The Birth of Early Christian Nations –Truth and Legend

The Birth of Early Christian Nations –Truth and Legend

The accounts of the birth of early Christian nations is often shrouded in legend, as stories were told and retold, but there are still enough historical records to show that much of them are true.

Grigor and the Brave Women of Armenia

            Armenia is traditionally considered the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion. The adventurous story of that momentous beginning is told in the History of the Armenians, written around the year 460 by Agathangelos. It involved some brave Christians and a repentant king.

            According to tradition, the gospel arrived in Armenia through the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who were martyred there. Some sources indicate that Santukht, daughter of the Armenian King Sanatruk, was personally instructed by Thaddeus, and that Sanatruk killed both.

            Agathangelos, however, starts his account with the story of Grigor Lusavorich, later known as Gregory the Illuminator. Born between 239 to 257, Gregory was the son of a Parthian agent who, under order of his king, murdered the Armenian king Khosrov II.

            As it’s usually the case, Khosrov’s relatives took revenge by killing Grigor’s father and most his family. One of a handful of survivors, Grigor was raised and educated in Caesarea of Cappadocia, where he learned about Christ and received a good education.

            The reasons for his return to Armenia are not clear, but he apparently served King Khosrov’s son, King Trdat III, until he was imprisoned for refusing to worship a traditional Armenian deity. He remained in a grim prison cell (still visible under the monastery of Khor Virap in Artašat) for thirteen years, suffering privations and tortures.  

            But he was not the only persecuted Christian in Armenia. Agathangelos tells of the martyrdom of thirty-three nuns who had apparently come from Cappadocia in an attempt to escape persecution by the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

            In a letter, Diocletian told Trdat that he had tried to marry one of these nuns, the beautiful Hripsime, but she had spurned him. Trdat tried to make the same proposal, and received the same refusal. He then tried to take her by force. According to Agathangelos, Trdat was “endowed with great strength and vigor; he had solid bones and an enormous body, he was incredibly brave and warlike.” But Hripsime was “strengthened by the Holy Spirit” and “struggled like a beast” for seven hours, until she “vanquished the king.”[1]

            Still, the king didn’t give up. He pressured Gayane, Hripsime’s abbess, to force Hripsime to surrender. When Gayane refused, he ordered all the nuns in the convent to be killed. At this point, Agathangelos tells us, God punished the king by distorting his mind in the fashion of King Nebuchadnezzar. It was then that his sister, Khosrovidukht, urged him to call Gregory out of his prison to pray for him.

            Gregory’s prayers brought healing, persuading the king to convert to Christianity and (as it was customary in his times) extend the conversion to his whole kingdom. So, while the conversion of Armenia is normally attributed to Gregory, women like Gayane, Hripsime, and Khosrovidukht certainly played an important role.

            Appointed bishop, Grigor continued to spread the gospel throughout the kingdom. After Grigor’s death, his younger son Aristakes carried on his work and, as bishop of Armenia, attended the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325.  

Two Shipwrecked Brothers in the Kingdom of Askum

            Two young Tyrian brothers, Frumentius and Edesius, were traveling on the Red Sea with their uncle Metropius when some raiders attacked their ship. The boys were sold as slaves to the King of Aksum (in today’s Ethiopia), who liked them and employed them as tutors for his son Ezana. According to most sources, this occurred around the year 316.

            The brothers taught the king and his family about Christ and promoted the spreading of the gospel, both by their own interaction with the locals and by encouraging Christian merchants to meet for worship and share their faith with others.

            After regaining their freedom, Edesius returned to his hometown, Tyre (in today’s Lebanon), where he became a priest. Frumentius accompanied him part of the way. In Alexandria of Egypt, he asked Bishop Athanasius to send a missionary to Aksum. Athanasius thought Frumentius would be the best man for the task, so he ordained him bishop and sent him back.

            Frumentius continued to spread Christianity throughout Aksum. Around 365, the Roman Emperor Constantius II asked Ezana (who had become king) to send Frumentius back to Alexandria to receive ordination from the new bishop, George. Knowing that both Contantius and George were followers of Arius (rejecting the divinity of Christ), Frumentius refused, with the approval of the king.

            Later, some monks arrived to Askum in order to bring the gospel to the countryside and to translate the Bible into the local language, Ge’ez. In the early sixth century, the Kingdom of Askum was still an important center of Christianity. It was apparently the first kingdom to print a cross on the back of their coins as a symbol of their state religion.

A Woman’s Testimony to the King of Georgia

            According to tradition, the ancient Kingdom of Georgia, in the Caucasus, turned to Christianity through the intervention of a Christian woman, Nino.

            As in the other cases, there is some evidence that the gospel had come to the land through earlier missionaries, but Nino was in the right place at the right time: in the court of King Mirian III during his experience of temporary blindness.

            According to Rufinus’s account in the Ecclesiastical History (402-403), the story took place in the first half of the fourth century. The descriptions of how she arrived in Georgia vary. Some say she came as a missionary, in response to a vision. Rufinus calls her a “captive.” His account is generally considered reliable because he references as his main source the first-hand testimony of a Georgian prince named Bakur, a member of the royal house of Georgia. In any case, it seems that she came either from Jerusalem or Cappadocia.

            Apparently, the king and his wife Nana had been impressed for some time by Nino’s virtuous character, and had inquired about her beliefs. But the catalyst, according to Rufinus, was a hunting trip when the king was blinded, so that all he could see was darkness. When his pagan gods proved of no avail, he prayed the God of Nino and regained his sight. Modern historians have tried to explain it as a total eclipse, since apparently one occurred in 319.

            Whatever the case, this episode awoke the king’s interest in Nino’s teachings. He converted and ordered the construction of a church building, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta. He also asked the church in Constantinople to send more missionaries, and a bishop to oversee them. Nino continued to announce the gospel until her death in 335. She was buried in the Bodbe Monastery in Kakheti, Eastern Georgia.

            Two years after her death, King Mirian made Christianity the official religion of his kingdom.

            While the variety of versions have caused some to cast some doubts on these accounts, the historical evidence speaks in their favor. And seemingly incredible details (such as the seven-hour wrestling match between a formidable king and a nun) pale in comparison with the truly astonishing miracle of stubborn and dull human minds embracing the counterintuitive and often offensive gospel message.

[1] Agathangelos, History of the Armenians, tr. by Robert W. Thomson, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1976, p. 135.


Simonetta Carr