What’s the Message Behind “The Message”

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.’

My SAS (Short Attention Span) personality forced me to take a break from writing a follow-up to my previous article about Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” when I started thinking more about a topic I’ve delved into in my spare time recently. The above comment is from “The Message” author and pastor Eugene Peterson. Regardless of the fact that there are a plethora of Bible translations available in readily understandable, modern English, I still have to question some of Peterson’s work in this particular Bible version.

Author and Pastor Eugene Peterson

My main problem with this translation is his use, overt in at least two different instances and likely a third, of occultic terms and phrases. The first example of this can be found in his rendering of “The Lord’s Prayer” as it’s found in the Gospel of Matthew. From the NIV:

“This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
(Mat 6:9-13)

Now here is Peterson’s version:

With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this: Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best– as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.
(Mat 6:9-13)

There are several problems with Peterson’s translation of this passage, in my opinion, but I’d like to focus on the text in bold. Instead of the phrase that we are so used to in the English language, “on earth as it is in heaven”, Peterson instead mysteriously uses the phrase “as above, so below”. This phrase is heavily tied to the doctrine, or belief, of Theosophy. The phrase actually originates from the beginning of The Emerald Tablet. This tablet is a text that claims to reveal the “secret of the primordial substance and its transmutations” and is claimed to be authored by Hermes Trismegistus, a combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.

In the Gnostic Society Library, the phrase is described as follows:

“As above, so below” — a “great word,” a sacramental phrase, a saying of wisdom, an aphorism, a mystic formula, a fundamental law – or a two-edged sword of word-fence, that will probably do the wielder serious damage if he is not previously put through careful training in its handling?

Whether this famous “word” is of Hermetic origin or no, we will not stay formally to enquire. In essence it is probably as old as human thought itself. And as probably, the idea lying underneath it has been turned topsy-turvy more frequently than any other of the immortal company.

“As above, so below” doubtless enshrines some vast idea of analogical law, some basis of true reason, which would sum up the manifold appearances of things into one single verity; but the understanding of the nature of this mystery of manifoldness from the one – all one and one in all—is not to be attained by careless thinking, or by some lucky guess, or by the pastime of artificial correspondencing. Indeed, if the truth must out, in ninety-nine cases of a hundred, when one uses this phrase to clinch an argument, we find that we have begged the question from the start, ended where we began, and asserted the opposite of our logion. Instead of illumining, not only the subject we have in hand, but all subjects, by a grasp of the eternal verity concealed within our saying, we have reversed it into the ephemeral and false proposition: “As below, so above,” Deus, verily, inversus est demon; and there’s the devil to pay. But fortunately there is some compensation even in this in an illogical age; for, as all the mystic world knows, Demon is nothing else but deus inversus.

I’ve heard it said that Peterson could have just accidentally translated the phrase this way, not intending it to be the occult phrase described by the above quotes. If this was the lone instance of such a phrase, I could possibly see that. However, due to other similar problems with the text of “The Message”, I seriously doubt it.

The next conspicuous use of occult terminology in “The Message” is Peterson’s use of the term “Life-Light” in place of the simple term “light” in some passages. For example, the NIV renders John 1:5 as follows…

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

…while Peterson’s “The Message” says the following…

The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.

The Greek word “phos” is what is rightly translated into “light” in our English Bible. Where Peterson gets “Life-Light” out of this word is beyond me. There are two more places (verses 7 and 9) in this first chapter of the Gospel of John where Peterson uses this term in place of the correct interpretation. Nowhere else in his translation does the term appear as far as I can tell.

Now consider what famous occultist and Theosophist Alice Bailey wrote in her book “The Destiny of the Nations“:

During the 2000 years Pisces has seen the spreading of the light. Aquarius will see the rising of the light, with Christ as the eternal symbol of both these great impulses. Humanity will move from the birth stages of the light within to the lifting of the life light in sacrifice, as we become the Risen Ones.

Lastly, I’d like to consider perhaps the strangest phrase of all in “The Message”. In Romans 15:13, Peterson writes:

Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!

The NIV translates this passage in the following manner:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I won’t delve into the original Greek of this New Testament passage here but, according to my use of Strong’s Concordance, the word for “green” appears nowhere in the text from which it was translated. Where it does appear is in pre-Christian Roman pagan religions:

Some scholars believe Bacchus or Dionysus to be the Green Man of the Greco-Roman period. Known widely as a god of ecstasy and divine rapture, he was also the god of vegetation.

A simple Google search on the phrase “Dionysus green man” yields tons of references to this ancient pagan legend, including some rather eye-opening information on “The Pagan’s Path“.

Lastly, I’ve heard the argument that “The Message” is not truly a translation but only a paraphrase. Reading the text of it, I would also likely come to that conclusion. However, Peterson, in his own words, says that is not the case. Consider the video below. At around the 17:45 mark, Peterson talks about how he didn’t want to go the route of a paraphrase because he didn’t want to do interpretation or explanation.

In summary and in my opinion, just the three examples I cited above make Eugene Peterson’s translation, “The Message”, a dangerous piece of work and something I wouldn’t recommend for anyone’s use as their main Bible translation. Did Peterson intentionally set out to produce a translation that was not only inaccurate but subtly or in some cases, blatantly occultic? I doubt it but, in the end, I’m not sure that it really matters.


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