It is the 8th of November, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
As was the case with Anne Hutchinson’s trial yesterday, today’s event, the Gospel Riots of 1901, received a brief word back in season 1. Today, we will dig a little deeper to explain what happened on the so-called “Black Thursday” in Greece when eight people were killed in a dispute over a translation of the Gospel.
Ok- for necessary background. The Greek language is really old. It goes back 34 centuries and has evolved over time, from the Homeric Greek of the Iliad and the Odyssey to the Classical Greek of Plato to the Attic and then Hellenistic or “Koine.” If you ask someone like myself who either attended a bible college or a seminary and they say the “learned Greek,” it is nine times out of 10 this “Koine” Greek- the Greek of the New Testament and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and some of the early Church fathers. It’s worth noting that this was a kind of “street Greek,” a common Greek used around the Greek and then Roman Empire, borrowing from other languages and readable by the generally literate.
Over time, the Greek language would develop and develop such that there were almost two types of Greek in Greece. The Byzantine, then modern, and then the Koine, which would be the official language of the church and the schools (often run by the church for the training of priests).
The second thing to remember is that modern “Greece” is very young. You remember that in 1453, Constantinople became Istanbul, and the Ottoman Empire ruled the Greeks. It wasn’t until 1829 that the Greeks fought a war of independence and regained their homelands. So, in the wake of independence in the 19th century, a battle raged: should we go back to the older Greek that only the educated and upper classes generally knew or hold we lean into the so-called “Demotic” Greek- that is, “of the people”?
The church had a reason to keep the old version- it was the language of the church. That, and they were wary of British Missionaries (this is the 1800s), and the British Missionary Society was keen on getting new, easier-to-read translations of the Scriptures to the common person. So, the Patriarchate condemned modern Greek translations of the Scriptures.
Fast forward to 1897- “Black 97” for the Greeks who fought a war against the Turks and, to their surprise, were soundly defeated. It was during the time of national tragedy (and questioning) that Queen Olga (importantly to some, A Russian) found that while reading scripture to wounded soldiers, they could not understand older Greek. And so she made it her mission to have a new version translated. The church hierarchy did not respond to her requests for validation, and the state decided they could print this “unofficial version,” especially because they would put the old and new Greek texts next to one another.
Partly inspired by this, Alexandros Pallis- a Greek businessman living in England and India, decided that he would translate the Gospels into Demotic Greek. He had done so with the Iliad and had helped fund the Akropolis newspaper, which had been publishing in Demotic Greek since 1893.
Some had opposed Queen Olga’s translation as they believed it smacked of “Pan-Slavism” and was an affront to the Greek nationalists. But it came out with little fanfare. It was, however, this Greek living in foreign lands- amongst the Protestant British even, who elicited the most anti-national fervor. In September of 1901, the Akropolis began printing a serialized version of his new translation of the book of Matthew.
It was the fears of proselytism, the desire to keep the ancient Greek language alive (although there were many different “ancient Greek” versions of the language- think Old English, Middle English, Shakespeare’s English, and today) and a general distrust of innovation and conservatism in the light of a recent embarrassing war that leads some inspired by faith, others by nationalism, others by the sheer thrill of mischief that lead to a protest at the Newspaper headquarters and then larger meetings in front of the University. It was at the University of Athens, on this, the 8th of November in 1901, that the military was sent out into the city to quell the protests with some 25,000 Athenians. According to the American diplomat in Greece, “shots were fired upon the crowd… the rioters resounded with pistols and stones,.. and were only dispersed after a cavalry charge and several carbine volleys.” 8 were killed.
It’s a lesson in the combination of religion and nationalism, language and translation, and the sad irony of violence in the “service” of the church. Today, we remember that tragedy- the Gospel Riots of 1901, which came to a fever pitch on the 8th of November in Athens.
The last word for today is from the daily lectionary- and a fit one at that for today’s event- a good word from Proverbs 16:
Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right,
but in the end it is the way to death.
The appetite of workers works for them;
their hunger urges them on.
Scoundrels concoct evil,
and their speech is like a scorching fire.
A perverse person spreads strife,
and a whisperer separates close friends.
The violent entice their neighbors,
and lead them in a way that is not good.
One who winks the eyes plans perverse things;
one who compresses the lips brings evil to pass.
Grey hair is a crown of glory;
it is gained in a righteous life.
One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 8th of November 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who reminds you that a “cavalry” charge is very different from a “calvary” charge- watch that mistake- he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man with that “crown of glory” growing all throughout my beard and temples- I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be OK.