Book Of Canon Law Of Armenia Catholicos John III Of Otsoon (717-728)
June 23 , 2020 , 20:21
Book Of Canon Law Of Armenia Catholicos  John III  Of  Otsoon (717-728)


Final Edition by Vasken Hakobyan

Two Volumes: 1964 and 1971


This article may seem specialized for the average reader. Being also an archaic subject, it proves nevertheless the canonical development of events through the entire life of this ancient Armenian Apostolic Church and Nation.



The Text

            It was not until the 8th century when for the first time the Armenian Catholicos John III of Otsoon collected all the scattered canons of the Armenian Church Councils of the previous centuries. He classified them in groups and established in the Holy See of the Pontificate calling them Kanonakirk Hayots (Book of Canon Law of Armenia). Catholicos Otsnetsi resided in the Catholicosate at Dvin, capital of Armenia, not far from Etchmiadzin, where the Seat of the Pontificate remained for a long time from 485 to 927 due to political unrest. He passed away in 728.  The volume also included some of the canons of the Christian Church. The classifications of Catholicos John III were as follows:

            Canons of St. Gregory the Illuminator (303-325), of St. Sahak Parthev Catholicos (387-439),

            St. Hovhan Catholicos Mandakuni (478-490), The Armenian Church Councils of Shahapivan

            (444), Artashat (449), Dvin I (506), Dvin II (554), Dvin III (607), Karin I (633), Dvin IV (645),

            Karin II (680), Dvin V (720), and Manazkert (726). The last two Councils were convened by

            Catholicos John III himself. Later additions were made by his successors, and further canons

            were established by actions taken at respctive Church Councils, such as, the Council of Sis          

            (Cilicia) (1243), and of Dzagavan (1268). The last Church Council convened in Jerusalem (1652).             Total of            Armenian Church Councils is reported as 23 by our historians.


            Over all the main trend of the compilation of the Book was to safeguard the traditional and legitimate law and order, bearing in mind the political stability of Armenia. It is noticeable that those steps could have been taken, above and beyond the secular state, through the Armenian Church Councils. They were presided over by the Catholicos of All Armenians, with the participation of bishops, clergy, and lay representatives, kings and princes whenever applicable, thus giving a democratic and more powerful nature to the Councils. The Catholicos and the Church were empowered to overtake the governance of the nation when both the kingdom and the political power failed.


200 Manuscript Texts

            It is understandable that the original Book of the Canon Law so formed and established by Catholicos Otsnetsi could not have reached us intact. Because of its prime importance scribes in monasteries copied from the original version extensively. Eventually many variants emerged from those duplications with unwarranted additions and deletions, due to possible inaccurate readings on the part of the scribes. Presently scholars have identified over 200 survived manuscript texts of the Book with diverse copies written during distant periods from each other.

            The specialist Vasken Hakobyan painstakingly accomplished a remarkable task in two large volumes as the final edition of the Canon Law of all times. His two volumes are based on 47 selected manuscript texts with apparatus criticus of different readings. One important manuscript text written in 1098 and kept in New Julfa, Iran, was accessible upon the request of His Holiness Catholicos Vasken I, and a photographed copy of this indispensable manuscript was sent to Vasken Hakobyan to be included in his final compilation.

            According to Hakobyan at the end of the 10th century the Book of the Canon Law was further developed with the addition of more canon laws. This meant that until Catholicos John III the Book contained 24 codes, and later was increased by an additional 15 codes. Chronologically the closest addition was made by Catholicos Sion Bavonetsi (767-775), some 40 years later in 768 at the Church Council  of Partav. No doubt, as centuries went by, further Church Councils and Armenian Pontiffs added Canon Laws as needed. Future events are clearly specified in those two volumes.


The Content

            The Book of the Canon Law included primarily laws pertaining to church dogmas and worship, in addition to laws on marriage, family life and discipline, variably by necessity during the 7th century unrest between the Byzantine and Arab forces for Armenia to submit to one or the other. The autonomy of the Armenian Church endangered reducing Armenia into one of the Eastern provinces of the Empire. The “weakening” of the Armenian Church warranted Armenia to convene Church Councils as needed and take immediate measures by establishing sets of Canon Laws. Catholicos John III Otsnetsi, on the other hand, made possible to meet personally with the Arab Caliph Umar II (717-720) in Damascus to rescue the imprisoned Armenian princes, as reported by contemporary Armenian historians.


Autonomy at Stake

            Primarily the autonomy of the Armenian Church was at stake, especially when the Byzantine Orthodox Church exercised pressure to submit the Armenians to Orthodoxy by way of demanding the adoption of the 451 Council of Chalcedon, in order to consolidate the Eastern front of the Empire against the Arabs. The “weakening” of the Armenian Church in matters of doctrine warranted future Councils in defense of the independence and autonomy of the church.

            Famous church historian Archbishop Malachia Ormanian detected the move made by Catholicos John III who determined to alleviate religious pressures oddly, “relying on the policy of the Arab Caliphate, thus forcefully keeping a distance between the Armenian Church and the Greek Orthodox Church regarding Chalcedon.” Ormanian has based his views on the fact that Catholicos John III Otsnetsi is also believed to be the author of another theological writing known as “Saks Joghovots” (Concerning Church Councils), where he has adjusted the Christological views of his six predecessors whose weaknesses were blamed as having consented to the Greek doctrine. Ormanian further observes that “those deviations were simply because of weaknesses due to political pressures.” 


General Agenda of the Councils

            The only specialist to study thoroughly the Canon Law of Armenia is Vasken Hakobyan who has edited and published in two volumes Catholicos Otsnetsi’s Book of Canon Law of Armenia in Yerevan.  He classified tediously and completely all the canon laws. The first volume consists of the author’s collections of codes from St. Gregory the Illuminator all the way down to his pontificate 728 AD, until the 8th century. The second volume contains additional codes collected by later Pontiffs and Church Councils as listed earlier in this writing, during the 10th and 11th centuries by scribes and compilers with some unknown “authorizations”. Those seemingly “unauthorized” Canon Laws have definitely updated and enriched the codes in general.

            Based on Hakobyan’s extensive research the total of 23 Armenian Church Councils convened between the 4th and 14th centuries with the following agendas. Six of those dealt with matters of Reformation within the Church, four of which established specific Canon Laws that have entered in the two-volume edition. Five other canons responded to the official correspondences addressed to the Armenian Church, and one of them aiming at establishing relationship between the Armenian and the Syrian Orthodox Churches. Another Council implied improvement between the Mother See and the See of Cilicia. One of the Councils discussed unity between the Armenian and the Greek churches, and the remaining three Church Councils aimed at “unity” with the Catholic Church while the Armenian Church was in Cilicia (Lesser Armenia), in the territories of the northeastern tip of the Mediterranean Sea.



            History testifies that Church and State in Armenia united, and secular heads attended the Councils so that religious canon law could have the advantage of state endorsement. Both, church and state were mutually supportive with the understanding that Pontiffs of the Armenian Church reached resolutions at the Councils, and that secular authorities executed them in their respective regions and districts. By virtue of her judiciary power the church sometimes had to step in to resolve political conflicts among the secular authorities.