42.16 in The Message to sum up my thoughts: “But I’ll take the hand of those who don’t know the way, who can’t see where they’re going. I’ll be a personal guide to them, directing them through unknown country. I’ll be right there to show them what roads to take, make sure they don’t fall into the ditch. These are the things I’ll be doing for them— sticking with them, not leaving them for a minute.” It was a beautiful reminder of how God had led us all through our lives. It was a ‘message’ from God to me and I passed it on to Joice. I wanted her to know what I meant!
The book for her was a private publication that numbered 206 pages. I gave it to her for on her 83rd birthday in 2014 and, 5 years later, she returned an edited version to me (on my birthday). She had read it carefully but was in no hurry to edit and approve it. She wrote: “Though lacking little personal details, our newsletters can tell our continuing story. Karl spent a lot of time compiling this book in secret. (How was I to know he was being sneaky, he spends time daily sitting at the computer in his ‘cave?) The presentation of the book was a complete and emotional surprise to me. Thank you, darling for all you hard, dedicated work! […] Our constant prayer throughout our lives has been that all of our family will also experience God’s profound love daily, and will return their love and commitment back to Him in appreciation. With joy as we continue our journey” (12 April 2019—two years later she was in heaven).
I love the Word of God in its various translations, and I know how difficult it is to translate the ancient texts accurately into any language. Thank God for those who have done it so faithfully over many years!
The passage I quoted from The Message was an ‘everyday’ reminder from God on how He was caring for us. I also wanted Joice to have it as a similar reminder in her book.