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Nersēs the Great


NERSĒS THE GREAT , a saint of the Armenian church and chief bishop of Armenia from circa 353 to 373. During his youth Nersēs was brought up and educated in Caesarea Mazaca (modern-day Kayseri, Turkey). He was married and served as a chamberlain in the court of King Arshak II of Armenia. Because the office of bishop of Armenia was the patrimony of the family of Gregory the Illuminator, Nersēs's great-great-grandfather, Nersēs was chosen chief bishop and returned to Caesarea to receive episcopal ordination from the metropolitan bishop of that city. He called a council of bishops at Ashtishat, where his see was located. The council established general discipline in the Armenian church and set rules and regulations. At Nersēs's urging, provisions were made to found hospices for the sick, to open schools, to build hospitals, and to establish other benevolent institutions.

The fifth-century sagas of P'awstos Buzand refer to a rift between Nersēs and King Arshak that brought about the downfall of the bishop. The reason for the conflict is said to have been the immoral conduct of the king, who had his Greek wife poisoned and his nephew killed, and then married the latter's wife. The actual reason for the rift, however, was probably political. Nersēs represented the pro-Byzantine faction in Armenia. He had headed a delegation to Constantinople in the mid-fourth century and had reinforced the alliance between the Byzantine empire and his sovereign, who remained faithful to the empire until the treaty of 363, when the emperor Jovian agreed not to interfere in the internal affairs of Armenia and left the country exposed to the Persians. Nersēs was forced to abdicate from his office and was immediately replaced by another bishop, who was probably the candidate of the pro-Persian faction in Armenia. Nersēs reappeared as chief bishop circa 370, when the Byzantines succeeded in restoring the kingdom of Armenia and placed Pap, son of Arshak II, on the throne. During his second tenure of office, Nersēs participated in a council of bishops held at Caesarea in 372. He came into conflict with King Pap, presumably because of the latter's Arian leanings. The king is said to have poisoned Nersēs. This detail, however, is not supported by most sources. Nersēs probably died from natural causes.


The major source for Nersēs's life is the fifth-century compilation of legends by P'awstos Buzand, Buzandaran patmut'iwnk' (Venice, 1889). These are also available in French as volume 1 of Victor Langlois's Collections des historiens anciens et modernes de l'Arménie (Paris, 1868) and in German, translated by Max Lauer as Des Faustus von Byzanz Geschichte Armeniens (Cologne, 1879). Other useful sources are Mal'achia Ormanian's The Church of Armenia, 2d rev. ed. (London, 1955), and Nina Garsoïan's "Quidam Narseus? A Note on the Mission of Nersēs the Great," in Armeniaca (Venice, 969).

Krikor H. Maksoudian (1987)

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