[C]elebrated catholicos, or spiritual head, of the Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church, principal advocate of Armenian cultural and ecclesiastical independence and collaborator in the first translation of the Bible and varied Christian literature into Armenian.
Descended from a family of Armenian patriarchs, Isaac was educated in the Hellenistic culture of Asia Minor and at Constantinople. After the death of his wife, he became a monk and c. 388, with royal support, was named catholicos of Armenia. He furthered Armenian monasticism and converted his residence into a monastery, integrating his patriarchal administration with the ascetical life of the monks. A reformer, Isaac tightened clerical discipline and enforced celibacy on Armenian bishops. He also established schools and churches and gained Constantinople’s recognition of Armenian patriarchal rights, thus creating a distinctive and autonomous Armenian form of Christianity free from direct Greek Orthodox control. With the help of his auxiliary bishop, the monk Mesrop Mashtots, later a saint, Isaac began c. 391 the development of a Greek-inspired Armenian alphabet and literature. The two then directed a group of scholars in translating the Greek and Syriac versions of the Bible into Armenian, completing it c. 435. This linguistic achievement and the formation of an Armenian liturgy and ritual preserved Armenian unity during its partition under Greek and Persian rule.
Although he won toleration for the Armenian Church by the Persian overlords, Isaac was forced to resign his office c. 428 because of intrigues among the Armenian princes. He resumed the church leadership in 432 in response to popular clamour. A semi-legendary 8th-century history of Armenia Major credits Isaac with writing liturgical texts and music, biblical commentaries on the Old Testament, and a series of letters to the Byzantine emperor, to Proclus, patriarch of Constantinople, and to other Eastern prelates on the Christological controversy. At the national Armenian synod of Ashtishat (435), Isaac promoted the Orthodox doctrine of Christ’s personal divinity and denounced the emphasis on his humanity as expressed by Theodore of Mopsuestia. 1
Princes from the land of Armenia came before Vahram, king of Iran, and requested that they be given a king from the Arsacid line. [Vahram] enthroned Artashes (Vrhamshapuh's son) from the line of the kings of Armenia.
Artashes was a cad, a luster after women, and reigned with much debauchery. Now because the naxarars of Armenia were unable to stand the dissolute and deviant conduct of king Artashes, they assembled in numbers by the great patriarch of Armenia st. Sahak, son of st. Nerses, from the Part'ew line. They said: "We can no longer bear the impure and foul actions of the king. We consider it better to die than to constantly see and hear about such filthy things. Moreover, because of conscience, we are unable to commune in the great, honored, and divine mystery after seeing such obscenity every day yet remaining silent about it. For we learned from you and from the doctrine of your ancestors that not only those who commit such things are guilty, but even those who countenance them. Now, first you ought to seek some way out of this unbelievable calamity and do away with such a lewd monarch who so openly — like an unbeliever — scornfully tramples what is holy, and fearlessly works this filthy pollution."
When the blessed patriarch of Armenia, Sahak, heard these words from the Armenian naxarars, he replied as follows: "I know what you are talking about, and have heard nothing new from you today. I also know that it is with bitter hearts that you speak. I am unable to say whether what you say has been distorted or incorrectly related by you. But now as regards strategems, worthy spiritual folk should find some solution to this, and everyone should think about it and implement it".
[The naxarars] one and all replied to the blessed kat'oghikos Sahak, saying: "We are unable to find any solution to this, except to complain to the king of Iran to remove him from the throne. [Artashes] himself by his actions proved that he was unworthy of the inheritance. We can think of doing nothing other than this. Now we beg you to support our plan. It is not fitting to be an accomplice to such blasphemous and obscene acts as the king commits."
When the blessed spiritual kat'oghikos of Armenia, Sahak, heard all of this from the Armenian naxarars and when he realized accurately that all the nobles of the land had the same sentiments and were set in this plan, he sank into great sadness and unconsolable mourning. Shedding rivers of tears in front of the multitude of Armenian naxarars, [Sahak] refused to reply for many days. He shut himself in his room and only the sound of lamentation and weeping could be heard [by those who] approached the chamber door. The man of God [wept] because by the power of the holy Spirit he saw the [coming] total destruction of the land of Armenia. Now many days later some bishops who were always in attendance at the saint's door (and were unable, even for a short time to stand going without the abundantly flowing and grace-filled doctrine of the man [a doctrine] which, to those spiritual and wise listeners who dined on the mysteries, had a sweet taste, as the prophet Daniel said, sweeter than a honeycomb) and some of the honorable presbyters and deacons (who were from the holy covenant of the patriarch), and others of Armenia's azat nobility dared to enter [Sahak's] room and spoke with him beseechingly. At this the blessed patriarch was consoled somewhat and, through the spiritual wisdom and counsel which were a part of him from his childhood, he ceased crying for a while and was silent.
Now after many days the entire united azatagund of the land of Armenia assembled and repeated the same sentiments before the blessed kat'oghikos of Armenia, urgently beseeching him to join with them. When the saint observed that in no way had they retreated from their former intentions and plans — because the daily increasing impure actions of the king, leading to his ruin, caused the unity of the princes to grow even stronger — with great lamentation [Sahak] raised his voice and said to them one and all:
"I, and you too, as we learned from God, should speak in a spiritual manner. Bearing for a moment the man's shortcomings, beseech the most merciful Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, with tears and entreaties for some way out. For [Artashes], because he was baptised is our brother and of our flesh, even though he is a sinner. Remember the doctrine of the blessed Apostle Paul, which your spiritual father and patriarch, the blessed Gregory, taught you: 'If one limb [of the body] causes pain, then all the other limbs ache along with it. And if one limb is healed, then all the other limbs rejoice with it.' It is worth recalling and reflecting on the grief, discomfort, imprisonment and shackles of saint Gregory; [and about] his entreaties and prayers to God for the salvation of the entire land; and how thanks to the Holy Spirit, he turned everyone from unbelief to belief; how he persecuted the demons of deviance and made them flee from you; and how he caused the seed of true faith, of recognition of God, to flower among you. Following his example, you ought to seek mercy for that blameworthy limb and not betray him to the infidels, and make the blessed mystery of our religion an object of ridicule and contempt. Remember my and your blessed father and vardapet [st. Gregory] who with sighs and ceaseless entreaties, morning and night, moved Christ (the creator of all) to pity and to transform back to a human shape [king Trdat] who had been changed into a beast. You who are students of his spiritual doctrine — all of you together, men, women, old, and young — with entreaties and tears make peace with all-powerful God for Whose awesome commands of might nothing is impossible. He accomplishes in a humane fashion what appear to us to be extremely difficult [matters]. Indeed, truthful God ordained for those who make requests loyally and with complete faith that, 'wherever two or three [people] assemble in my name, whatever they seek from my Father will be given to them.' Now if God grants whatever two or three sincere petitioners request, how much more will He grant the requests of such a multitude, and quickly. This is especially so because the petitions are made untiringly, with fervent sighs and sincere hope. Perhaps He will grant much more than is requested.
"As regards what you said about me, that I should join with you, God forbid that I should be the betrayer of our correct faith and betray the wandering sheep of my fold [i.e., Artashes] to the scorn of non-believers. Despite the fact that he is blameworthy, nonetheless, having received holy baptism, he is knowledgeable regarding the question of salvation and has heard the good news preached in the Gospel of Life. Were it a question of taking this injured sheep of my church to a healthy physician, I would do so quickly and without delay, but I will never consent to offer up my son whose soul is sick to that most disease-ridden tribunal. Were it a question of taking [Artashes] before a believing king for reprimand, I might make bold to do it with the hope of saving [him] from ruin. But I will not agree to denounce a believer's sins before a non-believer. In this my teacher is Paul who protested: 'When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the church! I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?' [I Corinthians 6]. And now, how could I, who have advised others, not take my own advice? I would rather die than have a believer betrayed to an unbeliever, because of his unworthy deeds. Even if they be prostitutes, they bear the seal of Christ's flock upon themselves. They are physically corrupt, but are not unbelievers and pagans; foul, but not fire -worshipers; womanizers, but not worshipers of the elements. They are ill with one disease, but are not infected with all diseases as the impious are. And why should we plot to destroy someone with a few failings by betraying him to someone who is a complete blasphemer? May such thoughts be far from you, my children. Plan it not, and do not attempt, as some of your ancestors did, to destroy your natural/native lords."
The blessed kat'oghikos tirelessly spoke these words and many others of counsel with many tears and entreaties before the Armenian nobility, but was unable to get them to retreat from their earlier unity and from the position which they had fixed in their minds. For the curse of that holy man of God, Nerses, had descended upon them. They had fallen under the burden of evil service to pagans, and the affair would not end until the matter came to a head. [The nobles] united replied to the blessed patriarch: "Because you did not heed our words and refused to ally with us, know that just as we are resolved not to have [Artashes] rule over us as king, any longer, so we promise that you shall not reign as patriarch over our land for long." When all the senior tanuters of the land of Armenia had thus spoken before the patriarch Sahak, they departed, angered at his advice. Nor did they want to turn to the venerable patriarch Sahak again. For the curse of the venerable patriarch Nerses had surrounded and enveloped them [because of] their plan, leading to total destruction.
Thereafter, united, [the naxarars] went to the court and later stood in the presence of the Iranian king Vahram. Among them was a presbyter named Surmak from the Bznunik' district, from the village known as Arcke. He was descended from the line of the district's priests. Having allied with the Armenian naxarars, and having broken with the counsel of the blessed patriarch Sahak, he spoke more coarsely and crudely about king Artashes in the presence of the Iranian nobles than did all the Armenian naxarars. He befriended the Armenian naxarars because some of the Armenian nobles had promised him the throne of the kat'oghikosatc of the land of Armenia. First they informed Suren and other Iranian nobles about the cause of their unhappiness, since Suren Pahlaw, at that time was hazarapet of the royal court. He and others of the court grandees saw to it that the complaint reached Vahram, king of Iran.
When the king of Iran heard such protest from the azatuni he did not permit them to speak a moment before [their] adversary had come to court. He immediately sent an emissary to king Artashes of Armenia ordering [Artashes] to come to him at once. He wrote that the great patriarch of Armenia, Sahak, was to come with him. When they had come to court, the king of Iran first questioned Artashes king of Armenia separately, as king: "What happened that the naxarars of Armenia are accusing you"? He replied: "I have no idea what slander they are saying about me. But it is their natural custom to be hostile to their own lords. Following their custom, they now want to implement this wicked deed. For they have always changed their princes and have hated their lords." Then Vahram, king of the Aryans, commanded that the blessed kat'oghikos of Armenia be summoned into his presence alone. For he exalted him first, because of the man's lineage, and second, because God shows his blessed servants to be respected and revered in the presence of unbelievers. [Vahram] inquired of the venerable kat'oghikos, hoping to hear him [confirm] all the words of the slanderers of Armenian kings. But [Sahak] responded: "I do not know what they say about him. Let them speak, and you listen to it from them. And may they themselves be requited according to what they say in your presence. Do not ask me anything about that matter, for you will hear nothing from me of slander, be it good or bad."
King Vahram then summoned Suren pahlaw his hazarapet who was of the same azg and tohm as the great patriarch Sahak to get [Sahak] also to unite with the other naxarars of Armenia, to testify to their slander. Then he would be returned to the authority of his kat'oghikosatc and land, covered with many honors and in great luxury. Suren took the king's message to the venerable Sahak promising him, as Vahram said, great luxury, and saying he would benefit from the king: "If you consent and do as he wants — to confirm the testimony of the Armenian naxarars — you will return to your authority, exalted by many honors. But if you stubbornly resist and do otherwise, you will lose your kat'oghikosal tun and will be rejected from your authority. Because we are of the same azg, I want what is good for you. It is not lightly that I give you this loving advice." With such words did [Suren] try to persuade the blessed patriarch Sahak. For they wanted to do away with the kingdom.
But the holy man would in no way consent to such words and confirm the testimony of the Armenian princes. Rather, holding firm to his beliefs, he said: "I know of no evil committed by Artashes which merits trial and contempt by you. For though according to our holy faith he is worthy of dishonor and disgrace, according to your polluted faith, he deserves praise and exaltation."
When Suren heard this reply from Sahak, the great patriarch of Armenia, a man of his own tohm, he went and related it to the king of the Aryans. The king became furiously enraged and ordered that the Armenian naxarars and Artashes should be questioned before the great multitude of the tribunal. The princes of Armenia heaped many obscenities and diverse unworthy remarks on their king, not talking about what had actually happened, but in a hostile manner causing him much damage through embellishments. Though they disowned Artashes, things were not as they said, and those listening did not believe them. But they had resolved to abolish the Arsacid line's rule in the kingdom. [The Iranians] wanted this all the more] when the king of the Aryans with all of the nobility of the court heard [the following remarks] from Artashes' accusers: "What need is there any more for a king? Rather, let an Iranian prince come to oversee us from time to time and, learning of our loyalty or disloyalty, tell you about it."
When Yahram, and all the nobility of the court, heard this he was delighted and ordered immediately that Artashes be removed from the kingship. At the same time [he ordered] that the kat'oghikosal tun be taken from saint Sahak, and possessed by the court since [Sahak] had not joined in giving testimony with the naxarars of Armenia. So resolved, the order of the Iranian king was implemented. Thereafter the rule was taken from the Arsacid line in the sixth year of Artashes. This happened in accordance with the word of the venerable man of God, the great patriarch Nerses. And the land of Armenia fell under the burden of servitude to the impious authority of the Iranians. Resembling the silver which Joseph's brothers took from the Ismaelite merchants for him, so for betraying, a price was paid by the kings of Iran to the Armenian princes, [and they were also given] honors and greatness. Thus leaving the court, they came to their own land.
The Armenian tanuters who had promised the kat'oghikosate to the presbyter Surmak Arckec'i, seated him on the throne of the kat'oghikosate of Armenia. But a short time later, resisted by some princely generals of Armenia, they rejected and removed him from the authority of the kat'oghikosate. Thereafter an Iranian marzpan was sent to the land of Armenia by Vahram king of Iran. Then [the Armenians] fell completely under the burden of servitude to the impious Iranian people. The curse of the great patriarch Nerses was thus realized. [This curse had been pronounced] because of the daily increase in deeds of impure wickedness within the royal Arsacid tohm which they were always shamelessly doing with enthusiastic boldness. When saint Nerses observed the unjust death which Arshak treacherously inflicted on his own brother's son Gnel, he was especially aroused and was unable to tolerate such impious deeds. Thus Nerses, the holy man of God, with an enraged heart said [the following], as is written in the 15th charh in the Second History (= P'awstos): "You wrought very great evils, more than did your father Tiran, more than your other ancestors who were evil and unrighteous [members] of the Arsacid line. You did not strive to resemble the good and virtuous men of your tohm, who, having inherited the honor of the kingship of their fathers, strived even more to be the heirs of [their] good deeds of virtue. But [in your case] day by day, without embarrassment you increased and carried out all kinds of obscenities. Moreover, you found reason to shed the innocent blood of your nephew, Gnel. Now you will be dumped on the ground like water which had been used for washing, and you will weaken when the bow from On High is strung. And the destruction described by the prophet will be visited upon you: 'The Arsacid line will drink the last cup. You will drink, become drunk, be destroyed, and not reestablished.'" Other heavy and awesome additions were made to the words pronounced by the blessed patriarch over the Arsacid line.
Then the naxarars of Armenia requested a kat'oghikos from the court, and king Vahram gave them a certain Syrian named Brk'isho. He came to the land of Armenia with people from his district who had come with him from Syria practising their dissolute religion, in accordance with their custom, with mistresses. And they did not live in accordance with the holy and pure religion which had been set and established in all the churches of Armenia by the blessed champion Gregory. The grandee tanuters of Armenia, the senior sepuhs and the entire multitude of the people became disgusted with the behavior of the people who had come with the kat'oghikos Brk'isho which in no way resembled the canon and doctrine of the angelic faith set forth by the blessed champion Gregory who taught, nourished, and established all according to heavenly policy. The marvellous priests of the holy Church who had been ordained by the right hand of the blessed patriarch Sahak — which resembled an Apostle's — mourned and wept even more unconsolably. Unable to long endure such a foul and unworthy arrangement, they scorned Brk'isho and rejected him from the patriarchate of Armenia. They told king Vahram that "His customs and ways are not those of the teachings of our land. Give us another man as a leader, someone of our native order, who will be a supervisor, and firmly keep the order of the holy Church." King Vahram acceded to their request, and gave them as kat'oghikos another Syrian named Shamuel. He came to the land of Armenia and conducted himself in accordance with Brk'isho 's faith. After a short while [Shamuel] died in the land of Armenia.
Then the senior sepuhs and the entire multitude of the covenant of the Church and the people, men and women, assembled and lamented [the loss of] the blessed, pure, and virtuous doctrine which saint Gregory and his sons had fostered and caused to grow within them, who had preached the correct and true teaching to all listeners. They themselves, like the blessed Apostles, had received this teaching not from humankind, not from mortal hands, but through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Once again, united, they assembled and clasped the feet of the blessed man of God, Sahak. With mournful entreaties and copious tears they threw themselves before the true [g26] patriarch, and said:
"We have sinned before Heaven and before you. Pardon us sinners, and imitate your ancestor the pious Gregory who overlooked the severe torments and batterings he was subjected to by our ancestors. Rather try to resemble the Creator of us all, who repaid the evils visited upon him with good and showed in every way to those who believed in Him, heaven-bound conduct and the path to recognition of God. And He taught everyone to constantly say: 'Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.' Now you, who were our constant vardapet, imprint His glory within your own person, follow the same example of patience, and forgive our trespasses. And we shall endeavor and request that the court reestablish you on your native patrimonial throne of the kat'oghikosate of the Holy Church through which we were illuminated and saw that unattainable sun of justice. Let the clear and limpid doctrine of the holy patriarch Gregory (who was like an Apostle) not be mixed with the erroneous teaching [of the Syrians]. For weak and dissolute leaders have weakened the seal of traditions of the saint's unadulterated preaching, and lo! we and our offspring will suffer an eternal loss."
Although the entire multitude in unison spoke these and many other words of entreaty for many days, morning and night without cease, to the blessed [Sahak] they were entirely unable to change the mind of that upright man [to accept] their emotional requests. Rather [Sahak] tranquilly replied to all of them:
"I did not learn from the heavenly Creator and from Christ's vardapet to get angry at anyone. For [Christ] on the Cross beseeched his Father not to regard their actions as sins. And He always protested to us, saying: "Bless your persecutors, and be good to those who hate you.' But I am unable to rule as patriarch over a people which plots against, betrays, and kills its lord. For the Holy Spirit which gave us a second birth in the holy baptismal font allowing us to be co-inheritors of Christ, also said through that sublime man Paul 'Judge not, lest you be judged,' and 'Those of you who are able, eliminate the failings of the weak,' and 'Vengeance is mine and I shall exact it, said the Lord.' You should know yourselves. You sought vengeance on your king for his deeds, and, being furious at him, you betrayed the blessed faith of our covenant and permitted the infidels to ridicule it. By what means could you try to console me, and who could entreat me to be [your] shepherd? For I see that the injured sheep of Christ's flock, rather than being wrapped, and having its wounds dressed with oil and wine and placed upon a pack-animal and taken to a shelter; that sheep was mercilessly torn apart before wild beasts that devoured and divided it. Leave me alone and allow me to lament the general ruin of the land of Armenia which I see with my mind's eye through strength from On High. Do not try to force me to be consoled over the destruction of my people. For heavenly providence revealed to me in a dream, before I was ordained a bishop that this disastrous circumstance would develop. [It was] like the prophetic vision which was shown to the holy martyr Gregory, and was knowledge of things to come. My troubled heart forces me to relate this to you today and appear as incensed as the blessed Paul who was sent by God, who, because of false apostles and impious servants wrote boasting of the feats of his asceticism to the Corinthians. Now listen thoughtfully all you multitudes of people and I shall tell you."
When the multitude of Armenia's awags, tanuters, sepuhs and the dense multitude of the people heard all of these words from the blessed patriarch Sahak they began to weep in terror. Thereafter no one dared to remark on or talk about such matters with the holy man.
After this, the virtuous one withdrew from all pursuits of the troubled world and occupied himself solely with prayers and doctrine. There were many bishops and other venerable priests who were unable to bear being separated from the ever- flowing streams of his holy doctrine [and came to him] wherever he was, at ostan or in the country. [Sahak] lived for many years and having reached deep old age, he died peacefully in the village named Blur in the district of Bagrewand. [This occurred in 439], at the beginning of the second year of the reign of Vahram's son Yazkert [II, 439-57] king of Iran, on the 30th day of the month of Nawarsard on the second hour of the day. As we know accurately the day of the saint's birth, from the History of the venerable Koriwn so we surely know that the saint died on the same day, in the same month, as he was born.
The blessed man of God, Sahak, had no male offspring, only a daughter who was wed to Hamazasp, lord of the Mamikoneans and sparapet of Armenia. She bore three sons to Hamazasp: the blessed Vardan, the blessed Hmayeak and the venerable Hamazaspean. [Sahak] sealed [a document] and gave them the property of his villages and fields and whatever else belonged to him. He gave it in inheritance to them and to their children in perpetuity. Raising his hand [Sahak] bestowed many blessings upon them and bade them to retain the doctrine of the command of saint Gregory who had taught and preached truthfully throughout all of the land of Armenia — to revere and worship the one true God, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The coveted remains of this blessed man were taken by a multitude of priests and azats to [Sahak' s] own native sephakan village named Ashtishat in the district of Taron. There they built a repository for the saint and placed the pure body of this just man in a place fit for the honest. They also built a glorious church there and a martyrium for the saints and adorned [them] with precious and costly vessels. They established at the spot a monastery for a multitude of clerics, establishing continual maintenance of produce for the ease of the elderly [members] of the brotherhood. The azats and priests of the district established at that place (with enthusiastic popular support) yearly assemblies [where] from time to time and with the voluntary support of the masses of people and [the participation of] a great number of people who had come from distant places, they commemorated the day of his death. Much benefit for the healing of every sort of disease was obtained from the saint's relics. And with joyous hearts they would return to their own dwelling... 2