Cyril Lucaris—A Man Who Valued the Bible
It was a summer day in 1638. Fishermen in the Sea of Marmara near Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, were startled to see a corpse floating in the water. Upon closer inspection, they realized with horror that the strangled body was that of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, the head of the Orthodox Church. This was the tragic end of Cyril Lucaris, a prominent religious figure of the 17th century.
LUCARIS did not live long enough to see his dream—the release of a translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures in colloquial Greek—become a reality. Another dream of Lucaris was never realized either—that of seeing the Orthodox Church return to “evangelical simplicity.” Who was this man? What obstacles did he face in those efforts?
Appalled by a Lack of Education
Cyril Lucaris was born in 1572, in Venice-occupied Candia (now Iráklion), Crete. Possessing fine talents, he studied at Venice and Padua in Italy and then traveled widely in that country and others. Embittered by the factional struggles within the church and attracted by reformation movements in Europe, he may have visited Geneva, then under the sway of Calvinism.
While visiting Poland, Lucaris saw that the Orthodox there, priests and laity alike, were in a deplorable spiritual condition as a result of their lack of education. Back in Alexandria and Constantinople, he was alarmed to find that even the pulpits—where the reading of the Scriptures was done—had been removed from some churches!
In 1602, Lucaris went to Alexandria, where he succeeded his relative, Patriarch Meletios, in that see. He then started corresponding with various reform-minded theologians in Europe. In one of those letters, he noted that the Orthodox Church maintained many erroneous practices. In other letters, he stressed the need for the church to replace superstition with “evangelical simplicity” and to depend on the authority of the Scriptures alone.
Lucaris was also alarmed that the spiritual authority of the Church Fathers was held in equal esteem with the words of Jesus and the apostles. “I can no longer endure to hear men say that the comments of human tradition are of equal weight with the Scriptures,” he wrote. (Matthew 15:6) He added that, in his opinion, image worship was disastrous. The invocation of “saints” was, he observed, an insult to the Mediator, Jesus.—1 Timothy 2:5.
The Patriarchal Throne on the Market
Those ideas, along with his aversion to the Roman Catholic Church, brought upon Lucaris the hatred and persecution of the Jesuits and those in the Orthodox Church who favored a union with the Catholics. In spite of that opposition, in 1620, Lucaris was elected patriarch of Constantinople. The patriarchate of the Orthodox Church was at that time under the domination of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman government would readily depose a patriarch and admit a new one for payment of money.
Lucaris’ foes, mainly the Jesuits and the all-powerful and fearsome papal Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), kept slandering and plotting against him. “In the pursuit of this aim the Jesuits employed every means—guile, calumny, flattery and, above all, bribery, which was by far the most effective weapon for winning the favour of the [Ottoman] grandees,” notes the work Kyrillos Loukaris. As a result, in 1622, Lucaris was banished to the island of Rhodes, and Gregory of Amasya purchased the office for 20,000 silver coins. However, Gregory was unable to produce the promised sum, so Anthimus of Adrianople purchased the office, only to resign later. Amazingly, Lucaris was restored to the patriarchal throne.
Lucaris was determined to use this new opportunity to educate the Orthodox clergy and laity by publishing a translation of the Bible and theological tracts. To accomplish this, he arranged for a printing press to be brought to Constantinople under the protection of the English ambassador. However, when the press arrived in June 1627, Lucaris’ enemies charged him with employing it for political purposes, and they eventually had it destroyed. Lucaris now had to use printing presses in Geneva.
A Translation of the Christian Scriptures
Lucaris’ tremendous respect for the Bible and its power to educate fueled his desire to make its words more accessible to the common man. He recognized that the language used in the original, inspired Greek Bible manuscripts was no longer comprehensible to the average person. So the first book that Lucaris commissioned was a translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures into the Greek of his day. Maximus Callipolites, a learned monk, started work on it in March 1629. Many of the Orthodox considered translating the Scriptures outrageous, no matter how obscure the text otherwise might be to readers. To appease them, Lucaris had the original text and the modern rendering printed in parallel columns, adding only a few notes. Since Callipolites died soon after delivering the manuscript, Lucaris himself read the proofs. That translation was printed shortly after Lucaris’ death in 1638.
In spite of Lucaris’ precautions, that translation roused a storm of disapproval from many bishops. Lucaris’ love of God’s Word was more than evident in the preface of that Bible translation. He wrote that the Scriptures, presented in the language that the people speak, are “a sweet message, given to us from heaven.” He admonished people “to know and be acquainted with all [the Bible’s] contents” and said that there is no other way of learning about “the things that concern faith correctly . . . save through the divine and sacred Gospel.”—Philippians 1:9, 10.
Lucaris sternly denounced those who forbade the study of the Bible, as well as those who rejected the translation of the original text: “If we speak or read without understanding, it is like throwing our words to the wind.” (Compare 1 Corinthians 14:7-9.) In concluding the preface, he wrote: “While you are all reading this divine and holy Gospel in your own tongue, appropriate the profit derived from its reading, . . . and may God ever lighten your way to that which is good.”—Proverbs 4:18.
A Confession of Faith
After he had initiated that Bible translation, Lucaris took another bold step. In 1629 he published at Geneva a Confession of Faith. It was a personal statement of beliefs that he hoped would be adopted by the Orthodox Church. According to the book The Orthodox Church, that Confession “empties the Orthodox doctrine of the priesthood and holy orders of all meaning, and deplores the veneration of icons and the invocation of saints as forms of idolatry.”
The Confession consists of 18 articles. Its second article declares that the Scriptures are inspired by God and that their authority exceeds that of the church. It says: “We believe the Holy Scripture to be given by God . . . We believe the authority of the Holy Scripture to be above the authority of the Church. To be taught by the Holy Ghost is a far different thing from being taught by a man.”—2 Timothy 3:16.
The eighth and tenth articles maintain that Jesus Christ is the sole Mediator, High Priest, and Head of the congregation. Lucaris wrote: “We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ sitteth on the right hand of His Father and there He maketh intercession for us, executing alone the office of a true and lawful high priest and mediator.”—Matthew 23:10.
The 12th article declares that the church can stray, mistaking the false for true, but the light of the holy spirit may rescue it through the labors of faithful ministers. In article 18, Lucaris maintains that purgatory is a mere figment: “It is evident that the fiction of Purgatory is not to be admitted.”
The appendix of the Confession contains a number of questions and responses. There Lucaris stresses first that the Scriptures should be read by every one of the faithful and that it is harmful for a Christian to fail to read God’s Word. He then adds that the Apocryphal books should be shunned.—Revelation 22:18, 19.
The fourth question asks: “How ought we to think of Icons?” Lucaris answers: “We are taught by the Divine and Sacred Scriptures, which say plainly, ‘Thou shalt not make to thyself an idol, or a likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath; thou shalt not adore them, nor shalt thou worship them; [Exodus 20:4, 5]’ since we ought to worship, not the creature, but only the Creator and Maker of the heaven and of the earth, and Him only to adore. . . . The worship and service of [the icons], as being forbidden . . . in Sacred Scripture, we reject, lest we should forget, and instead of the Creator and Maker, adore colours, and art, and creatures.”—Acts 17:29.
Although Lucaris was not able to discern fully all matters of error in the era of spiritual darkness in which he lived, * he made commendable efforts to have the Bible be the authority on church doctrine and to educate people about its teachings.
Immediately after the release of this Confession, a renewed wave of opposition to Lucaris arose. In 1633, Cyril Contari, the metropolitan of Beroea (now Aleppo), a personal enemy of Lucaris and supported by the Jesuits, tried to bargain with the Ottomans for the patriarchal chair. However, the scheme failed when Contari was unable to pay the money. Lucaris retained the office. The following year Athanasius of Thessalonica paid 60,000 silver coins for the office. Lucaris was again deposed. But within a month he was recalled and reinstated. By then Cyril Contari had raised his 50,000 silver coins. This time Lucaris was banished to Rhodes. After six months, his friends were able to secure his restoration.
In 1638, however, Jesuits and their Orthodox collaborators accused Lucaris of high treason against the Ottoman Empire. This time the sultan ordered his death. Lucaris was arrested, and on July 27, 1638, he was taken on board a small boat as if for banishment. As soon as the boat was at sea, he was strangled. His body was buried near the shore, then exhumed and thrown into the sea. It was found by fishermen and later buried by his friends.
Lessons for Us
“It should not be overlooked that one of [Lucaris’] primary aims was to enlighten and uplift the educational level of his clergy and flock, which in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century had sunk to an extremely low point,” states one scholar. Numerous obstacles prevented Lucaris from reaching his goal. He was removed from the patriarchal throne five times. Thirty-four years after his death, a synod in Jerusalem anathematized his beliefs as heresies. They declared that the Scriptures “should be read, not by just anyone, but only by the ones peering into the deep things of the spirit after having done appropriate research”—that is, only the supposedly educated clergymen.
Once again, the ruling ecclesiastical class suppressed efforts to make God’s Word available to their flock. They violently silenced a voice that pointed to some of the errors of their non-Biblical beliefs. They proved to be among the worst enemies of religious freedom and truth. Sadly, this is a stance that in various ways survives even to our day. It is a sobering reminder of what happens when clergy-instigated intrigues stand in the way of freedom of thought and expression.
^ par. 24 In his Confession, he supports the Trinity and the doctrines of predestination and the immortal soul—all non-Biblical teachings.
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Lucaris made commendable efforts to have the Bible be the authority on church doctrine and to educate people about its teachings
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Lucaris and the Codex Alexandrinus
One of the jewels of the British Library is the Codex Alexandrinus, a fifth-century C.E. Bible manuscript. Of its possibly 820 original leaves, 773 have been preserved.
While Lucaris was patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, he possessed a great collection of books. When he became patriarch in Constantinople, he took the Codex Alexandrinus with him. In 1624 he offered it to the British ambassador in Turkey as a gift for the English King, James I. It was handed over to his successor, Charles I, three years later.
In 1757 the King’s Royal Library was given to the British nation, and this fine codex is now on display in the John Ritblat Gallery in the new British Library.
Gewerbehalle, Vol. 10
From The Codex Alexandrinus in Reduced Photographic Facsimile, 1909
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Bib. Publ. Univ. de Genève