Letter to the Monastery of Kchav


On this page you can read the English translation of the Letter to the Monastery of Kchav, done by the renowned British Orientalist Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare. The translation with the translator's introductory note and annotations was published in 1898 at the Oxford Clarendon Press, in Appendix I to the book “The Key of Truth, a Manual of the Paulician Church of Armenia” (pp. 125-130).


[Introductory note]

[p. 125]

THE original of the copy from which the following letter is printed by Father Basil Sarkisean1 in his volume on the 'Manichean Paulician Heresy' (Venice, 1893, in Modern Armenian), is preserved in a codex called the Book of Letters, which used to be in the library of the Fathers of Antony at Constantinople. This codex was written out in 748 of the Armenian Era = a.d. 1300, in Hromkla by Thomas the Vardapet, on charta bombycina, from an older copy which belonged to Gregory Vkayaser in the year 527 = a.d. 1079. The convent of Kdjav, to the Abbot of which the letter was written, was very ancient, and was situated in the province of Mokatz.

About the year 987 accusations were made against many Armenian monks and priests of being secret or open members of the Thonraki sect. Among those accused was Gregory of Narek, the famous saint and author of a book of devotions which is still in the hands of every Armenian priest. A council was held at Ani before which he was acquitted, and, to fully exculpate himself, he was forced to write the following letter to the Abbot of Kdjav, who notoriously leaned to the side of the heretics.




Of the gracious Doctor Gregory of Narek, which he wrote to the celebrated convent of Kdjav, concerning the tenets of the cursed Thonraki, Ianes and Iamres, who came in the guise of sheep, but within is a ravening wolf; who moreover by his fruits was made known to all. Him the holy doctor having heard of, wrote in order to liberate others from the evil tenets:—

Lord Father2, I write this because an untrustworthy rumour of evil tendency, although those who heard it considered it trustworthy, nor was there any ill-will to prejudice them—admits of no other means of contradiction.

For I heard that the unmentionable and obscene lechery of the heresy of the cursed Thonraki sect is mentioned among your pious ones. And I was lost in astonishment at a statement so improper on

[p. 126]

the part of the enemies of God, who declare that you furthermore reported to Mushel3, a learned man by repute, that you had been satisfied by a bearer of letters whom you had sent that they (i.e. the Thonraki) are not alien to the apostolical tradition4; and that you are keenly desirous to share in their lot and associate yourself closely with those who have been cut off by the sword of the avenging heathen Amir5 Apl-Vard, who is in fact a rod of wrath in the hand of the Lord Jesus.

We learn from the same source that you ask, What writing directs any one to be anathematized? asserting the marvellously composed letter of contradiction of our blessed Lord Ananias6, to be nonsensical or absurd, or spoken against God. Now if all this has been inspired by you,—I omit to say agreed to by you and (I spare so to write) relished by you—then you have summed up in yourself the aforewritten [opinion] that 'their chosen food became loathing.'

There is much that is divine and everything that is apostolical that is yet denied by them and abolished. Of divine ordinances, there is the laying on of hands7, as the apostles received it from Christ. There is the communion in his body8, as the Apostle defined it, saying: In eating the bread of communion, we receive and eat God himself, who was united with flesh. This communion-bread, before which we tremble, Smbat9 taught to be ordinary bread. And as for the birth through spiritual throes, I mean by water and Spirit, of which it was declared that it makes us sons of God, concerning this, he taught others that it consisted of mere bath water.

And as to the exalted day of the Lord10, on which [the word of God] created the first light and perfected thereon the light of his rising, and prefigured by an economy the quickening light of his Advent,—this day, adorable for all it doth image, he has explained to them is to be counted just like any other days.

[p. 127]

Then among the observances which we know to have been repudiated by them as neither apostolic nor divine, [we know to be] the mysterious prayers of genuflexion11, though the Creator of all, Jesus Christ, bowing bent the knee. We know that the Font is denied by them, in which Christ himself was baptized; that the communion of immortality, which the Lord himself gave to taste unto all, is denied. We know their filthy habit of lecherous promiscuity12, where the Lord reproved and suppressed even a glance. We know that they deny the adored sign13 (i.e. the Cross), which God, made man, raised and carried on his shoulder as his own glory and authority. We know of their anthropolatrous apostasy, more abominable and cursed than idolatry; of their self-conferred14 contemptible priesthood, which is a likening of themselves to Satan15; of their depreciation of the sacrament (lit. crown) of marriage16, which our Lord, by his own miracles, and through his own God-bearing mother, prized and honoured. This sacrament (lit. crown) they contemn, and reckon the mere fact of union in love with one another to be perfect love, and from God and pleasing to Christ; saying that God is love and desires the love union alone, and not the sacrament of marriage (lit. crown). I know, too, of their railing and cavilling at the first-fruits17, which Abel and Noe and Abraham and David and Solomon and Elias appointed to conciliate the Divine wrath. We know how they dare to call the head of their abominable sect a Christ18; of whom Christ testified beforehand, saying, There shall arise false prophets. And this is the meaning of the prophet's saying: The fool said in his heart, there is no God.

Such, then, are the apostolic19 men of your Mushel who examines and finds them to be people of unswerving faith. These, then, are they whom my father's brother, a Vardapet of great acumen, closely investigated, as being himself an apologist of God. And he, like a learned champion, radically demolished the fabulous blasphemies of the lawless Thonraki sect; and had he not done so we should hardly

[p. 128]

have known20 from report even the name of the foul creatures, so insignificant is their fame. What gifts then of election21 have they seen in the abominable Kumbricus22, what trace of good in Simon23, or what hope to look forward to in the antichrist, of all of whom they are the disciples? For, forgetful of the ineffable favours and kindness bestowed on them through the Passion, they call these their refuge24, though they have lied about the same. For they are packs of dogs and bands of thieves, troops of wolves and arrays of devils; tribes of brigands and masses of weevils, hordes of savages and legions of crucifiers, congregations of evil ones and men of blood, swarms of poisonous snakes and herds of wild beasts, enemies of mankind, societies of wizards and heretics, the scorn not only of churchmen, but of heathen as well.

For I must relate what a certain valiant man said, who destroyed and put to an infamous death their cursed ancestors. This is what he said to the second Iamres25: 'If Christ rose on the third day, then since you call yourself Christ26, I will slay you and bury yon; and if you shall come to life again after thirty days, then I will know that you are Christ, even though you take so many days over your resurrection. Now he was in close contact with them as a neighbour, and he had learned the story of the bitter phrensy of these offenders from many who had told it him, and he certainly believed27 in the true resurrection of Christ, and was making mock of them as proper objects of ridicule, when he left behind him the memory of this laudable saying. For it was God and no earthly being who raised up this idea in him, and it was providence which enjoined him to reprove or destroy the wicked according to their wickedness; just as providence gave for food the terrible serpent of Ind, and chastised the Jews through the Chaldeans, and in judgement overwhelmed those who crucified Jesus by the hand of Titus and Vespasian and Adrian, and reprimanded the Egyptian nation with a twofold destruction by the hand of Cyrus. And he is said to have hung up in the dread oracular temple of Beliar himself the lance with which he smote them. Now the very devils knew God the only-born and confessed him to be judge of all; but the foul Smbat, a second Simon, allowed himself to be worshipped by his disciples, men rooted in bitterness and sowers of tares; just like that wizard of Samaria, and Montanus and Pythagoras the illiterate and heathen philosopher.

I have set down a few points out of many, and I await your answer.

[p. 129]

For it is a leading principle of our Lord's canon, which says: And by thy words shalt thou be justified, and out of thy works shalt thou be judged. But if you admire their writings28, we know that Satan too recited a psalm on the day of the temptation of the Saviour of all. But unless you place on record a double curse and manifold anathema against their founder Smbat and their dead and wizard-like cults and their profession of faith29; and unless you in writing declare that what they represent as good is mere ordure over and over, and find the same to be excess of apostasy, and intimate the same in your letter to me, which is the way in which it beseems you to clear your character and to get rid of the scandal and prejudice: anyhow, know for certain that I have written entirely out of consideration for your good and peace and love. For if your citadel of refuge30 be betrayed by you, its own guardian, then of yourself will you become a traitor to your high office. And since this Mushel writes that he is a Vardapet31, you must arm a champion against the enemy and repair the breach that has been effected, and defend exposed places, and be light and salt and mentor to him that is in the dark, according to the divine canon. But if your light be to his thinking darkness, he is beyond doubt a viperous sorcerer and senseless giver of poison. For his science is not holpen by the finger of God, his voice is ill-starred and inspired by evil, and his report is deceitful—a destroyer of peace.

And now with what conscience can he repeat the words: 'Out of what writings can I anathematize any one?' Paul anathematized even an angel that should think things alien to his gospel, and he did not scruple to repeat the anathema twice. And David cursed his transgressions and subscribed to the reprimand. And the Lord saith of those who have deserted from the ranks and are altogether on his left hand: Depart from me ye cursed ones. And we received from the Council of Nice32, and learned an anathema on the vainglory of heretics, which is formally directed to be used twice over in the hymn of the confession of faith which follows after the reading of the gospel. An answer to the letters of Petros from Sahak prescribed forms of anathema against those excommunicated at Chalcedon. And there are the heads of Cyril of Alexandria's anathemas against Nestorius, and the Henoticon letter of the Emperor Zeno, which curses by name the utterly heretical sects.

Now if we are by ordinance obliged to curse those whose shortcomings are but in part, how much more33 must we curse the manifoldly heretical ranks of this congregation, which is cut off from Christ and united by bonds to Satan. And now, Lord Abbot, take no offence at the terms of my letter, nor take unfeigned love as if it were hatred. For the love of Christ compels me to this, and we only desire you to

[p. 130]

be spotless. And do you order to be copied the volumes34 full of learning which the father Ananias, with great care, wrote against these schismatics.

1 Many of Father Sarkisean's valuable notes I translate, adding his initials B. S.

2 Nothing more is known of this Abbot, nor do we know at all if any steps were taken in consequence of this letter to purge his convent of heresy (B. S.).

3 B. S. conjectures that Mushel was i.q. Mushel Bagratuni Abasean, mentioned by the historian Asolik as a governor of Kars in 984. But, as he was a Vardapet, I doubt this identification. In any case it was an honoured name in Armenia from the earliest times. It is written with a strong l answering to Greek λ. Or translate : 'that you (aud especially Mushel . . . reported that.'

4 This testimony that the Abbot and Mushel had satisfied themselves after examination that the claim of the Thonraki sect to be an apostolical church and to possess the apostolical tradition was a valid one, is both important and interesting. It is the claim which is made on almost every page of the Key.

5 This Amir cannot be identified with certainty. The reference proves that the Paulicians took the field against the Mahometan invaders, and were not spared by them.

6 This letter, written under compulsion of the Armenian Catholicos by Ananias of Narek, Gregory of Narek's uncle, is preserved but does not merit translation, being mere invective. Ananias was, like his nephew, accused of being a Thonraki or Paulician.

7 But we saw above that prominent Armenian churchmen of the tenth century admitted that their heretical rivals had the true apostolical tradition.

8 The account preserved in the Key of the Paulician Eucharist is so fragmentary that it is not easy to say against what aspects of it Gregory of Narek directs his remarks. The grain of truth in them must be that the Paulicians rejected the orthodox sacraments in favour of their own.

9 Smbat (the same name as Sinbad) is stated below to have been the founder of the Thonraki Church.

10 The Key gives us no information as to how the Paulicians regarded the Lord's day.

11 We gather that the Paulicians prayed standing erect in the primitive Christian manner. The continuity of observance in their Church is strikingly illustrated by the fact that its modern adherents still forbid genuflexions, as we learn from the confession adduced in pp. xxv, xxvi of the Prolegomena.

12 Here the malice of the writer must be discounted. It was the regular and stereotyped charge against all heretics, even the purest in their lives. It, of course, refers to their denial that marriage was a sacrament.

13 See the Key, p. 115.

14 The Armenian word is a compound and = αὐτόχειρ, 'with one's own hand.'

15 See note 8 [18], below.

16 See the Key, p. 119.

17 Perhaps the Key, p. 115, should be compared, where offerings of incense, candles, and victims are prohibited.

18 The elect one, according to the Key, was the image of Jesus Christ on earth, his office was to reproduce on earth the life and calling of Christ himself. See the Key, pp. 95 and 106. The same charge of pretending that he was Christ or the Holy Spirit was advanced against Sergius the Paulician, who is identified by Dr. Mkerttschian and the historian Tchamitch with Smbat. See also the Prolegomena, pp. lxi foll.

19 The claim of those who used the Key and of him who wrote it was that the Paulician was the only true apostolic church. See above, note 2 [4], p. 126, and Prolegomena, pp. xxxiii and xli.

20 Why was Gregory so anxious to disclaim all knowledge of the sect? Because he was accused of belonging to it. Was the accusation true? Probably he had, at least in secret, once belonged to it, for his enemies nicknamed him 'Apostate.'

21 Gregory glances at the 'Election' and 'Elect ones' of the Paulicians.

22 i.e. Mani called Κύβρικον. Gregory perhaps draws upon Photius or the Archelaus acts.

23 In the Key Simon Magus is mentioned on pp. 91, 92.

24 See the prayer in the Ordination Service in the Key, p. 108.

25 A sobriquet for Smbat.

26 See above, note 8 [18], p. 127.

27 Yet Gregory adduces this story by way of illustrating how the Thonraki were the scorn of heathen as well as of churchmen. He was not ashamed to gloat over Mahometan mockery and murder of his own countrymen, and this although—as is clear from the context—the Paulicians had given their lives in order to repel the Mahometan invaders of Armenia. See the Prolegomena, pp. lxiii foll.

28 Or more probably գրաբանութիւն should be rendered 'quoting of the Scriptures.'

29 See the Key, pp. 93, 94 and 97.

30 i.e. the convent to the Abbot of which this letter is addressed.

31 Therefore Mushel was probably a doctor of the Armenian Gregorian Church.

32 This anathema is still repeated by Armenians at the end of the Nicene Symbol.

33 This passage proves at least that the Thonraki had nothing to do with the Nestorians and other heretical sects enumerated in the Henoticon. See the Prolegomena.

34 This work of Ananias is unfortunately lost. If it could be discovered, it might give valuable information. Nerses Schnorhali quotes it in his Epistola I (see Sancti Nersetis Clajensis Opera, vol. i. pp. 58-64, Venice, 1832), but his citations, though valuable, hardly make up for the loss. Gregory Magistros, early in the eleventh century, also quotes this lost work of Ananias in his letter to the Patriarch of Edessa, which, along with the letter of Nerses Schnorhali, will be given in English below.