Rev. Eugene H. Peterson paraphrases the Bible in everyday language

Posted: Friday, August 02, 2002

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- In the Rev. Eugene H. Peterson's retelling of the Bible, when Jesus raises a young girl from the dead, he first has to work his way through neighbors bringing casseroles to the grieving family's home.

The poetic ''valley of the shadow of death'' from Psalm 23 becomes simply ''Death Valley.'' And when God prepares to flood the earth, he decides to spare Noah because ''Noah was different. God liked what he saw in Noah.''

Those folksy touches are part of the appeal of Peterson's ''The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language,'' published by NavPress of Colorado Springs, Colo.

The 2,265-page volume is a compilation of biblical paraphrases that Peterson has written for 20 years.

Released in July, NavPress sold 320,000 copies in advance and ordered an initial print run of 500,000, the largest it has ever had for a Bible, NavPress spokeswoman Kathleen Campbell said.

Peterson's New Testament, published in 1993, sold 2.5 million copies, and his other ''Message products'' -- more than 20 in all -- have sold 4.5 million.

In addition to good sales, Peterson's work has enjoyed gentle treatment from other biblical scholars.

Vern Poythress, a New Testament professor at Westminister Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa., says he and fellow conservatives may quibble with many of Peterson's renderings but have leveled few attacks because ''The Message'' isn't a Bible and isn't presented as such.

He sees it as useful for evangelism among people who know nothing about the Bible, so long as they realize it's merely one writer's interpretation of the biblical message. He says Peterson's work ''is at the far end of the spectrum, not only in paraphrasing but cultural updating.''

Peterson translated the Bible directly from the Greek and Hebrew and avoided earlier English translations. His purpose was to capture the earthy, vigorous tone of the originals.

''My intent was to provide something for people who had never read the Bible before, or didn't think they could read it,'' he said.

In ''The Message,'' Paul the Apostle is that ''jailbird preacher.'' In the Psalm 23, ''The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,'' becomes ''God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing.''

Nobody ''begets'' anybody in ''The Message.'' They have babies.

''I've been reading the Bible since I was a little kid, but I found myself, when I first cracked it open -- I was on an airplane -- and I found myself laughing out loud or crying,'' recalled Brad Rauch, a friend of Peterson's and general manager of Christian radio station KALS in Kalispell.

Rauch is just one of many admirers. Peterson, who grew up in Kalispell and now lives nearby on the shore of western Montana's Flathead Lake, has fans all over.

Bono, lead singer for the Irish rock band U2, cited ''this guy Eugene Peterson'' in a Rolling Stone interview last December.

''He's a poet and a scholar, and he's brought the text back to the tone in which the books were written,'' Bono said. ''A lot of the Gospels were written in common kind of marketspeak. They were not at all highfalutin like the King James version of the Bible.''

Peterson's mother was a Pentecostal preacher, and her son started out his career as a scholar of Greek and Hebrew at New York Theological Seminary and an associate pastor at a Presbyterian church in White Plains, N.Y.

In 1962 he went to Bel Air, Md., to organize a new Presbyterian church and stayed 29 years. He still regards himself primarily as a pastor.

''The Message'' began because Peterson's adult Sunday school class didn't grasp how exciting Paul's Letter to the Galatians really is. He decided to translate it for them.

The resulting pamphlet found its way to an editor at NavPress, the publishing arm of The Navigators, a nondenominational, international evangelistic organization. Editor John Stein offered to publish a New Testament paraphrase by Peterson.

These days, Peterson rarely preaches anymore, and turns down most of the scores of speaking invitations that come from around the world.

''I'm nearly 70 years old, and I just don't have the energy to do that,'' he said. ''And I just can't handle much exposure anymore. I get people projecting something on me that's not true, and I find it's diminishing.''

That ''something'' is adulation.

He is working on a five-book series on spiritual theology, but has no deadline: ''When I finished 'The Message' I thought, 'Never sign another contract with a deadline in it.'''


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