The Russian Enlightenment Bible in Oxford

In October-November 2021 I had the privilege of holding a visiting fellowship at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries to work on my current monograph project about the place of the Bible in eighteenth-century Russia.

What was the ‘Bible’ in eighteenth-century Russia? Although printed church books, including volumes containing the Biblical texts needed for worship, had been printed in Muscovy since the mid-sixteenth century, the first complete Bible was printed in Muscovy in the mid-seventeenth century, in 1663 – about two hundred years after the Gutenberg Bible was printed in the West. It was in Church Slavonic, the language based on Old Bulgarian that is used to this day in Russian Orthodox worship and church books; Church Slavonic, in the eighteenth century as today, differed significantly from spoken Russian without being completely incomprehensible with a bit of practice. The Slavonic Bible text was created in the Middle Ages and was, in theory, based on the Greek text throughout (the reality was rather more complicated, and in some cases Latin sources were used). The Slavonic version of the Old Testament therefore largely followed the Greek Septuagint, unlike Protestant Bibles like the German Luther Bible and the English King James Bible, which are based on the Hebrew text. In the first half of the eighteenth century, on the initiative of Peter the Great, an effort was made to revise the Slavonic Bible text, standardizing it and bringing it consistently into agreement with the Greek. This revision was first published in 1751 and is known as the Elizabeth Bible. The corrected 1756 edition of the Elizabeth Bible remains to this day the authorized version of the Bible used in the Russian Orthodox Church. While literary paraphrases of portions of the Bible, such as the Psalms, had been a major literary genre since the seventeenth century, full-blown translation into modern, spoken Russian remained essentially out of the question until the turn of the nineteenth century. The first full Russian edition of the New Testament appeared in 1822 on the presses of the Russian Bible Society, a non-Church organization with the support of the British and Foreign Bible Society; it elicited strong resistance, and a full Russian Bible, known as the Synodal version, appeared only in 1876.

However, despite increasingly frequent printings of the full Slavonic Bible from 1751 onward, very few copies of the Bible published as a single edition were likely to reach readers outside the Church. There were more frequent editions of the sections of the Bible most used in worship, like the Gospels. But even these editions were mostly for use within the Church. Only the Psalter was very likely to have been read by most literate Russians: it was the third and last in the sequence of standard textbooks used to teach children to read, following a primer and the breviary.

Psaltir’ (v Kievopecherskoi Lavre, 1807). The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Broxb. 2.5.

Among its extensive collection of Bible-related treasures, including a magnificent copy of the famous Gutenberg Bible, the Bodleian holds a small but significant array of editions of Russian and Slavonic Biblical books of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most of these editions come from the collections of two eminent nineteenth-century scholars: Oxford’s first professor of Russian, William Morfill (1834-1909), and the orientalist Rev. Solomon Caesar Malan (1812-1894), who donated his library to Oxford’s former Indian Institute. Whereas Slavonic and Russian Biblical texts formed part of Morfill and Malan’s working collections, other editions ended up in the Bodleian for other reasons. One of my personal favourites is a beautiful Slavonic Psalter, printed in 1807 at the Kiev Monastery of the Caves. It is part of the Broxbourne collection, made up of books selected for their rare bindings.

Comparing the Broxbourne Slavonic Psalter with an early edition of the Russian Psalter published in 1822 by the Russian Bible Society illuminates the revolution that took place in the experience of reading the Bible at the turn of the nineteenth century. The Broxbourne Psalter is a pocket-sized, luxurious edition, printed in ornate Church Slavonic on gilt-edged pages, with images of Christ and the Mother of God stamped on its leather covers and its own leather carrying case. The Biblical text comes framed by the full authority of State and Church. The title page proclaims that the Psalter was printed on the orders of Emperor Alexander I and lists by name the entire imperial family at the time; these names recur at the very end of the volume in the pomiannik, or prayers for the commemoration of the living and the dead. In content it is a typical Malaia Psaltir’, or Little Psalter, meaning that the Psalms are divided into the 20 kathismata, or groups for liturgical reading, and accompanied by the corresponding prayers. The text of the Psalms is likewise preceded by catechetical material like the Athanasian Creed to ensure that the Psalms are read in the context of the Orthodox faith. By contrast the 1822 Kniga khvalenii ili Psaltir’ na rossiiskom iazyke (Book of Praises or Psalter in the Russian Language) is a simple, slim volume in Russian only.

Kniga khvalenii, ili Psaltir’ na rossiiskom iazyke, 6th edn (St Petersburg: v Tipografii Rossiiskago Bibleiskago Obshchestva, 1822). The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Ps. Russ. e. 1.

The title page looks like that of any other secular book. Although the book’s short foreword, addressed ‘To the Christ-loving Reader’, is signed by a metropolitan and two archbishops, it is almost entirely philological, explaining the necessity for and principles behind the present Russian translation. The text of the Psalms appears alone, without any indications of how it might be used in worship; the lines have been numbered for ease in citation. Holding these two volumes side-by-side, one can easily see how the Bible Society Psalter might well have been perceived as a shocking Protestant innovation designed to rip apart the Orthodox faith. The story is of course not so simple, since the Bible Society piously intended to spread the faith through their publications. Yet, in its material form, the Scriptural text itself appears to have been secularized. These two little books present in a nutshell the drama and ambiguities of Holy Scripture in an age of secularization.

– Kelsey Rubin-Detlev

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