Ways of Russian Theology

The Ostrog Circle and Bible

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The Ostrog Circle and Bible.

Kurbskii was not alone in his literary and educational endeavors. In the second half of the sixteenth century a number of Orthodox printing centers were established in Lithuania and Poland, most by private hands: Ivan Fedorov 51 and Petr Mstislavets 52 at Zabludov, near Bialystok, on the estate of the Chodkiewicz family (1568 to 1570); 53 Fedorov in Lvov (1573-1579, revived in 1591); Mstislavets in Vilna (1574-1576, resurrected by the Mamonich family in 1582); Prince Konstantin Ostrozhskii 54 at Ostrog in Volynia (1580-1590). 55 The basic motive for these centers was apologetical; their chief aim was to combat Protestant, and especially Arian, propaganda. For this purpose it was deemed more important to publish primary sources than argumentative works. The result was a goodly flow of liturgical manuals, devotional books, religious pamphlets, and sermons.

The most important of these printing presses was at Ostrog where through the energies of Prince Ostrozhskii a center of learning and culture had sprouted. Among the “lovers of wisdom” who gathered there were Gerasim Smotritskii, the educator, 56 Ivan Fedorov, master printer, the priests Vasilii Surazkii, author of On a United Faith [O edinoi vere], 57 and Demian Nalivaiko (brother of the famous hetman), 58 and of special fame, Jan Liatos, mathematician and astronomer. 59 Of this community at Ostrog Zakharii Kopystenskii wrote in his Palinodiia: “Here were orators equal to Demosthenes. Here were doctors well-trained in Greek, Latin, and Slavonic. Here were outstanding mathematicians and astrologers.” Though an obvious exaggeration, his words indicate the strong impression, which the Ostrog enterprise left on the subsequent generation. Nor can the profound devotion to learning within the Ostrog group be denied. They cherished the same vision of a vibrant Slavono-Hellenic culture, as did Kurbskii.

The school at Ostrog was modelled on the Graeco-Byzantine pattern. Often described as a “Greek school,” it was in fact a “school of three languages” [trilingue lycaeum] and of the liberal arts.” Non slavonicae duntaxat linguae, sed grecarum juxta atque latinarum artium erexit palaestram.” 60 Prince Ostrozhskii planned to transform his school into a full-fledged academy and thus more firmly establish Ostrog as a Slavonic-Greek cultural center. 61 His dream never materialized; moreover, the school itself managed to survive for only a few years. The plan was unrealistic for the times. A critical shortage of qualified personnel existed almost everywhere. Competent teachers were all but impossible to find, especially for the instruction of Greek. In 1583 Ostrozhskii considered hiring several Greek Uniates from the Greek College of St. Athanasius in Rome, but without success. Later he looked to Greece itself. Cyril Lucaris, the future patriarch, taught at Ostrog in 1594 and 1595. 62 Ostrozhskii also tried to educate students abroad. An interpreter at the Council of Brest, Father Kiprian, seems to have been one of these students. He studied in Venice and Padua and then stayed for a while on Mt. Athos. Ostrozhskii's success in these various endeavors was modest. Probably his entire project was too ambitious for private enterprise. Even so, the renown which the school at Ostrog gained was justified, not so much for its achievements (although these were significant), as for its noble-spirited pioneering.

From the start the Ostrog community was deeply involved in the struggle with Roman propaganda and later with that of the Uniates. 63 The reform of the calendar introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII created great agitation 64 Open resistance was strong in a number of quarters, and in Poland that resistance included some Roman Catholics. Jan Liatos of Cracow attacked it violently. Expelled from the university, he moved to Ostrog where he lent encouragement and support to Orthodox groups opposing the new calendar. (Liatos continued his campaign as late as 1603, still in Ostrog). Another vigorous opponent of the reform was Gerasim Smotritskii, headmaster of the Ostrog school in the 1580's. A pamphlet he published in 1583 sharply denounced it. That same year the Church in Constantinople formally rejected the calendar reform and brought the dispute to an end for Orthodox peoples. In Poland and Lithuania, however, the controversy was kept alive for several more years by persistent attempts to enforce the use of the new calendar throughout the country.

Far more significant than the struggle against calendar reform, and indeed the most spectacular of all the undertakings of the Ostrog community, was the translation and printing of the great Ostrog Bible. With its publication in 1580 (reissued in 1581 with certain technical amendments), the full text of the Bible made its first appearance in Church Slavonic. The Ostrog Bible, as such, remains a landmark in Slavonic Biblical history. It abides also as a magnificent achievement in itself, a monument of scholarship, literature, and theology.

The Ostrog Bible was conceived as a polemic tool and intended for wide circulation. In the Preface, written by Gerasim Smotritskii, readers were strongly warned against those who, pretending their course could be sustained with Holy Writ, “most blasphemously dare to follow Arius in their teaching.” National Bibles, of course, have been characteristic instruments of reformationists. The Polish and Czech Bibles and the Slovene Bible of Primoz Truber 65 are but a few examples. In the Russian West most Bible translation also stemmed from a Protestant milieu, specifically from Socinian and Antitrinitarian circles who based their labors on the Czech or, more often, the Polish version. Vasilii Tiapinskii 66 translated the Gospels in Belorussia from the 1572 version of Szymon Budny, while Valentin Negalevskii 67 made his edition in Volynia from the Polish Bible, which Marcin Czechowicz had published in Cracow in 1577. 68 Some of these vernacular editions are hardly more than paraphrases, with confessional bias plain in the wording of the text and, even more, in the glosses and explanatory notes. Certainly all of the translations of the Bible made in West Russia by Unitarians deviated considerably from the traditional text of the Orthodox East. This is even true of the famous Russo-Slavonic Bible of Georgii (Frantiszek) Skorina of Polotsk, printed in Prague in 1517-1520 (though never completed beyond the Old Testament). 69 Based mainly on the 1506 Bible of the Bohemian Utraquists (i.e., Calixtins), it was connected to the Hussite endeavor, if only indirectly. 70 In addition Skorina used the Latin Postillae perpetuae of Nicholas de Lyra. 71 Kurbskii was sharply critical of Skorina's translation. He lamented that it was taken “from the corrupted Jewish books” and pointed to the similarity of the Skorina edition with Luther's Bible. Probably he meant by this that both translations came from the Latin Vulgate, which in turn depended on the Hebrew text. The traditional Slavonic text, of course, was based on the Greek Septuagint.

The Ostrog Bible stemmed from a conscious and critical attempt to adhere to the Greek textual tradition. And the language of translation was to be traditional Church Slavonic, not any of the vernacular languages. The basic source for the Ostrog edition was the Gennadii Bible 72 (with some trouble obtained in a clear copy from Moscow through a Lithuanian diplomat). This text was carefully checked and revised, with many of its “Latinisms” expurgated in the process. On the initiative of Prince Ostrozhskii, new manuscripts were sought in the Slavic monasteries of Bulgaria and Serbia, in “Roman lands,” and even as far away as Crete. He also appealed to the patriarch of Constantinople to send reliable and properly corrected manuscripts, as well as “people competent in the Holy Writings, Greek and Slavonic. It is clear from the Preface, however, that the editors of the Ostrog Bible were dismayed by the poor state of the manuscripts with which they worked. Too frequently the texts suffered from variations and corruptions. Still, for their time, the Ostrog scholars had rich and ample material at their disposal. They consulted the Massoretic text 73 and the Vulgate and took into consideration the new Czech and Polish versions. Then once again they checked their text against the Greek, using two printed editions: the Aldine Septuagint of 1518 (Venice) 74 and the great Complutensian Polyglot of Cardinal Ximenes, completed between 1514-1517, but not released until 1522. 75

With all its obvious imperfections, the Ostrog Bible offers a more accurate and reliable text than the famous Sixtus Clementine version of the Vulgate (1592). 76 Modern editions of the Slavonic Bible are still essentially based on the text of the Ostrog Bible. The task which confronted its translators and editors was enormous; their accomplishment noteworthy. It apparently took this competent team of scholars three to four years to complete the enterprise. Technical expertise was rendered by Ivan Fedorov, who already had a number of printing projects to his credit, including the introduction of the art of printing to Moscow. Probably more than anything else, the creative achievement of the Ostrog Bible testifies to the flowering of a cultural and theological renaissance among the Orthodox of West Russia toward the end of the sixteenth century. Of even greater significance, the advent of this Bible reflects a living and unbroken connection with the Byzantine tradition.

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