Thus the church of Great Armenia began as a province of the Cappadocian see. But there was a tradition of a line of bishops earlier than Gregory in Siuniq, a region east of Ararat along the Araxes (Aras), which in early times claimed to be independent of the catholicus. The Adoptianist bishop Archelaus, who opposed the entry of Mani into Armenia under Probus c. 277, was also perhaps a Syriac-speaking bishop of Pers-Armenia. Almost the earliest document revealing anything of the inner organization and condition of the Armenian church in the Nicene age is the epistle of Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, to the Armenian bishop Verthanes, written between 325 and 335 and preserved in Armenian. Its genuineness has been unreasonably suspected. It insists on the erection of fonts; on distinction of grades among the ordained clergy; on not postponing baptism too long; on bishops and priests alone, and not deacons, being allowed to baptize and lay hands on or confirm the baptized; on avoiding communion with Arians; on the use of unleavened bread in the Sacrament, &c. We learn from it that the bishop of Basen and Bagrevand was an Arian at that time. By the year 450 these two districts already had separate bishops of their own. The letter of Macarius, therefore, if a forgery, must be a very early one. The Armenians must, like the Georgians a little later, have set store by the opinion of the bishop of Jerusalem, or they would not have sent to consult him. It was equally from Jerusalem that they subsequently adopted their lectionary and arrangement of the Christian year; and a 9th-century copy of this lectionary in the Paris library preserves to us precious details of the liturgical usages of Jerusalem in the 4th century. We can trace the presence of Armenian convents on the Mount of Olives as early as the 5th century.
Tradition represents the conversion of Great Armenia under Gregory and Tiridates as a sort of triumphant march, in which the temples of the demons and their records were destroyed wholesale, and their undefended sites instantly converted into Christian churches. The questions arise: how was the transition from old to new effected? and what was the type of teaching dominant in the new church? Armenian tradition, confirmed by nearly contemporary Greek sources, answers the first question. The old order went on, but under new names. The priestly families, we learn, hearing that the God preached by Gregory needed not sacrifice, sent to the king a deputation and asked how they were to live, if they became Christians; for until then the priests and their families had lived off the portions of the animal victims and other offerings reserved to them by pagan custom. Gregory replied that, if they would join the new religion, not only should the sacrifices continue, but they should have larger perquisites then ever. The priestly families then went over en masse. How far the older sacrificial rules resembled the levitical law we do not know, but in the canons of Sahak, c. 430, the priests already receive the levitical portions of the victims; and we find that animals are being sacrificed every Sunday, on the feast days which at first were few, in fulfilment of private vows, in expiation of the sins of the living, and still more of those of the dead. No one might kill his own meat and deprive the priest of his due; but this rule did not apply to the chase. The earliest Armenian rituals contain ample services for the conduct of an agapē (q.v.) or love feast held in the church off sacrificial meat. The victim was slaughtered by the priest in the church porch before the crucifix, after it had been ritually wreathed and given the holy salt, by licking which it appropriated a sacramental purity or efficacy previously conveyed into the salt by exorcisms and consecration. In the canons of Sahak the priest is represented as eating the sins of the people in these repasts.
It is easy to underrate the importance in religion of a change of names. The old sacrificial hymns were probably obscene and certainly nonsensical, and the substitution for them of the psalms, and of lections of the prophets and New Testament, was an enormous gain. We do not know precisely how the eucharistic rite was adjusted to these sacrificial meals; but, in the canons of Sahak, 1 Cor. xi. 17-34 is interpreted of these meals, which were known as the Dominical (suppers). The Eucharist was, therefore, long associated with the matal or animal victim, and only in the 8th century do we hear of an interval of time being left between the fleshly and the spiritual sacrifices, as the two rites were then called. The Basilian service of the Eucharist was used in the 5th century, but superseded later on by a Byzantine rite which will be found translated in F. E. Brightman’s Eastern Liturgies. The Eucharist was no doubt the one important sacrifice in the minds of the clergy who had attended the schools of Constantinople and Alexandria; yet the heart of the people remained in their ancient blood-offerings, and as late as the 12th century they were prone to deny that the mass could expiate the sins of the dead unless accompanied by the sacrifice of an animal. Perhaps even to-day the worst fate that can befall a villager after death is to be deprived, not of commemoration in the mass, but of the victim slain for his sins. The keenest spiritual weapon of the Armenian priest was ever a threat not to offer the matal for a man when he died.
Another survival in the Armenian church was the hereditary priesthood. None but a scion of a priestly family could become a deacon, elder or bishop. Accordingly the primacy remained in the family of Gregory until about 374, when the king Pap or Bab murdered Nerses, who had been ordained by Eusebius of Caesarea (362-370) and was over-zealous in implanting in Armenia the canons about celibacy, marriage, fasting, hospices and monastic life which Basil had established in Cappadocia. It may be remarked that Gregory’s own family was a cadet branch of the Arsacid kin which had occupied the thrones of Persia, Bactria, Armenia and Georgia. His primacy therefore was in itself a survival of an earlier age when king and priest were one. He was in fact a rex sacrificulus, and later on, when the Arsacid dynasty fell in Armenia c. A.D. 428, the Armenian catholicus became the symbol of national unity and the rallying-point of patriotism. The line of Gregory was restored in 390 in the person of Isaac or Sahak, son of Nerses, and his patriarchate was the golden age of Armenian literature. But by this time the autonomy of the Armenian church was thoroughly established. On the death of Nerses the right of saying grace at the royal meals, which was the essence of the catholicate, was transferred by the king, in despite of the Greeks, to the priestly family of Albianus, and thenceforth no Armenian catholicus went to Caesarea for ordination. The ties with Greek official Christendom were snapped for ever, and in subsequent ages the doctrinal preferences of the Armenians were usually determined more by antagonism to the Greeks than by reflection. If they accepted the council of Ephesus in 430 and joined in the condemnation of Nestorius, it was rather because the Sassanid kings of Persia, who thirsted for the reconquest of Armenia, favoured Nestorianism, a form of doctrine current in Persia and rejected in Byzantium. But later on, about 480, and throughout the following centuries, the Armenians rejected the decrees of Chalcedon and held that the assertion of two natures in Christ was a relapse into the heresy of Nestor. From the close of the 5th century the Armenians have remained monophysite, like the Copts and Abyssinians, and have only broken the record with occasional short interludes of orthodoxy, as when in 633 the emperor Heraclius forced reunion on them, under a catholicus named Esdras, at a council held in Erzerum. Even then all parties were careful not to mention Chalcedon. The march of Arab conquest kept the Armenians friendly to Byzantium for a few years; but in 718 the catholicus John of Odsun ascended the throne and at the council of Manazkert in 728 repeated and confirmed the anathemas against Chalcedon and the tome of Leo, that had been first pronounced by the catholicus Babken in 491 at a synod held in Valarshapat by the united Armenian, Georgian or Iberian, and Albanian churches.
- If a forgery, why should this letter have been assigned to Macarius, a comparatively obscure person whose name is not even found in the menaea of the Eastern church? But convincing proof of its authenticity lies in Macarius’ reference to himself as merely archbishop of Jerusalem, and his avowal that he was unwilling to advise the Armenians, “being oppressed by the weakness of the authority conceded him by the weighty usages of the church.” Jerusalem was only allowed to rank as a patriarchate in 451, and the seventh canon of Nice subordinated the see to that of Caesarea in Palestine. To this decree Macarius somewhat bitterly alludes.