Vartabeds, the scholar-monks of the Armenian Apostolic Church, occupy a central role in the Church and in the imagination of Armenian Christians. There are few images as iconic of Armenian Christianity as the veghar, the pointed cowl worn by celibate clergy—so much so that there is a long association between the pointed veghar and the characteristic dome of Armenian churches. When we translate vartabed into English, we can use the term archimandrite, a title in Latin and Greek Christian traditions given to monastics who are also priests. Yet another possible translation is doctor of the church. This phrase reflects the learning associated with the position of vartabeds, and not merely their monastic vocation. Apegha refers to any monastic, but vartabed specifies a monastic priest who has been given the authority to teach theology. Such a task is not undertaken lightly. To be called a doctor of the church is to bear responsibility for the Truth of one’s teaching and for the souls of the flock one is called to tend.
There is some confusion in using the term “doctor of the church” to translate vartabed because the Catholic Church uses the phrase in a much more specific manner: for people who have been declared saints because of their contribution to theology. Only 36 saints in the history of Christianity are recognized by the Catholic Church as “doctors of the church,” including four women, though there are other saints who made vast contributions to theological knowledge but are recognized as martyrs, for instance, rather than as doctors of the church. This category of “doctor of the church” only exists in this highly specific way in the Catholic Church, though other Christian churches recognize saints whose main way of witnessing to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is through their teaching and scholarship. For instance, the Eastern Orthodox Churches revere both The Three Holy Hierarchs and The Cappadocian Fathers as groups of saints known for their theological acumen. The Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates several groups of prominent theologians throughout the year, many of whom are recognized in all the ancient churches, overlapping with the Catholic “doctors of the church” or the Eastern Orthodox “Cappadocian Fathers.”
This Saturday, the Armenian Church commemorates a distinguished group of universally recognized “doctors of the church”: St. Basil of Caesarea, his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, Pope Sylvester I of Rome, and Ephrem the Syrian. All four of them are early and perennial sources of Christian teaching whose lives and writings continue to edify and inspire love of God. Entire books have been written about each of these men and their texts, so we can only briefly address them here. The Armenian Church calendar also provides opportunities to return to some of them again throughout the year. Today, we will spend a little time with the two brothers from Caesarea before offering a few insights into the specifically Armenian version of the “doctor of the church,” the vartabed.
Basil of Caesarea was born in 329 or 330 A.D., with two cities, Caesarea in Cappadocia (modern-day Kayseri in Turkey) and Neocaesarea in the Pontus (Black Sea region) both possible places for his birthplace. His younger brother Gregory of Nyssa was born in 331. They were born into a prominent Christian family, though their paternal grandparents had suffered hardships and persecution as Christians. Their father was a noted teacher of rhetoric in addition to being known as a pious Christian. Though both these men would go on to positions of prominence in the Church, attaining both ecclesial rank and leaving important writings to posterity as sources of strength, it is perhaps their older sister Macrina who was the most consequential source of all. Named for their grandmother, their sister Macrina had already entered monastic life by the time either of her younger brothers finished their formidable educations. It was Macrina who convinced Basil to take up the life of an ascetic. She was also crucial in Gregory’s decision to be baptized and to leave his own career teaching rhetoric. Of the ten siblings, these three, all recognized as Christian saints, stand out as major sources for Christian life and learning.St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Gregory of Nyssa were both prolific writers, whose texts have served as important sources of Christian thinking, including for Armenians, for centuries. Together, along with St. Basil’s friend and schoolmate St. Gregory Nazianzus, they mounted a defense of the Orthodox faith against swirling fourth-century heresies, culminating in Gregory of Nyssa’s participation in the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 where he presented part of his tract Contra Eunomius, a continuation of an important theological debate begun by his brother Basil. Basil’s contribution to Armenian Christianity has been deep and profound. When discussing monasticism, we mentioned that The Order of St. Basil, his rules for living in a monastic community, was foundational for Armenian monastic life. Similarly, the Liturgy of St. Basil, most explicitly the anaphora, the central portion of the Divine Liturgy around the consecration of Holy Communion and its main prayer, was often used by Armenians. Though this is not the anaphora currently used by the Armenian Apostolic Church, Basil has been an important liturgical for the Armenian Church. Likewise, Basil’s Hexameron, a series of homilies on the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis, exerted a profound influence on later Armenian thinking. Through their richly philosophic theological writings, their example of ascetic monasticism, and their influence on the liturgy, these siblings, these sources of Christian teaching and faith, are truly doctors of the church.
|The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers||A massive collection of early Christian writings. In the Second Series, Volume V includes works by Gregory of Nyssa and Volume VIII includes those by Basil.|
|Basil of Caesarea||By Phillip Rousseau, a clear and approachable introduction to the life and writings of St. Basil of Caesarea.|
|St. Basil of Caesarea and Armenian Cosmology||A study of the influence of St. Basil’s Hexameron on medieval Armenian ideas about the cosmos. By Robert Thomson, at St. Nersess.|
Armenians recognize these Cappadocian siblings as great sources for the Christian faith and for teaching. Yet the title “doctor of the church” is not used in quite such a specific way. Rather, a vartabed, a “doctor of the church” is the title given to a monastic priest who has undergone rigorous training and is qualified to teach theology. Almost all original works in the Armenian language from the creation of the alphabet in the early fifth century up until the nineteenth century came from the pen of a vartabed. St. Gregory the Illuminator is rightly called a vartabed, the long homily from the history of Agathangelos is known as The Teaching of St. Gregory. This catechesis would be standard instruction for Armenian Christians and a lasting source for theological insights for later Armenian vartabeds. Mesrob Masdotz, the creator of the alphabet, is recognized as an Armenian vartabed, the great preacher and teacher who invented the alphabet explicitly in the service of the Gospel of Christ.
Over time, the vartabed became a recognized “academic” rank, attained after rigorous instruction in the Armenian monasteries that were also centers of learning. Some of these monasteries, such as Gladzor under the instruction of Esayi Nchetsi (pictured above), were so intellectually important that they are known as “universities.” Often, these monasteries were associated with individual vartabeds. Once a vartabed had completed his education at one monastery, he might stay at the monastery of his instruction (such as Gregory of Datev) or he might go out and establish a new center of monastic learning. Some monasteries, such as Goshavank, retain the name of their illustrious vartabed founder, in this case the great jurist and scholar of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, Mkhitar Gosh.
Vartabeds, as priests, monastics, teachers, preachers, and academic theologians, were and are some of the most prominent figures in the Armenian Church. With so many different roles and an outsized place in the literary and ecclesiastic history of Armenians, how should we think about the figure of the vartabed, the doctor of the church? One of the greatest vartabeds in Armenian history, Gregory of Narek, gives us a beautiful description of the role of the vartabed in his prologue to his Commentary on the Song of Songs: rather than simply the mind of the church, “Gregory identifies them as Christ’s jaws, whose function it is to take in the Word, ruminate on it, and produce it in digestible form for the rest of the Body.” Dr. Roberta Ervine makes it clear, though, that Gregory did not believe the vartabed should actually digest the Word for the people. “Their role was not so much to make plain as it was to allure through explanation.” The great vartabeds of the Armenian Apostolic Church have and continue to draw the faithful near to Jesus Christ and to help them digest and be edified by the life-giving Word of God.
In a wonderful addendum, St. Gregory of Narek, exemplary vartabed of the Armenian Apostolic Church, was declared a “Doctor of the Church” by Pope Francis I in 2015. This Armenian saint joins the illustrious and selective ranks of those recognized as Doctors of the Church by the Catholic Church, alongside St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Sylvester of Rome, and Ephrem the Syrian.
|The Teaching of Saint Gregory||Translated by Robert Thomson for the St. Nersess Avant series, the long homily of St. Gregory the Illuminator establishes him as a vartabed and is one of the most important sources for later Armenian vartabeds.|
|Mesrob Mashtotz: the Great Vartabed||A pamphlet by Fr. Arten Ashjian published for use for the ACYOA. It describes Masdotz as a vartabed, a doctor of the church.|
|The Blessing of Blessings: Gregory of Narek’s Commentary on the Song of Songs||Translated by Roberta Ervine with an extensive and informative introduction including a discussion of the role of vartabeds.|
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter for more images of vartabeds from the pages of the books in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center! Come visit the Zohrab Information Center and make use of the extensive collection of pamphlets and small-press publications, such as the one by Rev. Fr. Arten Ashjian on Mesrob Masdotz.