Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, says he was “a servant to the text”
EUGENE PETERSON, best-selling author of The Message, was convinced his paraphrasing translation of the Bible would fail. A Seattle Pacific College graduate of 1954 and longtime professor, pastor and author, Peterson took on the task, in part, to appease a persistent NavPress editor. The editor had read Peterson’s paraphrase of Galatians in his 1982 book, Traveling Light, and wanted more.
Eight years later, Peterson finally agreed to translate 10 chapters of the Gospel According to Matthew, but stopped after translating four. “It was as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Peterson says wryly. “It was just awful — wooden, stilted and contrived.” Believing the task futile, he skipped to the Sermon on the Mount “just to have fun,” he recalls. Then something happened. “I found my voice,” he says. Millions of readers agree.
In 1993, NavPress released the New Testament portion of The Message. To date, seven million copies of it and other portions — including The Prophets, Psalms and Proverbs — have been sold worldwide. The Message was released in its entirety, Old and New Testaments together, this summer.
A 10-year undertaking, Peterson began writing The Message after retiring from a 29-year pastorate at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. Invited to be a writer-in-residence at Pittsburgh Seminary, he launched the New Testament in earnest, finishing at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he served as professor of spiritual theology for more than five years. When the popularity of The Messagesoared, the publisher asked him to continue. He completed the Old Testament at his and wife Jan’s rural Montana home.
With his fame growing as fast as The Message flies out of bookstores, Peterson says the Big Sky Country helps maintain his anonymity. Still, the translation’s impact spreads. In December 2001, Rolling Stone magazine quoted U2 lead singer, Bono, saying, “[T]here’s a translation of scriptures — the New Testament and the Books of Wisdom — that this guy Eugene Peterson has undertaken. It has been a great strength to me. He’s a poet and a scholar, and he’s brought the text back to the tone in which the books were written.”
Says Peterson: “The letters I prize most are from prisoners. They’re written in phonetic script and say, ‘I never knew I could read the Bible!’”
Not everyone, however, approves.On radio’s popular show, “Bible Answer Man,” author Berit Kjos argued The Message “sounds like an excuse for ‘dumbing down’ Scripture to match our culture’s downward trends.” It is, she argued, Peterson’s “personal, politically correct interpretation.”
“She won’t talk to me,” says Peterson about Kjos. “And NavPress has tried to talk to her, just to have a conversation, but she won’t do it.” Always willing to discuss word and phrase choices, Peterson had prominent biblical scholars check the paraphrase as he worked.
In spite of some criticism, Peterson hasn’t received the relentless attacks others did. “When J.B. Phillips did his translation in the ’40s, he was mercilessly attacked,” says Peterson. “It plunged him into a 10-year depression from which he never did really recover. Kenneth Taylor, who did The Living Bible, got death threats.”
With the paraphrase finally completed, Peterson says The Message is unlike any of his other books and articles. “It doesn’t feel like my book,” says the author, who returned to Seattle Pacific last spring to speak to an all-campus Chapel and a packed Church Leaders Forum about his odyssey. “I was a servant to the text. It’s a strange thing, really. The thing I’m best known for is the thing I feel least identified with.”
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published as a feature story in the summer 2002 issue of Response.]