An Armenian life of Melchizedek in On This Day

01.30.2017 | The Maxwell Institute

On This Day March cover-thumbIt is my pleasure to announce the publication of On This Day: The Armenian Church Synaxarion; March by Edward G. Mathews Jr. This is the third in a proposed twelve volume series that offers a complete English translation of an important spiritual work from the Armenian Church. The meaning of the word “synaxarion” in the title might stump even the most seasoned student of early Christianity. Fortunately, Professor Robin Darling Young of The Catholic University of America provided an excellent definition in a recent review of the first volume of this work:
The term synaxarion relates to the word synaxis, itself a term for a liturgical assembly, and usually used to refer to a monastic context. It is often a synonym for a Eucharistic gathering. A synaxarion, however, is a specific kind of book used in those monastic assemblies—a collection of brief biographies of martyrs and saints, organized by successive days in the calendar year, in a repeating yearly cycle. Each day of the year features one or more saint’s life so that a monastic assembly would hear about one or more holy person each year on the same day.” ((Robin Darling Young, “Mathews, Edward G., Jr. On this Day: The Armenian Church Synaxarion; January.” Journal of Religions 96.2 (2016): 285-287, citing from p. 285.))
Reading aloud from this library of saints’ lives formed an important part in the moral and spiritual formation of early Christian ascetics, since these “martyrs and saints give examples of the imitation of Christ for later readers to follow. Indeed, the monastic compilers of the volume intended the lives to be edifying models of faithfulness in various times and places, and as they were read aloud in the monastic gathering every day in the yearly cycle, they would have become very familiar to monks over the course of their own lifetimes.” ((Young, “Mathews,” 286.)) Thus the repetition of the liturgical year provided repeated opportunities to remember, be taught by, and emulate each of the lives read in the Synaxarion. These monastic collections of saints’ lives are known in and moved between all the languages of ancient Christianity. As the collections of lives migrated from one language to another, they grew—absorbing local saints and martyrs in the process—creating a truly ecumenical library of holy men and women. I find it particularly interesting that the Synaxarion also collects models of virtue from the Old and New Testaments, often in little-known biographical sketches. In March, for example, we read the lives of the Prophet Amos (2nd), the Prophets Ezekiel and Ezra (13th), and Melchizedek (25th). We hear so little about Melchizedek in the Bible (Gen 14:18-20; Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:1-4), so how do we end up with a life of Melchizedek in the Armenian Synaxarion? This Armenian life of Melchizedek is actually a translation from a Greek life of Melchizedek composed in the fourth of fifth century A.D., which is attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria in some manuscripts. ((The story is translated and studied by the emeritus BYU professor Stephen E. Robinson in, “The Apocryphal Story of Melchizedek.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 18.1 (1987): 26-39. For Melchizedek in LDS tradition see, John W. Welch, “The Melchizedek Material in Alma 13:13-19.” In By Study and Also by Faith, ed. J. Lundquist and S. Ricks, Vol. 2, pp. 238-72. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990.)) It describes two episodes in the life of Melchizedek. The first recounts how Melchizedek became a follower of the God who made heaven and earth, rather than continuing to worship the idols of his fathers. There are echoes of the ancient traditions of the early life of Abraham here. ((See, John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham. Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001.)) When Melchizedek goes up to Mount Tabor to pray for his brother, who is about to be sacrificed by his father, the whole city of Salem is swallowed up in the earth, which is meant to be an explanation for how Melchizedek was “Without father, without mother” (Heb. 7:1). The second episode begins with Melchizedek seeking refuge upon Mount Tabor after the destruction of his family and city. He lives there as a holy man for seven years, at which time Abraham is instructed by God to go up to Mount Tabor and seek out Melchizedek, who is a “priest of God most high,” in order to receive a blessing from him. This strange and lovely story of Melchizedek enjoyed wide appeal in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, being translated not only into Armenian, but also Arabic, Coptic, Georgian, Romanian, Slavonic and Syriac. ((On the latter see, Sergey Minov, “Reception of the Greek Story of Melchizedek in Syriac Christian Tradition.” Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha 26.2 (2016): 108-143.)) It forms part of a large and interesting complex of traditions about Melchizedek that existed in early Jewish, Christian and Islamic sources. These stories help explain, and indeed demonstrate, the remark in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “Now consider how great this man was” (Heb. 7:1). This story of Melchizedek is just one of the hundreds of edifying and intriguing stories of saints and martyrs that adorn the pages of the The Armenian Church Synaxarion!  


Kristian HealKristian Heal received a bachelor’s degree in Jewish history and Hebrew from University College, London, and a Master of Studies in Syriac studies from Oxford University. He received a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Birmingham. He joined the staff of the Maxwell Institute as a research scholar in 2000. Since 2004 he’s served as the Director of the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts