Why do I use The Message Bible? What about translations?

The Message is on one end of the continuum of different approaches to translation. It has advantages and some extreme disadvantages. One of the ongoing debates about translations revolves around the question of whether, and to what degree, the translation should reflect the syntax (i.e. the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences) of the original language. Translators generally agree that the translation should reflect faithfully the message of the original, but all are not agreed on whether the translation should adhere closely to the grammatical forms of the original language.

Not to muddy the water too much but there is also a huge problem with transliteration (as distinct from translation). Many of the word-for-word translations succumb to transliteration issues (my opinion). In its original Greek language, the New Testament refers to Jesus hundreds of times as Christos. Most English translations of Scripture render this “Christ,” which is not a translation but a transliteration. The unfortunate effect of this decision is that most readers mistake “Christ” as a kind of second name for Jesus. In fact, Christos is not a name at all; it is a title. It is a Greek translation of the Hebrew title Messiah. So when the New Testament writers call Jesus “(the) Christ,” they are making a bold claim—one of the central claims of the Christian faith—that Jesus is the Messiah. While there was no single expectation about the Messiah in Jesus’ day, many of His contemporaries would have recognized the Messiah as God’s agent who comes in the last days to redeem God’s people and repair our broken world.

Because we understand that no single English word or phrase captures the richness of the term Messiah or Christos, some versions make a strategic decision to translate Christos and not simply to transliterate it. The root idea of Christos is derived from a Greek verb meaning “to anoint (with oil).” This is why many have decided to translate Christos as “the Messiah”, “God’s Anointed,” the “Anointed,” or the “Anointed One”.

I started studying Greek a long time ago and at first it threw me for a loop. English syntax and Greek syntax are almost polar opposites. Greek tends to have very long sentences, whose various clauses are arranged in a logically hierarchical fashion. That is, there will be a number of dependent clauses connected to an independent clause. This type of sentence structure is perfectly normal in Greek. English, by contrast, is not so comfortable with long sentences, and does not provide any easy way of indicating which clauses are dependent upon others. If we attempt to reproduce, in English, sentences of the same length as the Greek original,we won’t be able to follow our translation. Ephesians 1:3-14, for instance, is one sentence in Greek, with well-defined subordinate clauses. If we attempt to reproduce a sentence of this length in English, the result will be so awkward that few, if any, English readers would be able to follow it. Consequently, translators must break the longer Greek sentences into shorter English sentences.

Translations can be located on a continuum, which would have, at one extreme, rigid adherence to the form of the original language (formal equivalence or word-for-word), and at the other extreme, complete disregard for the form of the original language (dynamic equivalence or thought-for-thought). An interlinear would come the closest to the first extreme, followed by the NASB. At the other extreme would be The Message, NEB and TEV. In between would be the RSV and NIV, with the RSV leaning more toward a formal equivalence, and the NIV leaning more toward a dynamic equivalence.

It is probably fair to say that most contemporary translators favor the dynamic equivalence approach in theory, though all of us will be disappointed in the various attempts at producing one. The Message has real challenges in this area. The reason for preferring to reproduce the thought of the original without attempting to conform to its form is that all languages have their own syntax. While the syntax of one language may be similar to the syntax of other languages, it is also dissimilar as well. If we attempt to adhere to the formal syntax of another language, we reproduce forms which are abnormal or confusing, if not downright distracting in the target language.

So … having said way too much on this, why do I use The Message? I am trying to appeal, in plain English, to many who don’t understand and don’t relate to religious jargon. Maybe it helps. Maybe it doesn’t.

In my personal study, I use a parallel bible with 3 different versions in view at the same time. That allows me to see the variations I’ve described of the continuum.