What Do We Know About the Ancient Armenian Version of the Bible?

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EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 140 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

As a brief overview of versions, we have the Syriac versions (an Aramaic dialect) from the second century onward, the Latin versions with the Old Latin from the latter part of the second century onward. Eusebius Hieronymus, otherwise known as Jerome gave us a revision of the Old Latin version in 383 C.E. By the third century, the first translation of the Greek NT was published in Coptic. The Gothic version was produced during the fourth century. The Armenian version of the Bible dates from the fifth century and was likely made from both the Greek and Syriac texts. The Georgian version was finished at the end of the sixth century, which exhibited Greek influence, but it had an Armenian and Syriac source. The Ethiopic version was produced about the fourth or fifth century. There are various old Arabic versions. Translations of parts of the Bible into Arabic were produced about the seventh century, but the earliest evidence is that of a version made in Spain in 724. The Slavonic version was produced in the ninth century by the two brothers, Cyril and Methodius. Keep in mind, most scholars would argue that the Syriac versions and the Latin versions are generally speaking the most important when it comes to textual studies.

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Illustrated Armenian Bible from 1256
Illustrated Armenian Bible from 1256

The Armenian Version of the Bible designated by (arm) dates from the early fifth century C.E., which includes all of the New Testament and was likely, prepared from both Greek and Syriac texts. It is often called the “queen of the versions” and many regards it as both beautiful and accurate. The New Testament is a very literal translation, which, of course, is quite helpful to textual criticism.

The Armenian Bible is due to Saint Mesrob’s early-5th-century translation. The first monument of Armenian literature is the version of the Holy Scriptures. Isaac, says Moses of Chorene, made a translation of the Bible from the Syriac text about 411. This work must have been considered imperfect, for soon afterward John of Egheghiatz and Joseph of Baghin were sent to Edessa to translate the Scriptures. They journeyed as far as Constantinople and brought back with them authentic copies of the Greek text. With the help of other copies obtained from Alexandria, the Bible was translated again from the Greek according to the text of the Septuagint and Origen’s Hexapla. This version, now in use in the Armenian Church, was completed about 434.

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The first sentence in Armenian written down by St. Mesrop after he invented the letters is said to be the opening line of Solomon’s Book of Proverbs:

Ճանաչել զիմաստութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հանճարոյ:

Čanačʿel zimastutʿiwn ew zxrat, imanal zbans hančaroy.

“To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding.”

— Book of Proverbs, 1:2.

Bruce M. Metzger writes,

Armenia claims the honor of being the first kingdom to accept Christianity as its official religion. The founder of Armenian Christianity was Gregory the Illuminator (ca. 257-331), an Armenian of royal lineage who had received Christian training at Caesarea in Cappadocia. Toward the end of the third century, he returned to his native land in order to undertake missionary work. Among his converts verts was Tiridates I, king of Armenia, who then sent out a herald to command all his subjects to adopt Christianity. Thus, by royal edict, Christianity was made the established religion of Armenia and was embraced by the populace through wholesale baptisms.

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In his program of evangelism, Gregory was assisted by co-workers workers from various backgrounds-Armenians trained in Hellenistic culture as well as Armenians under Syrian influence. During this period, before the invention of the Armenian alphabet, hooks and documents existed only in Greek and Syriac, and their translation was left to oral interpretation. Consequently, it was through such cultural bridges that the Armenians received both Greek and Syriac Christianity, as well as the literature of both these peoples.

The earliest attempt to construct an Armenian alphabet was made by a certain Bishop Daniel. Since he was a Syrian, he probably ably took the Aramaic alphabet as a pattern. According to the historian Koriun, the alphabet was found to be unsuitable for representing the sounds of the Armenian language. The foundation of Armenian literature, including the translation of the Bible, dates from the early part of the fifth century. The chief promoters of this cultural development were the catholicos (primate) of the Armenian Church, Sahak (ca. 350-439), a descendent of Gregory the Illuminator, and Sahak’s friend and helper, Mesrop (Mesrob or Mashtotz, ca. 361-439), who had exchanged a military career for the life of a monk, missionary, and teacher.

At length and with the help of a Greek hermit and calligrapher, Rufanos of Samosata, about A.D. 406 Mesrop succeeded in producing ing an Armenian alphabet of thirty-six letters, twenty letters coming ing directly from Greek, twelve others being formed according to a Greek model, and four being taken from Syriac.

After creating the Armenian alphabet, Mesrop gathered about him a band of keen scholars. Sending some of them to Edessa, to Constantinople, and as far as Rome in search of manuscripts of the Scriptures and of ecclesiastical and secular writers, he inaugurated a program of translation that enriched and consolidated Armenian culture. The first book of the Bible that Mesrop translated was the Book of Proverbs, which was followed by the New Testament. With the help of Sahak and perhaps other translators, the rest of the Old Testament was finished about 410-14.

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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 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the New Testament included the Epistle of the Corinthians to Paul and a Third Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians.

Many other uncanonical writings of the Old Testament are preserved served in Armenian manuscripts. These include The Book of Adam, The History of Moses, The Deaths of the Prophets, Concerning King Solomon, mon, A Short History of the Prophet Elias, Concerning the Prophet Jeremiah, The Vision of Enoch the Just, and The Third Book of Esdras (being chapters 3-14 of Second Esdras in the Apocrypha of the King James Version and including in chapter 7 the lost section of verses 36 to 105). – Bruce Metzger. The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions (p. 40-41).

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Isaac or Sahak of Armenia (354–439) was the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Even though Sahak had been abandoned as an orphan at an early age, he still managed to come away with an exceptional literary education in Constantinople, especially in the Eastern languages. Around the time that Sahak was elected as the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenians were suffering serious difficult times. In 387, Armenia had been divided between the Byzantine Empire and Persia. On the Byzantine side, Armenians were not allowed to use the Syriac language, which had to be replaced with the Greek language. This greatly affected their worship, as well as Hellenizing the Armenians in the Byzantine territory. On the Persian side, the Armenians were prohibited from using Greek, with Syriac being the chosen language. This could have greatly influenced the culture of the Armenians, removing their national unity. Sahak sponsored Saint Mesrop (c. 362-440), an Armenian linguist, who invented the Armenian alphabet (c. 405). After that, Mesrop began to translate the Christian Bible. This was a monumental step in strengthening the Armenian national identity.

The Armenian version has a record number of copies, at 1,244 cataloged by Rhodes (with hundreds more in the Soviet Union). It is an accurate and literal rendering of the Greek New Testament. Over one hundred of the Armenian manuscripts stop at verse 8 at the end of Mark chapter 16. “One copy of the Armenian Gospels, dated to A.D. 989, says that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 were added by “the presbyter Ariston” (who is mentioned by Papias in the early second century as one of the disciples of the Lord).”[1]

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Original Greek Writings and Early Copies

Early Papyri100-175 C.E. (P4/64/67 P32 P46 P52 P66+ P75+ P77/103 P87 P90 P98 P109  P118 P137 P104

175-250 C.E. P8 P9 P12 P15 P16 P17 P18 P19 P24 P28 P37 P50 P51 P53 P70 P78 P80 P86 P88 P89 P91 P92 P114 P119 P120 P129 P131 P132 P134

250-300 C.E. P3 P6 P7 P10 P21 P54 P62 P81 P93 P94 P102 P112 P117 P122 P123 P127 P130 P139

Ancient Versions

Syriac Versions—Curetonian, Philoxenian, Harclean,
Old Latin
Palestinian, Sinaitic, Peshitta
Coptic Versions
Gothic Version
Armenian Version
Georgian Version
Ethipic Version

Early Greek Uncial MSS.—Vatican 1209 (B), Sinaitic (א), Alexandrine (A), Ephraemi Syri rescriptus (C), Bezae (D), etc.

Latin Vulgate
Sixtine and Clementine Revised Latin Texts

Greek Cursive MSS.

Fam. 1. Early in the twentieth century, family of witnesses that includes manuscripts 1, 118, 131, and 209
Fam. 13. 13, 69, 124, 230, 346, 543, 788, 826, 983, 1689, and 1709). They were copied between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries
MS. 28. Eleventh cenrury
MS. 33. Ninth century
MS. 61. 16th century
MS. 69. 15th century
MS. 81. 1044 C.E.
MS. 157. 1122 C.E.
THOUSANDS MORE ….

Critical Texts

[1516] Erasmus Text
[1522] Textus Receptus
[1550] Stephanus Text

[1774–1775] Griesbach Greek New Testament
[1881] Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament
[1943–1977] Bover Greek New Testament – 5th edition
[1933–1984] Merk Greek New Testament – 10th edition
[1898–2012] Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament – 28th edition
[1966–2015] United Bible Societies Greek New Testament – 5th edition

English Translations

The Wycliffite Bible (1382; 1388)
Tyndale and the First Printed English New Testament (1526)
Coverdale and the First Complete Printed Bible in English (1535)
Matthew’s Bible (1537)
Taverner’s Bible (1539)
The Great Bible (1539)
Edmund Becke’s Bibles (1549; 1551)
The Geneva Bible (1560)
The Bishops’ Bible (1568)
The Rheims-Douay Bible (1582-1610)
The King James Bible (1611) – Revision of Early English Translations

Between the King James Bible and the Revised Version

Edward Harwood’s New Testament (1768)
Charles Thomson’s Bible (1808)
Noah Webster’s Bible (1833)
Julia E. Smith’s Bible (1876)
The British Revised Version (1881-85)
American can Standard Version (1901)

Early Modern English Versions

The Twentieth Century New Testament (1901; 1904)
Weymouth’s New Testament in Modern Speech (1903)
Moffatt’s Translation of the Bible (1913; 1924-25) 25)
Smith and Goodspeed’s American Translation (1923; 1927)
The Revised Standard Version (1952)
The Jerusalem Bible (1966)
The New American Bible (1970)
The New English Bible (1970)
The New International Version (1978)
Jewish Translations 142 Translations Sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society (1917; 1985)
Heinz W. Cassirer’s New Testament (1989)
David H. Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible (1998)
The Lexham English Bible (2012)

Revision after Revision

The New American Standard Bible (1971; updated ed. 1995, 2020)
The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)
Revised New Testament, New American Bible (1986)
The Revised English Bible (1989)
The New Revised Standard Version (1990)
The English Standard Version (2001)
The Christian Standard Bible (2017)

THE UPDATED AMERICAN STNDARD VERION (UASV)

[1] Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods & Results (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 281.

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Locations of the Origins of Versions

(Wegner 2006, p. 271) Location of the Origins of the Versions

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