The Conversion of Armenia as a Literary Work
Robin Darling Young
Compared with the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Armenia’s Christianization was distinct in at least two respects: first, it did not spread initially through the communities of the Jewish diaspora, and second, it did not spread through an urban culture.1 Unlike the early Christian communities to the west, it did not enter into a dialogue with its surrounding pagan culture in order to discover and carry away “the spoils of the Egyptians;” rather, its leaders utterly rejected their predecessors, the Zoroastrian priests and their rites, even though Zoroastrian customs and myths became ingrained in popular Armenian religious practices. They largely ignored the long epic traditions of the gusans or bards. Also unlike the early Christianity of the Graeco-Roman world, Armenian religious expression did not develop a strong anti-Jewish apology at an early stage. Just the opposite: once they had absorbed and reflected upon the biblical narrative, those Armenian Christians who wrote histories of their church’s battle against Iranian religion considered their national leaders to resemble the heroes of the Maccabean revolt. Consequently, and contrarily, they pictured themselves as defending an ancestral religion against a foreign imposition, when the reverse was actually the case.2
Much of this distinctiveness comes about from the relatively late date of the entry of Christianity into Armenia. Because Christianity came into the country as a significant religious force only in the late third and early fourth centuries, and was strongly influenced by the developed institutions of its neighboring Christian churches, it did not grow out of the few Jewish communities there; it never had to distinguish itself forcefully from them. Because Armenian society was composed of a federation of clans governed by princes, over whom a relatively weak king had exercised more or less effective rule for six hundred years as a client-king of either Persia or Rome, and because those clans had their headquarters in fortresses, the few cities in the country were little more than trading posts.3 Therefore, there was little urban culture in which Christian congregations could gradually develop a literature and philosophy based upon the combination of pagan and Christian sources, as instruments for critical opposition to paganism and Judaism, or as reflections upon their own religious language and symbols. Few pre-existing schools of rhetoric or philosophy provided a base for the training of Armenian teachers.
But in at least one way, Armenian Christianity displayed a feature that resembled other churches of the period. This was the knowledge that Armenian was a sacred language, and that writing in it was a holy task. As the Hellenization of the Near East waned in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the languages that eventually became the vehicles of religious expression for the divergent churches of the eastern band of the empire -- the churches of Egypt, Syria, and Armenia -- came to the fore as sacred languages in which indigenous literatures formed.4 An Armenian version of the Christian tradition was eventually imported as translations or paraphrases from early Christian writings in Greek and Syriac (Aramaic), and then created with the composition of original Armenian works, but this did not occur until the middle of the fifth century. Before that time, Armenians heard the Bible and the liturgy translated during religious services by the targmaničkʼ. That term, a calque on the Aramaic word targum, meant not only “exact translators,” but “commentators,” and is an indication that such translations could be expansive paraphrases. Armenians themselves took pains to correct early translations by more exact ones made later on the part of the “holy translators” of the early fifth century, when their own script and grammar had become more refined. Thus the historian who attempts to describe the conversion of Armenia to Christianity faces a situation much different from that of any other early Christian culture. For one thing, many of the distinctive features of Armenian Christianity are derived largely from its Iranian “substratum,” to employ the term of historian Nina Garsoïan.5 Its culture was not a Mediterranean culture, but a Persian one; Christianity severed it from its mother-culture. Another problem confronts the historian of Armenian Christianity, however. She also must sift through a history “clouded in legends and described in sources revised by later editors,” as John Meyendorff has described the traditional accounts of the founding of the churches of the Caucasus.6 Greek and Syriac sources have little to say about the founding of the Armenian church, and therefore the historian has largely to rely upon the Armenian sources themselves. Yet these sources are extremely problematic, whether they are works of religious polemic, hagiography or moral teaching, or strictly historical works, in which case they also are theological in the sense that their story is the story of the triumph of the Christian God. No pagan, Zoroastrian Armenian literature survives, because there was none; its religious and epic compositions were oral.7
In each of the earliest histories of Armenia composed in the Armenian language, there is a rival version of the conversion of Armenia. The first gives the credit to Gregory the Illuminator, confessor and catechist and finally patriarch by 314 (traditionally 301 C.E.), for his conversion of King Trʼdat and the royal house of Armenia and by extension the entire country. It is the subject of Agatʼangełos’ History of the Armenians.8 The other version of Armenia’s conversion makes the apostle Thaddeus the original missionary, and credits monastic evangelization for the localized and patchy spread of Christianity in the country. It is found in the Buzandaran Patmutiwnkʼ or Epic Histories, also composed in the late fifth century.9
By the end of the sixth century, the first version had become the received tradition of the conversion of Armenia, and it is the version that continued to appear in medieval and early modern eras, and continues in the contemporary Armenian presentation of the establishment of the church in the country. In fact, the frequently repeated description of Armenia as “the first Christian nation,” depends upon Agatʼangełos’ version of conversion. Thus it can be seen at the outset that the conversion of Armenia was a “literary work,” in other words that it was already a legendary phenomenon as presented by the first Armenian historian, and that one cannot penetrate the polished literary presentation of the conversion to find documents of the kind that exist for the early history of Christianity farther to the west or to the south. There are no “apostolic” epistles, for instance, nor any early church orders. A comparable situation for early Graeco-Roman Christianity would be if only Eusebius existed as the first documentation for the conversion of the empire.
There is, however, another way in which the conversion of Armenia can be said to be a literary work. Armenia’s Christianization, which occurred over the course of several centuries, and included the thorough adaptation of Zoroastrian customs and beliefs into both ritual and folk religion, was literary because it depended upon the development of an alphabet and written literature for the creation of a native liturgy and Bible. But the monastic teacher Mashtots (later known as Mesrop) did not craft this alphabet until approximately the year 404, a full century after Trʼdat’s baptism. Early Christianity was eminently a literate and literary religion, however, and its spread demonstrably depended upon the creation of a literature capable of expressing the subtleties of its thought. It can be demonstrated that early Christianity was a religion of the book and the classroom, even though cult and liturgy were the communal practices upon which its literature depended. Without a literature, Armenian Christianity depended upon a liturgy and Bible recited in Greek or Syriac and simultaneously translated into Armenian. Upon the creation of the alphabet, which Armenian tradition regards as a divine revelation, depended the translation of Greek and Syriac patristic works, closely followed by the gradual composition of a Christian literature that both created and fostered the image of a Christian Armenia.
This essay assumes at the outset that Armenia was not the first Christian nation, even if nation is understood as azg (Armenian for ‘people,’ ‘race,’ ‘gens’), and not in the modern sense as a territorial state. Rather, all that can be said with respect to its priority as Christian is that Armenian Christianity was the first national church, and that after 555, with its definitive split from Constantinople, it became the first autocephalous Church. Later, of course, to a degree perhaps unique in the entire history of Christianity as a whole, Armenian Christianity became coterminous with the nation of Armenia, either in its homeland or in its early and frequent diasporas. To be Armenian was to be a Christian. But this equation depended upon the rapid development of a structure and literature through which the Christianity of Armenia became a self-contained entity, seeking no converts from outside the people and never reuniting with a larger Christian body or, after the fourth century, sending missionaries to convert another people.
This much is, of course, well known already; most recently Nina Garsoïan and Robert Thomson have shown through detailed studies and translations how Armenians adapted Christianity to their own culture over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries. What has not yet been thoroughly considered is the way in which the Christianization of Armenia is a mirror image of the adherence to a single religion insisted upon by the Iranian empire, i.e., Zoroastrianism. To be a loyal subject of the Iranian shah in the resurgent Persian Empire of the third century (as Mani -- an Iranian prophet who founded the gnostic religion Manichaeism that bears his name -- learned to his discomfort) was to be a Zoroastrian, and the proper worship of fire, with the devotion to the deities of the Zoroastrian pantheon and performance of the rites of the Good Religion, made one a loyal Iranian subject. The famous inscription of Kartir, chief magus under Vahram II, is worth recalling for its emphasis upon Zoroastrianism as the only permissible imperial religion:
And from province to province, place to place, throughout the empire the rites of Ohrmezd and the gods became more important and the Mazdayasnian religion and magians were greatly honoured in the empire and great satisfaction befell the gods and water and fire and beneficent creatures, and great blows and torment befell Ahriman and the demons, and the heresy of Ahriman and the demons departed and was routed from the empire. And Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and Nazarenes and Christians [Syriac- and Greek-speaking respectively] and Baptists and Manichaeans were smitten in the empire, and idols were destroyed and the abodes of the demons disrupted and made into thrones and seats of the gods.10
It is now known how thoroughly Armenia was culturally a part of Iran, not of the Graeco-Roman world, and this fact alone makes it worth studying as an early Christian culture. Armenian Christian religious expression, though based on the liturgy and literature imported from Greek-speaking Cappadocia and Syriac-speaking Mesopotamia, was thoroughly imbued with Iranian cultural habits and Zoroastrian religious features. But it consciously rejected them, much as Zoroastrianism rejected Greek and Syriac Christian religious custom and tradition. However, whereas Iranian Zoroastrians emphasized continuity with their past by the rejection of all other religions, newly-converted Armenian Christians had to suppress all aspects of Zoroastrianism, at least in theory, in order to reject its complete and exclusive claim on Armenian religious loyalty. Some of the palpable tension in early Armenian homiletic works, between the irrepressible pagan past and the Christian present for which they were striving, is doubtless due to a perceived need to reject utterly both the beliefs and the customs of Zoroastrianism, despite its strong hold on Armenian religious habits and imagination. According to Garsoïan, the religion of Arsacid Armenia was characterized by “Graeco-Iranian syncretism” in which there were some Semitic deities worshipped. But it became more strongly Iranian shortly before Trʼdat’s acceptance of baptism at the hands of Gregory.11
The Iranian aspect of these syncretic deities tended to dominate as a stronger Zoroastrian current seems to have swept Armenia in the third century, probably as a result of Sasanian rule. Trʼdat the Great invoked for his realm the blessings of the Persian deities Aramazd, Anahit the Lady, and Vahagn on the eve of its Christianization. The setting up of a Zoroastrian fire temple at Bagawan, and the destruction of the statues placed there by Vałaršak, also seem to herald a shift from the Greek aniconic tradition. The zeal of the Sasanian high priest Kartir in establishing and fostering fire temples “wherever the horses and men of the King of Kings arrived” -- and specifically in Armenia -- is amply attested by his inscriptions. Traces of Zoroastrian beliefs and customs, sun worship, and especially the practice of consanguineous marriages lingered, long after the Christianization of the country.12
What is not properly appreciated, then, and needs much more exploration than can be achieved in this short essay, is how Armenian Christianity crafted itself as a national entity through its religion in imitation of, but in opposition to, the imperial entity of Iran to the south. Thus, it created the durable image of an embattled and martyred Armenia, pulled between Iran to the east and the Roman Empire to the west, or after the seventh century, Islam and Byzantium. Its own version of Christianity, by the late fifth century non-Chalcedonian and national, was the ballast that kept it from tipping either way; its self-image as suffering a similar plight to that of the Maccabees gave it its biblical precedent.
Thus in the most influential Christian works of the fifth century, those works that describe the conversion in the fourth and the battle with Iran in the fifth, Armenian Christianity is always posed against Iran as thoroughly Christian versus thoroughly pagan, and the progress of Armenian Christianization is portrayed as the stark choice between one or the other. And even though this portrait owes much to the biblical narrative of faithfulness to the covenant on the part of Israel, as fulfilled in the new covenant made with Christ, it was even more effective in Armenian history-writing because of the entirely different religious situation in Iran compared with that of the Roman Empire, where there had been, the custom of participating in various forms of paganism and various degrees of practice until Christianity succeeded, at least officially, in suppressing them all.13
One example of this stark, mirror-image opposition comes from the late-fifth-century History of Vardan and the Armenian War, by Ełishe the monk.14 The book describes Yazdegerd II's persecution of Christians in Armenia and his attempt to restore Zoroastrianism as the religion of what, after all, he regarded as an Iranian province. Ełishe writes that the grand vizier of Iran commanded the chief magus of Iran to write a letter commanding the obedience of “Greater Armenia.” The letter begins by asserting the absolute superiority of the imperial religion in terms that are as exclusive as any Christian apology. It then presents the beliefs of the Zurvanite form of Zoroastrianism before concluding with a refutation of Christian beliefs and practices.
“You must know,” it begins, “that every man who dwells under heaven and does not accept the Mazdaean religion is deaf and blind and deceived by the demons of Haraman.” The letter proceeds to tell the myth of Zrvan, the single god of Zurvanite Zoroastrianism, whose sacrifice for a son produced not one divine offspring but two, a good and an evil one, from whom come “all misfortunes and disasters that occur, and bitter wars.” From the good come “success and empires and glory and honors and bodily health, beauty of face, eloquence and longevity.”15
Against the Christian doctrine of evil and original sin, the letter asserts that God did not become jealous and impose death on man in consequence of the sin in the garden; “such jealousy not even man has for man, let alone God for men. For who says this is deaf and blind and deceived by the demons of Haraman.” The letter also asserts that Jesus was the son of “Banturak”, i.e., Panthera, and -- recalling the political loyalty of the Armenians -- the Roman straying after Jesus should not be imitated by them. The shah has to “give account for you before God.” It castigates the ascetic discipline of the “Nazarenes,” the Iranian term for Christians native to its empire: “if people were to listen to them and not approach their wives,” the vizier writes, “the end of the world would soon arrive.” Christian doctrines, the letter concludes, are “unworthy,” particularly as they deal with the matter of the suffering and death of God. “Demons, who are evil, are not seized and tortured by men, let alone God, the Creator of all creatures. This is shameful for you to say, and these words are most incredible to us.”16
The letter of the vizier has, in Ełishe’s accounting, set one credo against another, and although it is a plausible representation of the Iranian shah’s sponsorship of Zurvanite Zoroastrianism versus Christianity, a sponsorship he was reinforcing with persecution, it is perhaps more important as a representation of the singular way in which Christianity was opposed, by a singular religion of an empire whose religious officials were also government officials. Ełishe is repeating a theme established in the previous century -- of the unification of a people around a religion perceived as opposition to a neighboring empire’s -- only in his case it was Armenian Christianity, not the Zurvanite religion, and the empire was Iran, not Rome, with which most Armenians had by this time little contact. That is why the rebel Vardan Mamikonian becomes a hero for Ełishe, and that also is why the books of the Maccabees guide his portrayal of Armenia.
The roots of Ełishe’s approach, however, were established a half-century before he wrote, and it is to these -- to Agatʼangełos and Koriwn -- that I will turn, after a necessary outline of the main events of the nearly century and a half between the baptism of Trʼdat and the Armenian rebellion in 451.
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF CHRISTIANITY IN ARMENIA
Therefore, although the year 2001 was officially celebrated as the seventeen hundredth anniversary of the conversion of Armenia, 301 C.E. was not the actual date of the country’s conversion. Furthermore, it is inaccurate to speak of either a “conversion” or an “establishment of Christianity” in the country in either 301 or in the more likely year of 314, when the toleration of Christianity in the Roman Empire would have made it more likely that King Trʼdat would have been able to be baptized by Gregory following the king’s repentance after the martyrdoms of Gaiane and Rhipsime and the imprisonment of Gregory himself.17
More accurately, in 301 (or 314) there were certainly Christian missionaries in Armenia, and some of them reaped the success that baptisms and the establishment of Christian shrines signify. These were missionaries from the Syriac-speaking territory to the south of Armenia and from Greek-speaking territory to the west; Gregory the Illuminator was the representative of the latter. The former are known directly from the Buzandaran, and indirectly from the large number of Christian terms in Armenian that are calques on Syriac Christian vocabulary words.
The baptism of the royal house and some ruling families in about 314, however, does not represent either a national conversion or an establishment of Christianity throughout Armenia. Rather, it represents an alliance with Rome on the part of the king, and the creation of a Christian hierarchy consecrated by Caesarea in Cappadocia but whose organization conformed with Armenian social structures -- themselves reflective of ancient Iranian patterns. The baptism of Trʼdat, and its implications, led instead to a split in Armenia, in which some of the powerful clans and their princes (naxarars) became Christian, and others remained Zoroastrian; their political loyalties were connected to their religious ones.
Nevertheless, the early Armenian Christian leaders who did manage to become established in the country seem to have made it their business to tie their church closely to the church of the empire to the west, doctrinally if not canonically. The first patriarch of the Armenian church, ordained by Leontius of Caesarea, was Gregory the Illuminator. Gregory did not practice the celibacy that was becoming customary for the churches of the Roman Empire, but was married and had two sons (although Agatʼangełos maintains that Gregory left the episcopacy for monastic retirement after establishing a large number of churches in the country18). One of them, Aristakes, became his successor as patriarch in the country and is known to have attended the Council of Nicaea.
During most of the fourth century, until the partition of Armenia in 387 after the Persian defeat of the Roman army under Julian, the successors of Gregory were consecrated at Caesarea. The high-water mark of this cooperation between Armenians and Greeks was in the episcopate of Nerses I “the Great,” which began under the reign of Arsak II. After the Persians regained control over Armenia, however, they imprisoned and killed the king, and under Roman protection, his son Pap was reinstated on the throne. In 373/4, however, Pap -- a supporter of the Arians under Valens -- poisoned the Nicene loyalist Nerses and destroyed the ecclesiastical institutions he had created.19 And in the early fifth century, Persia deposed the catholicos, Sahak, the last descendant of Gregory the Illuminator, and imposed two successive Syrian patriarchs in an attempt to assert strict control over the Christian church in their realm. Lacking a ruler after the end of the Arsacid line, the Armenian church had begun to take the place of a national government, and this leadership contributed both to the increasing independence of Armenian Christianity from the patriarchate of Caesarea or Constantinople, and to the irritation of the Persian rulers and magi with the growing strength of the church there.
Yazdegerd II was another emperor who initiated a persecution of Christians in his realm; this was the condition behind the revolt of the Armenian nobles that led to the story of Vardan and the Armenian war, as told by Ełishe. But already the great patriarch Sahak had commissioned the monk and teacher Mashtots to travel on missions to convert the countryside, to compose an alphabet, and had sent students to Edessa and Constantinople -- the “Holy Translators” -- to translate Christian works into Armenian with the newfound alphabet. During this time, the Armenian church accepted as Christological doctrine the Letter of Proclus to the Armenians, with its Cyrillian Christology, as a bulwark against the more Antiochene Christology favored by Syrians to the south.20
With these works as the initial foundation of Armenian Christian literature, a native literature began to be built, starting with Koriwn’s Life of Mashtots, Eznik of Kolb’s On God, canonical decrees of the fifth century, and parts of the hymnal or sharakan.21 But large portions of Armenia remained untouched by Christianity, and many of the noble families continued to practice the “Good Religion” while they continued to keep close ties with Persian culture and Iranian branches of their families.
ARMENIAN CHRISTIANIZATION AS A LITERARY WORK
Christianity became implanted in Armenia through the adoption and translation of an entire cultural library of Greek and Syriac works. Although the family of Trʼdat was baptized in the early fourth century, Christianity was still an imported religion until the early fifth; it lacked the teachers, schools, and books of Christian communities elsewhere. Therefore it did not spread widely. James Russell makes an apt comparison between the effectiveness of missionary religions equipped with a written language and the difficulty of expansion encountered by one lacking that language:
When the Armenian court converted to Christianity early in the fourth century, there was a long tradition of Greek and Aramaic writing in the country, and knowledge of Middle Persian, Parthian and Syriac was widespread. Mani had adapted a form of Aramaic to the Middle Iranian languages: this innovation, with all it implied for the dissemination of religious belief and culture, was also known in Armenia. The possibility of adaptation of Greek to another language was known by the example of Coptic ... . Though Artaxias was supposed to have united the peoples of the Armenian plateau with a single language, that language was barely written; and in the fourth century, when a written language meant propaganda for a faith, Armenian had no script at all. Its ancient oral literature was the property of pagan minstrels, the ‘gusans’; the national Church was nearly mute.22
Along with the creation of a literature, another distinctive and critical feature of Armenian evangelization was the development of the office of vardapet, or religious teacher. Whereas in the Greek-speaking church the role of the Christian teacher, the didaskalos, had largely been assimilated to the office of the bishop by the fourth century, at least outside the monastic context, in fifth-century Armenia the vardapets were devoted almost entirely to translating and catechizing. In the fourth century, the bishops and even the patriarchs were allowed to marry, and were attached not to episcopal sees in urban centers, but to the powerful clans that formed Armenian society. The fifth-century vardapets, however, were presented as learned ascetics and preachers who had been uprooted from their families and trained as scribes and industrious translators and writers. Indeed, as will be seen later, the portrait of Gregory the Illuminator presented in Agatʼangełos depends upon an anachronistic application to him of the features of the later vardapet, and is a subtle tribute to the actual fifth-century process of Christianization. This development hinged upon the progress of incipient monasticism in the country, still an only partially-studied development, and even more upon the creation of the Armenian script, an invention of the monk, Mashtots. The creation of schools and the education of monastic teachers in the first decades of the fifth century depended heavily upon Mashtots and his episcopal sponsor, the catholicos Sahak.23 Coming between the partition of Armenia in 387, and the attempt in 450 to reimpose Zoroastrianism on Armenia, thereby firmly restoring the country to Iranian rule, the creation of the script may well have been the single reason that Christianity survived and gained ascendancy in Armenia.
The subtitle of The Life of Mashtots is a telling reference to this process; it promises to relate “the story of the life and death of the blessed man saint Mashtots vardapet our translator by his pupil, Koriwn vardapet.”24 Koriwn, who spends the second chapter of his biography of Mashtots justifying biographies themselves by reference to Old Testament prophets and to Jesus’ apostles, says that he wrote the saint’s life because he was commanded to do so by his fellow pupil Hovsep, and others: “our fellows of student days.”25 He begins, however, by recalling the importance of the very letters upon which Mashtots’ work was founded: “I had been thinking of the God-given alphabet of the Azkanazian nation and of the land of Armenia -- when, in what time, and through what kind of man that new divine gift had been bestowed, as well as the luminous learning and angelic, virtuous piety of that person ... .”26 As Koriwn signals, it is the revelation of the alphabet itself that forms the core of the story; Mashtots’ prior training was an important preparation, as was his intense ascetical life and the resultant visions, but the alphabet came to Mashtots in a way similar to Moses’ reception of the law on Mount Sinai. This means that the letters themselves were sacred, and the foundation of the covenant between God and the Armenian people, as Christianity was often named by the early sources.
Koriwn presents Mashtots as a member of the Armenian nobility and a member of the Arshakuni court: “From childhood he had been tutored in Greek literature, and coming to the court of the Arsacid kings in Armenia Major, served in the royal secretariat, as an executor of the royal commands ... .”27 A soldier, he was, at the time an incipient teacher: “While serving the princes, he, nevertheless, devoted himself eagerly to the reading of the scriptures, whereby he soon was enlightened, gaining insight and profundity in matters related to the divine commands, and adorning himself with every preparation, he served the princes.”28
Mashtots eventually yielded to his monastic impulse and “was divested of princely passions ... in obedience to the commands of [faith], joined the crusading legion of Christ, and soon entered the monastic order.”29 This monastic order, however, was no organized monastery, which apparently did not exist in Armenia at the time; rather, it was a program of severe self-discipline that Koriwn describes in terms reminiscent of a passage from Heb. 11: “solitude, mountain-dwelling, hunger, thirst, and living on herbs, in dark cells, clad in sackcloth, with the floor as his bed.”30 He engaged in all-night vigils “not a few times.”31 He soon gathered disciples, “making them pupils in the same evangelical exercise. And thus, bearing with a courageous will all the temptations that came upon him, and growing in radiance, [he] became known and beloved of God and men.”32
Mashtots was distressed at the persistence of paganism in various regions of Armenia; he approached Sahak and both are portrayed as having engaged in prayers over a succession of days for the conversion of all [in Armenia] to Christianity. Here Koriwn presents the core of the mission in the following terms: “as a boon from God the gracious, the council of blessed monks, devoted to the service of the land, gathered to secure letters for the Armenian nation. They conducted much inquiry and exploration, and much toil.”33 Koriwn presents the next step as a contribution of the Armenian king, Vramshapouh, who knew of Armenian letters created by Daniel, a Syrian bishop and nobleman. These were adapted and taught to young children “requested of the King,”34 i.e., of the court of Persarmenia, but after two months of experimentation they were judged a failure. Mashtots then suspended his search for an alphabet, and under the sponsorship of the king and the catholicos, sent some of his pupils to Edessa to learn Syriac and its Christian literature, and others to Samosata to learn Greek.35
The discovery of the script itself occurred in that city, and after a period of prayer and tears, Koriwn writes, God “with his holy hand”36 inscribed the letters in front of Mashtots’ eyes. It remained for the letters to be actually inscribed on paper, and for this Mashtots employed a calligrapher, Rufinus, whom Koriwn describes as “a certain scribe of the Hellenic literature.”37 Both Greek and Syriac letters were the source of the Armenian alphabet, but it is conformable with the Armenian insistence upon the Greek legacy of their church in doctrine and ecclesiastical organization that Koriwn emphasizes the insufficiency of Syriac and the adequacy of Greek models to Armenian; and indeed, the Greek vowels are clearly the source of the Armenian ones.
Whatever the source of the Armenian letters, Koriwn portrays their revelation to Mashtots as comparable to Moses’ revelation, and Mashtots himself as a kind of Moses; he was then equipped to spread doctrine in outlying Armenian provinces such as Goghtan, where, “in company with the pious Shabit, he filled the province with the message of Christ’s gospel, and in all the towns of the province he established orders of monks.”38 The tireless Mashtots then sent some of his pupils of Mitilene to translate Greek texts into Armenian and even went as far as Constantinople to ask permission of the emperor “to gather youths from their half of the Armenian nation for the purpose of instruction.”39 Mashtots thus seemed to have two emphases: to preach and establish ascetic teachers in various regions of Armenia, and to establish schools for the instruction of the next generation, based on his own disciples’ translation and instruction in the newly-created library of Christian texts selected from the literature of neighboring countries. In particular, two of his students, Sahak and Eznik,
once more undertook ... the comparison of the former random, hurriedly done translations from then available copies with the authentic copies [of scripture and the canons of Nicaea and Ephesus as well as patristic traditions] and they translated many commentaries of the Bible. And thus the fathers passed their time, day and night, with the reading of books, and thus served as good examples to their studious assistants ... .40
Mashtots himself is presented as one the earliest authors of sermons in the Armenian language carefully structured for the conversion of pagans:
Then the blessed Mashtots with his excellent erudition began to prepare diverse, easily understood and gracious sermons, full of the light and essence of the prophetic books and illustrations of true evangelical faith. He then [created] and organized many examples and allusions from ephemeral things of the world related to after-life, resurrection, and hope, so as to make them intelligible even to fools and to those distracted by secular things, to revive, to awaken, and to convince them of the rewards that have been promised.41
The remainder of Mashtots’ career consisted of the preaching of the Gospel in Armenia and the establishment of monasteries, “countless groups in lowlands, in mountains, in caves, and in cloisters.”42 An essential part of their daily life was the singing of hymns, and the reception of “training by reading spiritually instructive books.”43 With Sahak, he opposed the introduction into Armenia of the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, which suggests that he was not the only one supervising translations from Syriac. Shortly after the death of Sahak, Mashtots died; he was furnished with a tomb and shrine in Oshakan by one of his disciples, Vahan Amatouni, a monastic and member of a noble and wealthy clan.44
The creation of script and projects of translation and composition, which Koriwn describes in hagiographical language, can be confirmed by reviewing the literature of the fifth century. In addition to the translation of the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament (and possibly the Diatessaron) into Armenian, Armenian scholars also translated Greek theological authors Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, the Cappadocians, Irenaeus, and some of the works of Eusebius of Caesarea. Syriac authors Ephrem and Aphrahat also were put into Armenian. Between 435 and 449 came the composition of Eznik of Kolb’s defense of Christianity and refutation of objectionable religions.45 But the fifth-century work that owes much to Mashtots’ work is Agatʼangełos’ History of the Armenians, described above, because it has modeled the work of Gregory the Illuminator upon the work of Mashtots. In so doing, it has retrojected the fifth-century achievement of Armenian literacy into a fourth-century literary legacy for Gregory, a legacy that grew precisely by imitation of Mashtots’ work, as can be seen in the Teaching of St. Gregory46 and in the Collected Homilies,47 both ascribed to him by fifth-and sixth-century authors, respectively.
Agatʼangełos does not, of course, pretend that Gregory invented the Armenian script. But the large number of echoes of Koriwn’s work that are found in Agatʼangełos’ by themselves suggest that the latter meant to recall the subject of the former’s work. There are other parallels, however, that show how important a particularly Armenian Christian legacy had become to any portrayal of a legitimate founder for the country’s church by the end of the fifth century. A critical component of that legacy was a sacred language. Thus Agatʼangełos can write of Gregory’s appearance in Armenia:
At that time our land of Armenia was blessed, envied and truly admired. Like Moses, who suddenly became a teacher of the law to the Hebrew camp with all the ranks of the prophets, or like the outstanding Paul with the entire group of the apostles, with the gospel of Christ did he come and appear and speak Armenian to the Armenians. Then he went through every province and chose for himself a spot for repose in desert places and there he dwelt, illuminating everyone from the desert.48
Likewise, Gregory has a model student in the converted King Trʼdat, described as a righteous “God-fearer, informed and instructed in the divine commandments ... loved ... an example of goodness to the whole land ... diligent in the reading of the divine scriptures.”49 Conscious of the library that Koriwn and his disciples had provided, and wishing to emphasize the Greek derivation of Armenian Christian culture, Agatʼangełos adds that Trʼdat “was very expert in Greek secular literature and earthly wisdom, and he was especially versed in the science of philosophical reasoning, for he had studied it.” Finally, Trʼdat is presented as a reflection of Gregory’s own asceticism, and ultimately, of Mashtots’, undertaking “fasts and vigils and unceasing prayers and supplications to God with arms outstretched, and ever-flowing tears for his country,” with the request that his former paganism be forgotten.50 As with Mashtots, Gregory and Trʼdat are made to visit Constantine and secure imperial assistance from Constantinople; Gregory also becomes a sermonizer, just like Mashtots:
Then after such deeds, with even more profound teaching blessed Gregory began to compose many discourses, difficult of language, profound parables, easy to listen to, many-faceted, composed by grace, composed from the power and matter of the prophetic writings, full of all subtleties, and arranged and ordered in the truth of the evangelical faith. In these he set out many similes and examples from the transitory world, especially concerning the hope of the resurrection for the future life, that they might be intelligible and easily understood by the ignorant and those occupied with worldly affairs, in order to awaken and arouse and urge them on firmly to the promised good news.51
Thus, Agatʼangełos has formed the image of Gregory the Illuminator after the model of Mashtots, and has helped to create a history of conversion for Armenia that reinforces the importance of a monastic teacher who illuminates Armenia by means of preaching and teaching in the Armenian language itself. Other languages developed specifically for the preaching of Christianity to particular nations and for the performance of the liturgy and reading of scriptures in their tongues. As noted above, this was a fifth-century development in the East.
But in Armenia, the creation of a literary tradition for Christianity also led to the creation of the received version of its acceptance of Christianity. This version, on the one hand, makes a connection with the authority of the Greek church to help rupture the country’s previous cultural connection with Iran and Mesopotamia and, on the other hand, provides a rationale for establishing a national church by accounting for the conversion of a native king in the fourth century, a conversion that is made to constitute the very conversion of the country itself. This literary Illuminator absorbed the role of Mashtots and became the source of a literature of conversion that made him, and not the translators of the fifth century, the agent of Christianization. Such were the requirements that fifth-century Armenia imposed upon its fourth-century past, creating a version of events that allowed for a national myth of Armenia as “the first Christian nation,” and portrayed those Armenians who continued to practice Zoroastrianism as traitors like the Hellenizers before the wrath of Judas Maccabeus. Vardapets, the monastic scholar-teachers who created this version, perhaps unwittingly recreated a catechetical stance reminiscent of first-century Christianity and its insistent opposition between “the way of light” and “the way of darkness;” and like the Maccabean literature, their works only reveal all the more the continuing appeal of paganism among the members of the -- in this case Christian -- “covenant.”52
On the Christianization of Armenia, see Nina G. Garsoïan, Armenia Between Byzantium and the Sasanians (London, 1985); Cyril Toumanoff, Studies in Christian Caucasian History (Washington, DC, 1963); Robert W. Thomson, “Mission, Conversion and Christianization: The Armenian Example,” rprt. as chap. 3 in his Studies in Armenian Literature and Christianity (London, 1994).
See Robert W. Thomson, “The Maccabees in Early Armenian Historiography,” chap. 7 in Studies.
See Nina G. Garsoïan, “The Early-medieval Armenian City: An Alien Element,” chap. 7 in her Church and Culture in Early Medieval Armenia (London, 1999); and H. A. Mandanian, The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade, trans. Nina G. Garsoïan (Lisbon, 1965).
See Hagop J. Nersoyan, “The Why and When of the Armenian Alphabet,” Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies 2 (1985-1986): 51-71; Karekin Sarkissian, A Brief Introduction to Armenian Christian Literature (Bergenfield, 1974); H. Thorossian, Histoire de la littérature arménienne: des origines jusquʼ à nos jours (Paris, 1951); Vahan Inglisian, “Die armenische Literatur,” Armenisch und kaukasische Sprachen, Handbuch der Orientalistik 1/17 (Leiden, 1963): 157-250. On the formation of sacred languages in late antiquity, see the general study by John F. A. Sawyer, Sacred Languages and Sacred Texts (London, 1999); on the de-Hellenization of the eastern Roman Empire, see Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton, 1993).
See Nina G. Garsoïan, “Prolegomena to a Study of the Iranian Elements in Arsacid Armenia,” and “The Iranian Substratum of the ‘Agatʼangelos’ Cycle,” chaps 10 and 12 in Armenia Between Byzantium and the Sasanians. See also James R. Russell, Zoroastrianism in Armenia (Cambridge, MA, 1987).
John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church 450-680 AD (Crestwood, NY, 1989), 102.
The Zoroastrian reluctance to write down sacred texts and its preference for oral preservation of the Avesta by trained priests, or magi, is well-known; the Zand, or Middle Persian, interpretation of the Avesta was a work of the sixth century and itself combines translation with commentary. For an overview, see Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (Costa Mesa, CA and New York, 1992); and on the Avesta, see Harold W. Bailey, “Apastak,” in Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce, ed. Mary Boyce (Leiden, 1985), 9-14.
Agatʼangełos, History of the Armenians, trans. and comm. R. W. Thomson (Albany: 1976). All subsequent references are to this edition.
Nina G. Garsoïan, trans. and comm., The Epic Histories Attributed to Pʼawstos Buzand (Buzandaran Patmutʼiwnkʼ) (Cambridge, MA, 1989).
D. N. MacKenzie, trans., Iranische Denkmaler 2/13 (Berlin, 1989), 35-61; discussed in Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China (Tübingen, 1992), 110.
See n. 5.
Nina G. Garsoïan, “The Aršakuni Dynasty (AD 12-[180?]-428),” in The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, 1, ed. Richard G. Hovanissian (New York, 1997), 63-93.
See, for example, Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven, 1997).
Ełishe Vardapet, History of Vardan and the Armenian War, trans. and comm. Robert W. Thomson (Cambridge, MA, 1982).
Ełishe Vardapet, History of Vardan, 77-80.
Ełishe Vardapet, History of Vardan, 77-80. See S. Peter Cowe, “Elise’s ‘Armenian War’ as a Metaphor for the Spiritual Life,” in From Byzantium to Iran: Armenian Studies in Honour of Nina G. Garsoïan, ed. Jean-Pierre Mahé and Robert W. Thomson (Atlanta, GA, 1997) 341-60.
St. Rhipsime and St. Gaiane were the earliest Armenian martyrs. Garth Fowden relates the story of their persecution as told in Agatʼangełos’ History of the Armenians: "Trdat mounted a general persecution of Armenian Christians, and especially of the aristocratic Roman nuns Gaiane and the beautiful Rhipsime -- whom he tried unsuccessfully to rape -- and their companions, fugitives from Diocletian (202). For his sins, Trdat was turned into a wild boar, and ‘all the populace in the city went mad through similar demon-possession’,” in “The Last Days of Constantine: Oppositional Versions and Their Influence,” The Journal of Roman Studies 84 (1994): 160.
Agatʼangełos, History of the Armenians; see Thomson edition.
For a detailed account of the events, and a reconstruction of the chronology, see Nina Garsoïan, “Politique ou orthodoxie? L’ Arménie au quatrième siècle,” chap. 4 in Armenia Between Byzantium and the Sasanians.
See Nicholas Constas, Proclus of Constantinople and the Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity (Leiden, 2003), 103ff.
See A Treatise on God written in Armenian by Eznik of Kolb (floruit ca. 430-c. 450), ed. and trans. M. J. Blanchard and Robin Darling Young (Leuven, 1998). Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i (a photo-reproduction of the 1941 Yerevan Edition, with a modern translation and concordance, and with new Introduction), ed. Krikor H. Maksoudian (Delmar, NY, 1985).
See James R. Russell, “The Origins and Invention of the Armenian Script,” in Le Muséou 107/3-4 (1999): 317-33.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, introduction.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, 21.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. I, 21.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. I, 21.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. III, 27.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. III, 27.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. IV, 27.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. IV, 27.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. IV, 27.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. IV, 28.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. VI, 29.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. VI, 29.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. VII, 30.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. VIII, 31.
“... a Hellenic scribe, named Ropanos.” Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. VIII, 31.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. XIII, 36.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. XVI, 39.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. XIX, 43-44.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. XX, 44.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. XXIII, 45.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. XXII, 45.
Koriwn, Vark’ Mashtots’i, chap. XXVI, 50.
See Monica J. Blanchard and Robin Darling Young, A Treatise on God Written in Armenian by Eznik of Kolb: an English translation, with introduction and notes (Leuven, 1998), 16.
Robert W. Thomson, trans. and comm., The Teaching of Saint Gregory: An Early Armenian Catechism (Cambridge, MA, 1970).
I am now preparing an English translation of these twenty-three sermons on theology and the monastic life; currently they are available in a German translation of the Venice edition; the translation is by Johann Michael Schmid, Reden and Lehren des heiligen Gregorius des Erleuchters (Regensburg, 1872).
Agatʼangełos, History of the Armenians, chap. 853, 389.
Agatʼangełos, History of the Armenians, chap. 863, 399.
Agatʼangełos, History of the Armenians, chap. 864, 399.
Agatʼangełos, History of the Armenians, chap. 886, 417-19.
Koriwn, Vark'Mashtots'i, 21-52.