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 The History of The Message


 
Eugene Peterson wasn't thinking about creating a publishing phenomenon when he started translating the New Testament. He was thinking about enlivening Scripture for the twenty or so people he had in his Sunday school class in Baltimore.
 
...And, he was angry.
 "The Message was a by-product of anger," he said. "I was a pastor in the early 80's in a small suburban parish where they had become obsessed with security." It was a tumultuous time in Baltimore as Peterson remembers it, ". . . and the parishioners were afraid it would spill out of the city and into the suburbs. They were obsessed with safety. People started buying guns and security systems and double-locking doors. I was appalled that these Christian people were suddenly reverting to their basic lowest survival instinct."

Reacting to this frustration, he decided to begin a Sunday school class, followed by a series of sermons, on the biblical book of Galatians. "I'm going to teach them about the free life in Christ so that instead of closing in on themselves, they'll be free. That's what I was thinking at the time." He gathered with twenty or so parishioners every Sunday in the basement, put on a pot of coffee, and started studying Galatians with them.

"It was just awful," Peterson says. "They'd fill up their coffee cups and stir in sugar and cream and look at their cups and they weren't getting it. It was just really bad. I went home after the third week and said to my wife that I was going to teach them Greek. If they could read it in Greek they would get it, they'd understand what a revolutionary text it is and couldn't just keep living in their ruts. She agreed that would empty the class out fast."


So Peterson did the next best thing and used his knowledge of Greek to translate Galatians into “their idiom.” He put the life back into the ancient text, words originally spoken and penned in the language of the working class. “Paul had this wild syntax with vigor and startling images he would fly into when he was excited. I wanted them to get that.” Bit by bit, he translated
Galatians every week and gave everyone in the Sunday school class a copy of it. “I knew I had them the second week because after they left, I was cleaning up and their cups were full of cold coffee and they had forgotten to stir in the sugar and cream and drink it.”

Eventually that little Galatians volume was published by InterVarsity Press. Peterson forgot about it and moved on, “. . . recovering from the episode of regression.” After several years, an editor at NavPress contacted him saying he had been carrying that tiny volume around and writing out passages of it for friends. “I’m just getting tired of Galatians,” the NavPress editor said and asked if Peterson could translate the whole New Testament.

“I said I couldn’t do that. I’m a pastor. When would I have time to do that? It took me a whole year to do Galatians.” But every few months NavPress would call back and Eugene’s answer was always the same: he was too busy being a pastor to translate the New Testament. Then, after twenty-nine years at his parish, Eugene Peterson left. He wanted to write.

“I didn’t know how I’d make a living. I more or less thought I’d go back to our family home in Montana. Then NavPress called again and I suddenly realized I could do it, I had the time.”

Peterson isn’t trying to be relevant and he isn’t massaging the biblical message according to some market-driven agenda. Once, while teaching in Vancouver, some of Peterson’s students became very excited because Bono of the rock band U2 said The Message was the most important book he’d read in his whole life. The students thought this a great triumph. Eugene didn’t recognize either Bono or U2. “If you dig your wells deep enough, relevancy is pretty much irrelevant,” Peterson said.

When speaking of Peterson’s The Message, words like innovative and relevant are often used. It’s correctly assumed that Peterson is attempting to speak to modern minds. In pursuit of that goal, it isn’t relevancy Peterson is after. He’s after a bigger prize—the human heart.

If the response is any indication, Peterson’s readers are indeed encountering something fresh and substantial in The Message. For so many word-weary people, bludgeoned with images and rutted deeply in a hollow imitation of spirituality, The Message has been a balm and a delight. For them, Peterson is devoting his life to the work of translating. He’s hoping to help the Bible come alive for an old woman in New York, a rock star, a teenager, a business person, a pastor—real people. Seven million of them and still counting.

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About The Message

Reading Level:
  Grade 4 - 5

First Published:
  New Testament: 1994
  Complete Bible: 2002

 • Author Profile
 • Endorsements
 • History of The Message
 • Interviews

Articles:

 • Translation or Paraphrase?
 • Message Bible: Heart-Racing. Mind Altering. Life-Changing

Many thanks to our friends at NavPress, for providing a wealth of information about The Message and its author, Eugene H. Peterson - all for you!

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