Law and Christianity have a complicated relationship. This has been true beginning with Jesus Christ’s own statements in the Gospels. Perhaps most famously, Christ declares in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In Judaism, the Mosaic Law was paramount. In addition to the Ten Commandments, all of the commandments of God to the people of Israel found in the rest of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), set out the behaviors and activities expected of the Jewish people as the chosen people of God. The Law thus governed all aspects of life and was central to the functioning of Jewish society. Christ’s relationship to that Law was crucial to the development of Christianity. This coming Sunday is known as the Sunday of the Judge in the Armenian Church’s Lenten calendar. Though the Parable, as Dn. Eric Vozzy describes, is about God’s loving justice, it also offers us a chance to think about Law, justice, and Armenian Christian thinking on law.
St. Paul, an ardent legalist before his conversion to Christianity, penned some of the most important reflections on the Law in the New Testament. The Letter to the Galatians and the Letter to the Romans are the two most important sources for New Testament thinking about the Law. Unfortunately, much of this discussion has been reduced to an opposition between grace and law, especially in light of Martin Luther’s reading of Paul, particularly the Book of Romans. Well before the Protestant Reformation, St. Paul’s complicated thinking about the Law had given Christian thinkers much to reflect on. In the West, Augustine’s thinking on the separation of secular and religious authority and Thomas Aquinas’ combination of Augustinian thinking with Aristotelianism and natural law are the two most prominent developments of Christian thinking about the Law.
Armenian Christianity, too, grappled with the question of the Law. This grappling, though, took a rather different form than the scholastic trend exemplified by Aquinas. As with all ancient Christian traditions, Armenian Christianity at first concerned itself largely with ecclesial and liturgical considerations: on the one hand, regulations concerning who was a Christian and how to define the Church understood as the Body of Christ and on the other, the central aspects of the celebration of the Eucharist and other liturgical services. As we have discussed before, the great Ecumenical Councils convened by the Roman Emperors as Christianity became more public were also concerned with the correct profession of faith. In part, those are ecclesial questions. That is, the Church is defined in part by what it professes, and individual members of the Church are expected to profess that as well. Thus, early Christianity, Armenian Christianity included, could be said to have focused on regulating internal matters. Law, from this perspective, is a question of how to organize the Church and keep the Body of Christ healthy.
Councils, like the Ecumenical Councils, were a major source for answering this question. We know that St. Aristakes, the son of St. Gregory the Illuminator and the second Catholicos, attended the Council of Nicaea, the first Ecumenical council. Aristakes brought the decisions of the Council, often referred to as canons, back to Armenia, where, according to the historian Agathangelos, St. Gregory made additions to those canons. Thus began the compilation of Armenian Canon Law, the regulation of Church affairs as we have described it above. Dr. Roberta Ervine, who teaches a course on Armenian Canon Law at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, notes that calling it “canon law” can be slightly misleading, because the Armenian Church’s understanding of law and its application differs from both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches where canon law has a very particular meanings. Nonetheless, a tradition of written regulations, canons, deriving from the Church councils, came into existence. In addition to the Ecumenical Councils, several councils were convened by Armenian Catholicoi to address issues specific to the Armenian situation. Some of the most famous of these are the Council of Shahapivan in 444 A.D. and a Council in Dvin in 648 convened by Catholicos Nersess III (there were other councils convened at Dvin), and the Council of Manazkert in 726.
Catholicos Hovhannes Ostnetsi (Հովհաննես Գ Օձնեցի) was the Catholicos who convened the Council of Manazkert in 726 A.D. One of the most learned and remarkable Churchmen of his era, he was known as Իմսասեր/”the Philosopher.” He lived from 688-728, a period characterized by the Arab incursion to historic Armenia and a time when Armenians did not have a constituted kingdom. Therefore, the Church was an important institution that governed much of public life. Additionally, the definition of the Church, in the face of both Muslim expansion and Byzantine incursion, was incredibly important. One of Ostnetsi’s greatest accomplishments was the first collection of the canons of the Armenian Church, both the Ecumenical Councils and those convened by and for Armenian Christians. Known as the “Book of Canons of the Armenian Church,” the Kanonagirk Hayots/Կանոնագիրք Հայոց, it remains today the basic sourcebook of “canon law” for the Armenian Apostolic Church. Over time, other Catholicoi added to the canons. In the twentieth century, Soviet-era Armenian scholar Dr. Vazken Hakobyan consulted over forty manuscripts of the Kanonagirk and produced a definitive printed edition.
|Kanonagirkʿ Hayotsʿ||The Book of Canon Law of the Armenian Church in two volumes, edited by Dr. Vazken Hakobyan. Volume I contains those canons compiled by Catholicos Hovhannes Otsnetsi and Volume II contains canons complied later. In Classical Armenian with an Armenian introduction.|
|The Lawcode [Datastanagirk’] of Mxit’ar Goš||Translated with a helpful introduction by Robert Thomson, this is an English edition of the famous “Lawcode” of Mkhitar Gosh. It could also be translated as “Book of Justice.” Gosh’s text became the standard book of law, combining both canon law and secular law.|
|Kirakos Gandzakets‘i Patmutʿyun Hayotsʿ||Prominent Armenian historian of the 13th century, Kirakos Gandzaketsi was the “spiritual grandson” of Mkhitar Gosh. His History provides us with many of the biographical details of Gosh. Melik-Ohajanyan’s version is the definitive published Armenian edition.|
The Kanonagirk Hayots remains the official text of canon law and for rules and regulations of the Armenian Apostolic Church. While Councils were sometimes attended by kings and other lay leaders, and while social regulations concerning the Church certainly influenced life beyond the walls of the churches, the Kanonagirk is concerned fundamentally with ecclesial matters. During the centuries when there was either an Armenian kingdom, fragmented rule by Armenian nobility, or even external rule, a lay or secular law governed other aspects of society. Thus, for centuries, ecclesial concerns governed by the Kanonagirk Hayots and secular law remained at least nominally separate. As Robert Thomson writes, “for various reasons, theological, political and social, the Armenian church was never a monolithic entity. Nonetheless, canon law was applicable throughout the country. And canon law was a written code, easy of access. On the other hand, in secular affairs legal practices differed from province to province, and the local traditons were unwritten. Judgement for similar offences in different parts of Armenia could not be standardized” (12). Thomson tells us that “this ambiguous symbiosis of clerical and lay jurisdiction lasted many centuries” (13).
Mkhitar Gosh, one of the great minds of his time (he died in 1213 A.D.), was the first person to bring both ecclesial and secular law together. Thomson suggests that Gosh undertook this project, completed during a time of Muslim control of historic Armenia in the Northeast, to prevent disputes between Armenians from being “adjudicated in Muslim courts” (14), which is what happened in the absence of an explicit legal code. While the ecclesial canons were written down, laws governing other important aspects of life were not. Gosh completed his famous Datastanagirk/Դատաստանագիրք, the Lawcode, or “Book of Justice,” the first to combine Armenian ecclesial and secular law, in order to provide such a written code. Robert W. Thomson translated the Lawcode into English and penned a wonderful introduction to the text, the life of Mkhitar Gosh, and the context and themes of the work.
Most of what we know about Mkhitar Gosh comes from the History of Kirakos Gandzaketsi, who had second-hand knowledge of Gosh. Kirakos’ teacher, the celebrated Vanakan Vartabed, had studied with Gosh. Mkhitar Gosh was born around 1130 A.D. in Ganjak, in the northeastern part of the areas historically inhabited by Armenians, in what was known as Caucasian Albania. He studied with Hovhannes Tavushetsi and was made a vartabed by this teacher. Eventually, he made his way toward the Cilician territories, and without telling anyone he was a vartabed, went to the famous Black Mountain, where a string of monasteries of different Christian traditions had been established. He went to the Armenian vartabeds there and learned from them as well. Eventually, he returned to the northeastern traditional Armenian homeland and became associated with the Monastery of Getik. When that monastery was destroyed, he kept the monks from dispersing. They build a new monastery where he was the abbot, known as Nor (New) Getik. Today, this monastery still stands, but it known more commonly as Goshavank, after Mkhitar Gosh.
Gosh’s synthesis of ecclesial and secular law into a single text was monumental. No less monumental were the principles of legal exegesis and application he laid out. All later works on law, such as Smbat the Constable’s, engaged in some way with Gosh’s Lawcode. His work remained highly influential, even influencing later Armenian legal thinking beyond the context of the Church. As Thomson writes, “his work, in many later adaptations, formed the basis for Armenian legal tradition both in Armenia itself and in the diaspora” (14). We do not have the space today to trace all of these influences. Nor can we explore the text itself in detail. We encourage you, though, to seek out Thomson’s translation and to learn more about this highly influential source on Armenian legal thinking!
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