What is the Message Bible?

Posted by Aaron Lewendon  ·  Be the first to comment

Finding the right Bible isn’t easy. There are dozens of translations and hundreds of editions to choose from. Our new series of guides is here to answer your questions about the different Bibles on offer today.

What is The Message Bible?

If you are new to the Bible, feel daunted by the old text or lost in what the Bible means on any given page, the Message Bible was written for you. 

The Message Bible is a contemporary paraphrase Bible written by Eugene Peterson. It’s the Bible but in everyday language. The words you and I would speak on any given day are what make up the body of the Message Bible. The emphasis on contemporary language and ease of understanding for an audience of Western readers makes this a somewhat idiomatic Bible. A Bible filled with the expressions of here and now. 

Take, for example, this passage from the Gospel of Mark. Here Jesus is talking about not hiding your belief in God, and whilst the ultimate message of the text remains the same, the details are much more modern. First, here’s the passage as found in the King James Bible:

‘And he said unto them, Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? and not to be set on a candlestick? For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested; neither was any thing kept secret, but that it should come abroad.’

I don’t know a single person who owns a bushel or uses the word ‘unto’. 

Now here’s the Message Bible text:

‘Jesus went on: “Does anyone bring a lamp home and put it under a washtub or beneath the bed? Don’t you put it up on a table or on the mantel? We’re not keeping secrets, we’re telling them; we’re not hiding things, we’re bringing them out into the open.’

Straight away you can see the difference. All the examples of ways to hide a light are ones that bear as much relevance to Jesus’ time as they do now, but with this change, the images they bring to mind are much more concrete in a reader’s imagination. I couldn’t tell you what a bushel looks like, but I know a mantel when I see one. 

That is, in essence, how the Message Bible works. It rewords the Bible in a way that readers today can connect to. Immediately and clearly. 

History of The Message Bible

Every Bible translation arises from a need. A gap in understanding between the people of a time and the text that has existed for centuries prior. 

The King James Bible arose from the need for an English Bible amongst the general population of 17th century England. The ESV Bible exists to continue the legacy of the King James Bible, but for a modern audience.  The NIV Bible was birthed from a need for a Bible that reflected the language of 1970s America. 

Eugene H. Peterson

So where does The Message fit into the field of Bible translations?

It begins with one man, the late Eugene H. Peterson. Peterson was a man with a flair for writing and a talent for making Christianity immediate and accessible to those around him. It was whilst he was surrounded by people that the seed of The Message Bible took root:

“While I was teaching a class on Galatians, I began to realize that the adults in my class weren't feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek. Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn't read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become 'old hat.'”

As remarkable as this sentiment is, it’s nothing new. In the introduction to The Message Bible, Peterson tells the story of Saint Augustine, who found himself in a similar situation. “[Augustine] was greatly offended when he first read the Bible. Instead of a book cultivated and polished in the literary style he admired so much, he found it full of homespun, earthy stories of plain, unimportant people [...] he realized that God had not taken the form of a sophisticated intellectual to teach us about highbrow heavenly culture.” The Bible is not a work of high art, arcane history or obscure references. For Peterson, it’s a conversation between God and humanity.  

The first appearance of Eugene Peterson’s new paraphrase was in his book Travelling Light (1988). A series of meditations on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Eugene Peterson reworded the original Greek text to appeal to modern readers. At this point, he hadn’t set out to reword the Bible. But when an editor at the American publisher NavPress read Travelling Light, he was astounded by how vibrant and engaging the Galatians text was to read. The editor wrote to Peterson two years after Travelling Light was published and made a proposal. How would he like to write the New Testament in that same style? This request came to Peterson at the point where a career in writing was what he wanted, and so the two struck a deal. 

It took nine years for The Message to get out. Starting in 1993, segments and books of The Message Bible tricked out into the wider world, finally culminating in the full-text edition of The Message hitting shelves in 2002.

How Was It Translated?

Most Bible translations exist in relation to one another. You take any given English Bible translation and you’ll find the traces of a whole series of translations that came before it. 

For example, and forgive the flood on abbreviations here, the ESV Bible was originally the RSV, and the RSV was the ASV before that. The ASV was a reworking of the King James Bible, which was largely a reworking of the Bishop’s Bible which came from the Great Bible which, thankfully, was the first authorized English translation of the Bible. 

But The Message is different. Peterson skipped on the textual middle-men of historical Bible translations and went straight to the source: the ancient Greek scriptures. “[H]e began to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original ancient Greek—writing straight out of the Greek text without looking at other English translations.” This is, in part, what makes The Message so strikingly different to read. It puts you in the shoes (well, sandals) of the people of the time by presenting a text written in the same cadence and level of language that original audiences would have grasped close to two millennia ago. 

The mission of the Message is not to make the Bible more palatable to a modern audience. It was to show that God’s word reveals itself to all people. It’s a Bible for reading and a conversation for taking part in. 

How Accurate is The Message Bible?

The Message Bible is classified as being a Paraphrase Bible. On the spectrum of Bible translation accuracy, it sits on the more figurative side of literal to non-literal versions.

Before answering, it does help to know a couple more key terms used when discussing how accurate a Bible is. On the occasion that someone discusses Bible Translation accuracy, they will most likely draw a line in the sand between Bibles which are “word-for-word” and Bibles which are “thought-for-thought”.

Word-for-word Bibles present as directly as possible the text in the original scriptures. As the scriptures come from a culture far removed from our own, their texts are harder to understand and so any direct translations themselves require of the reader a sharp eye and working knowledge of the context from which the Bible came.

Thought-for-thought Bibles operate under a different approach. They use a greater level of textual interpretation throughout their translation process. This includes taking in wider contexts and meanings as a guide to what the original text meant and how that text would appear in today’s language.

If word-for-word is akin to Google Translate, operating with as little human interpretation as possible, then thought-for-thought is like a poem translated from another language, where meaning and form carry greater emphasis.

But where does The Message sit on the spectrum?

As mentioned above, The Message is a paraphrase Bible. It takes some of the principles of thought-for-thought translation but embodies a greater commitment to making the text clearer for the modern reader.

Bible Translation Continuum

How Easy is The Message Bible to Read?

The Message Bible is written at about a 4th Grade Reading Level. This means readers from the ages of 9 or 10 should be able to confidently read the majority of The Message Bible text and understand what it means.

What determines this level is the total number of unique words, as well as sentence length and the length of the words themselves. Other grammatical features also carry weight in the score. The greater the complexity, the higher the score. The reading level doesn’t take into account any understanding of a text's history and context. Only the words and grammar.

As an example, this sentence you are currently reading would score at a Grade Nine on the readability test.

This sentence would be at Grade Two. 

Common Uses 

The Message Bible has been described as “a reading Bible”. Unlike a study Bible, where the emphasis is on unearthing textual insight through close reading and research into factors both cultural and theological, The Message Bible prizes immediacy of understanding and the sheer pleasure of reading. 

It will be found in more armchairs than pulpits, more coffee shops than seminaries. 

Because of its immediacy, it has proven to be a valuable devotional Bible that allows for busy Christians to read only a short amount but still find words of great value and instant impact. 

It has also gained a core readership amongst young Christians. From teens to young adults to twenty-somethings, The Message Bible’s contemporaneity speaks to a generation born of the present moment. 

Different Editions

There are two different editions of The Message Bible. The first is the original Message Bible published in 2002. The second is an update to The Message that was released in 2018. This change is because any Bible that aims to be modern and up-to-date in its language needs to keep pace with the changes in the language around it. The publishers describe the task of updating The Message as ‘an “aesthetic revision” of The Message, with spot-specific changes that would support ongoing readability over time.’

The only other offshoot of mention from The Message is The Message//REMIX which doesn’t alter the written text. Rather, it moves the verse numbers to make reading a smoother, cleaner experience. 

Example verses from The Message Bible

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” - John 3:16

I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for. - Jeremiah 29:11

Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you. - Ephesians 4:32

Versions You Can buy Today

The Message New Testament

If you are the kind of person who likes to dip their toe into something first, then starting with the New Testament is a good idea. “Written in the rhythms and idiom of contemporary language--the way you'd talk with friends, write a letter, or discuss politics--The Message New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs brings out the expressive, earthy flavour of the original biblical text.”

The Message Devotional Bible

The Message Devotional Bible

Every devotional book or Bible is a journey, and few understand this more than this. “The Message Devotional Bible invites you on a journey—call it practising resurrection, call it eating this book, or call it simply a long obedience in the same direction.” With a plan for reading, contemplative questions to sit with and a series of introductions to help you approach the Bible’s books with understanding, this edition is a powerful way to enter into conversation with The Message Bible. 

The Message Canvas Bible

The Message Bible is highly expressive, and so is adult journaling and colouring. Together, the two are a perfect match. This edition brings together the recent passion for journaling Bibles with the vibrant Message Bible text. “Using The Message's creative language and vivid metaphors, your imagination will be bursting with ideas for crafting, colouring, and drawing. Meditate on the very words of Scripture, and hear God's voice speaking to your heart.”

The Message Gift and Award

A Message for every big moment in life. This Gift & Award edition of the Message Bible brings together the loved modern-language Bible translation to you in a new, affordably-priced edition. With its conversational language, it is also the perfect teen Bible. And with this new, lower-cost edition, the perfect gift for Baptisms, Graduations, Weddings, Confirmations, and all the other big moments in life and faith.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is The Message Bible good?

The reception to The Message Bible speaks for itself. Here is what a selection of writers, musicians, teachers and leaders have to say about The Message:

"Seems like forever since I've picked up a Bible that made the stories so fresh and new. My name is on that long list of folks who love to read The Message. What a friend this Bible has become." - Max Lucado

"There's a translation of the Scripture 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." - Bono

"The Message is so good it leaves me breathless." - Madeline L'Engle

"In this crowded world of Bible versions, Eugene Peterson's blend of accurate scholarship and vivid idiom make this rendering both distinctive and distinguished.” - J.I.Packer

Who created The Message Bible?

The Message Bible was created by Eugene H. Peterson over the course of seven years. 

Does The Message bible use chapters and verses?

The Message Bible does use chapters and verses, but they are presented in a slightly different way. As The Message is made for smooth, continuous reading, there is much less emphasis on chapter and verse markings. The verses are mostly grouped together in twos unless there is a particularly long verse. Alternately, some sections will feature four or five verses together and thus marked with (for example) a ‘14-18’. 

Other Bible Translations

Click on any of the images below to learn all about the stories behind some of the world's most widely-read Bible translations.

What is the KJV Bible?
What is the NIV Bible?
English Standard Version Bible
Your guide to the NKJV Bible
What is the CSB Bible?
What is the NLT Bible?
What is the Good News Bible?
11th March

March 11th, 2020 - Posted & Written by Aaron Lewendon

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