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The 1,570th Anniversary of the Battle of Avarayr

This year marks the 1,570th anniversary of the Battle of Avarayr, which the Armenian Church commemorates every year with the Feasts of Sts. Ghevontiants and Vartanants on the Tuesday and Thursday preceding Great Lent. The Battle of Avarayr was originally described by Ghazar P'arpec'i and Yeghishe, whose Histories will be published next month (together with P'avstos' History) as part of the new Golden Age release of our continuing Dual Language Series. What follows in this post is a note on the relation of the Book of Maccabees to the tradition of Avarayr and its historiography.

According to Yeghishe's History, the Armenian general St. Vartan had explicitly recalled the Maccabean example in his address to his soldiers on the eve of Avarayr:

“Taking hold of the brave description of the Maccabees, Vartan read for all to hear in exuberant words about the proceedings, and how they had fought the king of Antioch for their God-given religion. Although the Maccabees had fulfilled their lives with death, their brave reputation has remained to the present day, not only on earth, but also unforgettably in heaven.”

Then, in Vartan’s own words:

“Knowing this, brothers, do not be filled with weakness, but with firm heart and solid beliefs let us of our own will attack those enemies who raise themselves upon us. May our hopes reemerge; for if we perish, we shall live, and if we kill, the same life stands before us. ‘… [Christ] chose to endure even death, and crucifixion. Wherefore God exalted Him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth’” [Philippians 2:8-10].

Were the Maccabees in the consciousness of the 5th century Armenian soldier, or did Yeghishe later incorporate their example at this significant moment in his History? It is not entirely clear. Yet, in either case, the inclusion of the Maccabean example in the text bears significance in the context of an increasing contemporary reverence for their martyrdom: Saints Nazianzen, Chrysostom and Augustine had already dedicated homilies to the Maccabees, who had also become subjects of Syriac martyrologies and had martyria and churches in/near Antioch (Forness, 2020). Yeghishe, too, apparently drew on aspects of the Maccabean narrative in describing Avarayr as a Christian Holy War (Thomson, 1975). Philip Forness (whose English translation of the Maccbees from the Peshitta is forthcoming) recently traced the Peshitta translation of 1 Maccabees to the early 5th century (about three centuries after the translation of the Peshitta Old Testament from Hebrew) within this cultural context. Although it was the Armenians under Sasanid rule for whom the Syriac tradition was particularly influential (because reliance on Greek would have implied a Byzantine alliance and been seen as a threat), Kogean (1923) in his famous study concludes that the Armenian version of the Maccabees had been translated from Greek, and estimates that this translation was completed sometime between 432 and 450, so that there was no need for Vartan to translate the text into Armenian when addressing his soldiers (as had been done with Scripture before the development of the Armenian alphabet).

In 362, St. Gregory of Nazianzus had described the Maccabees as perfect martyrs, who, despite having antedated Christ by some 600 years, had been inspired by Him: “While this statement is both arcane and mystic, I for one consider it very persuasive, as do all who love Christ. For although the Logos was later openly proclaimed in His own era, He was made known even before to the pure of mind, as is evident from the large number of persons who achieved honor before His day”, and “Consider what they would have achieved if they had been persecuted after the time of Christ and were able to emulate His death on our behalf" (Vinson, 2003). Did the Sts. Vartanants come to fulfill St. Gregory's vision?

The Battle of Avarayr preceded the Council of Chalcedon by four months. With their nation in great turmoil, the Armenians had not sent a representative to Chalcedon, and would later split from the Byzantine Church on this basis. Yet in the words of Karekin I, “[this] time of great tension culminated in great achievements in literary, religious, missionary, and educational spheres, namely the preservation of Christianity, the invention of the Armenian alphabet, the translation of the Holy Scriptures, the liturgical literature and the Church Fathers, the remarkable flowering of Armenian literature, and the creation of national solidarity.” Indeed, it was at this point, after Armenia had split between Persia and Byzantium, after the development of the alphabet, after the fall of the Arsacid dynasty, after the Battle of Avarayr and the defense of Christianity, and the flowering of Armenian literature that we begin to see the development of a unique and independent national culture. The Battle of Avarayr was not born of Armenian nationalism, yet the Armenian nation as we know it was born of Avarayr.

We conclude with excerpts from the response of the Armenians to Yazdegerd II, from what Yeghishe claims to be an authentic transcription of the original letter:

“As for our religion, however, nothing is unclear, nor is it preached in some [obscure] corner of the land, but is spread over the whole earth, on sea and on land, and in the islands; not only in the West, but also in the East, and in the North and in the South, and densely in between. Not through the refuge of man did a protector spread [Christianity] through the land, but its firmness is in itself. It does not appear good by comparison with base things, but from the heavens above it has its honest legislation; not through any mediator, for God is one, and there is none other than He, neither senior nor junior.

“God did not receive beginning from anyone, but He is of Himself eternal; not in some place, but He in His own place; not from any time, but all time comes from Him; and He is not only older than the heavens, but older also than the thoughts in the minds of men and angels. [He] does not take on a material form, and does not fall into the perception of the eyes; and not only can he not be felt by hand, but he [also] cannot be comprehended by the mind of any man—not only among corporeal [beings] but even among the bodiless angels; but if He wills, He will be known to the minds of the deserving, albeit not visible to their eyes—not to worldly [minds], but [to those] who truly believe in God.

“His name is the Creator of the heavens and earth; and He was before the heavens and earth, for he came into existence of Himself and is self-named. He is timeless, and when He willed it, [He] gave beginning to existence; not from something, but from nothing—for He alone is Being, and everything else came into being from Him. It was not after he came to know and created [them], but before creating [them] that he in his foreknowledge had beheld His creatures. Just as now, before something good or evil is undertaken by man, all works of men are [already] known to God. So he also knew then, before he had created—and not as a mishmash—the uncreated [beings], but arranged and conformed before him each type of body part, both of men and angels, and the forms of everything that would have a form.

“And because [He] is a creative force, His goodness could not prevent our evil as it actually happened. And we have a Judge upon the right side of the Creator. The hands that established the heavens and the earth are the same that inscribed the stone tablets and gave you books, which contain the laws of peace and redemption, that we [come to] know the one God, the creator of things visible and invisible; not differently, as though one were good and one evil, but one and the same and entirely good.

“God, who created the world, himself came and was born of the holy virgin Mary, as previously indicated by the prophets, and without any cause of mortal order. Just as He had made this great body of the world out of nothing, so without any physical mediator He became truly embodied from the chaste virgin, and not as a shadowy appearance. He was truly God and truly became man. Not by becoming man did He lose godliness, nor by becoming and remaining God did he corrupt his manhood; but He was the same, and one.

“This Jesus Christ, who in his embodiment redeemed the whole world, came by his own will to die. And knowing divinity, he was formed from the unspotted virgin, and was born, and wrapped in swaddling clothes, and was laid in a manger, and drew the magi from the East to worship [Him]. He was nourished with milk as a boy, grew and came to age for thirty years and was baptized by John, the son of a barren woman, in the river Jordan. He performed great signs and miracles among the Jews, was betrayed by the priests, and [was] condemned by Pontius Pilate. He was crucified, dead, buried, and arose on the third day; He appeared to the twelve disciples and to many others—more than five hundred. He spent among them forty days, and then ascended from the Mount of Olives to heaven in the presence of His disciples, and rose and sat upon the throne of His Father. He promised to appear a second time with fearsome power and to raise the dead, to renew the world, to execute true judgment among the righteous and sinful, to reward the worthy and to punish the malefactors, who believe not in all these benefactions.

“No one can remove us from this belief, neither angels nor men, neither sword nor fire, nor water, nor any cruel beatings. All our goods and possessions are in your hands, and our bodies are before you. Do what you will. If you allow us our own faith, we shall not trade you for any other lord on earth, nor in heaven shall we exchange for another god Jesus Christ, for there is no other God than He.

“Now if you should have any questions following this great testimony, see here that we resolve to put our bodies in your hands. Now, do with them what you will; torture by you, acceptance from us. The sword is yours, the neck is ours. We are nothing better than our forefathers, who upon this attestation surrendered their goods and possessions and bodies.

“For if we were even immortal and yet we could die for the love of Christ, it would be worthy [to do so]; for He Himself was immortal, and so loved us, that He took death upon Himself, that we by His death might be saved from eternal death. And since He did not spare His immortality, we will willfully subject ourselves to death, for love of Him, so that He may willingly receive us in His immortality. We die as mortals, that [He] may accept our death as that of immortals.

“But ask us no more [of this], for the covenant of our faith is not with man, so that we may stumble like children, but [rather] indivisibly with God, from whom [we] can be neither dissolved nor sundered, not now nor later, nor forever, nor forever and ever.”

In 1962, CBS aired a special ("The Golden Book") dedicated to Yeghishe’s History:

Շնորհաւոր Սուրբ Վարդանանց տոն։
Happy Sts. Vartanants Day.