The Struggle for a Bible in Modern Greek

I often use the Vamva version of the Christian scriptures as a form of commentary for difficult verses. I like to see what a 19th century native Greek speaker and Bible scholar thinks the text means. Here is some information from a Jehovah’s Witness site on the Vamva Bible. I don’t know much else about it.

    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.

16 thoughts on “The Struggle for a Bible in Modern Greek

  1. MissionalGirl says:

    I have never heard of the Vamva translation but it is a shame to see the Watchtower using it to align themselves and their corrupted “translation” with another man, simply to paint a picture of themselves as being persecuted for trying to provide people with an honest rendering of the Word of God.

    There is nothing inherently wrong

  2. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    Unfortunately this was the only article I could find about the Vamva bible. It maybe wasn’t the best but it is a place to atart. If anyone knows more about it I’d love to hear it.

  3. anonymous says:

    Modernized Bibles are often sponsored by marginal groups. Thus, a Baptist publisher, HaGefen, publishes the only modern Hebrew Bible I am aware of in Israel, and the Christian translation of the “Old Testament” has received the reaction you might expect from an organization that attempts to evangelize Jews.

    I must admit that I get angry when someone proposes a modernized Shakespeare. I even get annoyed when people read modernized Chaucer.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    Doug,

    Thank you for pointing that out. I shall make a point of acquiring a copy.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    Not only is there now a modern Greek Bible endorsed by the Orthodox Church, but there was such a New Testament even before Vamvas started work. I have a fascinating article about the work of the British and Foreign Bible Society in the Ottoman empire (at that time including Greece) in the early 19th century*. Here is some of what I have learned from this article.

    Perhaps the first modern Greek NT was published in London in 1703, and was rejected by the Orthodox church. A diglot version (modern Greek and NT Greek) originally printed in Halle in 1710 was reprinted by BFBS in London in 1810. In 1814 the Ecumenical Patriarch Kyrillos VI gave it his written approbation, but not for the modern Greek text alone. The article I have includes a reproduction of the Patriarch’s handwritten Greek approbation, and English translation dated 1815.

    But this version was also criticised for its poor style. So in 1818 BFBS engaged Archimandrite Ilarion, an Orthodox abbot, to translate the Old and New Testaments into modern Greek. This work was interrupted in 1821 or 1822 by the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence. Ilarion’s draft New Testament was criticised as more a paraphrase than a translation, but the four gospels were printed in London in 1827. It is unclear whether this version was accepted by the Orthodox, officially or unofficially.

    There is a brief mention in the article of Neophytos Vamvas, as the principal of the academy on Chios, but no mention of his later translation work.

    * Enlightening “A Poor, Oppressed, and Darkened Nation”: Some Early Activities of the BFBS in the Levant by Richard Clogg, pp. 234-250 of Sowing the Word: The Cultural Impact of the British and Foreign Bible Society 1804-2004 edited by Stephen Batalden, Kathleen Cann and John Dean, Sheffield Phoenix Press 2006. I thank my friend John Dean for giving me a copy of this book.

  6. Mario Karagiorgas says:

    Dear Suzanne, readers,

    Good posting. I am surprised too about how little is known about the exceptional Vamva translation outside Greece. Let me encourage you and say that by now the Vamva translation has taken root and it’s the standard translation used in prevalent Greek Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations including the no 2 most widespread Christian denomination (considering the state church as the no 1.) While we have found in it some translation issues when compared to the original Greek NT manuscripts, it is in our view free of denominational biases (how can you beat that in a translation); also by far, richer linguistically, more accurate and reliable than the Septuagint (treading carefully here) and especially the later Greek translations which carry denominational biases.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    Mario,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I would be delighted to find an online version of this text. I deeply regret that so much of English scholarship is isolated from that of Greek and other European languages.

  8. Andreas Holzhausen, says:

    Something should be noted regarding a translation into “modern Greek”. There are actually two versions of “modern Greek”, “Katharevusa”, the high and literary language that used to be the official language and is fairly close to ancient Greek, It was used for all official publications until the 1970s. And then there is “Demothiki”, the everyday spoken – and by now also written language. Plus, of course, the old Byzantine church language that the Orthodox church uses for liturgy and Bible reading. Katharevusa seems to be on the way out, young people are not used to speaking or reading it at all. It is taught only in higher education and used in some literature. The Vamva translation is in Katharevusa. Nowadays education and most publications are in Demothiki. There is a Bible translation in Demothiki, published by the Bible Society of Greece, and it has the approval by all the patriachs plus the Holy Synod. I do not know if there are other translations into Demothiki. It is interesting to compare this with the Koiné of the NT. There are similarities to ancient Greek, but one has to learn Demothiki as a new language in order to get around in Greece. Pronounciation, of course, is quite different from the one you learn at seminary.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    Andreas,

    Thank you. Yes, I was aware that the Vamva translation was not Demothiki, but I had not thought about it much. I am sure that I would have a harder time reading Demothiki, although I do sometimes watch the news on the Greek channel, sometimes spoken English with Greek subtitles. 🙂

    I would like to have a Bible in Demothiki. Is there an online version by any chance also?

  10. Andreas Holzhausen says:

    Suzanne,
    I have a NT in Demothiki, published by the Bible Society of Greece. The Bible Society in your country should be able to get that for you. I do not know of any online version.

  11. JKG says:

    The Greek Bible Society’s website has this –

    “Translation of the entire Bible into Modern (demotic) Greek by a group of 12 Professors of the Theological Schools of Athens and Thessalonica (1997)”

    And somebody else’s website seems to have an NT in MS Word format for download, a translation into Demotic Greek by Σπύρο Κίμ:

    http://www.greekbiblos.gr/greek.zip

  12. Brian Beyer says:

    Does anyone know if Vamva’s version has ever been revised into modern Demotic Greek? If so, can you point me to the citation. I’ve been reading it along side of the Koine and I’d love to compare it to standard Demotiki. The Greek Bible Society’s’ version has way too much paraphrasing to make it useful for comparison. Or alternatively, simply a more literal modern Greek translation than the Greek Bible Society?

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