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

Modern Russian Bible Translation:  Four Questions That Prevent Consensus

Stephen K. Batalden

The Question of Authority
Modern Russian biblical translation generated and continues to generate intense controversy precisely because fundamental questions of authority raised in the process of biblical translation have remained unresolved. Moreover, the very framing of the questions and the difficulty of their resolution reflect the highly structured and politicized nature of modern Russian culture, while also reflecting the official position of the Orthodox Church within that culture.  In clarifying the larger cultural parameters within which Russian biblical translation has occurred, it may be helpful at the outset to identify two special features affecting the use of the Russian Bible.  First of all, the Russian Bible has only rarely been used as a liturgical text.  Rather, the biblical text used in Orthodox worship has continued to be that of an Old Slavic or Church Slavonic edition.  There were efforts to introduce a modern Russian Bible into liturgical worship both during the Russian Revolution and the Russian All-Church Council of 1917-1918 and in the church renovationist movement of the 1920s and early 1930s.  Still, the Slavonic Bible has remained the text of liturgical worship for Russian Orthodox.

A second feature bearing upon use of the Russian Bible is the relatively late development of Bible reading as an element of Orthodox piety or spirituality. Unlike Protestantism with its early sixteenth-century Luther Bible and its appeal to a Bible-reading "priesthood of believers," Russian Orthodoxy has traditionally found the clearest expression of its spirituality in the daily marking of the church calendar with its fasts, its saints' lives, its veneration of icons and, most important, its liturgical celebration of the Eucharist.  Until the nineteenth century, most Russians, including some rural parish priests and their peasant flock, were illiterate, and literacy was not required for the fulfillment of Orthodox religious observances. Only with the growth of literacy and popular education in the later nineteenth century did Bible reading become a significant element of Russian religious life--and then only because of the development of an elaborate colportage network for dissemination of biblical literature.  Still, the fact that such Bible reading became most prevalent among Russian sectarians, or Protestants, confirmed for some of the more wary Orthodox prelates their suspicion that Bible reading and broad dissemination of Scripture in the common language was a distinctly Protestant practice.

The first and most fundamental of our questions of authority in the politics of modern Russian biblical translation [is] namely, who has the right to translate and publish Russian scripture?  The burning relevance of this question for Russian society remains behind the scenes to this day a ticklish, unresolved problem in a religious and political culture that has in the past been conditioned to expect such questions of authority to be resolved from the top down.

The Question of Source Texts
Another fundamental question of authority [is] namely, what biblical texts [are] to be considered authoritative?  The question of biblical texts had already arisen in the [nineteenth century] Bible Society era when the decision was taken to use the Hebrew Massoretic text rather than the Greek Septuagint as the basis for translation of the Psalter. Sensing the potential for controversy over this issue, the translations subcommittee of the Russian Bible Society prepared a preface to the Russian Psalter defending readings and numeration that differed from the established Slavonic text--a text that rested largely upon the Septuagint.

If anything, the politics of modern Russian New Testament textology has been thornier than that of the Old Testament.  Here the problem has not been that of a conflict between rival supporters of Greek and Hebrew texts, but rather a conflict over the introduction of modern New Testament textology into Russian translation.  At the base of both the Russian Bible Society New Testament [1821] and the Synodal New Testament of 1862 rested essentially the same textus receptus, a basic Greek text that dated with modification to the work of the Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus.  (See Editor's Note at the end of the article.)

The Question of Defining "Modern" Russian
While the right to translate and the authority of texts have raised fundamental political issues for the Russian Church in modern society, a third issue is the more confounding because of the inability of the society itself to fix upon any resolution.  This third fundamental question involves the basic authority of the linguistic medium.  Reference has been made to the politics of the modern Russian Bible.  The Russian Orthodox Church in the nineteenth century developed its own official language, a variant of modern Russian that reflected its bureaucratic nature and its debt to old Slavonicisms.  Thus, in some sense, the language of the Synodal New Testament constituted a regression from the more common language of the early Bible Society New Testament.  The problem facing modern Russian biblical translation, in this respect, is that of the myriad literary voices in contemporary Russia--from the colloquial street talk of some Russian writers to the high-cultured Russian of some poets. Arguably, there is no single authoritative modern Russian literary language; there are many.  And in the absence of such a norm, the Synodal text has had remarkable staying power, despite the occasional limitations of its textual base.

The Question of Distribution
Finally, the problems of authority in modern Russian biblical translation have also included the profoundly divisive question of distribution. Who, the question arose, had the authority to distribute Russian scripture? Unlike its hegemonial [exclusive] claims in the area of translation and publication, the [Russian Orthodox] Holy Synod never managed to secure in the nineteenth century monopoly rights on the distribution of Holy Scripture. Instead, there developed an unprecedented system of colportage led by the St. Petersburg agency of the British and Foreign Bible Society.  Such colportage inevitably came to arouse the concern of Synodal officials. The fear, not entirely unjustified, was that colportage was becoming a front for proselytizing and recruitment into sectarian, Protestant ranks.

In the Soviet period, especially since the Stalinist accords with the Orthodox Church during World War II, the authority officially to distribute Russian Scripture was lodged squarely within the Moscow Patriarchate and its publication office.  The only major exception to that was the case of Russian scripture provided by the British and Foreign Bible Society and now the United Bible Societies to the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists.

Modern Russian biblical translation has been inevitably drawn into politically controversial questions of authority in a highly structured Russian and Soviet politicized environment.  The authority of texts, the authority of the language itself, and the authority to distribute Scripture are all a part of this political context.

Editor's Note:  Henry R. Cooper, Jr., professor of Russian at Indiana University, believes that Synodal translators may have consulted Greek texts, but he also contends that the Synodal Version fundamentally is a translation from Old Church Slavonic.  Letter to Mark Elliott, 15 January 1999.  Dr. Batalden's response:  "As regards Henry Cooper's comment, all the major translators involved in the Synodal translation were competent in Greek, and the translation did employ the old Greek textology.  If Cooper, on the other hand, is trying to argue that the translators sought to make the final text conform to Slavonic textology as much as possible, then he is probably right.  I would have to defer to him as the linguist."  E-mail to Mark Elliott, 28 January 1999.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from "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), 68-80.

Stephen K. Batalden, professor of history, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, is the author of Catherine II's Greek Prelate:  Eugenios Voulgaris in Russia, 1771-1806 (1982) and The Newly Independent States of Eurasia:  Handbook of Former Soviet Republics, 2nd ed. (1997).

Stephen K. Batalden, "Modern Russian Bible Translation:  Four Questions That Prevent Consensus," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Spring 1999), 9-10.

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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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