The Bible in Cultural Context

Night Sky with Flashlight - Ps 119:105

I have recently stumbled upon a "new" translation of the Bible: The Message Bible. Not exactly new, Eugene Peterson published the complete translation, Old Testament and New, in 2002. Until now, I have not been very fond of modern or contemporary translations as I've felt that the poetic becomes inelegant in some instances. Take, for example, the Living Bible's translation of Psalm 119:105, "Your words are a flashlight to light the path ahead of me and keep me from stumbling." Not at all poetic like that of the King James translation, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path," but honestly, when you first read or heard, "a lamp unto my feet," did you really understand what that meant?

Some Bible scholars take issue with Peterson's Message Bible (MSG) because of its "highly idiomatic" translation, using US contemporary language (see Wikipedia article). With such, the translation has a short shelf life - had there been a similar translation in the late 60s, Jesus's words to Simon Peter after Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, may have been the horrible, "That's cool, Simon!" reminiscent of the "stoner" Jesus that appears in the musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Having said that, this post is a defense of the "highly idiomatic" MSG translation in terms of contemporary culture. (See my related post, "He Has a Sense of Humor.") Jesus Himself used idioms - for instance, "no one knows of that day and hour," an idiom for Rosh Hashanah, in Matthew 24:36 and in Mark 13:32 - and the Old Testament is filled with puns - our favorite one being from the first chapter of Jeremiah which is where we found the name "Almond Watch" for this website.

Pin Ps 119:105_Nighttime with Flashlight

In the introduction to the Message Bible in Bible Study Tools, we read: When we hear something over and over again in the same way, we can become so familiar with it that the text loses its impact. The Message Bible translation, because of its use of US contemporary language, brings us back to relevance. In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells of the miraculous smuggling of a small Bible into the Ravensbrück concentration camp. When she was able to read that Bible in such a dark hour, she says that she often rubbed her fingers over the page to make sure the ink was dry, such was the application of the Word to her particular circumstance at that moment. The Word of God spoke so directly to her, she wondered if God had wrote it immediately before she read it. I find that the Message Bible translation does the same thing for me. More verses jump off the page, and Jesus is so much more approachable when His words and actions don't seem to originate on the stage of Shakespeare's Globe Theater.

I know that there are some of you reading this that are sold on you King James Version, and that's OK. Just know that the KJV was also a contemporary translation for England in the early 17th Century (note that the Globe was built at the same time that the KJV was written). The New International Version reflects the common language of the American people in the mid-20th century. The Nueva Versión Internacional was produced in 1999, translated from the historic manuscripts directly into Spanish, bypassing English altogether.

Take the Message Bible translation out for a spin. Like Corrie ten Boom, you may discover that you, too, need to run your hand over the pages of the MSG translation, such is the relevance to the Word in the day-to-day. In my case, the pages are mostly digital, and being a Baby Boomer raised without the internet, I sometimes momentarily doubt what I'm reading - knowing how easy it is to change a soft copy of text. So I look at the tools at hand to back check the translation from the original Hebrew and Greek. In doing so, I find the translation, not Shakespearean poetic but, accurate to the original languages and highly relevant for this day and time.