An Unusual Look at Biblical Subjects

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A Simple Clue to Camel

  In Matthew 19:24 and Mark 10:25 we read that Jesus said to his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
  Most preachers apply these words literally, which really makes them sound rather silly. How much more sense it makes when we are informed that in the Middle East, camels were housed in enclosed stalls with only a low aperture, called the “Needle’s Eye,” through which the camel was forced to crawl in order to get in or out.

Furthermore, Theophylact of Bulgaria (A.D. 1055-1107) was a Greek Archbishop of Ochrid and commentator on the Bible. Theophylact notes, that by this word ‘camel’ is meant a cable rope. Others have suggested, also, that the transfer of Jesus’ words in Aramaic to the Greek of the Gospels was beset with problems in translation; and the Aramaic word for cable rope gmla, was very like the word for camel, which was duly rendered as such. It should be noted that the Aramaic speaking churches use rope for these verses.

Finally, using “cable” instead of “camel’ is also true in the Old Armenian version, where the word is translated mahl, which means “cable” or “hawser.”

If you consult a modern Armenian dictionary, you will find the word malukh defined variously as cable, rope, hawser; wedge; camel.

Badarak as Grand Opera

The dictionary definition of opera goes something like this: A drama wholly or mostly sung, consisting of recitative, arias, choruses, duets, etc., with orchestral accompaniment and appropriate costumes, scenery, and action. Let’s add the definition of grand opera, where plot is elaborated as in serious drama, set the entire text to music, and we can make a case for considering the Badarak grand opera. After all, the ingredients are practically all there.

First, there is the dramatic aspect to the Badarak, the Armenian liturgy. Can it be denied that it is a tale of tragedy and triumph, and that the central figure, although invisible, nevertheless is spiritually present at all times? The cast of characters also includes a high priest, lesser members of the priesthood, such as deacons, acolytes, clerks, etc., a chorus (choir) and in modern times, an organ that simulates a miniature orchestra. Functioning as conductor is the Choirmaster, and last but not least is the audience composed of the parishioners.

The elements of the work are there as well. The best example of recitative is the Havadamk. There are arias galore in the form of Sharagans. Certainly a grand duet between deacon and choir is the Amen, yev unt hokvooyt koom. Not to be overlooked are the costumes of the high priest, deacons, acolytes, clerks and choir members. The scenery is there: a curtained stage featuring an altar with all its ornamentation,

Der Voghormia

The words of the chant Der Voghormia were written by Catholicos Simeon of Yerevan (1763-1780), and it was presumably his pontifical decision that the deacons sing the chant right before Communion so that the celebrant would finish his silent prayers behind a closed curtain.

Among the chants of the Armenian Divine Liturgy, the one that bears more musical settings than any other is very probably Der Voghormia. Besides those of Yegmalian and Gomidas, there are a host of others. In our time, a noteworthy addition to that body of musical literature has been the one composed by Armen Babamian, who served as choirmaster in Armenian churches for over 60 years. However, the most curious of the settings of Der Voghormia is the one borrowed from the celebrated English composer, George Frederick Handel. The tune is from his oratorio Judas Maccabeus, and no one seems to know how it got into the Armenian Liturgy. The words of the original hymn are based on Greek and Latin Scripture, and the first stanza is as follows:

   See the conquering hero comes,
   Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.
   Sports prepare, the laurel bring,
   Songs of triumph to him sing.

There are even some piano variations on Handel’s theme that were composed by the mighty Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Haji, Mghdsi &Mahdesi

Many Armenians have used, and continue to use, the term Haji as an honorary title bestowed on a Christian pilgrim to Jerusalem. The preferred term Armenians should use, according to the current Armenian vocabulary, is Mahdesi, as Haji is properly an honorary title bestowed on a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage (Haj) to Mecca.

Mghdsi, it is believed, is an older form of Mahdesi, for a pilgrim to Jerusalem. One wonders, however, if there is any connection to Arabic, as a Muslim pilgrim to Jerusalem is given the honorary title of Makdasi.

Thus we often see Armenian surnames such as Hajian, Mahdesian, and Mkhsian.

Jacob & Esau

  Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author and wife of the famed aviator, recounts in one of her books her conversation with Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French flier and writer. In a discussion of faith, he goes on to give his interpretation of the biblical story of Esau selling his birthright.
  †He is sure that Esau was dying of thirst when he did that. They had been out in the desert and they had missed their wells and they came back dying of thirst. He went on to explain how in the desert if you go for a long time without water the throat finally hardens and closes and one can no longer be saved even if at last one finds water. But the people who live in the desert have discovered that if you make a paste from beans or some farinaceous vegetable and stuff it in the mouth and throat and around the neck of the sufferer, little by little the moisture seeps into the throat and a tiny thread is opened, and water, one drop at a time, can finally be let down it, and the man is saved.
   The mess of “pottage” was “lentils,” and it was that that Esau craved. It was a death cry. Give it to me “or I die!” It was a holdup on the part of Jacob.

†Excerpt from WAR WITHIN AND WITHOUT Diaries And Letters Of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Copyright © 1980 by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Reprinted by permission of Haughton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

John the Baptist (Armenian Religious Folklore)

My wife, Aghavni and I participated in the Armenian Heritage Tour to Armenia and Karabagh in 2003. In our party were Der Diran Papazian and Yeretsgin Rosalie from Michigan who were a source of brightness and good fellowship during the trip. Socializing with Der Hayr and Yeretsgin, we often sat with them during dinner because they were both so interesting to talk to. On one occasion, I turned to Der Diran and said, ”My father, who was the son of a kahana (married priest), told me that John the Baptist had eight names, but I remember only four: Hovhannes (John), Mgrdich (Baptist), Garabed (Forerunner), and Yeghia (Elijah, the risen). Do you know the other four?” He replied. “ My understanding is that there were seven.” I said, “O.K., I’ll settle for the other three.” He replied, “Give me a little time to search my memory.” And so we left it at that. Two days later, Der Diran came up with the fifth: Amlorti, short for Amool Vorti (Son of a sterile or barren mother). Two days after that he came up with the sixth: Markareh (Prophet). Another two days and he came up with the seventh: Rahvirah (Pioneer, Guide). And so it was complete, or so we thought. However, another two days elapsed when he came up to me and with a twinkle in his eye declared, “There is an eighth: Aztarar (Monitor, Advisor). I exclaimed, “My father was right, after all. There were eight! Thank you, Der Diran. You don’t know what a service you have rendered, not just to me, but to our youth, for I intend to pass on this precious piece of religious folklore, lest it get lost in our modern system of non-education.”


“HAYRAN! KURBAN!” Thus would my mother, in my youth, implore me to do something I didn’t have a mind to do, but which was of paramount importance to her. It was an entreaty, to be sure; however, the exact nature of the terms deserves some attempt at clarification. Hayran can be found in Turkish to mean admirer, adorer, lover. It may have evolved from the Persian word yaran, also meaning lover. Kurban may be found in Turkish, Persian and Arabic which define it as sacrifice, victim, thing offered up in sacrifice. It’s Semitic origin is attested to by its occurrence in Hebrew as qorban (corban being the Anglicized form) literally meaning, “that which is brought near.” In order to properly understand the concept of corban one must resort to Jewish scripture and tradition. Used in the sense of sacrifice or “offering” it appears numerous times in the Old Testament books of Leviticus, Numbers and Ezekiel. The most explicit treatment of corban, particularly in connection with the making of a vow is to be found in the Great Babylonian Talmud, which represents the opinions of the most learned rabbis through the centuries and the body of tradition that grew from them. Its pertinence in modern times is attested to as follows; “The Jewish religion as it is today traces its descent, without a break, through all the centuries, from the Pharisees.” (Universal Jewish Encyclopedia ,1943) “Pharasaism became Talmudism . . . . But the spirit of the ancient Pharisee survives un-altered.”(Rabbi Louis Finklestein who long headed the Jewish Theological Seminary of America) The Talmud serves to explicate the Torah, the written law, with oral commentaries that serve as guidelines to daily Jewish life. For example, the Torah commands the observant Jew to “honor thy father and mother,” which, of course, would include providing for them in their old age. But the body of tradition that grew from Rabbinical Judaism took matters to such extreme lengths that the original concept was often lost sight of. Corban is a case in point. In its evolution it came to be applied to any gift set apart for God, especially in performance of a vow, and therefore not to be appropriated to any other use. But, as held by the Pharisees and scribes, a son might say to his parents, “Corban is whatever you might have profited by me,” signifying that he vowed not to help them no matter how great their need. Accordingly, whatever the son might have given to support his parents was dedicated as a gift to God, and they must get along without, although the son continued to use the fruits of his wealth for himself. By this legal contrivance, the son could avoid his responsibilities while supposedly performing a religious act. This is what is referred to in the passage in Mark 7: 9-13 where Jesus Christ addresses the Pharisees and scribes: “And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honor thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do aught for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.”. Now the question is: How did the term kurban migrate into Armenian where many Armenians who use it assume it to be merely a term of endearment? The foregoing exposition of corban suggests that, when properly used, kurban implies a sacrifice that the supplicant is willing to make in order to induce another to accede to his request.

Legend of King Abgar

Abgar V of Edessa (4 BC - AD 50) was an Aramaic ruler of the kingdom of Osroene, with its capital at Edessa (Urfa). Abgar was, according to Armenian tradition, the first Christian king in history, having been converted to the faith by one of the Seventy Disciples, Thaddeus of Edessa

The text of the letter is contained in Doctrina Addaei, printed in the Catholic Encyclopedia 1908:

"Abgar Ouchama to Jesus, the Good Physician Who has appeared in the country of Jerusalem, greeting: "I have heard of Thee, and of Thy healing; that Thou dost not use medicines or roots, but by Thy word openest (the eyes) of the blind, makest the lame to walk, cleansest the lepers, makest the deaf to hear; how by Thy word (also) Thou healest (sick) spirits and those who are tormented with lunatic demons, and how, again, Thou raisest the dead to life. And, learning the wonders that Thou doest, it was borne in upon me that (of two things, one): either Thou hast come down from heaven, or else Thou art the Son of God, who bringest all these things to pass. Wherefore I write to Thee, and pray that thou wilt come to me, who adore Thee, and heal all the ill that I suffer, according to the faith I have in Thee. I also learn that the Jews murmur against Thee, and persecute Thee, that they seek to crucify Thee, and to destroy Thee. I possess but one small city, but it is beautiful, and large enough for us two to live in peace."

When Jesus had received the letter, in the house of the high priest of the Jews, He said to Hannan, the secretary, "Go thou, and say to thy master, who hath sent thee to Me: 'Happy art thou who hast believed in Me, not having seen Me, for it is written of Me that those who shall see Me shall not believe in Me, and that those who shall not see Me shall believe in Me. As to that which thou hast written, that I should come to thee, (behold) all that for which I was sent here below is finished, and I ascend again to My Father who sent Me, and when I shall have ascended to Him I will send thee one of My disciples, who shall heal all thy sufferings, and shall give (thee) health again, and shall convert all who are with thee unto life eternal. And thy city shall be blessed forever, and the enemy shall never overcome it.'"

According to Eusebius, of Caesarea, Father of Church History, it was not Hannan who wrote the answer, but Jesus himself. Hannan was archivist at Edessa and painter to King Abgar. He had been charged to paint a portrait of Jesus, a task which he carried out, bringing back with him to Edessa a picture which became an object of general veneration.

Currently there exists not only an Aramaic text of the letters, but an Armenian translation as well. Abgar is venerated as a saint, with feasts on May 11 and October 28 in the Eastern Orthodox Church, December 20 in the Aramaic Church, and, in the Armenian Apostolic Church, on the Saturday that precedes the fifth Sunday of Advent, unless the calendar instructs otherwise. He is memorialized in the regular liturgy as well.

Pagharch in the Badarak

Of the four members of the pastry family common to Armenian kitchens, cheorag, katah, simit, and pagharch (for which the Sepastatsis are noted), only the last-named term is truly Armenian. It can be traced back to biblical usage, and is a prominent part of our Divine Liturgy.

It is to be found in the hymns of Nerses Shnorhali that form an integral part of Maundy Thursday services. It follows the chant Sird Im Sasani (so magnificently arranged for three voices by Gomidas Vartabed) , and the Ritual of Washing of the Feet, and is embodied in the Khavaroom (eclipse). It is probably more familiar to most parishioners when it serves to accompany the Sacrament of Holy Communion during the regular Badarak. Whenever the number of communicants who take communion during the Badarak exceed a small number, the regular form of the accompanying melody sung by the choir, being relatively short, becomes monotonous to hear over and over again. It is at this time that most choirs sing the aforementioned hymn. You know it - it begins “Aysor anjar .. “

What is curious is the presence of the term pagharch in a couple of the verses of the chant where it is referred to, in its dictionary definition, as unleavened bread, contrary to the common use of leavening in the customary preparation of pagharch. The references are as follows:

Eleetz zorensun Movsesee zor khosetzav ee Seenayee. Yeger uzkarn oreenageen yev uzpagharchn unt yeghekeen. Uzheenn ee norrs pokhelov zusdvern ee louys jushmardelov. Pokhan kareenn eenkun kolov karn Asdoodzoh nuveerelov.

Unt pagharcheen hatz ankhumor yed uzmarmeenn yiur zergnavor. Zanabagann yev uzhokevor. Unt vochkhareen aryann yiur ookhd gurgeen. Yev yeghekan tarnakooneen pokhan uzvars Asdvadzayin.

English translation:

He completed the laws of Moses spoken on Sinai. He ate the lamb according to tradition with the unleavened bread and the cane. He transformed the old to the new, adjusting the shadow to light. In place of the lamb, He became the lamb offered to God.

With the unleavened bread without ferment He gave His heavenly body. He was born of the virgin, without seed, immaculate and spiritual. With the covenant of the lamb’s blood He gave us a new covenant through His blood. In place of the bitterness of the cane, He turned us to God.

Quest for Apegha

In the Armenian Church the term apegha serves to designate a celibate priest who has fulfilled his final vows, but has yet to complete his doctoral dissertation to be ordained a vartabed.

In the history of Armenian music Apegha, a novice, is the title character in Armenian composer Parsegh Ganatchian’s opera based upon Levon Shant’s play Hin Asdvadzner (Ancient Gods).

Now, where does the term apegha come from? Could it be a rendering of Abel, the second son of the Biblical Adam and Eve? The Armenian Bible translates the name Abel as Apel or Hapel, but we know that, in classical times, foreign names bearing the letter L would be rendered in Armenian with the sound GH substituting for the sound L, that is, GHAT for LIUN. For example, Lucas became Ghougas, and Eleazar became Yeghiazar.

This brings us to Abelian or Abelite: In church history, one of a Christian sect of the 4th century living in North Africa, mentioned only by Augustine, who states that the members married, but lived in continence, after the alleged manner of Abel, and attempted to maintain the sect by adopting the children of others.

Thus Apegha could conceivably be the equivalent of Abelian.

If the foregoing appears rather tenuous, there is another approach to the question that requires examination of data from various sources. To start with, there is Hrachia Adjarian’s Etymological Dictionary that relates apegha to the Syriac or Aramaic word abila (notice the transfer of L to GH) which he defines as dkhour or drdoum, which translates into English as sad. Added to this, Adjarian defines the name Abel as souk, which can be defined in English as sadness, in addition to mourning, grief or sorrow. Next, we consult Hebraic sources on Abel. There we find some evidence that mourn or sorrow became associated with the name Abel. Finally, we find in Alfred J. Kolatch’s book on Modern English and Hebrew Names that Abel (Hevel in Hebrew) is rendered meadow from Assyrian sources, and breath from Hebraic sources. This, of course, brings to mind the reference to the New Testament as the Breath of God, Asdvadzashounch. Perhaps this concept led to the adoption of the term apegha for the junior grade of celibate priest. Finally, the foregoing references to Aramaic, as well as the absence of the concept of a junior celibate priest in the Syriac Church, have been confirmed by V.Rev. John Khoury, pastor of St. Mary's Assyrian Orthodox Church of Paramus, New Jersey. It would seem, therefore, that there is some connection between Abel and Apegha.

Saints Above!

Here’s a riddle you can try out on your Sunday School teacher: Methusaleh, the oldest man mentioned in the Bible, died before his father did. How is that possible? Answer: Enoch, the father of Methusaleh, is one of two Bible characters who never died. Genesis 5:24 states: “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” Again, according to Hebrews 11:5, “By faith, Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God translated him: for before his translation, he had this testimony, that he pleased God.” The other personage who didn’t die was the prophet Elijah. Kings 2:11 says, “And it came to pass, as they [Elijah and Elisha] still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” These two, Yenovk and Yeghia in Armenian, are referred to in the requiem prayer Ee verin Yerusaghem, rendered in English, thus: In heavenly Jerusalem, in the abode of the angels, / Where Enoch and Elijah grow old in dove-like innocence, / Worthily resplendent in the paradise of Eden, / Merciful lord, have mercy on the souls of our departed.

Sts. Hovagim and Anna

The Armenian Church commemorates Sts. Hovagim and Anna, the parents of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, on a Tuesday following the nine-day period of the Assumption of the Mother of God.

Hovagim and Anna were childless in their advanced age. In response to their prayers they were blessed with the birth of a daughter whom they named Mary. The name Hovagim is derived from Jehoiakim, the last King of Judah. English translation of the Hebrew name is: Jehovah will establish. Renderings of the name in other languages are:

Joachim (German) Joseph Joachim, German violinist. Gioacchino (Italian) Gioacchino Rossini, Italian composer. Joaquin (Spanish) San Joaquin Valley, California. Josquin (French) Josquin des Pres French composer. Ovakim (Russian) Akim Tamiroff, Armenian actor. Yokum (English) Li’l Abner (Yokum) Comic strip by Al Capp.

Wise Virgins

A careful reading of the Bible can raise more questions than it answers. An example is Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins. As related in the book of Matthew, Jesus exhorted his followers to be ready for the coming of the Messiah, by likening them to the 10 virgins who took their lamps and went forth to meet the bridegroom. Five of them took a reserve of oil with them, whereas the other five did not. Because the bridegroom tarried, five of the virgins whose lamps went out had no reserve of oil and went out to purchase more. While they were gone, the bridegroom arrived and the five wise virgins went in with him to the marriage, and the door was shut. When the foolish virgins returned, and sought to enter, they were turned away. Notice that only a single bridegroom is mentioned, suggesting that he was to espouse all five virgins who entered with him. This suggests that Jesus was tolerant of polygamy. Sounds like Brigham Young and his Mormon followers were keen students of scripture.

With Blessings of Eternal Rest

According to Haroutiun Yeghiazarian, aka Fred Randolph, the name of the territory known as Nakhichevan, which in Armenian means: nakh = first; ichevan = resting place or caravanserai, got its name from two sources, a written history and an oral history. The written history suggests that it was at or near the place where Noah’s Ark came to rest. The oral history suggests that it was where Thaddeus and Bartholomew, patron saints of Armenia, fleeing persecution with their Christianized Jewish followers, and traveling to the northeast, came. When they got to Armenia and saw the beautiful mountains and valleys, they stopped their caravan there and settled. They subsequently established a colony to the west and built a city on the shores of a large beautiful lake, and called both Van, a truncation of Ichevan. The justification for the oral version? The Armenian language may not have existed at the time of Noah, but it certainly did exist at the time of Jesus Christ.

Note: The ancient name of Nakhichevan is actually Nakhchavan or Nakhjavan, which can mean first region or first area.