St Gregory The Illuminator  And The Birth Of The Church

November 16, 2020

St Gregory The Illuminator And The Birth Of The Church
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St Gregory was one of the first Christian missionaries in the 3rd century.

He bought his faith to Armenia, and received a hostile reception from King Tiradates III who tortured him mercilessly attempting to making him recant his faith.

When he refused, he was sentenced to live in a hole in the ground, high in the Armenian mountains for 14 years.

He is remembered for creating the first ever 'blueprint' for Church hierarchy and is the Patron Saint of Armenia.

His story is one of suffering, penance and triumph.

Further Reading

  • Patriotism And Piety In Armenian Christianity: The Early Panegyrics On Saint Gregory by Abraham Terian

  • The Life and Times of S. Gregory the Illuminator, the Founder and Patron Saint of the Armenian Church 
  • The Cross before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol by Bruce W. Longenecker



  • The Ice Giants by Kevin MacLeod



It's the late third century.
An old man stagnates in a filthy dungeon beneath the town of Ardeshat in the mountains of Armenia,
waiting for the embrace of death.
For fourteen years the heretic has languished here, with little more than his faith to sustain
him, condemned to die for his unyielding devotion to the teachings of Yeshua, a man from Nazareth
who claimed to be the son of the one true god.
As the heavy doors of his cell creak open for the first time in fourteen years, the
outside light almost blinds him as he catches a glance at his emaciated body.
It seems the hour of his martyrdom is finally at hand.
Or is it?
This is the story of Grigor Losorovich, better known as Saint Gregory the Illuminator.
Armenia is a small landlocked country between Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Georgia.
A Christian nation in a sea of Islamic neighbours.
How did this happen?
Why has the faith of this country never swayed from Christianity?
Our story today is how Armenia became the first Christian nation in the world through
the persistence of one determined man.
As a heads up, there's some mythical elements to this story and I'll be including them
because I don't think it's possible to tell the story without them.
So a bit of history.
Jesus was crucified around the year of 30 AD.
He had 12 apostles and those apostles had 70 disciples.
Each of these apostles were instructed to spread the faith in a number of different
Through this method, seeds of Christianity were blown from Jerusalem into many pagan
provinces of the east.
The success of this mission was a bit of a hit and miss.
Some of the men were turned away, some were sawed in half, others stone, some bald alive.
All in all, not a great time to be trying to spread Christianity.
Sometime in the first century, two disciples named Bartholomew and Thaddeus were assigned
to test the waters of Armenia.
Long story short, Bartholomew had his skin peeled off him and Thaddeus likely suffered
a fate just as grisly, and this was Armenia's first introduction to Christianity.
Armenia at this time was sandwiched between two expansionist empires, the Roman Empire
to its west and the Sassanid Persian Empire to its east.
Jerusalem was the state religion in both empires and Christianity was tolerated at best and
harshly persecuted at worst, based on the whims of the ruler.
Armenia was used as a kind of bargaining chip between the two huge empires, each one not
willing to let the other have it and so it remained independent.
Despite this, a kind of proxy war existed where both empires would try and put their
favorite candidate on the throne so they could exert their influence over the region.
It was into this background that Gregory grew up in.
But geopolitics aside, Gregory's upbringing was pretty turbulent itself.
He was a member of one of the leading families of Armenia, with loose ties and an even looser
claim to the throne of Armenia.
His father was known as Anak the Parthian, a shady figure with close ties to the Sassanid
Over in the royal courts of the Sassanid Empire, the king, Ardashir I, convinces Anak to infiltrate
the royal Armenian household of Khosrow II and murder him.
After a bit of convincing, Anak agrees, on the basis that once the king is dead, he will
rule Armenia with the backing of the Sassanid Empire.
So under the guise of fleeing persecution from the very Sassanid king who was setting
him up, Anak, his wife, and his two sons, one of them being Gregory, seek refuge with
Khosrow in his court in Armenia.
They're welcomed warmly and over time, Anak gains the trust of Khosrow, the two become
close friends.
Then one day, on a fateful hunting trip, Anak takes his shot and while the two men are alone,
he stabs Khosrow to death.
The idea was to make it look like a hunting accident, but it sounds like he made a real
mess of it.
Boar tusks don't generally hit in the same spot over and over again, I guess.
Knowing he'd been caught, Anak runs through the woodlands trying to escape Khosrow's
bodyguards but missteps and falls in a lake and drowns.
Meanwhile back in the royal court, Anak's whole family is ordered to be put to death
by the outraged Armenian nobles.
But just in the nick of time, his two sons are smuggled out by their nurses.
One is taken to Persia and the other, Gregory, is taken to Cappadocia, modern day Turkey.
It seems that even from a young age, Gregory's faith was to be preordained, as on the way
to Cappadocia, an angel came down from heaven and told the servants that his name was to
be Gregory, which apparently meant watchful.
The province Gregory and his nurses found themselves in was at this time part of the
Roman Empire.
Christianity was not the state religion, but pockets of Christianity were present throughout
the empire, particularly in the east.
Gregory grew up with a very strong Christian influence because of this and spent much of
his time poring over the holy scriptures of the Old Testament.
His nurse, Sophia, was also a devoted Christian and it was likely her influence that lit the
fire of religious fervour that was to become his most defining feature.
The young Gregory was remarked by his tutors to have had a sharp mind and was driven and
resolute in completing tasks, but like any good Christian, all his actions were said
to be tempered by modesty and humility.
Physically, he was said to be tall, well-made in body and handsome, with a regal air to
In his early 20s, Gregory takes a wife, Mary, apparently at the insistence of his mother.
Gregory and his wife have two children who, according to Christian sources, were able
to babble about the Holy Trinity even before they could form full words.
Such was the strength of Gregory's holy gift.
After the kids are born, and apparently with his mother now placated, Gregory requests
a vow of abstinence from his wife in order to pursue his holy mission to spread the word
of the Lord to as many people as possible.
Mary acknowledges this, I mean, who is she to reject God's will?
And they both kind of agree to annul the marriage, I guess.
Mary heads off to a nunnery, and the two never speak again.
Sources differ as to whether his children went with her or stayed with him.
Something tells me there was probably a bit more to this weird, amicable divorce, but
hey, that's the story.
While the young Gregory pored over his scriptures in Cappadocia, the situation in Armenia had
changed drastically.
As we mentioned earlier, the throne of Armenia was a bit like a pawn between the Sassanid
of the Roman Empire.
After Gregory's father had murdered Ardashir, his son, Tyrodades III, was smuggled out of
Armenia for his own protection until the situation calmed down, much like Gregory.
But instead of heading to Cappadocia, Tyrodades, as a high-profile ward, was given an excellent
pagan education in Rome under the orders of Roman Emperor Aurelian, who by chance is the
main face that makes the cover art of this podcast.
In this power vacuum, a new contender had been placed on the throne, backed by the Sassanids.
Ardashir I had got what he wanted, he had a pliable candidate on the Armenian throne.
It made no difference to him whether it was Anak or some other stooge.
In 270 AD, the now grown-up Tyrodades and Aurelian launch a campaign against the Sassanids,
and they successfully put Tyrodades III on the throne.
Tyrodades was said to be a strong leader, both physically and mentally.
There's a few amusing stories about his strength that I couldn't not share.
The first one is that he stopped two charging bulls by grabbing the horns of each of them
and smashing them into each other.
The second, that he stopped a runaway chariot by taking the reins of the four horses and
physically restraining them.
The third is that he swam across the Euphrates River, guess that one's kind of believable.
And the fourth is that he cut a troop of elephants to pieces alone.
Not sure how many elephants make up a troop, but impressive nonetheless.
Aurelian as well was an immensely talented leader, and between a guy that can smash bulls
together and a man given the title of Restorer of Worlds, they probably made a good team.
Tyrodades was seen as a true successor to the Armenian throne, and despite being planted
on the throne by an outsider, he is widely accepted with the population, cementing a
strong alliance between Armenia and Rome for the future.
Back in Cappadocia, Gregory, now in his 20s, is wracked with guilt for his father's dishonorable
actions, and decides to try and seek forgiveness with his son who now sits on the Armenian
The sources are somewhat unclear about how, exactly, Gregory entered the service of Tyrodades,
either during his campaign to take the throne with Aurelian or just after.
However he got there, Gregory becomes the source of sage counsel and restraint for Tyrodades,
and works hard to help him with the administration of his kingdom.
Over years the two become close friends, and Gregory eventually becomes Tyrodades' personal
confidant and chief advisor.
But all the while, Tyrodades is unable to get a straight answer of Gregory's origin,
where he came from, and why he wandered into his courts all of a sudden.
Apparently Gregory had a knack for deflecting difficult questions such as these.
All was well and good between the two best friends, until after a military campaign where
Gregory is asked to give thanks to the gods for the Armenian victory.
You heard right, gods, not God.
As you've hopefully noticed, Gregory took religion, particularly monotheism, pretty
Armenia, like many other pagan states, had a pantheon of gods, and Anahid, the goddess
of fertility, water, wisdom and healing, was the most important one to Tyrodades.
To the amazement and alarm of Tyrodades and his entourage, Gregory flat out refuses this
very routine order, quote, God forbid I should obey such an order as this.
I came to wait on thee, and with devotedness to obey thy commands, but not to worship thy
idols, for they are no gods, but the works of men's hands.
After this he, probably unnecessarily, goes on to compare the king in his court to workhorses,
saying they are no better than mules because both of you do not know your true creator.
Probably could have just stopped at the refusal, right?
Understandably, Tyrodades was shocked at this refusal, and quickly turned to anger, giving
Gregory one more time to repent and obey the command.
He refuses, and trouble really starts here.
Tyrodades was apparently both very quick to anger and very protective of his pagan gods.
Gregory is thrown in jail immediately.
Whatever friendship the two men had was now inseparably broken.
Over the next two years Gregory is brutally tortured, with each torture session more unbearable
than the last.
The methods are as creative as they are graphic, if there's anyone who's a bit squeamish,
well I'd say skip ahead but you'll probably miss most of the episode.
Here we go.
First heavy stones were saddled onto his shoulders and his hands were tied by his back with his
face in the dirt, and he was made to run around like a beast of burden, apparently a retaliation
for Gregory's earlier insult about mules.
After that he was tied by one foot on top of a burning trash pile, while being beaten
by ten men with sticks over the course of seven days.
After this, his legs were crushed in a wine press until the bones split, iron nails were
hammered into the soles of his feet and he was ordered to run around.
A mixture of salt, pepper and vinegar was poured into his nostrils, apparently to induce
some kind of insanity.
A sheepskin bag of soot and ash was tied over his head and he was ordered to breathe deeply
through it.
He was tied upside down, with mass amounts of boiling water being poured down his throat
in order to maim and humiliating him due to him having to urinate himself.
He was crucified, having his flanks peeled away with iron hot tongs.
There were iron spikes placed all over the floor, he was then dragged across it until
there was quote, not one part of his body that was not pierced, his kneecaps were swollen
and then smashed and he was left to hang upside down for three days, and molten lead is poured
all over his back and down his throat.
Throughout these torture sessions, Tyridades, who was apparently personally involved, continually
requested Gregory to embrace his gods and then he would be restored to his former greatness,
but Gregory refused.
Though he doesn't say it, Tyridades is incredulous that this man is still living despite the
brutal pain that he is continually putting him through, and this tweaks his interest
once again about where exactly this unkillable man came from.
One of his men manages to discover Gregory's turbulent past and shares it with Tyridades.
Even though everything has now come to light, Tyridades is still confused as how this man
is able to continue living, but if there was any intrigue into Gregory's faith perhaps
being his motivation, he doesn't outwardly show it.
Having grown bored of torture, Tyridades has him thrown in a pit in the high mountains
of Armenia intending for him to die there.
The once esteemed court official will spend the next thirteen years in this muddy, reptile
infested pit, his only source of food coming from a local woman who would throw in a loaf
of bread to him once a day out of pity.
With this whole mess now behind him, Tyridades cracks down on religion in Armenia and sets
strict punishments for anyone in his kingdom caught worshipping foreign gods.
Meanwhile, over in Rome, Emperor Aurelian had been murdered by his own personal guard.
A new emperor, Diocletian, now sat on the throne.
Diocletian was an interesting fellow, though not the military man Aurelian was, he was
a very talented administrator.
With Aurelian having stabilised the borders, Diocletian was exactly what Rome needed, someone
to administer them properly, but for all the administrative skill he had it didn't help
him in the world of love.
Diocletian wanted a wife.
The story goes, and it's worth taking this story with a big grain of salt, that he commissions
the court artists of his to travel far and wide across his empire and paint a portrait
of the most beautiful woman they could find.
Though many pictures return to him, he is infatuated with the picture of a young woman
who is found on the outskirts of Rome itself.
The young girl was named Ripcim, and her beauty stirred something within the emperor immediately.
Without waiting for any more pictures to return, he announced that it was her that would be
his new bride.
The only problem was, Ripcim was Christian, and Diocletian really, really did not like
Christians, seeing them as a threat to the stability of his realm.
On top of the issue of faith, Ripcim had taken a lifelong vow of chastity too.
A slight hiccup in what would surely be a happy marriage, thought Diocletian, and set
plans to travel off to see his new wife in the flesh.
The night before his arrival, Ripcim is visited by angels in her dream who tell her to make
haste and flee towards Armenia.
The very next day, an angry, and probably horny, Diocletian arrives to find that his
new bride has escaped.
Though they did their best, Ripcim and her entourage are found, and despite clear objections
to him, Diocletian announces that they will wed in Armenia.
After what I can only imagine to be a somber and dreary wedding, Diocletian tries to force
himself on her within the wedding chambers.
Though Ripcim was much smaller and weaker than Diocletian, she was said to be imbued
by the holy strength of God, and through his divine protection she fought him off for ten
solid hours.
Eventually she escapes from him, but is caught again, and Diocletian in his fury orders her
to be roasted alive, disemboweled, with her eyes gouged out.
So much for the protection of God, right?
After the grisly deed is complete, Diocletian himself weeps at the wickedness of Christianity
and how it causes insanity in his people.
And much like Tiridates, he starts a series of intense persecutions of Christianity across
his empire, destroying churches, banning clergy from meeting and confiscating church property.
So unlike the rest of the story, Diocletian's great purges of Christianity were well known,
and it's very likely that the Christian sources who told this tale were eager to besmirch
his character even more.
Like I said, take the above story with a grain of salt, but summarized, Christianity was
definitely not the safest religion to be practicing or preaching at this time.
As Diocletian and Tiridates crack down hard on the Christians, God cracks down even harder
on them, and plague spreads throughout their lands.
These plagues may have been aftershocks from the Cyprian plague which spread through the
Roman Empire decades earlier.
Tiridates' sister, although a pagan, has visions from God, telling her to instruct
her brother to free Gregory from the pit if they wish the plague to subside.
Though his hatred of the man runs deep, Tiridates was desperate to restore stabilities to his
kingdom, and orders that if Gregory was still alive, he was to be removed from the pit.
And so, after fourteen years, an older, skinnier, but equally pious Gregory is dragged before
Tiridates again.
Alright, now here's where things get weird, like, very weird.
Somewhere during the plague, Tiridates was transformed into a boar.
Yeah, like a wild pig with horns kind of boar.
I'm trying to read between the lines here, perhaps the plague had made him look kinda
hairy and dishevelled.
I dunno, I said I'd include the mythical elements, and here's where we got to.
I don't think he was actually a boar, but maybe he was.
With Gregory still living after spending fourteen years in a hole in the ground, and Tiridates
being transformed into a boar, it becomes painfully clear which god was the all-powerful
Hint, it wasn't Tiridates.
Boar King Tiridates and his sister break down and beg Gregory for his forgiveness, despairing
at the state of their empire.
Tiridates, at this point, was apparently only able to grunt and snort while foaming at the
mouth, but I guess the message was clear enough.
Gregory calmly assessed the situation.
Food shortages, rebellion, and plague have ravaged Armenia.
It was immediately obvious that this was god's judgement.
Gregory tells Tiridates he needs to reject his faith of false idols and repent, and accept
the one true god as the saviour of your kingdom.
Then and only then will your land know prosperity again.
Tiridates snorted in agreement, and with the help of his old friend by his side again,
he begins the healing process.
A church is built on the grounds where Rip Sim and her companions were killed by Diocletian.
The church is still around today, known as the St. Haripsim Church.
We've got a picture of it on our website.
With the church built, Tiridates formally renounces his idol worship and begs Gregory's
forgiveness for the brutal treatment he made him endure all those years ago.
With his forgiveness, Tiridates' body becomes less like a boar.
Apparently he could talk again, but was still somewhat boar-like.
I don't know, maybe he could stand on two legs at this point.
Gregory's crusade of Christianity starts off with the zealousness and quickness he
was known for.
First off, King Tiridates and his immediate family are converted by Gregory personally.
After this, Gregory, aware of the need to scale, begins training priests on how to convert
While the priests get to work, Tiridates and Gregory tour Armenia, preaching the benefits
of Christianity to the masses.
As the two made their way cross-country, stories of the miracles Gregory worked followed them.
It was said that through the power of the Lord, Gregory could heal sufferers of the
plague and restore sight to the blind.
Trepidation turned to excitement as many flocked to them to be baptised and washed clean of
their sins they were only recently aware of.
After the larger urban centres received the good word, Tiridates and Gregory travelled
to the furthest corners of Armenia, converting and preaching as they went, but also destroying
idols and temples of false gods.
The various idols mentioned are Anahid, Tiridates' personally favoured god, Belshaman, the Syrian
god of the sun, Aramaz, the father of all other gods, Nain, the goddess of war, and
Mithra, the Persian-Zorastrian god of justice.
In between pulverising statues, Gregory has a vision of Jesus descending, striking earth
with a golden hammer.
In the specific spot where the hammer blow landed, Gregory determined this is God's
will to build the largest place of worship ever constructed at his name.
Although we didn't know at the time, Gregory was directing the construction of the very
first cathedral in the world.
Amazingly, it still exists today, the name Echmiadzin translating to Descent of the Only
Begotten Son.
We've got a picture of this place on our website too.
These counter-purges from Christianity would come to mark the beginning of a new era in
the next centuries as the classical world of paganism was washed away.
With it went the fascination of Greek philosophy, art, education, and sexual liberality.
In just over 200 years later, Byzantine emperor Justinian I would close the doors to the school
of Athens, the last major Greek philosophical school.
Slowly but surely, the intellectuals of the west would head to the Persian court in the
east to escape the persecution of the church, how the tables would turn.
But all of that was in the future, and to the contemporaries of the time, Armenia's
inversion to this new religion would have seemed a freak occurrence with no indication
of it becoming the norm.
Gradually through fasting, repentance, and prayer, boar king Tiridates begins to return
to the form of a man.
Firstly, he learns to walk upright, but still had many boar-like features.
And finally, after more repentance, he shook off the tusks and bristles and became fully
human once again.
With the new religion spreading organically through Armenia, the next step was the creation
of an education system to match it.
With an army of recently baptised Christians burning with religious fervour, Tiridates
and Gregory march back across Armenia, forcing Christianity on those who rejected the first
round of baptisms.
Ancient temples dedicated to the old gods of Armenia are smashed to pieces without mercy.
The treasures from these temples are melted down and distributed among the barons in order
to keep stability during this revolutionary time.
pagan sources tell of a holy battle waged against demons who tried to stop them from
destroying one of the temples.
I think if there were only pagan sources, they would tell a very different story.
Tiridates' personal story of being turned from a man to a boar and back to a man at
the will of God seemed to attract more curious people.
I mean, can you blame them?
I'd turn out to see that for sure.
From the countryside, people flock to hear the story, and around 9,000 of them are converted
in a string of baptisms over 20 days.
With such massive converts, Gregory's focus moves from ideological to managerial, and
he begins to implement the blueprint for the hierarchy of the clergy we still see today
in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
After putting himself forward as the first patriarch or leader, Gregory picks the most
astute and talented priests he could find for overseers or bishops in the largest cities
across Armenia.
In order to entice the political elite clinging to the old gods, Gregory approaches the sons
of prominent nobles, offering them high roles in his church if they agree to abandon their
ancestral gods.
A clever way to maintain church stability, as many of these new men now owe their status
to it, and now have a political and spiritual reason for ensuring the survival of the church.
Historian Richard Hovinisen has this to say about it.
Quote, The conversion of Armenia to Christianity was probably the most crucial step in its
It turned Armenia sharply away from its Iranian past and stamped it for centuries with an
intrinsic character as clear to the native population as to those outside its borders
who identified Armenia almost at once as the first state to adopt Christianity.
After putting together the framework for the first Christian nation on earth, Gregory embarks
on the first few of his self-imposed exiles.
Religious seclusion in early Christianity was practiced as a method of getting closer
to God.
The idea of depriving yourself of all worldly indulgences was a way of showing your devotion
to your creator.
It's very possible that Gregory may well have been one of the first aesthetics, as
they were to be called later on.
Aesthetics distanced themselves from civilized life from anywhere between a few weeks to
their entire life.
They would eat and drink almost nothing, subsisting on whatever they could find, catch or grow.
You could find an aesthetic in caves in the middle of a desert, a tiny rock on the edge
of the Atlantic Ocean, in the middle of the jungle, virtually anywhere where the environment
was cruel, unforgiving and where you wouldn't want to live.
My favorite is Saint Simeon, who was extreme even for an aesthetic, who lived for 37 years
on a 3 by 3 meter platform, 15 meters off the ground in the middle of the urban center
of Aleppo.
He apparently did this to get away from the hordes of pilgrims who were seeking his blessings.
As Gregory ages, he distances himself more and more from civilization, returning only
for important spiritual and religious festivals of the church.
As he's now well-renowned throughout the lands of Armenia, it becomes harder and harder
for him to travel anywhere without an entourage.
It seems likely that he felt stifled by his own fame, and feeling he'd completed the
mission God had given to him, wanted to live out his final days humbly and quietly.
But this was difficult to do as the leader of the church, so Gregory passes a mantle
to his son, Aristasis, that's his son from the very start.
It's unclear if the two maintained contact throughout his life or whether this was a
last minute appointment.
With his legacy firmly in place, Gregory the Illuminator departs for the hills once again
and lives out his last few years of his life in seclusion, seeing his most favored disciples
only occasionally.
And in the year 331, Gregory's body is found by one of his disciples, finally heading off
to see his beloved creator at 74 years of age.
It's hard to understate the influence Gregory had on Armenian culture.
Not long after his death, the Roman Emperor Constantine I would make Christianity the
official religion of the Roman Empire.
From a tiny heretical cult in the backwater of the world, Gregory's religion had now
become the state religion for most of the civilized world.
Over the next few hundred years, the Christian church would go through many intense debates,
but through Gregory's efforts the Armenian church, and by proxy its people, would remain
united and consolidated while empires would tear each other apart over theological differences.
Nowadays Gregory is remembered throughout the Christian East, in hymns, prayers, church
carvings and artwork, and most prominently, religious icons.
Icons are a kind of oddity of the Eastern Christian church.
They're tiny fragments of skin or clothing or bone, supposedly belonging to a person
that was considered to be holy.
They're believed to have magical powers based on the saints, such as the ability to
heal, grant good luck, be prosperous, have a good marriage, etc. etc.
So it's no surprise there are a few surviving icons of St. Gregory.
His entire right hand is on display at a church in Lebanon, his head is apparently somewhere
in Armenia, and countless churches all across the land supposedly have tiny fragments of
his skin.
We've got a picture of a few of these on our website.
I'm not a religious person myself, but I've always enjoyed the mysticism of Eastern Christianity,
and I think Gregory is really a pioneer of this.
When I think of Armenia, I picture a Christian enclave with deep-rooted traditions and culture.
A proud people that would suffer terribly at the hands of their neighbours later on.
Fleeing persecution, Armenians would find themselves in all manner of places around
the world, the common linkage being a deep-set culture and religion, the foundations of which
were made by St. Gregory.
His self-imposed exile and ascetic lifestyles would be replicated over centuries, with thousands
seeking a more pious life.
Unflinching in his faith, even if only 10% of the tortures he endured are true, he was
clearly devoted to his God.
Spirituality aside, he was also gifted in his ability to think long-term, and by creating
such a successful framework for his church, he allowed it to scale after his death.
I'll finish you off with a portion of a 7th century hymn translated from Armenian.
Our happy lord, St. Gregory, minister of sanctity and leader of the rational flock, we have
you for a mediator with Jesus, the only begotten and an intercessor on behalf of those who
have allied themselves with you.
Hasten to us forgiveness for our sins, for us, discipled by you.
Hm, I bet that sounded less wordy in Armenian.