East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 1999, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Translating the Russian Bible

Mark Elliott

"Russian Christians, both evangelical and Orthodox, now anticipate the preparation of a new Russian translation of the Bible that will modernize the language of the Synodal Version."  So wrote Russian church historian Paul Steeves in 1976 on the centennial of the completion of the Russian vernacular Bible.1  But a contemporary Russian translation of the Bible generally acceptable to Orthodox and Protestants still has not appeared over two decades later.  On the one hand, theologically conservative Orthodox and Protestants both accept as authoritative the nineteenth-century Synodal Version, so named because of its approval by the Russian Orthodox Holy Synod.  On the other hand, this translation did not reflect the language of the common people even at the time of its initial publication, and the number of archaic and incomprehensible passages has steadily increased over time as the Russian language has evolved.

In 1996 Scott Thomas Munger's published doctoral thesis, Russian New Testaments (Amsterdam: Free University, 1996), evaluated three translations of the Russian New Testament; and in 1997 the Russian Bible Society reprinted the nineteenth-century classic, Istoriia perevoda Biblii na Russkii iazyk (History of Russian Bible Translation), by I. A. Chistovich.>2  These publications draw attention to the need for an accurate and readable translation of the Scriptures in modern Russian.  Find below brief descriptions of various Russian vernacular Scripture translations and translation projects.

The Synodal Version
 The British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), founded in 1804, played a major role in the work of the Russian Bible Society (RBS), founded in 1812.  The Russian Bible Society benefited greatly from the personal support and patronage of Tsar Alexander I.  In addition, the monarch's close confidante, Alexander Golitsyn, served both as president of the Bible Society and Oberprocurator [Director] of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Before being closed in 1826 by the reactionary Nicholas I, the RBS, working with the BFBS,  published the first Russian vernacular Gospels in 1819, a complete Russian New Testament in 1821, and a Russian Psalter in 1822.  (Translation of the first eight books of the Old Testament were completed by 1825 but were not circulated.)  Using advanced stereotype printing technology imported from England, the RBS, before its closure in 1826, published and distributed between 750,000 and one million Russian New Testaments and scripture portions in 26 languages. Under Nicholas I neither the state nor the Russian Orthodox Church permitted work on Russian vernacular translations of scripture.  In the 1840s Professor G. P. Pavskii actually completed the first Russian translation of the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew, but he was put on trial for his trouble and his work did not survive.  However, in the 1850s in the reign of Alexander II work on a Russian vernacular Bible revived under the direction of Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow.  The Holy Synod approved a new translation of the New Testament, published in 1862, and the first complete Russian vernacular translation of the Old Testament, published in 1876.  The Holy Synod gave its official blessing to this Synodal Version for personal, but not liturgical use.  It remained the only full Russian vernacular Bible for well over a century.

The Synodal Version, which incorporated archaic constructions derived from the Old Church Slavonic text, was difficult for Russians to comprehend as soon as it was published.  Modern readers are even more challenged to understand its meaning.  Petrograd Theological Academy professor I. E. Evseev wrote in 1916 that the Synodal Version depended upon "pre-Pushkin language" reflecting its failure to incorporate the richness of the common nineteenth-century literary language.3  Tamara Portnova, retired professor of English at Moscow State University, came to the same conclusion many decades later.  Although her grandfather was an Orthodox priest, she was 65 years old before she first saw a Bible (in an English translation).  "I was determined to get one in Russian but could actually get it only many years later.  To my great disappointment the Russian translation of the Bible was so confusing that I put it aside and continued to read the English translation instead.  I consider myself a rather well-educated person, and yet the number of archaic forms of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and the irregular word order in sentences make the reading of the Synodal Version of the Bible very difficult."  According to Russian language professor Svetlana Barber, Kent State University, "The Synodal Version is written in archaic Russian not used at all in contemporary spoken or written language.  The original [Old Church Slavonic] language was translated word for word, often resulting in incorrect Russian grammar and atypical sentence structures."  Finally, Anatoly Rudenko, director of the Russian Bible Society, believes, "We need a new generation Bible for young people.  Many view the Bible like sacred music; nice but not understandable."4

The Cassian or Bezobrazov or "Paris-Brussels" New Testament
After World War II the British and Foreign Bible Society funded a revision of the Synodal New Testament under the direction of Bishop Cassian Bezobrazov, professor of New Testament and rector of the St. Sergius Theological Institute, Paris.  Work began in the 1950s, with the BFBS finally publishing the new translation in 1970.  The first portions published in 1953 quickly prompted a series of hostile articles in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate beginning in 1954.  In fact, opposition to the Cassian translation, which is also known as the Paris-Brussels and the 1970 translation, significantly reenergized Russian Orthodox biblical scholarship.  According to Russian historian Stephen K. Batalden, "The strength of the text rested in its incorporation of modern textological advances represented in the Nestle-Aland critical Greek New Testament. But this strength was more than offset by the rather unreadable nature of the Russian translation [which adhered to] the original Greek word order. No one from the sponsoring BFBS translations staff could sense the full dimensions of this problem until it was too late to rectify the literary unreadability of the text."5

While from the standpoint of readability, the case can be made that Russian émigré language was preferable to Soviet Russian of the 1950s, the Cassian New Testament still could never hope to receive approval from the Moscow Patriarchate.  The Russian Orthodox Church attacked this "Paris-Brussels" translation precisely because it allegedly did not take into account the Byzantine textual tradition but, rather, drew heavily from the Western textual tradition.

The World Bible Translation Center Version
In 1981 the Church of Christ-related World Bible Translation Center (WBTC) began work on a new Russian Scripture, publishing the New Testament (Blagaia vest [Good News]) in 1989 and the entire Bible (Bibliia: sovremennyi perevod bibleiskikh tekstov [Bible:  Contemporary Translation of Biblical Texts]) in 1993, apparently only the second full vernacular Russian translation in history.  According to the WBTC website (http://www.wbtc.com), Russian translators worked from Greek-English and Hebrew-English segments (phrases), later explaining in English the content of the foreign language translation to Hebrew and Greek scholars for further revision.  (For a complete description of this process, see http://www.wbtc.com/articles/translation/translation_process.htm.) WBTC distributed 10,000 copies of its New Testament at the Moscow International Book Fair in August 1989,  took requests for 17,000 additional copies from fair-goers who provided their names and addresses, and has distributed millions of copies to date.6  Unfortunately, this version, also known as the Easy-to-Read translation, does not fare well in Scott T. Munger's survey of Russian Scripture translations, or in the opinion of Russian Bible Society director Anatoly Rudenko.7

The Word of Life Translation
Living Bibles International (LBI), following in the footsteps of Kenneth Taylor's popular Bible paraphrase, produced a Russian New Testament in 1991.  Distribution of this Slovo zhizni [Word of Life] (Moscow:  Protestant, 1991) edition is said to be in the millions. Since the merger of LBI and the International Bible Society (IBS) in 1992, the latter has held the copyright to the Word of Life version.  Scott T. Munger considers this Russian paraphrase closer in spirit to the New International Version (NIV) than to the English Living Bible.8 He also notes, "Freedom from restriction to source text forms [i.e. paraphrase] increases the potential for comprehension, but also the potential for omissions and exegetical error."  Even as many believers resist new translations, "the [Russian] general public and even a sizable portion of a highly literary audience are attracted to a freer translation."  However, Word of Life "contains some glaring mistakes and omissions that could be avoided with better editing."9

Earlier, Living Bibles International sponsored a version of the Gospels, Acts, Romans, and First John under the title Nachala khristianskoi very [The Beginning of Christian Faith] (Naperville, IL:  LBI, 1984).  Russian émigré interpreter Eugene Grosman prepared the text, but did not approve of subsequent editing by Russian émigrés in Sweden.

V. N. Kuznetsova's Translation
V. N. Kuznetsova's scholarly publication of new translations of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Kanonicheskiye Yevangeliia [Gospels] (Moscow: Nauka, 1992), and Poslaniye k Rimlianam [Romans] (Moscow: Dom Marii, 1993), aimed at accuracy and comprehension. Kuznetsova has abandoned the principle of literal, word-for-word translation, in favor of the principle of dynamic equivalence.  Her work closely follows the more recent critical editions of the original Greek texts based on the scholarship of Eberhard Nestle and Kurt Aland.10

Given the Russian Orthodox Church's strict adherence to the Byzantine textual tradition, one would not expect it to approve of Kuznetsova's work, which is based on the Nestle-Aland Greek text.  On the other hand, the Moscow Patriarchate does support the Russian Bible Society, which is preparing a new translation of the New Testament, based on Kuznetsova's work, as modified by a committee of experts.  This translation is near completion.

Editor's Note:  The author wishes to express his appreciation to Dr. Henry R. Cooper, Jr., professor of Russian and chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, for his helpful reading of an earlier draft of this article.

Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

  1. "A Centennial Celebration Nine Hundred Years Late," Christianity Today 21 (8 October 1976), 14-16.
  2. Second edition--St. Petersburg:  M. M. Stasiulevich, 1899.  Reprinted by the Russian Bible Society in 1998.  Readers should be aware that a Soviet-era study superseded the work of  Chistovich:  M. I.  Rizhskii, Istoriia perevodov Biblii v Rossii [A History of Bible Translations in Russia] (Novosibirsk:  "Nauka,"  Sibirskoye Otdeleniye, 1978).  It is a valuable study despite its admitted biases:  it claims to have been written for propagandizers of atheism.  But that is probably how it managed to get published, if only in Siberia.
  3. Quoted in Stephen K. Batalden, "The Politics of Modern Russian Biblical Translation" in Bible Translation and the Spread of the Church, ed. by Philip C. Stine (Leiden:  E. J. Brill, 1990), 76.  See also Scott T. Munger, Russian New Testaments, 25.
  4. "A Bible for the Russian People: Easy-to-Read Russian Version" (Fort Worth, TX:  World Bible Translation Center, [1993]), 5-6.
  5. Batalden, "Politics," 75.
  6. "A Bible for the Russian People," 4 and 8.
  7. Munger, Russian New Testaments, 27; author's conversation with Anatoly Rudenko, June 1996.
  8. Munger, Russian New Testaments, 23.
  9. Ibid., 183.
  10. Ibid., 22-26.

Mark Elliott, "Translating the Russian Bible," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Spring 1999), 7-9.

Keeping Current on Russian Bible Translations

Mir Biblii [The World of the Bible], founded by the late Fr. Alexander Men and published by St. Andrew's Biblical Theological College, is an excellent source for information on Russian Bible translation.  For example, volume 1, issue 1 (1993), includes a translation of "Job" by S. Averintsev, with Bible commentary by G. K. Chesterton; articles on Qumran (Alexander Men), "In Memorium" to Fr. Alexander Men (Alexander Borisov), Russian Bible origins (Aleksei Bychkov); and reviews of new Russian Bible translations:  "Acts" (K. Logachev); "The Gospels" (L. Lutkovsky); The Living New Testament (Mikhail Seleznev); and the World Bible Translation Center Good News New Testament (Mikhail Seleznev).  Issue 4 (1997) includes articles on the Greek text of the New Testament (Bruce Metzger), exegesis and spirituality (Gordon Fee), Jesus in the Qumran (Aleksei Jouravsky), and ecology and the Bible (Leonid Vasilenko); and reviews of new Russian Bible translations:  "Jonah" (Edward Junz); and "Genesis" 1-8 (Mikhail Seleznev).  Cost:  Vols. 1-3 (1993-95):  $6 each; Vol. 4 (1997):  $8; Vol. 5 (1998):  $9.50; Vol. 6 (1999):  $10.50.  Contact:  Aleksei Bodrov, editor, ul. Volkhonka, d. 18/2, 121019 Moscow, Russia; tel:  7-095-233-2790; fax:  7-095-551-3462 and 230-2902; e-mail: standrews@standrews.ru.

 "Keeping Current on Russian Bible Translations," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Spring 1999), 8.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe