FOR the first time ever, there's a possibility that average Russians will be able to open up a Bible they can read. For centuries the only Bibles in Russia were in an archaic Slavonic language - the last was a translation ordered by Peter the Great - and were available mainly to clergy and scholars. To most Russians, this Scripture read and sounded like a foreign language.
A 19th century Russian Bible has dribbled in since 1985. But bigger changes may be coming.
Next June in Tbilisi, in Soviet Georgia, a team of Western Bible scholars will meet with Orthodox church leaders, Russian evangelical Protestants, and linguists from the Soviet Academy of Science to discuss methods of translating the Bible into contemporary Russian. The talks will lay the groundwork for one or more new translations.
The project, although surrounded by thorny theological and political problems, will be the first-ever collaboration between religious scholars from the West and Russia.
The request for help, which came from the Georgian Orthodox Church at an international Bible conference this fall, caught Western scholars by surprise. It offers further evidence, Sovietologists say, of new religious stirrings in the general population, the hierarchy of the church, and among Russian intelligentsia - made possible in part by glasnost.
The invitation was extended by Katholicos Patriarch Ilia the Second, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, to leaders of the United Bible Society (UBS), an umbrella group of about 105 national Bible societies, at a conference in late September in Budapest - itself an unprecedented locale for such a meeting.
``[Russian] church authorities told us there's an enormous pressure at all levels for a Bible that's not just a sacred object, but something to be read,'' says scholar Howard Clark Kee of Boston University.
The Western team will consist of translators and linguists who helped develop modern translations such as the Good News Bible, which has sold 75 million copies worldwide since 1973. They will introduce the principles of ``dynamic equivalence'' - finding appropriate modern terms and phrases for ancient Greek and Hebrew texts - to their East-bloc peers, as well as ways to incorporate modern biblical knowledge such as that found through the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essene writings at Qumran.
A UBS team is now helping with an Armenian translation. In 1989, the first modern Greek Orthodox translation will be complete, after 13 years of work.
UBS officials who visited Moscow last week informed the Monitor of the Tbilisi symposium, which will include linguists from the Academy of Science in Georgia and Leningrad. A Georgian Bible translation seems certain, they say.
The new twist is the earnest - albeit cautious - interest shown by the larger (30 million members) Russian Orthodox Church, headquartered in Moscow. Metropolitan Peterim of the Moscow Patriarchate, a top Orthodox leader, is sending linguists and theologians to the meeting - a significant move and one that had not been expected for another five years, says Hans Florin, a London-based UBS official, who just returned from Moscow.
``The Russian Orthodox church leaders want to clear their thinking on how more rapidly to treat the Bible in a way it can be understood by the faithful today - a new generation of believers,'' Dr. Florin says, but adds that the issue is highly charged - theologically - within Orthodox ranks, and far from settled.
The hidden topic of the meeting, Florin says, is for Orthodox scholars to ``compare their translation methods with ours and find out if ours is legitimate.''
A main issue will be which source to translate from. The taproot for the Eastern Orthodox Bible is the ``Byzantine Text,'' a 9th-century translation by St. Methodius and St. Cyril from the Latin text by Jerome. Western scholars use earlier Greek and Hebrew texts. Orthodox leaders argue that one cannot divorce the interpretation from which faith grows from the text used for generations by the patriarchs. In this sense, traditions and church leaders rather than Scripture is the source of authority in the Orthodox faith, says Philip Stine of the American Bible Society. To tamper with the original is to tamper with the power structure: ``The problem of translation in Russia is political, not linguistic,'' Dr. Stine says, adding that the UBS team ``will argue for the Greek and Hebrew.''
Russian evangelical Christians, who will be part of the process, will also argue for the earlier Greek and Hebrew. Baptist leaders have stated for more than a year that they support the idea of one agreed-upon modern translation for all of Russia. And they are prepared to wait rather than accept two Bibles, one Orthodox and one evangelical, Florin says.
``The major concern is to come as close as possible to the original,'' says Eugene Nida, a likely UBS team member, and who originated the idea of dynamic equivalence in the Good News Bible. ``We are going to have to help different parties understand their differences and advise on a complex of decisions. Does the text read, for example, that Jesus was God, or the son of God?''
A new Russian Bible would use common language but not be as simple linguistically as the modern Good News Bible.
Whatever the immediate outcome of a June meeting, demands for a readable Bible are building, observers say. Press reports also indicate more open attendance at church services in Russia.
Dr. Nida reports a new strain of evangelical and pentecostal fervor inside the Orthodox Church itself, especially among parish priests who want their members to read Scripture. ``For a long time the state owned the church, but there's a new day in the intellectual life of Orthodoxy,'' he says. ``You can raise questions now about the role of the Holy Spirit in the church, which always calls into question the hierarchical structures. The church has been dominated by older men whose salaries were paid by the state. But a new current of faith is developing.''
One unexpected pressure for a new Bible comes from the intelligentsia. A phenomenon unreported in the West, says Florin, is a new interest in the Bible in universities - for its literary quality and it's opening to a religious dimension in life. This accounts for the Academy of Science presence at Tbisili. UBS scholars say that if a new translation is not forthcoming from the church, Academy members warn they will attempt their own.
``The intellectual life in Russia has been divorced from religion for 50 years. The intelligentsia realize that the atheistic answers begin to fail. Part of the impulse for a new Bible comes from scientific intellectuals who see the Bible as a major document of cultural value that needs to be examined,'' says Florin.
``Intellectuals deplore dull proletarian prose,'' says Stine. ``They miss good literature. They want to read the Bible.''
No hymn books or study Bibles have been available in the Soviet Union since the early 1900s. Black market Bibles have cost Russians 100 rubles, or about $160.
In the past two years, the Soviet government has allowed 100,000 Holy Synod Bibles into the country, a Russian version not unlike the King James in English.
There's an overall increase in religious fervor in the East bloc. Poland now prints Czechoslovakian Bibles. Home Bible groups are increasing in East Germany. In 1983 Hungary relaxed a ban on public worship, and allowed youth Bible camps. In '86 the Hungarian Bible Society got offical approval to host the 1988 UBS council. Bulgarian, Serbian, and Yugoslav scholars will attend the Tbilisi meeting.