ORIGIN OF THE ARMENIAN CHURCH

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THE facts connected with the origin of every Church are hidden under an impenetrable veil; and our inquiry is baffled by reason of the want of genuine documents such as would throw light on the doings of the first apostles and on apostolic activity in general. The Roman Church, which, in this respect, appears to be in a more favourable position, from the fact that she took her rise in the capital of the empire, has to grapple with the selfsame difficulties, when it comes to the question of proving the sojourn of St. Peter at Rome. And yet this is, for her, an essential fact; for it lies at the root of her entire system. For lack of something better, ecclesiastical history contents itself with evidence of strong probability, with arguments based on tradition, and on occurrences which have been kept alive through successive generations. It is sufficient that the great mass of presumptions is not opposed to the positive and ascertained data of history. We should not ask more of the Armenian Church to prove her origin.

The primitive and unvarying tradition of this Church acknowledges as original founders the apostles St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, whom she designates by the appellation of the First Illuminators of Armenia. She protects their graves, which are preserved and venerated in the ancient churches of Ardaze (Magou) and Albac (Baschkale), situated in the south-east of Armenia. All Christian Churches are unanimous in recognising the tradition concerning St. Bartholomew, his apostolic journeys, his preaching, and his martyrdom in Armenia. The name Albanus, which is given to the scene of his martyrdom, is one and the same with the name Albacus, hallowed by the Armenian tradition. With regard to St. Thaddeus, traditions vary. Some recognise in him one Thaddeus Didymus, brother of the apostle St. Thomas, and according to these he is said to have travelled to Ardaze by way of Edessa, living in secret among the Greeks and the Latins. With regard to the Syrian tradition, which gives credit to the existence of a Thaddeus Didymus, its acceptance is questionable so far as it relates to the journey from Edessa to Ardaze; but, on examining this doubtful point a little more closely, we discover omissions in the text which are seemingly wilful, and disclose even an ana chronism, which would transfer the incident to the second century of the Christian era. How ever, without wishing to dwell unduly on the importance of that tradition, we would point out that the name of Thaddeus cannot be discarded; because we can point to a second tradition, ac cording to which the evangelisation of Armenia was the work of the apostle St. Judas Thaddeus, surnamed Lebbeus. This circumstance, admitted by the Greek and Latin Churches, and recognised by Armenian writers, is fully in accordance with historic truth, and goes to confirm generally the tradition, supported by the undoubted proof of the sanctuary at Ardaze.

The apostolic character of the Armenian Church, which she has always claimed, and which she has proclaimed in all her transactions, bears testimony on the one hand to an origin both ancient and primitive, and on the other hand to one which is direct and autocephalic, without the intervening agency of another Church.

The apostolic origin, which is essential to every Christian Church, in order to place her in union with her Divine Founder, is claimed to be direct when that origin is traced back to the individual work of one of the apostles; it is indirect when it is derived from a Church which herself has a primitively apostolic basis. The Armenian Church can rightly lay claim to such a direct apostolic origin. The chronology which is generally adopted ascribes to the mission of St. Thaddeus a period of eight years (35-43 A.D.) ; and to that of St. Bartholomew a period of sixteen years (44-60 A.D.). It is inexpedient in this place to discuss the relative details regarding the question of dates and places, which is apt to lead to endless controversy.

The apostolic origin of the Armenian Church is hence established as an incontrovertible fact in ecclesiastical history. And if tradition and historic sources, which sanction this view, should give occasion for criticism, these have no greater weight than the difficulties created with regard to the origin of other apostolic Churches, which are universally admitted as such.

CHAPTER II

THE PRIMITIVE ERA OF THE ARMENIAN CHURCH

IT was in the year 301 A.D., at the beginning of the fourth century, that Christianity became the prevailing religion in Armenia. Before that date it had never ceased to be the object of persecution. But we must admit that the accounts which have come down to us of the existence and of the progress of Christianity in Armenia during the three previous centuries, are as scanty as they are devoid of importance. They cannot bear, from the point of view of fullness of information, comparison with the records which deal with the same period of Graeco-Roman history. But deficiency of records by no means establishes a proof of the non-existence of an actual fact.

The Graeco-Roman world, then at the apogee of its civilisation, comprised within it a large number of writers and scholars, and through its schools was in the forefront of intellectual progress. Armenia, on the other hand, was still plunged in ignorance. Far from being in posses sion of a national literature, she was still in search of an alphabet. Under these conditions, one must admit that it has been difficult for her to write accounts and narratives of events, which could not but have been of interest to posterity. Nevertheless, whatever facts have been handed down to us by national tradition, with the additional support of the narratives of foreign writers, are more than sufficient, we presume, to prove the existence of Christianity at definite periods. Now, common sense precludes us from thinking that the spread of the faith could have undergone intermittent eclipses during this space of time. Records such as these, detached and with no connecting bond between them, follow each other during that period, and prove the unbroken existence of Christianity in Armenia.

In this connection we should mention an early tradition ascribing to the see of Ardaze a line of seven bishops, namely, Zakaria for a period of sixteen years; Zementus, four years; Atirnerseh, fifteen years; Mousche, thirty years; Schahen, twenty-five years; Schavarsch, twenty years; and Ghevondius, seventeen years. A computation of these periods carries us to the end of the second century.

Another tradition assigns to the see of Sunik a line of eight bishops, who were the successors of St. Eustathius, the first evangeliser of that province. These bishops are Kumsi, Babylas, Mousche, who was afterwards translated to the see of Ardaze, Movses (Moses) of Taron, Sahak (Isaac) of Taron, Zirvandat, Stepanus (Stephen), and Hovhannes (John). With this last we are brought to the first quarter of the third century.

Moreover, Eusebius quotes a letter of the patriarch Dionysius of Alexandria, written in 254 A.D., to Mehroujan (Mitrozanes), bishop of Armenia, who was a successor of the above-mentioned bishops of Ardaze.

The Armenian Church contains in her martyrology the commemoration of many Armenian martyrs of the apostolic era. We notice therein the names of St. Sandoukhte, of royal blood; of St. Zarmandoukhte, a noble lady; of satraps such as St. Samuel and St. Israel; of a thousand Armenians who were martyred at the same time as the apostle St. Thaddeus; of St. Ogouhie, a royal princess, and of St. Terentius, a soldier, who were martyred with the apostle St. Bartholomew; and of the holy virgins Mariam of Houssik, Anna of Ormisdat, and Martha of Makovtir, disciples of St. Bartholomew. The Church calendar contains the festivals of St. Oski (Chryssus) and of his four companions, of St. Soukias and of his eighteen companions, who were martyred at the beginning of the second century. The Latin martyrology commemorates St. Acacius with ten thousand militiamen, who were martyred on Ararat, in Armenia, in the reign of Hadrian.

To these facts must be added the passage in Tertullian, the well-known ecclesiastical writer of the second century, who, in quoting the text of the Acts of the Apostles (ii. 9), where the countries are enumerated whose languages were heard by the people on the day of Pentecost, makes mention of Armenia, lying between Mesopotamia and Cappadocia, in place of Jiidaea, which is the one named in the text of the ordinary Bible. Judaea could not have been included among foreign countries, and we know that it is not situated between Mesopotamia and Cappadocia. Logically speaking, the country indicated is no other than Armenia. St. Augustine likewise follows the reading of Tertullian. We thus see that the two fathers of the African Church were impressed with the conviction that Christianity was spread among the Armenians in the apostolic age.

Indeed, the almost instantaneous conversion of the whole of Armenia to Christianity at the beginning of the fourth century cannot be explained but by the pre-existence of a Christian element which had taken root in the country. As a matter of fact, history records religious persecutions which must have been perpetrated by the kings Artasches (Artaxerxes) about the year no A.D., Khosrov (Chosroes) about 230, and Tirdat (Tiridates) about 287. These would certainly not have occurred if there had not been in Armenia a large number of Christians. It was during the last of these persecutions that the martyrdom took place of St. Theodore Salahouni, who was put to death by his own father, the satrap Souren.

Confronted by such facts, we are justified in inferring the existence of Christianity in Armenia during the first three centuries; that it counted amongst its adherents a considerable number of the people; and that this first nucleus of the faithful, by its steadfast energy, at length succeeded in gaining the mastery over both obstacles and persecutions.

CHAPTER III

THE COMPLETE CONVERSION OF ARMENIA

THE date of the conversion of Armenia as a whole to Christianity, or, in other words, of the institution of that religion as the dominant one of the country, is commonly ascribed to the year 301, by the most careful chronological research. Later writers even place the date at the year 285, but that cannot be regarded as probable. The date 301 is sufficient for our purpose to show that Armenia was the first state in the world to proclaim Christianity as its official religion, by the conversion of the king, the royal family, the satraps, the army, and the people. The conversion of Constantine took place but twelve years later, that is, in 313.

The author of this wonderful conversion was St. Grigor Partev (Gregory the Parthian), sur-named by the Armenians Lusavoritch, that is, The Illuminator, in that he enlightened the nation with the light of the gospel. The king Tiridates, who was joint apostle and illuminator with him, belonged to the dynasty of the Arsacides, of Parthian origin, with which the father of St. Grigor was also connected; so that in this way a kinship united the convert king with the saint ; but a more potent bond than kinship in blood was the faith which united the two.

A political insurrection had at that time been brought about in Persia, and as a sequel to it the Arsacides were succeeded by the Sassanides. Nevertheless, the Armenian branch of the Arsacides still continued in power. In order to ensure the security of the new dynasty, the overthrow of the portion still remaining defiant had to be considered; but the army was not on the side of the Sassanides. Then Anak, an Arsacide prince, volunteered to assassinate Khosrov (Chos-roes), king of Armenia, a near relative of his. It came about that he himself also fell a victim to assassination at the hands of the Armenian satraps. Grigor was the son of Anak, and Tiridates that of Chosroes; and in the year 240, the date of the double assassination, these two were still minors.

Without entering into biographical details, it will suffice to mention that Grigor was educated in the principles of Christianity at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and that Tiridates, brought up in the religion of his ancestors, had to submit to the changes brought about by the wars between the Romans and the Persians. With the support of the emperor Diocletian, he ascended the throne for the last time in 287; and it was on the occasion of some votive festivities, organised at Eriza (Erzinguian) for the celebration of this event, that the faith and the family connection of Grigor were revealed to him. He then learnt that Grigor, after excruciating tortures, had been cast into the dungeon or the pits (Virap) of Artaschat (Artaxata), where he remained in carcerated for about fifteen years. That he survived this long ordeal is a striking testimony in history of divine intervention.

At this time a band of Christian virgins, under the guidance of the abbess, St. Gaiane, came to Vagharschapat, the capital of Armenia, in their flight from the persecutions which had been raging in the provinces of the Roman Empire. It was generally believed that they came from Rome, by way of Palestine and Mesopotamia; but there is nothing to preclude the idea that they came rather from the adjacent provinces, and most probably from Midzbin (Nisibis), if we take into account the acts connected with the martyrdom of St. Phebronia. The exceptional beauty of one of these virgins, St. Rhipsime, attracted the king, who desired to get possession of her. But, besides the resistance she offered to his attempts, various circumstances, such as the martyrdom of the thirty-seven virgins, the fit of demoniacal * possession, to which the king was a prey, the futility of the remedies, the insistence of his sister, Khosrovidoukhte, beseeching him to implore the help of the God of the Christians, his healing obtained through the prayers of Grigor, who had at length been restored to liberty, are the events which followed each other during the latter months of the year 300 and the early months of 301, and these led to the conversion of Tiridates, who, with the zeal of a neophyte, hastened to pro claim Christianity as the religion of the State.

Grigor, who was a mere layman, had at his command neither missionaries nor a band of clergy; and yet before the end of the year 301 the religious aspect of Armenia had undergone a complete change; the worship of the gods had almost entirely disappeared, and the profession of Christianity had become general. This would be an event of an unaccountable nature, did we not admit the pre-existence of Christianity in the country, as it has been already pointed out.

Evidences of this wonderful conversion are to be found not only in the narratives of contemporary writers, and of historians of the succeeding century, but also in the existence of monuments such as the churches of St. Rhipsime, of St. Gaiane, and of St. Mariamne, or of Schoghakath, which were built in the fourth century in the vicinity of Etchmiadzin (formerly Vagharschapat); and in the tombs of the martyred virgins, as well as in authentic inscriptions which relate to them. A further testimony, not less valuable, is also to be found in the writings of Eusebius, who mentions the war of the year 311, which the emperor Maximianus, the Dacian, declared against the Armenians on account of their recent conversion.

*Lycanthropy. The king is said to have assumed the form of a boar.

Courtesy of “The Church of Armenia” by Ormanian, 1912