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Review of the Orthodox Study Bible

by Priest Seraphim Johnson

The Orthodox Study Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1993) makes a very good initial impression. The bindings are handsome, the Bible is nicely printed, and it is graced by a number of full-color icons scattered through the book. It uses the increasingly popular New King James Version (NKJV) for the text. On the whole this version is an acceptable modernization of the King James Version (KJV), while retaining some of the literary quality of the latter. An additional advantage of the NKJV is that it indicates the Majority Text readings, since these generally correspond even more fully to the Church's text than do the KJV readings. However, it is disappointing that the Study Bible reproduces the whole textual apparatus of the NKJV, including many of the doubtful decisions of modern non-Orthodox biblical scholarship; it would have been preferable for them to have corrected the text to agree with that of the Church and then to present only that text, since the whole matter of textual criticism is complex and primarily serves to cause doubts and questions in the minds of non-technical readers of the Scriptures. While the NKJV is a generally acceptable text for the New Testament, its use for the Psalter is completely unacceptable. It is very unfortunate that the Study Bible uses a Protestant version of the Psalter in what claims to be a Bible for Orthodox Christians, following even the Protestant numbering of the psalms, rather than that of the Church. Several translations of the psalms from the Orthodox Church's Septuagint version into English have appeared in the last 20 years, and it surely would have been possible for the publishers to have arranged to use one of these if they truly wanted to offer an Orthodox text of the Bible to their readers.

When one actually starts to read the comments and notes attached to the Study Bible one quickly becomes very disappointed to see that a major opportunity has been lost. The comments on the text are on the whole quite simplistic and shallow, often doing nothing more than paraphrasing the verse to which they refer. Only very rarely do they quote from the Fathers to draw out the fuller meaning of the text, although a good collection of such quotations would have been the best possible Orthodox commentary on the Scriptures.*

The early Church understood that the doctrines of the faith (viewed as facts and rational propositions) could not really be grasped until a person had attained some degree of moral purity. This is the reason for the extended catechumenate, during which the candidate had to reform his life and bring it into line with the Church's demands. Only near the end of this period was the content of the Faith presented, when the candidate was sufficiently purified to be able to receive it and make sense of it. To have presented it earlier would have reduced it to only empty factual knowledge with no meaning for one's life. One of the most unfortunate features of the Study Bible is that it confines itself only to this factual knowledge and does not even use those passages of Scripture which have a moral content to inculcate such purity in its readers. It rarely draws any but the most trite moral conclusions from the texts, while the Fathers consistently apply them primarily in a moral way, rather than as historical or factual artifacts.

As one reads the notes to the text, a false, non-Orthodox tone becomes uncomfortably apparent. The editors constantly refer to the way things are done in the "Orthodox Church," the teaching of the "Orthodox Church," etc. By always qualifying "Church" in this way, they distance themselves and write as they are outsiders or as if they are writing for outsiders. When Orthodox people describe the services, readings, practices, and doctrines of the Church, they just call it the "Church." Similarly, if you look at a Roman Catholic Bible (e.g. the Jerusalem Bible), it refers to the "Church's teaching" or says that "the Church reads this passage..." and so on. The only reason to qualify "Church" all the time, as the Study Bible does, is to distinguish it from other religious bodies. But the result of this constant qualification is that the reader does not feel he is reading a Bible prepared by Orthodox Christians for Orthodox Christians. The feeling is rather that this Bible is designed to introduce the non-Orthodox to Orthodoxy, or else that non-Orthodox wrote the notes in it. There is not anything inherently wrong in the idea of writing notes on a Bible to help convince non-Orthodox of the truth of Orthodoxy (assuming the notes accurately reflect the true views and positions of Orthodoxy, which is by no means always the case in the Study Bible), but it would be better to advertise the Bible as such, perhaps calling it the Orthodox Evangelism Bible, rather than to present it as if it is designed to help Orthodox Christians grow deeper in their understanding and practice of the faith.

Another example of the non-Orthodox tone of much of the commentary in the Study Bible is the way the Savior and the Saints are referred to. While there are instances in which Orthodox refer to the Lord as simply "Jesus," they are rare. Especially in the early Church (cf. St. Ignatius of Antioch's letters), the Lord is almost always referred to by His name and one or more titles (e.g., "Jesus Christ," "our Lord Jesus Christ," etc.). Even St. Paul usually refers to Him in this way. The Gospels do not, since they are presenting history, rather than reflections drawn from that history. But Orthodox Christians do not speak of the Lord in this unadorned way, so it strikes a false note to find the Study Bible referring to Him as "Jesus" most of the time. Similarly, in English (although less so in Greek or Russian) it sounds very odd to Orthodox ears to refer to the saints without using their title. Thus, Orthodox Christians usually speak of "St. Paul," not of "Paul." The same may be said about the note concerning the Theotokos on page 135. The editors address her as "Mary." Again, this is a small point, but it does offend Orthodox ears and adds to the feeling the authors of the notes in the Study Bible are not writing from within the Orthodox community, but rather are outsiders trying to interpret an Orthodoxy they only understand theoretically, but which they have not yet learned really to live.

A further example of the editors' viewpoint being from outside the Church is their decision to abbreviate the Morning and Evening Prayers printed in the back of the Study Bible by leaving out any prayers to the Theotokos or the saints. It seems almost inconceivable that Orthodox Christians would not at least include the Prayer "O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice" and a prayer to their patron saint as part of their daily prayers; but these prayers are missing. While this omission undoubtedly will make the Study Bible more congenial to Protestant readers, it seriously distorts the actual teaching and practice of the Orthodox Church.

Throughout the Study Bible there is a surprising emphasis on the concept of "justification," including a whole article devoted to this topic in Romans 5. A number of notes scattered throughout the Study Bible refer to "justification," usually specifying that it is "by faith" (e.g. Mark 10:28; Acts 10:35; Romans 3:20, 5: 1; Galatians 2:16-4:31, 2:17; etc.). The article and notes are not particularly offensive, but the concept and term "justification" play almost no role in Orthodox theology, where "justification" is commonly not even distinguished from "sanctification," but both are seen as a united and inseparable part of the Christian's process of spiritual development. Certainly, its role is minor compared to the major position it occupies in Protestant thinking. Thus, the index to Timothy [now Bishop Kallistos] Ware's The Orthodox Church does not include the term, nor is it found in a number of Orthodox theological dictionaries (e.g., Polny Pravoslavnyy Bogoslovskiy Entsiklopicheskiy Slovar [Complete Orthodox Theological Encyclopedic Dictionary], reprinted in Russia in 1992 from a pre-Revolutionary edition; Dictionary of Orthodox Theology, George H. Demetrakopoulos, New York, 1964). Once again, while the treatment is not "wrong" from an Orthodox standpoint, the very discussion and term sound strange to Orthodox ears.

There are other notes in which a non-Orthodox viewpoint comes across. Examples are:

a) The note on Acts 3:1 refers to "Advent," which is a term and period which does not exist in Orthodoxy. In the Western liturgical churches (Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran) "Advent" is the name given to the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Orthodoxy does not observe these Sundays, but it does have a six-week fast preceding the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.

b) Mark 2:20. This note defends fasting, but from a rather Protestant viewpoint. It is written to persuade Protestant readers that fasting is acceptable for a Christian, not to encourage Orthodox to discover the spiritual benefits of fasting.

c) The note on "fasting" in the glossary (p. 798) mis-defines the Apostles Fast, incorrectly saying that it is the two weeks before June 29. This fast is actually of variable length, starting on the Monday after All Saints Sunday and continuing until the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. The fact that the author of the notes does not know how long the fast lasts can only raise doubts about the extent to which the Faith is being lived.

Finally, there are notes which are simply unacceptable to any true Orthodox Christian, since they are omissions or distortions of vital Orthodox teachings.

a) Matthew 14:14-2 1. In discussing the feeding of the five thousand, the editors somewhat grudgingly say that the feeding of the four thousand (reported in Matthew 15:32-39) "...is PROBABLY not a duplicate report of the first miracle." Thereby, the editors are challenging the authenticity and reliability of the Gospels, since the same Gospel reports the two miracles separately and since the Lord Himself refers to both of them as separate events (Matthew 16:9-10). To raise even a question about whether these are separate events is to call into question the Lord's veracity and the reliability of the Gospels—surely not an Orthodox attitude toward either.

b) Mark 9:38-40. The note says, "Sectarianism and triumphalism (the attitude that one creed is superior to all others) are forbidden, for God's working transcends our limited perceptions. One is either for or against (v.40) Christ, but it is not always ours to know who is on which side." Does this mean that the creed of the First and Second Ecumenical Councils (the Symbol of Faith) is no better than any other creed (e.g., the Lutherans' Augsburg Confession)? Any Orthodox Christian who does not think that the Church's creed is superior to all others places himself outside the Church. Furthermore, while we may not always know where a person's heart is, we can see that those who willfully promulgate false creeds are working against our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The attitude in this note is simply foreign to any healthy Orthodox Christian.

c) Mark 10:30. The Lord promises that those who give up family and possessions will receive them back a hundredfold, but the note calls this into question, saying that this is "not an absolute promise: countless saints and martyrs were not so rewarded." Here the authors betray their carnal viewpoint. The Fathers apply this passage to the whole Christian community, saying that those who give up earthly family and possessions receive new fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, homes and lands in the CHURCH, but not in the carnal sense of getting more personal possessions. It is bad enough that the authors' viewpoint is carnal, their error is compounded by the fact that they openly disagree with the Lord and question the accuracy of His promise.

d) Acts 13:3. The note supports multiple ordination. This practice has been forbidden in the Orthodox Church for many centuries, so there is no reason whatsoever to mention it, unless it is to justify the extreme irregularity of performing such ordinations when the so-called "Evangelical Orthodox" were received into the Antiochian Church.

e) I Timothy 2:12. By citing Romans 16:1 to suggest that women have been ordained as deacons and by stating that "women are not ordained to the offices of bishop and presbyter in the Orthodox Church," the note implies that women can be ordained deacons. This is not the case. The order of deaconesses is not currently in use in the Church, and in any case the Church does not treat the order of deaconesses as equivalent to that of deacons, since the former do not perform the deacon's liturgical functions.

f) II Timothy 1:9. The note says, "Our salvation and CALLING are based on His GRACE and love, not on anything we have done to merit God's favor." The Orthodox viewpoint is that our salvation does in fact depend on our response to God's grace and how we use it in our lives. We are co-workers with God in our salvation, as St. Paul says (I Cor. 3:9; II Cor. 6: 1; Phil. 2:12-13). Even our calling as Christians is based on our synergy in responding to God's grace in our lives, since we are all sustained by His grace in every breath we take. Those who respond to this grace receive a calling to participate more fully in it, a calling which is based on their earlier responses.

g) The note on I Peter 3:18 glosses over the Lord's descent into Hades. You may be able to find this doctrine in the note if you know it is supposed to be there, but it certainly is not presented in a clear and unambiguous way. And yet, this is the focus of the primary icons of the feast of the Resurrection, so how can it be skimmed over with no more than a hint in what claims to be an "Orthodox Bible?"

These comments are representative of the non-Orthodox viewpoint which permeates this Study Bible and which makes it unsuited for use by Orthodox Christians. It is truly sad to see so much effort, time, and expense put into producing this Bible with such meager results in the end. It would, however, be far safer for Orthodox Christians to avoid such inaccurate and misleading aids as are provided in this Bible, especially since several more reliable "Orthodox Study" Bible commentaries are available in English for Orthodox readers (e.g. Johanna Manley's "The Bible and the Holy Fathers" her "Grace for Grace: The Psalter and the Holy Fathers" (which has the added advantage of using the Orthodox Psalter as its basic text, rather than the Protestant one); and the ongoing translation of Blessed Theophylact's commentaries on the Gospels.


* Though not a "study Bible," a good alternative or addition to one's library is Joanna Manley's The Bible and the Holy Fathers, which contains the daily readings from Holy Scripture with Patristic commentaries. Also highly recommended is the The Orthodox New Testament published by Holy Apostles Convent and Dormition Skete.

From The Orthodox Christian Witness, Vol. XXVII, No. 18(1273)