Ancient Armenia gave faith an alphabet
By Rich Barlow | October 29, 2005 (Boston Globe)
Few birthdays are cause for a global scholars' conference at Harvard, but they're raising a metaphorical glass in Cambridge to toast the Armenian alphabet. It's not just that at 1,600 years old the alphabet makes Methuselah look like a youngster. These three dozen letters gave a written language of faith to a pivotal country in Christian history.
Years before the Roman emperor Constantine's famous conversion, Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion, in the year 301. At the time, Armenian was a spoken tongue only, meaning worshipers relied on translators during services to interpret a Bible that was written in other languages.
''Bare oral translations," an Armenian theologian later wrote, ''were insufficient to satisfy the aspirations of the heart."
A fifth-century priest, Mesrob Mashtotz, sated those aspirations, devising a 36-letter script (two more letters were added later) so the Old and New Testaments could be rendered in Armenian. For Armenians worldwide, including the Armenian Apostolic Church, religion and language would become intertwined as the life supports keeping the nation's culture and heritage alive outside the homeland, says James R. Russell, Mesrob Mashtotz professor of Armenian studies at Harvard.
The article also notes that an excerpt from Proverbs was the first biblical text to be trascribed into the alphabet. But this seems to be garbled:
The effects spilled over beyond Armenia's border; for example, Russell says that many works of Philo of Alexandria, the great Jewish theologian of the Greco-Roman era, have come down to us only because they survived in Armenian and subsequently were translated into Greek.
Yes, some of Philo's works survive only in Armenian, but the were translated from Greek into Armenian, not the other way around. I'm sure that's what Professor Russell said and the interviewer misunderstood.
A number of Old Testament pseudepigrapha and New Testament apocrypha also have important manuscript traditions in Armenian.