Bible on the Bosporus: Reformation Europe and the Orthodox Church

In 1629–30 Maximus of Gallipoli sat in a room in the Dutch embassy overlooking the Golden Horn on the Bosporus Strait in Constantinople, today Istanbul. A learned monk ordained as a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church, he labored on the first ever translation of the New Testament into the Greek vernacular. Maximus’s text, published only in 1638, is little known outside a handful of academic specialists. This is unfortunate, because his achievement was in fact remarkable. The circumstances surrounding the text are, moreover, the stuff of an Orhan Pamuk novel, filled with international intrigue: created in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, aided by Reformed Swiss-Italians, corrected by the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, coordinated by the Dutch ambassador, paid for by the Dutch Republic, and printed in Geneva under oversight of the Venerable Company of Pastors, Maximus’s edition demonstrates how the European Reformations touched but did not take root in the Greek Orthodox world.

Two approaches have so far dominated scholarship on Protestant–Orthodox exchanges in the Long Reformation. On one hand, an older body of literature has framed these exchanges as an ecumenical rapprochement in which Christians of different denominations came together to heal the body of Christ and discuss ecclesiastical union (e.g., Trevor-Roper). On the other hand, historians have described Orthodox clerics as political pawns wielded by Roman Catholic and Protestant powers (e.g., Wendebourg; Runciman; etc.). Neither paradigm suffices. The former reads twentieth-century ecumenism into the past; the latter ignores very real confessional motivations for opening channels of communication between European and Eastern Christians.

In this paper, an offshoot of a larger book project on various “maritime” exchanges during the Long Reformation, I reexamine the roots of the 1638 Greek New Testament. Specifically, I argue that it belongs to the reform agenda of Cyril Lucaris, the so-called “Calvinist Patriarch” of Constantinople from 1620, with several interruptions, until he died in 1638, strangled and drowned by Janissaries. Lucaris exchanged letters with Dutch Protestants, such as Uytenbogaert, owned and annotated books by Arminius and Bellarmine, discussed Christianity with high-ranking members of the Church of England, and gifted the priceless Codex Alexandrinus to King James VI and I for James’s support in Lucaris’s struggle to retain the patriarchate against his enemies, who were aligning themselves with Jesuits to steer the Orthodox toward Tridentine Catholicism.

Lucaris championed the modern Greek Bible in terms evocative of Protestants—Luther eventually to the Westminster Divines: because it was necessary “for Greeks to see for themselves the light of truth from God’s Holy Word.” Lucaris also cooperated with the Dutch States General to disseminate a Greek translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and select canons of the Synod of Dort, though he resisted the imposition of Reformed confessions on his people. These projects were condemned by Lucaris’s successors and anathematized by Orthodox synods. Nevertheless, they suggest a fresh, differentiated picture of Protestant-Orthodox engagement, with ramifications for our understanding of confessionalization, irenicism, and the early modern globalization of Reformation Christianity.