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How Armenia "Invented" Christendom
Only a week prior to his attack on Poland in September, 1939, Adolf
Hitler reportedly delivered a secret talk to members of his General
Staff, urging them to wipe out the Polish race. "After all," he argued,
"who remembers today the extermination of the Armenians?"
Hitler was referring to the genocide of nearly 1.5 million Armenian
Christians at the hands of Ottoman Turks from 1915 to 1923 in what is
now eastern Turkey. Turkish authorities deny the atrocities ever took
place, but the story of bloodbath in Armenia is one of the
well-documented tragedies of our time.
Still, it’s unfortunate that Armenia (today located directly east of
Turkey and west of the Caspian Sea) is now known for this story above
any other. It says nothing about the people of Armenia, or the part they
have played in global Christianity. For contribute they did, in a manner
that might surprise even a seasoned church historian.
Tortured for Christ
No man has more stature in the Armenian church today than Gregory the
Illuminator. While not the first to bring Christianity to Armenia,
Gregory is, at least in the minds of Armenians, the nation’s spiritual
father and the people’s patron saint.
Born into a wealthy family around 257, Gregory nevertheless had a rough
beginning-his biographer, Agathangelos, tells us Gregory’s father
murdered the Armenian king and paid for it with his life. But the boy
was rescued from the chaos following the murder, and his new guardians
raised him as a Christian in Cappadocia (east-central Turkey). There,
according to Agathangelos, Gregory "became acquainted with the
Scriptures of God, and drew near to the fear of the Lord."
When Gregory’s tutors told him of his father’s wickedness, Gregory
approached the murdered king’s son, Tiridates, to offer his service (all
the while concealing his identity). Tiridates accepted Gregory’s offer,
but when Gregory refused to worship Anahit, an idol the king had raised
in gratitude for military successes, Tiridates became furious: "You have
come and joined us as a stranger and foreigner. How then are you able to
worship that God whom I do not worship?"
Tiridates tortured Gregory, hanging him upside-down and flogging him,
then fastening blocks of wood to his legs and tightening them. When
these tactics failed, he tried even more gruesome measures. Still the
saint refused to bow the knee. Tiridates then learned that Gregory was
the son of his father’s murderer, and he ordered that the missionary be
thrown into a "bottommost pit" filled with dead bodies and other filth.
There Gregory sat for 13 years, surviving only on bread a widow threw
down each day after receiving instruction to do so in a dream.
Converting the King
At about this time a beautiful woman named Rhipsime arrived in Armenia,
fleeing an enforced marriage to the Roman emperor Diocletian. Tiridates
took a liking to her too, and took her forcibly when she refused to come
to him. But "strengthened by the Holy Spirit," she fought off his
advances and escaped. Furious, Tiridates ordered her execution, and that
night Rhipsime burned at the stake. Her abbess Gaiane soon followed her
in death, along with 35 other companions.
The king, still lusting after Rhipsime, mourned her death for six days,
then prepared to go hunting. But God visited on him a horrible
punishment-Agathangelos calls it demon possession-reducing him to
insanity and throwing his court into chaos. Tiridates’ sister had a
vision to send for Gregory, imprisoned so long ago. People laughed at
the idea Gregory might still be alive, but recurrent visions finally
convinced a nobleman, Awtay, to visit his pit. Astonished to find the
missionary living, Awtay brought him to meet the king, who was feeding
with swine outside the city.
Tiridates, along with other possessed members of his court, rushed at
Gregory. But Gregory "immediately knelt in prayer, and they returned to
sobriety." Tiridates then pleaded for Gregory’s forgiveness, and the
king and his whole court repented of their sin and confessed faith in
Assessing Gregory’s Legacy
Scholars disagree over how much Agathangelos’s history can be taken at
face-value. After all, he wrote his book in 460 (Tiridates is believed
by Armenians to have converted in 301), and much of his story has
elements of hagiography that lead one to wonder whether the events ever
happened. But even skeptics acknowledge that Gregory was a real person
with considerable ecclesiastical influence in Armenia-the signature of
his son and successor Aristakes can be found among those ratifying the
Council of Nicaea in 325. And even if we can document little about the
man, his pre-eminence among Armenia’s heroes of the faith is
Why? First, Gregory persuaded the king to build a string of churches
across Armenia, beginning with Holy Etchmiadzin- according to some
scholars the oldest cathedral site in the world and an important
pilgrimage site for all Armenians. The seat of the Armenian church would
pass to other cities, but Gregory "established" Christianity in Armenia
via this church.
Gregory also introduced Christian liturgy to Armenia. These rites
consisted of psalmody, scriptural readings, and prayers recited in Greek
or Syriac. After Mesrop Mashtots invented an Armenian alphabet at the
beginning of the fifth century, both the Bible and the liturgy were
translated into the Armenian language.
Most importantly, Gregory set in motion the mass conversion of Armenia
to Christianity. According to Agathangelos, the king ordered all pagan
shrines to be torn down, and Gregory proceeded to baptize more than
190,000 people into the new faith. Whether the nation converted as
quickly as Agathangelos implies is difficult to discern. Certainly by
the fifth century, Armenia was well on its way to becoming a "Christian"
Armenia is an ancient-if not the oldest-model for what we now call
Christendom. Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette notes that the
Armenian church "was an instance of what was to be seen again and again,
a group adoption of the Christian faith engineered by the accepted
leaders and issuing in an ecclesiastical structure which became
identified with a particular people, state, or nation."
Certainly the Roman Empire is a prime example of this, but Armenia is at
least as old, and perhaps a more impressive example given the invasions
and persecution it endured at the hands of the Turks (and before them,
Arabs and Persians). Indeed even Byzantium attempted to bring Armenia
within its orbit, but the nation resisted, arguing that its apostolic
origins were on par with Rome.
So lest you assume Rome is our first example of Christendom, think
again. Long may Armenia’s church endure.
Copyright (c) 2005 by the author or Christianity Today
International/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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