A Valiant Effort to Promote the Bible
He breathed his last on the frigid steppe of eastern Siberia, vilified and disgraced. Few recall that he was one of the main figures in the spiritual advancement of his fellow Greeks. The name of this ignored pioneer was Seraphim. His valiant effort to promote the Bible contributed to his demise.
SERAPHIM lived at the time when Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire. According to Greek Orthodox scholar George Metallinos, that period was marked by “a shortage of suitable schools” and by “a lack of education among most of the people,” including even the clergy.
There was a chasm between Koine (common) Greek and the vernacular, with its numerous variants. That chasm became so wide that Koine, in which the Christian Greek Scriptures were written, was no longer understood by those who had no formal education. In the controversy that ensued, the church chose to promote the unintelligible Koine Greek.
In this climate, Stephanos Ioannis Pogonatus was born to a well-known family on the island of Lesbos, Greece, in about 1670. Poverty and illiteracy were prevalent on the island. The scarcity of schools forced Stephanos to receive his elementary education at a local monastery. At a very young age, he was ordained as a deacon of the Greek Orthodox Church and was given the name Seraphim.
In about 1693, a yearning for knowledge took Seraphim to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). In time, his skills earned him the respect of Greek notables. Soon, he was sent by a secret Greek nationalistic movement as an emissary to Czar Peter the Great of Russia. The trip to Moscow and back took Seraphim through much of Europe, where he was exposed to winds of religious and intellectual reform. In 1698, Seraphim traveled to England and made important contacts in London and Oxford. He was introduced to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church, a connection that would soon prove to be useful to Seraphim.
Publishing a Bible
While in England, Seraphim came to the conclusion that there was a pressing need among Greeks for a new, easy-to-understand version of the “New Testament” (Christian Greek Scriptures). Working from the translation produced more than half a century earlier by the monk Maximus, Seraphim set out to publish a fresh, error-free, easier-to-comprehend version. He enthusiastically began his work but soon ran out of funds. Prospects looked brighter when the Archbishop of Canterbury promised to provide the needed financial assistance. Spurred on by such support, Seraphim bought printing paper and negotiated with a printer.
Printing, however, progressed only as far as halfway through the Gospel of Luke. Then, political change in England led the Archbishop of Canterbury to withdraw any further funding. Undaunted, Seraphim recruited some wealthy sponsors and managed to publish his revised version in 1703. Part of the cost was covered by the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts.
The older two-volume translation by Maximus included the original Greek text. It was large and heavy. Seraphim’s revised version was set in a smaller font, contained only the modern Greek translation, and was thinner and cheaper.
Fueling a Controversy
“Certainly, this updated publication filled a real need of the people,” notes scholar George Metallinos. “However, Seraphim seized the opportunity to attack a faction of the clergy that opposed [Bible] translations.” The clergy were enraged when Seraphim said in the preface that he had produced his version ‘expressly for the sake of some priests and certain presbyters who did not understand [Koine] Greek, so that with the help of the Most Holy Spirit they could read and understand something from the original text, in order to convey it to ordinary Christians.’ (The Translation of the Bible Into Modern Greek—During the 19th Century) Seraphim thus plunged into the Bible-translation maelstrom within the ranks of the Greek Orthodox Church.
On one side were those who realized that the spiritual and moral development of people depended on exposure to the Bible. They also felt that members of the clergy needed to improve their own knowledge of the Scriptures. Moreover, proponents of Bible translation held that Scriptural truths can be expressed in any language.—Revelation 7:9.
Opponents of Bible translation used the pretext that any rendering of the Bible would adulterate its contents and invalidate the authority of the church over interpretation and dogma. But their real fear was that Protestants were using the translation of the Bible to make inroads into the Greek Orthodox Church. Many clergymen thought that they were duty-bound to oppose any trend that might be sympathetic to Protestants, including efforts to make the Bible understandable to the common people. Translation of the Bible thus became the flash point in the conflict between Protestantism and Orthodoxy.
Although he had no inclination to abandon the Orthodox Church, Seraphim spoke out against the ignorance and bigotry of his clerical opponents. In the preface to his “New Testament,” he wrote: “Every God-fearing Christian needs to read the Holy Bible” so that he “becomes an imitator of Christ and obedient to [his] teaching.” Seraphim maintained that prohibiting the study of the Scriptures was from the Devil.
A Wave of Opposition
When Seraphim’s version reached Greece, it provoked the anger of the religious establishment. The new version was proscribed. Copies of the translation were burned, and anyone who possessed or read it was threatened with excommunication. Patriarch Gabriel III banned the circulation of Seraphim’s version, calling it unnecessary and useless.
Though Seraphim did not lose hope, he saw the need to be circumspect. Despite the official ban by the church, a number of clerics and laymen embraced his translation. He was very successful in distributing the version. Yet, his clash with powerful opponents was far from over.
The Beginning of the End
Besides promoting Bible distribution, Seraphim became involved in revolutionary and nationalistic movements. To pursue these, he returned to Moscow in the summer of 1704. He became a confidant of Peter the Great and for a time was a professor at the Russian Royal Academy. Concerned about what might happen to his translation, however, Seraphim returned to Constantinople in 1705.
In a reprint of his version in that same year, Seraphim removed the critical preface of the original printing. He added a simple foreword that encouraged the reading of the Bible. This edition enjoyed wide circulation, and there is no record of any adverse reaction from the patriarchate.
Nevertheless, in 1714 a devastating blow came from Alexander Helladius, a Greek traveler and opponent of Bible translation. In his book Status Præsens Ecclesiæ Græcæ (The Current Status of the Greek Church), he viciously attacked the translators and renderings of the Bible. Helladius devoted a whole chapter to Seraphim, presenting him as a thief, a swindler, and an illiterate and immoral fraud. Was there any truth to such charges? Author Stylianos Bairaktaris expresses the informed opinion of many scholars when he calls Seraphim ‘a workman and an enlightened pioneer’ who was attacked because he was ahead of his time. Yet, Helladius’ book contributed to the troubled end of Seraphim.
Under a Cloud of Suspicion
By the time Seraphim returned to Russia in 1731, Peter the Great had died. The Greek deacon therefore enjoyed no official protection. Reigning Empress Anna Ivanovna was very cautious about any potentially unsettling activity in her realm. In January 1732, it was rumored in St. Petersburg that a Greek spy was working against the interests of the empire. The suspect was Seraphim. He was arrested and was sent to the Nevsky monastery for interrogation. At the monastery was a copy of Helladius’ book accusing Seraphim of various crimes. In three written refutations, the deacon tried to counter the accusations. The interrogation lasted about five months, and the cloud of suspicion hanging over Seraphim was hard to dispel.
Since no tangible evidence was presented against Seraphim, he was spared the death penalty. Because of Helladius’ smears, however, the authorities were reluctant to let Seraphim go free. The Greek deacon was sentenced to exile in Siberia for life. The verdict mentioned that the indictment was based on the charges contained “in the essay published by the Greek author Helladius.” In July 1732, Seraphim arrived in eastern Siberia bound in irons and was thrown into the infamous Okhotsk prison.
About three years later, Seraphim died, abandoned and forgotten. At times, his judgment and methods were misguided and imprudent, but his version is one of many Bible translations now available in modern Greek.* Among them is the easily understood New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, also available in a number of other languages. How thankful we can be that Jehovah God has preserved his Word so that people everywhere have the opportunity to “come to an accurate knowledge of truth”!—1 Timothy 2:3, 4.
See “The Struggle for a Bible in Modern Greek,” in The Watchtower, November 15, 2002, pages 26-9.
[Picture on page 12]
Peter the Great
[Picture Credit Line on page 10]
Photos: Courtesy American Bible Society