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Language on the Fringe – The Lord’s Prayer in Serbian

This article first appeared on the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) site.

Reproduced with permission

Milan Elisin, a Serbian writer, apparently believes that the Lord’s Prayer was mistranslated into Serbian and other modern Slavic languages from the version in Old Church Slavonic – the classical language of Eastern European Orthodox Christianity – supposedly written by St Cyril. (Cyril is a venerated figure, said to have devised both a) the Cyrillic Alphabet used for Serbian, Russian and other Slavic languages employed by Orthodox Christians and b) OCS itself as a sacred language.) Unfortunately, Elisin’s English is machine-translated and very largely unintelligible. And where it is, occasionally, intelligible, he is very probably mistaken.

Elisin has no Greek and seems reluctant to acknowledge the status of the New Testament Greek text as the original formulation of the prayer. Greek was the international language in the area in question during the 1 Century CE, which is why the NT was promulgated in this language. (It is possible that the prayer and other parts of the NT were first written in Aramaic – which would have been the first language of Jesus himself, always supposing that such a person really existed – but no such versions survive, and in any case he does not refer to Aramaic.) For instance, Elisin regards the Serbian equivalent of the word daily in the prayer – and, it seems, the English word itself and equivalent words in other languages – as ‘a mistranslation which brings confusion’. But the Greek reads ton arton hêmôn ton epiousion dos hêmin sêmeron, and this very clearly means: ‘Give us today our bread/food sufficient for today/the day’.

Elisin does not seem to be denying that epiousion has this meaning, or that the English, Serbian etc are mistranslations of the Greek more generally. Instead, apparently influenced by pan-Slavic nationalism, he ascribes higher status to the OCS wording, which he translates at various points in the prayer quite differently from the Greek (differing in this respect from mainstream OCS scholars, though without overt acknowledgment of this divergence). In the case of the word epiousion as cited here, he treats the OCS as importing ideas from an Egyptian hymn beseeching divine relief from a drought, presumably that referred to in Exodus . His view seems to be that Cyril had access – directly or indirectly – to these pre-1-Century formulations, and that the OCS thus preserves these better than does the Greek (or the putative Aramaic?). But these versions are not themselves known; and – like all scholars between dynastic times and the 19-Century decipherment – Cyril himself was surely unable to read Egyptian.

Elisin regards orthodox interpretations of the prayer as implicated in general ideas about exegesis which he rejects. But in places his own interpretations are truly bizarre; for example, he translates one section of the OCS as referring to ozone! The same applies to his views of ancient thought more generally. And his ‘understanding’ of the ideas and covert motivations of contemporary linguists and biblical scholars is also bizarre.

After some frustrating correspondence, Elisin thanked me on his website (despite having apparently learned very little from me), kindly sent me his e-book free – and then became quiet.