Cyril and Methodius and the Struggle for Local Language Translations

Sixteenth-century Reformers were not the first to advocate the translation of the Bible and church liturgy in the language of the people. Nor were they the first to suffer opposition. Two 9th-century brothers from Thessalonica faced a similar struggle as they worked together to bring the Scriptures to the Slavs – even when it meant inventing an entirely new alphabet.

            Their mission started in 862, when Byzantine Emperor Michael III sent them to Moravia as Christian missionaries at the request of the local ruler Rastislav. “Since our people rejected idolatry and came under Christian law, we have not had a teacher capable of explaining this faith to us in our own [Slavic] tongue,” Rastislav wrote. Previous teachers had spoken Latin, Greek, or German.

            Michael thought of two brothers, Cyril (826–869) and Methodius (815–885) as perfect candidates for this mission. First of all, they were from Thessalonika, a city close to the Slavic border, where many people spoke both Greek and Slavic. They had also acquired excellent skills. Cyril was a scholar, a professor of philosophy who had studied in Constantinople and had worked as librarian of Hagia Sophia, the most prominent church building in the East. Methodius had gained administrative experience as governor in a frontier Byzantine district.

            More recently, they had both joined a monastery in Bithynia, Asia Minor, and had worked as missionaries to the Khazars, a people dwelling north of the Caspian Sea, who were trying to decide between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. To perform this mission, Cyril and Methodius had learned the local language.

            The two brothers embraced the Emperor’s call with enthusiasm. Already familiar with the Slavic language, they worked to translate some of the Scriptures and church liturgy. There was, however, one main obstacle. The Slavs didn’t have a written language, so the brothers had to create an alphabet that could match the Slavic phonetic sounds. This was mostly Cyril’s work. Instead of trying to adapt either the Greek or Latin alphabets, he invented a whole new script, which was later called Glagolitic, and is the basis of the current Cyrillic script.

            Once the alphabet was created, the brothers proceeded to the work of translation, which they performed in full respect of the Slavic language. “The words were not rendered blindly with their Slavic equivalents,” Cyril explained, “for it was not the words that we required, but their meaning.”



            Cyril and Methodius remained in Moravia three years, then traveled to Venice. On the say, they stopped in the Slavic province of Pannonia (which included parts of today’s Hungary, Austria, and Yugoslavia). There, they received a warm welcome by the local ruler, Prince Kocel, who was greatly interested in the brothers’ achievements. The church in Pannonia, however, belonged to the archdiocese of Salzburg, and its German leaders watched with suspicion what they considered a displacement, “in a highly arrogant manner,” of Latin with a Slavic translation.

            Things became worse when they reached Venice, which was also under the church of Rome. “No longer had he arrived in Venice that Latin bishops and priests and monks all descended upon him in a body, like crows upon a hawk,” Cyril’s biographer wrote. “We know of only three tongues in which it is meet to praise God in writing: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.” (Latin was added to the biblical languages because it was the language used by Jerome and Augustine).

            “But does the rain not fall equally upon all people?” Cyril answered. “Does the sun not shine for all, and do we not all breathe the air in equal measure? Wherefore then, are you not ashamed to recognize but three tongues and command the other nations and races to be blind and deaf?”

            His speech included a list of nations which were already using a local translation of the Bible (some by creating their own alphabet), and a list of quotations from Scriptures.

            The controversy was resolved when the Roman pope, Nicholas I, called the brothers to present their case. By the time they arrived, Nicholas had died. His successor, Hadrian II, was favorable to them from the start and gave his full approval to their translating work.

            Cyril died of a serious illness while in Rome, and Hadrian encouraged Methodius to resume his work in Moravia. The German clergy, however, continued their opposition, so much that they managed to exile Methodius and some of his supporters, and imprison him for two and a half years, probably in a monastery in southwestern Germany.

            In the meantime, Hadrian died and the next pope, John VIII, demanded Methodius’s release. His backing didn’t last long. In 879, the same pope yielded to pressure by the German clergy and condemned Methodius for celebrating the liturgy “in the barbaric Slavic tongue.” It took another trip to Rome to convince John VIII of the importance of using the local language, and Methodius was once again allowed to resume his work.

            The German clergy didn’t give up, and John called Methodius back to Rome. This time, however, probably tired of the pope’s ambivalence, Methodius went to Constantinople instead, where he gained the approval of both the emperor and the Byzantine patriarch.

            In the end, he was able to translate the full Bible into Slavic. After his death in 885, his disciples were expelled from Moravia and found refuge in Bohemia, southern Poland, and Bulgaria, where the Slavic translation of Scripture continued to be used.

            Some things are slow change, and the same hesitation to accept translations of the Bible into the languages of different populations emerged vigorously after the Council of Trent, in an effort to centralize authority. 

            A few Roman Catholic blog posts today try hard to deny the repression of biblical translations by the Council of Trent, but the facts speak louder than words. It took the Roman Catholic Church two centuries after that council, for example, to allow the publication of a Bible in Italian. What’s more, this tardiness reinforced the general idea that private reading of Scriptures was unnecessary and even dangerous – a notion which continued as late as the 19th-century, when virtually every pope condemned Bible Societies and their dissemination of Scriptures in the local languages.

            Some hesitation is understandable. When it comes to biblical texts, accurate translations are imperative, but we can’t err on the opposite side. Besides, the Latin translation the Roman Catholic Church supported was far from flawless. The Council of Trent was largely motivated by fear and gave birth to repression. If the gospel has to be taken to all nations, we may say with Cyril, “Tell me, do you render God powerless, that he is incapable of granting this?”



Simonetta Carr