On Pride and Biblical Studies (On the Occasion of the Feast of St Spyridon)

On this day, December 12 according to the Church calendar, we celebrate with great joy the feast of St Spyridon the Wonderworker, Bishop of Tremithous. St Spyridon is one of the better known and loved saints of God in the Orthodox Church, and in his life are summed up the many paradoxes of the Gospel: a simple country shepherd became a great shepherd of souls; an unlettered peasant became the champion of the Orthodox faith who vanquished the vain impiety of heretics; one who lived in utter poverty was in fact immensely rich with spiritual treasures; one who was humble in the extreme reached the heights of exaltation.

There is much one could say about St Spyridon on his feast, but given the subjects that usually occupy us here at The Voice of Stefan, I thought it appropriate to share an episode from his life that should be particularly relevant for exegetes, translators, and preachers of the Scriptures:

“The great historians of the Church, Nicephorus and Sozomen, say that the holy father Spyridon was very firm in adherence to all the rules of the Church, and, in particular, that he would not allow even one word which was written in the Holy Scripture to be changed. [. . .]

Once the following incident took place: There was a gathering of bishops in Cyprus to see to some of the matters which had arisen in the Church. Among those gathered were both Saint Spyridon and the younger Bishop Triphylius, a former disciple of Spyridon’s. Triphylius was especially adept at understanding the holy books for he had studied extensively in his youth and was learned in Scripture. His wisdom and knowledge were respected by his fellow bishops who asked him to preach to the congregation in church one day.

As Triphylius was speaking, he mentioned the words which Christ had spoken to the paralytic, recorded in the Gospel of Saint Mark, ‘rise and take up your bed.’ But Triphylius did not use the word ‘bed,’ instead he said ‘mat’.

When Saint Spyridon heard this, he was unable to keep silent, for he could not bear hearing anyone change the words which had been spoken by the Savior. He rose from his place in the church and addressed Triphylius in front of everyone, ‘Do you think you are better than He who said “bed”? Are you ashamed to use the same word which our Lord spoke?’

Spyridon was so disturbed that a single word spoken by Christ had been changed that he could no longer even remain in the church. Having said these words to Triphylius, he left the building.

This incident should not be seen be seen as an offence. Triphylius had not only been a disciple of Saint Spyridon but he was also very puffed up with pride at his rhetorical gifts. The saint’s words served to teach him some humility, without which all his wisdom and knowledge would be useless in the Church. Spyridon was also held in high regard by all the clergy and faithful in the Church for he was both older in years, weaker in body, and was known for the fact that the works of God were often manifest through him.”

Earlier we have reflected, with St Isidore of Pelusium, on the dangers of becoming “experts” in biblical interpretation without producing the fruit of holy love. Today, St Spyridon solemnly warns us against becoming puffed up with pride on account of one’s supposed learning and scholarly achievements, which will inevitably render all of one’s work useless. Happily, his disciple St Triphylius (whom St Jerome called “the most eloquent man of his age” in De viris illustribus, 92) took St Spyridon’s warning to heart, and he too became a great luminary of the Church. Will we follow his example, or will we, undoubtedly his lessers, stubbornly remain enamored with the sound of our own voice?

+ + + + + + + + + +

As an interesting aside, the above episode from the life of St Spyridon is also told in a 16th-century Spanish florilegium, Alonso de Villegas’ Fructus Sanctorum y Quinta Parte del Flos Sanctorum (1594). There we read among de Villegas’ 3,600 examples of virtue:

Adelante se dize (y haze con lo mismo) que era grande el zelo que tenía a las cosas de la Iglesia. Juntáronse ciertos obispos con él a una fiesta que celebrava, y encomendó que predicasse Trifilo, obispo de Leda, el cual avía estudiado retórica mucho tiempo en Berito. Començado el sermón en presencia de los obispos y mucho pueblo, como Trifilo se preciasse de muy elegante, viniendo a tratar de aquel passo del Evangelio en que dixo Cristo al enfermo que curó de treinta y ocho años de enfermedad: «Toma tu gravato o carretón, y anda», por dezir gravato dixo cama, por mostrarse elegante usando de mejor vocablo. Desto mostró tanto sentimiento Espiridón que se levantó de la silla donde estava y, en presencia de todos, le dixo:

-¿Eres tú más elegante que el que dixo gravato, que se te haze de mal de usar de sus palabras?

Dando a entender que no se tiene de hazer caudal de los vocablos, ni elegancia, cuando se refieren palabras de Cristo, junto con que se va contra la voluntad, trocando los términos y vocablos en otros.

On Grammatical Crimes, and the Translations that Perpetrate Them

It is no secret that, among other objectionable features, the English translations of our Orthodox liturgical services more commonly in use are tragically riddled with all sorts of linguistic infelicities. Of the many examples that could  be cited, perhaps the more distressing is the lack of grammatical agreement often inflicted on the unsuspecting worshipper. More often than not this is a result of a painfully incompetent editorial hand engaged in the task of modernizing translations that had originally used “archaic English” of the (pseudo-)Jacobean variety. So it is that, for example, “O Lord, who blessest those who bless Thee” becomes “O Lord, who blesses those who bless You”a “modernization” wrought by merely changing the pronoun and dropping the letter “t,” but which failed to take into consideration that “blessest” is second person singular while “blesses” is third person singular. To be fair, however, other errors in this vein actually predate the age of the zealous Modernizing Editor: consider, for instance, the jarring  (and ubiquitous) “O Son of God, who is risen from the dead,” which falls into the very same trap. Given that we are addressing Christ with the vocative “O Son of God,” the verb in the appositive clause ought to be in the second, not the third person singular.

Like countless others, I have learned to endure these grammatical crimes in silence, hoping against hope that one day we would be delivered from them by a Translator in Shining Armor whose good sense would triumph over the squalid attempts of his or her lessers. In my naïve optimism, I had often comforted myself by pondering the example of contemporary Bible translations, which, whatever their deficiencies, surely did not make this sort of mistake. Imagine my shock, then, when I laid my innocent eyes upon the following:

For it is You who blesses the righteous man, O LORD,
You surround him with favor as with a shield.
(Psalm 5:12, NASB [1995])

Alas, my gentle snowflakes! There is no hope.

Unfortunately, my copy of the 1977 NASB is back in Puerto Rico, and since the only NASB text that appears to be available online is that of the 1995 update, I have thus far been unable to ascertain the reading of the earlier edition. Your help in this matter would be greatly appreciated! [UPDATE: Thanks to our good friend Nick Norelli for providing the 1977 NASB translation of this verse in the comments!]