Geoffrey Hosking, in his superb Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917, describes an early-nineteenth-century attempt to produce a Russian-language Bible:

An integral part of Alexander‘s concept was the idea of making the scriptures available to all the peoples of the empire in their various languages. For this purpose he encouraged the establishment of the Imperial Russian Bible Society in December 1812, as a branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society, to undertake the work of translation, publication and distribution… The extent and coverage of the Society‘s work is demonstrated by the fact that in its first year it published or bought and distributed 37,700 New Testaments and 22,500 complete Bibles in Church Slavonic, French, German, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Armenian, Georgian, Kalmyk and Tatar. For the purpose it set up new printing presses and imaginatively used retail outlets, such as apothecaries’ shops, which had never previously been used for selling books. By 1821 the New Testament and Prayer Book were starting to appear in modern Russian.

Significantly, the language which aroused the greatest opposition when it came to translation was none other than Russian itself. The Bible existed in a Church Slavonic version, and many churchmen felt that only the Slavonic tongue, consecrated by ancient usage, possessed the dignity to convey adequately the meaning of the scriptures. The Society’s view, on the contrary, was that the Slavonic text was readily understood only by those who had been brought up on it since childhood, and that it was therefore unsuitable for evangelism. At Alexander’s express wish, work was started on a translation into modern Russian, in order ‘to give Russians the means of reading the word of God in their native Russian tongue, which is more comprehensible to them than the Slavonic language in which the scriptures have hitherto been published.’

From the outset, some Orthodox clergymen had opposed the Society’s activities… The resistance reached its apogee in 1824 with a denunciation of the Society by the abbot of the Iur’ev Monastery in [Novgorod], Arkhimandrit Fotii… In a memorandum presented personally to the Emperor, Fotii warned of certain ‘Illuminists’ — Freemasons — who were plotting to install a new worldwide religion, having first destroyed ‘all empires, churches, religions, civil laws and all order’. The Bible Society, he maintained, was preparing the way for this revolution…

Alexander was certainly susceptible to Fotii’s insinuations… In the last years of his life, [his fears of sedition] were intensified by the growth of secret societies inside Russia. He naturally associated them with the societies in Germany, Italy and Spain which threatened European peace and stability as guaranteed by his cherished Holy Alliance… He had hoped that the Bible Society would arm the ordinary people against atheism and sedition. Now he was being warned that, on the contrary, the Bible Society was part of the conspiracy… In the event, he drew back from actually closing down the Bible Society, but he dismissed Golitsyn as head of it, replacing him with the irreproachably Orthodox Metropolitan of [Saint Petersburg], Seraphim

He also appointed to the Ministry of Education… Admiral Shishkov, the principal protagonist of Church Slavonic. Shishkov lost no time in putting pressure on Seraphim to stop the Russian publication of the Bible. ‘What! Who among us does not understand the divine service? Only he who has broken with his fatherland and forgotten his own tongue… And can this supposed necessity [of publishing the Bible in modern Russian] do other than degrade the Holy Scriptures and thus implant heresies and schisms?’

Seraphim did not take much persuading. Publication of the catechism and the scriptures in ‘the vernacular’ (prostoe narechie) was terminated… Remarkably but characteristically, the continued publication of the scriptures in other ‘vernacular’ languages did not bother the Orthodox hierarchy, but the Holy Synod ordered the burning of thousands of copies of the Pentateuch, which were already being printed in Russian.

The halting of the Russian Bible was fateful. It delayed by a fatal half-century the moment when ordinary Russians could have access to the scriptures in a language which they could read and study with ease. Peter the Great had carried through a kind of Protestant revolution in the church, but a dangerously incomplete one, since it had never been supplemented by mass reading of the scriptures among the population. Without that the domination of the state within the church always threatened to hollow out its spiritual life. The situation had been created where the postman hero of Leskov’s story Odnodum (The One-Track Mind) could be seen as a laughable and possibly dangerous eccentric merely because he was in the habit of regularly reading the Bible for himself.

The Archimandrite’s attitude is still maintained in some Orthodox quarters; this page on the Elder Nilus says “Archimandrite Photius of the Yuriev Monastery… passed into history as a true confessor who battled with the enemies of the Orthodox Church: the Protestants, Masons and the ‘ecumenists’ of that time – the Bible Society.” And you can get a different perspective (from a Jehovah’s Witness point of view) on the history of the Russian Bible here [link no longer works, and there does not appear to be a search function on the site].


  1. It’s interesting to compare this to the reaction occasioned in American Protestantism by the New International Version, which has more or less replaced the venerable King James.
    Even so, there are still denominations out there who assert as an article of faith that the KJV translators, unlike any other translators before or since, were divinely guided. And outside of those denominations, there are many people who will pray only in King James English. Or what they think is King James English.

  2. Michael Farris says:

    Jack Chick (author of insane reactionary evangelical comic book tracts) used to link to an article that claimed the KJV of the bible is actually now more authentically the word of God than the original texts (God’s plan apparently involved choosing English as an international language).

  3. The sanest version of this theory is that the surviving MSS are corrupt but the divine inspiration of the KJV has restored the now-lost perfect original. This deals neatly with both claims of mistranslation and contradictions raised by relatively recently discovered sources like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
    A similar process caused all the LXX translators to produce identical translations independently.

  4. Is there a word for the percieved need of using a special language when addressing the deity? I suppose the answer to my question is obvious — “liturgical language” — but what I’m trying to get at is the fascination, for me, of the spontaneous folk impulse to have such a thing. “Liturgical language” connotes for me something like (my uninformed idea of) ecclesiastical latin, rigidly maintaned by a strict orthodoxy and kept out of the hands of regular people, almost the definition of an artificial social construct.
    The good, unsophisticated people in the United States who say things like “Thee” and “Thou art” in both public and private prayer, but in no other context, and take pleasure in the habit of doing so, strike me as an interesting linguistic and/or psychological phenomenon.

  5. Re: liturgical langauges, I think it’s worth remembering that they aren’t limited to literate societies. Many traditionally oral peoples have a priestly langauge that may be either a more archaic version of their own or a completely foreign language, such as Yoruban for Candomble, Ekoi-Efik for the Cuban Abakwa society, or Keresan for some of the medicine societies at Zuni.

  6. I imagine that you appreciate that “thee” and “thou” are familiar forms from a time when “you” was formal, chosen deliberately for their intimacy, as a more or less direct Protestant reaction to that Latin orthodoxy. Just like Luther’s Deutsche Messe and the vernacular translations themselves.

  7. Aha! Right! Like the other archaic technologies (e.g. flint knives for sacrifice) that can be conserved by religious practice. Thanks Dave!
    Even in cases where, as MMcM observes, the technology originally got a foothold on the grounds of needful innovation …

  8. Of course, in Milton’s time many English Puritans considered the King James to be a Royalist (if not “Popish”) translation and would only use the Geneva Bible. I believe that the Massachusetts Bay Colony commissioned its own translation of the Psalms.

  9. Richard Uzzell says:

    As Zenkovsky in “Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles and Tales,” so aptly illustrated, Russian letters flourished in comparison to Czech and Polish largely as a result of the fact that Greek Orthodox clergy allowed the gospel and liturgies to be translated into Russian; Roman Catholic-influenced Czechoslovakia and Poland in which ecclesiastical documents were kept primarily in Latin lagged centuries behind Russia in developing their own literatures. The Catholic church’s insistence upon Latin, however, fostered in large part the development of the influential Romance languages.
    If one were to seek evidence of divine participation in the drama, it is likely that any language is enriched having experienced the stewardship of the gospel. Such claims however that Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, King James English or others are divine tongues are likely misguided. Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic; it is interesting that we haven’t heard the argument put forth that His was a divine tongue as many conservative Muslims claim the Quran is written in 100% Holy utterance from Mohammed. The language of the Quran is studied by many as quintessintal style, grammar and usage of Arabic.
    I have often wondered if the whole idea of the Biblically prophesied “speaking in tongues” situation was in actuality a reference to the study of foreign language and not a mysterious and magical thing in contrast to the Bible passage which says the apostles spoke and they were heard in the various languages of all present, despite the apostles’ assumed lack of scholarship in those languages.

  10. From Henry Soames’s A History of the Reformation of the Church of England (1826):

    [Tyndale ...] took up his abode at Antwerp, and in that great commercial city, he occupied himself in translating the New Testament. Of this important work 1500 copies were printed at Antwerp, anonymously, in the year 1526. The volume was no sooner published than it found its way into England, where it occasioned no little disgust and uneasiness among the Clergy.

    It, however, soon became manifest that the circulation of the work could not be wholly prevented; since the commercial intercourse between England and the Netherlands afforded innumerable facilities for its importation, and the people were not easily convinced that God’s revealed word was unsuited for the reading of his rational creatures. Under these difficulties, Bishop Tunstall [of London] thought that the best way to prevent the obnoxious books from finding an entrance into all parts of the land, would be by destroying every copy of the work that should fall in his way.

    An opportunity of effecting this destruction upon a large scale presented itself to him on one of his diplomatic journeys abroad, in the year 1529. The prelate, being at Antwerp, sent for Austin Packington, an English merchant there, who was a secret favourer of Tyndale. In the course of conversation, Packington was sounded by the Bishop as to the best means of procuring all the copies of the New Testament, which remained unsold. Nothing could be more desirable to the meritorious translator than to turn his books into money immediately, since he was very much straitened in his circumstances, and wholly unable to print a corrected edition of his work, while the former impression continued on his hands.

    The English merchant, being well aware of Tyndale’s condition and intentions, readily entered into Tunstall’s scheme, and said that he could easily procure all the unsold Testaments, if his Lordship would find the money wherewith to pay for them. The Bishop, delighted to hear this, replied in the following words:

    “Gentle master Packington, do your diligence and get the books. I will pay you for them with all my heart. They are erroneous and naughty [wicked] : therefore, I surely intend to destroy them all, by having them burnt at Paul’s Cross.”

    After hearing this, the trader took his leave. He then made the best of his way to Tyndale, whom he thus addressed:

    “William, I know thou art a poor man, and hast a heap of New Testaments and books by thee, for the which thou hast both endangered thy friends and beggared thyself. However, I have now gotten thee a merchant, who, with ready money, shall despatch thee of all that thou hast, if thou thinkest it so profitable for thyself.”

    “Pray,” said Tyndale, “who is the merchant?”

    “The Bishop of London,” was the answer.

    “O, that is because he will burn them,” rejoined Tyndale.

    “Yea, marry,” was Packingham’s [sic] answer.

    “Well, be it so,” said the translator. I am the gladder; for these two benefits shall come thereby. I shall get money of him to bring myself out of debt, and the whole world shall cry out upon the burning of God’s word [emphasis added]. As for the overplus that shall remain to me after the settlement of my accounts, it shall make me the more studious to correct the said New Testament, and so newly to imprint the same again. And, I trust, the second will much more like you than ever did the first.”

    It was not long after this, before the books were delivered to Tunstall, and the price of them to Tyndale; who heartily thanked his mercantile friend for having thus contrived to relieve his present necessities, and to furnish him with the means of bringing out a more perfect edition of his useful work.

    While he was labouring to effect this, the Bishop arrived in England; where he did not fail to amaze the Londoners by publicly committing to the flames his Antwerp purchase. Few things could be more injurious to the Romish cause than this indecent exhibition. The people were disgusted when they saw the volumes containing God’s undoubted word subjected to this ignominious treatment; and the impression which it made upon their minds naturally was, that no man acquainted with Scripture could give credence to the established religion.

    Sir Thomas More famously flamed Tyndale for getting the distinctions between yes and yea, no and nay wrong in his translation, showing that the distinction was then breaking down — but More actually explains the distinction backwards, showing that his own grip on it was none of the best, an early example of Hartmann’s Law of Prescriptive Retaliation.

  11. I did not know about the four-form system — thanks for that!

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, that explains a lot. :-)

  13. Owlmirror says:

    And you can get a different perspective (from a Jehovah’s Witness point of view) on the history of the Russian Bible here [link no longer works, and there does not appear to be a search function on the site].

    Just thought I’d point out that the Internet Archive of the page exists.

    Citing a bit from there:

    Russian researcher Korsunsky explained: ‘The very name of God, the most holy of his names, was composed of four Hebrew characters יהוה and is now pronounced Jehovah.’

    Is it, now. . .

    And would a Russian really say “Jehovah” rather than “Иегова”? (via Google Translate, so I’m not sure if that’s quite the right form)

  14. I wonder what is meant by “vernacular” (prostoe narechie)?

    Peasant dialects of Great Russian language?

    Or standard literary Russian?

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