The scholar cannot believe his eyes. He carefully examines the piece of ancient text again and again. The calligraphy and the grammar have convinced him—he has before him fragments of the oldest known translation of the Bible in the Georgian language!
THAT treasure was discovered in late December 1922, when the Georgian academic Ivané Javakhishvili was doing research on how the Georgian alphabet was developed. He came across a copy of the Jerusalem Talmud. As he examined it, he could see under the Hebrew text some partially erased writing in Georgian characters.*
The writing “hidden” under the Talmud was a copy of a portion of the Bible book of Jeremiah dating back to the fifth century C.E. Before this find, the oldest known Georgian Bible manuscript was from the ninth century C.E. Soon, parts of other Bible books from the fifth century C.E. or even earlier were found. Imagine discovering Bible material that dates to within just a few hundred years of Jesus and the apostles!
Who made this translation? Was it the work of one person or of a group of devoted translators? So far, no historical record has been discovered to provide the answer. Whatever the case, it is evident that the Bible, or at least parts of it, had been translated into Georgian as early as the fourth century and that God’s Word has been available or known to the Georgian people in their mother tongue since then.
An account that shows the extent to which the Georgian people were acquainted with the Scriptures is found in the book The Martyrdom of St. Shushanik the Queen, likely written in the late fifth century. In relating the tragic story of the queen, the author includes quotations from and allusions to passages in the Psalms, the Gospels, and other parts of the Bible. He also relates that in an effort to appease the Persian overlords, Shushanik’s husband Varsken, a governor of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli, abandoned “Christianity,” converted to Persian Zoroastrianism, and demanded that his wife do the same. According to the book, she refused to renounce her beliefs and found comfort from the Scriptures during her final days.
Since the fifth century, the translating and copying of the Georgian Bible evidently never ceased. The stream of Bible manuscripts in the Georgian language testifies to the labor of devoted copyists and translators. Let us explore two areas of this compelling story—the translating and the printing of the Bible.
EXPLOSION OF BIBLE TRANSLATION
“I, Giorgi, a humble monk, have translated this book of Psalms from new Greek into Georgian with great diligence and labor.” Those are the words of 11th-century Georgian monk Giorgi Mtatsmindeli. Why was there a need for translating the Bible when a Georgian translation had already existed for some centuries?
By the 11th century, very few of the early handwritten manuscripts of the Georgian Bible were still in circulation. Some books had been lost altogether. Also, the language had changed somewhat, so it was difficult for readers to understand earlier copies. Though a number of translators endeavored to restore the Georgian Bible, Giorgi’s role was the most significant. He compared existing Georgian versions with Greek manuscripts and translated missing portions, even whole books. During the day, he cared for his duties as the head of a monastery. At night he translated the Bible.
Giorgi’s contemporary Ephrem Mtsire took Giorgi’s work a step further. He formulated what was essentially a guide for translators. It contained fundamental translation principles, such as working from the original language whenever possible and following the source text closely but without sacrificing naturalness. He also introduced the practice of including footnotes and marginal references in Georgian translations. Ephrem made a completely new translation of a number of the Bible books. The work of Giorgi and Ephrem laid a solid foundation for further translation activity.
Over the next century, literary production in general flourished in Georgia. Academies were founded in the towns of Gelati and Ikalto. Most scholars believe the so-called Gelati Bible, currently kept at the Georgian National Centre of Manuscripts, is a completely new Bible translation made by one of the Gelati or Ikalto scholars.
What influence did this Bible translation activity have on the Georgian people? In the 12th century, the Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli wrote Vepkhis-tqaosani (Knight in the Panther Skin), a work so influential over the centuries that it has been called the Georgians’ second Bible. Modern-day Georgian scholar K. Kekelidze observes that whether or not the poet quoted directly from the Bible, “some of his views are direct reflections of various Bible passages.” The poem, though highly romanticized, frequently deals with such themes as true friendship, generosity, respect for women, and unselfish love for strangers. These and other values taught by the Bible played a role in the thinking of the Georgian people for generations and are still considered to be their moral ideals.
BIBLE PRINTING—A ROYAL AFFAIR
At the end of the 17th century, the Georgian royal family was keen to have the Bible printed. To this end, King Vakhtang VI built a printery in the capital city, Tbilisi. However, the text of the Bible was not ready for printing. In a way, the Georgian Bible had become hidden again. Only incomplete manuscripts for some parts were available, and the language used was not up-to-date. The revision and restoration of the Bible text was entrusted to Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, an expert linguist.
Orbeliani embarked on the work conscientiously. Knowing several languages, including Greek and Latin, he was able to consult different sources in addition to existing Georgian manuscripts. However, his open-minded approach did not sit well with the Georgian Orthodox Church. The clergy accused him of betraying the church and managed to convince the king to stop him from working on the Bible. According to certain Georgian sources, at a church council the clergy forced Orbeliani to burn the Bible that he had worked on for years!
Significantly, one copy of the Mtskheta (Mcxeta) Manuscript, also known as Saba’s Bible, that has survived to our day contains Orbeliani’s handwritten comments. Some, however, doubt whether this is the Bible the clergy were fighting against. Only the appendix material is attributed to him with certainty.
Despite the challenges, Bible printing remained a priority for some of the royal family. Between 1705 and 1711, parts of the Bible were printed. Thanks to the efforts of Georgian Princes Bakari and Vakhushti, the complete Bible finally came off the press in 1743. It could be hidden no longer.
In ancient times, writing materials were scarce and costly. So it was a common practice to scrape off an older text from a manuscript and use the material again for new text. Such manuscripts are called palimpsests, from a Greek word meaning “scraped again.”
National Center of Manuscripts