“The Armenian Apostolic Church” is one of the most common ways we describe our Church. Sometimes we call it the “Armenian Orthodox Church” or simply the “Armenian Church” or the “Church of Armenia.” Each of these ways of naming the historic and autocephalous (having its own “head,” or chief-bishop, in this case the Catholicos) Church of Armenia emphasizes different aspects of the church to different people. Orthodox, for instance, simply means “rightly established” or “approved and official.” This is why nearly all Christian churches consider themselves “lower-case orthodox,” that is, “rightly guided.” What we think of as “the Orthodox Church” with a big-O, is the ecclesial structure originally based in Constantinople and all its affiliated and derivative churches. To call the Armenian Church the Armenian (Oriental) Orthodox Church asserts both a commonality and a difference between the “Eastern Orthodox” churches while simultaneously stressing the traditional and rightly-guided nature of the doctrine of the Armenian Church. To call it simply “the Armenian Church” or “the Church of Armenia” does two things: it follows the established and traditional practice of the church itself, called for centuries in Armenian simply the Հայաստանեայց Եկեղեցի/Hayasdanyayts Yegeghetsi. It also, in today’s world of nation-states signals a kind of national affiliation of the church. What then, does it mean to call our church “The Armenian Apostolic Church?”
It puts the emphasis on the Armenian Church’s direct connection to Jesus Christ, through the ministry of his apostles. Apostolic, of course, means “relating to the apostles.” While the term apostle has a broad meaning of a follower of Christ or even an advocate for any idea or a follower of an important person, we usually use the term to designate one of the twelve hand-picked followers of Jesus Christ mentioned by name in the Gospels. St. Paul, known as “apostle to the Gentiles,” is also named as an apostle. This is the case of the commemoration of the “Twelve Holy Apostles of Christ and St. Paul, the Thirteenth Apostle,” celebrated by the Armenian Church this Saturday. Together, these thirteen were the closest disciples (a term we can use more broadly to describe followers of Jesus) of Christ. Most were present from the first days of Jesus’ public ministry and some were witness to remarkable manifestations of Christ’s divinity such as the Transfiguration. The Gospel accounts and St Paul’s letters are the heart of the Christian Bible and both depend in direct ways on these thirteen apostles. In addition to these written accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, a link to the apostles of Christ is also a direct link to the earthly life of Christ. In other words, a claim of apostolic succession is a claim to a direct link back to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ.
For these reasons, many Christian churches, the Armenian Church included, stress their apostolic succession, their ability to trace the origin of their church’s hierarchy to the apostles themselves. Most famously, the Roman Catholic Church emphasizes the Pope as the successor of St. Peter, with the doctrine of papal primacy a combination of the tradition of the establishment of the Church of Rome by St. Peter and Christ’s words to St. Peter that “on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). In Constantinople, a church dedicated to the Holy Apostles was built by Emperor Constantine and was the second-largest church in the city, after the Hagia Sofia, until the Ottomans replaced it with the Fatih Mosque in 1461. The Church of the Holy Apostles housed relics of the twelve apostles, demonstrating the importance of an apostolic link. St. Mark, though not one of the twelve, was a Gospel writer and companion of St. Paul (though some people consider these to be two different men). He is said to have evangelized the city of Alexandria and to have established the church there—today, the Coptic Church, one of our sister churches, traces its origins to St. Mark. Such claims to apostolic succession are so important that when the city of Venice worked to establish itself as a major Christian power in the 800s, the relics of St. Mark housed in Alexandria were stolen and brought to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Moreover, the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople was perhaps an architectural inspiration for St. Mark’s Cathedral. Clearly, the ability to claim an unbroken, traditional line back to the apostles, and through them to Jesus Christ, has long been recognized as a source of legitimacy for Christian churches.
|The Primitive Church||Detailing the early history of the Christian Church after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, this book traces the evangelical efforts of the apostles of Christ, connecting them to the establishment of important centers of the early Church.|
|Paul of Tarsus||One of several books in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center about the life of St. Paul, the “thirteenth apostle.” By Joseph Holzner.|
|The Church of Armenia||By the great scholar and Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Malachia Ormanian, an informative and concise introduction to the doctrine and history of the Armenian Church—including its apostolic succession!|
As most of us know, the Armenian Apostolic Church traces its own apostolic history to two of the twelve apostles of Christ: St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew. Yet this basic “Sunday School” fact is much less clear than it seems at first sight! The identity of these two apostles and their exact connection to Armenia is the subject of some scholarly disagreement. First, if one looks at the list of the names of the twelve apostles, depending on the translation, you might find a Jude or Judas separate from Judas Iscariot. Many identify Thaddeus with Jude, to the extent that some Armenian writers such as Catholicos Hovhannes Draskhanakertsi identify St. Thaddeus as one of the seventy disciples of Christ mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, saying that he was sent by St. Thomas who was one of the twelve. On top of this, both St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew are also “claimed” by other Christian groups. Eusebius of Caesarea, an important historian of the early Christian Church, states that St. Bartholomew made a mission to India, but does not mention evangelizing Armenia. Nonetheless, as with many early Christian traditions, while the historical facts might be deeply buried, the tradition of not only one, but two of the twelve apostles of Christ preaching the Good News to Armenians is a source of spiritual strength and has shaped subsequent Armenian Christian thinking and traditions.
Our very earliest accounts are rather silent on the question of apostolic succession. In part, this might be because the legitimacy of the Armenian Church in its earliest years came from the consecration of Armenian bishops and Catholicoses by the Metropolitan See of Caesarea, an important early Christian center. In other words, the early Armenian Church was not entirely autocephalous, and thus relied on its connection to other sees rather than needed a self-grounding legitimacy. With later historians, the apostolic connection becomes increasingly important. Two important authors who provide us with some details about the tradition of the preaching of St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew in Armenia are Moses Khorenatsi, the “Father of Armenian History,” and Catholicos Hovhannes Draskhanakertsi, mentioned above.
Khorenatsi is a well-known writer, and many of the most famous stories in Armenian history were first recorded by him. In the case of the apostolicity of the Armenian Church, Khorenatsi not only mentions the preaching of the two saints, especially St. Thaddeus’ connection to Edessa, but he also provides a rather interesting detail: St. Gregory the Illuminator was conceived near the grave of St. Thaddeus! As Khorenatsi puts it, “therefore he received the grace of that same apostle.” Like the Venetians who brought relics of St. Mark to their new cathedral, Khorenatsi here makes the link between the founder of Armenian Christianity and St. Thaddeus, the apostle of Christ, explicit. We see that great importance is placed on having the apostles, and by extension Christ Himself, as the source of the Church.
Draskhanakertsi, writing in the tenth century, elaborates on the traditions concerning both St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, even mentioning St. Bartholomew first. This is perhaps because, as we mentioned, Drashkanakertsi counts St. Thaddeus as one of the seventy rather than one of the twelve. Even so, he offers details about the missionary activities of the two apostles, connecting them to important figures in Armenian and regional history. In addition to his book of history, Draskhanakertsi also wrote a list of the Catholicoses of the Armenian Church. He begins with a discussion of the evangelizing of the country by St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew. We can see, then, the importance of establishing an apostolic succession for the Armenian Church. Standing at the source of our ancient church, through these apostles, is a direct link to Jesus Christ and His earthly ministry
|History of the Armenians||Robert Thomson’s translation of Moses Khorenatsi’s History of the Armenians. Khorenatsi is one of the earliest writers to give details about the evangelization of Armenia by St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew.|
|History of Armenia||Written in the tenth century by Catholicos Yovhannēs Drasxanakertcʿi, translated into English with a commentary by Fr. Krikor Maksoudian. An important Armenian history, it solidifies and elaborates upon many of the traditions regarding St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew.|
|S. Thadei’ vank||From the series Documents of Armenian Architecture. The book provides pictures, plans, and the history of the Monastery of St. Thaddeus in northern Iran, also known as Qara Kilise, “the black church.”|
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