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7-08-2015, 20:29

The armenian church as rallying-point and relations with the imperial church

The increasing importance of the church as a cultural institution following the abolition of the monarchy in 428 is not of itself surprising. It was the only institution that cut across factional lines, and it was the only medium through which literary and artistic endeavours could be realised on any meaningful scale. Individuals with financial backing would still attend the universities of the eastern Mediterranean; Greek and Syriac as well as Armenian sources attest the presence of Armenian students in Antioch, Beirut, Alexandria, Athens and elsewhere. But government service as a career for the educated was no longer an option after 428; the only major patron of education and learning was the church, and only the church could offer advancement for the ambitious and a haven for the studious. The complaints of Anania of Shirak in the seventh century that his fellow countrymen did not admire learning suggest that without patronage a teaching career was difficult.17 There were cities in Armenia, but they did not play the cultural role of an Antioch or an Athens, with organised schools and subsidised professorial chairs. The relationship of the Armenian church to the larger Greek-speaking world was thus of importance. Armenians were always admirers of Greek learning, but their attitude to Constantinople was ambivalent. In part, such an attitude reflected the political situation; a pro-Greek attitude could arouse suspicions of disloyalty to the shah. Some part was played by the very different backgrounds of Armenians and Greeks – and, not least, the strong Syrian strain in Armenian ecclesiastical life, church ritual and theological exegesis prevented any automatic acceptance of things Greek. An official break between the churches was long in coming. But the steps leading to that eventual rupture deserve a brief review. Luckily, the Armenian reaction to the theological questions that divided theGreek oikoumen¯e – debates which gave the Armenians an opportunity to define more carefully their own position – is well documented in the Book of letters. The first three sections of this unique collection of official documents comprise exchanges of letters between Armenian ecclesiastical authorities and members of the Greek-speaking imperial church, representatives of the Syriac-speaking church in Iran, and ecclesiastics in Georgia, covering the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. The earliest is a letter by Acacius, bishop of Melitene, written soon after the council of Ephesus, held in 431.18 Melitene had been one of the cities where the pupils of Mashtots‘ pursued their study of Greek. Acacius had metMashtots‘ on the latter’s travels in Roman territory, and was well informed of events in Armenia. He had recently played a significant role in the council of Ephesus, where Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople (428–31) and other Antiochene theologians had been condemned. So he took alarm when he heard that works by Theodore of Mopsuestia were being read in Armenia. For Theodore was a prominent biblical exponent of the Antiochene school, whose interpretation of the Incarnation had been rejected at Ephesus. But Armenian interest in Theodore was not surprising, since the tradition he represented had been strong in Edessa, the centre of Syriac-speaking Christian culture. It was to Edessa that Mashtots‘ had gone in his search for an Armenian script, and it was in Edessa that many of his pupils studied. The reply to Acacius’ letter, signed by Sahak as head of the Armenian church, was polite but guarded, denying any Armenian involvement in heresy yet not specifying any heresy by name. A second letter was sent by Acacius to the secular authorities of Armenia. It had been prompted by Syrian priests who reported that the influence of Nestorian ideas in Armenia was continuing. But it passed without response. Of greater impact was a letter from the patriarch of Constantinople, Proclus (434–46). This time it was not foreign Syrians, but two pupils of Mashtots‘ who had taken the initiative. While in the capital to translate Greek texts, they approached the patriarch for an authoritative interpretation of the doctrine of the Incarnation. That this was not an official solicitation by the Armenian authorities is clear from an apology by a third Armenian disciple, Eznik, who had studied in Edessa before going to Constantinople. Proclus responded by addressing a detailed exposition of the matter to the bishops of Armenia. The Armenian reply was signed by both Sahak andMashtots‘. After defining their own faith, they assured the patriarch that no heretical ideas attributable to Theodore were circulating in Armenia. The letter of Proclus, however, was to remain a keystone of Armenian orthdoxy, and this early emphasis on the council of Ephesus had a profound impact. Ephesus, rather than the council of Chalcedon, held twenty years later, would be the rallying-cry of Armenian theologians. The fourth ecumenical council – held beside the Bosporus in Chalcedon in 451 – did not bring peace to the warring parties or solve the theological question of defining the Incarnation in a manner satisfactory to all. The catholicos of Armenia was not represented at Chalcedon, though bishops from Armenian provinces on the Roman side of the frontier were in attendance.19 Somewhat surprisingly, the early Armenian historians pass over both the second (‘robber’) council of Ephesus in 449 and that of Chalcedon in 451. It was theHenotikon of Emperor Zeno (474–91), promulgated in 482, which Armenians emphasised as orthodox.20 Bypassing the recent divisive council of Chalcedon, in their official pronouncements the Armenians were happy to pledge their allegiance to the councils of Nicaea (325) and Ephesus. As they developed their own traditions in ecclesiastical architecture and moulded an individual Armenian literature, they were not at the turn of the century acting in deliberate opposition to what was then the orthodoxy of the empire. At a council held in 505–6 in Dvin, the residence of the marzban and the main city of Persian Armenia, a group of Syrians from the Persian empire appeared, requesting episcopal consecration for one of their monks, Symeon. These Syrians were not members of the church in Persia which enjoyed the shah’s official recognition, but were monophysites. The Armenian bishops consecrated Symeon and recognised the orthodoxy of these Syrians as being in conformity with their own faith and that of the Greeks. But the zealous Symeon, an opponent of the official church in Persia, persuaded the Armenians to anathematise the council of Chalcedon as expressing the views of Nestorius.21 The Armenians did not anathematise the imperial church as such; the Henotikon of Zeno was still in force, and he was regarded by the Armenians as ‘the blessed emperor’.22 But this apparent unanimity of the imperial and Armenian churches was short-lived. Zeno’s policy of compromise with the opponents of Chalcedon was reversed on the accession of Justin I (518–27). After 518 the imperial church of Constantinople made peace with Rome and stood firmly behind the definitions of Chalcedon. As the sixth century progressed, the monophysites in Syria and Egypt became more coherently organised, thanks mainly to the labours of Jacob Baradaeus (see above, p. 118), while their theology found definite expression in the works of Severus of Antioch. The differences apparent at the time of Chalcedon had now become quite clear-cut, and compromise was increasingly difficult.