The Baptism of the Armenian People (1892), by Ivan Aivazovsky

Christianity first spread to Armenia prior to the official adoption of the faith in the early fourth century, although the details are obscure. In the early fourth century, the Kingdom of Greater Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion, becoming the first state to do so. The Arsacid king of Armenia at the time, Trdat, was converted by Gregory the Illuminator, who became the first head of the Armenian Church. The traditional date for the conversion of Armenia is 301, although many alternative dates have been proposed by scholars. While Armenia's church structure was established at this time, it took longer for Christianity to fully take root in the country. The greatest progress came after the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots and the translation of the Bible and liturgy into Armenian in the fifth century.

The Christianization of Armenia is regarded as one of the most important events in Armenian history, significantly shaping the people's identity and turning Armenia away from its centuries-long links to the Iranian world. Additionally, the Armenian Church is considered to have provided a structure for the preservation of Armenian identity in the absence of Armenian political independence.


Prior to Christianization, Armenians mostly practiced a syncretic form of Zoroastrianism (probably adopted during the Achaemenid period) with significant native Armenian and other religious elements.[1] The Kingdom of Greater Armenia had been ruled by members of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty since the first century AD. Armenia largely managed to maintain an independent existence between its two powerful neighbors, the Parthian and Roman empires, which had reached a compromise in the first century whereby Armenia would be ruled by an Arsacid prince who would be confirmed by Rome.[2] The overthrow of the Parthian dynasty in Iran and the rise of the Sasanians in the third century dramatically changed the political situation. Conflict between Rome and Iran intensified, while the Armenian Arsacids entered into a "family feud" with the Sasanians to avenge their overthrown Parthian kinsmen. As a result, Armenia became more closely aligned with the Roman Empire and was attacked and at times occupied by the Sasanians.[3] A period of Sasanian occupation ended with the restoration of the Arsacid Trdat III (who later converted to Christianity) to the throne of Greater Armenia during the reign of Diocletian (r. 284–305). This possibly occurred in 298/9, coinciding with the Peace of Nisibis, which followed a Roman victory over the Sasanians; however, other dates have been proposed for Trdat's restoration.[4]

Early spread of Christianity

Christianity began to spread in Armenia before the kingdom's conversion in the early fourth century, first coming from the religion's birthplace in Palestine via Syria and Mesopotamia.[5] Some traditions tell of evangelizing by Addai of Edessa in the first century, while others claim that the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew preached in Armenia.[6] Thaddeus is said to have come to proselytize in Armenia, where he was martyred by the Armenian king Sanatruk at Artaz, near Maku. Later, this story was connected to that of Gregory the Illuminator by placing his conception at Thaddeus' tomb. However, these traditions, which establish apostolic succession for the Armenian Church, are considered apocryphal.[7] Nevertheless, it is clear that there was some penetration of the Christian religion into Armenia at an early date. In the second century, the church father Tertullian described the Armenians as a people who had received Christianity. In the mid-third century, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote to an Armenian bishop called Meruzanes, which suggests that a considerable Christian community existed in Armenia by this time.[5] The location of Meruzanes is not known for certain.[8] Based on the bishop's name, Nicholas Adontz argues that he was located in district of Sophene in southern Armenia.[5][a] The southern districts of Armenia were ruled by autonomous principalities or satrapies which entered the Roman orbit after the Peace of Nisibis in 299. Nina Garsoïan suggests that the traditional identification of Armenia as the first Christian state may actually reflect the early conversion of the southern satrapies, which were viewed as sovereign Armenian states.[9][5] Thus, Christianity came to Armenia in two successive currents: a Syriac current coming to the country's southern regions from the south via Syria and Mesopotamia, and a later Greek current coming to the Arsacid kingdom of Armenia from the west via Asia Minor in the early fourth century.[5]

Conversion of the Armenian kingdom

Traditional account

16th-century Armenian miniature depicting St. Gregory and King Trdat, transformed into a boar

The traditional account of the Christianization of Armenia comes from the Armenian history attributed to Agathangelos, which combines fact and legend.[8][10] According to this account, in the third century the Armenian king, whom Agathangelos calls Khosrov, fought against the newly established Sasanian dynasty in Iran; the latter sought to destroy the Armenian Arsacids as the last remnant of the Parthian dynasty they had supplanted. The Sasanians sent a Parthian nobleman called Anak to gain the confidence of the Armenian king and kill him. Anak succeeded in murdering Khosrov and most of the royal family, but he and his family were then killed by Armenian nobles. After this, Khosrov's son Trdat (Tiridates) was taken to live in Rome, and Anak's son was taken to Caesaria in Cappadocia and raised by Christians, who gave him the name Gregory.[10]

Later, Trdat reclaimed the Armenian throne with Roman assistance. Gregory went to Armenia to enter the service Trdat, who, following his Roman overlord Diocletian, persecuted Christians.[11] After Gregory refused to sacrifice to the goddess Anahit, the king had Gregory imprisoned and subjected to many tortures.[12] Once Trdat discovered that Gregory was the son of his father's killer, he had Gregory thrown into a deep pit called Khor Virap near Artaxata, where he remained for thirteen (or fifteen) years.[13][14] In the meantime, a group of Christian nuns fleeing from the Roman Empire were put to death on Trdat's orders.[15] In Agathangelos's history, Gregory is miraculously saved and brought out from the pit after Trdat's sister Khosrovidukht sees a vision.[16] Gregory then healed the king, who, Agathangelos writes, had been transformed into a wild boar for his sinful behavior.[16] Trdat and his court accepted Christianity, making Armenia the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion.[15]

After being released, Gregory preached the Christian faith in Armenia and erected shrines to the martyred nuns Gayane and Hripsime in Vagharshapat on a spot indicated to him in a vision.[16][b] Vagharshapat later became home to the mother church of Armenian Christianity and, by medieval times, called Ejmiatsin ("descent of the only-begotten") in reference to Gregory's vision.[18][c] Gregory, sometimes accompanied by Trdat,[17] went around Armenia destroying pagan temples, defeating the armed resistance of the pagan priests.[19] Gregory then went to Caesarea with a retinue of Armenian princes and was consecrated bishop of Armenia by Leontius of Caesarea.[16] Until the death of Nerses I in the late fourth century, Gregory's successors would go to Caesarea to be confirmed as bishops of Armenia, and Armenia remained under the titular authority of the metropolitans of Caesarea.[20]

Returning to Armenia with Christian assistants from Caesarea,[21] Gregory raised churches in place of the destroyed pagan temples and seized their estates and wealth for the Armenian Church and his house.[17][d] On the site of the destroyed temple to Vahagn at Ashtishat, Gregory raised a church which became the original center of the Armenian Church and remained so until after the partition of the country in 387.[11][17] Gregory met King Trdat near the town of Bagavan and baptized the Armenian king, army and people in the Euphrates.[11] In another version of Agathangelos's history surviving only in translation, Gregory also baptizes together with Trdat the kings of Caucasian Albania, Georgia and Lazica/Abkhazia.[23] He founded schools for the Christian education of children, where the languages of instruction were Greek and Syriac.[24] He established the ecclesiastical structure of Armenia, appointing as bishops some of the children of pagan priests.[25]

Now, many of the elements of the Agathangelos narrative are recognized as legendary, although a number of details are supported by other sources.[26][27] Other sources confirm the leadership of Gregory and his descendants over the early Armenian church,[26] as well as Gregory's consecration by Leontius at Caesarea during a church council in 314.[27] However, the history of Agathangelos depicts the spread of Christianity of Armenia as having occurred practically entirely within Gregory's lifetime, when, in fact, it was a more gradual process that met resistance.[28] Much of the description of Gregory's proselytizing is taken from the information about Mesrop Mashtots's activities in Koriun's Life of Mashtots.[29]

Date and causes

The traditional date for the conversion of Armenia to Christianity is 301,[30] although many alternative dates have been proposed, ranging from 284 to 314.[31][32] Many modern scholars favor the 314 dating.[33] Interpretations that favor an earlier date for Trdat's conversion argue that the Armenian king had grown disillusioned with his alliance with Rome and stopped following Diocletian's anti-Christian policy, instead adopting Christianity to strengthen the state and further separate Armenia from Rome and Persia.[34] Those who favor the later date of 314 argue that Trdat, as a loyal client-king of Rome, could not have set up Christianity as Armenia's state religion in contradiction to Rome's anti-Christian policy at the time, and place the conversion after the Edict of Milan in 313.[31][35] According to one view, Trdat and his court may have privately converted to Christianity in 301, but only made it the kingdom's official religion after the Edict of Milan.[30] Another source in favor of the 301 dating argues that the Roman Empire, though still anti-Christian, tolerated Armenia's conversion to Christianity since it was directed against Sasanian Iran.[36] Scholar Abraham Terian takes the information in Eusebius' Church History about the Roman emperor Maximinus Daza fighting a war with the Christian Armenians in 311 to be evidence that Trdat had converted prior to that date.[37]

George Bournoutian identifies "external pressures, especially from Zoroastrian Persia and its new and zealous Sasanid dynasty" as the main factor in Trdat's decision to adopt Christianity.[38] Mary Boyce writes that Armenia accepted Christianity "partly, it seems, in defiance of the Sasanians."[39] Robert W. Thomson refers to Trdat's decision as "an act of state" but notes that his personal motivation is still unclear.[40]

Christianization of Armenian society

As noted by Thomson, Christianity and the institution of the church spread in Armenia "through the social and political structure indigenous to that country."[41] The church took possession of the extensive properties of the pre-Christian centers of worship.[42] The early Armenian churches were built on the sites of pagan temples.[43] The church properties were held by the patriarch[e] and passed down hereditarily like those of the nakharar noble clans. The office of patriarch was seen as the hereditary privilege of the descendants of Gregory the Illuminator, just as the secular offices of state in Armenia were held hereditarily by particular noble families,[41] despite the fact that this went against Christian practice and law.[44] The patriarchate was held by members of the Gregorid line, with some interruptions, until the death of Isaac of Armenia in the fifth century. Early on, bishoprics appear to have been organized on the basis of the nakharar clans,[42] rather than as sees based in major cities.[45] These factors allowed the church to take an independent political role, often clashing with the Arsacid monarchs.[41]

The spread of the Christian faith to the population of Armenia and the elimination of pre-Christian beliefs and practices was a gradual and uneven process. Resistance to Christianization came from both among the common people and the nobility. Armenian magnates who opposed the pro-Roman policies of the monarchy opposed Christianity and adopted Zoroastrianism instead.[46] Gregory's son Vrtanes, who succeeded his brother Aristakes as patriarch, was nearly murdered by pagans at his seat at Ashtishat.[47] In 365, Patriarch Nerses I convened the Council of Ashtishat, which banned pre-Christian practices such as consanguineous marriages, pagan-style funerals involving "excessive lamentations,"[48][49] and polygamy.[50] In the view of Robert W. Thomson, early efforts to spread Christianity to the Armenian population came mainly from local holy men and ascetics, rather than concerted missionary activities by church institutions.[51][52] Most of these traveling holy men were Syrians or associated with Syria.[51] One of the reasons for the slow spread of Christianity early on was that the liturgy was in recited in Greek or Syriac, and was thus incomprehensible to most Armenians. It was with the invention of the Armenian alphabet in c. 405 by Mesrop Mashtots, himself an ascetic preacher, that the Christianization of the population began to progress more quickly. The Bible, liturgy, the works of the main church fathers and other Christian texts were translated into Armenian for the first time.[53] In this, Mashtots received help from the king Vramshapuh and the patriarch Isaac.[52] In the middle of the fifth century, the Sasanian king Yazdegerd II attempted to impose a reformed Zoroastrianism on Armenia and faced a Christian rebellion. A substantial party of Armenian nobles sided with the Sasanian king and renounced Christianity, although the Sasanian efforts to root out Armenian Christianity ultimately failed.[54] Still, many elements of the pre-Christian religion became part of Armenian Christianity, and a small group of Armenians called the Arewordikʿ never converted to Christianity, apparently surviving into the modern period.[1]

Historical significance

The Christianization of Armenia is regarded as one of the most important events in Armenian history, significantly shaping the people's identity and turning Armenia away from its centuries-long links to the Iranian world.[16] Additionally, the Armenian Church is considered to have provided a structure for the preservation of Armenian identity in the absence of Armenian political independence.[55]

See also


  1. ^ Meruzanes (Armenian Meruzhan) was a dynastic name of the Artsruni dynasty, which ruled over Sophene.[5]
  2. ^ Scholar Robert W. Thomson notes that, although Vagharshapat-Ejmiatsin had "clearly been a holy shrine" from early on in Christian Armenian history, the association of Gregory with Vagharshapat dates from after the partition of Armenia in 387, when the mother see of the Armenian Church moved to Eastern Armenia. The actual original center of the Armenian Church was at Ashtishat.[14][17]
  3. ^ The figure who appears to Gregory was later identified with Christ in the Armenian tradition, although this is not explicitly stated in Agathangelos.[17]
  4. ^ According to the fifth-century history attributed to Faustus of Byzantium, by the time of Gregory's descendant Patriarch Nerses I, the domains of the Gregorid house amounted to fifteen districts (gawaṛs).[22]
  5. ^ The term patriarch has commonly been used for Gregory and his successors in Armenian sources since the fifth century, although, as Robert W. Thomson notes, it is anachronistic for the situation in the fourth century. Until the death of Nerses I in the 370s, the Armenian bishops were under the authority of the metropolitans of Caesarea.[20]



  1. ^ a b Russell 1986, "The Armenians preserved strong regional traditions which appear to have been incorporated into Zoroastrianism, a religion adopted by them probably in the Achaemenid period".
  2. ^ Garsoïan 1997, p. 67.
  3. ^ Garsoïan 1997, pp. 71–72.
  4. ^ Garsoïan 1997, pp. 74–75.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Garsoïan 1997, p. 83.
  6. ^ Bundy 2007, p. 136.
  7. ^ Garsoïan 1997, pp. 82–83.
  8. ^ a b Thomson 1999, p. 54.
  9. ^ Garsoïan 1985, pp. 345–346.
  10. ^ a b Bournoutian 2006, pp. 47–48.
  11. ^ a b c Garsoïan 1997, pp. 81–82.
  12. ^ Agathangelos 1976, pp. xlii–xliii.
  13. ^ Lang 1970, p. 156.
  14. ^ a b Thomson 1984.
  15. ^ a b Thomson 1994, p. 16.
  16. ^ a b c d e Garsoïan 1997, p. 81.
  17. ^ a b c d e Thomson 1994, p. 19.
  18. ^ Agathangelos 1976, p. 478.
  19. ^ Russell 2004, p. 358.
  20. ^ a b Agathangelos 1976, p. lxxix.
  21. ^ Thomson 1988–1989, p. 32.
  22. ^ Garsoïan 1989, p. 139.
  23. ^ Agathangelos 1976, pp. lxviii–lxix.
  24. ^ Agathangelos 1976, p. 375.
  25. ^ Agathangelos 1976, p. 379: "He took some of the pagan priests' children and brought them up in his own sight and under his own care, giving them instruction and raising them with spiritual care and fear. Those who were worthy of attaining the rank of bishop received ordination from him".
  26. ^ a b Thomson 1988–1989, p. 31.
  27. ^ a b Garsoïan 2010, p. 60: "Numerous other details in the account of 'Agatangeghos' about the conversion of the king and of his kingdom are unmistakably legendary, but still others are corroborated from independent sources. The presence of Bishop Leontius at Caesarea in Cappadocia and the holding of a church council there in 314 are both duly attested and provide an authentic setting for the 'Agatangeghos' account of Saint Gregory’s consecration".
  28. ^ Thomson 1994, p. 22: "The conversion of the country was a slow process that met with much opposition; it was not accomplished by Gregory alone, nor were four million Armenians baptised in one week".
  29. ^ Thomson 1994, p. 18.
  30. ^ a b Bournoutian 2006, p. 49.
  31. ^ a b Garsoïan 1997, p. 82.
  32. ^ Ananian 1959, p. 9.
  33. ^ Andrews 2018.
  34. ^ Haykakan sovetakan hanragitaran 1977, p. 212b: "Սակայն շուտով համոզվելով, որ Հայաստանի նկատմամբ Հռոմը վարում է խարդախ ու զավթողական քաղաքականություն (297-ին Դիոկղետիանոս կայսրը զավթեց Մեծ Հայքի Ծոփք, Անգեղ տուն, Աղձնիք, Կորդուք և Ծավդեք անդրտիգրիսյան հողերը), Տրդատը հիասթափվեց նրա «դաշնակցությունից» և դադարեցրեց նաև քրիստոնյաների հալածանքները։ Երկու թշնամի տերությունների միջև գտնվող Տրդատը գերադասեց այդ ուժը ծառայեցնել սեփական պետության շահերին։ [However, soon becoming convinced that Rome was conducting a dishonest and aggressive policy towards Armenia (in 297 Diocletian annexed the transtigritane lands of Tsopk, Angeghtun, Aghdznik, and Tsavdek of Greater Armenia), Trdat became disillusioned with this 'alliance' and stopped the persecution of Christians. Being located between two enemy powers, Trdat preferred to use that force [Christianity] for his own state's interests]".
  35. ^ Thomson 1988–1989, pp. 31–32.
  36. ^ Eremian 1984, p. 71.
  37. ^ Terian 2023, p. 4, n. 3.
  38. ^ Bournoutian 2006, p. 48.
  39. ^ Boyce 2001, p. 84.
  40. ^ Thomson 1988–1989, p. 45.
  41. ^ a b c Thomson 1988–1989, p. 34.
  42. ^ a b Garsoïan 1997, pp. 83–84.
  43. ^ Bournoutian 2006, pp. 49–50.
  44. ^ Garsoïan 1997, p. 78.
  45. ^ Thomson 1994, p. 20.
  46. ^ Thomson 1988–1989, p. 35.
  47. ^ Garsoïan 1997, p. 85.
  48. ^ Nersessian 2007, p. 26.
  49. ^ Garsoïan 1997, p. 88.
  50. ^ Garsoïan 2013, pp. 65–66.
  51. ^ a b Thomson 2006, pp. 101–102.
  52. ^ a b Thomson 1988–1989, p. 36–38.
  53. ^ Agathangelos 1976, p. xiii.
  54. ^ Thomson 1988–1989, pp. 43.
  55. ^ Garsoïan 1997, p. 84.