On Reading the Scriptures, Part I

A new (civil) year has dawned, and as is usual, a number of posts linking to several different Bible reading plans have appeared in various corners of the blogosphere. It so happens that, a little over a year ago, I started to work on a response to Fr Milovan Katanić’s challenging post on the subject of Bible reading among the Orthodox, and had hoped to post some thoughts on the matter (as well as some practical solutions) by New Year’s Day 2009. Regrettably, my lack of internet access at the time prevented me from finishing my post in a timely manner, so I decided to wait until New Year 2010 to publish it. Thus, I offer the following in the hope that it may prove useful to someone in carrying out their desire to read the Holy Scriptures.

I. To What End Should We Read?

Many Christians would like to read the Scriptures in some systematic fashion, but they face a number of obstacles to their good intentions. For example, it is not unusual for overzealous believers to attempt rather ambitious reading plans that inevitably lead them to crash and burn somewhere around Deuteronomy 5. As is true of other disciplines of the Christian life, the systematic reading the Scriptures is an ascetical endeavor, and here too we must allow for growth in the exercise of a discipline before we expect to produce the sorts of results that would bespeak a spiritual maturity that we have not yet attained. In the end (to adapt the advice of a well-known prayer book), it is better to read a single chapter of the Scriptures every day without fail, than to read 15 or 20 on an irregular, impulsive basis1.

Another common obstacle is that readers often seem to expect too much from their reading of Scripture. This is rooted in a deep misunderstanding of the purpose of systematic biblical reading. We should not be looking for moments of blazing insight (though such moments might come as we progress in our discipline); neither should we expect to settle, in the course of a single reading, the exegetical and theological issues on which the best minds of the ages have expended their magnificent intellectual powers. Our purpose should be much more modest: namely, to acquaint ourselves with the subject matter of Scripture. I believe St Augustine puts it best in this delightful passage:

“These are all the books in which those who fear God and are made docile by their holiness seek God’s will. The first rule in this laborious task is, as I have said, to know these books; not necessarily to understand them but to read them so as to commit them to memory or at least make them not totally unfamiliar. Then the matters which are clearly stated in them, whether ethical precepts or articles of belief, should be examined carefully and intelligently. The greater a person’s intellectual capacity, the more of these he finds. In clearly expressed passages of scripture one can find all the things that concern faith and the moral life (namely hope and love, treated in my previous book). Then, after gaining a familiarity with the language of the divine scriptures, one should proceed to explore and analyse the obscure parts to illuminate obscure expressions and by using the evidence of indisputable passages to remove the uncertainty of ambiguous ones. Here memory is extremely valuable; and it cannot be supplied by these instructions if it is lacking”2.

The daily and systematic reading of Scripture falls within St Augustine’s “first rule,” whose purpose is simply to know the content of the Bible. Anything beyond this takes place at the level of more detailed study and analysis, which the rhythm of systematic reading can hardly afford.

II. The Bare Minimum: The Gospel and the Psalter

It would be no exaggeration to say that the Gospel and the Psalter are the backbone of the Church’s liturgical use and experience of the Bible, and this is not without reason. As the late Protopresbyter John Meyendorff has rightly noted:

“Orthodox theology takes for granted the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Even a casual acquaintance with the Orthodox liturgical ethos shows the Biblical character of the Orthodox religious experience. The office, almost entirely, is made up of scriptural texts, particularly Psalms, which are sung or read in the context of various celebrations. However, if one takes the liturgy as a guide, the Bible is not read as a uniform collection of equally holy texts. There is a certain hierarchy within it: the New Testament, read during the Eucharistic liturgy, is the fulfillment of the Old, and within the New Testament itself, the book containing the four Gospels is the object of special and direct veneration not accorded the rest of the New Testament”3.

From this perspective, it is quite clear that the Gospels should never be absent from our daily reading of the Scriptures. The same may also be said of the Psalter, for as St John Chrysostom once remarked, “It would be better for the sun to be extinguished than for the words of David to be forgotten”4.  Those just starting to read the Scriptures would do well, then, to read at least the Gospel and the Psalter daily, only increasing this reading program (to once again adapt the advice of that well-known prayer book) once it has become a regular and integral part of their lives5.

Now, how do we go about our daily reading of the Gospel? The first way that comes to mind is to follow the daily cycle of Gospel readings appointed for the Divine Liturgy and usually printed in yearly calendars. This is a laudable practice, of course, but it should be noted that to depend exclusively on the lectionary for one’s private reading of Scripture has some limitations. For one thing, no appointed Gospel reading would usually be available for Lenten weekdays. Further, as I suggested earlier, the readings in our Gospel lectionary have been deliberately selected and arranged in order to serve a definite, iconic liturgical function. Because of this, attempting to gain a sense of, say, the integrity of the St Matthew’s Gospel from the lectionary’s successive pericopes would only do violence to both St Matthew’s Gospel and the lectionary.

Another method (and one I can recommend from experience) comes from the “Cell Rule of the Optina Monastery,” which prescribed, among other things, the reading of one chapter of the Gospel every day. Since there are 89 chapters in the Gospels, reading them in succession takes a reader through the Gospels, in strict canonical order, 4 times per year.

What about the Psalter? As is well known, the Psalter is divided into 20 kathismata (i.e., sections comprising roughly nine Psalms), each of which is further divided into three staseis (i.e., subsections comprising roughly three Psalms). Outside of Lent, when this regime is doubled, the Psalter is appointed to be read in its entirety once a week during the liturgical services at a rate of three kathismata per day (two on Mondays). For its part, the “Optina Cell Rule” prescribed the reading of one kathisma per day. I think that a daily kathisma is an excellent long-term goal, but again, those who are just starting to read the Scriptures should be careful not to bite off more than they can chew. In my experience, a more manageable and immediate goal is to read one stasis every day. Since there are 60 staseis in the Psalter, reading them in succession would take a reader through the entire Psalter 6 times per year.

A future post on this subject will detail a more comprehensive reading plan. Before then, however, I should like to say a word about English translations of the Gospel and the Psalter. To the best of my knowledge, there are only two existing English translations of the ecclesiastical text of the Gospels: 1) the Eastern / Greek Orthodox Bible (EOB), available both in print and for download, and 2) The Orthodox New Testament, vol. 1 (The Holy Gospels), a hopelessly eccentric translation with an invaluable set of patristic annotations. We have mercifully fared a little better with the ecclesiastical text of the Psalter, and there are several editions readily available in print. In fact, a number of them are even available online either for reading or for download: HTM’s Psalter According to the Seventy, Michael Asser’s KJV-LXX Psalter, David James’ Coverdale-based Russian Orthodox Psalter, the EOB’s Psalter, and most notably, the late Archimandrite Lazarus Moore’s rare and beautiful Psalter.

 

Endnotes:

1. Cf. Orthodox Daily Prayers (South Canaan: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1982), page 3: “It is better to say a few prayers every day without fail than to say a great number of prayers on an irregular, impulsive basis.”

2. St Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999),  II.9.

3. [Protopresbyter] Johh Meyendorff,  “Light from the East? ‘Doing Theology’ in an Eastern Orthodox Perspective,” in J. D. Woodbridge and T. E. McComiskey (eds.), Doing Theology in Today’s World. Essays in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), pages 340-1 .

4. Cf. Second Homily on Repentance (PG 49, col. 286): Αἱρετώτερόν ἐστι τὸν ἥλιον σβεσθῆναι, ἢ τὰ ῥήματα τοῦ Δαυῒδ λήθῃ παραδοθῆναι.

5. Cf. Orthodox Daily Prayers (South Canaan: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1982), page 3: “Those of us who do not [have a spiritual father], should begin with a modest [Prayer] Rule, increasing it only when it has become a regular and integral part of our lives.”

30 responses to “On Reading the Scriptures, Part I

  1. FWIW, my wife and I read a stasis together each night as part of our evening prayers. I also keep a volume of Theophylact’s Gospel commentaries handy for daily reading. To keep things simple, there are four seasons of the year, and the general flow of weekday readings in the lectionary seems to be: John in the spring, Matthew in the summer, Luke in the fall, and Mark in the winter. So rather than try to keep track of the readings for each day, I just change volumes with the seasons and read manageable portions in sequence. My only real standards are to read something each day and get through the whole volume at least once a year.

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  2. Thanks, Esteban. Nicely done. Out of curiosity, which Psalter do you use and why?

    By the way, is there a solid review of the EOB available on the web?

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  3. Michael> Oh, my, that’s a loaded question! For personal reading, I’ve learned to enjoy the contemporary English translation by the Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery in Otego, NY. I think that’s a lovely and clear translation suitable for reading. In Church, like everyone else, I’ve often had to read and hear the clunky and sadly ubiquitous HTM Psalter. However, if I had my way, everyone would use Fr Lazarus Moore’s translation (linked above). It certainly could use some editing, but it is on the whole superior to the HTM Psalter. As for Asser’s and James’ respective Psalters, they were released only very recently, so I haven’t had a chance to form an opinion on the published texts.

    As for the EOB, it has not yet been released in full, and to my knowledge, no one has yet produced a review of the EOB NT. I will say, however, that I have liked most everything I have seen thus far, though some of the bracketed words in the text seem quite unnecessary to me, and the general introduction could be further revised.

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  4. I would like to memorize the Psalter. However, before I take on such a task I would like your counsel.

    First what version would you recommend I memorize. I was going to favor the KJV1611 or the translation by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Perhaps NETs would be a better choice?

    I was going to record each kathisma for listening on my long commute and while exercising and then reading once aloud as well.

    Secondly, do you think it would be better to read it plainly or deliberately chant it? I don’t chant “properly” but I do chant the way it is done in my parish which is very sober and without embellishment.

    Basically I want to stick my head in a bucket full of psalms for the next year or so.

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  5. David> If Michael’s question was loaded, yours gets quite tricky! Well, let’s see.

    Since the Psalter is so integral a part of both public and private worship in the Church, we must exercise great care not to create a disconnect between one and the other when choosing a text of the Psalms for memorization. I don’t know what your specific parish situation is, but here are the basic options, as I see them:

    -If you use the “new” Jordanville prayer book and your parish worships in traditional liturgical English, then I would recommend to memorize the HTM Psalter, as this is the text you’re praying every day and hearing in Church anyway. Now, do not mistake that for an endorsement: I’ve always made it abundantly clear in the past just how much I dislike the HTM Psalter. In this case, however, it would seem preferable to sacrifice aesthetic preferences on the altar of consistency.

    -If you use the “old” Jordanville prayer book, as some of us have been known to do, memorize Fr Lazarus Moore’s Psalter. This would be the text of the Psalms you’re currently praying anyway, and clearly the disjunction between that and whatever variation of English they use at your parish has not yet caused you to be stricken with a fit of apoplexy — so why not? After all, Fr Lazarus’ Psalter is a little jewel.

    -If your parish and prayer book use traditional liturgical English but not of the Jordanville variety, and if you are well versed in the KJV and read it often, then I think Michael Asser’s Psalter would be your best bet. This is a revision of the KJV Psalms according to the ecclesiastical Greek Psalter, so it is a good “mediating” text.

    -If your parish and prayer book use contemporary English, look no further than the Holy Myrrbearers Monastery’s Kathisma Psalter with Canticles. As I said in my response to Michael, I find this to be a lovely and clear translation, and I can’t quite understand why more people aren’t aware of it.

    As for the NETS, I cannot recommend it for use either as a translation for memorization or as a liturgical translation. The NETS is a very good scholarly text, an excellent (and indeed, indispensable) study tool, but it is not made for use at Church and the icon corner. Also, reading in recitativo is not necessary when we read the Psalms at home, whether at prayer or for the sake of memorization. This is done at Church for various reasons, but at home it is better and much more simple to read plainly.

    I sincerely hope this is helpful to you. I truly commend you for your desire to immerse yourself in deep waters of the Psalter, and wish you all the best. Also, and don’t forget these three excellent resources at your disposal: St Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms; Johanna Manley’s Grace for Grace: The Psalter and the Holy Fathers; and Robert C. Hill’s translation of St John Chrysostom’s Commentary on the Psalms.

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  6. That was an extremely helpful post.

    I have a copy of the HTM that I … well … de-thou-ed because the prayers my priest gave me for my rule had been and when I wanted to include Psalms it was jarring to go back and forth for my family’s morning and evening prayers. I’m sure we are NOT using the “new” at my parish. I have noticed the difference without specifically investigating what is used. I know that the liturgical texts are taken from the NKJV (though I think RSV has been used from time to time).

    I know that this is no simple effort. In particular, I am the unlucky sort to have not even remedial successes in memorization. Frankly, I stink at it. But the work itself will be ever more valuable than whether I actually could recite the text as a carnival act.

    I have converted to Orthodoxy from a study-the-Bible-day-and-night-but-never-read-it tradition. I’d like to reverse the damage of that. Call this a corrective diet.

    Thank you again Stefan. My wife is very interested in my efforts, she enjoys hearing me read and was hoping that reading plainly would be appropriate. The next step is recording the Kathismas, cleaning up the audio and making some mp3s.

    I think I’ll avoid the HTM version.

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  7. Esteban,

    Blessed new year to you!

    I love the title of section two: “The Bare Minimum: The Gospel and the Psalter”

    Indeed, it is the bare minimum, but good nonetheless.

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  8. “Another common obstacle is that readers often seem to expect too much from their reading of Scripture. This is rooted in a deep misunderstanding of the purpose of systematic biblical reading. We should not be looking for moments of blazing insight (though such moments might come as we progress in our discipline); neither should we expect to settle, in the course of a single reading, the exegetical and theological issues on which the best minds of the ages have expended their magnificent intellectual powers. Our purpose should be much more modest: namely, to acquaint ourselves with the subject matter of Scripture.”

    Amen and amen…a most excellent sentiment!

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  9. Perfect timing!

    I had just posted a link to two newly finished plans, the NRSV and NETS reading plans, using the Optina kellia system for the NT readings, just as like last year, but without the Psalms, which I feel rather ghastly about, but I simply don’t have the time to arrange the plan in full right now. There’s a plan for reading the NETS and one for the NRSV (or any other Hebrew-based, full-apocrypha-inclusive translation), as there was last year.

    I do think a stasis a day of the Psalms is much more realistic. It’s such an excellent suggestion that I think I’ll work that out and put that together, rather than worrying about the full kathismata plan that I included last year.

    Many thanks!

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  10. Pingback: biblicalia » Blog Archive » 2010 Bible Reading Plans

  11. I’ve updated the plans I put up earlier to include the Psalms, one stasis per day. See this post for details.

    The two plans are for the NRSV (and thus use its book titles, versification and Psalm numbering), and for the NETS (which use its own).

    Using these, over the course of the year the reader will read through the entire Greek Orthodox Old Testament once, the entire New Testament four times, and the entire Psalter six times. And that’s by only reading five or six chapters a day, a chunk of reading that should take much less time than keeping up with email or blogs or any of that stuff (he says to himself).

    Thank you for the suggestion, Esteban. It was a very good one.

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  12. David> I’m very glad that my comments of some help to you. I’d be very interested in hearing of your progress in this endeavor, so do check in from time to time! Oh, and let me know which translation you decided to memorize in the end. :-)

    Tim> A blessed New Year to you as well, my friend! And yes, I chose that subtitle because I wanted to convey precisely what you’ve picked up from it. Ah, how much better off would we be if most of the people in our churches were in the practice of doing even this bare minimum when it comes to reading the Bible, and took it to heart!

    Kevin> I’m very pleased to see that you’ve adopted my suggestion, and that the revised plans are up! This will make my job a lot easier when I write my next post on Bible reading, which will simply detail these plans we’ve worked on and offer some practical suggestions for their use. Thank you for your tireless commitment to making these available!

    Arlie> I will do my best to have the next post up within the next couple of days for your sake — I had originally planned to post it on the “Old” New Year, January 1/14! ;-)

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  13. I’m going with Fr Lazarus. I hate to sound lacking in critical thinking, but aesthetics matter even if I can’t deconstruct my prejudices. I have been reading them in small batches aloud to get a feel for his sense of word choice. I simply like his work the best. Though I still appreciate the gift of the HTM version I got back when I was first inquiring to Orthodoxy, it isn’t what we use at our parish.

    I think I’ll make my recordings at work over my lunch hour. I have better equipment there and it saves me wrestling my wife and two kids into long periods of silence. I plan on recording them rather rapidly. I’m hoping to fit it into 135 mins which would be just enough for my commute both ways and my workout.

    Yes, that’s the Psalms every day. If I regret that I’ll slow it down to three times a week. If I’m really going to memorize this much material, I expect I can’t avoid spending over an hour a day on it. Apart from my morning and evening prayers (and of course services) this will probably be the total of my spiritual diet for this year.

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  14. Esteban:
    Thanks for posting this. This is all excellent advice. I’ve been using “The Treasury of Daily Prayer” which includes this reading plan. It follows the liturgical year and has a reading from the Old and New Testament. It takes you through almost the whole New Testament and about a third of the Old Testament. The Treasury also has a Psalm (or part of a Psalm) set for chanting. My kids love the chanting and would love it if I chanted through the other readings as well but I’ve had some trouble doing that. Then there’s a reading from an early church father or Lutheran church father. I’ve really enjoyed it but I’m always a little disappointed when the New Testament reading is not a Gospel reading. The church has rightly shown special honor to the Gospel reading and I do think that the Gospels should form the core of our devotions and theology.

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  15. Esteban, a bit late but thanks for the information. Funny thing is that I don’t try to do ready plans anymore just because I tend to fall behind. But this year I decided that I would read the Psalms and the Gospels so it was encouraging to read your posting.

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  16. Dear Stefan,
    I have appreciated your comments on my ‘King James Septuagint’ Liturgical Psalter, a revised version of which was published by CTOS in 2008.
    You may be interested to know that I have produced a complete ‘King James Septuagint’, taking the King James Bible Old Testament and changing it where the meaning diifers from that of the Greek text of the Septuagint published by Apostoliki Diakonia.
    I have been looking for a publisher, but meantime Genesis – 2 Kingdoms have been posted on the Orthodox England website, with the rest to follow in due course.

    In Christ,
    Michael Asser

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  17. David> Splendid! Once again, all the best in your endeavors for 2010. I encourage you to keep a journal of your experiences as you memorize the Psalms. Perhaps at the end of the year you could revisit your entries and extract from them some practical advice on the subject for the benefit of the rest of us.

    Charles> That is a lovely little lectionary in the best tradition of the Church of the Augsburg Confession. Has it been officially adopted? It is certainly a much better piece of work than the impossible three-year “Revised Common Lectionary,” whether in its Roman or mainline Protestant varieties. I do regret with you, however, that it does not feature a daily Gospel reading. I wholeheartedly agree with your statement that the Gospels should form the core of our devotions and theology. I can think of no better corrective to certain theologies that, always for ill, have chosen the wrong gravitational center as their “canon-within-the-canon.”

    Robert> I’m glad that you found this post helpful and encouraging. I think it is a deep Christian instinct to turn to the Gospels and the Psalms as the most basic Biblical reading for the spiritual life, as your own independent sense of the matter seems to confirm. We can’t do wrong to read at least these — but hopefully, they will always create in us to greater appetite for the Scriptural word in all its richness and fulness.

    Michael> Thank you very much for stopping by. I have commented on your work earlier, and I also announced here the publication of a revised edition of your Psalter by the CTOS. One of the reasons I reserved judgement on the CTOS edition in an earlier comment is that I have been told by those who have seen it (and I have not) that they changed several places of your translation to conform to the stichoi they had already printed in their Epistle and Gospel lectionaries. I take this opportunity to ask you: are the changes so many and conspicuous that the CTOS edition turns out to be, in the end, something quite different from your original work? This would be a pity, since I have long been ready to recommend the latter wholeheartedly.

    Yes, I am happily aware that your translation of Genesis-II Kingdoms is available on “Orthodox England,” and I intend to mention this when I recommend your “King James Septuagint” as one of my two favored options for Old Testament reading in my next post on this subject. Thank you for undertaking this task (which is nothing short of herculean!); I am eagerly looking forward to the rest of the translation.

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  18. Esteban:
    The CTOS version of my ‘King James Septuagint Liturgical Psalter was a revision to achieve what the editors felt in a number of places was a more accurate reflection of the original Greek than mine. For example, my use of ‘ungodly’ and ‘trouble’ (following King James) was throughout replaced by ‘impious’ and ‘affliction’. In Ps. 76 CTOS expanded my v.19 ‘The voice of Thy thunder was in their rolling’ to read: ‘The voice of Thy thunder was in the rolling (of the Pharaoh’s chariots)’. Most significantly, my versions of Psalms. 50, 69 and 142 were replaced by CTOS’ own versions, which they had previously made for their translation of Small Compline. Despite these changes, I do not think that the CTOS Psalter is definitively different from my original: however, I have not incorporated their revisions in the Book of Psalms in my complete Septuagint.

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  19. Esteban:

    The reading schedule has been printed in Lutheran Service Book and many congregations print the readings in their bulletins as suggestions for members to read throughout the week. The reading plan however is separate from the lectionary readings used during the Divine Service. Most churches use the three year lectionary for the Divine Service but some use the one year. Both readings are listed in Lutheran Service Book, the Lutheran Study Bible, and the other resources published by CPH.

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  20. Esteban:
    Isn’t the “The Orthodox New Testament” published by Holy Apostle’s Convent also a translation of the Ecclesiastical Text? Do you have any thoughts on Peter Papoutsis’ translation of the LXX?

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  21. I have seen references to something called the “Moscow Edition of 1821” (for example, in Boston’s translation of the Psalter, “The Psalter According to the Seventy”, “Translators’ Introduction”, page 15).

    I’m unable to locate this text, or references to it in standard studies of the Septuagint. Can anyone provide further information about this “Moscow Edition of 1821”?

    Thanks for any help.

    Novice Justin (Treese)

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  22. Br. Justin> As I understand the matter, the 1821 Moscow Edition basically reprints the text of the edition of Codex Alexandrinus by Johann Ernst Grabe. The printing, undertaken with the blessing of the Russian Holy Synod, was apparently done at the behest (and at the expense) of two Russian brothers and merchants of uncertain name (perhaps Zosimadis, but whence the Greek name?) who were members of the Moscow Bible Society.

    Grabe’s edition (1707-1720) was in four volumes; he himself saw the publication of the first and the last, with the two middle volumes being completed by colleagues after his death in 1712. (Vol. 4 may be accessed online here.) As far as I know, the 1821 Moscow Edition appeared in a single volume, and was printed only once, which accounts for its scarcity. (It is well known, however, that there are two copies of this edition at the library of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, MA.) Now Grabe’s work was an edition of Alexandrinus, but with a twist: he proposed corrections, additions, and substractions to the text of Codex A which were, however, clearly marked by such devices as smaller print and the well-known text-critical marks (obelisks, asteriks, etc.). These markings were ignored in the 1821 edition, which resulted in the printing of an eclectic text (in the modern text-critical sense of the term), as opposed to an edition of a manuscript (as was Grabe’s intention) or an ecclesiastical text (which does not seem to exist for the entire Greek Old Testament, but only for the readings printed in our service books).

    Notes regarding Grabe’s edition, along with the 1821 Moscow Septuagint (and its oft-forgotten 1843 revised reprint by the SPCK, with the blessing of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece), may be found in H. B. Swete’s An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, vol. I, pages 182-184, and more succintly in Sidney Jellicoe’s The Septuagint and Modern Study, page 184.

    I hope this helps!

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  26. Esteban: I’m ver glad to inform you that Archbishop Mark of Berlin, Germany and Great Britain (ROCOR) has blessed my ‘King James Septuagint’ (an adaptation of the OT of the King James Bible to the Greek Septuagint), and it is expected that it will be published by September 2013 by the St Innocent Press of Middlebury, Indiana.

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