Every Sunday, during the set of litanies before the singing of the Lord’s Prayer, the Armenian Apostolic Church recalls and asks for intercession from many of the Church’s most important saints. In many parishes, these are shortened, so we don’t always hear the full list of names when the deacons ask the assembled church to remember “our first leaders and enlighteners.” After listing the two apostles of Christ traditionally said to have evangelized Armenia, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, and then St. Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia, most churches cut the litany. If we continue, however, the next few names are, “Aristakes, Vrtanes, Husig, Grigoris…” These next four are “the sons and grandsons of St. Gregory the Enlightener,” the saints whom the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates this Saturday. These early patriarchs are the first Catholicoses after St. Gregory the Illuminator and are his direct descendants. All of them were crucial to the establishment of Christianity in Armenia, becoming important sources of inspiration for subsequent Armenian Christians and leaders. Moreover, we read about these first patriarchs in the very earliest Armenian historical sources. This week, then, after briefly introducing “the sons and grandsons of St. Gregory the Enlightener,” we will also have reason to note the earliest texts and sources we have written in the Armenian language!
Many of us know the story of St. Gregory the Enlightener: how he returned from Caesarea to the court of King Drtad in Armenia and how King Drtad imprisoned him for thirteen years in Khor Virap, the “Deep Pit” after learning that he was the son of the assassin of Drtad’s father. Only at his sister Khosrovidukht’s urging did Drtad free Gregory, who healed the king and convinced him to accept Jesus Christ. Together, Gregory and Drtad as the first Catholicos, the first head of the Armenian Church and as King of Armenia, respectively, set about evangelizing the country. It is at this point in the narrative that Agathangelos, the purported historian of events of Armenia’s conversion, tells us that St. Gregory asked for the help of his sons, Aristakes and Vrtanes. Before this, the History of Agathangelos had not mentioned Gregory’s sons. The history introduces them, saying that “in time past, when Gregory was still in the flower of his youth and of military age, he had been married and had had two sons” (§ 859).
The elder son was Vrtanes, who “led a secular life,” while the younger was Aristakes, “who from his childhood had been brought up in the service of God. He had entered the religious life of hermits” and lived as a celibate ascetic. Both the sons had remained near Caesarea (Կեսարիա, modern Kayseri in Turkey), and after King Drtad learned that Gregory had sons, he sent messengers “to bring the two sons of Gregory quickly to him.” At first, Aristakes did not want to leave his hermitage in the desert near Caesarea but was eventually persuaded to come help his father with the newly converted Armenians. Though Vrtanes was the elder son, it was Aristakes, as a celibate ascetic, who was ordained a bishop by his father, St. Gregory the Enlightener, in order to help with the early evangelization of Armenia.
While St. Gregory was still alive and working to establish the Church in Armenia, he sent Aristakes to be the representative of the Armenian Church to the First Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicea, in 325. The “father of Armenian history,” Movses Khorenatsi, adds details of Aristakes’ trip, including that he travelled with the famous Bishop of Caesarea, Leontius, and was numbered among the 318 who assembled at the Great Council. Aristakes brought the canons of the Council of Nicaea back to Armenia. Eventually, Khorenatsi tells us, St. Gregory retreated to the “Caves of Mane” and that after him “Aristakes was patriarch for seven years.” Agathangelos tells us that the pious Aristakes was a successful teacher. While the Buzandaran tells us that Aristakes “died a confessor’s death,” Khorenatsi says that a one Archilaeus, governor of Fourth Armenia, “slew him by the sword.”
After the death of Aristakes, he was succeeded as Catholicos by his older brother Vrtanes. Vrtanes was married but did not have any children until his old age. God answered his prayers for children, and his wife gave birth to twin boys, the elder named Grigoris and the younger named Yusik (Husig). Vrtanes was an able leader of the early Armenian Church, continuing the work of evangelization begun by his father and brother. There was even an attempt on his life, which he thwarted and then managed to convert his would-be killers to Christianity!
|History of the Armenians by Agathangelos||Attributed to Agathangelos, this early Armenian history tells the story of the conversion of Armenia to Christianity by St. Gregory the Enlightener. Translated by Robert Thomson, with facing classical Armenian.|
|History of the Armenians by Movses Khorenatsi||Movses Khorenatsi is known as the “father of Armenian history” because of his monumental history, which traces the Armenian people to Japeth, one of the sons of Noah. Khorenatsi’s text extends both before and after the sons and grandsons of St. Gregory, but includes information about them. Translated by Robert Thomson.|
|The Epic Histories (The Buzandaran)||The anonymous Epic Histories were once attributed to “Paustos Buzand” and provide crucial details for the early years of Christian Armenian history not included by our other historians.|
Vrtanes’ sons, Grigoris and Yusik, themselves went on to serve the church. Grigoris, the elder son (and grandson of St. Gregory), became a bishop and served the regions known as Caucasian Albania and Iberia, regions that are today parts of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The Buzandaran tell us that he “restored and renewed all the churches of those regions” and that he was a saintly and ascetic man, “to all men a source of marvel and amazement” (III.vi). During his evangelizing, he was martyred by a king of one of the border regions and buried at the church of Amaras, in present-day Artsakh.
Meanwhile, Vrtanes continued as Catholicos of Armenia, supporting the Armenian nobles, the nakharars, and consoling the Armenian people after the sparapet, the commander-in-chief of the Armenian army, Vache Mamigonian was killed in battle with the Persians. Vrtanes served during the reign of King Khorov, son of King Drtad, with King and Catholicos both passing away around the same time. After the death of Vrtanes, his younger son Yusik became the Catholicos. He was sent to Caesarea to be elevated there, since at this time the connection between the major metropolitan see of Caesarea and the Armenian Church remained strong. The Buzandaran tells us that “in all things and all ways he showed his angelic traits, and accomplished everything in accordance with the grace granted to him by God” (III.xii). The story of Yusik’s own two sons, who were unworthy of the patriarchal throne, and his grandson, Nersess I, take us beyond “the sons and grandsons of St. Gregory the Enlightener,” though they are told in the same early histories we have used as sources.
All of the information we have provided so far comes from just three sources: The History of Agathangelos, The History of the Armenians by Movses Khorenatsi, and The Buzandaran, also known as the Epic Histories. Together, these three sources give us most of the information we have about the very first years of Christianity in Armenia, as well as some details about Armenia’s pre-Christian history. These sources are also some of the earliest texts written in Armenian, the alphabet being developed by St. Mesrob Mashdotz about one hundred years after the conversion of Armenia to Christianity. Of course, given that Agathangelos claims to be an eyewitness to the events of the conversion, the dates for when some of these earliest histories and sources were written becomes quite difficult to pin down. In other words, when it comes to early Armenian histories, we could chart simultaneously two timelines: one timeline would trace the chronology of the events themselves, while the other would trace when each was actually written. We will not delve further into the debates over dating Armenian texts, but scholars of texts and their transmission, philologists, continue to argue over precise dating.
In addition to these three histories, other early Armenian texts and sources include Koriun’s Life of Masdotz, supposedly written by a student of Mashdotz and one of the very earliest Armenian sources, and Eznik’s Refutation of the Sects, written by another student of Mashdotz. After these texts, other early Armenian histories include the famous History of Vardan and the Armenian War, by Eghishe, and a history by Ghazar Parpetsi. In addition to these texts, the earliest Armenian sources are translations into Armenian, mostly from Syriac and Greek, including writings by many of the other sources we have discussed over the past few months. The genre of history writing, we can see, is one of the most important genres for early Armenian sources.
Crucially, Armenian history writing is concerned more with what we might call a meaningful historical topos, the development of certain themes within history, than with detailed transmission of specific details and facts. For instance, the topos of martyrdom is prominent in the sources we have discussed above, as well as in Eghishe’s account of the Vardanatz War. Armenian history writing, like other Armenian genres, also relies heavily on typology, seeing certain people or events as related to other events. We will explore the use of typology in Armenian writing in more detail next week.
In today’s account of the sons and grandsons of St. Gregory the Enlightener, we can see some important uses of typology to develop themes within history-writing. For instance, in the family tree of St. Gregory, the younger son is often elevated above the elder. While both Vrtanes and Aristakes become Catholicos, it is Aristakes, the younger son of Gregory, who first ascends the patriarchal throne. Likewise, while Grigoris is a God-fearing bishop, it is the younger Yusik who becomes Catholicos. This echoes the Book of Genesis, where God demonstrates that Israel is the chosen people of God through the repeated selection of the younger brother over the elder. Thus, early Armenian history writing uses Biblical types to develop the salient themes of Armenian history. Armenian historians used Biblical stories, The Jewish Wars by Josephus, and Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History as types and sources, transforming them into the first Armenian histories which have become crucial sources for our knowledge of early Armenian Christian history!
|History of Vardan and the Armenian War||Another early and important Armenian history by Eghishe Vartabed, translated by Robert Thomson.|
|Studies in Armenian Literature and Christianity||A collection of essays by Robert W. Thomson, including essays on the formation of the Armenian literary tradition and the use of the Book of Maccabees in Armenian histories.|
|Azgapatum||Patriarch Malachia Ormanian’s monumental “National History,” using earlier Armenian histories to write a comprehensive history of the Armenian Church and people.|
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