Gregory the Illuminator,
of Armenia 240 - 332 A.D.
Armenia is situated between modern day Turkey and Iran. This is where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers originate. The land is above 4500 feet. Two thirds of the land is uninhabitable. But this nation has the distinct title of being the first Christian nation.
(Note: Italics are quotes from Volume 3 of “The Christians” published by Christian History Project, Chapter 5)
Our story begins with treachery in the royal household of King Khosrov of Armenia,. The Persian ruler sets a bounty on Khosrov’s life. Anak, living in Persia but with ties to the Armenian royalty agrees to be the assassin. Anak and his brother return to Armenia and succeed in the assassination. As King Khorov is dying he orders a massacre of Anak’s family. A nurse rescues Anak’s son Gregory and takes him to Caesarea in Roman territory. Gregory is raised a Christian. As a grown man, he learns his father murdered the Armenian King, Gregory offers himself in humble service to the exiled king. This exiled king is the son of King Khorov. His name is Tiridates, and he is being raised a pagan in Roman Territory after the death of his father and the subsquent invasion by Persia. Tiridates is a massive man of great strength, who does exploits. In one incidence with the enemy he goes to the enemy camp and throws donkeys over the wall to the Romans. Eventually he is given a Roman legion and goes back to Armenia and drives the Persians out. Unknown to him, he has at his side is the son of his father’s assassin. He retakes control of Armenia and starts to offer sacrifices to a godess. He tells Gregory to offer a sacrifice, but Gregory refuses on Christian grounds. The king starts to torture Gregory to get him to do the sacrifice and soon learns that a person dedicated to a God who triumphs over death; threats of execution hold no terror. Instead he determined to keep him in lingering agony. Then he learns Gregory is the son of his father’s murderer and so he then throws him into a pit.
“There in the blackness Gregory was left to die, utterly forgotten. For 13 years he clung to life. Other prisoners were tossed down beside him and died due to the snakes and the fetid stench, but he survived. His endurance was assisted by a widow of the city, who had received the puzzling instruction in a dream to bake a loaf of bread a day and throw it into the pit. That daily ration kept Gregory on the near side of starvation.”
King Tiridates continues as king, but then does some bad things. Suffice to say that 37 nuns and Christian townspeople were martyred. Shortly after this he arranges to go on a hunting trip.
“But as he stood in his chariot preparing to leave the city, according to Agathangelos, “an impure demon struck the king and knocked him down. “ A scene reminiscent of the ancient King Nebuchanezzar was repeated as Tiridates “began to rave and eat his own flesh”, then go all fours, grazing on weeds and behaving like a boar. His servants were not able to restrain him, “partly because of his natural strength and partly because of the force of the demons who had possessed him.” This curse spread beyond the king himself, as other nobles and city leaders fell into similar torments, and ruin spread across the country.”
Then Tiridate’s sister, Khosrovidukht, had a vision in the night; an angel told her that there was a prisoner named Gregory in the city of Artashat, who alone could end the torments. “When he comes, he will teach you the remedy for your ills.”
The people of the city were skeptical about this vision. Surely Gregory had died within days of being cast into the pit; at this point, it would even be possible to identify his bones. Khosrovidukht acquiesced. But every night she continued to have the same vision, now accompanied with warnings that is these instructions were not followed, the torments would grow worse. “With great fear and hesitation.” Khosrovidukht again brought the message.
This time her words were heeded. A prince named Awtay went to Artashat, where he a thick rope lowered into the depths of the pit. He shouted, “Gregory, if you are somewhere down there come out.” Far below, a hand took hold of the rope and shook it.
Gregory was hauled up, blackened with filth, but alive. They hurriedly dressed him and took him to the royal palace in Valarshapt. King Tiridates, who had been foraging with herd of pigs, was also brought to the palace. When he saw Gregory, he ran toward him, foaming and tearing his own flesh with his teeth. Gregory prayed, and Tiridates was returned to his senses.
Gregory then asked to be shown the bodies of the martyrs. They were amazed he knew about this crime. ...he himself spent all night praying “that the Armenians might be converted and find a way to repentance.” In the morning the king returned to his right mind, and came to Gregory with his court. They asked, “Forgive us all the evil crimes that we committed against you. And beg your God on our behalf that we perish not.”
Gregory then began a period of teaching that was to last over 2 months. “He informed and enlightened them about everything, abbreviating nothing and speaking neither superficallynot hastily “writes Agathangelos. “Like a wise doctor, he tried to find the appropriate remedy that...he might heal their souls.” “Thus, beginning with the royal household, the conversion of Armenia was underway.”
On Gregory’s initiative, many pagan temples were destroyed, where for centuries, a confusing array of gods had required bloody sacrifices, including those of human beings. King Tiridates went in person to Artashat to demolish the altar of Anahit, the altar at which Gregory had so persistently, and at the cost of years of imprisonment, refused to make sacrifice.
“...but no less was the transformation in Tiridates. To the end of his days, he never stopped confessing his terrible responsibility for the deaths of these martyrs, and thanking God for his unimaginable compassion in granting him forgiveness and salvation nonetheless.”
Gregory was “...Besought by his people and encouraged by an angelic vision, however he relented and returned with a company of Armenian nobles to the city where he had grown up, Caesarea of Cappadocia. There he was raised to the rank of bishop by Archbishop Leontius.”
“On his return to Armenia, Gregory tackled his responsibilities with renewed energy. He traveled throughout the land, preaching and baptizing, ordaining clergy and establishing churches. “:the whole land was converted and with all their hearts they were assiduous in fasting and in the service and fear of God.” writes Agathangelos…”
“On the banks of the river Euphrates just after dawn, Bishop Gregory meets King Tiridates, his Queen Ashken, his sister Khosrovidukht, and the rest of the royal court. One by one, they are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This may be taken as the moment, say the Armenians, when their country became Christian, a position from which, despite fire, sword, misery, hostile governments. Seductive propaganda and centuries of persecution, they would never retreat. They were the first nation in the world to officially lay claim to the faith.”
The year was 301 A.D.