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Georgian is an ancient language that was among the first to have the Bible translated into it. This happened alongside the translation of the Bible into other early languages such as Armenian, Coptic, Latin, and Syriac. The translation of the Bible into Georgian began in the mid-fifth century C.E. or even earlier, and over the centuries, multiple versions were created.
The Bible had a significant impact on the literature and traditional values of the Georgian people. For example, the tragic story of Queen Shushanik, written in the late fifth century, includes quotes and allusions to various passages of the Bible. Additionally, poet Shota Rustaveli, in his epic poem “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” which was composed around 1220, alluded to Christian moral values. Rustaveli wrote about themes such as friendship, generosity, and love for strangers, which are still considered moral ideals among the Georgian people today.
The Georgian Version
The Georgian version of the Bible is an ancient translation of the Scriptures into the Georgian language, a unique and distinct language that is unrelated to any of the major language families. The country of Georgia, located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, was known in antiquity as Iberia. According to tradition, the introduction of Christianity to Georgia began with the missionary work of a Christian slave woman named Nino during the reign of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. However, it is not clear when a written version of the Scriptures was first made available to the Georgian people.
Before a translation could be made in written form, the Georgians needed an alphabet of their own. According to Armenian traditions, after St. Mesrop had drawn up an alphabet for his fellow countrymen, he became concerned about the lack of an alphabet among the neighboring Georgian people. After he had invented an alphabet that represented the sounds that occur in that language, King Bakur of Georgia arranged that it should be taught to boys of the lower social classes at various districts and provinces.
At least the Gospels and some other parts of the New Testament were made available in written form for Georgian Christians by about the middle of the fifth century. The Georgian version of the Bible has undergone several revisions, and it is debated whether the translation was made from Greek, Armenian, or Syriac. The oldest manuscripts that are dated in a colophon are of the ninth and tenth centuries, though earlier fragments exist.
One feature of Georgian paleography that bears in some measure upon questions of the dating of manuscripts is the style of the script. The Georgians have employed three alphabets: the ecclesiastical majuscule, in general use until the tenth century and sporadically thereafter in manuscripts; the ecclesiastical minuscule, regularly used in theological manuscripts of the eleventh to the nineteenth century; and the “warrior” or “knightly” hand, the ancestor of the modern Georgian script.
A new stage in the history of the spiritual, literary, and cultural life of Georgia began at the close of the tenth century. Noteworthy in this development was St. Euthymius, a scholarly abbot of the Georgian monastery on Mount Athos. In addition to translating various Greek liturgical and homiletical works, St. Euthymius turned his attention to revising and completing the Georgian New Testament. He was the first to translate the Book of Revelation, which for centuries was not regarded as canonical by the Georgian Church. His work must have been completed sometime before 978 CE, which is the date of the earliest known Georgian manuscript of the Apocalypse.
In addition to the New Testament, the Georgian version of the Bible also includes translations of the Old Testament, some of which are apocryphal. The Book of Enoch, Jubilees, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are among the apocryphal works that have been translated into Georgian. The Georgian version of the Bible has played a significant role in the development of Georgian literature and culture, and it continues to be an important spiritual and cultural resource for the Georgian people today.
A Treasure Hidden for Centuries
The Georgian academic Ivané Javakhishvili was astounded as he carefully examined the ancient text before him. The script and grammar convinced him that he had discovered fragments of the oldest known translation of the Bible in the Georgian language. This find, which occurred in late 1922, was a portion of the Bible book of Jeremiah dating back to the 5th century CE, several centuries older than any previously known Georgian Bible manuscripts.
Although the identity of the translators remains unknown, it is evident that the Bible, or at least parts of it, had been translated into Georgian as early as the 4th century CE. This provided the Georgian people with access to the Scriptures in their native language. The book “The Martyrdom of St. Shushanik the Queen,” likely written in the late 5th century, demonstrates the Georgian people’s familiarity with the Scriptures through various quotes and allusions.
From the 5th century onward, the translation and copying of the Georgian Bible continued unabated. This rich history of translation and printing is divided into two major periods: the explosion of Bible translation and the advent of Bible printing.
The explosion of Bible translation occurred during the 11th century, when the Georgian monk Giorgi Mtatsmindeli translated the book of Psalms from Greek into Georgian, marking the beginning of an era of renewed translation efforts. The language had changed over time, and earlier Georgian translations were becoming increasingly difficult to understand. Giorgi’s work was complemented by his contemporary, Ephrem Mtsire, who developed a guide for translators that emphasized the importance of working from the original language and maintaining naturalness while adhering closely to the source text.
In the following century, literary production flourished in Georgia, leading to the creation of the Gelati Bible, which is believed to be a completely new Bible translation produced by scholars from the Gelati or Ikalto academies. This Bible translation activity had a profound impact on Georgian culture and literature, with the poet Shota Rustaveli’s influential work, “Knight in the Panther Skin,” reflecting many of the themes and values espoused in the Bible.
The printing of the Bible became a priority for the Georgian royal family in the late 17th century. King Vakhtang VI established a printery in Tbilisi with the intention of printing the Bible. However, the text was not yet ready, as only incomplete manuscripts were available, and the language used was outdated. The task of revising and restoring the Bible text was entrusted to Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, a skilled linguist.
Orbeliani’s work was met with opposition from the Georgian Orthodox Church, which accused him of betraying the church and convinced the king to halt his efforts. Nevertheless, the royal family persisted in their mission to print the Bible. Between 1705 and 1711, parts of the Bible were printed, and the complete Bible was finally published in 1743, thanks to the efforts of Georgian Princes Bakari and Vakhushti.
Throughout the history of the Georgian Bible, the divine name Jehovah (in Hebrew, יהוה) has been largely replaced by the title “Lord” in most translations. In the majority of Georgian translations, the divine name has been substituted with the title “Lord.” Nevertheless, within the appendix of the renowned Saba’s Bible, Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani presents an interpretation for the name Jesus as follows: “Ieses: Originating from Hebrew: Ieova, the Lord and Savior.” This highlights the presence of the divine name, even if it has been replaced in most instances.
It is unclear when Christianity first reached Georgia, but it is possible that Jewish or proselyte residents of Pontus, who were present in Jerusalem during Pentecost in 33 CE, brought the Christian message back with them. Christian churches were evidently present in Pontus by 62 CE, and the region bordered Georgia at that time.