On Worldview Deficiencies and the "Orthodox Study Bible"

John Hobbins recently blogged about the best Study Bibles in the market today, and listed the so-called “Orthodox Study Bible-New Testament” (OSB) as one of five confessionally-based editions recommended to those “who wish to understand the Bible from the point of view of a specific tradition.” I quickly cautioned him against regarding the OSB “as an authentic representative of the Orthodox approach to the Scriptures [….] because it betrays throughout a lack of conformity to what in our circles is often called the ‘mind of the Church’,” and naturally referred him to my hero Father Ephrem Lash’s searing review of the OSB. Iyov, whose very interesting blog I’m only starting to explore, found much to dislike in Father Ephrem’s review, and lodged his complaints in a lengthy comment. But I had several complaints of my own concerning Iyov’s “review of the review” which I registered in yet another lengthy comment (of course!). Unfortunately, I posted that comment by mistake before I had a chance to proofread it, and so it is riddled with stylistic infelicities that I did not have the chance to correct. For that reason I reprint my reply here, now fully corrected.

Needless to say, this whole discussion has been quite a fitting way to celebrate my birthday!

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The key to understanding Father Ephrem’s protestations, I think, is his comment that he must again report on a missed opportunity. The “Orthodox Study Bible-New Testament” (OSB), with its impressive “overview committee” listed on the frontispiece (most of whom, however, reportedly never saw a page of the project and were unaware of belonging to any such body), sets out to 1) embody the Orthodox Christian approach to the Scriptures and 2) be a suitable edition for personal and homiletical use by the Orthodox. It accomplished neither of these things, precisely because it very much is a “piece of evangelical propaganda decked out in the trappings of Orthodoxy,” however snide one might find such a comment and its accompanying illustrations. So it is quite right that this comment sets the tone for the whole review, because it states the chief recurring theme of the whole piece: that at the root of all the problems of the OSB lies what we might call a “worldview deficiency.”

Clearly Father Ephrem has a sketchy understanding at best of the politics of American Bible publishing, but I don’t think his comments on the Orthodox use of the New King James Version (NKJV) are therefore irrelevant or superfluous. His point that NKJV New Testament needs to undergo rather thorough correction before it can properly be called an “Orthodox New Testament” is quite accurate, and since many folks (particularly Stateside) seem to consider that is such simply because it is used in this Bible, this fact really does bear noting (and repeating!). In any case, short of a complete translation, the least that should be done is to produce an Orthodox recension of a text such as the NKJV’s, much like the Roman Catholics did in producing the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. Of course, it is unlikely that Nelson would have agreed to this; however, this does not automatically remove the deficiencies of the NKJV for Orthodox use to which Father Ephrem refers.

(Incidentally, I fail to see how Bishop Tikhon’s pastoral judgement on this matter, which in any case was restricted to his own diocese while he was its ruling Bishop, could be weightier than Father Ephrem’s, given that His Grace lacks the latter’s extensive training in Biblical philology. But the point is moot, given that Bishop Tikhon, a careful student indeed of all matters linguistic, does not disagree with Father Ephrem at all: His Grace notes that neither the KJV nor the NKJV are “completely acceptable,” and encourages that they be used only as a temporary solution to the problem of the lack of Orthodox translations into English.)

Speaking of Bishops, that Father Ephrem does not criticize Bishop [now Metropolitan] Kallistos’ piece has little to do with any perceived need to “abate his criticism” (on account of what?), but rather this is so because Metropolitan Kallistos’ piece is truly a gem. And the “mandatory non-specific criticism” of which you speak, once again, draws our attention to the “worldview deficiencies” at the core of the OSB project, which as Father Ephrem wistfully notes, would have been significantly lessened if the principles articulated in Metropolitan Kallistos’ piece had actually been heeded.

Your impression of the OSB’s lectionary is mistaken in that this is indeed a full lectionary for every day of the year, but one clearly prepared by individuals inadequately acquainted with the interaction (both highly variable and minutely regulated) of the many cycles that converge in the order of ferial and festal readings in the lectionary. (This, again, is not surprising, given the lack of liturgical experience of the project team at the time of preparation.) But given that this is a complete lectionary, it is indeed perplexing that the 11 Gospels for Sunday Matins, which are read without fail in unbroken succession throughout the year, are nowhere given. What you call an “obvious editing error” (namely, the identification of the 4th Sunday After Pentecost as the Sunday of the Holy Fathers, which is in fact a movable commemoration not at all tied to that particular Sunday) is really not such at all, but rather betrays the actual source of this lectionary: not the service and rubrical books, but rather the annual calendar for a given year (probably the popular “St Herman Calendar,” which is of Russian provenance rubrically speaking), whose readings were reprinted wholesale into this lectionary without taking into account the variables for different years given in the rubrics. I fail to see how pointing this out is “sectarian” in nature.

Now, that the second sentence of the article “Introducing the Orthodox Church” states that “many people have heard of the Russian Orthodox Church” is an unlikely cause for Father Ephrem’s criticism. After all, the rest of that very sentence reads “or the Greek Orthodox Church,” to which Father Ephrem himself belongs, “which was born centuries earlier.” And in any case, the team that produced the OSB belongs neither to the Russian or Greek Churches, but rather to the Church of Antioch! Thus, it is very hard for me to make any sense at all of these cries of “sectarian” prejudice (particularly when Father Ephrem outright expresses his wish, towards the end of the review, that the ROCOR [Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia] should have had a role in the publication of this volume, as a counterbalance and corrective to this project’s manifold “worldview deficiencies”). Indeed, a glance to anything further than the first part of the second sentence of this article will put in evidence what Father Ephrem’s actual objections are, some of which are summarized in the review. This summary may be found immediately following the sentence where he describes this piece as “tendentious and wholly unnecessary”namely, immediately after the first sentence.

Further, there are a couple things that suggest to me that you’re looking at a different printing of the OSB than that which Father Ephrem is reviewing. In my copy of the OSB, which is indeed the very first printing, there are no mentions whatever of the Mother of God or the saints in the morning and evening prayers, just as Father Ephrem states. Further, in the list of the Seventy Apostles, there are indeed two Marks listed, one after the other, with different feastdays given. Again, your copy must come from a later printing, for not even the pagination that you give coincides with that of the book in front of me. [UPDATE: I have been able to verify with Conciliar Press that corrections and augmentations of these supplementary materials have indeed been introduced without note in several successive printings.]

The comment about the invariably bad iconography stemming from America might seem petty to those without, but it is really not such at all. There most certainly exists within what I call “militant Americanist Orthodoxy” a culture of ugly iconography, which is perfectly illustrated by the dreadful icon of the Harrowing of Hell in the OSB. This is hardly the place to address the theology of the icon, but suffice it to say that the bastardization of iconographic aesthetics is theologically problematic on many levelsall the more so when it comes about because Kentigernmungo Jones, a master of the Etch-A-Sketch, is now Orthodox and suddenly fancies himself an iconographer.

Father Ephrem is rightly troubled that, in a purportedly Orthodox Bible, the Mother of God is simply referred to as “Mary.” This is because, as Kevin Edgecomb has brilliantly noted elsewhere, the regula fidei “is truly an entire complicated mindset involving behavior, action, belief, vocabulary, and writings.” And so we return to “the main point of what we have been saying”: that this volume has serious “worldview deficiencies” and that it embodies hardly at all an Orthodox approach to the Scriptures, simply because time and again it finds itself at variance with the comprehensive regula fideiagain, what in our circles is often called “the mind of the Church.”

Fr Ephrem’s last paragraph, which causes you such wonderment, more fully develops this latter point. The acquisition of this mind, of this complex and comprehensive regula fidei, simply does not happen overnight: it is a lifelong process. And it does indeed take centuries to acquire in corporate contexts (but not of course for individuals, though this process is greatly helped if it occurs in a corporate context thoroughly integrated to the mind of the Church). That this should seem unwelcoming comes as no surprise, and yet, all are welcome to join in the unbroken stream of the Tradition to be shaped and claimed by it though of course, not all are willing to “‘leave all things and follow’ where our Fathers have lead.” This, again, is the whole point. A volume such as this, which is “the product of people who, with the very best of intentions, are going too fast too soon,” is symptomatic of a much greater ailment, and Father Ephrem’s review is as much a critique of the volume in question as it is a searing corrective to the context which produced it.

In the end, I must again caution all against referencing the “Orthodox Study Bible-New Testament” as an authentic witness to the Orthodox Christian approach to the Scriptures, because this decidedly it is not.

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7 responses to “On Worldview Deficiencies and the "Orthodox Study Bible"

  1. I adore my copy of the REB Oxford Study Bible and would likely bring it as my sole Bible to a deserted island, but I do not generally admit this in public.

    Esteban, I was trying to find a way to respond to this tangental comment you made without taking away from the full discussion on John’s blog, so I’m glad you’ve posted on this entire exchange separately (as has Iyov).

    As you know, I’ve been on a search for a modern translation to replace my NASB as my primary Bible – and I think I may be coming full circle to the alternative I was already using: the REB! I really have come to appreciate the flow of language and overall style in that translation and wish it were better known here in the US. Definitely a keeper.

    ElShaddai

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  2. ElShaddai, I must say I’m very surprised and disappointed that you refused to spam John Hobbins’ inbox and comment area the way the rest of us did. ;-)

    Given that you and I apparently see eye to eye when it comes to these things, you might not be surprised to learn that I have entertained the very same thought for some years. (I even got my copy of the REB Oxford Study Bible–a pristine second-hand copy bound in burgundy genuine leather, no longer in print–precisely as a substitute for my NASB; before that, I used the Cambridge edition of the REB.) So I certainly sympathize, as I too have been spending a lot of time with the REB for quite a while!

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  3. Yes, I have the same green hardback from Cambridge, plus their New Testament leather compact. I had a paperback REB Oxford Study Bible at one point, but returned it for something else for a reason I can’t even remember. I’m keeping my eyes open for a used leather one – or even a good hardback. Still have a NEB Study Edition on my shelf from college…

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  4. Nicholas, I agree re: the ONT, but only if we’re talking about its system of annotations, which is precisely the sort of “running patristic commentary” that one desires in an Orthodox edition of the Holy Scriptures. However, its “translation” of the Biblical text is disastrous and not a little ludicrous, constantly given to fallacious overinterpretation of the worst kind. This, to me, is an almost insurmountable shortcoming–but of course, one may still use the wonderful patristic annotations in conjunction with another biblical translation (someday maybe even an Orthodox one!).

    I myself do not own these volumes (they’re a bit pricey for my budget!), but I’ve been able to examine them at great length on several occasions. One of these I’ll actually get them!

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  5. What are your thoughts about the forthcoming complete OSB (coming February/March 2008)?

    The OT (NKJV) has been reworked to conform to the LXX where the MT and LXX differ, and the NT/Psalms notes have been changed from the first OSB-NT/Psalms. I don’t think the NKJV NT text has been changed, though.

    FYI – the President and CEO of Thomas Nelson is an Orthodox Christian: Michael Hyatt

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  6. Jacob> I had no idea that the head of Thomas Nelson is Orthodox! Many thanks for the link.

    You’re right that the NKJV NT has not been changed for forthcoming complete OSB, which is really a pity. As for the OSB-OT, I have two main concerns:

    1) First, the matter of textual basis. In an earlier version of the lxx.org site it was stated that their base text of the Septuagint was Rahlf’s. (No information was given concerning such important matters as which text would be followed for Esther, Judges, and the like.) Needless to say, Rahlf’s (semi-)critical edition is not the canonical text of the Orthodox Church, which should be the basis of any Orthodox Bible. I reflected a bit on this matter in another post.

    2) With the exception of a handful among them (one of whom I know personally), many of the translators seem dangerously underqualified for the task of Biblical translation. As we know, the sophisticated philological, linguistic and exegetical skills that such work demands cannot be acquired in “three years of Greek”–and yet, this (and yet less than that) is the kind of background that many of the people involved seem to bring to the task.

    Yet I remain hopeful that the OSB-OT will be an essentially correct translation of its chosen Greek text, and that its usefulness will outweigh any errors. As for the notes, I only hope they’re not inane. By setting the bar that low, you see, I’m sure to be pleased with whatever they print! ;-)

    (And by the way, I discussed a couple of other Orthodox Bible translation projects here.)

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