The Orthodox Study Bible — A Review
The following notice of The Orthodox Study Bible appeared originally in Sourozh, the journal of the diocese of Sourozh in Great Britain. A number of people, including an Orthodox bishop, have asked that it may be made more widely available, and so I now republish it on this page.
The background image, appropriately, is the opening of the holy Gospel according to Luke from the Codex Alexandrinus, given by the Patriarch of Constantinople Cyril Lucaris to His Majesty King Charles II of England, and preserved in the British Library.
The Orthodox Study Bible. New Testament and Psalms. Nelson. 1993. Pp.xii, 846 & 195. ISBN 0-8407-8391-4.
The focal point of an Orthodox church is the Holy Table at the centre of the Sanctuary. All the rest, the frescoes, the icons, the choir stalls, the icon screen, the Holy Doors themselves draw the worshipper’s attention to and culminate in the Holy Altar, or Throne, on which, at the Divine Liturgy, the Word of God is offered in the Sacrifice without shedding of blood. But the Holy Table stands apart in the Holy of Holies. It is not generally visible; during most of the ordinary services it is not used at all. Analogously, the daily round of offices and services, and the other Mysteries of the Church have their focal point, their culmination in the Divine Liturgy itself, the supreme Mystery. The same is true of the Bible. Its centre and focus is the Holy Gospel, which alone lies at the centre of the Altar. All the other books which make up the Holy Scripture lead to or flow from the Holy Gospel. The Bible is the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field. It is not a weapon, even against heresy. We do not read the Holy Gospel ‘to discover Orthodox Christianity’, as the dust jacket of this book suggests, but to hear the Word of God leading us to repentance. Every time the Gospel is read we pray that ‘we may be counted worthy to listen to the Holy Gospel’. There is a profound sense in which the Bible for the Orthodox is not a public thing, any more than the Eucharist is a public thing, but one of the Mysteries of the Faith. Our Lord himself said something very like this: ‘To you has been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven, but to the rest in parables.’ Against this background it must be clearly stated from the outset that the whole feel of this volume is wrong. It feels far too much like a piece of evangelical propaganda decked out in the trappings of Orthodoxy, like an eighteenth century New England chapel or meeting house with a golden onion dome stuck over the pediment of the porch.
First of all let us look at the translation used. This is not an Orthodox one at all. The editors have taken the New King James Version (NKJV), which is a slightly modernised (‘You’ not ‘Thou’) re-edition of the version of 1611. They defend this on the grounds that the underlying Greek text of the New Testament in the King James version is closer to the traditional Byzantine text than that of modern critical editions. This is for the most part true and all that they needed to say was that the Byzantine text is the text accepted by the Orthodox Church. Instead they defend their decision on supposedly scholarly grounds. This is irrelevant, except for conservative Evangelicals who wish to justify their conservatism by trying to make it ‘scientifically’ respectable. It also obscures the central point that for the Orthodox the Bible comes from the Church, exists in the Church, lives in the Church. The section of the opening chapter, pages x and xi, which discusses the choice of text, is in fact nothing more than a slightly revised version of the preface to the Revised Authorised Version, pages vi and vii. In adopting this approach the editors allow themselves to be drawn onto the ground chosen by their opponents, when they should have taken their stand on the Orthodox ground that the Church’s text is the Orthodox text, full stop.
Even if the text of the NKJV is on the whole that of the Church, it needs careful checking and revision before it can be called Orthodox. One small example will indicate what I mean. The NKJV, like its ancestor of 1611, which here follows the Latin Vulgate, reads at Luke 23:42, ‘Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ This prayer, we are told in a note, ‘is highlighted in the hymns and worship of the Orthodox Church’. It isn’t, because the Church’s Gospel and all the liturgical texts derived from it in both Greek and Slavonic have ‘in your Kingdom’, a reference to the Second Coming of Christ in his kingly power, as described in Matthew 25:31-46.
The marginal note on the story of the woman taken in adultery, John 7:53-8:11, is interesting. We are told that the modem critical editions bracket this is not in the original text, but that they are present in over 900 mss of [St] John. The latter remark shows that the editors have little idea of the basics of textual criticism. They should read A.E. Housman. The status of this passage is curious and it would have been worth pointing out both that St John Chrysostom did not have it in his text and that the Gospel for Pentecost makes exactly the same omission as St John Chrysostom and the modern scholars. The Johannine comma, I John 5:7b-8a, is printed as part of the text, though it occurs in no Greek ms. before the fourteenth century and, for the Fathers at least, it is not part of the Orthodox Bible.
On the difficult word in the Lord’s Prayer, which is traditionally rendered ‘daily’ we read: ‘Daily is a misleading translation of the Greek epiousios, which is literally "above the essence" or "supersubstantial".’ Not for St John Chrysostom it isn’t. He says very simply that it means ‘for the day’, ephemeron. He may be wrong, but his view is at least worth mentioning. Further, the idea that our Lord during his earthly incarnation was acquainted with the technical language of Greek philosophy has interesting implications for Christology. I am not sure it is quite what the Fathers of Chalcedon meant when they declared that Christ is homoousios with us, ‘sin alone excepted’. The corresponding note on Luke 11:3 is far better. This is only one of a number of places which display signs of sloppy editing. The note on Luke 11:2 is a give-away. We read that St Matthew’s version of the Our Father ‘has a slightly stronger liturgical flavor’ than St Luke’s. This is true if one compares the modern texts produced by modern scholars. In the traditional text, as given here, the two are virtually identical. The note presumably derives from a comment on some quite different translation.
Similar observations could be made on page after page of the translation. Finally I must protest most vigorously against the wholly unorthodox inverted Arianism of the typography whereby the words of Christ are printed in salmon pink, while his heavenly Father has to be content with mere black along with Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate. This use of colour is at times seriously misleading. Thus at John 3:16, which is badly translated, it is not clear whether this and the following verses are spoken by Jesus, or whether they are a comment by the Evangelist. They are probably the latter, but the salmon pink type adopted here compels one interpretation only. There are even more serious objections to this practice. What Our Lord did during his earthly life is as important, if not more important, than what he said. Both St John and St Luke make this point. St John ends his Gospel, ‘There are many other things that Jesus did’; nothing about ‘said’. St Luke begins Acts with a look back at the Gospel as the record of ‘all that Jesus began to do and teach’. It is Jesus himself who is the Word of God, and his actual words are only one aspect of the mystery. To highlight only the spoken words of Jesus is a reflection of a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon attitude which effectively reduces Jesus to a teacher of a system of ethics and a teller of picturesque inspirational stories. It is not for nothing that the traditional iconography of the Holy Doors includes not only the Four Evangelists but the Annunciation as well. The reason that the Gospel and the other readings from Holy Scripture are always chanted in the Church and never simply read is to make sure that the readers do not impose, by their inflections and emphases, their own interpretations on God’s word.
When we turn to the text of the Psalter we are in an even worse case. The Church’s Psalter is that of the Greek Septuagint [LXX], and has been since the days of the Apostles. It is the one used in all Orthodox services, and it forms the basis of innumerable liturgical hymns and prayers which are frequently little more than a mosaic of words and phrases from it. If one adds the fact, though the editorial introduction to the Psalter fails to point this out, that the Latin Psalter of the Western Church was itself a translation of the LXX until this century, one can say quite simply that the Christian Psalter is that of the LXX. The editors lamely protest that ‘no suitable translation of the Septuagint is currently available’. Considering the number of names that occupy most of the title page, not to mention the numerous others listed in the introduction, it should have been possible between them to produce a translation of the Psalms. If that was beyond the resources of the editors, they could at least have printed the Psalms with the correct numbering and divided them into the traditional kathismata and staseis of the Church Psalter. To do that does not even require a knowledge of Greek, only access to Miss Hapgood’s compendium of Orthodox services, or Mother Mary’s and Bishop Kallistos’s Festal Menaion. Moreover an Orthodox Psalter contains the text of the Odes used at Matins. There is no trace of them here, nor of Psalm 151. We are told that ‘some compensation is provided by giving the Septuagint text (author’s translation) in the notes for certain psalms’. A rapid run through the notes reveals that the author must be Ebenezer Scrooge. No attempt has been made to give the LXX titles to the psalm, though these are one of the areas in which the patristic commentaries are particularly rich. Where is the title of Psalm 5, ‘For her that shall inherit’, which the Fathers see as referring to the Church, the Bride of Christ? Where is the ‘Song for the Beloved’ in the title of Psalm 44, in which the Fathers see a reference to Christ? In Psalm 67:15 there is not so much as a hint that the words translated ‘curdled mountain’ form one of the most frequent images used in the Church’s poetry for the Mother of God, for reasons that I have set out in detail elsewhere. The NKJV’s ‘mountain of many peaks’ is pointless as an image of the motherhood of the Ever-Virgin. As one might have expected by now, the ‘doctors’ have disappeared from Psalm 97:10. One of St Basil’s favourite verses [Psalm 118:120], which he uses in many of his prayers that we still use in the Office, goes by unnoticed. The ‘author’ would have been well advised to spend a little time with the three volumes of St Nikodemos’s commentary before writing his notes, even if his own familiarity with the Church’s Psalter was such that these things and countless others like them did not spring to mind at once from his familiarity with the Church’s texts.
What then of the Study Guide itself? Some of it looks like unaltered evangelical material, like the chapter entitled ‘How to read the New Testament in a year’. Many of us prefer to follow the Church’s way of reading. The maps also betray their evangelical origins. The sites of Calvary and the Tomb of Christ, venerated since at least the fourth century by countless thousands of Orthodox believers, are marked with question marks to leave open the possibility, also on the map with question marks, that General Gordon’s improbable ‘Garden Tomb’ was the real one.
The main study material, apart from the notes on the text itself, begins on page 755 with Morning and Evening Prayers. These contain traditional material, but are distinctly unorthodox in feel; at least I would be surprised to find an Orthodox Christian whose regular morning and evening prayers made not a single reference to the Mother of God or the Saints. Both Greek and Slavonic books have traditional sets of Morning and Evening Prayers and it was surely not impossible to include one or other of them.
Next we have a long and helpful piece by Bishop Kallistos on ‘How to Read the Bible’. This is by far the best section of the book and in it the Bishop makes a number of important points. For example, ‘A book is not part of Holy Scripture because of any particular theory about its date and authorship, but because the Church treats it as canonical.’ It is a pity that the sort of approach recommended by the Bishop seems not to have been properly taken into account by the other contributors. ‘There is gold’, writes Bishop Kallistos, ‘in the patristic texts, if only we have the persistence and imagination to discover it.’ Sadly the editors on the whole lack that Klondyke spirit. An earlier version of this piece was originally published as a separate pamphlet and it is much to be hoped that this fuller version will also be made widely available in the West as its Russian translation already is in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
There follows a Lectionary for the whole year. This is a useful feature of the book, for those who do not have ready access to an annual calendar. For some reason the eleven Gospels for Sunday Matins are nowhere given, or even listed, though those for Matins of the major Feasts are. The lectionary does, however, contain a number of curiosities. Why, for example, are we informed that the 4th Sunday after Pentecost is the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils and that it occurs between the 13th and 19th of July, when in most years it does not? The references given are indeed the ones for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost; they are not those for the Fathers. The same remarks apply to the Sunday of the Fathers of the Seventh Council in October. The Lectionary is basically the Slav one and no account is taken of that of the Great Church. The Sundays of Lent on which Saints are commemorated are not given their two sets of Readings, but only those for the Sunday. There is a small selection of Readings for the fixed Feasts, whose dates are given by both the old and new calendars, though this is not explained. Such a list is useful, but not adequate, since on numerous occasions the actual text of the readings does not correspond with the modern verse numbers and on occasion verses are given in a different position from the one in which they are found in the actual scriptural text. For example in the reading from Luke 8:5-15 verse 8b is displaced to the end of verse 15.
There follows a tendentious and wholly unnecessary chapter ‘Introducing the Orthodox Church’. The paragraphs on the so-called Nestorian and Monophysite Churches of the East are most misleading, and of no interest whatever to the Orthodox Christian seeking help in reading the Holy Scripture; nor for that matter are Henry VIII’s matrimonial problems, which are also discussed. There are some surprising statements, such as ‘spontaneity was never the practice in the ancient Church!’, when it is well known that in the early centuries the Eucharistic Prayer was improvised by the bishop. That Christian worship had ‘a basic structure or shape’ does not of itself exclude spontaneity. There is little or no evidence that ‘chrismation [was] there from the start’. The New Testament evidence is all for the apostolic laying on of hands. The section on the early history of the Christian ministry is likewise marked by quite inadequate scholarship. The exegesis of Acts 1:20 shows an extraordinary insensitivity to a sense of history. The remarks on the presbyterate show an equal insensitivity to language; but a sound knowledge of Greek is a not a noteworthy feature of this volume. On page 794 we are told that baptizo means ‘to be plunged’, which was news to me. Elsewhere we learn that the Greek for ‘anointing’ is chrismatis. We are told that the Seven of Acts 6:1-7 were ‘deacons’ though the word is not used of them and St John Chrysostom specifically says that they were not. At Romans 16:1, incidentally, we are not told that Phoebe of the church of Cencreae was a ‘deacon’, only that she was ‘a leading Christian woman’. This whole chapter has absolutely no place in a biblical study guide for the Orthodox; it is simply a piece of not very effective propaganda aimed at those outside the Church. Inquirers are advised, among other things, to attend a liturgy, when, if parts are not in English, ‘the Service Book in the pew will help.’ They will be disappointed when they find neither, and with good reason, in a traditional Orthodox church.
Next we are offered a Glossary. This is explained, but only on the dust jacket, as being ‘of Orthodox Christian terminology’. It starts with a howler. ‘Abba’, as used in first century Aramaic and in the New Testament, is not ‘somewhat equivalent to the English "Daddy".’ Try reading Mark 14:36 with that substitution. The Evangelist, quite correctly, glosses the Aramaic with the word ‘Father’. Many of the entries are however well done, though there is nothing particularly Orthodox about a large number of them. The Glossary is followed by an extremely useful ‘Index to Annotations’ and a list of the traditional Seventy Apostles with the scriptural passages in which their names occur and the dates of their feasts in the Church calendar. A detailed study of the references could be quite interesting. I do not know why there is a second Mark, listed without any scriptural reference under September 27th and October 30, since in both cases the entry in the Synaxarion makes it clear that he is the same as Mark the Evangelist.
This list is followed by a long chapter, reprinted from elsewhere, by the dean of St Athanasius Academy, Jack N. Sparks. This is a somewhat rambling and incoherent piece, but makes a number of useful points about the differences between allegory and typology. It would have been preferable, though, to have asked Fr John Breck of St Vladimir’s to write something, or even for his permission to reprint a chapter from his book on biblical interpretation. This would have been heavier going for the reader but would have packed a good deal more intellectual punch.
The volume ends with a ‘Harmony of the Gospels’, a sort of ‘Write your own Diatessaron’ or ‘Be your own Tatian’, the usefulness of which is obscure, Tables of Monies, Weights and Measures and a Concordance that includes phrases as well as individual words. This comes from some other book—it is paginated quite separately—and covers the whole Bible, not merely the New Testament and Psalter. It would have been better to have provided a fuller concordance for the actual book that the reader is using.
The notes that accompany the text are very full for the New Testament, scrappy to a degree for the Psalms. The notes to the New Testament are on the whole straightforward and some readers will find them a help in understanding many of the words and ideas in the text. Most of them though are dull and many of them jejune in the extreme. As a friend put it to me, they remind one of the notes to some school editions of Shakespeare. ‘King Lear plans to divide his kingdom between his daughters’, or ‘Hamlet wonders if it would be a good idea to commit suicide.’ In this book we find similar notes all too often, such as that on Luke 16:11: ‘True riches signify spiritual treasures’, or that on Luke 16:25 ‘This conversation is not between God and the rich man, but between Abraham and the rich man.’ The level is that of a not very bright Sunday School class. Critical questions are avoided by simply not being discussed at all. This is unsatisfactory, since many readers will be seeking help on just these questions. What should have been provided is an article setting out clearly how an Orthodox reader of the Bible should approach these problems. The solution adopted here is a further instance of what I call the attitude of the double-headed Byzantine ostrich.
Clearly it is not possible to discuss even a small part of this annotation in detail. It is a pity that more explicit reference to the Fathers was not provided. I have noted a number of curious remarks, to put it no more strongly. On Matthew 8:20, ‘Since Son of Man refers to the Messiah (Dan. 7:13), it expresses both His humanity and divinity.’ Since there is nothing divine about the figure in Daniel, doubtful if the figure is the Messiah and doubtful if the expected Messiah was thought to be divine I fail to follow the logic of the comment. The note on Luke 22:48 at least shows some evidence that the writer is aware of recent work on this difficult title. The note on Luke 23:44 tells us that Jesus died on the Cross at the sixth hour, despite the clear statement by St Matthew and St Mark and the clear implication in St Luke that he died at the ninth hour, a belief to which the texts of the Church’s offices make abundant reference. I find no clear evidence that the Greek ekpneo, used at Mark 15:37 of Jesus’ death, ‘connotes a voluntary death.’ This sounds like theologically wishful hermeneutics. The note on John 1:1 fails to notice, though Origen discusses the point at some length, that there is a difference in Greek between ho theos, ‘[the] God’, that is the Father, and theos, ‘God’, without the article, that is ‘God’, but not the Father. In general, what Orthodox readers need is to be helped to enter into the spiritual teaching of the Gospel, which is about theology, in the true sense, about the great mystery of the coming of God incarnate into human history, about the response of the sinner to the loving invitation of Christ. They will hardly be helped to any of this by being told that Luke 24:13-35 is ‘a delightful account of a resurrection appearance of Christ’, which sounds more like a description of the visit of the Bishop to the parish sale of work.
The notes on the Psalms are woefully inadequate. We are told that where a psalm is used in the ‘fixed’ parts of the daily round of offices this will be pointed out. We are not however told that Psalms 19 and 20 form the main part of the Royal Office which precedes the Six Psalms every day at Matins. Psalm 23 is used ‘quite sparingly in the services’, despite the frequent use of the phrase ‘the waters of repose’ in the liturgical texts. We are told that the LXX has ‘Lift up your gates, O Priests’ at Psalm 23.7. So far as I am aware it has ‘you rulers’, in Greek archontes, and I know no of no variant reading. We also learn that ‘verses 7- 10 are proclaimed as the priest knocks on the door of the church on Easter morning’. This is a ceremony unknown to the Triodion and, so far as I am aware, to either Greek or Russian tradition. It seems singularly inept, since the point of the procession in the dark and the entry into the church is to re-enact the coming of the Myrrh bearers to seek for Christ’s Body, only to find the tomb open and filled with light and sweet fragrance. Hence the rubric that while the procession is outside the sacristan is to light a brazier in the church and cast sweet-smelling incense onto it. Psalm 50 is used every day in the Office not ‘three’ times, but ‘four’, but perhaps the editors are unaware of the existence of the Midnight Office. It is the Psalm which begins the daily round and which ends it. Psalm 118 is used every day, except Saturday and Sunday, at the Midnight Office, and is used every Saturday and on most Sundays at Matins. It is thus said nearly every day of the year in the Church’s daily round of prayer. Likewise the Psalms of Ascents (119-133) are the regular Psalms at Vespers during about half the year. They are not, as suggested here, particularly Lenten. In neither Greek nor Russian use is Psalm 136 used ‘throughout Lent itself in the Matins services.’ Psalm 142 is also used daily at Small Compline. The whole of Psalm 144 forms part of the grace before the main meal in monasteries, not just two verses. Since the typikon that underlies this book is clearly most bizarre, it might have been helpful to have been told where it comes from.
In addition to the detailed annotation there are longer notes on major topics interspersed at appropriate places. Many of these are extremely valuable. Thus the one on the Transfiguration correctly notes that the ‘bright cloud’ is the Holy Spirit, and that the Transfiguration is thus a manifestation of the Most Holy Trinity. This point is made a number of times by St John of Damascus. Unfortunately the editor has nodded, because the note on the text of the Gospel suggests that the cloud is a sign of the Presence of God the Father. Another is entitled ‘Mary’. Surely in an Orthodox book she should be called by one of her familiar titles. No Orthodox would refer to her simply as ‘Mary’. ‘Godbearer’ is not a good translation of Theotokos, which is better rendered Mother of God, or She who gave birth to God. ‘God-bearer’ suggests rather theophoros, an epithet applied to numerous Saints, but more particularly to St Ignatios of Antioch. I wonder whether the note on Christology does not water down the Chalcedonian Definition, which states that Christ is ‘consubstantial’ [homoousios] with us in his humanity, rather than simply ‘like us’ as we read here. If this is so, then is he merely ‘like’ the Father? It is surely confusing to write that ‘[Ordination] is extended ... generally to all through Holy Baptism.’
Finally there are a number of icons. These are almost without exception bad. One of the few exceptions is the icon of the Transfiguration. When I came to this one I said to myself, ‘At last, a proper icon’, and I was not surprised, on reading the caption on the next page, to see the name Photios Kontoglou. The others all seem to stem from America. The colours are garish, particularly in those of the Descent into Hades, which is a very long way after the masterpiece in the church of the Saviour in Chora, and of the Baptism, where the Bodiless Powers have a distinctly well-fed, well-scrubbed, suburban look, like cheer leaders for the Washington Redskins. But best of all is the one of St John dictating the Apocalypse. The Apostle, who has been to an expensive Manhatten barber’s shop, is straining to hear the message being dictated from heaven. Either he or St Prochoros are having difficulties, however, since St Prochoros is carefully writing down the first verse of the Gospel!
Once again I have to report on yet another missed opportunity. There is much that some people may find useful in this book, but there is much that is wrong or misleading. It was not to be expected that the ROCOR would have co-operated in such a project, but it needs a good injection of traditional old-fashioned, even old-world, Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy in America, as represented by large parts of the OCA, the Greek Archdiocese and the Antiochene Diocese, has two great temptations, which are not unknown on this side of the Atlantic. On the one hand the former immigrants assert their assimilation by taking on things western, like pews and organs, without sufficient discrimination. I even have a book of church music that includes a transcription into traditional Byzantine neum notation of the Wedding March from Lohengrin, together with an appropriate Greek text. On the other hand the converts tend to bring with them far too much of the baggage of their previous allegiances, even to the introduction of so-called ‘western rites’. We converts to Orthodoxy must be ready to ‘leave all things and follow’ where our Fathers have led. We Orthodox must be prepared to say ‘Come and see.’ But we must strenuously resist every temptation to add, ‘And don’t worry, well try to make it palatable for you.’ Let us hope that those charged with preparing editions of this book for the traditionally Orthodox countries will insist on a thorough overhaul, though they would do better to start again from scratch. There is a profound sense in which it is true to say that Orthodoxy takes centuries to acquire. This book is the product of people who, with the very best of intentions, are going too fast too soon.
All texts and
translations on this page are copyright to
This page was last updated on 03 November 2008