LAW ON PROTECTION OF SACRED TEXTS CANNOT PROTECT THE BIBLE
by Roman Lunkin
Religiia i pravo, 1 April 2016
Because the antiextremist policy touched upon the sacred texts of world religions, specifically the Quran and Bible, a law for protection of texts of the world religions from encroachment by the prosecutor's office was adopted. However it turned out that everything is not so simple. Different translations of the Bible still turned out to be under attack since it is not known what should be considered as the Bible, a generally accepted sacred scripture.
Vague wording of the federal law permits giving the broadest interpretation to what is a sacred text. In essence, the authors or initiators of the law proceeded from a simple conventional notion that there is some sacred text that is recognized by all: "After all, the Bible is the same for everyone. Indeed the principles of the world religions are identical and indeed all religions lead to the same god." But in life everything is more complicated.
We recall that on 25 November 2015 amendments to the federal law "On combating extremist activity" took effect making four sacred scriptures—the Bible, Quran, Tanakh, and Kangyur—legally immune. The draft law was introduced by President Vladimir Putin after an appeal from Ramzan Kadyrov. His requests were evoked by a decision of a court of South Sakhalin of 12 August 2015 which found the book "Prayer to God: its Significance and Place in Islam" to be extremist, and accordingly several passages from the Quran were extremist.
Translations of sacred texts have already been the subject of judicial proceedings. In 2013, the October district court of Novorossiisk found the "Idiomatic translation of the Holy Quran into the Russian Language" by Elmir Kuliev to be extremist. (On 17 December of that same year a Krasnodar territorial court overturned the decision of the October district court.)
In a roundabout way, quotations of biblical texts connected with proclaiming the truth of one's faith had already been investigated in the course of a trial of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Golovin court of the city of Moscow in the early 2000s. Then there was a return to this theme in 2009 when a campaign was begun for the banning of the literature of Jehovah's Witnesses and their congregations which, most likely, is leading to the liquidation in the near future of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. The Jehovah's Witnesses have been quite seriously accused of thinking their beliefs to be better and more correct than those of other religions and confessions.
The truly diabolical logic of the prosecutor's office leads to the fact that it is necessary to prove that the Jehovists do not have a Bible at all, and then this is not the Bible. Then perhaps nobody will feel sorry for them at all, and it will be possible to prohibit them entirely, and that means to prosecute them as terrorists and extremists in criminal proceedings. And this really is somewhat easier than to find real criminals or racketeers, for example, since Jehovists do not resist.
Now the Vyborg city court, since the summer of 2015, has been conducting a case for finding the Bible in the translation that the Jehovah's Witnesses use (The New World Translation) to be extremist literature. In 2015 an expert analysis of the Bible in the Jehovist translation was conducted at the request of Vyborg customs by the Center for Socio-Cultural Expert Analysis (Investigation 240/15 of 3 August 2015). The experts did not include a single person with an academic degree with a religious studies specialty (V.S. Kotelnikov, A.E. Tarasov, N.N. Kriukova). The expert analysis includes a section "The Canonical Understanding of the Bible." It gives an Orthodox definition of the Bible and the Word of God, from the point of view of the experts themselves, of course. It includes the following quotation: "Sectarian practice, which is usually based on carefully selected and reinterpreted quotations from the Bible, desiccates Christianity, turning it into legalism." Then the experts study the "Sacred Scripture. New World Translation," the Jehovists' version of the Bible. It is pointed out that there the name of God appears as "Jehovah," the word "cross" is translated from the Greek as "torture stake," and some of the books receive different names. Moreover, the Jehovah's Witnesses' translation, the experts note for some reason, follows the Masoretic tradition and not the Septuagent, which, in its turn, the Synodal translation follows. After comparison of the Synodal translation and the New World Translation, the experts draw the conclusion that the Jehovist text "allows for assembling a system of doctrinal and ethical texts that is different from the Christian tradition."
After a whole array of quotations with variant translations of the biblical text and calls in the Jehovists' resources to study the Bible, the experts' conclusion follows: "Proceeding from what is said above, the New World Translation is not a variant translation of the Bible in the Christian tradition, and accordingly it is not the Bible as a canonical collection of texts." One of the arguments consists in the fact that study of a translation requires facility in interpretation of the text, and "therefore the New World Translation contains connections with all the notions existing in the doctrinal and ethical literature of the Jehovah's Witnesses."
The activity of the prosecutor's office and their experts upset the Russian Bible Society, which has already issued several translations of sacred scripture, that are by no means uncanonical, that is, not recognized, for example, by the Russian Orthodox Church for use during worship services. The recognized translation in the RPTs remains the Synodal, from the 19th century and this text has the blessing of the church.
The executive director of the Russian Bible Society, Anatoly Rudenko, in a special conclusion gave an explanation regarding what the Bible and its translations are.
The most general definition of the Bible is the following: "The Bible, or Sacred Scripture, is a collection of diverse texts, created at various times and in various languages, which are confessional for adherents of two world religions, Judaism and Christianity. That part of the Bible that is called the New Testament is recognized as Sacred Scripture only by Christians and is not recognized as such by adherents of Judaism. The New Testament consists of 27 separate books. A special portion of the books of the Old Testament is recognized as sacred by both Chritians and Jews. These are the so-called canonical books of the Old Testament, numbering 39.
"In addition to the canonical books, the Old Testament contains a number of additional works. Their number and canonical status differ in different Christian denominations. The Russian Orthodox Church includes within the makeup of the Old Testament additional books under the general title of 'noncanonical books of the Old Testament.' The Roman Catholic Church considers them just as authoritative as the other books of the Old Testament and calls them deuterocanonical. Protestants exclude the noncanonical books from the makeup of the Bible and call them 'apocryphal.'"
Jews do not use the title "Old Testament," but they call the 39 canonical books of the Old Testament the Tanakh, which comes from the ancient Hebrew tradition of calling Sacred Scripture by the first letters of the ancient Hebrew names of its parts: T for Torah, which is also the Pentateuch of Moses; N for Neviim, that is, prophets; and Kh for Ketuvim, literally "writings" (the remaining books).
As part of the judicial proceedings there also arose the question that everybody has different books in the Bible, at least as it seems so to prosecutors and uninformed experts. Anatoly Rudenko notes: "The names of individual biblical books in different attestations of the biblical text vary considerably. Thus the book of Bytiia has the title Genesis in the Septuagent (the Greek translation of the Old Testament of the third century B.C.) and Bereshit in the Tanakh. The composition known in the Synodal translation under the title Third Book of Kings is called the First Book of Kings in the Catholic and many other Christian traditions; in the Hebrew Bible its title is Melakhim Alef. The books of Paralipomenon are called Chronicles in European translations of the Bible and in the Tanakh, Divre-ha-Yamim, and so forth."
For biblical scholars it is evident that the entire fullness of the biblical text may be understood through its various translations. As Anatoly Rudenko notes: "Translation is a most important and integral part of the history of the formation and existence of the Bible, or Sacred Scripture. The process of translation of the books of the Bible began in deep antiquity and it has continued to our days. Its foundation was laid by the translation of the doctrinal books of the Jews from the ancient Hebrew language into the ancient Greek language, carried out in the third century B.C. in Alexandria. According to tradition, this translation was accomplished by 72 Jewish sages, from which comes its Greek title Septuagent, that is, the translation of the 70. In the first century A.D., when the New Testament authors lived and worked, they used and quoted in the creation of their works primarily the Septuagent and not the ancient Hebrew sacred texts. There are in the Bible also some books that have come down to our days only in the form of later translations in various in various languages. . . . Thus already within the Bible itself, translations of the Bible are an essential and integral part."
Undoubtedly this is too complex a topic for judicial proceedings, but it becomes yet more confusing when one realizes that different confessions use different translations: "The Roman Catholic Church calls as its Sacred Scripture the Bible in translation into the Latin language, the so-called Vulgate, created in the fifth century A.D. by the Blessed Jerome. The liturgical Bible of the Russian Orthodox Church goes back to the Slavonic translation carried out in the ninth century by the saints, equal with the apostles, Cyril and Methodius. It was from this translation that the beginning of Slavic literature derived. The Slavonic translation was made from the Septuagent, which, as noted above, in its turn also is a translation. Thus the Church Slavonic Bible is a translation of a translation. Protestants use in worship services and in home reading various translations of the Bible, which were made in modern and contemporary times.
The translation of the Bible into Russian was begun in 1816, on the initiative of Emperor Alexander I. In 1821, the first Russian translation of the New Testament was printed under the aegis of the Russian Bible Society. The first full translation of the Bible into the Russian language (1876) was carried out under the guidance of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, and therefore it received the title Synodal. The Old Testament in the Synodal translation was translated mostly from the Hebrew Masoretic text, although a number of places of special doctrinal importance were translatedon from the Septuagent, that is, the Greek translation of the third century B.C.
The Russian Bible Society published a contemporary Russian translation in 2011 and in 2015, jointly with the Institute of the Translation of the Bible of the Zaoksky Ecclesiastical Academy and the Holy Apostle Andrew Biblical Theological Institute.
What conclusion may be drawn from all of this diversity of translations of the Bible? According to one of the directors of the Russian Bible Society, Anatoly Rudenko: "In a modern law-based society, secular authority cannot take upon itself the role of arbiter of theological disputes and establish some kind of standard out of the multiplicity of church traditions, which all Christians must follow in their religious practice."
According to the spirit of the law for protecting sacred texts, any attempt to prohibit the Sacred Scripture of any confession (in this case, the Bible—or Quran—in various translations) is a violation of the rights and freedoms of citizens and the law on freedom of conscience. The political trend in Russia is such that agencies of the prosecutor's office consider each manifestation an occasion for opening a criminal case and a prohibition. The presidential law also has become grounds for gross interference in the internal affairs and creation of religious organizations. (tr. by PDS, posted 9 April 2016)
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