A Hidden Treasure Comes to Light
The Story of the Makarios Bible
IN 1993 a researcher found in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg a stack of old, yellowed Orthodox Review magazines. Within the pages of the magazines of 1860 to 1867 lay a treasure that had been hidden from the Russian public for well over a century. It was a translation of the entire Hebrew Scriptures, or “Old Testament,” of the Bible in the Russian language!
The translators of the Scriptures were Mikhail Iakovlevich Glukharev, known as Archimandrite Makarios, and Gerasim Petrovich Pavsky. Both were prominent members of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as language scholars. When these men began their work in the early part of the last century, the complete Bible had not yet been translated into Russian.
True, the Bible was in Slavonic, a language that was the forerunner of modern-day Russian. However, by the mid-19th century, the Slavonic language had long since fallen into disuse except in religious services, where it was used by the clergy. A similar situation had existed in the West, where the Roman Catholic Church tried to keep the Bible exclusively in Latin long after Latin had become a dead language.
Makarios and Pavsky attempted to make the Bible accessible to the common people. The discovery of their long-forgotten work, therefore, has made it possible to restore an important part of the literary and religious heritage of Russia.
However, just who were Makarios and Pavsky? And why did their efforts to put the Bible in the common language of the people run into such resistance? Their story is both fascinating and faith strengthening to all lovers of the Bible.
The Need for a Russian Bible
Makarios and Pavsky were not the first to see the need for the Bible in the common language of the people. A hundred years earlier, the Russian czar, Peter I, or Peter the Great, also saw such a need. Significantly, he viewed the Holy Scriptures with respect and is quoted as saying: “The Bible is a book which towers above all others, and contains everything pertaining to man’s duty to God and his neighbour.”
Thus, in 1716, Peter commanded his royal court to have a Bible printed in Amsterdam, at his own expense. Each page was to contain a column of Russian text and a column of Dutch text. Just one year later, in 1717, the Christian Greek Scriptures, or “New Testament,” portion was ready.
By 1721 the Dutch section of a four-volume translation of the Hebrew Scriptures had also been printed. One column was left blank, to be filled in later with the Russian text. Peter turned the Bibles over to the “Holy Synod” of the Russian Orthodox Church—the supreme religious authority of the church—to finalize the printing and to manage distribution. However, the synod did not follow through.
Less than four years later, Peter was dead. What happened to his Bibles? The empty columns meant for the Russian text were never filled in. The Bibles were stacked in large piles in a basement, where they rotted—not a single undamaged copy could later be found! The synod’s decision was to “sell all that remained to the merchants.”
Translating Efforts Begin
In 1812, John Paterson, a member of the British and Foreign Bible Society, came to Russia. Paterson aroused the interest of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia in forming a Bible society. On December 6, 1812—the same year that the Russian army repelled the invading troops of Napoléon I—Czar Alexander I approved the charter for a Russian Bible society. In 1815 the czar commanded the chairman of the society, Prince Aleksandr Golitsyn, to suggest to the governing synod that “the Russians too should have the opportunity of reading the Word of God in their own Russian mother tongue.”
Commendably, approval was given to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Russian directly from the original Hebrew. The ancient Greek Septuagint had been the basis for translations of the Hebrew Scriptures into Slavonic. Those who were to translate the Bible into Russian were told that the main principles of the translation were to be accuracy, clarity, and purity. What happened to these early efforts to provide the Bible in the Russian language?
A Deathblow to Bible Translation?
Conservative elements in both the church and the government soon became wary of foreign religious and political influence. Some church leaders further claimed that Slavonic—the language of liturgy—expressed the Bible’s message better than did Russian.
The Russian Bible Society was thus dissolved in 1826. Several thousand copies of translations produced by the Bible society were burned. As a result, the Bible took a backseat to ritual and tradition. Following the pattern set by the Roman Catholic Church, the synod ruled in 1836: “It is permissible for any devout layman to hear the Scriptures, but it is not permissible for anyone to read some parts of the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, without guidance.” Bible translation had seemingly been dealt a deathblow.
The Work of Pavsky
In the meantime, Gerasim Pavsky, a professor of Hebrew, undertook the task of translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Russian. In 1821 he finished a translation of Psalms. The czar quickly approved it, and by January 1822 the book of Psalms had been released to the public. It met with immediate acceptance and had to be reprinted 12 times—totaling 100,000 copies!
Pavsky’s scholarly efforts won him the respect of many language scholars and theologians. He is described as a straightforward and honest man who stood above the intrigues that surrounded him. In spite of church opposition to the Russian Bible Society and the fact that some felt it represented foreign interests, Professor Pavsky continued to translate Bible verses into Russian at his lectures. His admiring students hand-copied his renderings and, in time, were able to compile his work. In 1839 they emboldened themselves to publish 150 copies at the academy press—without the permission of the censors.
Pavsky’s translation made a striking impression on readers, and the demand for it kept growing. But in 1841 an anonymous complaint was made to the synod regarding the “danger” of this translation, claiming that it strayed from Orthodox dogma. Two years later the synod issued a decree: “Confiscate all existing handwritten and lithographed copies of G. Pavsky’s translation of the Old Testament and destroy them.”
Glorifying the Name of God
Nevertheless, Pavsky had rekindled interest in Bible translation. He had also set an important precedent for future translators when it came to another important issue—God’s name.
Russian researcher Korsunsky explained: ‘The very name of God, the most holy of his names, was composed of four Hebrew characters יהוה and is now pronounced Jehovah.’ In ancient copies of the Bible, that distinctive name of God appears thousands of times in the Hebrew Scriptures alone. However, the Jews mistakenly came to believe that the divine name was too sacred to write or pronounce. Regarding this, Korsunsky observed: ‘In speech or writing, it was usually replaced with Adonai, a word generally translated “Lord.”’
Clearly, the abandoning of the use of the divine name was due to superstitious fear—not godly awe. Nowhere does the Bible itself discourage the use of God’s name. God himself told Moses: “This is what you are to say to the sons of Israel, ‘Jehovah the God of your forefathers . . . has sent me to you.’ This is my name to time indefinite, and this is the memorial of me to generation after generation.” (Exodus 3:15) Repeatedly, the Scriptures urge worshipers: “Give thanks to Jehovah, you people! Call upon his name.” (Isaiah 12:4) Nevertheless, most Bible translators chose to follow Jewish tradition and avoided using the divine name.
Pavsky, however, did not follow these traditions. In his translation of the Psalms alone, the name Jehovah appears more than 35 times. His boldness was to have a significant influence on one of his contemporaries.
The Archimandrite Makarios
This contemporary was the archimandrite Makarios, a Russian Orthodox missionary who had formidable linguistic skills. At the tender age of seven, he could translate short Russian texts into Latin. By the time he was 20, he knew Hebrew, German, and French. However, a humble attitude and a keen sense of his responsibility before God helped him to avoid the trap of overconfidence. He repeatedly sought the advice of other linguists and scholars.
Makarios wanted to reform missionary activity in Russia. He felt that before Christianity could be taken to Muslims and Jews in Russia, the church had to “enlighten the masses by founding schools and distributing Bibles in the Russian language.” In March 1839, Makarios arrived in St. Petersburg, hoping to receive permission to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Russian.
Makarios had already translated the Bible books of Isaiah and Job. However, the synod refused to grant him permission to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Russian. In fact, Makarios was told to rid himself of the very thought of translating the Hebrew Scriptures into the Russian language. The synod issued a ruling, dated April 11, 1841, ordering Makarios “to serve a three-to-six-week penance at the home of a bishop in Tomsk so as to clean his conscience through prayer and genuflections.”
Makarios’ Bold Stand
From December 1841 through January 1842, Makarios fulfilled his penance. But once that was satisfied, he immediately began translating the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. He had obtained a copy of Pavsky’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and used it to check his own renderings. Like Pavsky, he refused to obscure the divine name. In fact, the name Jehovah occurs more than 3,500 times in the Makarios translation!
Makarios sent copies of his work to sympathetic friends. Though a few handwritten copies went into circulation, the church continued to block the publishing of his work. Makarios made plans to promote his Bible abroad. On the eve of his departure, he fell ill and then died shortly thereafter, in the year 1847. His Bible translation was never published in his lifetime.
Published at Last!
Eventually, the political and religious winds shifted. A new liberalism swept through the land, and in 1856 the synod once again approved the translation of the Bible into Russian. In this improved climate, the Makarios Bible was published in installments in the Orthodox Review between 1860 and 1867, under the title An Experiment of Translation Into the Russian Language.
Archbishop Filaret of Chernigov, a scholar of Russian religious literature, gave this appraisal of the Makarios Bible: “His translation is faithful to the Hebrew text, and the language of the translation is pure and befits the subject.”
However, the Makarios Bible was never released to the general public. In fact, it was all but forgotten. In 1876 the entire Bible, including both the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures, was finally translated into Russian with the approval of the synod. This complete Bible is often called the synodal translation. Ironically, the Makarios translation, along with Pavsky’s, served as a primary source for this “official” Russian Orthodox Church translation. But the divine name was used in only a few of the places where it occurs in the Hebrew language.
The Makarios Bible Today
The Makarios Bible remained in obscurity until 1993. As noted in the introduction, at that time a copy of it was located in old Orthodox Review magazines in the rare-books section of the Russian National Library. Jehovah’s Witnesses recognized the value of making this Bible available to the public. The library granted permission to the Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia to have a copy of the Makarios Bible made so that it could be prepared for publishing.
Jehovah’s Witnesses then arranged for nearly 300,000 copies of this Bible to be printed in Italy for distribution throughout Russia and the many other countries where Russian is spoken. In addition to Makarios’ translation of most of the Hebrew Scriptures, this edition of the Bible contains Pavsky’s translation of Psalms as well as the Orthodox Church-authorized synodal translation of the Greek Scriptures.
In January of this year, it was released during a news conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. (See page 26.) Russian readers will surely be enlightened and edified by this new Bible.
The publication of this Bible is thus a religious and literary triumph! It is also a faith-strengthening reminder of the truthfulness of the words of Isaiah 40:8: “The green grass has dried up, the blossom has withered; but as for the word of our God, it will last to time indefinite.”
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Bible Receives Critical Acclaim
“YET another monument of literature has been released: the Makarios Bible.” With that introduction, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda announced the release of the Makarios Bible.
After noting that it was not until some “120 years ago” that the Bible first appeared in the Russian language, this paper lamented: “For many years the church was opposed to the translation of holy books into an easy-to-read language. Having rejected several translations, the church finally agreed with one of them in 1876, and it came to be known as the synodal translation. However, it was not allowed into the churches. There, to this day, the only Bible that is recognized is in Slavonic.”
The newspaper St. Petersburg Echo also pointed to the value of publishing the Makarios Bible, observing: “Authoritative scholars from St. Petersburg State University, Herzen Pedagogical University, and the State Museum of Religious History gave high marks to this new edition of the Bible.” Pointing to the translating of the Bible into Russian by Makarios and Pavsky in the first half of the last century, the newspaper noted: “Up to that time, in Russia the Bible could be read only in Slavonic, which was understandable only to members of the clergy.”
The release of the Makarios Bible by Jehovah’s Witnesses was reported during a press conference in St. Petersburg earlier this year. The local daily Nevskoye Vremya observed: “Authoritative scholars . . . emphasized that the edition should be evaluated as a fact of enormous significance in the cultural life of Russia and St. Petersburg. Regardless of what one thinks about the activity of this religious organization, the publication of this heretofore unknown translation of the Bible is undoubtedly of great benefit.”
Surely, all lovers of God are delighted when his written Word is made available in a language that can be read and understood by the common people. Bible lovers everywhere are delighted that another Bible translation has been made available to the millions of Russian-speaking people around the world.
Release of the Makarios Bible was announced at this press conference
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The Russian National Library where the hidden treasure was found
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Peter the Great tried to have the Bible published in Russian
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Gerasim Pavsky, who contributed to the translation of the Bible into Russian
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The archimandrite Makarios, after whom the new Russian Bible is named