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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Armenian Church

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No trustworthy account exists of the evangelization of Armenia, for the legend of King Abgar's correspondence with Christ, even if it contained any historical truth, only relates to Edessa and Syriac Christianity. That the Armenians appropriated from the Syrians this, as well as the stories of Bartholomew and Thaddeus (the Syriac Addai ), was merely an avowal on their part that Edessa was the centre from which the faith radiated over their land. In the 4th century and later the liturgy was still read in Syriac in parts of Armenia, and the New Testament, the history of Eusebius, the homilies of Aphraates, the works of St Ephraem and many other early books were translated from Syriac, from which tongue most of their ecclesiological terms were derived. The earliest notice of an organized church in Armenia is in Eusebius, H. E. vi. 46, to the effect that Dionysius of Alexandria c. 250 sent a letter to Meruzanes, bishop of the brethren in Armenia. There were many Christians in Melitene at the time of the Decian persecution in A.D. 250, and two bishops from Great Armenia were present at the council of Nice in 325. King Tiridates ( c. A.D. 238-314) had already been baptized some time after 261 by Gregory the Illuminator. The latter was ordained priest and appointed catholicus or exarch of the church of Great Armenia by Leontius, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. This one fact is certain amidst the fables which soon obscured the history of this great missionary.

1 According to some estimates the number killed was 50,000 or more.

Thus the church of Great Armenia began as a province of the Cappadocian see. But there was a tradition of a line of bishops earlier than Gregory in Siuniq, a region east of Ararat along the Araxes (Aras), which in early times claimed to be independent of the catholicus. The Adoptianist bishop Archelaus, who opposed the entry of Mani into Armenia under Probus c. 277, was also perhaps a Syriac-speaking bishop of Pers-Armenia. Almost the earliest document revealing anything of the inner organization and condition of the Armenian church in the Nicene age is the epistle of Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, to the Armenian bishop Verthanes, written between 325 and 335 and preserved in Armenian. Its genuineness has been unreasonably suspected. It insists on the erection of fonts; on distinction of grades among the ordained clergy; on not postponing baptism too long; on bishops and priests alone, and not deacons, being allowed to baptize and lay hands on or confirm the baptized; on avoiding communion with Arians; on the use of unleavened bread in the Sacrament, &c. We learn from it that the bishop of Basen and Bagrevand was an Arian at that time. By the year 450 these two districts already had separate bishops of their own. The letter of Macarius, therefore, if a forgery, must be a very early one.' The Armenians must, like the Georgians a little later, have set store by the opinion of the bishop of Jerusalem, or they would not have sent to consult him. It was equally from Jerusalem that they subsequently adopted their lectionary and arrangement of the Christian year; and a 9th-century copy of this lectionary in the Paris library preserves to us precious details of the liturgical usages of Jerusalem in the 4th century. We can trace the presence of Armenian convents on the Mount of Olives as early as the 5th century.

Tradition represents the conversion of Great Armenia under Gregory and Tiridates as a sort of triumphant march, in which the temples of the demons and their records were destroyed wholesale, and their undefended sites instantly converted into Christian churches. The questions arise: how was the transition from old to new effected ? and what was the type of teaching dominant in the new church ? Armenian tradition, confirmed by nearly contemporary Greek sources, answers the first question. The old order went on, but under new names. The priestly families, we learn, hearing that the God preached by Gregory needed not sacrifice, sent to the king a deputation and asked how they were to live, if they became Christians; for until then the priests and their families had lived off the portions of the animal victims and other offerings reserved to them by pagan custom. Gregory replied that, if they would join the new religion, not only should the sacrifices continue, but they should have larger perquisites then ever. The priestly families then went over en masse. How far the older sacrificial rules resembled the levitical law we do not know, but in the canons of Sahak, C. 43 0, the priests already receive the levitical portions of the victims; and we find that animals are being sacrificed every Sunday, on the feast days which at first were few, in fulfilment of private vows, in expiation of the sins of the living, and still more of those of the dead. No one might kill his own meat and deprive the priest of his due; but this rule did not apply to the chase. The earliest Armenian rituals contain ample services for the conduct of an agape or love feast held in the church off sacrificial meat. The victim was slaughtered by the priest in the church porch before the crucifix, after it had been ritually wreathed and given the holy salt, by licking which it appropriated a sacramental purity or efficacy previously conveyed into the salt by exorcisms and consecration. In the canons of Sahak the priest is represented as eating the sins of the people in these repasts.

1 If a forgery, why should this letter have been assigned to Macarius, a comparatively obscure person whose name is not even found in the menaea of the Eastern church ? But convincing proof of its authenticity lies in Macarius' reference to himself as merely archbishop of Jerusalem, and his avowal that he was unwilling to advise the Armenians, "being oppressed by the weakness of the authority conceded him by the weighty usages of the church." Jerusalem was only allowed to rank as a patriarchate in 451, and the seventh canon of Nice subordinated the see to that of Caesarea in Palestine. To this decree Macarius somewhat bitterly alludes.

It is easy to underrate the importance in religion of a change of names. The old sacrificial hymns were probably obscene and certainly nonsensical, and the substitution for them of the psalms, and of lections of the prophets and New Testament, was an enormous gain. We do not know precisely how the eucharistic rite was adjusted to these sacrificial meals; but, in the canons of Sahak, r Cor. xi. 17-34 is interpreted of these meals, which were known as the Dominical (suppers). The Eucharist was, therefore, long associated with the matal or animal victim, and only in the 8 th century do we hear of an interval of time being left between the fleshly and the spiritual sacrifices, as the two rites were then called. The Basilian service of the Eucharist was used in the 5th century, but superseded later on by a Byzantine rite which will be found translated in F. E. Brightman's Eastern Liturgies. The Eucharist was no doubt the one important sacrifice in the minds of the clergy who had attended the schools of Constantinople and Alexandria; yet the heart of the people remained in their ancient blood-offerings, and as late as the r2th century they were prone to deny that the mass could expiate the sins of the dead unless accompanied by the sacrifice of an animal. Perhaps even to-day the worst fate that can befall a villager after death is to be deprived, not of commemoration in the mass, but of the victim slain for his sins. The keenest spiritual weapon of the Armenian priest was ever a threat not to offer the matal for a man when he died.

Another survival in the Armenian church was the hereditary priesthood. None but a scion of a priestly family could become a deacon, elder or bishop. Accordingly the primacy remained in the family of Gregory until about 374, when the king Pap or Bab murdered Nerses, who had been ordained by Eusebius of Caesarea (362-370) and was over-zealous in implanting in Armenia the canons about celibacy, marriage, fasting, hospices and monastic life which Basil had established in Cappadocia. It may be remarked that Gregory's own family was a cadet branch of the Arsacid kin which had occupied the thrones of Persia, Bactria, Armenia and Georgia. His primacy therefore was in itself a survival of an earlier age when king and priest were one. He was in fact a rex sacrificulus, and later on, when the Arsacid dynasty fell in Armenia c. A.D. 428, the Armenian catholicus became the symbol of national unity and the rallyingpoint of patriotism. The line of Gregory was restored in 390 in the person of Isaac or Sahak, son of Nerses, and his patriarchate was the golden age of Armenian literature. But by this time the autonomy of the Armenian church was thoroughly established. On the death of Nerses the right of saying grace at the royal meals, which was the essence of the catholicate, was transferred by the king, in despite of the Greeks, to the priestly family of Albianus, and thenceforth no Armenian catholicus went to Caesarea for ordination. The ties with Greek official Christendom were snapped for ever, and in subsequent ages the doctrinal preferences of the Armenians were usually determined more by antagonism to the Greeks than by reflection. If they accepted the council of Ephesus in 430 and joined in the condemnation of Nestorius, it was rather because the Sassanid kings of Persia, who thirsted for the reconquest of Armenia, favoured Nestorianism, a form of doctrine current in Persia and rejected in Byzantium. But later on, about 480, and throughout the following centuries, the Armenians rejected the decrees of Chalcedon and held that the assertion of two natures in Christ was a relapse into the heresy of Nestor. From the close of the 5th century the Armenians have remained monophysite, like the Copts and Abyssinians, and have only broken the record with occasional short interludes of orthodoxy, as when in 633 the emperor Heraclius forced reunion on them, under a catholicus named Esdras, at a council held in Erzerum. Even then all parties were careful not to mention Chalcedon. The march of Arab conquest kept the Armenians friendly to Byzantium for a few years; but in 718 the catholicus John of Odsun ascended the throne and at the council of Manazkert in 728 repeated and confirmed the anathemas against Chalcedon and the tome of Leo, that had been first pronounced by the catholicus Babken in 491 at a synod held in Valarshapat by the united Armenian, Georgian or Iberian, and Albanian churches.

The Armenians marked their complete disruption with the Greeks by starting an era of their own at the synod of Dvin. The era began on the 11th of July 552, and their year is vague, that is to say, it does not intercalate a day in February every fourth year, like the Julian calendar.

The two churches of Iberia and Albania at first depended on the Armenian for ordination of their primates or catholici, and in large part owed their first constitution to Armenian missionaries sent by Gregory the Illuminator. The Iberians still reverence as saints the Armenian doctors of the 5th century, but as early as 552 they began to resent the dictatorial methods of the Armenians, as well might a proud race of mountaineers who never wholly lost their political independence; and they broke off their allegiance to the Armenian see very soon afterwards, accepted Chalcedon and joined the Byzantine church. The Albanians of the Caucasus were also converted in the age of Gregory, early in the 4th century, and were loyal to the Armenians in the great struggle against Mazdaism in the 5th; but broke away for a time towards 600, and chose a patriarch without sending him to Armenia for ordination. Eventually this interesting church was engulfed by the rising tide of Mahommedan conquest, but not before one of their bishops, named Israel, had converted (677-703) the Huns who lay to the north of the Caspian and had translated the Bible and liturgies into their language. If the Albanian and Hunnish versions could be found, they would be of the greatest linguistic importance.

The mother church of Armenia was established by Gregory at Ashtishat in the province of Taron, on the site of the great temple of Wahagn, whose festival on the seventh of the month Sahmi was reconsecrated to John the Baptist and Athenogenes, an Armenian martyr and Greek hymn writer. The first of Navasard, the Armenian new year's day, was the feast of a god Vanatur or Wanadur (who answered to Zeus EvLos) in the holy pilgrim city of Bagawan. His day was reconsecrated to the Baptist, whose relics were brought to Bagawan. The feast of Anahite, the Armenian Venus and spouse of the chief god Aramazd, was in the same way rededicated to the Virgin Mary, who for long was not very clearly distinguished by the Armenians from the virgin mother church. The old cult of sacred stones and trees by an easy transition became cross-worship, but a cross was not sacred until the Christ had been, by priestly prayer and invocation, transferred into it.

What was the earliest doctrine of the churches of Armenia ? If we could believe the fathers of the 5th and succeeding centuries Nicene orthodoxy prevailed in their country from the first; and in the 5th century they certainly chose for translation the works of orthodox fathers alone, such as Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Jerusalem and Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, Julius of Rome, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, avoiding Origen and other fathers who were becoming suspect. However, we do hear of versions of Nestorian writers like Diodore of Tarsus being in circulation, and the Disputation of Archelaus proves that the current orthodoxy of eastern Armenia was Adoptianist, if not Ebionite in tone. The Persian Armenians as late as the 6th century had not heard of the faith of Nicaea, and only then received it from the catholicus Babken. They sent a copy of their old creed to Babken, and it closely resembles the Adoptianist creed of Archelaus, the gist of which was that Jesus, until his thirtieth year, was a man mortal like other men; then, because he was righteous above all others, he was promoted to the honour and name of Son of God. He received the title by grace, but was not equal to God the Father. Because the Spirit worked with him, he was able to vanquish Satan and all desires, and because of his righteousness and good works he was made worthy of grace and became a Temple of God the Word, which came down from heaven in Jordan, dwelt in him and through him wrought miracles. From such a standpoint the baptism of Jesus was the moment of the divine incarnation. The man righteous above all others was then reborn of the Spirit, was illuminated, was spiritually anointed, became the Christ and Son of God. In effect the fathers of the Armenian church often fell back into such language, far removed as it is from orthodoxy; and they em phasized the importance of thebaptismal feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January by refusing to accept the feast of the physical birth of the 25th of December. As late as 1165 their patriarch Nerses defends the Armenian custom of keeping Christmas on the 6th of January on the express ground that as he was born after the flesh from the Virgin, so he was born by way of baptism from the Jordan. The custom from the first, he says, had been to feast on one and the same day the two births, much as they differed in sacramental import and in point of time. We see how deep the early Adoptianism had struck its roots, when a primate of the 12th century could still appeal to the baptismal regeneration of Jesus. The same Nerses held that the second Adam, Jesus Christ, received a new body and nature and the sevenfold grace of the Spirit in the Jordan. The Armenian doctors also taught that John by laying hands on Jesus and ordaining him at his baptism sacramentally transferred to him the three graces or charismata of kingship, prophecy and priesthood which had belonged to ancient Israel. After baptism, if not before, the flesh of Christ was incorruptible. It consisted of ethereal fire, and he was not subject to the ordinary phenomena of digestion, secretions and evacuations.

Monastic institutions were hardly introduced in Armenia before the 5th century, though Christian rest-houses had been erected along the high-roads long before and are mentioned in the Disputation of Archelaus. The Armenians called them wanq, and out of them grew the monasteries. The monks were, strictly speaking, penitents wearing the cowl, and not allowed to take a part in church government. This belonged to the elders. At first there was no separate episcopal ordination, and the one rite of elder or priest (Armen. Qahanay, Heb. Cohen ) sufficed. There were also deacons, half-deacons and readers. Besides these there was a class of wardapets or teachers, answering to the didascalos of the earliest church, whose province it was to guard the doctrine and for whom no rite of ordination is found in the older rituals.

A few other peculiarities of Armenian church usage or belief deserve notice. In baptism the rubric ordains that the baptized be plunged three times in the font in commemoration of the entombment during three days of the Lord. In the West trine immersion was generally held to be symbolic of the triune name of "Father, Son and Holy Ghost." This name the Armenians have used, at least since the year loo; before which date their fathers often speak of baptism into the death of Christ as the one essential. As late as about 1300 a traveller hostile to the Armenians reported to the pope that he had witnessed baptisms without any trinitarian invocation in as many as three hundred parish churches.

The paschal lamb is now eaten on Sunday, but until the 11th century, and even later, it was eaten with the Eucharist at a Lord's Supper celebrated on the evening of Maundy Thursday after the rite of pedilavium or washing of feet. On the morning of the same day the penitents were released from their fast.

The rite of extreme unction was introduced in the crusading epoch, although it was already usual to anoint the bodies of dead priests. The worship of images never seems to have taken root among Armenians; indeed they supplied the Greek world with iconoclast soldiers and emperors. The worship of crosses into which the Spirit or Christ had been inserted by the priest must have satisfied the religious needs of a people who, save in architecture, showed little artistic faculty. In their older rituals we find a rite for blessing a painted church, but no word of statues. Frescoes in their churches are rare, and mostly too high up for veneration to be paid to them.

On certain days the cross was washed, and the water in which it had been washed was a sovereign charm for curing sickness in men and animals and for bringing fertility to the land.

In the older rituals we find a rite of exhomologesis, for restoring those who had sinned after baptism. It was a medicine of sin that could only be used once and not a second time. In form it is a rehearsal of the first baptismal rite, but with omission of the water. It involved like the first rite open confession and repentance, and absolution by the church. In a later and less rigorous age this rite was abridged and adjusted to constant repetition, in such wise that a sinner could be restored to grace not once only, but as often as the clergy chose to accept his repentance and confession. Thus the whole development of the penitentiary system is traceable in the MSS.

The confession of a dying man might be taken by any layman present, and written down in order to be shown to the priest when he arrived. It then was the duty of the latter to supplicate for his forgiveness, and administer to him the Eucharist.

The clergy of all grades were originally married. The parish priests, or white clergy, are so still, except some of the Latinizing ones. But since the 12th century, or even earlier, the higher clergy, i.e. patriarchs and bishops, have taken monkish vows and worn the cowl.

There were abortive attempts to unite the Armenian church with the Byzantine in the 9th century under the patriarch Photius, and again late in the 12th under the emperor Manuel Comnenus, when a joint council met at Romkla, near Tarsus, but ended in nothing (A.D. 1179). Neither could the Armenians keep on good terms even with the Syriac monophysites. From the age of the crusades on, the Armenians of Cilicia, whose patriarch sat at Sis, improved their acquaintance with Rome; and more than one of their patriarchs adopted the Roman faith, at least in words. Dominican missions went to Armenia, and in 1328 under their auspices was formed a regular order called the United Brethren, the forerunners of the Uniats of the present day, who have convents at Venice and Vienna, a college in Rome and a numerous following in Turkey. They retain their Armenian liturgies and rites, pruned to suit the Vatican standards of orthodoxy, and they recognize the pope as head of the church.

The patriarchs of Great Armenia first resided at Ashtishat, on the Araxes. From 478 to 931 they occupied Dvin in the same neighbourhood, then Aghthamar, an island in the Lake of Van, 931-967, the city of Ani, 992-1054, where are still visible the magnificent ruins of their churches and palaces. Since 1441 the chief catholicus has sat at Echmiadzin, the convent of Valarshapat, now part of Russian Armenia. A rival catholicus, with a small following, still has his cathedral and see at Sis. The catholicus of Valarshapat is nominally chosen by all Armenians. A synod of bishops, monks and doctors meets regularly to transact under his eye the business of the convent and the oecumenical affairs of the church; but its decisions are subject to the veto of a Russian procurator. There are Armenian patriarchs, subject to the spiritual jurisdiction of Echmiadzin, in Constantinople and Jerusalem. In the latter place the Armenians occupy a convent on Mount Sion, and keep up in the churches of the Sepulchre and of Bethlehem their own distinct rites .and feasts, the only ones there which at all resemble those of the 4th century.

The following list of councils was compiled by John, catholicus about the year 728, and read at the council of Manazkert, when the dogmatic and disciplinary attitude of the Armenian church was defined once and for all: I. In twentieth year of catholicate of Gregory and thirtyseventh of Trdat, the king, on return of Aristaces from council of Nice, bringing the Nicene creed and canons.

2. Council held by St Nerses on his return from the council of the 150 fathers at Constantinople against Macedonius.

3. Held by St Sahak and 1Iesrop on receipt of letters from Proclus and Cyril after the council of Ephesus, when the "Glory in the Highest" was adopted. Held against Nestorianism.

4. Held byJoseph, disciple of Mashdotz (Mesrop) and St Sahak, in Shahapiwan in the sixth year of King Yazkert (i.e. Yazdegerd) of Persia, for the regulation of the church. Forty bishops present. (The Massalians were anathematized.) 5. Held by Babken, catholicus, in the City-plain (i.e. Dvin), in the 18th year of King Kavat (i.e. Kavadh), against the heresy of Acacius and Barsuma (Bar-sauma), the friends of Nestorius. The true (Nicene) faith was sent to the Armenians of the farther East (shortly afterwards a slightly different creed was adopted, identical with a pseudo-Athanasian symbol used by Evagrius of Pontus and given in Greek in Patr. Gr. xxvi. Col. 1232).

6. At the beginning of the Armenian era, held by Nerses in Dvin, in the fourth year of his catholicate, in the fourteenth of Chosroes' reign and in the fourteenth of Justinian Caesar. Held against Chalcedon, uniting the Baptism and Christmas feasts on the 6th of January (Epiphany), declaring for monophysitism, and adopting in the Trisagion the words "who wast crucified for us." This settlement lasted for about seventy-four years.

7. After the retaking of Jerusalem and recovery of the Cross from the Persians in the eighteenth year of his reign, Heraclius called a mixed council at Karin (Theodosiopolis) of Greeks and Armenians under Ezr (Esdras), catholicus, at which the preceding council of Dvin was cursed, its reforms repudiated and the confession of Chalcedon adopted. This remained the official attitude of the Armenian church until the catholicate of Elias (703-717). John, catholicus, denies to Ezr's meeting the name of council, and so makes his own the seventh.

8. Under John, catholicus, in Manazkert, in the one hundred and seventieth year of the Armenian era (= A.D. 728) under the presidency of Gregory Asharuni Chorepiscopos (Gregory Asheruni). All the Armenian bishops attended, as also the metropolitan of Urhha (Edessa), Jacobite bishops of Gartman, of Nfrkert, Amasia, by command of the archbishop of Antioch. Chalcedon was repudiated afresh, union with the Jacobites instituted, use of water and leaven in the Eucharist condemned, the five days' preliminary fast before Lent restored, Saturday as well as Sunday made a day of feasting and synaxis, any but the orthodox excluded from the Maundy Thursday Communion, the first communion of the new catechumens; union of the Baptismal and Christmas feasts was restored, and the faithful forbidden to fast on Fridays from Easter until Pentecost. In general these rules have been observed in the Armenian church ever since.

For list of authorities on the Armenian church see the works enumerated at the end of ARMENIAN LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE. For the relations of the Armenian church to the Persian kings see PERSIA: Ancient History, section viii. §§ 2 and 3. (F. C. C.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Armenian Church'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica.​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​a/armenian-church.html. 1910.