Cyril and Methodius—Bible Translators Who Invented an Alphabet
“Our nation is baptized and yet we have no teacher. We understand neither Greek nor Latin. . . . We do not understand written characters nor their meaning; therefore send us teachers who can make known the words of the Scriptures and their sense.” —Rostislav, prince of Moravia, 862 C.E.
TODAY, the more than 435 million people who speak languages of the Slavic family have access to a translation of the Bible in their native tongue. * Of them, 360 million use the Cyrillic alphabet. Yet, 12 centuries ago there was neither a written language nor an alphabet in the dialects of their ancestors. The men who helped to correct that situation were named Cyril and Methodius, brothers by birth. People who love God’s Word will find that the bold and innovative efforts of these two brothers make an intriguing chapter in the history of the preservation and promotion of the Bible. Who were these men, and what obstacles did they face?
“The Philosopher” and the Governor
Cyril (827-869 C.E., originally named Constantine) and Methodius (825-885 C.E.) were born into a noble family in Thessalonica, Greece. Thessalonica was then a bilingual city; its inhabitants spoke Greek and a form of Slavic. The presence of numerous Slavs and the close contact between its citizens and the surrounding Slav communities may have given Cyril and Methodius the opportunity to acquire an intimate knowledge of the language of the southern Slavs. And one biographer of Methodius even mentions that their mother was of Slavic origin.
After his father’s death, Cyril moved to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. There he studied at the imperial university and associated with distinguished educators. He became librarian of Hagia Sophia, the most prominent church building in the East, and later became a professor of philosophy. In fact, because of his academic achievements, Cyril earned the nickname The Philosopher.
In the meantime, Methodius pursued the same career as his father—political administration. He reached the rank of archon (governor) in a frontier Byzantine district where many Slavs lived. Nevertheless, he withdrew into a monastery in Bithynia, Asia Minor. Cyril joined him there in 855 C.E.
In 860 C.E., the patriarch of Constantinople sent the two brothers on a foreign mission. They were dispatched to the Khazar, a people dwelling northeast of the Black Sea, who were still hesitating to decide between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. On his way there, Cyril remained for a time at Chersonese, in Crimea. Some scholars believe that there he learned Hebrew and Samaritan and that he translated a Hebrew grammar into the language of the Khazar.
A Call From Moravia
In 862 C.E., Rostislav, prince of Moravia (modern-day eastern Czechia, western Slovakia, and western Hungary), sent to Byzantine Emperor Michael III the request appearing in the opening paragraph—that he send teachers of the Scriptures. Moravia’s Slavic-speaking citizens had already been introduced to church teachings by missionaries from the East Frankish kingdom (now Germany and Austria). Rostislav, however, was concerned about the political and ecclesiastical influence of the Germanic tribes. He hoped that religious ties with Constantinople would help keep his nation politically and religiously autonomous.
The emperor decided to send Methodius and Cyril to Moravia. Academically, educationally, and linguistically, the two brothers were well-equipped to lead such a mission. A ninth-century biographer tells us that the emperor, in urging them to go to Moravia, reasoned: “You are both natives of Thessalonica, and all Thessalonians speak pure Slav.”
An Alphabet and a Bible Translation Are Born
During the months before their departure, Cyril prepared for the mission by developing a written script for the Slavs. It has been said that he had a keen ear for phonetics. Thus, using Greek and Hebrew characters, he tried to provide a letter for each speech sound in Slavonic. * Some researchers believe that he had already spent years laying the groundwork for such an alphabet. And there is still uncertainty about the exact form of the alphabet that Cyril contrived.—See the box “Cyrillic or Glagolitic?”
At the same time, Cyril launched a quick program of Bible translation. According to tradition, he began by translating from Greek into Slavonic the first phrase of the Gospel of John, using the newly developed alphabet: “In the beginning the Word was . . .” Cyril went on to translate the four Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the book of Psalms.
Did he work alone? Methodius most probably helped with the task. Moreover, the book The Cambridge Medieval History states: “It is easy to imagine that [Cyril] had others to help him, who must have been in the first instance people of native Slav origin with a Greek education. If we examine the oldest translations, . . . we have the best proof of a highly developed Slavonic sense of language, which must be attributed to collaborators who were themselves Slavs.” The rest of the Bible was completed later by Methodius, as we shall see.
“Like Rooks Upon a Falcon”
In 863 C.E., Cyril and Methodius began their mission in Moravia, where they were warmly welcomed. Their work included teaching a group of local people the newly invented Slavonic script, besides translating Biblical and liturgical texts.
All was not easy, however. The Frankish clergy in Moravia fiercely opposed the use of Slavonic. They held to a trilinguist theory, maintaining that only Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were acceptable for use in worship. Hoping to gain the support of the pope for their newly developed written language, the brothers journeyed to Rome in 867 C.E.
En route, in Venice, Cyril and Methodius had another encounter with a group of trilinguist Latin clergymen. A medieval biographer of Cyril tells us that the local bishops, priests, and monks fell upon him “like rooks upon a falcon.” According to that account, Cyril retorted by citing 1 Corinthians 14:8, 9: “For truly, if the trumpet sounds an indistinct call, who will get ready for battle? In the same way also, unless you through the tongue utter speech easily understood, how will it be known what is being spoken? You will, in fact, be speaking into the air.”
When the brothers finally reached Rome, Pope Adrian II granted full approval for their use of Slavonic. After some months, and while still in Rome, Cyril became seriously ill. Less than two months later, he died at the age of 42.
Pope Adrian II encouraged Methodius to return to work in Moravia and around the town of Nitra, in what is now Slovakia. Wishing to strengthen his influence over that area, the pope gave Methodius letters approving the use of Slavonic and appointed him archbishop. However, in 870 C.E., the Frankish bishop Hermanrich, with the help of Prince Svatopluk of Nitra, arrested Methodius. He was imprisoned for two and a half years in a monastery in southeastern Germany. Finally, Adrian II’s successor, Pope John VIII, ordered Methodius’ release, reinstalled him in his diocese, and reaffirmed papal support for the use of Slavonic in worship.
But opposition from the Frankish clergy continued. Methodius successfully defended himself against accusations of heresy, and he eventually won from Pope John VIII a bull expressly authorizing the use of Slavonic in the church. As the current pope, John Paul II, has admitted, Methodius’ life was spent “amidst journeys, privations, sufferings, hostility and persecution, . . . even a period of cruel imprisonment.” Ironically, this was at the hands of bishops and princes favorably disposed toward Rome.
The Complete Bible Is Translated
Despite the unrelenting resistance, Methodius, with the help of several shorthand writers, finished translating the remainder of the Bible into Slavonic. According to tradition, he accomplished this huge task in just eight months. However, he did not translate the apocryphal books of the Maccabees.
Today, it is not easy to assess accurately the quality of the translation made by Cyril and Methodius. Only a few manuscript copies still exist that date close to the time of the initial translation. By examining those rare early specimens, linguists note that the translation was precise and conveyed a natural freshness. The work Our Slavic Bible states that the two brothers “had to create many new words and expressions . . . And they did all this with amazing precision [and] opened the Slavic language to unprecedented lexical richness.”
An Enduring Legacy
After Methodius died in 885 C.E., his disciples were expelled from Moravia by their Frankish opponents. They took refuge in Bohemia, southern Poland, and Bulgaria. Thus the work of Cyril and Methodius was carried on and actually spread. The Slavonic language, which was given a written and more permanent form by the two brothers, flourished, developed, and later became diversified. Today, the Slavic family includes 13 distinct languages and many dialects.
Furthermore, the bold Bible translation efforts of Cyril and Methodius bore fruit in the various Slavic translations of the Scriptures that are available today. Millions who speak these languages benefit by having God’s Word in their vernacular. Despite bitter opposition, how true are the words: ‘The word of our God will last to time indefinite’!—Isaiah 40:8.
^ par. 3 The Slavic languages are spoken in Eastern and Central Europe and include Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, and similar tongues.
^ par. 13 “Slavonic,” as used in this article, denotes the Slavic dialect that Cyril and Methodius used for their mission and literary work. Some today use the terms “Old Slavonic” or “Old Church Slavonic.” Linguists agree that there was no single common language spoken by the Slavs in the ninth century C.E.
[Box on page 29]
Cyrillic or Glagolitic?
The nature of the alphabet Cyril contrived has provoked much controversy, since linguists are not certain what alphabet it was. The alphabet called Cyrillic is based closely on the Greek alphabet, with a dozen or so additional characters invented to represent Slavonic sounds not found in Greek. Some of the earliest Slavonic manuscripts, however, use a very different script, known as Glagolitic, and it is this script that many scholars believe Cyril invented. A few of the Glagolitic characters appear to come from cursive Greek or Hebrew. Some may have been derived from medieval diacritics, but most are original and complex creations. Glagolitic seems to be a highly distinct and original creation. However, it is Cyrillic that has developed into the present-day Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian scripts, besides 22 additional languages, some of which are not Slavonic.
[Artwork—Cyrillic and Glagolitic characters]
[Map on page 31]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Moravia (E. Czechia, W. Slovakia, W. Hungary)
EAST FRANKISH KINGDOM (Germany & Austria)
[Picture on page 31]
A Slavonic Bible in Cyrillic text from 1581
Bible: Narodna in univerzitetna knjiz̆nica-Slovenija-Ljubljana