Last year, in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, I shared a story from my father. This year, I would like to share the account of how Christianity came to Armenia as told by a priest.
A few years ago I attended an Armenian dinner function. A number of friends and family were in attendance including two Armenian priests. As usual, the conversations were lively and the food and drinks abundant - merriment and passionately uninhibited exchange of ideas is the norm in these gatherings.
Post dinner, while everyone was taking delight in what appeared to be an endless supply of sweets and bottomless cups of coffee and tea, one of the priests asked a question: “who here knows how and why Armenians adopted Christianity?”
All Armenians, even the atheists, are aware and will proudly share the fact that the Armenian Apostolic Church “is the world's oldest national church”; Armenia being “the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion in AD 301.” That Etchmiadzin is considered to be “the oldest cathedral in the world”, and that the Armenian Christian order is unique on the religious landscape and has thus been granted stewardship of a quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. Every single adult Armenian in the world knows these facts and if probed will gladly share them with inquisitive minds.
As for how Christianity came to Armenia? Below you will find a synopsis of what the priest told us. Please note, since this conversation took place a few years ago the details have become blurry so I’ll make this short and refrain from sharing too many specifics. If you like your historical facts and fiction cited, the following three sources should be referenced - one, two, three.
The myth of how Armenia adopted Christianity varies depending on the source. The commonality is that they are all brutal and romantic, just like most biblical stories; full of names, dates, royalty, holy men, miraculous cures, visions, love, death, sacrifice, martyrdom, and virgins. It is with the virgins that this tale begins.
The virgins in this story come from Rome. Escaping persecution and on the mission to convert and share in the love of Christ, 37 virgins begin a long and arduous journey eastward from the heartland of the Roman Empire. While travelling through hostile territory, they are able to spread Christianity to the willing. They are, as well, through divine miracle, able to keep their virtue intact, a feat unheard of for that period.
They make their way into the Kingdom of Armenia and find themselves courted by King Tiridates III. Tiridates, amazed that the nuns were able to keep their purity through their travels, and enchanted by the beauty of one of their members, Rhipsime, brings them to the palace and demands to marry the beautiful virgin. She refuses.
The king, blinded by rage, has all the nuns tortured and killed. Once he realizes what he has done, he descends into madness.
After a certain period in despair, it is Gregory the Illuminator who heals the king which results in Tiridates accepting Christianity.
“In 301 Gregory baptized Tiridates III along with members of the royal court and upper class as Christians. Tiridates III issued a decree by which he granted Gregory full rights to begin carrying out the conversion of the entire nation to the Christian faith. The same year Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion.”Baptism of Tiridates III - source
The above is the myth of how Armenia adopted Christianity. Below you will find a different adaptation as told by the priest, what is considered to be the true story by the Armenian seminary.
There are no virgins in this story. No holy men, madness, or miraculous cures, only politics.
The story begins in Rome, during the Diocletianic Persecution, in the arena, where Christian are being fed to the lions.
King Tiridates III of Armenia having heard of what takes place at these events has decided to witness the slaughter firsthand.
He watches with amazement as Christians are brought to the center of the arena and when given the choice to renounce their religion and live, they all refuse the offer, which results in their slaughter. He watches as Christian men, women, and children are “mauled and torn apart by wild beasts or forced to fight gladiators who [kill] them for a public spectacle.”
Tiridates does some research into these fanatics who call themselves Christians. He is impressed with what he finds; the simplicity of their belief, and how they are willing to forfeit their lives for this one god.
Tiridates knows that his reign will not last forever and that his kingdom will not endure; his people are fragmented. They are pagans, and they worship countless gods that are no different than those of their neighboring kingdoms. This means that slowly over time Armenia will be consumed and will merge with its neighbors, no longer retaining its uniqueness or remembering its history, and his name will eventually be forgotten.
Tiridates realizes that if whole families are willing to be crucified, eaten alive by lions, and slaughtered by gladiators for their beliefs, then this Christianity has the power to unite his people, ensuring the survival of Armenia.
He returns to his kingdom and proclaims Christianity the official state religion and orders all pagan monuments destroyed.
This is how Armenia became Christian, and it suffered greatly for its choice. It was invaded, occupied, made to be the scapegoat for unrest across the region, and had genocide visited upon its people, but it endured, which is what the primary goal of the Armenian Church has been, to function, as Tiridates had intended, as a cultural center and a unifying force.
The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883) – click to enlarge - source