Scripture and Tradition

Armenians call the Bible Astuadsashuntch, which means 'breath of God', following St Paul's definition: 'All Scripture is inspired by God' (2 Tim. 3: 16). The eminent leaders of the young Church, with the help of Greek and Syriac missionaries, had achieved great success in establishing the new faith. Through the medium of the spoken language, the Gospel was communicated from the earliest period of evangelization to the very beginning of the fifth century. But hearing the Gospel was not enough to make the impression desired upon the soul. The privilege to receive with understanding as is fitting, with hope and faith, belonged only to those who were to some degree acquainted with Greek or Syriac learning.

Sahak Part'ev (c.350-439), the Catholicos, and his companion the monk Mesrop Mashtots (c.361-439) undertook the task of inventing the Armenian alphabet and translating the scriptures into Armenian. Up to that point a group called T'argmanitch vardapetk (Translators) trained in Edessa, Antioch, Athens and Constantinople; they orally translated into Armenian passages of scriptures that were read in church in either Greek or Syriac.

The evidence of the primary sources - Koriwn (c.390-447), Ghazar P'arpetsi and Movses Khorenatsi - shows the translation of the Bible into classical Armenian was accomplished in two stages. The first translation was done between 407 and 412, and the second after the Council of Ephesus (431), between 433 and 436. Mesrop together with his pupils began the translation of the Bible with the Proverbs of Solomon. The first sentence written in the new Armenian script was the exhortation: 'To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding.' Koriwn states:

At that time our blessed and desirable land of Armenia became truly worthy of admiration, whence, by the hand of two colleagues suddenly, in an instant, Moses, the Lawgiver, along with the order of the prophets, energetic Paul, with the entire phalanx of the apostles, along with Christ's world-sustaining gospel, became Armenian-speaking.

and:

a land that had not known even the name of the regions where all those wonderful divine acts had been performed, soon learned all the things that were, not only those that had transpired in time, but that of the eternity which had preceded, and those that had come later, the beginning and the end and all the divine traditions. (1964: XI, 34)

The origin of the canon comprising twenty-two books (in the New Testament) in Armenia shows the influence of the Syriac Peshitta version.

The second phase entailed revising the translation done in accordance with the Greek manuscripts brought back from Constantinople. Koriwn says:

Sahak, who had translated from the Greek language into Armenian all the liturgical books and the writings of the church fathers, once more undertook, with Eznik, the retranslation of the once hastily [p'utanaki] done translation using the authentic [hastatun] copies. (1964: III, 54)

The same information is also provided by Movses Khorenatsi.

Among noteworthy features of the Armenian version of the Bible was the inclusion of certain books that elsewhere came to be regarded as apocryphal. The Old Testament included the History of Joseph and Asenath and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the New Testament included the Epistles of the Corinthians to Paul and a Third Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians.

F. C. Conybeare (1856-1924), the English Armenian scholar, was convinced of the high value of the Armenian translation. Speaking of the Old Testament he says:

For beauty of diction and accuracy of rendering the Armenian cannot be surpassed. The genius of the language is such as to admit a translation of any Greek document both literal and graceful; true to the order of the Greek, and even reflecting its compound words, yet without being slavish, and without violence to its own idiom. We are seldom in doubt as to what stood in the Armenian's Greek text; therefore his version has almost the same value for us as the Greek text itself, from which he worked, would possess. The same criticism is true of the Armenian New Testament as well. (2001: 119)

The translation of the Bible left a distinct mark on the whole of Armenian culture; medieval religious poetry, miniature painting, music, and architecture are deeply coloured by its influence. In a certain sense, the development of the art of calligraphy was also linked to the Bible, as it was the most frequently copied book of the Middle Ages. The 20,000 plus manuscripts that have survived, more than any other ancient version, with the exception only of the Latin Vulgate, testify to the important place they occupied in the lives of the people. In 1934-5, on the 1,500th anniversary of the translation of the Bible into classical Armenian, the Armenian Byzantinist Nicholas Adontz summed up the influence of the Bible on Armenian culture in these words:

The Latin Vulgate did not have the same importance to the Latin centuries as the Armenian Bible to the Armenian people. The Latin literature had been in existence for a long time when the Vulgate appeared; whereas the Armenian Bible inaugurated the beginnings of a new era in which the Armenian people learning for the first time the use of the pen came to take their place in the world of human civilization. (1938: 48)

The Armenian Church sanctified the translators, commemorating them annually on 11 October, the Feast of the Holy Translators.

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