This week, on the saints’ days of Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates several bishops of the universal church: Pope Stephen I of Rome, Bishop of Rome from May 12, 254-257 AD; Akepsimas the Bishop, who was martyred in Persia during the reign of Shapur I (240-270 AD), alongside Joseph the Priest and Aethalas the Deacon; ands Sts. Metrophanes, Alexander and Paul the Confessor, all Patriarchs of Constantinople. These saintly bishops are commemorated by all the ancient churches. As we can see from their dates, they lived before the major splits in Christendom, and thus we celebrate equally and ecumenically bishops who were head of the church in Rome and Constantinople, as well as a bishop in Persia. On the occasion of the celebration of these bishops of the Church Universal, the full Body of Christ, we will focus on one of the great bishops and theologians of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Stepanos Siwnetsi (Syunestsi)/Ստեփանըս Սունեցի. Our choice is doubly appropriate, because one of the most important and enigmatic works by this eighth century bishop has been translated and studied extensively by none other than our own Bishop Daniel Findikyan. So, on this week commemorating bishops from around Christendom, we will reflect on the work of two Armenian bishops, past and present.
Who was Stepanos Siwnetsi? We have encountered him and his work several times in the past few months, as the last translator in the “Hellenizing School,” as a brilliant exegete and commentator on the Gospels, and perhaps as one of the translators of some of the work of St. Athanasius into Armenian. It is high time, then, that we spend some time specifically with this polymath, one of the most erudite scholars in the Armenian Christian tradition. Stepanos was born either 685 or 688, in Dvin (Duin/Դուին), one of the ancient capitols of Armenia. He was the son of a priest, educated in Dvin, where the Armenian Catholicosate was at the time, and later entered a nearby monastery, Makʿenocʿ. He later studied at the famed “Monastery of Siwnik” with Bishop Movses Siwnetsi, called “the Father of Rhetoric” (or “the Rhetor,” there is some confusion between two men names Movses, both known for their specialty in rhetoric!). It was there that he was ordained a celibate priest, before returning to the Catholicosate at Dvin by 717.
Around 710 AD, Stepanos began the journeys that would make him famous, setting out with a monk Grigor Orzik to Athens. From Athens, they went to Constantinople, probably meeting Patriarch Germanus I, with whom he carried on a correspondence later. He also met an Armenian named David, whom some have identified as David the Invincible Philosopher. Together, they translated several important works into Armenian, perhaps most notably the corpus of work by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The Areopagite’s texts influenced Stepanos greatly, and we can see the traces of Pseudo-Dionysius’ mystagogy in Siwnetsi’s Commentary on the Daily Offices. Depending on the source, Stepanos either returned home and undertook a second trip to Rome, or visited Rome on this same trip. He returned to Dvin by 728, and was consecrated as Bishop of the Province of Siwnik sometime shortly thereafter. However, he met an untimely (and colorful!) end in 735. Known for his stringent morality and reformer’s zeal, he had preached against prostitution and perhaps even against one prostitute in particular. As he rested under a willow tree, the woman first tried to convince her lover to kill the bishop. When the man became scared, the woman took the sword herself and thrust into Bishop Stepanos Siwnetsi’s throat! Later, we are told, his body was moved to the Monastery of Tanahat in the region of Siwnik.
We know these colorful details about the life of Stepanos Siwnetsi from several sources. The earliest is a tenth-century historian who wrote the History of the Caucasian Albanians, Moses Daskhurantsi. These are followed by Samuel Anetsi, Mkhitar Ayrivanestsi, and Kirakos Gandzaketsi, all important historians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Other than later compilations, the most recent and perhaps most famous historian to discuss the life of Stepanos Siwnetsi is Stepanos Orbelian, himself the bishop of Siwnik in the fourteenth century. Finally, we also have information about the life of Stepanos Siwnetsi from the Haysumavurk/3այսմաւուրք, the Synaxarion that gives daily readings of the lives of saintly people. This demonstrates the high regard in which Stepanos Siwnetsi was held and marks him as a saintly martyr, even if he does not have his own special saint’s day commemoration.
|The commentary on the Armenian Daily Office by Bishop Stepʿanos Siwnecʿi (735)||Critical edition, translation, and extensive commentary and studies by Michael Daniel Findikyan. Bishop Daniel provides biographical information, the text and translation of two versions of this important text by Stepanos Siwnetsi, and several essays commenting on the importance of the text.|
|Commentary on the Four Evangelists||Translated with an introduction by Michael Papazian, this Commentary on the Four Gospels demonstrates Stepanos Siwnetsi’s erudition as an exegete. Comparing the biblical commentary to the liturgical one offers a broad view of Siwnetsi’s hermeneutic style.|
|Patmutʿiwn Nahangin Sisakan||By Stepanos Orbelian, Bishop of Siwnik in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, this history is one of the main sources for the life of Stepanos Siwnetsi. In Classical Armenian.|
Stepanos Siwnetsi’s extensive learning is on view in everything that he wrote. Almost an entire volume of the invaluable series Matenagirk Hayots, a collection of classical Armenian authors prepared by the Catholicosate of Cilicia, is devoted to Siwnetsi’s writings. They include letters to important churchmen like Patriarch Germanus I and the Bishop of Antioch and a commentary on grammar, known largely through later collections. He was also, as mentioned above, known as a translator, bringing some of the most important Greek patristic works such as Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Nature of Man into Armenian. As with many Armenian theologians, however, he was committed to the work of Biblical exegesis, of commenting on the books of the Bible. Michael B. Papazian has translated Siwnetsi’s Commentary on the Four Evangelists. Siwnetsi also is known to have penned commentaries on Daniel, Ezekiel, Job, and Genesis, though the Commentary on Job survives only in fragments and the one on Genesis is unknown. Finally, he is the earliest author of a very Armenian genre, the commentary on Daily Offices.
Biblical commentaries are a widespread genre known to all of ancient Christendom, whether disseminated in the form of sermons, as we discussed last week, or in an expository clearly meant to be read by a scholar in a library. Other forms of commentaries followed in some cases: after the Biblical commentary, a genre of liturgical commentary exists in several ancient Christian traditions: Patriarch Germanus I, who corresponded with Stepanos Siwnetsi, penned one in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. These liturgical commentaries, exemplified in the Armenian case perhaps by Khosrov Andzevatsi, focus on the Divine Liturgy. They offer explanations of both texts, movements, and even the sensory world of the Divine Liturgy (sounds and smell of incense, for instance). Armenians wrote more of these liturgical commentaries than are extant in any other Christian tradition. Even more rare among other traditions are commentaries on the Daily Offices, the liturgical services of the Church performed outside of the Divine Liturgy itself. In Armenian, we known these as the ժամերգութիւն/jamerkutyun, derived from the word for “hour” or “time.” They include the regularly conducted Night and Morning Service, the Sunrise Service traditionally offered on Sundays during Lent, as well as the Evening, Rest, and Peace hours, as well as shorter midday “hours” rarely conducted today. Stepanos Siwnetsi’s Commentary on the Armenian Daily Office is the first extant Armenian commentary in this genre. There exist others in other traditions, but Armenians produced more than the other ancient Christian churches; more than a dozen are known. In addition to commentaries on the Divine Liturgy and the Daily Offices, genres known to other traditions even if Armenians wrote them more frequently, Armenians took their exegetical enthusiasm to places other Christian traditions never did: to the Lectionary and to occasional services such as the dedication of a church!
Stepanos Siwnetsi, as the first to write a commentary on the Daily Offices in Armenian, and because of his great erudition, becomes an important source for later liturgical exegetes, as well as a source for both exegesis and liturgical study more broadly. As Bishop Daniel Findikyan demonstrates in his critical edition and translation of Siwnetsi’s commentary, Stepanos Siwnetsi brought all of his expansive knowledge and training to bear on the writing of this commentary. We see, for instance, the influence of Pseudo-Dionysisus the Areopagite, whom Siwnetsi translated. Dionysius, especially in his Mystical Theology, developed a style of thinking and a genre known as mystagogy, the explanation and elucidation of the “mysteries” of the faith, the sacraments, services, and deep mystery of Jesus Christ as God Incarnate. Usually, this explanation occurred after baptism. Hence, St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s famous set of sermons are usually divided into the Catechetical Lectures, the basics of the faith delivered before Baptism, and the Mystagogical Lectures, given after Easter and baptism as a process of initiation and explanation into the mystery of sacramental liturgy. Stepanos Siwnetsi’s commentary is deeply mystagogical, with important traces of the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius.
We can also discern other influences on Siwnetsi’s commentary. Importantly, as Bishop Daniel notes, his exegetical tendencies do not fit easily into either the “Alexandrian” or “Antiochian” schools of exegesis—two major early Christian sees that competed in many different ways. While this difference might be overblown, the general tendency to either an “allegorical” or a “historical-literal” reading remains useful. However, Siwnetsi, while highly influenced by Antioch (he carries on correspondence with a Bishop of Antioch as well), also seems to deploy allegory. Yet his use of allegory, as Bishop Daniel notes, is much more influenced by St. Ephrem the Syrian than by the dictates of Alexandrian exegesis. What would we expect from such a learned man, who seems to have known the texts of Origen and may have used them in Greek originals for his Biblical commentaries, who traveled to Rome, Athens, and Constantinople, and who translated philosophy and commented on grammar? His exegetical style is closer to a typological one than a loose allegorical one, but the “building blocks” in the distinct mystagogy Siwnetsi develops are “not really ‘types’ or ‘antetypes’ in the classical sense” (Findikyan 218). Moreover, as Bishop Daniel notes, Siwnetsi, and indeed all Armenian exegesis, is profoundly Christological, Christ-centered. This unique method of Armenian exegesis, a synthesis of much of Siwnetsi’s learning, is exemplified in Siwnetsi’s Commentary on the Daily Offices. It remains a generative source and is unsurprising that our own Bishop Daniel Findikyan, one of the great liturgical scholars of recent decades, has spent so much time with Siwnetsi’s text. We end today with a brief excerpt from Siwnetsi’s commentary, in order to give you a flavor of this fascinating source. In this excerpt he is discussing priestly vestments:
“But let us apply ourselves to the tradition that we received from the apostles, and by the grace of Christ, when we gather together, let us places before ourselves the one easy yoke, we, who were dispersed by the Alien, but then by the heavenly chief-shepherd became united to God by adoption. And having put on the priest’s holy seal of baptism means dying with Christ by being crucified with him, being born clothed with God, and entering the realms of holiness [singing] spiritual songs. And as for joining the oil to the victims: we conduct [this] at “The Lord reigned,” as we have been robed in splendor with our king, who took from the Virgin that great splendor with which we have been robed, anointed, and by which we reign with Christ. So in a choir of angelic harmony [we] sing verse by verse the beautiful opposition, crying out with the supernal ones. After which, the pure wheat flour signifies the incorruptibility of Christ, together with the triple hagiologies. He who was crucified for us [is] an accepted sacrifice to the Father; with him we also approach the heavenly Father as a reasonable sacrifice” (144-5).
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