For Christians, the ultimate source of life and salvation is Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Armenian Christian theologians have long insisted that the Gospel—the “Good News”—is a person, the person of Jesus Christ. St. Athanasius, in his vigorous defense of Nicaean orthodoxy On the Incarnation, articulates why the Incarnation of the Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ is the only possible mechanism for the salvation of the world. For the Christian, then, alongside God the Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ must truly be the source of both salvation and any theology. Yet the moniker “Word of God” points us to the other primary source in Christian life and theology: the Bible itself. In Armenian, the Bible is called Աստուածաշունչ/Asdvadzashunch, the “Breath of God.” When the Gospel is read during a liturgical service of the Armenian Church, the faithful stand in the presence of God. The words of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, are themselves a moment of Incarnation, of God-made-present. After God Himself, then, the ultimate source for Christians is the Bible.
With the celebration this past week of Խաչվերաց/Khachverats, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, “Back to the Sources” has appeared every week for the past year. With this anniversary, the format of “Back to the Sources” will change slightly: we are going to highlight individual sources in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center. Though we will still broadly connect the weekly source to the liturgical calendar, this year we will dive deeper into individual sources. We will learn something of the background of their production, their authors, the context in which they were produced and used, and their overall importance to the Armenian Christian. The goal is not only to highlight some of the most exciting and unusual sources in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center, but to offer a different angle into Armenian Christian sources than we have in the past year. We hope to encourage both the dissemination of information but active engagement with the treasured sources of which all Armenian Christians are called to be stewards.
To begin this new format, there is no greater source than the Bible itself with which we could start. The Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in America and the Zohrab Information Center are the proud stewards of not one, but two copies of the first complete printing of the Bible in Armenian, known as the Oskan Bible after man who worked tirelessly to see the printing completed, Oskan Erevantsi. He lived from 1614-74 and was able to print the Bible through the support of wealthy patrons and the support of Catholicos Hakob IV Jughayetsi. Erevantsi dedicated the printing to the Catholicos, as we can see in the picture of the title page above. The process of printing the full Bible in Armenian was long and arduous, requiring not only the new technical knowledge of the moveable type printing press invented by Gutenberg in 1440 but also equipment, support for preparation, and, since there were no printing presses in the places where Armenian lived, the tacit approval of civic leaders and the Catholic Church in the countries where the printing would be done.
|The Bible in the Armenian Tradition||By Vrej Nersessian, this lovely book introduces the “Bible in the Armenian tradition,” including manuscript production and illumination, printing history, and Armenian variants. It provides a succinct account of the history of the Oskan Bible.|
|Sion||The journal of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem contains several articles about the history of Armenian printing and the Oskan Bible. Some are written by Archbishop Norayr Bogharian, who catalogued the manuscripts in the collection of the Patriarchate. The Zohrab Information Center has in its collection a substantial number of the journals going back to 1927.|
|Erek’hariwrameak hayerēn Astuatsashunch’i aṛajin tpagrut’ean||Published by the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church in America, this book celebrates the three-hundredth anniversary of the printing of the Oskan Bible. In Armenian.|
Immediately, we should notice the over two-hundred year gap between the invention of the printing press in 1440 and the first printing of the Bible in Armenian in 1666. Of course, the printing of the Bible in any language was a major undertaking: the Gutenberg Bible, considered the first complete book printed using Gutenberg’s new press, was not finished until 1454 or 1455. Not only the size and length of the project accounts for this long time span: Christian printers had a clear interest in the integrity of the printing. For centuries, the regular method of making and disseminating books was through hand-copied manuscripts. Not only was this time-consuming, but it meant that each individual book, each individual Bible, was a unique object. Often, in colophons, a statement placed at the end of a book by the scribe (a device which continued to be used in printed books), the scribe would ask forgiveness for the errors he inevitably made. However, if the scribe made an error, it was limited to this single individual book. If a printer sets the type incorrectly, that error is reproduced for as many copies are printed. Famously, the so-called Wicked Bible, an English-language Bible printed in 1631 contained a major error: one of the Ten Commandments reads “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Clearly, the stakes for getting the printing of the Bible correct were quite high!
When it came to the printing of the Armenian Bible had to contend not only with the new need to produce careful and “critical” editions (the modern notion of a “critical edition” develops out of the comparison between different manuscripts, since different manuscript traditions, chains of copied manuscripts called recensions representing texts containing similarities, would contain differences), but Armenians also had to work with their host countries. Given that the Catholic version of the Bible contains differences from the Armenian one—the Catholic Church considers certain books apocryphal which the Armenian Church includes in the Bible—certain disagreements arose over the proper printing of the Bible. Indeed, Oskan Erevantsi, though working in the comparatively lenient Amsterdam, had to battle both of these difficulties. The Oskan Bible is based on “a single manuscript copied for King Het’um II in 1295” (Nersessian 32) and is therefore nothing like a modern critical edition that compares different manuscripts and manuscript families. Moreover, “Erevantsi’s desire to see the Bible printed led him to make changes and corrections in the classical Armenian text to comply with the demands of Catholic censorship” (Nersessian 32). When we consider the magnitude of these obstacles, we can understand why it took so long for a full and complete Armenian language Bible to be printed!
By 1666, when the Oskan Bible was printed in Amsterdam, there had already been several other books printed in the Armenian language. The first Armenian to print any book was Hakb Meghapart, working in Venice. He published the first six books in Armenian, beginning with Ուրբաթագիրք/Urpatakirk, the “Friday-Book” in 1512. He also printed the first Armenian Biblical books, a Psalter (Book of Psalms) in 1512/3. In addition to the Psalter, which had been printed twelve different times before the printing of the full Bible, there had appeared individual Gospels, the Sharagnots (Book of Hymns) of the Armenian Church, and other books. Much of the early history of Armenian printing is the printing of liturgical and Biblical books, even if the magnitude of the printing of the Bible itself meant that it was over 150 years between the appearance of the first printed book in Armenian and the first printed Armenian Bible.
The Book of Friday, the First Book Printed in Armenian, in 1512
Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The other major difficulty in printing the Armenian Bible related to the desire to have images in the printing. Armenian manuscripts included beautiful illuminated Biblical scenes, painted by well-known figures like Toros Roslin. However, images were incredibly expensive to include in printed books. An image would have to be produced, usually through an artistic process of woodcut printing, where an artist carves out an image onto a piece of wood. To solve this problem, many printings “recycled” images. The Oskan Bible is no exception: a Dutch artist Christoffel van Sichem had created many Biblical images at least a decade earlier and these images were used for many printings of the Bible produced in Amsterdam—in many different languages. Oskan’s Bible contains 159 illustrations made by van Sichem.
A Page from the Oskan Bible with a Woodblock Print by Christoffel van Sichem
From the Website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Oskan’s printing of the Bible in Armenian in 1666 was a major achievement. The founder of the Catholic Mkhitarist order, Mkhitar of Sebastia made minor changes when he printed it in Venice in 1733, but the 1666 printing was the basis for all printed Armenian Bibles for over 150 years. In 1805 the Mkhitarist Hovhannes Zohrabian prepared another Classical Armenian Bible, using seven different manuscripts. The Zohrab Bible, as it came to be known, comes closer to a “modern critical edition” and is perhaps more widely used today. Nonetheless, the first printing of the complete Armenian Bible in 1666 by Oskan Erevantsi was a monumental achievement. Here at the Zohrab Information Center, we are proud to be stewards of this invaluable source. Come visit us and see the oldest book in our collection, the oldest printing of the Bible in Armenian!
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