I. The New Context
Academic theology suffered serious setbacks under Communist rule, which lasted forty years in the Eastern European states and seventy years in the former Soviet Union. All church institutions for theological training in Russia were closed following the revolution in 1917. Their librarie were confiscated, then sold or destroyed. Few volumes survived. After 1945 a few of these theological institutions were reopened. Among them were the theological academies in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Sergiev Posad (then Sagorsk), which is located northeast of Moscow. Even then, they had to operate under tight restrictions. It was virtually impossible to publish theological works.
These events had a devastating effect on the theological resources in this part of the world. Today there is a serious shortage of modern Bible translations, standard reference works, including dictionaries and encyclopedias, basic editions of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, biblical commentaries, introductions to various theological subjects, and other books that can serve as textbooks for theological students. Books that were published outside the Soviet bloc countries after 1917 were inaccessible. Theological faculties in universities existed in most of the so-called satellite states that were absorbed into the Soviet bloc after the Second World War. After 1945, however, theological faculties were systematically excluded from universities throughout these countries. The sole exception was the German Democratic Republic, in which theological faculties had limited contact with other countries, mainly Greece. It was extremely difficult for anyone in these countries interested in theological study to gain access even to the most basic library resources.
There is a great need for biblical scholarship in Eastern European countries today. This is especially true among churches. In many countries, seminaries have been restored to their former status as theological faculties in universities. After 1989 some new seminaries were established, and new theological faculties were constituted within universities. These changes have created a shortage of theological teachers. This is in sharp contrast to the Communist period, when little if any attention was given to such training.
Apart from the churches’ needs, there are broader societal needs created by the collapse of Communism. The lack of spiritual, ethical, and religious orientation is widespread. Most Eastern European countries are experiencing increasing religious pluralism. In such a context, the Bible acquires new significance. Its role within churches must be redefined as they interact with non-Christian perspectives, many of which recognize the Bible’s historic role in shaping the broader intellectual framework and secular values of western culture. Many people are eager to read the Bible afresh in a secularized society and embrace it as a common cultural possession. This broad cultural conversation can occur, however, only if there are informed, well-trained teachers who can communicate basic biblical knowledge.
II. An Exciting Idea
In 1995 colleagues from Eastern and Western European countries met together at the annual meeting of the Society for New Testament Studies in Prague. From these discussions emerged the proposal to establish biblical libraries in Eastern Europe. The basic idea was simple: Western partners would provide both books and computer facilities; colleagues in Eastern European universities would provide facilities, personnel, and basic infrastructure.
Since the Society for New Testament Studies was a formally structured and internationally recognized organization, it became the Western partner to the agreement. The State universities of St. Petersburg and Sofia agreed to serve as the Eastern partners. The choice of St. Petersburg was especially significant since theology had never been taught in a Russian state university. Formal agreements were signed in 1997.
III. The Project Begins
As with most new ventures, it was necessary to establish credibility for the project. The Swiss National Research Fund, for example, declined to make an initial gift because of doubts about the overall viability of the project. Soon, however, some foundations and churches in Switzerland provided assistance, which proved invaluable in the early stages. A broader base of support developed when two major German foundations provided significant levels of funding. Individual contributions were made by academic theologians, who donated important sections of their personal libraries to the project.
Organizational and logistical problems had to be solved. It took a long time to establish effective lines of communication between the two libraries and those who took responsibility for ordering books. There were also recurrent difficulties relating to postal delivery. Many of these issues have been resolved. Systems have been developed to provide electronic listings of current holdings. These lists are regularly updated and circulated, enabling books to be ordered in a timely manner.
The St. Petersburg library grew so rapidly that space became limited. Thanks to officials at the St. Petersburg State University, however, additional space was found. Initially, the library was housed in the palatial setting at Nab. Leut. Schmidta on the shore of the Newa. In 2005 the library and biblical institute moved to a more spacious “home” in the fourth Linea of Vassiliewski Island.
IV. Present and Future Perspectives
The Sofia Library now has approximately 8,000 volumes. As part of the Orthodox Theological Faculty of Sofia State University “St. Kliment of Ohrid”, it plays an indispensable role in educating not only theologians within the large theological faculty of Sofia but also future academics throughout Bulgaria. This increasingly strong library will make it possible to strengthen ties between Sofia and neighboring countries.
The St. Petersburg Library has about 18,000 volumes. From the Bibliotheca Biblica has emerged the Biblical Institute, which has developed its own curriculum for educating its students – a remarkable achievement in its own right, but something quite new in a Russian state university. Implementing this curriculum is a challenge, however, because of the lack of Russian scholars trained at the doctoral level. To meet current educational needs, the Biblical Institute must enlist the cooperation of scholars from other disciplines within the university, such as Oriental Studies, Patristics, and Jewish Studies. The Institute also depends on faculty from the Theological Academy as well as visiting professors. Eventually doctoral students who have completed their work abroad will assume teaching responsibilities in the Institute.
Both libraries operate with an ecumenical vision. This is especially obvious in Bulgaria, where the Orthodox Church decided to leave the World Council of Churches. The Bibliotheca Biblica seeks to become an ecumenical bridgehead as it cultivates ties with scholars from other countries and churches.
In September, 2001, the Sofia Library hosted the Second Orthodox-Western Conference of Biblical Scholars. The conference was attended by seventy biblical scholars from fifteen, mostly orthodox, European countries.
The St. Petersburg Library also embraces an ecumenical mission. This is an important undertaking in the current Russian context, in which distrust exists among the churches. In 2005 the Biblical Institute organized the Third Orthodox Western Conference of New Testament Scholars around the theme “Unity of the Church in the New Testament.” Approximately sixty scholars participated.
Publishing initiatives are increasingly important in both libraries. There still exists little scholarly literature on the Bible in Eastern European countries. A publication series titled “Bibliotheca Biblica Series" has been established in Russia. Operating with an international editorial board, its primary purpose is to publish translations of noteworthy textbooks about the Bible.
The long-term aim of both libraries is to foster a form of Orthodox biblical scholarship, which neither limits itself to confessional or dogmatic interests nor simply copies Western Enlightenment scholarship. What is sought is a distinctive form of scholarship with a clear profile that reflects the richness of Orthodox traditions—scholarship that acknowledges and seriously engages the contextual realities of one’s own country while advancing the worldwide dialogue about the Bible.”