The calendar of the Armenian Church lists under the title “Holy Translators” a number of saints, including St. Sahag the Parthian, St. Mesrob Mashdots, St. Yeghishé, St. Movsés the Grammarian, St. David the Invincible, St. Gregory of Nareg, and St. Nersés of Hromgla. Sahag and Mesrob are commemorated as a team, distinct from the rest of the Translators, on the Thursday following the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.
Sts. Sahag and Mesrob are considered major saints of the Armenian Church because of their efforts to spread spiritual and intellectual enlightenment throughout the Armenian world. Under the sponsorship of King Vramshabuh and Catholicos Sahag, St. Mesrob, inspired by God, created the Armenian alphabetic script in a.d. 406. His first and foremost endeavor was to engage himself and his pupils to the task of translating the Holy Scriptures into Armenian. For a period of more than four decades, Sts. Sahag and Mesrob established schools, educated the young and spread the word of God throughout Armenia and its neighboring regions.
ST. SAHAG THE PARTHIAN
Catholicos St. Sahag the Parthian (a.d. 387-438) is a major saint of the Armenian Church and one of the glorious pontiffs to have occupied the throne of St. Gregory, his ancestor. In the history of our church very few men have held the office of catholicos for such a long period during such a turbulent time.
St. Sahag was the son of St. Nersés the Great and therefore a direct descendant of St. Gregory the Illuminator and the Arshaguni royal dynasty. In his youth he was educated in the West, receiving a solid secular and religious education in Greek. At a later date he employed his learning in the task of revising and editing the first translation of the Holy Scriptures by St. Mesrob and his pupils. For this he had at his disposal an authentic copy of the Holy Scriptures in Greek brought from Constantinople.
In a.d. 387, when St. Sahag became catholicos of Greater Armenia, Armenia was partitioned between the Roman and the Persian empires, with the larger part falling under Persian control. Although Armenian kings ruled in both parts, they were subject to their respective emperors and reigned as governors, but retained their royal titles. This state of affairs, and especially the Zoroastrian Persian control in the east, did not promise smooth going for the church or for the Armenian people in general.
In these circumstances, the invention of an Armenian alphabet and the founding of a literary tradition was not accidental, but rather a determined effort to confront the difficulties awaiting the church in the future. It must be noted that the intellectual enlightenment of the Armenian people was accompanied by an intensive effort on the part of Sts. Sahag and Mesrob to proselytize the Armenians in Persian Armenia, as well as in the outlying provinces severed by the Persians. Their missionary work was also carried out in the neighboring lands. While St. Sahag worked in Persian Armenia itself, St. Mesrob preached and taught in the outlying provinces and neighboring lands, as well as in the Greek sector of Armenia.
In a.d. 428 the Persians deposed the Armenian Arshaguni king Ardashir and put an end to the Armenian monarchy. Since St. Sahag was related to the Arshagunis and supported the king, they also deposed him as catholicos of Greater Armenia. In Sahag’s place they installed first an Armenian priest from southern Armenia, and later two Syrian bishops, one following the other. These men were given the administrative and judicial responsibilities of the office, while St. Sahag was still recognized by the people as their spiritual leader. He devoted his later years entirely to teaching and literary activity. In c. 433, his disciples brought from Constantinople copies of the Councils of Nicaea (a.d. 325) and Ephesus (a.d. 431). He is probably responsible for the Armenian translations of these, now in the Armenian Book of Canons.
St. Sahag died in 438 and his body was taken to Daron under the care of Tsdrig, the wife of his grandson, St. Vartan Mamigonian. He was buried in Ashdishad, not far from the church of St. John the Baptist built by St. Gregory. A magnificent church was subsequently built over the grave itself, and was later enclosed in a monastic complex. The monastery was destroyed in the Middle Ages, but the saint’s tomb, restored and enclosed within a small structure, was a place of pilgrimage until 1915.
Besides being commemorated with St. Mesrob, St. Sahag has a special day designated for himself alone. That feast falls on a Saturday before the Sunday that is one week before the Great Paregentan Sunday.
ST. MESROB MASHDOTS
The creator of the Armenian alphabet was born in the village of Hatseg, located in the region of present-day Mush. He was the son of a commoner named Vartan who was a client of the Mamigonian clan. As a youth Mesrob had learned Greek, Persian and Syriac, and had ultimately entered the military. Because of his gift for languages, he became a secretary in the royal chancellery.
Disenchanted with a secular way of life and being spiritually inclined, Mesrob chose to become a priest. Soon thereafter, gathering a few pupils around him, he went to the region of Koghtn in modern Nakhichevan to lead a solitary life in the wilderness and preach to the people of that region, who were still not converted to Christianity. During his missionary work, he came to realize the necessity of having a literary tradition in Armenian so that people could understand the Holy Scriptures and the liturgy.
These concerns led St. Mesrob to Catholicos Sahag, who took him to King Vramshabuh. In audience with the king, the two laid out the need for a literary language. The king commissioned a certain Vahrij to consult a Bishop Daniel in northern Syria, who, rumor held, possessed an old alphabet invented for the Armenian language. Vahrij sought the help of a priest named Hapel, who contacted the bishop, acquired the alphabet from him, and brought it back to Armenia.
With the arrival of Hapel, St. Mesrob gathered a number of young pupils to test how well this alphabet could express the Armenian language. He noticed, however, that Bishop Daniel’s letters were not suitable for the phonetic structure of Armenia. Thereupon, Mesrob took some of the pupils and set off for the great learning centers of northern Syria, in the expectation of finding a solution for his concern. While he was in the town of Edessa (modern Urfa), he received a vision from God, which showed him the forms of the letters of the Armenian alphabet. Mesrob commissioned a scribe named Rufinus to draft the shapes of the letters he had created. While still abroad, he immediately undertook the translation of the Bible, beginning with the Proverbs of Solomon.
On his return to Armenia, St. Mesrob established schools and devoted the rest of his life to educational and missionary work. His travels took him to the outlying provinces of Armenia, to Georgia and Caucasian Albania, to the imperial court of Constantinople and to the Greek sector of Armenia. While in Georgia and Albania, he also created alphabets for the Georgian and Albanian languages.
Besides his work as a teacher and missionary, St. Mesrob was a staunch supporter of orthodoxy. He successfully wiped out the seeds of heresy from Armenia. As an administrator of the church, he is said to have held the rank of chorepiscopus (a bishop tending to people living in the countryside). After St. Sahag’s demise he became the locum tenens in charge of the spiritual affairs of the church.
St. Mesrob outlived St. Sahag by only six months. He died in 439 and was buried in the village of Oshagan. His tomb is located in a crypt under the altar of the church of Oshagan and is a site of pilgrimage. The present church over the crypt is a nineteenth-century structure, replacing an earlier church built in the seventeenth century. We know from historical sources that a chapel had been built on the crypt soon after the saint’s burial.
In our days, it has become an established tradition among the members of the brotherhood of Holy Etchmiadzin that the doctoral staff (the insignia marking the vartabed, or doctor of the church) is bestowed at the church of Oshagan.
* * *
Extract from “The Holy Feasts of Saint Gregory the Illuminator: Celebrating the Life & Lineage of Armenia’s Patron Saint,” by Fr. Krikor Maskoudian (New York: St. Vartan Press, 2003).