Love in a world at war: Eugene Peterson on writing The Message
"TEN YEARS AGO I was given the assignment of writing a paraphrasing translation of this Book, this Bible, this Message — as I eventually ended up naming it. … Day after day, I worked away at getting this old message of God’s love for us revealed in Jesus into the North American equivalent of the kind of language Isaiah and John, David and Mark, Moses and Paul used to write it down in the first place.”
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published as the main feature story in the summer 2002 issue of Response.]
If The Message was a valentine, the inscription would be, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son …”
Love is the most welcome message in life and one that we very much like getting. We use the word a lot, both as a noun and a verb, and we like hearing it a lot. But there is also an immense irony here: The subject and activity that we are most attracted to is at the same time the subject and activity that we are least good at. Over a lifetime we accumulate more failures in love, both individually and collectively, than in any other single thing.
Is God any better at it than we are? Let’s assume that he is. If God is better at it than we are, the “better” is probably not in that he loves — for we do that in spades — but in how he loves. This how comes into focus in the verb “gave” and in a person, “his son,” Jesus the Christ.
We know a lot about this verb and person through an accumulation of 2,000 years of witnesses, prophets and apostles, speaking and writing in three languages, recorded in what we now call the Bible, the Greek word for Book. How does this Book, this Bible, reveal The Message of love to us? Is there a special God language to convey this special God love? Just what kind of Book is this? And how does the way this Book is written control and shape and affect the ways in which we read and understand it?
These are important questions because the way The Message of God’s love comes to us is exactly suited to the way God loves us. The language of The Message and the meaning of The Message are congruent.
Ten years ago I was given the assignment of writing a paraphrasing translation of this Book, this Bible, this Message — as I eventually ended up naming it — into North American English. My task was to translate it as much in the style of the Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek languages in which it was originally written as I was able.
Day after day, I worked away at getting this old message of God’s love for us revealed in Jesus into the North American equivalent of the kind of language Isaiah and John, David and Mark, Moses and Paul used to write it down in the first place. The challenge was not so much in carrying the dictionary meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words across into English, but in getting the “voice” right — the tone and attitude and idiom that are so much a part of The Message.
“What happened was that I got angry — not an auspicious way to begin holy work.”
Ten years earlier, something happened that turned out to be a first step in this work, but I had no way of knowing it at the time. What happened was that I got angry — not an auspicious way to begin holy work.
My congregation set off my anger. I had been a pastor to a small congregation of Presbyterians in the Baltimore area for 20 years. I had gathered this congregation from the highways and byways of northern Maryland, called them to worship every Sunday, visited them and taught them, listened to them and prayed with them. I had done my best to nurture them in this gospel life in which we are set free from our sins by Jesus and enter a life of love in the community of the Holy Spirit.
I had much reason to think that they were well on their way. And then in 1982 race riots broke out in Baltimore; at the same time a recession took place. Soon I noticed that many in my congregation were buying guns, installing security systems in their homes, and double-locking their doors. They were anxious and frightened, obsessed with security. I couldn’t believe it. These free people in Christ were becoming enslaved right before my eyes to their fears and anxieties, their world reduced to their possessions and their neighborhoods.
My anger flared. Hadn’t anything I had said from the pulpit, offered in the eucharist, conveyed through prayers in the many personal and community crises we had been through together for 20 years, made even a dent in their souls?
What was my pastoral task? It didn’t take me long to decide. I sublimated my anger into a determination to immerse them in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Galatians: Paul’s angry, eloquent, passionate letter. I thought it was Galatians time for my congregation, these people who were trading in their freedom in Christ for security systems in which they could live without risk.
Having announced a Galatians study, 13 or 14 adults showed for Sunday church school — my usual take from a congregation of 250. We met in a basement room on folding chairs around four pushed-together, vinyl-topped folding tables — the Presbyterian equivalent of the early church catacombs. It was part of my routine to come early, brew an urn of coffee, spread Bibles across the tables, and spend an hour or so praying in anticipation of that hour of study.
After a couple of weeks it struck me that these people weren’t getting it. My friends were reading sentences from a document that charted a revolution, and they were stirring sugar into their coffee and giving me polite smiles. And I was offended, mightily offended.
Later I fumed to my wife, “I’m going to teach them Greek. If they read it in Greek, they’d get it, and those polite smiles would vanish soon enough.” And my wife gave me one of her wonderful, polite smiles. A couple of more days of polite smiles from Jan forced the realization that Greek wasn’t the answer; Greek would empty that classroom quicker than a fire alarm.
But as the next Sunday approached, I found myself doodling with the Greek text of Galatians. Doodling is probably the best word for it because I had no plan, no program, certainly nothing ambitious like teaching them Greek. But the Greek was certainly part of it — Paul’s vigorous, emotion-energized, metaphor-charged Greek language giving witness to Christ’s love and grace that sets us free in a culture of slaves.
The next Sunday I brewed the coffee as usual, but I omitted the Bibles. Instead of Bibles I had copies of my doodled translation spread out on the tables. Every week I would bring in another page of the text the way I heard it from Paul, the way Luther had heard it, the way so many men and women through our Christian centuries have heard, believed and lived it, and found themselves set free by and for God. I enlisted my friends’ help in getting Paul’s Greek into the language they spoke when they weren’t in church, the words and phrases they heard from their children, the expressions that made up their workplace talk.
After about the third week of this, as I was cleaning up afterwards, I realized that most of the Styrofoam cups were still full or half-full of cold coffee. I knew then that together we were on to something. Disposing of that cold coffee each week was a housekeeping job in which I took extraordinary pleasure.
After a year of this collaborative work and another year of preaching the text from the pulpit, this congregational immersion in Galatians made its way into a book. Several years later I got a letter from an editor who told me that he had copied out the paraphrasing translation of the Galatians text from the book and had been reading it over and over, reading it to his friends and family, and was getting mighty tired of Galatians. Would I try my hand at the entire New Testament?
“The waste paper dug out of the small-town Egyptian garbage dumps revolutionized the way we read the Bible.”
But previous to my anger in Maryland 20 years ago and an editor’s invitation from Colorado 10 years ago, there is yet another, and even more substantial reason, for my work on The Message.
A little more than 100 years ago scraps of discarded paper (papyri) began to be uncovered in great numbers in garbage dumps in some small country towns in Egypt. If you want to learn how the rich and powerful and educated live, you look at their temples and palaces, their inscriptions and libraries, their statues and paintings. But for the common folk going about their business, the garbage dump is the place to go. The scraps of paper found in the Egyptian rubbish heaps contained shopping lists, receipts from the market, memos and informal letters. Archaeologists had a heyday picking through the long buried Egyptian garbage, reading the scraps of paper and piecing together what life was like on the muddy streets, crowded markets and noisy playgrounds of the ancient world.
And then the men and women studying these unimposing scraps of paper noticed something very interesting. At the time of these discoveries the New Testament was known to have a vocabulary of about 5,000 Greek words. Of those, 500 did not occur outside the New Testament; they were uniquely “Bible words.” They were not found in any of the numerous writers of Greek: poets, historians, legislators or dramatists. Many scholars came to the conclusion that these 500 words were “Holy Ghost” words, words created by the Holy Ghost to convey the holy revelation in holy language “never profaned by common use.”
It didn’t take long for the excavators to realize that the words they were reading in these throwaway scraps of paper were the very words on the scholars’ list of 500 “Holy Ghost” words, these words that until then had only been seen in New Testament writings. The so-called Holy Ghost words were street words, words used when people weren’t thinking high and lofty thoughts, words used in just getting through the day.
Nothing that we have learned about the ancient world, either before or since, has affected the way we read the Bible as much as those pieces of paper. The waste paper dug out of the small-town Egyptian garbage dumps has absolutely revolutionized the way we read the Bible. All the Greek grammars and dictionaries had to be re-written. The difference it has made to Bible translation and Bible reading is impossible to exaggerate.
Here are a couple of instances:
In the Lord’s Prayer, the fourth petition is the well-known “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). The adjective “daily” is one of these previously unknown words. Before its discovery among the papyri, since it occurs in the Lord’s Prayer and so is obviously a “Holy Ghost” word, scholars assumed that it had to do with something hyper-spiritual. Supersubstantial bread — bread for the soul, bread for eternity; certainly nothing as ordinary as a slice of pumpernickel. And then the word turned up in an ancient housekeeping book that had been discarded in a garbage dump. It immediately became obvious that it is just the word we would expect to find on a grocery list given by a mother to her son as she sends him off to market, underlining that the bread is to be fresh bread. “Don’t let that baker palm any stale bread off on you; make sure it’s fresh bread, arton epiousion.”
In 1 Peter 5:3, Jesus is described as the “chief shepherd.” “Chief shepherd,” archipoimen, was unknown in Greek apart from this passage. That never posed any difficulties for it was simply regarded as a Christian invention, combining the well-known words “chief” (archi) and “shepherd” (poimen): “chief shepherd,” an obvious coinage that would be appropriate for Jesus. He had called himself, after all, a shepherd (John 10:11), why not throw in “chief” to give it a little more umph? And then a discarded Egyptian mummy was found with a wooden dog tag hung from its neck, identifying the deceased as a “chief shepherd,” but in bad grammar. Adolph Deissmann, the pioneer scholar in bringing out the significance of these hundreds of scraps of paper, commented on this one: “This label was hurriedly written for a man of the people, for an Egyptian peasant who had served as overseer of, let us say, two or three shepherds, or maybe even half a dozen.” When Christians call their savior the “chief shepherd,” they weren’t honoring him with an exalted title but placing him firmly among the working class.
After a few years of gathering and examining the papers from the garbage dumps, virtually all of those 500 special “Holy Ghost” words turned out to be from the common everyday speech of everyday people. In retrospect it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that this was the language used in the writing of the Bible, for this is exactly the kind of society that we know Jesus embraced and loved: the world of children and marginal men and women, the rough-talking working class, the world of the poor and dispossessed and exploited. Still, it was a surprise: Our Bibles were written not in the educated and polished language of scholars and historians and philosophers and theologians, but in the common language of fishermen and prostitutes, homemakers and carpenters.
Now that all this evidence has been dug out of the Egyptian rubbish heaps, it makes perfect sense. Of course the witnesses of God’s revelation to us would use the language most accessible to us. We are thoroughly acquainted with Jesus’ preference for homely stories and his easy association with common people — would he suddenly put on airs when he opened his mouth to teach or converse? Not likely. Nor would the witnesses to the revelation, before and after Jesus. Everything about this revelation consistently tells us that Jesus is the descent of God into our lives just as we are — to give us The Message of God’s love in the language with which we are most familiar.
“When people read or hear the Bible in the idiom in which it was written, they are stopped in their tracks.”
I didn’t start out as a pastor. I began my vocational life teaching the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek in a theological seminary. I expected to live the rest of my life as a professor and scholar, teaching and writing and studying. But then my life took a sudden vocational turn, and I became a pastor in a congregation. My workplace shifted from a classroom of students to a congregation of saints and sinners.
I was now plunged into quite a different world. The first noticeable difference was that nobody seemed to care much about the Bible, which so recently people had been paying me to teach them. Many of the people I worked with now knew virtually nothing about it, had never read it and weren’t interested in learning. Many others had spent years reading it, but for them it had gone flat through familiarity, reduced to clichés. Bored, they dropped it. And there weren’t many people in between. Very few were interested in what I considered my primary work, getting the words of the Bible into their heads and hearts, getting The Message lived. They found newspapers and magazines, videos and pulp fiction more to their taste.
Meanwhile, I had taken on as my life work the responsibility of getting these very people to listen, really listen, to The Message in this book. I knew I had my work cut out for me.
I lived in two language worlds, the world of the Bible and the world of Today. I had always assumed they were the same world. But these people didn’t see it that way. So out of necessity I became a “translator” (although I wouldn’t have called it that then), daily standing on the border between two worlds, getting the language of the Bible that God uses to create and save us, heal and bless us, judge and rule over us, into the language of Today that we use to gossip and tell stories, give directions and do business, sing songs and talk to our children.
And when people read or hear the Bible in the idiom in which it was written, they are stopped in their tracks: the holy Scriptures, God’s Word, God’s love in my language! The reason that new translations are made every couple of generations or so is to keep the language of the Bible current with the common speech we use, the very language in which it was first written.
Overwhelmingly The Message turns out to be a love message, a love story — God loves us. But God doesn’t force it on us: God’s word is personal address, inviting us into the story. God doesn’t bully us. We are given space and freedom to enter the conversation. The Message is God’s written invitation to participate in the work and love and company of God.