Christian Doctors of the Church—the ultimate vartabeds—are a rare breed of scholar, theologian, and champion of the faith in Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church, which is the most systematic about this designation, reserves the title for those who made a significant contribution to the worshipful, spiritual doctrine of the Church (theology). Only thirty-six people in the history of Christianity are recognized by the Catholic Church as Doctors of the Church. As with many other things, the Armenian Apostolic Church is less codified in these matters. For the Armenian Church, someone is a saint if they are recognized liturgically as a saint. This means, if we recall their names during the Divine Liturgy or in another liturgical context, we should consider them as saintly sources for our lives. Throughout the year, there are several commemorations of Doctors of the Church, either individually or in groups. This Saturday, the Armenian Church celebrates “Twelve Holy Doctors of the Church,” the largest grouping of such vartabeds.
Among these “Twelve Holy Doctors of the Church” is St. Athanasius, whom we have had the occasion to write about previously. St. Athanasius was the Patriarch of Alexandria, one of the major early sees of the Christian Church. He lived between 296 or 298 and 373, and is largely known today for his forceful defense of Nicaean Christianity against Arianism, On the Incarnation. This text is his most renowned defense of the divinity of Christ and an important document in the development of Christology, the branch of theological thinking concerned with the question, “Who exactly is Jesus Christ?” Armenians, in their Miaphysite Christology that differed in certain important ways from the doctrine expressed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, took many of their cues from St. Cyril of Alexandria, a later Patriarch of the same see. His famous doctrine of “One Incarnate nature of the God-Logos” has been central to the Armenian conception of Jesus Christ. Yet the earlier Athanasian defense of Christ’s divinity has also been important. Sometimes, Armenian writers appealed to St. Athanasius to support the orthodoxy of their position, even when the exact words of Athanasius are not found in his extant writings!
Such an appeal demonstrates that St. Athanasius has been incredibly important to Armenians and their theological thinking. Robert Thomson, the esteemed Armenologist, wrote that “Athanasius enjoyed a high reputation among Armenian theologians.” Yet the texts of Athanasius in Armenian are rare: they were not often copied in manuscripts and the only printed collection of them was prepared by Tayetsi (in some sources transliterated as Tayezi or Tajezi), a Mkhitarist monk, and published in Venice in 1899. Casey, a scholar writing in 1931, found two other manuscripts of Athanasian material at the Mkhitarist monastery in Vienna, but noted, “manuscripts of the Armenian corpora are relatively rare.” Writing in one the last books published before his death in 2018, Thomson summarizes the state of the Athanasian works in Armenian: “The reception of the works of Athanasius in Armenian has not yet been seriously explored. His most famous dogmatic writings: the Contra Gentes, De Incarnatione, Contra Arianos, do not seem to have been translated into Armenian, though there are Syriac versions of the last two. Several shorter works, some spurious, are often cited in order to support the Armenian theological position, not always accurately” (15).
Thomson traces in detail the extent to which Athanasius’ texts were “transformed” in order to support the developing Miaphysite position of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In this appeal to Athanasius, the Armenians were not alone. Athanasius’ main target was Arianism, and the detailed debates between Cyril and Nestorius about the two natures of Jesus Christ—human and divine—come nearly a century later. Yet, the pristine orthodoxy of Athanasius’ thinking meant that all subsequent Christians found ways to support their own position with his texts. Miaphysite Christians would later emphasize Athanasius’ use of the word of “united,” though in Athanasius’ work it did not mean the same thing they intended it to mean. Through these reinterpretations, Athanasius retroactively becomes a supporter of exactly the Armenian Christian position on Christ.
|Ճառք, թուղթք եւ ընդդիմասցութիւնք (Jark, Tught, yev Unttimastsutiwnk)||A link to the pdf of the only printed version of Athanasius’ texts in Armenian, published in 1899 in Venice. Digitized by the National Library of Armenia. In Classical Armenian.|
|Studies in Armenian Literature and Christianity||A collection of essays by Robert Thomson, including his essay, “The Transformation of Athanasius in Armenian Theology.”|
|Nerses of Lambron: Commentary on the Dormition of St. John||Nersess of Lambron, an important Cilician-era Bishop and theologian (and relative of St. Nersess Shnorhali), penned this unique commentary on a popular apocryphal text. Robert Thomson translated the text, and in his introduction, he offers some of the important influences on Nersess of Lambron, including Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony.|
|Hunaban dprotsʿě ew nra zargatsʿman shrjannerě||Hakob Manandyan’s 1928 study of the Hellenizing School of Armenian translation, despite some problems, remains one of the only book-length treatments of the subject and is foundational to all subsequent studies of the topic.|
|The Four Evangelists||Translated by Michael Papazian, this commentary on the Gospels is by Stepanos of Siwnik, an Armenian bishop and polymath of the seventh and eighth centuries, to whom five translations of Athanasius are attributed.|
Such Miaphysite Christological argumentation also belies the traditional dates of translation for the work of Athanasius. A single colophon—a piece of information written by a scribe or owner, usually at the end of a manuscript—gives evidence for the translation of Athanasius into Armenian. According to this colophon, seventeen texts were translated by “the first translators,” meaning the Holy Translators associated with Masdots and his students (discussed two weeks ago). The final five texts mentioned at attributed to Stepanos of Siwnik, a bishop and polymath of the seventh and eighth centuries known to have traveled and studied in Constantinople. As both Casey and Thomson point out, internal textual evidence makes it incredibly difficult to attribute the first seventeen texts to “the first translators.”
Stylistic and syntactical evidence are the main ways of determining this. Over time, different translators into Armenian emphasized certain things. As Dr. Abraham Terian has put it, “there seems to be no serious effort in the earliest translations consistently to render Greek compounds with Armenian compounds, but in the later translations a mechanical imitation of Greek compounds becomes increasingly common.” So, the earliest translators can be distinguished from a later group of translators known as the “Hellenizing School.” Hakob Manandyan, in 1928, wrote a major study of the Hellenizing School, whose analysis later scholars, including Dr. Terian, have refined. The placement of the translations of Athanasius in the timeline of Armenian translations and these “schools” of translation is quite difficult.
Terian attributes the final set of translations in the Hellenizing School (he divides the school into four sub-groups) to Stepanos of Siwnik. While Terian includes translations of Cyril of Alexandria in this collection, he relegates the five texts attributed to Stepanos to a footnote. Similarly, while Casey is happy to accept the attribution to Stepanos, Thomson is more reserved. Likewise, there are many reasons to doubt that the other seventeen translations mentioned in the colophon were done by the earliest translators. Most notably, Thomson points out that both in terms of style and content these seventeen translations vary considerably. Ghazar Parpetsi, one of the early Armenian historians, mentions his familiarity with Athanasius, but it is possible he knew those texts in the original Greek. The Seal of Faith, a crucial early source of Armenian Christianity which collected quotes from many of the fathers, compiled in the seventh century, contains a version of the “Letter to Epictetus,” which seems dependent on an earlier translation. In other words, while it is reasonable to assume that all of these translations of Athanasius into Armenian were completed by the ninth century and some were completed by the end of the sixth century, it is difficult to pin down when and where the translations of Athanasius were done!
Though this is a scholarly problem, it has important implications for the Armenian Christian tradition. First, St. Athanasius is one of the major doctors of the Church, universally recognized by all ancient Christian churches as a major defender of the faith. The Armenian Church’s reception of and understanding of Athanasius has consequences for much of the development of Armenian theological thinking, especially around Christological questions. At another level, The Life of St. Anthony, another important text of Athanasius’ penned in praise of the great father of Egyptian desert monasticism, was influential for Armenian spirituality and monastic development. Finally, as Thomson hints at, if Athanasius has been mobilized in partisan Christological debates, then understanding his transmission in Armenian is crucial to meaningful ecumenical dialogue today. As one of the great defenders of Christian orthodoxy, St. Athanasius is an indispensable source for Armenian Christianity.
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