“Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.”
-Luke 1:28 (MSG)
When one picks up a new translation of the Bible for the first time, that person will often go to their favorite verse or two to see how it was rendered by the translator or translation team. For Catholics, one of the first verses that is likely analyzed is Luke 1:28, the greeting of the angel to Mary, also known as the Annunciation. It is an important verse for Catholics, both in regards to prayer and theology. Some hold that the only way to render this verse is with “full of grace”, while others maintain that “highly favored” (or something like that) is fully acceptable as well. Most translations into English follow those two renderings, with only minor differences. I would like to propose in this article that Eugene Peterson’s The Message provides a faithful rendering of Luke 1:28, even though at first glance it doesn’t seem so.
Now before looking at how The Message translates Luke 1:28, it is important that I say a few things upfront. First off, I am not trying to convert anyone to The Message or claim that it is preferable in any or every instance. I simply want to show how Eugene Peterson has rendered a classic Catholic text of the Bible in a modern way which is both beautiful and theologically “correct”. Secondly, if this post inspires you in some way to pick up and read The Message, I would recommend you do two things. The first is to spend a bit of time reading why Eugene Peterson rendered his translation in the way he did. Much like reading On Englishing the Bible helps to understand Msgr. Ronald Knox’s modus operandi, you should at least read some articles or watch a few YouTube videos where Peterson discusses The Message. The various editions of The Message (including the MSGCE version) contain introductions by Peterson which are helpful. Two of Peterson’s books that are also very good in this regard are Traveling Light, which contains his first attempt at translating the Letter to the Galatians in the style of what would later be found in The Message, as well as his pastoral text Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. So, do yourself a favor and spend some time getting to know the translator. Secondly, if you decide to dip into The Message the thing you want to avoid is just picking out a few verses here or there to evaluate. Spend some time with the text as a whole. Read through Job or Romans to get a better feel as to how Peterson translates. In many ways, he mirrors Knox who translated paragraph by paragraph.
Eugene Peterson’s translation philosophy follows what Navpress (the publisher) calls “contemporary equivalence.” According to The Message website, run by Navpress: “The Message exhibits what we call ‘contemporary equivalence.’ It stands between two approaches to translation: paraphrase and dynamic equivalence. Eugene Peterson is the sole translator of The Message, two teams of biblical scholars (in Old and New Testaments, respectively) carefully vetted his translation . In that respect, it bears similarity to a paraphrase. But his philosophical approach to creating The Message is more in line with dynamic equivalence, working from the original languages to yield a vivid, contemporary, and highly readable Bible that is faithful to the original texts. It has produced what we call “contemporary equivalence (http://messagebible.com/faq/).” So, with that in mind, what can we make of Peterson’s rendering of Luke 1:28?
I believe that Peterson succeeds in producing a moving “contemporary equivalent” translation of Luke 1:28. To begin with, I am going to just briefly look at the beginning and end of the verse. I am not going to start by justifying his use of “good morning” at the beginning of this verse, other than to say that he was clearly looking for a more natural opening greeting from the angel, as opposed to the more formal “hail” or slightly better “rejoice”. A better greeting could have been rendered, without assuming the event took place in the morning. I, personally, wish he hadn’t rendered it the way he did. He concludes the verse with “God be with you” as opposed to “the Lord is with you” which is pretty standard. If you spend any time in The Message, you will notice that Peterson avoids using the term “Lord” in most cases. Even with the Divine Name (YHWH) in the Old Testament, he regularly employs the translation “GOD”. So, then, it is really no surprise that he went with “God” here in Luke 1:28. With the beginning and end of the verse dealt with, let’s move onto the more peculiar part of this verse, which I hope to examine gracefully.
As we turn to the heart of this verse, the translation of the Greek term kecharitomene takes center stage. As noted earlier, it is variously translated as “full of grace” or “highly favored” in most English Bibles. Eugene Peterson, in his “contemporary equivalence” style, went with “beauty” instead of “grace” or “favor.” At first, it may seem completely out of place to render the traditional word for “grace” as “beauty,” but this is where reading more of The Message can be a great help. In particular, the Psalms and Proverbs provide the context and rationale for this rendering. A simple search will show how often Peterson uses “beauty” in connection to God or what God does, along with (of course) its typical use in describing the observable qualities of something or someone. (Please also remember that The Message is not going to translate the same Hebrew or Greek word the same way throughout, which is a hallmark of dynamic translations, though even formal ones do the same but at a lesser frequency.) Here are some examples: Psalm 100:5: “For God is sheer beauty, all-generous in love, loyal always and ever.” I love the idea of God being “sheer beauty” or the “beautiful one” in comparison with all things. We see in Psalm 99, God described as “Great and terrible your beauty: let everyone praise you!” Finally, Psalm 103 tells us that God “wraps you in goodness—beauty eternal.” So, God is beauty, itself, and also bestows beauty on the human soul. Turning to the next Wisdom Book, Proverbs 15:26 is also helpful: “God can’t stand evil scheming, but he puts words of grace and beauty on display.” Here he connects both grace with beauty. There are other examples, but when you return back to Luke 1:28 and see what the angel tells Mary what God has done for her, Peterson’s rendering of the verse begins to take on some real depth. For Mary is not simply “beautiful” in a descriptive sense, but rather she is “beautiful with God’s beauty.” And remember, God is “sheer beauty” who wraps one’s soul in “beauty eternal” according to The Message version of the Psalms.
While writing this article, I stumbled upon the words of the late Fr. John Hardon S.J., who some of you may know through his various catechetical texts and who most likely would not have like The Message. He remarks, in the first chapter of his The History and Meaning of Grace that “the fundamental notion of charis in ancient Greek was the understanding that a person or an object has the power to give joy to the hearer or beholder. And since to a Greek there was nothing so joy-inspiring as grace or beauty, it implied the presence of these. Yet charis meant not only their presence as passive qualities, but as gracious or beautiful persons and things in operation, acting outside themselves to communicate to others what they possess within (http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/Grace/Grace_008.htm).” I appreciate how Fr. Hardon connects the concepts of both grace and beauty with the Greek word charis. As I mentioned above, it is God who has the power to bestow grace (or beauty) on his creation, and most notably, and in a unique way, on the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Lastly, Peterson expands on the word kecharitomene by doing what most dynamic/paraphrastic translations do when they come upon a loaded word like it, they add more English words to their translation in order to supply a more full rendering. Peterson doesn’t leave it with “your beautiful with God’s beauty” but makes the point even more explicit by having the angel saying to Mary that she is “Beautiful inside and out!” He uses the term “inside and out” in a number of places throughout his translation, with the Psalms being the most helpful once again. He rendered Psalm 26:2 in this way: “Examine me, God, from head to foot, order your battery of tests. Make sure I’m fit inside and out.” Also, the classic text of Psalm 139:13 is translated: “Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb. I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!” So Mary, in a remarkable way, is filled completely with “God’s beauty,” from the “inside and out.” Being filled/full of the beauty of God, traditionally the Church would render as being “full of grace.”
From all my reading of The Message and the works of Eugene Peterson, I am quite confident in stating that he did not believe in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Yet, I think his rendering of Luke 1:28 is fully compatible with that belief and done so in a way that is refreshing and current. Let me say, once again, that The Message was never meant to be a Bible for study. Eugene Peterson never saw it as such and was uncomfortable when he heard that it was being used as the primary translation in some churches. He foresaw it as a text to be used alongside others. (As for English translations of the Bible, he prefered the RSV.) I do contend, however, that if you sit with it a while, allowing yourself to get into the rhythms of Peterson’s poetic style, you will find many hidden treasures that will enhance your daily walk with God. It will speak to you, make you laugh and reflect (sometimes at the same time), and never be a dull read. I believe that Peterson’s rendering of Luke 1:28 gives a perfect example of how to render a classic biblical text, important to Catholics, in a modern yet faithful way.
“Luke 1:28 in The Message: An Apologia” by Timothy McCormick (C) 2019