1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gregory the Illuminator
GREGORY THE ILLUMINATOR, the reputed founder of the Armenian Church. His legend is briefly as follows. His father Anak, head of the Parthian clan of Suren, was bribed about the time of his birth (c. 257) by the Sassanid king of Persia to assassinate the Armenian king, Chosroes, who was of the old Arsacid dynasty, and father of Tiridates or Trdat, first Christian king of Armenia. Anak was slain by his victim’s soldiers; Gregory was rescued by his Christian nurse, carried to Caesarea in Cappadocia, and brought up a Christian. Grown to manhood he took service under Tiridates, now king of Armenia, in order by his own fidelity to atone for his father’s treachery. Presently at a feast of Anahite Gregory refused to assist his sovereign in offering pagan sacrifice, and his parentage being now revealed, was thrown into a deep pit at Artashat, where he languished for fourteen years, during which persecution raged in Armenia.
The scene of the legend now shifts to Rome, where Diocletian falls in love with a lovely nun named Ripsimé; she, rather than gratify his passion, flees with her abbess Gaiana and several priests to Armenia. Diocletian asks her back of Tiridates, who meanwhile has fallen in love with her himself. He too is flouted, and in his rage tortures and slays her and her companions. The traditional date of this massacre is the 5th of October, A.D. 301. Providence, incensed at such cruelty, turns Tiridates into a wild boar, and afflicts his subjects with madness; but his sister, Chosrowidukht, has a revelation to bring Gregory back out of his pit. The king consents, the saint is acclaimed, the bodies of the thirty-seven martyrs solemnly interred, and the king, after fasting five, and listening to Gregory’s homilies for sixty days, is healed. This all took place at Valarshapat, where Gregory, anxious to fix a site on which to build shrines for the relics of Ripsimé and Gaiana, saw the Son of God come down in a sheen of light, the stars of heaven attending, and smite the earth with a golden hammer till the nether world resounded to his blows. Three chapels were built on the spot, and Gregory raised his cross there and elsewhere for the people to worship, just as St Nino was doing about the same time in Georgia. There followed a campaign against the idols whose temples and books were destroyed. The time had now come for Gregory, who was still a layman and father of two sons, to receive ordination; so he went to Caesarea, where Leontius ordained and consecrated him catholicos or vicar-general of Armenia. This was sometime about 290, when Leontius may have acceded, though we first hear of him as bishop in 314.
Gregory’s ordination at Caesarea is historical. The vision at Valarshapat was invented later by the Armenians when they broke with the Greeks, in order to give to their church the semblance, if not of apostolic, at least of divine origin.
According to Agathangelus, Tiridates went to Rome with Gregory, Aristaces, son of Gregory, and Albianos, head of the other priestly family, to make a pact with Constantine, newly converted to the faith, and receive a pallium from Silvester. The better sources make Sardica the scene of meeting and name Eusebius (of Nicomedia) as the prelate who attended Constantine. There is no reason to doubt that some such visit was made about the year 315, when the death of Maximin Daza left Constantine supreme. Eusebius testifies (H.E. ix. 8) that the Armenians were ardent Christians, and ancient friends and allies of the Roman empire when Maximin attacked them about the year 308. The conversion of Tiridates was probably a matter of policy. His kingdom was honeycombed with Christianity, and he wished to draw closer to the West, where he foresaw the victory of the new faith, in order to fortify his realm against the Sassanids of Persia. Following the same policy he sent Aristaces in 325 to the council of Nice. Gregory is related to have added a clause to the creed which Aristaces brought back; he became a hermit on Mount Sebuh about the year 332, and died there.
Is the Ripsimé episode mere legend? The story of the conversion of Georgia by St Nino in the same age is so full of local colour, and coheres so closely with the story of Ripsimé and Gaiana, that it seems over-sceptical to explain the latter away as a mere doublet of the legend of Prisca and Valeria. The historians Faustus of Byzant and Lazar of Pharp in the 5th century already attest the reverence with which their memory was invested. We know from many sources the prominence assigned to women prophets in the Phrygian church. Nino’s story reads like that of such a female missionary, and something similar must underlie the story of her Armenian companions.
The history of Gregory by Agathangelus is a compilation of about 450, which was rendered into Greek 550. Professor Marr has lately published an Arabic text from a MS. in Sinai which seems to contain an older tradition. A letter of Bishop George of Arabia to Jeshu, a priest of the town Anab, dated 714 (edited by Dashian, Vienna, 1891), contains an independent tradition of Gregory, and styles him a Roman by birth.
In spite of legendary accretions we can still discern the true outlines and significance of his life. He did not really illumine or convert great Armenia, for the people were in the main already converted by Syrian missionaries to the Adoptionist or Ebionite type of faith which was dominant in the far East, and was afterwards known as Nestorianism. Marcionites and Montanists had also worked in the field. Gregory persuaded Tiridates to destroy the last relics of the old paganism, and carried out in the religious sphere his sovereign’s policy of detaching Great Armenia from the Sassanid realm and allying it with the Graeco-Roman empire and civilization. He set himself to Hellenize or Catholicize Armenian Christianity, and in furtherance of this aim set up a hierarchy officially dependent on the Cappadocian. He in effect turned his country into a province of the Greek see of Cappadocia. This hierarchical tie was soon snapped, but the Hellenizing influence continued to work, and bore its most abundant fruit in the 5th century. His career was thus analogous to that of St Patrick in Ireland.
Authorities.—S. Weber, Die Catholische Kirche in Armenien (Freiburg, 1903, with bibliography); Bollandii, Acta sanctorum sept. tom. 8; A. Carrière, Les Huit Sanctuaires de l’Arménie (Paris, 1899); “Chrysostom” in Migne, P. Gr. tom. 63, col. 943 foll.; C. Fortescue, The Armenian Church (London, 1872); H. Gelzer, Die Anfänge der armenischen Kirche (Leipzig, 1895) (Sächs. Gesells. der Wissensch.); and s.v. “Armenien” in Herzog-Hauck (Leipzig, 1897); v. Gutschmid, Kleine Schriften (Leipzig, 1892); Himpel, Gregor der Erleuchter, Kl. v.; Issaverdenz, Hist. of Arm. Church (Venice, 1875); de Lagarde, Agathangelos (Göttingen, 1888); Arshak Ter Mikelian, Die arm. Kirche (Leipzig, 1892); Palmieri, “La Conversione ufficiale degli Iberi,” Oriens Christ. (Rome, 1902); Ryssel, Ein Brief Gregors, übersetzt, Studien und Kritiken, 56, Bd. (1883); Samuelian, Bekehrung Armeniens (Vienna, 1844); Vetter, “Die arm. Väter,” in Nischl’s Lehrbuch der Patrol. iii. 215-262, (Mainz, 1881–1885); Malan, S. Gregory the Illuminator (Rivingtons, 1868). (F. C. C.)