Prolegomenon to a Bible Review: On the Necessity of Seriously and Critically Engaging Matters of Text and Translation

It has been my experience that, when faced with the discussion of issues of Biblical text and translation, not a few Orthodox Christians in North American contexts protest that all such considerations are ultimately petty and irrelevant, since all one really needs in order to approach the Scriptures in an Orthodox manner (say they) is a set of explicitly Orthodox annotations to be used alongside any translation of the Bible. Why invest all this time and attention in such matters, then?

The answer is quite simple, really.

The Bible belongs to the Church, and it is from her that we receive both its letter (i.e., our ecclesiastical text) and its interpretation (i.e., patristic and liturgical exegesis). Our holy and God-bearing fathers, meditating on those words of Scripture, have seen Christ at every turn. This is the interpretation of Holy Scripture embodied in our prayers, our Services, and indeed our whole Faith. But how can we, the faithful, see Christ in every page of Scripture guided by our holy fathers, if we’re not looking at the same page as they? Yet if our Bibles fail to give us the Church’s text of the Scriptures, we will in fact be looking at a different page, and we’ll see Christ a little (and at times even a lot!) less clearly than our holy fathers did. Gems that, according to them, reveal Christ to us, will have disappeared.

The same is true if our translation is substandard. Think of it as trying to admire a rough diamond as though it were already polished. A questionable or incompetent translation can hide Christ in the pages of Scripture from us; it can darken the image that should shine clearly, and in the worst cases, it can obliterate it entirely.

While a good annotated edition can be helpful in many ways, one must be careful to always remember that the notes are not the inspired Scriptural text; that is, we don’t seek to see Christ in the notes, but in the Biblical text. We must not mistake the means for the end! Consider this: neither the Epistle Book nor the Gospel Book used liturgically in Church have explanatory notes. There such notes become superfluous, because the Scriptural texts are in their true context: that of true worship, and the true faith, “given once for all to the saints” (St Jude 3). This context alone enables us to see Christ clearly in every word of Holy Scripture. Thus, good annotations may be a very helpful aid to our reading, but they cannot substitute for the Scriptural text itself. And again, to the extent that the translation in front of us fails to accurately render the ecclesiastical text of the Scriptures, to that extent it departs from the letter and interpretation that the Church has given us, thus preventing us from accessing that authentic Orthodox approach to Scriptures in which we seek to be immersed.

So, why then must we engage with the utmost care matters of text and translation? So that, when we open the Scriptures, we may have before us all that our fathers and mothers in Christ saw, that they may teach us; and so that we may the see splendor of Christ clearly, and not through darkness. After all, Scriptural reading has little do to with private interpretation, and everything to do with reading in communion with those who, now triumphant, have have gone to their rest before us.

[For another discussion of this subject, see my earlier post, On Translating the Church’s (and No Other) Bible. For previous posts on patristic and liturgical exegesis, see here, here and here.]

14 responses to “Prolegomenon to a Bible Review: On the Necessity of Seriously and Critically Engaging Matters of Text and Translation

  1. I’m already convinced of your argument here, but it might help others if you provided some examples where such things make a difference. Perhaps you mean to do so later.


  2. Trevor> As a prolegomenon, this post is meant to introduce what I think will turn out to be an extended series of posts on these and related subjects. As such, then, this is a statement of principles, if you wish; later discussions will assume what is laid out here, and will hopefully also bear it out from a variety of angles.


  3. Stefan,

    Good post. I just got a St. Tikhon’s prayerbook and they use a modified RSV form of the psalms, corrected as needed from the Church’s canonical psalter (they claim). Is this ok to do, or should I stick to the ones I’ve got in my HTM psalter?



  4. Esteban:

    I find it all very puzzling indeed. Why let the academy tell the church what text to use? IIt seems that there was once a greater deal of optimism among those in the academy in trying to “recover” the original text. Warfield successfully shifted the paradigm in Presbyterianism from infallible apographa to inerrant autographa in his battle against liberalism and this paradigm shift seems to have spread throughout most denominations. Why does the church want to use the text that the church rejected?


  5. Doesn’t the broad historical picture, though, indicate that e.g. St Gregory Palamas was not looking at “the same page” as St Athanasios, and that in a number of ways the Byzantine text differs from the fourth century Alexandrian for which we have fairly good evidence. It seems to pose a question that you rather ignore.


  6. I don’t think you are being honest with yourself with this post. First, the Bible belongs to the Church — ha! The Bible is a public document. Even atheists are allowed to read and translate and talk about it. (For example, Bart Ehrman is a well known professor and author in the field as well as a leading NT textual critic who happens to be an atheist — and yet no fatwa has been issued against him.)

    I don’t see you jumping up and down about Breton’s translation of the Septuagint — and that is full of errors.

    No, I think the thing that bothers you is that it has the word “Orthodox” on the cover, that it is featured in numerous Orthodox online bookstores, and that it on the front page of the official US Greek Orthodox and US Antioch Orthodox pages. I think the thing that bothers you is that this Bible purports to represent Orthodoxy, or Orthodoxy’s view of the Bible.

    (By the way, I haven’t received my copy of the 2008 OSB yet, so I am reserving my judgment.)


  7. Charles> Precisely! To quote The Wedding Singer, “See, Billy Idol gets it. I don’t know why she doesn’t get it.” ;-)

    Doug> You probably realize that this preliminary post is mostly concerned with the use by Orthodox of the ecclesiastical Greek text of the Old Testament, which is our canonical text. But as it respects the text of the New Testament, it is of little consequence whether St Athanasius had the longer ending of St Mark in his page or not (though I note that it’s a bit of a stretch to make the jump from “Alexandrian text” to “the Bible of St Athanasius”). The Church, which is not that of one father but rather of the consensus of all of them, considers this text canonical, and that’s the end of the matter: it is, then, the Bible of the Fathers, because they too received from the Church the letter of Scripture. Or, in other words, the Church’s Bible is the Fathers’ Bible. Surely you will disagree; but then, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t, being you’re not Orthodox! :-)

    Iyov> I don’t know how you judge whether I’m being honest with myself or not (!), but I will tell you this: this is precisely what I believe, unflinchingly and unapologetically, as an Orthodox Christian approaching the Scriptures. Like it? Don’t? Be my guest. But the Bible is the Church’s book and its ecclesiastical Greek text is our sole canonical text, full stop. Of course anyone can pick up a copy at Barnes & Noble or get a PhD in Biblical Studies; but that doesn’t affect this fundamental affirmation.

    Meanwhile, I haven’t yet said a word about the complete Orthodox Study Bible, and this post addresses no particulars in it. It is, as the title states, a prolegomenon. These considerations are relevant for the evaluation of any Orthodox translation of the Scriptures (of which there are several ongoing projects at the moment) simply because these are the core assumptions we Orthodox have when we approach the Scriptures. Again, like them or don’t, but that is what it is.

    In any case, I’m not particularly bothered that this edition has the word “Orthodox” on the cover (after all, you can slap the word Orthodox on anything, these days); my bigger concerns are 1) whether this, purportedly a new translation of the Church’s Greek Old Testament, is actually so, and 2) whether, as it is claimed, the system of annotations and articles embodies an authentic Orthodox approach to the Scriptures, after the model of patristic and liturgical exegesis. I think both of these concerns are more to the point.


  8. Stefan —

    I don’t doubt the sincerity of your belief, but I think you are overdoing it here.

    First, as you aknow, there are many fine Christians who are not Orthodox and have a different idea of what is the Bible.

    Next, as you know, there is no universally agreed upon canonical form of the Septuagint, even among Orthodox.

    I don’t see you getting excited about criticizing any other Septuagint translation (and please don’t pretend that you are about to praise the OSB — it is pretty clear that you have a chip on your shoulder.)

    For that matter, you have told us that you appreciate Bibles such as the REB which aren’t even translations of the Septuagint at all. (And, I don’t think you can say that the Church “owns” the Masoretic text.) Why I bet you own a KJV and a RSV and read them from time to time.

    Next, you say the Bible’s “ecclesiastical Greek text is our sole canonical text, full stop.” (I don’t understand why you put a period after saying “full stop.”) Ummm, now you are sounding like a Protestant. Since when did you go all sola scriptura on us?

    And finally, this Bible doesn’t just have the name Orthodox on it. It is currently featured on this web page and that web page, and that looks a little more serious than just putting the title “Orthodox” on things. (However, I notice the cover images are smaller this week than last week.)

    So despite the title of your post with its Julius Wellhausenian echoes, I think:

    (a) the fix was in* — you had made up your mind about this edition before even receiving it; and

    (b) you are only worked up about the OSB, you don’t have the same level emotional involvement with other English Septuagint translations.

    Finally, isn’t the Slavonic Bible more important than the Septuagint for your denomination? Isn’t the Slavonic Bible the authorized version of the Russian Church? Isn’t that what would really be helpful — a diglot Slavonic Bible with an English translation of the Slavonic?

    *Footnote: Even though the fix was in, your criticisms may still be valid, and the OSB may in fact be a crappy edition. I can’t say, since Amazon won’t ship my copy for another two months or so. (But don’t worry, I have other things to read until then.)


  9. Iyov, the Slavonic and all the other Eastern versions have their roots in the Septuagint. It’s the source, and they’re the translations/versions. In that sense it’s the rule against which all the rest are measure (canonical, get it?). And of that Greek text, the list of books included is indeed universally recognized (everything in Rahlfs’ collection except Psalms of Solomon belongs between the covers of the Orthodox LXX), while the precise text-form of those books may still be under discussion (Alexandrinus versus Sinaiticus, etc). And yes, we do actually believe that the text of the LXX and the NT are actually something that belongs to the Church, although others may (ab)use it–it is a product of the Church for the Church.

    And of course the fix is in! Just wait til you see this thing. Do you think Esteban hasn’t been reading it since his copy arrived? I think you’d have reason to be upset if he’d posted this before reading it, but that’s not the case. You’ll find out soon enough that he’s actually being pretty generous to approach it so gently, as opposed the manner in which I or Felix Culpa thrashed it promptly, which it wholly deserves.


  10. Wait a minute — in what sense is the Septuagint “a product of the Church”?

    (So, is 4 Maccabees in, or out? Don’t give me a story about any “appendix.”)

    Also, I understood that the Slavonic translation is the Bible of choice, for Russians at least. So, if one wants to understand what Russian theologians are saying, one is better off consulting the Slavonic than the Greek.

    – – –

    More to the point, suppose that this edition had been published with the title “The Septuagint and New Testament in translation — an ecumenical effort.” Would you folks even have blinked twice?

    Because if you truly feel the Septuagint and New Testament belong to your Church, then I don’t see why you aren’t attacking all the translations of the New Testament and all the translations of the Septuagint.

    It appears that something else is going on here: this edition is attracting your special ire because it is being marketed as Orthodox to Orthodox. Well, I can understand why that would upset you. But this Prolegomenon is a bit much:

    But how can we, the faithful, see Christ in every page of Scripture guided by our holy fathers, if we’re not looking at the same page as they? . . . The same is true if our translation is substandard.

    First, I’m quite sure that the early Christians had a different Bible than we now have — look, you folks have read more NT textual criticism than I have. You’ve seen direct quotes from the early Christians (say, 1st Clement) that are witness to variance.

    Second, I’ve recently come into some evidence that suggests at least a few of the early Christians may have read the Bible in a language other than English!

    Why not just say: “some of our brothers have written a book at variance with Orthodox normative beliefs” — and “this edition is not a good way to learn about how Orthodox read the Bible”? Because that is what I think you really want to say — not that there is some sort of vandalism of your “belong[ings].”


  11. Okay, on 4 Macc: in. That’s why I said, “between the covers.” Traditionally there’s no separation. Modern editions (like Bratsiotis) print it in an appendix, but that doesn’t matter. It’s in there and it’s read.

    And, shocking as it may sound to others, the Orthodox Church considers itself not to have sprung into being in the first century AD, but to have existed throughout human history, a Church of Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles and Saints of all the ages–an Old Testament Church and a New Testament Church, but one Church. And yes, the Septuagint is considered a product of it, and inspired translation of a Hebrew text, which the Masoretic text differed from at times.

    But why should we attack ALL translations, and not just the egregiously bad ones? (Some do, by the way, but you’re not likely to run into many of them.) Some are certainly better than others. The general trend has been “pretty good,” though. The Septuagint is only now receiving alot of English translation attention, and there have certainly been complaints about Brenton and Thomson in the past, the former for his outright mistakes, and the latter for being incomplete, though a very good translation. The NETS is good, but I’m sure you’ve seen the complaints of it from Orthodox. The OSB is bad, no matter who did it, and the complaints are coming in. It’s a quality thing, not a proprietary, “you’re not us, so you such” kind of thing.

    Patristic “quotations” are usually not. This is still a controverted issue. Were they always quoting from memory (as seems obvious), or occasionally copying from a continuous text beside them (possible, though unlikely), or always copying from such (certainly not the case). Aside from these issues there is that of the actual critical texts of those fathers used as citational evidence in the editions: most of them don’t exist. As far as I’m concerned, you need to take citations of Patristic evidence in textual discussions with a whole nef of salt.

    And I’m sure Esteban will get to the doctrinal peculiarities in the OSB. For now, the above is something he wrote several years ago, not in reference to the OSB, but as a general approach to translational matters. It’s a good way to start, laying the groundwork for how to approach evaluating a translation. Part of the problem with the OSB is translational, after all.


  12. Oh, and on the Slavonic, yes, it’s used in Slavonic services. Greek is used in Greek services. But the Slavonic OT texts are translations from the Greek.


  13. Kevin:

    OK — I hear what you are saying; but — I don’t 100% believe it. I think the fact that this the OSB claims to be “Orthodox” particularly galls you and Esteban.

    Similarly, I suspect the NRSV attracted special criticism from some quarters of Orthodoxy because it claimed an Orthodox connection (e.g., Demetrios Constantelos, acceptance in some Orthodox circles, and claims to be a Bible appropriate for Orthodox.)

    And again, I think that is a completely reasonable response. Why not be extra hard on a translation by your brothers?

    As far as the text critical issues, I think you and Esteban know them. (I bet you know them better than I. Here is just one: Why do three-quarters of Matthew’s quotes of the LXX differ the LXX we have?)

    In any case, I’ll move on — I don’t want to slow down Esteban’s posting of what I am sure will be highly entertaining criticism.


  14. The point is that it’s not just the “Orthodox” included in the title, Iyov, as though it’s a gimmick like the Orthodox Clothing Esteban linked to. That would just be silly, and easily shrugged off. But the claims made for this OSB and its quality are certainly the issue. Especially galling is the lack of theological rigor and the poor quality of scholarship, in addition to a number of rather shady things going on in connection with the thing that make it really unpalatable. Theologically the notes are a mess, and that’s the biggest gripe. The second biggest gripe is the pseudo-translation in too many places (one is too many, really). Then there’s a whole series of other things that could’ve been done better, and for the amount of time and the number of power-hitters in the Oversight Committee (the majority of whom were unhappy with the direction of the project anyway, apparently) and contributors, should’ve been. This is the product of fifteen years? There’s no excuse for it. It’s intended to present Orthodoxy, apparently to outsiders, and it does a road-apple-quality job of it. You’ll see soon enough.

    The NRSV was promptly and soundly rejected by several Orthodox bishops especially because of the gender-neutral language tampering. It’s forbidden in Orthodox Bible study groups, for instance. The RSV is still acceptable. The NETS is the only other Bible besides the RSV and NRSV to have the full Greek canon translated recently. I haven’t heard any hierarchical opinions of it yet, but I can imagine them being more favorable than not.

    (Quotations in Matthew aren’t as helpful text-critically because they’re not in Hebrew, though many of them clearly reflect it, and either some unknown Greek translations or ad hoc translations of it into Greek. He’s an outlier in the NT, showing a marked preference for the Hebrew proto-MT as opposed to the LXX/OG. In the NT overall, the majority, something like 75%, clearly align with the Septuagint, with most of the rest aligning with the MT, and then a small number of outliers. But many mss exist and much work has gone into establishing critical texts for the NT. This can’t be said for the majority of patristic sources. Those texts need to be critically established before they can be used as evidence for a particular reading in the NT. Some would think this is already wrongheaded, though, in that most such quotations are extemporaneous (particularly in homilies) and not intended to reflect exactly the established written text, but to give the gist of it which is important to the point at hand. Using such as evidence for a NT text would be wrong in such a case as they would lead to something quite different from what the speakers/writers would have known as the written NT texts, which are in most cases simply unrecoverable in detail with each writer.)


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