The Struggle for a Bible in Modern Greek

You may be surprised to learn that in Greece, the land sometimes called the cradle of free thought, translation of the Bible into the language of the common people has been the focus of a long and bitter struggle. But who would resist the production of an easy-to-understand Greek Bible? Why would anyone want to stop it?

ONE might think that Greek-speaking people are privileged, since a considerable part of the Holy Scriptures was originally written in their language. Modern Greek, though, is significantly different from the Greek of the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and from that of the Christian Greek Scriptures. In fact, for the past six centuries, most Greek-speaking people have found Biblical Greek to be as unfamiliar as a foreign language. New words have replaced older terms, and vocabulary, grammar, and syntax have changed.

A collection of Greek manuscripts dating from the 3rd to the 16th century testifies to an effort to translate the Septuagint into a later form of Greek. In the third century, Gregory, bishop of Neocaesarea (c. 213-c. 270 C.E.), rendered the book of Ecclesiastes from the Septuagint into simpler Greek. In the 11th century, a Jew named Tobias ben Eliezer living in Macedonia translated portions of the Septuagint’s Pentateuch into everyday Greek. He even used Hebrew characters for the benefit of Macedonian Jews who spoke only Greek but read the Hebrew script. A complete Pentateuch of this kind was published in Constantinople in 1547.

Some Light Amid Darkness

After the Greek-speaking areas of the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in the 15th century, the majority of the people there were left in want of education. The Orthodox Church, although greatly privileged under the Ottoman Empire, neglectfully allowed its flock to become a poor and uneducated peasantry. Greek writer Thomas Spelios commented: “The all-absorbing goal of the Orthodox Church and its educational system was to protect its communicants from the inroads of Islam and Roman Catholic propaganda. As a result, Greek education was somewhat stagnant.” In such a gloomy atmosphere, Bible-loving individuals felt the need to provide the distressed people with relief and consolation from the Bible book of Psalms. From 1543 to 1835, there were 18 translations of the Psalms into spoken Greek.

The first Greek translation of the complete Christian Greek Scriptures was prepared in 1630 by Maximus Callipolites, a Greek monk of Callipolis. This took place under the direction and auspices of Cyril Lucaris, patriarch of Constantinople and a would-be reformer of the Orthodox Church. Within the church, Lucaris had opponents, however,  who would not accept any reform attempts or agree to any translation of the Bible into the spoken language. * He was strangled as a traitor. Nevertheless, some 1,500 copies of the translation by Maximus were printed in 1638. In response to this translation, 34 years later an Orthodox synod in Jerusalem 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.” This meant that the Scriptures should be read only by the educated clergymen.

In 1703, Seraphim, a Greek monk from the island of Lesbos, tried to publish a revision of the Maximus translation in London. When promises for financial help from the English court failed, he printed the revision using his own money. In a fiery prologue, Seraphim stressed the need for “every godly Christian” to read the Bible, and he accused the high-ranking clergymen of the church of “desiring to cover up their misbehavior by keeping the people in ignorance.” As might have been expected, his Orthodox opponents had him arrested in Russia and exiled to Siberia, where he died in 1735.

Commenting on the deep spiritual hunger of the Greek-speaking people during that time, a Greek clergyman made the following statement regarding a later revision of the Maximus translation: “The Greeks received this Holy Bible, along with the others, with love and with craving. And they read it. And they felt the pain within them soothed, and their faith in God . . . flared up.” However, their spiritual leaders feared that if people were to understand the Bible, then the clergy would be exposed for their unscriptural beliefs and deeds. Therefore, in 1823 and again in 1836, the patriarchate of Constantinople issued an edict to burn all copies of such Bible translations.

A Courageous Translator

Against this backdrop of fierce opposition and earnest yearning for Bible knowledge, there emerged a prominent figure who would play a key role in the translation of the Bible into modern Greek. This courageous person was Neofitos Vamvas, a distinguished linguist and noted Bible scholar, generally regarded as one of the “Teachers of the Nation.”

Vamvas clearly saw that the Orthodox Church was to blame for the spiritual illiteracy of the people. He strongly believed that in order to awaken the people spiritually, the Bible needed to be translated into the spoken Greek of the day. In 1831, with the help of other scholars, he began translating the Bible into literary Greek. His complete translation was published in 1850. Since the Greek Orthodox Church would not support him, he collaborated with the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) on the publication and circulation of his translation. The church labeled him “a Protestant,” and soon he found himself an outcast.

Vamvas’ rendering adhered closely to the King James Version and inherited the deficiencies of that version because of the limited Bible scholarship and linguistic knowledge of the time. Yet, for many years it was the closest thing to a Bible in modern Greek that people had access to. Interestingly, it includes the personal name of God four times, in the form “Ieová.”​—Genesis 22:14; Exodus 6:3; 17:15; Judges 6:24.

 What was the general reaction of the people to this and other easy-to-understand versions of the Bible? Simply overwhelming! In a boat off one of the Greek islands, a colporteur of the BFBS was “so beset with boats full of children who came for [Bibles], that he was obliged . . . to order the captain to get under way” lest he should part with his whole stock in one place! But the opposition did not stand idly by.

Orthodox priests warned the people against such translations. In the city of Athens, for instance, Bibles were confiscated. In 1833, the Orthodox bishop of Crete committed to the flames the “New Testaments” he discovered at a monastery. One copy was hidden by a priest, and the people in the nearby villages hid their copies until the prelate left the island.

Some years later on the island of Corfu, Vamvas’ translation of the Bible was prohibited by the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church. Its sale was forbidden, and the existing copies were destroyed. On the islands of Chios, Síros, and Mykonos, the hostility of the local clergy led to Bible burning. But further suppression of Bible translation was yet ahead.

A Queen Takes an Interest in the Bible

During the 1870’s, Queen Olga of Greece realized that the Greek people in general still had little knowledge of the Bible. Believing that knowledge of the Scriptures would provide solace and refreshment to the nation, she sought to have the Bible rendered into a simpler language than that of the Vamvas version.

Unofficially, the archbishop of Athens and the head of the Holy Synod, Prokopios, encouraged the queen in this undertaking. When she applied to the Holy Synod for official approval, however, she was turned down. Nevertheless, she persisted, submitting a new application, only to receive a second refusal, in 1899. Ignoring the disapproval, she decided to publish a limited edition at her own expense. This was accomplished in 1900.

Die-Hard Opponents

In 1901, The Acropolis, a prominent Athenian newspaper, published the Gospel of Matthew rendered in the Demotic Greek by Alexander Pallis, a translator working in Liverpool, England. The apparent motive of Pallis and his colleagues was to ‘educate the  Greeks’ and to “help the nation recover” from decline.

Orthodox theology students and their professors called the rendering “a ridiculing of the nation’s most valuable relics,” a desecration of Holy Writ. Patriarch Joakim III of Constantinople issued a document disapproving the rendering. The controversy took on political dimensions, and it was used in a devious way by warring political camps.

An influential part of the Athenian press started attacking the Pallis translation, labeling its supporters “atheists,” “traitors,” and “agents of foreign powers” who were bent on destabilizing Greek society. From November 5 to 8, 1901, at the instigation of ultraconservative elements of the Greek Orthodox Church, students rioted in Athens. They attacked the offices of The Acropolis, marched against the palace, took over the University of Athens, and demanded that the government resign. At the climax of the riots, eight people were killed in clashes with the army. The next day, the king demanded the resignation of Archbishop Prokopios, and two days later the whole Cabinet stepped down.

One month later the students demonstrated again and publicly burned a copy of the Pallis translation. They issued a resolution against the circulation of this translation and asked for severe punishment for any such attempt in the future. This served as an excuse to prohibit the use of any modern Greek version of the Bible. A dark moment indeed!

“The Saying of Jehovah Endures Forever”

The prohibition against using the Bible in modern Greek was repealed in 1924. Since then, the Greek Orthodox Church has suffered a complete defeat in its efforts to keep the Bible from the people. In the meantime, Jehovah’s Witnesses have spearheaded Bible education in Greece, as they have in many other countries. Since 1905, they have used the Vamvas translation to help thousands of Greek-speaking people acquire knowledge of Bible truth.

Over the years, many scholars and professors have made commendable efforts to produce a Bible in modern Greek. Today, there are about 30 renderings of the Bible, in whole or in part, that are readable to the average Greek. A true gem among them is the Greek version of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, released in 1997 for the benefit of the 16 million people worldwide who speak the Greek language. Produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses, this translation renders the Word of God in an easy-to-read, understandable way, faithfully adhering to the original text.

The struggle for a Bible in modern Greek illustrates an important fact. It clearly indicates that despite hostile human efforts, “the saying of Jehovah endures forever.”​—1 Peter 1:25.

[Footnote]

^ par. 7 For more information on Cyril Lucaris, see The Watchtower, February 15, 2000, pages 26-9.

[Picture on page 27]

Cyril Lucaris directed the first Greek translation of the complete Christian Greek Scriptures in 1630

[Credit Line]

Bib. Publ. Univ. de Genève

[Pictures on page 28]

Some translations into the spoken Greek: Psalms printed in: (1) 1828 by Ilarion, (2) 1832 by Vamvas, (3) 1643 by Julianus. “Old Testament” printed in: (4) 1840 by Vamvas

Queen Olga

[Credit Lines]

Bibles: National Library of Greece; Queen Olga: Culver Pictures

[Picture Credit Line on page 26]

Papyrus: Reproduced by kind permission of The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

[Picture Credit Line on page 29]

Papyrus: Reproduced by kind permission of The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin