The History of Salvation in The Russian Primary Chronicle, Part 1

What follows is the first of four installments in which I will transcribe the full text of the “redemptive-historical” discourse delivered before St Vladimir, according to the Russian Primary Chronicle, by the Constantinopolitan scholar-envoy. For a discussion of the apologetic importance of this discourse, see my earlier post, The Conversion of St Vladimir and Orthodox Apologetics. The section transcribed below covers the so-called “primeval history” (cf. Genesis 1-11), up to the call of Abraham. As was noted before, the scholar’s discourse (like its Byzantine and Slavic sources) makes free use of traditional material not belonging to the biblical text to expand on the particulars of the account.

Vladimir then inquired why God should have descended to earth and should have endured such pain. The scholar then answered and said, “If you are desirous of hearing the story, I shall tell you from the beginning why God descended to earth.” Vladimir replied, “Gladly would I hear it.” Whereupon the scholar thus began his narrative:

“In the beginning, God created heaven and earth on the first day. Upon the second, he created the land which is in the midst of the water. Upon this same day, the waters were divided. A part of them was elevated above the land, and a part placed below it. On the third day, he created the sea, the rivers, the springs and the seeds. On the fourth, God made the sun, the moon, and the stars, and thus adorned the heavens. When the foremost of the angels, the chief of the angelic host, beheld these works, he reflected and said: ‘I shall descend to the earth and seize upon it. I shall then be like to God, and shall establish my throne upon the northern clouds.’ But God cast him straightway out of heaven, and in his train fell the tenth order of the angels, who had been subject to him. The name of this adversary was Sathanael, in whose place God set Michael as chief, while Satan, after sinning in his devices and falling from his former glory, is now called the adversary of God.

“Subsequently, upon the fifth day, God created whales, fishes, reptiles, and feathered fowl. On the sixth, God created beasts, cattle, and terrestrial reptiles. He also created man. Upon the seventh day, which is the Sabbath, God rested from his labors. He set up Paradise at the east in Eden. There he placed man, whom he had created, and bade him eat of every tree save one, namely, the tree of the understanding of good and evil. Thus Adam was in paradise beholding God, and glorified him when the angels glorified him.

“Now God cast a drowsiness upon Adam, and he slept. Then God took from him one rib, and made him a wife, whom he brought to Adam in Paradise. Then Adam said ‘This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,’ and she was called woman. Adam gave names to the cattle and the birds, the beasts and the reptiles; to man and to woman an angel gave names. God subjected the beasts and the cattle to Adam’s rule; he ruled over them and they obeyed his word.

“When the devil saw how God honored man, he hated him. Changing himself into a serpent, he approached Eve and inquired of her, ‘Why do you not eat of the tree that stands in the middle of Paradise?’ The woman made answer to the serpent, ‘God has said: “Ye must not eat of it, or ye shall die the death.” Then the serpent said, ‘You shall not die the death. God knew that upon the day when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you shall be as God understanding good and evil.’ Now the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, so she ate of it, and gave of it to her husband. They ate, and their eyes were opened, so that they realized that they were naked, and plaited for themselves girdles of fig leaves.

“Then God said: ‘The earth is accursed of your deeds, and ye shall live in sorrow all the days of your life. If ye stretch out your hand and pluck the fruit of the tree of life, ye will live forever.’ So the Lord God drove Adam out of Paradise. He sat opposite the gate of Paradise weeping and tilling the soil, and Satan rejoiced that the earth was accursed. This was the first fall of man, and his bitter punishment, in that he lost the angelic life.

“Adam begot Cain and Abel. Cain was a plowman, and Abel a shepherd. Now Cain offered God of the fruit of the earth, but God did not accept his gifts. But Abel brought him of his firstling lamb, and God accepted the offerings of Abel. Then Satan entered into Cain, and incited him to kill Abel. So Cain said to Abel, ‘Let us go into the field.’ When they had gone forth, Cain rose up and wished to kill his brother, but he did not know how to compass the deed. But Satan said, ‘Take up a stone and smite him.’ So Cain took a stone and killed him. Then God said to Cain, ‘Where is thy brother?’ and Cain replied, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ So God said, ‘The blood of thy brother cries aloud to me; thou shalt groan and tremble unto thy life’s end.’

“Adam and Eve wept, but the devil rejoiced, saying, ‘Behold, him whom God held in honor I have made to depart from God, and now sorrow has come upon him.’ So they mourned Abel for thirty years. His body did not decompose, but they did not know how to bury him. Then, by God’s command, two birds flew down, and one of them died. The other dug a trench, and placed the dead bird therein, and buried it. When Adam and Eve beheld this, they dug a trench, and placed Abel in it, and buried him thus with sorrow.

“When Adam was two hundred and thirty years old, he begot Seth and two daughters. Cain married one and Seth the other, and from them the race of men multiplied and increased throughout the earth. But they knew not their Creator, and were filled with every vice and uncleanness, with lust and with hatred, and they lived like cattle. Noah was the only just man in the whole race, and he begot three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. God said, ‘My spirit shall not abide among men; I will destroy what I have created, both man and beast.’ Then the Lord God said to Noah, ‘Build an ark three hundred cubits long and fifty cubits broad, and thirty cubits high (for a sazhen’ was called a cubit).’ The ark was one hundred years building, but Noah foretold that there was to be a flood, and the people mocked him. When the ark was finished, the Lord said to Noah, ‘Enter into it thyself and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy daughters-in-law. Take with thee two each of all beasts, birds and reptiles.’ So Noah led them into the ark as the Lord had enjoined them.

“Then God brought a flood upon the earth, and drowned all flesh, but the ark floated upon the water. When the waters had subsided, Noah and his sons and his wife went forth, and by them the earth was peopled. There were many men with but one language, and they said to one another, ‘Let us build a tower as high as heaven.’ They even began to build it with Nimrod as their chief. But God said, ‘Men have multiplied, and their devices are vain.’ Then God descended, and divided the nations into seventy-two peoples. But the tongue of Adam was not taken away from Eber, for he alone had not joined in their vanity, saying, ‘If God had bidden men to build a tower as high as heaven, he would have ordained it with a word, even as he created the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all things visible and invisible.’ Therefore Eber’s language was unaltered, and from him are descended the Hebrews.

“The human race was thus divided into seventy-two nations and scattered throughout the world, each one having its own customs. Following the devil’s instruction, they sacrificed to trees, springs, and rivers, and did not know God. Between Adam and the Flood, two thousand and forty years passed, and between the Flood and the division of the nations, five hundred and twenty-nine years. Subsequently, the devil cast mankind into yet greater error, so that they undertook to build idols, some of wood, some of brass, others of marble, and still others of gold and silver. They not only worshipped them, but even brought their sons and daughters and killed them before these images, so that all the earth was defiled.

“The author of idolatry was Serug, for he made idols in the name of dead men, kings, heroes, magicians, and evil women. Serug begot Terah, and Terah begot three sons, Abraham, Nahor, and Haran. Terah built idols, having learned the art from his father. But Abraham, having come to reason, looked up to heaven, and observing the stars and the sky, said, ‘In truth, that is God, and those that my brother makes only deceive men.’ Then Abraham announced, ‘I will test the gods of my father,’ and he inquired, ‘Father, why do you deceive men by making idols of wood? It is God who has made heaven and earth.’ Abraham then set fire to the idols in the temple. When Haran, Abraham’s brother, saw this act, in his zeal for the idols he endeavored to save them, and was himself consumed, so that he died before his father. For prior to that time, no son had passed away before his father, but the father had always died before his son; from this time forth, sons began to perish before their fathers.

S.H. Cross and O.P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (eds.), The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text [Cambridge: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953], pages 98-101.

5 responses to “The History of Salvation in The Russian Primary Chronicle, Part 1

  1. Lookit! Seriously, though, GOOD JOB!!!

    I think the Warian version, almost a complete ellipsis in its selectivity, will be worthily replaced by your faithful rendition.


  2. Thanks, my friend! To illustrate the pernicious effects of the truncated “Warian version” in the militant Americanist psyche, the other day I read someone’s enlightened opinion that the Russians came to Orthodoxy through beauty, and perhaps it is through Truth that America will come to Orthodoxy (!). At the very least, I hope that my little project here will get people thinking about this matter by putting them in contact with the primary source, rather than have them run off their mouths uncritically.

    Also, I’m having a grand time discovering the second part of this story–that is, the mystagogical content of the Russian’s post-baptismal instruction (which is heavily dogmatic). The pattern described in the Chronicle, I have found, is entirely in keeping with St Basil’s distinction between kerygma and dogma, and completely at odds with the “information overload” that characterizes the catechumenal process in certain circles.


  3. You’re always welcome. It’ll be a pleasure to read the rest.

    Can you perceive the distressed wonder with which this discourse would’ve been heard? It’s all familiar to us, too familiar by far, so that its innate effrontery and novelty no longer registers. In a few paragraphs, he’s demolished the ancient pagan concept of an eternal material world, pan(en)theism, and idolatry. With the Rus’ of those days, with their gods in every stock and stone, this speech would’ve been from another planet. And knowing how it ends, with that one and only God coming to earth to live and die as a human to save other humans, in a supremely noble act of humility, it only gets weirder and more striking and disturbing. It’s utterly alien to the worldview of mud and rock and personal safety and glory, the religious worldview founded by man, and still seen all around us.


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