Christianization of Armenia during Late Antiquity

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Bedros Torossian

The adoption of Christianity as the official state religion in Armenia during the early fourth century was a major turning point in Armenian history. However, the transition from paganism to Christianity was not always smooth since paganism had been the dominant religion for many centuries. In this paper, I will shed light on the process of the Christianization of Armenia, and the continuous struggle that existed between paganism and Christianity that lasted till the fifth century, drawing from two fifth century Armenian historiographers Agathangelos and Pawstos Buzand.

Despite the fact that Armenia had adopted Christianity in the early fourth century, the Armenian Church claims that it has apostolic origins, tracing its roots back to the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew who had entered Armenia and preached Christianity. However, this is legendary and has not been established. Moreover, according to national chroniclers two Christian churches had already existed in Armenia during the third century in Artaz and Sewniq regions.[1] This suggests that Christianity had already made its way into Armenia before its official adoption as the state religion during the early fourth century.

It is widely accepted that Christianity became the official religion in Armenia during the reign of King Trdat III.[2] Upon the murder of his father King Khosrov, Trdat was taken to the Roman world, where he was raised with a secular education based on Greek literature and philosophy. He also stood in defense of Caius Flavius Licinius against Roman soldiers who were planning to overthrow him. Licinius, in his turn, played an important role in influencing the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who placed Trdat on the Armenian throne in 287.[3] Trdat was exposed to Christianity by a servant of his named Gregory who had been educated as a Christian in Caesarea, and who was working for Trdat as a way of secretly paying for his own father’s crime of killing Trdat’s father.[4] When King Trdat III was rising to the kingship in Armenia, the Roman Emperor Diocletian was persecuting Christians; Agathangelos, a Christian author, writes that during this period “the ruler of the Greeks was engaged in persecuting the church of God.”[5]

King Trdat III followed in the path of the Emperor Diocletian. After discovering that Gregory was a Christian, King Trdat asked Gregory to offer sacrifices to the pagan goddess Anahit of the Armenians. Although Gregory was loyal to King Trdat, he refused to comply with his order to pray to the pagan gods. As a response King Trdat told Gregory:

Now, instead of the rewards which you should have received, I shall increase affliction upon you; instead of honor, dishonor; and instead of elevation to high rank, prison and bonds and death which removes all hope of life for men- unless you agree to offer worship to the gods, and especially to this great lady Anahit.[6]

This is a clear indication of King Trdat’s intolerance of the Christians who were living in Armenia, and that he considered paganism the true religion. Instead of accepting paganism, Gregory held firm to his Christian faith resulting in persecutions against him. King Trdat told Gregory that “… now I shall cast you into torments and I shall place a bridle on your cheeks, that you may know that for your futile words…[7]” Then, after it was discovered that he was the son of the person who had murdered his father, he was allegedly placed in a pit for thirteen years.[8]

King Trdat seems to have intended to preserve the status quo of his kingdom. Thus he considered the Christians as a threat to the prosperity of the state since they would possibly bring the anger of the gods upon the state because of their refusal to sacrifice. Based on his concern, he made an edict demanding that the nobles “remove and extirpate (such people), so that the prosperity of the country might be increased by the gods.”[9] This evidence indicates that the Christians were already growing in number during King Trdat III’s reign, and they had not suddenly appeared in Armenia in the early fourth century. Trdat’s edict suggests that there were potentially thousands of Christians in Armenia, “so we particularly command you in the matter of the sect of Christians, that if any are found, be they thousands or tens of thousands… they are an insuperable obstacle to the worship of the gods…”[10]

Similarly, a group of thirty-eight Christian women, led by a certain Hripsimeh and Gayaneh, also became the victims of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s anti-Christian policies even after escaping from the Roman territories into Armenia, and hiding close to Valarshapat, the capital of Armenia.[11] King Trdat received a letter from the Emperor Diocletian regarding the arrival of these women in Armenian territories. He informed Trdat that he wanted to marry one of these Christian women, however, she had fled from his reach. In the last part of his letter Emperor Diocletian wrote to King Trdat:

So my brother, be quick to find their traces, wherever they may be in your parts. And take vengeance of death on whoever may be with her and their governess. And send back to me that beautiful charmer. But if her beauty pleases you, then keep her for yourself, for no one like her has ever been in Greek lands. Be well by the worship of gods with all honor.[12]

This letter suggests that King Trdat might have been in direct communication with Emperor Diocletian and was in one way or another abiding by his commands or highly cooperating with him against the Christians. Agathangelos might have presented this information in order to show that King Trdat was following in the footsteps of pagan Emperor Diocletian in order to strengthen his position in Armenia. King Trdat fell in love with Hripsimeh and wanted to marry her, but she refused his offer as a result she was put to death with her companions.[13]

Later on, King Trdat was infected by a disease that was interpreted by Agathangelos, as divine punishment for persecuting the Christian Hripsimeh and her companions.[14] He wrote that, “… then suddenly there fell on him a punishment from the Lord. An impure demon struck the king and knocked him down from his chariot… he lost his human nature for the likeness of wild pigs.”[15] This phrase indicates that the Christian author Agathangelos meant that God was on the side of the Christians against the pagans, and Trdat due to his violent acts against the Christians resembled pigs that are perceived as unclean animals. King Trdat’s sister Khosrovidukhd had a vision in which she saw that Gregory was the only person who could heal her brother King Trdat. Thus upon her request Gregory was brought out of the dungeon and cured him, as well as all those who had also been infected with the same disease. After this miracle, the Armenian King Trdat, proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the state sometime between 301 and 303, before the period of adoption of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine. Gregory baptized a large number of people, and after this period the official Christianization process began in Armenia.[16]

After the adoption of Christianity, King Trdat (287-330) destroyed pagan temples. Agathangelos recorded the edict of the King in which he ordered Gregory “with the task of obliterating and extirpating the former ancestral deities of his forefathers, falsely called gods.”[17] Moreover, Agathangelos states that “the king in person hastened with all his army from the city of Valarshapat and came to the city of Artashat in order to destroy the altars of the deity Anahit.”[18] This implies that after the adoption of Christianity in Armenia, the official governmental position was to remove the pagan idols that were a common feature of Armenia’s history.

The pagans resisted the Christianization of Armenia and the destruction of their idols. Agathangelos describes a similar issue related to the resistance of the pagans during an attempt at destroying the pagan temple of Anahit. He states that “with a great shout they raised a cry and fled, rushing into the temple of Anahit whence they attacked those who had arrived.”[19]

It seems that the plundering of these temples was used to give money to the poor and possibly to prompt more conversions from the lower social classes. Agathangelos wrote that “… they plundered all the treasures, both of gold and silver, and distributed them to the poor.”[20] This seems to be one of the ways that Christianity expanded in Late Antiquity. Pagan Roman Emperor Julian (361-363) sent a letter to the pagan priest Arsacius of Galatia commanding him to use this Christian method of expansion in order to spread paganism. Julian in his letter wrote “do we not realize that what has really contributed to the growth of atheism [i.e., Christianity] is their generosity towards strangers…”[21] This suggests that he perceived this technique used by the Christians as a means of drawing pagans into Christianity by performing good deeds. He ordered the pagan priest to implement this method as well as to call other priests to abide by this technique in order to reverse paganism within the Empire. Julian stated that “for it is disgraceful that, when no Jew has to beg and the ungodly Galileans support their own needy and ours, our people are seen to lack assistance from us.”[22] This is also an indication that there might have been large number of converts into Christianity as a result of the benevolent deeds of the Christians that was lacking among the pagans.

The official conversion of the Armenian state from paganism into Christianity was completed in 305 by the end of the reign of Augusti Diocletian and Maximian.[23] Saint Gregory played an important role in destroying the remaining pagan temples, both that of Vahagn (Dragon handler), the Golden mother goddess and the temple of Armenian goddess Astlik, who was the equivalent of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, “For this site Gregory set out in order to destroy it also, since ignorant men still made profane sacrifices at these surviving altars.”[24] These indicate that people were still practicing the pagan religion through offering sacrifices to their gods and goddesses whose temples were still in existence. There was still resistance however towards adoption of Christianity. Moreover, Gregory also built churches in the upper Euphrates river area in place of these temples. In a somewhat incredulous statement Agathangelos claimed that Gregory “lodged (there) for twenty days and baptized more than one hundred and ninety thousand persons”[25] though this certainly seems overstated since it is a Christian source that aims at showing that Christianity was immediately growing in popularity in Armenia and replacing paganism.

In addition to these measures, other methods were also implemented by Gregory in order to spread Christianity within Armenia that consisted of church building, and the assignment of Christian priests within the various Armenian churches to facilitate the preaching of Christianity to the populace.[26] Moreover, it seems that non-violent conversion policy of pagan priests and their children was adopted by King Trdat upon the request of Gregory. Agathangelos wrote that:

Especially the families of the impure pagan priests and their children were to be brought together in groups in suitable places, and an adequate stipend paid them. These he divided into two groups, some being set to Syriac and others to Greek. Thus in the twinkling of an eye these savage and idle and oafish peasants suddenly became acquainted with the prophets and familiar with the apostles and heirs to the gospel and fully informed about all the traditions of God.[27]

This shows that grassroots changes were being implemented by the Christians, however, non-violent methods were used in converting the pagan priests, who were already educated people and had a higher status in society. The Christians’ aim in converting the priests from paganism to Christianity might be interpreted due to their fear that these leading figures of paganism might form an obstacle in converting the common pagan people into Christians. Thus, this was viewed as a means of putting an end to the continuation of paganism in Armenia. However, Agathangelos may give an exaggerated image of the Christianization of these pagan priests.

Upon the request of the Emperor Constantine the Armenian Church participated in the Council of Nicaea that took place in 325 AD. King Trdat and Gregory were represented by Aristakes, the son of Gregory, and accepted the points covered in the creed of the council.[28] In the year 330 AD Khosrov II succeeded his father Trdat III. The head of the Church was Vrtanes, another son of Gregory and Christianity grew under their leadership, “God loving service… grew and multiplied.”[29] This indicates that until the year 330 there were still converts to Christianity so that Armenia had not immediately become an absolute Christian nation. Indeed pagans continued to resist Christianization even rising in rebellion against Vrtanes, “those who had secretly kept until then to the ancient heathen idol-worshiping customs- up to two thousand in number- gathered together and plotted to kill the high priest of God, Vrtanes.”[30] However, Vrtanes allegedly converted all.[31]

Later, during the reign of King Tiran (339-350 AD), the successor of King Khosrov, there were more clashes between these two religions. In fact, in a turn of fortune for the pagans, the king himself opposed the Church through a number of violent acts. During his reign Houssik (Yusik), the successor of Patriarch Vrtanes, became Patriarch of the Armenians.[32] In the period following 339 AD, after the passage of many years since the official acceptance of Christianity, Pʻawstos states that “King Tiran and the other noble magnates among them the naxarars, as well as the whole of the realm, did not behave at all according to God’s will or follow any wisdom.”[33] This shows that pagan practices might have been still dominant features in Armenia or that these people were compared to pagans because of being bad Christians since Pʻawstos is also a Christian source that might consider bad deeds as characteristics of paganism. Yusik didn’t allow them to enter the Church and he was finally killed in 346 AD upon the order of King Tiran after he had been violently beaten by the people.[34] In fact, P`awstos states that only the individuals who knew Greek or Syriac and were therefore able to understand the language of the scriptures could be real Christians, while the majority of the naxarars and the peasantry who didn’t know these languages were still pagans[35]. He compared the masses to “… small boys who give themselves up to games in childhood and youth paying no attention to useful and important matters.”[36] Moreover, Pʻawstos adds that “they cherished with assiduous care their songs, legends, and epics, believed in them and preserved in the same way…”[37] Clearly, paganism had not been completely eliminated in the society even though Christianity was the official state religion.

Moreover, some members of the Armenian nobility, notably Meruzhan Artsruni and Vahan Mamikonian, opposed the Christian faith by allying themselves with the Persians who were followers of Mazdeism. Pʻawstos refers to these two noblemen by the following words “those two foul and iniquitous men who had rebelled against the covenant of God’s service and accepted to serve the godless doctrine of the Mazdeans, then began to destroy the churches…”[38] In response to this Nerses the Patriarch of the Armenians attempted to solidify the place of Christianity in Armenia by rebuilding Christian structures that had been destroyed. He “… erected churches in every locality, restored all that had been destroyed, and renewed and corrected all the regulations that had been overturned.”[39] This indicates that the ongoing struggles and resistance from the pagans against the Christians were still a common feature even by the end of the 4th century. Thus, Armenia was still in the process of becoming wholly Christian.

There was still ongoing hostility between the Armenian kings and the Patriarchs. This was also the case during the reign of king Pap (367-374 AD) who was at odds with the Bishop Nerses and worked to somehow restore paganism in Armenia, however, his reign did not coincide with that of Emperor Julian. Bishop Nerses, like his predecessor Bishop Yusik, forbade the King from inclusion in the Church because of his sins. According to Pʻawstos, Nerses wanted King Pap to return to the Christian faith, but the king instead plotted to kill the Patriarch. In spite of Nerses’s popularity among the army and the populace at large, Pap was able to kill Nerses by poisoning him.[40] It appears that the populace was becoming more Christian since it was more difficult for the King to launch his plots against the Bishop than it had been in the time of Tiran. Another indicator regarding the rise of the number of Christians till 373AD is based upon Buzand’s account in which he describes the mourning of both the nobles and the peasants as a result of the death of Bishop Nerses. He has noted “and all the azats and peasants from one border to the other of the entire territory of the land of Armenia mourned- the azats and the peasants and all the dwellers in the house of Torgom alike [all the speakers] of the Armenian tongue.”[41] However, the pagan practices are still noticeable and part of the popular culture that involved mourning dances with trumpets as well as “foul and monstrous dances” as described by Pʻawstos. King Pap had removed the Christian ceremonies that were practiced during the lifetime of Patriarch Nerses. He also states that after the death of Patriarch Nerses “… many people turned back to the ancient worship-of- demons, and they erected idols in many places in Armenia with the permission of King Pap.”[42] Pap allegedly implemented a number of anti-Christian policies such as confiscating Church wealth and land, the state took five of the seven plots of the Church. Also, the number of clerics, priests and deacons were reduced.[43] Thus, King Pap aimed to reduce the power of the Church although he never banned it outright.

Paganism continued to exist into the fifth century. Christianity spread slowly in Armenia due to the lack of a language that would strengthen the bonds between the Church and the community. Syriac and Greek were the most widely used languages in the Church in Armenia prior to the invention of the Armenian alphabet and they were the language of the scriptures. With the aim of spreading Christianity in Armenia, Saint Mesrop upon the support of the King of Armenia Vramshapuh and Sahak Patriarch invented the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD.[44] After this mission was accomplished a wave of translations started in order to spread the Christian faith. Thereafter, the Old and New Testaments were translated into Armenian aiding the growth of the Faith.

Finally, it is noticeable that Christianity passed through different stages in Armenia. Initially, it was an unaccepted faith that began to spread among the common people who underwent persecutions before its adoption as the state religion in the early fourth century. Later on, after Armenia became officially Christian, pagan practices still shaped the culture of the people. Clashes continued to occur between these two religions that were competing against each other, in which the Armenian kings and nobility played a crucial role in supporting one against the other. However, the invention of the Armenian alphabet in the fifth century facilitated the Christianization of Armenia in a faster mode due to the translation of the Holy Books into Armenian.

Bibliography

Agathangelos. History of the Armenians. Translation and commentary by R.W. Thomson. Albany: Stata University of New York Press, 1976.

Buzand, Pʻawstos. The Epic Histories (Buzandaran Patmutʻiwnkʻ). Translation and commentary by Nina G. Garsoian. Cambrigde: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Kurkjian, M. Vahan. A History of Armenia. New York: Vantage Press, 1959.

Lee, A.D. Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] V. Kurkjian, A History of Armenia (New York, 1959), 114.

[2] Ibid., 118.

[3] Ibid., 115.

[4] Agathangelos, “History of the Armenians” translation and commentary by R.W. Thomson (Albany, 1976), 53.

[5] Ibid., 53.

[6] Ibid., 65.

[7] Agathangelos,Armenians,” 77.

[8] Ibid., 135.

[9] Ibid., 141.

[10] Ibid., 145.

[11] Kurkjian, Armenia, 117.

[12] Agathangelos, “Armenians,” 165, 167.

[13] Kurkjian, Armenia, 117.

[14] Ibid., 117.

[15] Agathangelos, “Armenians,” 217.

[16] Kurkjian, Armenia, 117-118.

[17] Agathangelos, “Armenians,” 317.

[18] Ibid., 317.

[19] Ibid., 317.

[20] Ibid., 323.

[21] A.D. Lee, Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook. (London and New York, 2000), 97.

[22] Ibid., 98.

[23] Kurkjian, Armenia, 120.

[24] Agathangelos, “Armenians,” 349.

[25] Ibid., 353.

[26] Ibid., 371,373.

[27] Ibid., 375.

[28] Ibid., 415, 417.

[29] Pʻawstos Buzand, “The Epic Histories (Buzandaran Patmutʻiwnkʻ)” translation and commentary by Nina G. Garsoian (Cambridge, 1989), 68.

[30] Buzand, “Epic Histories,” 68.

[31] Ibid., 69.

[32] Kurkjian, Armenia, 124, 138. P’awstos Buzand has used the name Yusik which is the same as Houssik.

[33] Buzand, “Epic Histories,” 83.

[34] Kurkjian, Armenia, 124.

[35] Buzand, “Epic Histories,” 84.

[36] Ibid., 84.

[37] Ibid., 85.

[38] Ibid., 179.

[39] Ibid., 202.

[40] Buzand, “Epic Histories,” 203-204.

[41] Ibid., 210-211.

[42] Ibid., 212.

[43] Ibid., 212-213.

[44] Kurkjian, Armenia, 132-133.

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