From the History of Christianity in Armenia

Christianity in Armenia was preached by the holy apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who became the founders of the Church in Armenia and suffered martyrdom by the order of the Armenian king Sanatruk.

In the 1st century, Christianity spread widely in countries neighboring Armenia: Cappadocia, Osroene, and Adiabene. Trade, political, and cultural ties with these regions created favorable conditions for the spread of Christianity in Armenia.

Additionally, between the 1st and 3rd centuries, Lesser Armenia was politically a part of the Roman province of Cappadocia. It is quite natural that Christianity could have spread from Lesser Armenia to Greater Armenia.

An important precondition for the spread of Christianity was the existence of Jewish colonies in Armenia. As is known, the first preachers of Christianity usually began their activities in places where Jewish communities existed.

Jewish communities existed in major Armenian cities: Tigranakert, Artashat, Vagharshapat, Zarehavan, and others.

Tertullian, in his book “Against the Jews” written in 197 AD, speaks of nations that had accepted Christianity: the Parthians, Lydians, Phrygians, Cappadocians, and mentions Armenians as well. This testimony is also confirmed by Saint Augustine in his work “Against the Manicheans.”

Towards the end of the 2nd century and the beginning of the 3rd century, Christians in Armenia were persecuted by Kings Vagarsh II (186—196), Khosrov I (196—216), and their successors. Eusebius of Caesarea mentions a letter from Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria, “On Repentance to the Brethren in Armenia, where Merujhan was the bishop” (VI, 46. 2). The letter is dated 251—255 AD. It proves that by the middle of the 3rd century, an organized Christian community recognized by the Universal Church existed in Armenia.

The historical date of the proclamation of Christianity as the state and only religion of Armenia is considered to be 301 AD. A pivotal role in this monumental event for Armenians was played by Saint Gregory the Illuminator, who became the first Catholicos of the state Armenian Church (302—326), and King Tiridates III the Great of Greater Armenia (287—330), who prior to his conversion had been a fierce persecutor of Christianity.

According to the writings of 5th-century Armenian historians, in 287 AD, King Tiridates arrived in Armenia accompanied by Roman legions to reclaim his father’s throne. While performing a sacrificial ritual at the pagan temple of the goddess Anahit in the Ekegheats district of Erez Manor, Gregory, one of the king’s companions and a Christian, refused to offer a sacrifice to the idol.

It was then revealed that Gregory was the son of Anak, the murderer of Tiridates’ father, King Khosrov II. For these “crimes,” Gregory was imprisoned in the Artashat dungeon, designated for those sentenced to death.

That same year, the king issued two decrees: the first ordered the arrest and confiscation of property of all Christians within Armenia, and the second mandated the execution of those who harbored Christians.

The adoption of Christianity in Armenia is also associated with the martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Rhipsime. According to tradition, a group of Christian young women from Rome, fleeing the persecution of Emperor Diocletian, traveled east and found refuge near the Armenian capital of Vagharshapat.

Charmed by the beauty of Rhipsime, King Tiridates desired to marry her but faced fierce resistance. In response, he ordered the execution of all the young women. Rhipsime and 32 of her companions were killed in the northeastern part of Vagharshapat; their mentor Gayane and two other virgins were executed in the southern part of the city, while one sick woman was tortured to death in a press.

Only one of the young women, Nune, managed to escape to Georgia, where she continued to preach Christianity and was later canonized as the Equal-to-the-Apostles Saint Nino.

The execution of the virgins caused the king extreme emotional turmoil, leading to a severe nervous condition. In the 5th century, this condition was popularly called “swine,” which is why sculptors depicted Tiridates with a pig’s head.

The king’s sister, Khosrovidukht, repeatedly had a dream in which it was revealed to her that only Gregory, who was miraculously still alive after 13 years in the Khor Virap stone pit, could heal Tiridates.

Gregory was eventually released from imprisonment and received triumphantly in Vagharshapat. After 66 days of prayer and preaching the teachings of Christ, Gregory healed the king, who, upon finding faith, declared Christianity the state religion.

For his ordination as a bishop, Gregory the Illuminator solemnly traveled to Caesarea, where he was consecrated by Cappadocian bishops, led by Leontius of Caesarea.

Bishop Peter of Sebaste performed the ceremony of consecrating Gregory to the episcopal throne in Armenia. The ceremony did not take place in the capital, Vagharshapat, but in Ashtishat, where the primary Armenian episcopal seat had long been established by the apostles.

King Tiridates, along with his entire court and nobles, was baptized by Gregory the Illuminator and made significant efforts to revive and propagate Christianity in the country, in such a way that paganism could never return.

To strengthen the position of Christianity in Armenia and to fully move away from paganism, Gregory the Illuminator, along with the king, destroyed pagan shrines. To prevent their restoration, they built Christian churches on their sites.

Gregory the Illuminator

This began with the construction of the Etchmiadzin Cathedral. According to tradition, Saint Gregory had a vision: the sky opened up, and a beam of light, accompanied by a host of angels, descended. Within that beam of light, Christ came down from heaven and struck the underground shrine with a hammer, indicating its destruction and the building of a Christian church on that spot.

The shrine was destroyed and buried, and a church was erected in its place. Thus was founded the spiritual center of the Armenian Apostolic Church—Holy Etchmiadzin, which translates to “the Only-Begotten descended here.”

The hierarchical structure of the Armenian Apostolic Church evolved independently, shaped by local conditions and irrespective of the processes happening in the churches of the Roman Empire. There, the metropolitan system was established at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and the patriarchal system at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.

In 354 AD, Catholicos Nerses convened a council in Ashtishat, which entered history as the First Armenian National Ecclesiastical Council. The council resolved to establish shelters for the poor, orphanages, hospitals, leper colonies, and other charitable institutions in various regions of Armenia.

The council also decided to found monasteries, including for women, and to open schools in them. The council prohibited the burying of the dead according to pagan custom—with wailing and tearing of clothes—since Christians believe in an afterlife. Marriages between close relatives were also forbidden.

It was recommended to abstain from drunkenness, debauchery, and murder, to treat servants kindly, and not to burden the people with heavy taxes. Catholicos Nerses the Great was highly successful in implementing the resolutions of the First National Ecclesiastical Council, for which he was later canonized.

The Armenian Apostolic Church belongs to the group of Ancient Eastern Churches. It did not participate in the Fourth Ecumenical Council for objective reasons and did not accept its decrees, like all the Ancient Eastern Churches.

In its dogma, it is based on the rulings of the first three Ecumenical Councils and adheres to the Dyophysite Christology of St. Cyril of Alexandria, who confessed the Single Nature from Two of the Incarnate Word of God (Miaphysitism).

Theological critics of the Armenian Apostolic Church argue that its Christology should be interpreted as Monophysite, which the Armenian Church rejects, anathematizing both Monophysitism and Dyophysitism.

Among critics of the Armenian Church, there is an opinion that it was originally Iconoclastic.

Such an opinion may have arisen due to the fact that generally, Armenian churches have few icons and no iconostasis. However, this is merely a consequence of ancient local tradition, historical conditions, and the overall asceticism of the decor. Believing Armenians usually do not keep icons at home. The Cross is more commonly used in domestic prayer.

This is related to the fact that an icon in the Armenian Apostolic Church must be consecrated by the hand of a bishop with holy chrism, and therefore it is more of a church relic rather than an essential attribute of domestic prayer.

The Armenian Church is the keeper of many relics sacred to every Christian. All of them are gathered in the Cathedral in Etchmiadzin. The most valuable among them is the spear that pierced the body of Christ. The famous cave church of Surb Geghard, the Temple of the Holy Spear, which is a massive structure carved into rock, kept it within its walls for many centuries.

Shortly after the official adoption of Christianity in Armenia, the Bishop of Nisibis attempted to climb Mount Ararat to find Noah’s Ark. After long and fruitless searches, the exhausted bishop fell asleep on the mountainside.

In a dream, an angel appeared to him and handed him a piece of the legendary ship. In 1766, a fragment of it was gifted to Empress Catherine II as a token of gratitude for her patronage of Armenians living in the empire. Among the relics are also a piece of the Life-Giving and Honorable Cross of Christ, as well as the Crown of Thorns of the Savior.

The relics of the greatest saints are also kept here—John the Baptist, St. Stephen the Protomartyr, and the apostles Thaddeus, Bartholomew, Thomas, and Andrew the First-Called. The right hand of Gregory the Illuminator, as well as the Holy Spear, is used to consecrate the chrism during the chrismation ceremony held every seven years.

Historically, there have been nine cathedra of the primates of the Armenian Apostolic Church: Ashtishat (Apostolic See – AD 68), Vagharshapat (Etchmiadzin – AD 302), Dvin (484), Aghtamar (927), Ani (992), Tavlbur in Lesser Armenia (1057), Rumkla (Rum-Kale) in Cilicia (1147), Sis in Cilicia (1282), Vagharshapat (Etchmiadzin – 1441).

At present, there are two Catholicosates in the Armenian Apostolic Church: the Etchmiadzin and the Cilician. In 1441, the Catholicosate of All Armenians returned from Cilicia to St. Etchmiadzin, where it remains to this day.

Catholicos Gregory IX (1439-1441), due to old age and illness, could not move from Cilicia to Etchmiadzin but instructed the National-Ecclesiastical Council, convened in 1441 in St. Etchmiadzin, to elect a new Catholicos. Kirakos Virapetsi (1441-1443) was elected.

For the Cilicians, it was difficult to suddenly lose the patriarchal throne. Taking advantage of the fact that Catholicos Gregory IX continued to reside in Sis, the capital of Cilicia, they established a new Catholicosate within the boundaries of Cilicia— the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia—after his death.

After the Armenian Genocide in Cilicia in 1920, the seat of the Catholicos moved from place to place for ten years, eventually settling in Antelias (Lebanon) in 1930, where it remains to this day. However, the seat lost almost all of its dioceses, except for Aleppo, and was on the verge of extinction.

To preserve this historic seat, at the request of the Catholicosate, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem temporarily transferred the dioceses of Damascus and Beirut to the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople transferred the diocese of Cyprus.

Today, the jurisdiction of the Cilician Catholicosate includes dioceses in Lebanon, Syria, and Cyprus. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The first patriarch of the Jerusalem church was the apostle James. In AD 381, at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, the Jerusalem bishopric was elevated to the rank of a patriarchate.

Starting from the 4th century, many Armenian pilgrims visited Jerusalem. Armenian noble houses and episcopal seats, caring for pilgrim hostels in Jerusalem for their flock, built numerous monasteries there, the number of which reached 70 in the 6th century.

After the Patriarchate of Jerusalem finally accepted the Chalcedonian doctrine in the mid-6th century, the Jerusalem Armenian Church separated, and the Jerusalem Armenian Patriarchate was established on its basis.

The first known Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem was Abraham who, according to the Arab historian Zekial-Din, witnessing the rising power of Muhammad, personally went to him in 626 AD and received a charter for the inviolability of the Armenian Church in Jerusalem.

When King Oshin and Catholicos Constantine III Kesaratsi compelled the heads of the Armenian Church’s dioceses to accept the decisions of the Sis Council of 1307 regarding dogmatic and liturgical changes, Patriarch Sargis of Jerusalem, wishing to preserve the purity of the Armenian Church’s doctrine, obtained a charter from the Sultan of Egypt to remove his throne from the authority of the Catholicos of Armenia and began to operate independently from 1311.

This fact led some to think that the Armenian Patriarchy of Jerusalem was founded in 1311. As we have already seen, it was founded in the 6th century after separating from the Patriarchate founded by St. James, the Lord’s brother, due to theological disagreements with the Chalcedonians.

The Patriarch of Jerusalem is the custodian of Armenian privileges in the Holy Places. Today, the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Patriarchate includes Armenian churches in Israel and Jordan.

Patriarchate of Constantinople (since 1461). In 1461, Sultan Mehmed II Fatih founded the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople. Because the center of the Armenian Church, Holy Etchmiadzin, was under Persian rule, the Sultan intended, by establishing the Patriarchate, to keep Armenians living within the Ottoman Sultanate under control through the Patriarch. The first Patriarch was Bishop Ovakim.

The Patriarch had full spiritual and secular power as an ethnarch. Therefore, until World War I, the Aghtamar and Cilician Catholicosates were subordinate to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in administrative matters.

Before World War I, the jurisdiction of the Constantinople Patriarchate extended to 52 dioceses, including the dioceses of Baghdad, Cyprus, Egypt, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece. Today, the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople includes Armenian churches in Turkey and the island of Crete (Greece).

For centuries, the AAC (Armenian Apostolic Church) has played a massive role in the lives of Armenians. For a people deprived of statehood, it has preserved language, traditions, culture. Armenian priests participated in all wars against invaders, and there were many. The words of Sparapet Vardan Mamikonian, recorded for us by Priest Gevond, have become the guiding principle for Armenians: “Unconscious death is death; conscious death is immortality.” During the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian clergy shared the fate of the people. Today, despite the presence of some sects in Armenia, the church remains the primary spiritual institution for all Armenians, which is very important in an age of disbelief and spiritual poverty…

by Karine Ter-Saakyan
Translated Vigen Avetisyan

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