Translating the Gospel in Eastern Europe
Missionaries to Eastern Europe had to cope with political barriers long before the Iron Curtain was established. The ninth-century Prince Ratislav of Moravia was very intrigued by Christianity. He ruled a region inhabited by Slavs that included much of the modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia. He was concerned that if he welcomed missionaries from the neighboring Christian kingdom of the Franks, it might give powerful Frankish rulers an opportunity to annex his kingdom. He wanted Christianity with no political strings attached. So he wrote seeking missionaries from distant Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the protector of Christianity in the East, entreating, "We have not a teacher who would explain to us in our language the true Christian faith."
Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople, chose two brothers for the job: Constantine, who would later adopt the name Cyril when he became a monk, and Methodius. Photius chose his ambassadors well. Cyril and Methodius had grown up in Thessaloniki and spoke a Slavic dialect as well as Greek. They were well educated; Cyril had served as the librarian at the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, while Methodius had been a governor of a Slavic region of the Empire. Together the brothers had gained experience representing Byzantium to its neighbors, debating the merits of Christianity on diplomatic missions to the Khazars and Arabs.
A new alphabet
Cyril had earned the nickname "The Philosopher" for his well-known love of wisdom. When an imperial officer once asked him to define philosophy, he replied that it was "the knowledge of matters of God and man, to what extent man can approach God and how, through virtue, it teaches man to be in the image and likeness of the Creator."
Initially Cyril was reluctant to accept the mission to Moravia, because the Moravians had no written script for their language. The emperor encouraged him to pray about the matter, and with God's help Cyril created a script for the Slavic language. Based upon the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, the Glagolitic alphabet originally contained 43 letters. In later centuries, this script was simplified and eventually called the Cyrillic alphabet after its inventor. Cyril and Methodius used their new alphabet to adapt the Moravians' oral language into a written language, Old Church Slavonic, to be used for both worship and literature. Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe continue to worship in versions of this ancient language today, and the Cyrillic alphabet is used for many modern Eastern European languages, including Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Serbian.
Cyril translated the New Testament into the Moravians' own language, sharing Christ and also laying the foundation for written literature in Eastern Europe. Cyril recognized that the Bible was a gift from God and therefore emphasized that a translator must strive for the highest possible degree of accuracy in order to preserve the true meaning of the text. But he also approached the task of translation as a poet, delighting in the beauty of biblical language and imagery.
The language of worship
After three years of teaching the gospel in Moravia, Cyril and Methodius set out for Rome with the newly translated Slavic Scriptures and young Moravian disciples to be ordained as clergy. They knew that the young church in Moravia would ultimately need good relations with its nearer neighbor Rome as well as the more distant Constantinople.
As they passed through Venice on their way to Rome, they encountered opposition from Roman Catholic church leaders. The powerful Franks had already complained to the pope about the missionary efforts of the two brothers. How dare they allow Moravian Christians to worship in Slavic rather than in Latin? There were only three languages holy enough to be used for prayer: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Cyril's opponents found a biblical basis for their position, arguing that "King of the Jews" had been inscribed on Christ's cross in these three languages.
Cyril was quick to point out the irony of this position, which gave authority to the one who ordered Christ's execution. Dubbing his opponents the "Pilatists," Cyril chastised them: "Falls not God's rain upon all equally? And shines not the sun also upon all? And breathe we not all air in the same way? Are you not ashamed to mention only three tongues, and to command all other nations and tribes to be blind and deaf?" All people had the right to worship God in their native tongue.
Cyril was well received by Pope Adrian II, who gave his blessing to the brothers' work and permitted the worship to continue in Slavic. The pope commanded that the young Moravian disciples be ordained and celebrate the liturgy in Slavic at St. Peter's basilica and many other churches in Rome.
Expelled, but not stopped
After Cyril died in Rome in 868, Methodius continued their work in Moravia, translating the Old Testament into Slavic; however, he repeatedly ran into political obstacles. His enemies included the successor of Prince Ratislav and Frankish church officials, who attempted to expel him. Methodius spent two and a half years in prison. His commitment to teaching Christianity to the Moravians in their own Slavic tongue even caused him to be summoned to Rome on charges of heresy. The new pope John VII was convinced by Methodius's arguments and granted him permission to continue his work in Moravia.
After Methodius's death in 885, however, his followers were expelled from Moravia. They took the Slavic Scriptures to Bulgaria, where King Boris, who had only recently converted to Christianity, joyfully welcomed them. While successive popes in Rome adopted a Latin-only policy for Christian worship, the new Slavic church flourished in Bulgaria. This set the stage for the spread of Christianity throughout Eastern Europe and Russia.
The legacy of Cyril and Methodius—that people everywhere should be encouraged to worship God and read the Bible freely in their native tongue—continues to be a central pillar of the modern missionary movement. No one people group can claim to own the gospel. Christianity is a living faith that interacts fruitfully with diverse cultures, as we witness in the churches of the Global South today.
Jennifer Hevelone-Harper is associate professor and chair of history at Gordon College and a member of the Christian History advisory board.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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