For the first time ever, there's a possibility that average Russians will be able to open up a Bible they can read.
For centuries the only Bibles in Russia were in an archaic Slavonic language - the most recent was a translation ordered by Peter the Great - and were available mainly to clergy and scholars. To most Russians, this scripture read and sounded like a foreign language.A 19th century Russian Bible has dribbled in since 1985. But bigger changes may be coming.
Next June in Tbilisi, in Soviet Georgia, a team of Western Bible scholars will meet with Orthodox church leaders, Russian evangelical Protestants, and linguists from the Soviet Academy of Science to discuss methods of translating the Bible into contemporary Russian. The talks will lay the groundwork for one or more new translations.
The project, although surrounded by thorny theological and political problems, will be the first-ever collaboration between religious scholars from the West and Russia.
The request for help, which came from the Georgian Orthodox Church at an international Bible conference this fall, caught Western scholars by surprise. It offers further evidence, Sovietologists say, of new religious stirrings in the general population, the hierarchy of the church, and among Russian intelligentsia - made possible in part by glasnost.
The invitation was extended by Katholicos Patriarch Ilia the Second, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, to leaders of the United Bible Society (UBS), an umbrella group of about 105 national Bible societies, at a conference in late September in Budapest - itself an unprecedented locale for such a meeting.
"(Russian) church authorities told us there's an enormous pressure at all levels for a Bible that's not just a sacred object but something to be read," says scholar Howard Clark Kee of Boston University.
The Western team will consist of translators and linguists who helped develop modern translations such as the Good News Bible, which has sold 75 million copies worldwide since 1973. They will introduce the principles of "dynamic equivalence" - finding appropriate modern terms and phrases for ancient Greek and Hebrew texts - to their East-bloc peers, as well as ways to incorporate modern biblical knowledge such as that found through the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essene writings at Qumran.
A UBS team is now helping with an Armenian translation. In 1989, the first modern Greek Orthodox translation will be complete, after 13 years of work.
UBS officials who visited Moscow last week informed the Monitor of the Tbilisi symposium, which will include linguists from the Academy of Science in Georgia and Leningrad. A Georgian Bible translation seems certain, they say.
The new twist is the earnest - albeit cautious - interest shown by the larger (30 million members) Russian Orthodox Church, headquartered in Moscow. Metropolitan Peterim of the Moscow Patriarchate, a top Orthodox leader, is sending linguists and theologians to the meeting - a significant move and one that had not been expected for another five years, says Hans Florin, a London-based UBS official, who just returned from Moscow.
"The Russian Orthodox church leaders want to clear their thinking on how more rapidly to treat the Bible in a way it can be understood by the faithful today - a new generation of believers," Dr. Florin says, but adds that the issue is highly charged - theologically - within Orthodox ranks, and far from settled.