St. Sahak is one of the most well known figures in Armenian history. As Catholicos, he supported the work of Mesrob Mashdots in the creation of the Armenian alphabet and the translation of the Bible into Armenian. A scholar and theologian himself, he is counted among the Holy Translators. The trio of King Vramshapuh, Catholicos Sahak, and Mesrob Mashdots together oversaw the flurry of translation into Armenian and an emergent new Armenian-language literature following the invention of the alphabet in 405 A.D. Churches are often named “Sts. Sahak and Mesrob” in acknowledgment of the crucial work these two men did together. This coming Saturday, the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates this beloved Armenian saint.
Yet St. Sahak also presided over a tumultuous period in Armenian history. The invention of the alphabet itself emerged from the need to hold the two halves of Armenia together. At the time of St. Sahak’s birth in 354 A.D., Armenia was already used to its status as the crossroads and borderland between the Persian and Roman empires. As George Bournoutian describes, in 64 A.D., “Rome accepted the compromise of co-suzerainty” (55), meaning that the Armenian dynasty known as the Arshakuni or Arsacid would come from the royal Parthian dynasty, “while their authority would be bestowed in Rome.” Through some troubled periods, this arrangement lasted for nearly two centuries, until 224 A.D. when the Persian Parthians were overthrown, and the new Sasanian Persian empire emerged. The new Sasanian Empire tried to impose a more direct rule over Armenia. It is in this context that the conversion of Armenia to Christianity occurred, as Armenians tried to balance between Rome and a newly aggressive Persian empire. However, after the adoption of Christianity, in 387 A.D., Emperor Theodosius and Shapur III partitioned Armenia between them.
Such was the situation when St. Sahak became the Catholicos. In addition to the political partition, Armenian Christianity had competing influences: on the one hand, Caesarea, where the Catholicoses of Armenia had traditionally gone to installed as chief bishop of the Armenian Church, was a stronghold of Greek Christianity, while a Syriac strain of Christianity coming from south and favored by the Persians was also influential for the Armenian Church. More pointedly, the theological controversies raging in the emerging Byzantine Empire created confusion. First there was the Arian debate, with prominent Arians remaining through Christendom despite the condemnation of Arius at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Then, in the later years of Sahak’s tenure as Catholicos, the Nestorian controversy broke out. St. Sahak, then, inherited the throne of the Catholicos in a precarious and confusing time. As Bournoutian puts it, “Both Catholicos Sahak and [King] Vramshapuh realised that in order to retain any measure of ecclesiastical and political control over a partitioned nation, the unifying factor of the Armenian language would be crucial” (71). With this in mind, Sahak supported St. Mesrob’s work of inventing an alphabet, translating the Bible, and creating a truly Armenian literature.
Creating the Armenian alphabet and launching an Armenian literature and truly Armenian liturgical tradition helped to hold both the Armenian Church and the Armenian people together. St. Sahak oversaw and participated in this work. As a theologian in his own right, he is sometimes credited with introducing the Armenian Octoechos or tsyan system into Armenian music and there are sharagans attributed to him. Yet St. Sahak’s life and tenure as Catholicos were tumultuous. He was the last Catholicos directly descended from St. Gregory the Illuminator. This lineage and his generally pro-Roman/Byzantine orientation led him into trouble during this period when Persian influence was still strong, especially among some members of the nobility, known as the nakharar. In fact, he was deposed from his position as Catholicos in 428 A.D., with several Syrian and pro-Syrian Catholicoses serving before he was allowed to return from exile in 432, nonetheless having a much-reduced authority. Dr. Gabrielle Winkler, in a detailed study, charts these events, in what she calls, “An Obscure Chapter in Armenian Church History.”
Much of this “obscure chapter” is related to theological arguments taking place beyond the borders of Armenia. In addition to the political balancing act between Persia and Constantinople, the ecclesiastical and theological controversies raging throughout Christendom were part of what led to St. Sahak’s ouster. Early Armenian Christianity was heavily influenced by Syriac Christianity, with its great sees of Antioch and Edessa. However, these sees became embattled around this time, when Nestorius, who was educated in Antioch by the great exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia, became Patriarch of Constantinople in 428 A.D.—the same year St. Sahak was deposed as Catholicos! We have detailed the controversy surrounding Nestorius’ teachings before, discussing his theological rivalry with St. Cyril of Alexandria. Ultimately, Alexandrian orthodoxy won the day in Armenia. At the time of St. Sahak, however, this outcome was not a given. Winkler explains the “obscure chapter in Armenian history” by appealing to these debates, the teachings of Nestorius, and the status of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Though he was eventually condemned in the West because of his association with his student Nestorius, Theodore of Mopsuestia was renowned for his commentaries on the Bible and his method of interpretation. His writings were influential in Armenia, and Armenians sought regarding the controversy.
We know this because of one of the most important and remarkable sources of the Armenian Christian tradition: the Book of Letters. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, the book is a collection of “letters between the leaders (primarily Catholici) of the Armenian Church and various ecclesiastical figures throughout the Caucasus and the Christian world.” Though a crucial source, the manuscript tradition of this book has not been fully studied, and it is clear that some of the letters cannot actually have been written by the people to which they are attributed. Nonetheless, many of these letters should be considered authentic. More importantly, they represent a distillation of Armenian theological thinking, especially with regards to “Christological questions,” as the letters “elucidate the Miaphysite position of the Armenian Church, as it is contrasted with Nestorian and Chalcedonian Christology.” Some of the letters deal precisely with the “obscure chapter” Winkler describes and indeed, the Book of Letters is one of her major sources for unraveling this period. Four letters, including the famous Tome of Proclus (also known in Western sources as the Tome to the Armenians), are either written to or by St. Sahak.
The letters to and from St. Sahak reveal an erudite theologian as well as a concerned shepherd. They also reveal, as Winkler shows, the emerging position of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Overall, the Book of Letters is a treasure-trove of a source for understanding the specifics of the Armenian theological position, especially regarding Christology. As the Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity states, “it is probably the most important source for the development of Armenian Christianity from its beginnings as a Christian within the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, through its survival in the upheavals of the 7thcentury and its break with Chalcedonian churches, up to the renewed attempts of Constantinople to achieve ecclesiastical union and the crusading-era contacts with Rome.” The published versions of the Book of Letters include correspondence ranging from the 5th to the 13th centuries, spanning a huge amount of time and covering the consolidation of the Armenian theological position. This is a crucial source for understanding Armenian Christianity—and some of the earliest letters found in the volume are attributed to St. Sahak Partev.