How Armenia became the First Christian Nation

Sevanavank Monastery dates back to the 4th century CE in Sevan, Armenia


It is a well-known fact that Armenia adopted Christianity as the country’s official religion during 301 CE. However, do you know how Christianity was adopted as Armenia’s official religion? Let us provide you all with an in-depth analysis on how these events took place. According to the Armenian Prelacy, the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus first introduced Christianity in Armenia. Historians say that they were also martyred in Armenia.

St. Gregory the Illuminator (also known as Grigor Lusavorich;  2, 3, 6) was the person responsible of converting Armenia’s king during the time, King Tiridates the Great (Tiridates III, also known as Trdat III) and the Armenian nation to Christianity. He also created the Armenian Church. St. Gregory was born in Cappadocia, which is in present Turkey. He was raised Christian by his nanny and attended a Greek Christian school. St. Gregory was forced to flee the area of Armenia as a child (escaping his execution) when his father Anak assassinated King Khosrov II (as a result, St. Gregory’s father was executed for his crime). The only two children of the king who survived were Trdat III and Princess Khosrovidukht.

Before Trdat III converted to Christianity, he had imprisoned St. Gregory in Khor Virap for approximately 13 to 15 years. This happened for two reasons: A. The King realized that St. Gregory was the son of the man that killed his father and b. he was a Christian. After this event occurred, Christian nuns fled from Rome (because of the persecution of Christians there) to Armenia. The King fell in love with one of the nuns by the name of Hripsime. However, Hripsime resisted his advances, so the king had all the nuns killed.

As a result of this incident, the King had an illness which consisted of him having psychiatric illusions that he was a boar (also known as lycanthropy). The King’s sister, Khosrovidukht, had a vision where St. Gregory was the only person who could heal the King from his illness, and therefore freed St. Gregory from prison. Sources claim the King was cured by St. Gregory and as a result, converted to Christianity with his whole family in 301 CE.


Khor Virap Monastery, the place where St. Gregory was imprisoned by the King


In 302 CE, St. Gregory was ordained by the Archbishop of Caesarea, Leontius, baptized the King and his family, and established as the first Catholicos (bishop) of Armenia in 314 CE. St. Gregory was also involved with the building of Etchmiadzin church. This is where he had a vision of Jesus Christ (the vagharshapat of Christ) striking the ground with a golden hammer. Other churches (St. Gayane and Hripsime) were built near this church in honor of the martyred nuns. Some artifacts of these nuns were placed in these churches. A lot of the pagan temples were destroyed by the King when he adopted Christianity, but one of the temples that survived is the fortress of Garni (Garni Temple), and “was said to have been built for a sun god in Armenian mythology.”


The Fortress of Garni


In addition, there are debates regarding the official adoption date of Christianity in Armenia. Some historians claim it is in 301 CE and other historians debate it is actually in 314 CE (because this date followed the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity in 313 CE, in which Armenia was one of the provinces of). However, historians state that Armenia was soon half controlled by Rome and half controlled by Persia, but maintained it’s stance of being an independent kingdom. This kingdom was with noble families providing its key figures and monasteries able to achieve self-sufficiency through their own landed estates.”

It is believed by some historians that the King adopted Christianity for other reasons besides his illness recovery. One of the reasons might be that the King wanted to separate his country from Persia, who wanted to spread the Zoroastrian religion. As a result, it might be that the king wanted to “resist Iranian cultural imperialism.” Also, the conversion of Christianity might have been another excuse of gaining access to treasures in old temples, which was protected by priests. In addition, Armenia is also in the Bible! In the Book of Genesis (chapter 8, verse 4), it is written that Noah’s Ark rested on Mount Ararat, which is in Armenia (near Yerevan).


King Trdat III

St. Gregory the Illuminator


Lastly, Mesrop Mashtots, the individual who created the Armenian alphabet, had full permission of the church and state to create a script  (“a written means of human communication”) in order for individuals to read religious texts such as the Bible. In other words, Mesrop Mashtots was the one who translated the Bible to Armenian, with the help of Catholicos St. Sahak I and other disciples.


Mesrop Mashtots