What Is a Paraphrase?

Bible students frequently wonder about paraphrases. What are they? Should they use them?

Defining Paraphrase

To a linguist, a paraphrase is a rewording of text using the same language as the source text. Thus, if I see a sentence that reads, “I’m going home,” I could paraphrase it (cruelly!) to “I am changing course such as to journey to my domicile.”

Bible Translations and Paraphrase

In reference to Bible translations, a paraphrase has generally come to mean, “a very loose translation that takes great freedom with the text.”

In my charts on each Bible translation, I don’t identify a text as a paraphrase. I simply place these translations on the scale of “formal” to “functional.” What is commonly known as a paraphrase, such as The Message or The Passion Translation will have a high number on the functional scale (9, in this case) and a low number on the formal scale (2). In addition I indicate whether there is a great deal of translation of cultural terms. For The Message, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” (Follow the links to see the chart.)

Thus in Psalm 104:25, The Message reads “… brimming with fish past counting, sardines and sharks and salmon….”. Salmon are not a fish native to Israel, and the verse itself doesn’t identify the many creatures to be found in the sea.

This translation is both high on the functional scale (I’d rate this specific passage a 10), and also translates cultural terms, trying to give modern readers a feel for the intent of the author.


The term “paraphrase” is now in general use as a different type of translation. I see it as simply an extension of the existing spectrum of approaches to the text.

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