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Two Stories about Jews in Armenian: Part 1

Gospel of Eight Miniaturists, 13th-14th century, Sis (Cilicia). Currently: Mashtots’Matenadaran (Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan, Armenia) Ms 7651. The image taken from the official website of the Matenadaran, Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan, Armenia.

Jews in Armenia? What the Project Aims to Do

Traces of Jewish communities in historical Armenia during the Middle Ages are difficult to discern. With the exception of a 13th - 14th century Jewish cemetery found in the Region of Vayots’ Dzor in the Republic of Armenia (to which a separate entry will be dedicated in the future), there are no other clear indications of continued Jewish presence in medieval Armenia. References to Jews living in Armenia in written sources are rather scarce and there is no native “Jewish-Armenian” culture comparable to, for example, Greek-speaking Byzantine Jewish communities or Jews of Islamicate lands. Thus, studying Jewish-Christian relations in medieval Armenia is a challenging undertaking. Aware of this problem, one of my tasks within the Armenian section of the JewsEast project is to identify and analyze any relevant sources in Armenian, including translations, most notably from Greek and Syriac, but not excluding other languages, such as Arabic, Georgian or Latin. And what is a better way of finding such texts than reading through exciting manuscript catalogues, especially those that have no analytical indexes? Funny as this may sound, such an undertaking can be rewarding. In fact, this is what led me to the two texts to which I will dedicate two entries on this site.

The Text

It was while looking through manuscript catalogues, chasing yet another text, that I came across Narratio de cruce seu imagine Berytensi/Story of the Cross or Icon of Beirut. Following the traces of the Icon of Beirut in manuscript catalogues, another tale came to my attention –De episcopo qui cum Hebraea fornicabatur/On the Bishop who Fornicated with a Jewish Woman, transmitted with the Icon of Beirut in some manuscripts. While the reader is probably more intrigued by the title of the story on the Bishop who Fornicated with a Jewish Woman, I hope she will equip herself with patience until the next entry (Part 2). Yet, lured by this expectation, I trust she will read through this entry (Part 1) on the first, theologically more sober, but not less interesting text on the Icon of Beirut.

The latter is known in a number of languages with some variations, but if one were to reduce the different variants of the text to their most skeletal narrative structure, it would be this: a Christian from Beirut (Berytus) leaves an icon of Christ in his old dwelling which is subsequently rented out to a Jew. The latter, together with his friends, enact the scenes from Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion on the icon, inflicting physical damage to it, as if wounding Christ himself. As a result blood and water issue from the icon, in some versions filling the entire city. At the behest of the “head priest” (քահանայապետ) of the Jews, in order to test the veracity of Christian claims, the blood mixed with water is applied to persons suffering various kinds of ills who are immediately healed. These miracles convince the Jews of the city to convert en masse to Christianity and transform the house into a church, keeping the icon there. The Armenian version adds that “many years later” the icon was taken to Constantinople by the “pious Emperor Tzimiskes” together with the slipper of Christ which he had taken from Homs. These were then deposited in Constantinople with “other holy objects”.

Magical Numbers

I was neither aware of the existence of the Armenian version, nor had I worked with this source previously, so as to understand its appeal and diffusion in various languages and cultures. Soon, I discovered that the text in question is rather well-known. It was even assigned one of those “magical” numbers that the compilers of the magnificent Clavis Patrum Graecorum and the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca created. Those are CPG 2262 and the BHG 780-788b. The Armenian version seems to be dependent on BHG 781 and features another magical number, this time in the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Orientalis: 440 and 441.

The Manuscripts

For the moment, I have examined the text only in a few manuscripts. They usually fall into types called generically “Collections” (Ժողովածու) or “Golden Codices” (Ոսկեփորիկ), as well as “Homiliaries/Selected Homilies” (Ճառընտիր). Since the latter type of manuscripts often arrange the Homilies according to the celebrations of the Liturgical Year, a more detailed study would indicate which Feasts the narrative was associated with and, thus, what function it may have had.

The fourteenth century manuscript at the Library of the Mechitarist Congregation in Vienna (W1048), is a Synaxarion copied from a tenth-century Vorlage of the first translation of the Constantinopolitan Synaxarion to Armenian by Yovsēp‘ of Constantinople in the tenth century. W1048 reproduces Yovsēp’s colophon (on fol. 8r). In this codex, the Icon of Beirut is placed immediately after the feast day of Sts Cyrus and John, whose joint Vita is also attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria here. Thus, the work on the Icon of Beirut, even if not directly related to Sts Cyrus and John, by virtue of its attribution to Athanasius of Alexandria, appears in this context (fols 214r-v). Similarly, in a Homiliary (Ճառընտիր) preserved in the Library of the Mechitarist Congregation in Venice (V201/1014), the Icon of Beirut follows the Life of Athanasius (fol. 18v). Perhaps more revealing and rather predictable is a “Golden Codex” (Ոսկեփորիկ) from the Vienna Mechitarist Congregation (W791), dated to the sixteenth century. The Icon of Beirut is found in the vicinity of other texts dealing with the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Thus, it may have been read in connection with the liturgy of the Holy Week, making use of the potential of this text in representing the reality of the Crucifixion and justifying the veneration of images simultaneously.

Authorship, Geographical and Linguistic Diffusion of the Text

The Miraculous Icon of Beirut is ascribed to Athanasius of Alexandria and is one of those medieval texts that traveled across multiple languages and enjoyed a diffusion in a wide geographical area. Due to the attribution to Athanasius the text was published among the works of Athanasius by the Mechitarist monk Esayi Tayec‘i of the Viennese branch in 1899. (Եսայի Տայեցի, Ս. Աթանասի Աղեքսանդրիոյ Ճառք եւ Թուղթք [Homilies, Epistles and Disputations by St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria]). Probably written originally in Greek (even though its most “primitive”, thus presumably earlier, version is attested in Gregory of Tours’Liber in Gloria Martyrum ), it was translated to Latin and from it to various vernacular languages of Europe, Old Slavonic, and Armenian. Versions of the story sometimes exhibit important differences in their details and circumstances. There are also tales that derive from the Icon of Beirut with more expansions and changes, such as the Syriac Story of How the Jews Mocked an image of Christ in the City of Tiberias. While my first intuition is to consider the Armenian version a translation from Greek, the reference to the city of Homs (Համս/Հոմս) in the text’s colophon, as opposed to Emesa (which would indicate a translation from Greek), requires further investigation into a possible Syriac or Arabic Vorlage. The philological research which I have just begun will answer some of these questions.

Possible Functions of the Texts

This text has been often mentioned in studies dedicated to Byzantine art, but perhaps more so as one of the sources giving voice to anxieties about the veneration of icons, eventually erupting in what has become known as the Iconoclastic controversy. Attention has been drawn to the text’s identification of the icon with Christ depicted on it, that are presented as one, affirming the immanence of the divinity in the icon and making it an acceptable object of veneration for Christians. The miraculous Icon of Beirut was cited in the Seventh Ecumenical Council (or the Second Council of Nicaea) convened in 787 which restored the veneration of the images after the first period of Iconoclasm. Sure enough, studies on Byzantine polemics against Jews have also explored the purpose of this text in anti-Jewish discourse. Moreover, its assertion of the miraculous power of icons and their veneration as an ultimately Christian ritual act stands in opposition to Iconoclasts who were berated as Judaizers or squarely equated with Jews. In fact, the combination of the two polemical strands – an apology for the veneration of icons and a presumed refutation of Jewish or Judaizing practices – seems to have been the hallmark of late sixth- and seventh-century anti-Jewish Byzantine polemics and it is on these grounds that the Icon of Beirut is dated to the seventh century.

The existence of the Armenian version of the text was known at least since 1890. However, it has not been subject to any extensive research and several questions can be raised about it. First of all, the JewsEast project aims to explore the kind of attitudes towards Jews that were channeled though translated literature, as mentioned above. A seventh-century treatise on the veneration of images by Vrt‘anēs K‘ert‘oł, as well as later refutations of an iconoclastic movement known as the Paulicians, indicate that the veneration of images was problematized in medieval Armenia. Against the traditional view that the Armenian church was tacitly iconoclastic, without having developed a highly refined theological stance on the issue like their peers in the Byzantine church, new art historical research has brought forth several important examples of Armenian churches decorated with frescoes, particularly in the seventh century, but also later. Yet, treatises on images in Armenian rarely bring forth the Jewish argument in connection with those against or for images. It is, thus, intriguing that a text such as the Icon of Beirut had enough potentially interested readership to be translated. However, the circumstances of its translation into Armenian are unexplored. The same can be said about the process and manuscript context of its transmission. One of the purposes of such texts, was, of course, their function as edifying tales, for example in defense of the veneration of icons. This is even more evident with regards to the tale on the Bishop and the Jewish Woman which the patient reader will discover in my next entry.

More Questions for Future Research

A comparison with the Greek original of the Icon of Beirut will allow to place the Armenian version among the various recensions of the Greek or its presumed derivatives, such as Old Slavonic. Moreover, a transcription of possibly all manuscript versions and the clarification of the Armenian recensions themselves, including a further detailed study of the type of manuscripts and the corresponding recensions contained in each type, will allow us to appreciate the context of the text’s transmission and its uses with more precision. Lastly, it would be fruitful to explore if any other Armenian sources refer to the Icon of Beirut and, thus, evaluate the diffusion of this text in the Armenian tradition. While such work has been carried out for the Byzantine and Western European sources and the use of the Icon of Beirut for literary, polemical and ritual purposes has been clarified, adding the Armenian case and providing a wider comparative perspective will contribute to our general understanding of such “legendary” medieval texts, their diffusion and significance in different cultures. Closer to the goals of the JewsEast project, such an analysis will add to our understanding of how anti-Judaic texts were used in different contexts and if there were at all any differences in their employment from one geographical-cultural-linguistic realm to the other.

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