A Commentary on Two Biblical Paraphrases: ‘The Living Bible’ & ‘The Message.’

Two popular Biblical Paraphrases; the ‘Living Bible’ & ‘The Message.’

Therefore, I, the Lord God of Israel, declare that although I promised that your branch of the tribe of Levi could always be my priests, it is ridiculous to think that what you are doing can continue. I will honor only those who honor me, and I will despise those who despise me.

1 Samuel 2:30 (TLB).

 

We live in exceptionally enlightening times. Advances in scientific knowledge are now toppling Darwinism as an ideology which underpins much of the world views of secular humanism and has become the dominant ‘religion’ of the west. Influential characters like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, Steven Pinker and Jerry Coyne have often quipped that Darwin enabled them to be “intellectually fulfilled atheists.” Now that Darwinism is emerging as an elaborate fraud, or an intolerant secular religion, wouldn’t it be more accurate to describe their plight as ‘scientifically deluded bufoonery?’

But it cuts deeper still, much deeper. Darwinism has informed large swathes of human knowledge beyond the basic biological sciences, including the ‘soft’ sciences of psychology and sociology, which in turn have inspired a whole raft of ‘mind-body-spirit’ books written by gurus who have taken advantage of a scientifically naieve readership. And, let us not forget that the same “monkey religion” has formed the basis of a panoply of New Age ideas under the broad umbrella of “Cosmic or Psychic Evolution.” What is more, pantheism, which is the foundation of many eastern religions, has also found Darwinism to be a natural bed fellow, not to mention a raft of UFO religions and all the rest of it. Even the scientific quest for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence – itself a religion in many ways – has failed miserably because of the acceptance of Darwinism among its brethern. Worse still, many Christian denominations have been bullied into accepting Darwinian evolution as a ‘scientific fact,’ and in so doing has forced some Christian and Jewish theologians to formulate the theological mumbo jumbo that is ‘theistic evolution’, where the Creator is reduced to being a bumbling idiot, blissfully unaware and even unable to know what sort of lifeforms would eventually emerge to seek Him out!

But that is not what a plain reading of Scripture teaches.

I walked away from Catholicism because of these(and other) sonorous developments, and I’m also aware that many so-called ‘reformed’ Protestant denominations are similarly deceived. Faced with these embarrassing developments, it’s no small wonder that traditional Christianity, that is, Biblically based Christianity,  remains a vibrant, intellectually robust and growing world movement that is now attracting more and more people back into its fold, because of its solid historicity, common-sense wisdom, as well as its strong correlation with objective truth.

For these reasons, there are compelling motivations to introduce the Biblical allegory to a new generation of people who have ultimately found their ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ spirituality to be, well, ‘ a few sandwiches short of a picnic,’ as the old adage goes, empty or meaningless, who have never heard the true Biblical message, nor properly considered its truth claims. This includes a huge body of so-called ‘nominal Christians’, who apparently believe that morals evolve too.

Yep, yes siree.

They’ll happily attend Church on Sunday, vote for abortion on Monday, gay marriage on Tuesday and proudly wave an LGBTQ rainbow flag in your face on Wednesday. Claiming to act in the name of ‘tolerance, peace and love,’ they’ve turned Jesus into ‘Swampy,’ a tree-hugging hippy, which is idolatory, blissfully unaware that what they are actually doing is inviting His wrath.

That’s what the Bible plainly teaches. Have you not read that God’s morals are unchanging? And just like living things, do you not understand that the statutes of the Living God (one of His Biblical titles) have not evolved either?

For I am the Lord—I do not change.

Malachi 3:6 (TLB)

In a reaction to these worrying global trends, there has been a proliferation of new Bible versions that have popped into existence over the last few decades, which have actively moved away from the terse and often archaic language of yesteryear, and which have gone to great lengths to keep its themes relevant to a 21st century audience, but without twisting its doctrines.

In this blog, I would like to briefly discuss two such versions; The Living Bible and The Message, both of which were written by Godly men, driven by an over-arching belief that the Judeo-Christian world view is not only true but can transform and enrich human life more than any other holy book or life philosophy.

The Living Bible(TLB) was first published in 1971 by Kenneth N. Taylor(1917-2005) by Tyndale House Publishers. It is a paraphrase of the Bible, based predominantly on the text of the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV). In his own words, Taylor explained his motivations for making this paraphrase:

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!

Taylor was not a Biblical scholar though, and so did not understand Hebrew or Greek. That being said, he did apparently submit earlier drafts of this work to a team of Biblical scholars prior to its publication. The TLB enjoyed enormous success, especially among the evangelical community, endorsed as it was by Dr. Billy Graha(who distributed copies  to folk during his famous Crusades) and other great Bible teachers of the late 20th century. Indeed, in 1972-3, the TLB was the best-selling title in America! Soon a Catholic version was produced, with an imprimatur by the Pontiff, John Paul II. By the mid-1990s, it is estimated that some 40 million copies had been sold, translated into 100 languages throughout the world. Clearly, there was an appetite for God’s word written simply and effectively for an adoring readership. It also formed the basis of a proper thought-for-thought translation of the Bible, called the New Living Translation(NLT), which I reviewed here. I am reliably informed that the NLT is one of the most popular Bible translations available in the English language today.

I suspect my own copy of the TLB is much like many other people; a lovely green soft-padded, hardback cover adorned with a Celtic Cross:

The iconic cover of the hard-backed TLB with its emblematic Celtic Cross.

The large print edition first appeared in 1979 and my own version was one from the 16th printing of 2014:

The easy-to-read large print double column layout of the TLB.

The language is simple and easy to understand, so even a child can assimilate it. Consider the well-loved Psalm 19:

Psalm 19

19 The heavens are telling the glory of God; they are a marvelous display of his craftsmanship. Day and night they keep on telling about God. 3-4 Without a sound or word, silent in the skies, their message reaches out to all the world. The sun lives in the heavens where God placed it and moves out across the skies as radiant as a bridegroom[a] going to his wedding,* or as joyous as an athlete looking forward to a race! The sun crosses the heavens from end to end, and nothing can hide from its heat.

7-8 God’s laws are perfect. They protect us, make us wise, and give us joy and light. God’s laws are pure, eternal, just.[b] 10 They are more desirable than gold. They are sweeter than honey dripping from a honeycomb. 11 For they warn us away from harm and give success to those who obey them.

12 But how can I ever know what sins are lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults. 13 And keep me from deliberate wrongs; help me to stop doing them. Only then can I be free of guilt and innocent of some great crime.

14 May my spoken words and unspoken thoughts be pleasing even to you, O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer.

 

As you can see, the TLB comes with some footnotes and cross-references, just like a regular reference Bible.

The problem with paraphrases is that they can import the author’s ideas concerning what a tract of Scripture means, which may add or detract from the intended meaning of the original Biblical authors. And that includes gravitating towards particular theological positions. For example, Taylor appears to entertain a pre-millenial point of view, that is, the prophesised millenium of blessedness as outlined in the Book of Revelation will occur immediately after Christ returns to Earth. This is quite clear from certain passages in the TLB. Consider this tract from Isaiah:

In the last days Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord will become the world’s greatest attraction,[a] and people from many lands will flow there to worship the Lord.

Isaiah 2:2 (TLB)

Comparing this to the NASB, a highly literal version of the Bible, we read:

Now it will come about that
In the last days
The mountain of the house of the Lord
Will be established [a]as the chief of the mountains,
And will be raised above the hills;
And all the nations will stream to it.

Isaiah 2:2 (NASB).

Notice how Taylor included “Jerusalem” and “Temple” although these do not appear in the original Hebrew.

This is all well and good if the reader is entertaining a pre-millenial position but it might prove problematic to those who do not hold, or develop, other views.

Another issue is that errors creep in which can be a source of confusion to the reader. Consider this passage from the TLB from Romans;

These things that were written in the Scriptures so long ago are to teach us patience and to encourage us so that we will look forward expectantly to the time when God will conquer sin and death.

Romans 15:4 (TLB)

The problem here is that Christ’s death and resurrection had already done away with the deadly effects of sin, pedicated upon faith.

In other places, Taylor uses wordings that would alarm quite a few readers. For example,

You illegitimate bastard,[a] you!” they shouted. “Are you trying to teach us?” And they threw him out.

John 9:34

Highly literal Bibles render the same text in a less extreme way:

They answered and said to him, “You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?” And they [a]cast him out.

John 9:34(NKJV)

Some will find these renderings offensive. They don’t bother me however, as in a real life situation, in the heat of the moment, as it were, an angry mob would certainly not phrase it in the way the NKJV does! I see this as a case of the author adding realism to the narrative rather than deliberately setting out to annoy the reader.

So, how does The Message fair? The brainchild of the American pastor, Eugene H. Peterson, his motivations for writing a version of the Bible in contemporary English language are best explained in the preface to the work:

While I was teaching a class on Galatians, I began to realize that the adults in my class weren’t feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek. Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat

As a qualified pastor, Peterson would have been reasonably familiar with the original Hebrew and Greek languages underpinning the Old and New testaments, respectively. Taking about a decade to compile, Peterson also subjected the work to the trained eyes of a small committee of Old and New Testament scholars, the names of whom are found in the introduction to the work.The Message first appeared in 2002 in its complete form.

Title page of ‘The Message.’

If the TLB is a loose paraphrase, then The Message is very loose in comparison. Consider this passage from Genesis 1:

1-2 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

3-5 God spoke: “Light!”
        And light appeared.
    God saw that light was good
        and separated light from dark.
    God named the light Day,
        he named the dark Night.
    It was evening, it was morning—
    Day One.

6-8 God spoke: “Sky! In the middle of the waters;
        separate water from water!”
    God made sky.
    He separated the water under sky
        from the water above sky.
    And there it was:
        he named sky the Heavens;
    It was evening, it was morning—
    Day Two.

9-10 God spoke: “Separate!
        Water-beneath-Heaven, gather into one place;
    Land, appear!”
        And there it was.
    God named the land Earth.
        He named the pooled water Ocean.
    God saw that it was good.

11-13 God spoke: “Earth, green up! Grow all varieties
        of seed-bearing plants,
    Every sort of fruit-bearing tree.”
        And there it was.
    Earth produced green seed-bearing plants,
        all varieties,
    And fruit-bearing trees of all sorts.
        God saw that it was good.
    It was evening, it was morning—
    Day Three.

14-15 God spoke: “Lights! Come out!
Shine in Heaven’s sky!
Separate Day from Night.
Mark seasons and days and years,
Lights in Heaven’s sky to give light to Earth.”
And there it was.

                                                                                                       Genesis 1:1-15

Or consider Psalm 23:4 in The Message;

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.

Psalm 23:4(MSG)

Death Valley? Where? In California(just west o’ Vegas ken)? Whacky!

 

In other places, Peterson’s Message appears to water down the convicting words of Scripture. Consider 1 Corinthians chapter 6 in a good literal translation of the Bible;

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor [a]effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (NASB)

 

Now take a look at what the Message has to say:

Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11(MSG)

It’s not quite as explicit is it? Indeed, it appears quite vague in comparison to the NASB wouldn’t you think? This is not meant to villify Peterson’s Message but only to highlight that with paraphrases you lose accuracy, specifics and the like.

So both the TLB and The Message, despite being quite brilliant in places, also create confusion here and there. That is why it is very important that you do not use such literature as your primary Bible. To establish doctrine, you need to stick close to the letter of the law, as it were. Both these paraphrases are good commentaries, nothing more, nothing less.

I do have a tendency to prefer the TLB overThe Message though. This is an entirely personal choice. My reasons for preferring the former over the latter stem from its slightly more conservative presentation of the Biblical narrative. There is a case for mantaining the historical setting of the Bible. It was written in a different age to our own. This doesn’t mean it no longer has value to us today; far from it, its moral values never change, but it is simply a fact that these stories were forged in antiquity and that is where they should stay- for the most part anyway. The Message, for me, is over done, reads too much like a novel, has no cross references or footnotes that one normally expects to see in a ‘real’ Bible. I don’t like Peterson’s use of the word ‘Master‘ to represent Jesus either. It makes Him out to be like some kind of Jedi Knight.  The Living Bible(TLB) is more conservative in many ways. For example, it uses the name Jehovah quite often to denote the Godhead. I like that name. And it’s entirely legitimate.

In the end though, the world is a better place because of these paraphrased overviews of the greatest story ever told. No doubt they will help bring people to Christ and that’s the most important thing of all.

Use them but don’t abuse them!

 

Neil English has written a 660 page historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, showing how extraordinary individuals often used ordinary equipment to glean new insights into the nature of the heavens.

 

De Fideli.

2 thoughts on “A Commentary on Two Biblical Paraphrases: ‘The Living Bible’ & ‘The Message.’

  1. A paraphrase is not a translation and could be very far from the translation based on the paraphrasers “feelings”. Very liable to take the reader astray.

  2. Good afternoon Michael,

    Yes, indeed. That’s the danger of a paraphrase. I would never recommend one as a ‘stand alone’ Bible, but they still have some utility, although I didn’t get on with one as well as the other, as I shall presently explain.

    Regards,

    Neil.

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