On several occasions in “Back to the Sources” we have had the opportunity to remark on the extensive commentary tradition of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Exegesis, the explication of a text, and hermeneutics, the work of interpretation, were highly refined skills, the ultimate mark of the vartabed, the Armenian monk-scholar. Scriptural exegesis and commentary is a common genre throughout Christianity. Indeed, Jesus Christ Himself was a profound exegete of Jewish Scripture, using typological comparisons to explain His own ministry or deftly answering the question of “the greatest commandment”—taken directly from the Book of Deuteronomy. Christian interpretation of Scripture, then, finds its source in Jesus Christ Himself. Armenians melded interpretative techniques from various traditions and sees, such as Alexandria and Antioch, often seen as rival hermeneutic schools, adding insights from the exegetical sermons by St. John Chrysostom and the commentaries of St. Ephrem the Syrian, to name only a few sources of Armenian interpretative practice. Drawing on these sources and adding their own insights, Armenian vartabeds developed a highly sophisticated approach to scriptural exegesis.
Armenian vartabeds, however, went beyond commentaries directly about the Bible. The Armenian commentary tradition is vast and expansive. One genre that is shared across some of our Sister Churches and other ancient Christian traditions is the commentary on the liturgy. These commentaries offer insight into the liturgical services, helping make sense of the texts used, ritual actions performed, and even the smell of the incense. While other Christian traditions have commentaries on the liturgy, the genre was quite popular among Armenians. Some of the most famous liturgical commentaries include one on the daily offices (the ժամերգութիւն/jamerkutyun like the “Morning Service”) penned by the polymath Stepanos Siwnetsti, and a commentary on the Divine Liturgy by Khosrov Andzevatsi, the father of St. Gregory of Narek. Armenians did not stop even at liturgical commentaries, however. There exists in Armenian a genre of commentaries on the Lectionary, the daily readings of the Church, which appears to be a genre unique to Armenians. So, the Armenian commentary tradition extended well beyond scriptural exegesis.
In addition to the development of commentaries with a specifically Christian bent, there is also a long-established practice of philosophical commentaries. Commentaries on the great Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, can be found in many languages. Prominent among these texts are the collected works of Aristotle on logic, known as the Organon. Many commentaries were written about Aristotle’s works on logic, as well as the neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry’s Isagoge. Armenians too, took part in the tradition of logical and philosophical commentaries. Most famous of these are the works in Armenian attributed to David the “Invincible Philosopher”, which include translations of two works by Aristotle and Porphyry’s Isagoge, a commentary on Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, a commentary on Porphyry’s Isagoge, and his original work Definitions and Divisions of Philosophy. While Porphyry’s Isagoge was the main text of logic in Western Europe for a millennium, it was David’s original work that held pride of place in Armenian monasteries. Additionally, Armenians wrote a series of grammatical commentaries, deriving from a Greek text on grammar by Dionysius Thrax. In other words, Armenian learning included a tradition of scriptural, theological, grammatical, and philosophical commentary.
The line between translation and commentary in the ancient and medieval worlds was often thin. In fact, in Armenian, the word “to translate,” թարգմանել/tarkmanel, derives from the Semitic root “trgm,” including the “Targum” which is a form of Jewish scriptural commentary. Certain texts became so important that later writers penned commentaries, both to add their own ideas to the topic, but also as teaching tools. Commentaries often depended on each other. Especially with scriptural commentaries, the insights from earlier commentaries by famous authors were often incorporated into later commentaries. St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, for instance, would have been required reading for anyone bold enough to write their own commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. One of the most revered saints of the Armenian Church, St. Gregory of Narek, in his Commentary on the Song of Songs, “implies that he is following [Gregory of] Nyssa’s work” (Ervine 44). Yet, this beautiful commentary, which we have had occasion to mention before, not only follows St. Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary, but is also enriched by other important Christian writings, including “the orations of Gregory Nazianzen” (Ervine 45).
|The Blessing of Blessings: Gregory of Narek’s Commentary on the Song of Songs||Translated from Armenian by Dr. Roberta Ervine, this commentary by one of the most revered saints of the Armenian Church exemplifies the Armenian exegetical tradition. In her introduction, Dr. Ervine notes Narek’s extensive quotation from Gregory the Theologian.|
|Sancti Gregorii Nazianzeni opera. Versio armeniaca||Three of St. Gregory Nazianzus’s “Orations” which were often collected together in Armenian manuscripts: the II, XII, and IX. In Classical Armenian with a French introduction.|
|Anna Ohanjanyan on academia.edu||Anna Ohanjanyan, a scholar at the Matenadaran in Yerevan, has written about Armenian commentaries on the work of Gregory of Nazianzus, especially the work of Armenian vartabeds at the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin in 12th-13th centuries. This is a link to her academia.edu page where several of her works (many in Armenian) are published.|
Gregory Nazianzen or Nazianzus, also known simply as “Gregory the Theologian,” is commemorated by the Armenian Apostolic Church this Saturday. He was born around 329 AD and died on January 25, 390, was briefly the Patriarch of Constantinople, and is revered as a saint by all the ancient churches. In the Orthodox Church, he, together with St. Basil of Caesarea, his close friend, and St. Basil’s brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, are collectively known as “The Cappadocian Fathers,” while together with St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom, he is revered as one of the “Three Holy Hierarchs,” the patron saints of scholars. This is apt, as his epithet “the Theologian” refers to his brilliant and also rhetorically beautiful and sophisticated theological defense of Christian orthodoxy in the face of Arianism. In the Orthodox Church, St. Simeon the “New Theologian” also earns the title “the theologian,” but in the Armenian Church, the only other person who is simply referred to as “the Theologian” is St. John the Evangelist. In other words, St. Gregory Nazianzus is a remarkable figure in the history of Christian thought and writing.
He was born to wealthy landowners in Cappadocia and received a sterling classical education, including at Athens, where he met Basil of Caesarea. Perhaps more than any other early theologian, Gregory synthesized classical learning, especially rhetoric, with Christian teaching. This brilliant synthesis earned him his nickname “the Theologian” and was a major factor in how influential his writings were over the centuries. After his education at Athens, his father, by then Bishop of Nazianzus, near his hometown, wanted him to return to be ordained a presbyter (what we would today recognize as a priest), in order to help serve the Christian community there. Gregory, considering monastic life, did not want to be ordained, and initially fled his father. He went to stay with his friend Basil, who insisted that he should be obedient to his father. Gregory’s retelling of this early story, perhaps preached upon his return to Nazianzus by way of apology, is recorded in his Second Oration, which was translated into Armenian, and often circulated in manuscripts together with Orations XII and IX.
In fact, many of Gregory’s Orations (beautifully composed rhetorically sophisticated discourses that were perhaps delivered as sermons) were translated into Armenian. Gregory was translated into Armenian early, mostly by the so-called Hellenizing School of translation which we have discussed before. In addition to St. Gregory of Narek, St. Gregory Nazianzus was highly influential on Stepanos Siwnetsi (who possibly translated some of his works). Throughout his career—early in Nazianzus working with his father, after being ordained Bishop of Sasima by his friend Basil, as coadjutor with his father in Nazianzus where he began preaching the orations, in Constantinople as Patriarch, as the leader of the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, and then again as Bishop of Nazianzus until retiring to his family estate due to health reasons in 383 where he lived until his death on January 25, 390—he wrote with both orthodox fervor and rhetorical flair. His Orations, especially the collection of five orations known the Theological Orations, are brilliant defenses of Christian orthodoxy against the various movements of his day deemed heretical. These beautiful and erudite works are deeply rewarding for any Christian to read and are available in the lovely Popular Patristics series published by St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary.
Gregory’s writings were so remarkable that they inspired their own tradition of commentary. Just like medieval logicians turned to the works of Aristotle, writing commentaries on his works in order to extend the study of logic, to make sense of the writings for themselves, and to explain the topic to students, there is a tradition of Armenian commentaries on the Orations of St. Gregory the Theologian. The scholar Anna Ohanjanyan, who works at the Matenadaran, the largest repository of Armenian manuscripts in the world, is an expert on the commentary tradition on St. Gregory the Theologian. In particular, at the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin, two beautiful monasteries still standing in Armenia, in the 12th and 13th centuries, Armenian vartabeds were careful commentators of Gregory of Nazianzus’s Oration “On the Epiphany of Christ.” This oration is numbered Oration 38 among his orations. Ohanjanyan suggests that vartabeds like Hovhannes Sargavak (1057-1129/20) and Vartan of Haghpat (d. 1191-5) were drawn to the erudite Theologian’s discussion of Christ’s Incarnation and Revelation in part because through commenting on the oration they could strengthen their position against Chalcedonian Christology. Vartan of Haghpat translated a Commentary on Gregory’s Orations by “Elias the Syrian,” which he used as the basis for his own commentary. This tradition of writing commentaries on the Orations of Gregory Nazianzus continued for centuries, though Ohanjanyan suggests the reasons changed, “turn[ing] into an explanatory means for students and broader clerical circles inquiring after the meaning of Gregory of Nazianzus’ words.” The early translation of St. Gregory the Theologian’s work into Armenian and the long commentary tradition on his Orations are a wonderful testament to the importance of this brilliant Christian source.
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