The Monk Who Relearned Reading.

I hadn’t been to Troubadour/Grey Matter Books (“Hadley’s premier hard-to-find bookstore for hard-to-find books” — see this post, where I discovered Troubadour, and this one, where I bade farewell to it) in too long, so my lovely and generous wife dropped me off there this morning. I limited myself to a few purchases, the main one being A History of Russian Literature by Victor Terras — I now own all the major such histories in English, from Mirsky to Kahn, Lipovetsky, Reyfman, and Sandler, which gives me great satisfaction. Of course I started on it immediately, and I loved this anecdote in a footnote on p. 19 (where he also mentions the gospel manuscripts called aprakos — see this LH post):

The Russian Middle Ages had a decided bias against the Old Testament. The Kiev Patericon tells the story of a monk who knew all the books of the Old Testament but could not stand the sight or sound of the gospels and epistles of the New Testament. Through the prayers of his brothers in Christ he eventually forgets the Old Testament entirely, so that he has to learn how to read again. He becomes meek and obedient and is rewarded by being made bishop of Novgorod.


  1. I don’t see where it says that the monk became “meek and obedient”, but more interestingly, in what language did he read those Jewish books? It’s completely not clear from the text.

  2. Saint Nikita, Bishop of Novgorod, in his youth entered the Kiev Caves monastery and soon wished to become a hermit. The igumen cautioned him that such an exploit was premature for a young monk, but he, trusting in his own strength, would not listen.

    In the hermitage Saint Nikita fell into temptation. The devil appeared to him in the guise of an angel, and the inexperienced ascetic bowed down to him. The devil gave him advice, speaking as if to one who had attained perfection: “Don’t bother to pray, just read and study other things, and I shall pray in your place.” He stood near the hermit, giving the appearance of praying. The deceived monk Nikita came to surpass everyone in his knowledge of the Books of the Old Testament, but he would not speak about the Gospel, nor did he wish to hear it read.

    The Elders of the Kiev Caves went to the monk, and after they had prayed, they expelled the devil from him. After this Saint Nikita remained a hermit with the blessing of the Elders, and lived in strict fasting and prayer, surpassing everyone in obedience and humility.

    Through the prayer of the holy Elders, the merciful Lord brought him up from the depths of his fall to a high degree of spiritual perfection. Afterwards, he was made Bishop of Novgorod, and for his holy life God granted him the gift of wonderworking. Once, during a time of drought, he brought rain from the heavens by his prayers. Another time, he stopped a fire in the city. Saint Nikita guided the Novgorod flock for thirteen years, and then peacefully fell asleep in the Lord in 1109.

    In 1558, during the reign of Tsar Ivan Vasilievich, Bishop Nikita was glorified as a saint. His relics now rest in the church of the holy Apostle Philip in Novgorod. He is also commemorated on May 14.

  3. Stu Clayton says
  4. John Cowan says

    Surely he read them in Church Slavonic, what else?

  5. Might have been Greek, depending how learned he was.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    According to this, the first complete OT in Church Slavonic did not exist until the 1490’s – many individual books had been previously translated but not all of them. The missing ones were rendered into Slavonic from the Vulgate, it being by the 1490’s in Muscovy apparently easier to find translators who could read Latin than who could read Greek. But in the 11th century in the Kiev caves reading knowledge of Greek seems more likely.

  7. Very on brand for Russians to think they were the first to translate the complete Bible into Old Church Slavonic even though OCS was devised in the Balkans, based on the South Slavic vernacular, with no shortage of Greek speaking scribes, and all of this some 6 centuries prior to 1490.

  8. Sarcasm noted, but was there a prior OCS version from the Balkans?

  9. I don’t know, but the claim in the wiki is entirely reliant on the Pravoslavnaya Enciklopediya, a publication of the Russian Patriarchate. So, yeah, like i said, very on brand.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    There were OCS translations of at least *parts* of the Bible all the way back to the days of Cyril and Methodius. The implication is that the entire NT was done quite early but the OT was done piecemeal, as people felt the need to have a Slavonic version of particular parts, and it does not strike me as implausible that the desire to be complete for completeness’ own sake arose fairly late. Outside of the Psalms, no portion of the OT is read in its entirety in church services in the Byzantine tradition and only a few books have a majority of them read. Moreover, as I understand it the Byzantine tradition in liturgical manuscripts was that if you had readings from the Old Testament (common for vespers of feast days, for example) the relevant passage was written out in its entirety in the appropriate spot — there wasn’t a citation that assumed you would instead turn to a “Bible” (considered as a separate physical object containing the “entire Bible” bound in a single large codex) and open it to the cited passage. So as liturgical MSS got translated from Greek to Slavonic you would naturally need to translate e.g. a particular passage from Jeremiah as and when you came to it, but the project of translating Jeremiah in its entirety beyond the specific passages used in specific services might well have lagged.

  11. My point was that it sounds a lot like an attempt to portray Russia as having been at the centre of events and historical processes in which they were barely even a marginal participant, and honestly given that the source for the claim turns out to be an encyclopedia published by Russian Patriarch is kind of perfectly on brand as well.

  12. Except that if it’s true, the brand is kind of irrelevant.

  13. Even if it’s true, it’s obviously a tendentious and misleading claim. I don’t know why you’re taking the Russian Church’s position at face value and yet you seemingly expect me to disprove it with evidence. If someone claimed that the first complete English translation of the Bible was printed in Salt Lake City in 1873 your initial reaction would probably be skepticism, and if it turned out that by “complete ” they meant “including the Book of Mormon” it would be literally true but nevertheless dishonest.

  14. I don’t know why you’re taking the Russian Church’s position at face value and yet you seemingly expect me to disprove it with evidence.

    Because it’s not absurd on its face, and if you’re going to treat it with such contempt I would expect you to have some basis for that. I take no position one way or the other, but a little googling has not turned up any evidence that there was an earlier complete version — though of course particular books, like the Psalms, were translated early on.

  15. If you look at the OCS texts sensu strictu, i.e. the texts dating back to the 9th/10th century, you will indeed find that they concentrate on the NT and have only a small selection of OT texts, especially the Psalms. So that chimes in with what J. W. Brewer says. Your comparison with the English situation is flawed – for the Protestant program, it was important to have the full bible in the vernacular, so that everyone could read it. For the orthodox church, it was important to have those parts that were used in the liturgy, and stuff that was in the usual reading program for the clergy – you find vitae of saints, collections of sermons, and exegetical texts in the OCS canon (i.e., the texts that were translated early), so these things seem to have been seen as more important than most of the OT texts. So, for me a claim that a full translation into Church Slavic, including every minor prophet, was done only in the 15th century doesn’t seem that outlandish.

  16. Maybe the dispute can be settled by pointing out Old Church Slavonic translation of the Old Testament which predates 1490 AD.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Just to give one comparison in terms of timeline – the missionary work of St. Augustine of Canterbury among the heathen Anglo-Saxons began in A.D. 597, but there was not a complete Bible translation into English until the 1380’s (Wycliffe). The lag from the beginning of the mission of SS Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs (A.D. 862) to the 1490’s is meaningfully less.

  18. OCS is a small corpus, so until we find new manuscripts, I can say confidently that no such full translation exists. (Just to be clear, in Slavistics OCS is used only for the oldest layer of the language, from the 9th/10th century. IIRC, the canon of OCS texts consists of about a dozen manuscripts. I don’t have my books and notes here, so I can’t check the exact number). What I cannot exclude with certainty is whether there exists a translation of the full OT into the regional varieties of Church Slavic that developed since the 10th century previous to the translation we’re discussing here. Unlike nemanja, I am ready to accept the information given in the WP article, until someone can prove that it’s inaccurate.

  19. David Marjanović says

    there was not a complete Bible translation into English until the 1380’s (Wycliffe)

    Part of the reason for that was that the Catholic Church – to different extents in different periods – actively opposed translating almost any part of the Bible beyond Latin, figuring that when people without sufficient education in theology read the Bible, they only create heresies.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Pah! All the best heresies were created by people who read Greek.

  21. Well, except for the Circumcellions.

  22. (I suppose it wasn’t a great heresy, theologically speaking, but they were definitely great heretics.)

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Hmph. Not a very intellectual heresy. But I suppose that was the point, really.

    Googling them turns up a somewhat pointed Grauniad article about comfy Western Christians who like to imagine that they are persecuted.

    It all comes from not being able to read Greek. ΟΕΔ.

  24. Circumcellions in the news!

  25. I was so excited I added it to the Circumcellions post.

  26. John Cowan says

    Did you mean ϘΕΔ, by any chance?

  27. David Marjanović says

    IIRC, the canon of OCS texts consists of about a dozen manuscripts. I don’t have my books and notes here, so I can’t check the exact number

    Found it, the Leiden Summer School reader for OCS, that is:

    The main corpus of OCS consists of nine texts. Two of these have been written with the Cyrillic script, seven in the Glagolitic script. All texts are from the 11th century, except the Kiev Folios, which are from the 10th century.

    Types of texts, all religious:
    – Tetraevangelium (four gospels)
    – Aprakos gospel (selection from the gospels for use in mass)
    – Synaxarion (a summary of the life of a saint or of the particulars of a feast)
    – Menaion (contains the lessons and liturgical formularies on saint’s lives for daily use and depends on the days of the month)
    – Psalterium (collection of Psalms)
    – Homily (commentary that follows a reading of scripture)
    – Euchologium (book containing instructions and texts for use during services and the performance of rites such as sacraments and blessings, a prayer-book)

    The Gospels are represented in 5 manuscripts, the psalms are nearly complete. Transferred to printed text, the corpus would be about a thousand pages, one third of which would consist of variant readings. There were certainly more texts in the earliest period, but those that have not been lost are written in the language of later scribes.

    CLOZIANUS 14 folios, Homilies. In possession of the Frankopan noble family in Croatia since the 16th century.
    ASSEMANIUS 158 folios, Aprakos-Gospel, synaxarion. Found in Jerusalem in the 18th c.
    ZOGRAPHENSIS 270 folios, four Gospels (plus a later added synaxarion, not OCS). Found on Mount Athos in the Zographos monastery.
    MARIANUS four Gospels, 173 folios. Sete of the Mother of God, Athos.
    PSALTERIUM SINAITICUM 209 folios, several scribes.
    KIEV FOLIOS 7 folios, 38 prayers for use during holy mass, translated from Latin, cf. the otherwise absent мьша < Missa, оплатъ ‘offering, host’ < oblatum (both through Bav.). Found in Jerusalem in the 19th. c.

    SAVVINA KNJIGA 130 folios, Aprakos gospel, synaxarion. Seredkino monastery near Pskov at least from the 14th till the 17th century. Written down (copied) by the monk Sava.
    SUPRASLIENSIS 570 pages (285 folios), Menaion (March), Homilies for the Holy week (last week of Lent) and Easter. Found in the Supraśl Lavra monastery, eastern Poland (which probably obtained the manuscript in the 16th or 17th century (from Mount Athos?)).

    The 9 texts mentioned form the canonical corpus. There exist more texts, some of which may also be classified as Middle Bulgarian, others are clearly OCS. Most of these have been found in the second half of the twentieth century and part of them are palimpsests. That is to say, they are older layers under a later text, which may even be in a completely different language (e.g., Greek). The rarity of parchment was an incentive to overwrite old texts that were no longer used (if the older layer is OCS, it is usually Glagolitic). This could happen dozens of times. Some of these texts can now be read because of improved technology. Altogether there are 9 more texts which are viewed as belonging to the OCS corpus (about a fifth of the total number of folios), so 18 in total.

    Most of OCS is known from the 19th century or earlier, including all canonical texts. The largest find of new OCS occurred in 1975, when dozens of Slavic texts were discovered behind a wall in St. Catherine’s Monastery on mount Sinaï. This is due to the fact that the Monastery attracted many pilgrims during the times of the crusades (between 1099 and 1270), which overlaps and follows the time of the writing of the OCS manuscripts (two of the large canonical manuscripts come from Sinai and the Kiev Folios were probably kept in St. Catherine’s for a long time). Of these texts, three to five belong to the OCS corpus, two of those being beforehand missing parts of the Euchologium and Psalterium Sinaiticum. One of the manuscripts contains a number of medicinal prescriptions.

    The texts can be dated to the 10th and 11th centuries, the oldest manuscripts around 950. Further, there exist a number of OCS inscriptions in Bulgaria and southern Rumania (around 100) on walls, crosses, jewellery, seals, a clay disk. The oldest Cyrillic inscription dates from 921, which is thereby the terminus ante quem for the Cyrillic script.

    There are two 11th century texts that are not considered to be part of the OCS corpus but that deserve mentioning:
    – The Freising Fragments, 11th c., with so called Alpine Slavic features, were composed somewhere in the south of present day Austria (Church of Rome).
    – Ostromir Evangely (based on a OCS original), 1056-57, Novgorod, has Russian features.

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    By coincidence (or is it), today is, for those who have accepted the New Calendar, the feast day of St. Nestor the Chronicler. He is of course best known as the principal compiler of that key text for the history of Rus’, the so-called Primary Chronicle, but according to one online hagiographic source, he was also involved in the incident referenced in the OP here: “Concerning his lofty spiritual life it says that, with a number of other monastic Fathers he participated in the casting out of a devil from Nikita the Hermit (January 31), who had become fascinated by the Hebrew wisdom of the Old Testament.”

    Lest you think he was unduly negative about book larnin’, the same hagiographic source goes on to quote him as follows: “Great is the benefit of book learning,” he said, “for books point out and teach us the way to repentance, since from the words of books we discover wisdom and temperance. This is the stream, watering the universe, from which springs wisdom. In books is a boundless depth, by them we are comforted in sorrows, and they are a bridle for moderation. If you enter diligently into the books of wisdom, then you shall discover great benefit for your soul. Therefore, the one who reads books converses with God or the saints.”

  29. Nestor also wrote one of my favorite Church Slavic saint’s lives, the Life of the Venerable Theodosius of the Kiev Caves (Житие Феодосия Печерского). Theodosius’s mom was a real handful!

  30. Aha, Terras has a discussion of OT translations on p. 79, fn. 46:

    As early as 1517 Frantsisk Skorina of Polotsk (1470–1541), who had studied medicine in Cracow and Padua, printed in Prague twenty-three books of the Old Testament, under the title A Russian Bible, produced by Doctor Frantsisk Skorina from the famous city of Polotsk, to the glory of God and to properly instruct all people. He later added other texts. The first complete Slavonic Bible appeared in Ostrog, in the grand duchy of Lithuania, in 1581.

  31. John Cowan says

    For he that hateth learning hateth God above.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    Did you mean ϘΕΔ, by any chance?


  33. Small Latine and lesse Greeke, that’s me.

  34. @DM: Thanks for the list!

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    The Ostrog Bible is generally said to be the first complete Bible in Slavonic produced on a printing press — the Gutenberg Bible of the Slavs, as it were. From other language in the bit quoted it sounds like Terras is talking in context about printing and should not (necessarily) be read to claim that there was no prior complete Slavonic Bible in manuscript form, including but not necessarily limited to the one said to have been assembled a bit over eight decades previously by Archbishop Gennady.

    Re nemanja’s points about the Muscovite-supremacist “brand,” Gennady’s work, as claimed by the sources nemanja finds questionable, is said to have occurred just as that brand was in fact being launched in the marketplace. Constantinople had recently fallen to the Turk, Ivan III had married Zoe/Sophia Paleologue, and the whole “Third Rome” ideology was in the process of being devised. Ivan had also vastly expanded his territory by among other things subduing previously autonomous Novgorod and imposing Muscovite-loyalist hierarchs (such as Gennady) on the Novgorodian church. So right around the time that Moscow was in fact starting to self-consciously insist that it was of central importance to the Orthodox world seems like a propitious time for someone to have done what we would now call a “grant application” noting that there had never yet been a fully complete Slavonic version of the Bible and arguing that the production of such a Bible under Muscovite patronage would be an excellent project to devote resources to on account of it being so “on brand,” with that pitch then successfully attracting whatever patronage and resources were necessary for the project to actually get done. If Muscovite-supremacist historiography claimed the project had occurred 150 or 200 years earlier when Muscovy had still been more marginal within the Slavic-Orthodox world, I daresay nemanja’s skepticism might be more persuasive.

  36. Excellent analysis. Were you by any chance Ivan’s brand consultant?

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    Unfortunately, my prior branding-consultancy work for the Empire of Trebizond was perceived as creating a potential conflict of interest, so the Muscovites retained someone else.

  38. I have to thank everyone for educating me, it has to be said that my kneejerk skepticism now seems rather boorish. I’ve developed a rather hair-trigger sensitivity to claims that something is “first” or “oldest” given how frequently they are set to use in contemporary politics to bolster various claims.

    By 1490, was the OCS used in Muscovy appreciably different than the Balkan one?

  39. I’ve developed a rather hair-trigger sensitivity to claims that something is “first” or “oldest” given how frequently they are set to use in contemporary politics to bolster various claims.

    You and me both! No need to apologize; it’s the willingness to change course that’s important. We’re all wrong about almost everything almost all the time (references: Firesign Theatre, Weird Al).

  40. By 1490, was the OCS used in Muscovy appreciably different than the Balkan one?
    Not OCS (that was spoken only in the 9th/10th century), but simply Church Slavonic. 🙂
    By that time, there already was some noticeable divergence due to the influence of the vernaculars on the regional versions of CS. But the situation for Russian CS is complicated by the fact that this is a period of heightened influence of Bulgarian CS (often also called Middle Bulgarian) on Russian CS (and through Russian CS also on the Russian language), due to an influx of Bulgarian clerics and scholars who fled the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. This made Russian CS more similar to Bulgarian CS and at the same time more distant from the Russian vernacular. It also brought an influx of Bulgarian CS religious, philosophical, technical, and scientific terminology whose effect is still visible today, in that the abstract part of the Russian and Bulgarian lexicon are much more similar than the basic / everyday lexicon (a second factor here is the strong influence of Russian on Bulgarian in these fields in the 19th and 20th century).

  41. Fascinating! I love these details.

  42. John Cowan says

    I have to thank everyone for educating me

    And we all, I am sure, would like to thank you for openly admitting you were wrong on the Internet. It’s one of the five unmistakable marks of a Hattic.

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