Introduction to the Canons of Saint Sahak


The Canons of Saint Sahak


Frederick Conybeare's Introduction and 1898 translation of The Canons of Saint Sahak, together with the Classical Armenian text.



The Canons of St. Sahak, here for the first time translated from old Armenian, were drawn up for the government of his church by Sahak (Isaac) Catholicos, who died A.D. 439, after a rule of nearly fifty years. The Catholicos was the chief bishop of the Armenians, and until about the year 374, when the Armenians asserted their ecclesiastical independence, he was, though a nominee of the Armenian sovereign, wont to repair to Caesarea in Cappadocia for consecration by Greek bishops. This particular Sahak was named the Great, because of his activity in organizing his national church, in completing the Armenian version of the Scriptures, and in translating the works of orthodox Greek Fathers into the same tongue.

        The colophon of a scribe, appended to the fourth chapter of these canons, declares that Sahak had received them from St. Gregory, the Illuminator, of Armenia (ca. 300-325 A.D.) and had merely caused them to be translated into the vernacular. It is very probable that much of the matter in the first four chapters belongs to the first half of the fourth century, and the Armenian is almost certainly translated from a Greek original now lost. But it is doubtful whether Gregory was the direct author of them. Nor is it likely that we even have them in the exact form given to them by Sahak. Thus in 4.8, there is a mention of the feat of the holy mother of God. Even in Rome such a feast was not instituted before the seventh century, and it is inconceivable that it was kept in Armenia at so early a period. It is evident, therefore, that our document has been interpolated.

       In most other respects, however, it affords a trustworthy picture of the church of Greater Armenia in the fifth century, to which epoch the language in which it is written belongs. We know plenty about the Greek and Roman churches of that age; but these canons show how unsafe it is to make inductions from the Christianity of Rome and Antioch or Constantinople to that of Armenia. It is generally supposed that Christianity abolished victims and the sacrificial system, and so it did in most parts of the Roman empire. But not so in Armenia and the Caucasus, where such rites were too deeply ingrained in the moral and economical life of the inhabitants to be eradicated. There the old pre-Christian system of sacrificing animals continued unchanged, unless, indeed, we can say that it was Judaized; and the pagan sacrificing priesthood passed insensibly into a Christian priesthood. Among the following canons are many regulative of this sacrificial system of Christian Armenia, which remains unchanged even in modern times.


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