Agathangelos, History 2

Agathangelos (Greek Ἀγαθάγγελος; second half of the fifth century): Armenian hagiographer, author of a History of St. Gregory and the Conversion of Armenia.

Prison cell of Gregory the Illuminator

Although Agathangelos presents himself as a contemporary of king Tiridates III of Armenia (r.c.287-330), modern scholars think the History of St. Gregory and the Conversion of Armenia was in fact completed after the mid-fifth century CE. The author tells atbout the reign of king Chosroes II, about the Christian preacher Gregory the Illuminator, about the conversion of king Tiridates III, and about several later events.

He casts his information in Biblical moulds, which means that a nucleus of information, like Tiridates' madness, is presented with all kinds of Biblical references, like the madness of Nebuchadnezzar in the Biblical book of Daniel. This procedure, which was common among Christian authors (e.g., Eusebius), makes it difficult to recognize what is a real fact and what is not. Still, Agathangelos' message is clear: central in his account is the vision of God's church descending in the city of Vagharshapat (modern Etchmiadzin), which means that the text essentially offers a legitimation of the position of the catholicos of the Armenian Church.

The History of St. Gregory and the Conversion of Armenia has come down to us in an Armenian, Aramaic, Coptic, Georgian, Arabic, and Greek versions. It is offered here in a (slightly adapted) anonymous translation that can be found on several internet sites. I hope the translator can identify himself to receive his credits.

Book 2

[2.1] King Tiridates spent much of his reign devastating the Persian kingdom. One of the proverbial sayings of the Armenians was: "Like the haughty Tiridates, who in his pride devastated the dikes of rivers and in his arrogance dried up the currents of seas." He was exceedingly brave and daring, and also very proud. While Tiridates was thus flourishing, Gregory continued to survive, though still in a pit that had killed all others condemned to it because of the filth, the snakes, and the stench. But Gregory was secretly fed by a widow who had heard God command her in a dream to toss a loaf of bread into the pit each day. So the two men, each in his own way, were moving toward the day when they would meet again.

[2.2] Tiridates, still devoted to idol worship, remained an implacable foe of the Christian faith. He issued two edicts, one commanding his people to pay proper homage to the gods to insure that they would make Armenia prosper. The other edict instructed all citizens to reveal any members of the cult of Christians, because this cult was an insuperable obstacle to the proper worship of the gods. Tiridates even threatened those who dared to hide Christians, and reminded his subjects of the severe way he had dealt with Gregory, a member of his own court. With Christians, there could be no leniency.

[2.3] During these days the emperor Diocletian was seeking a wife. He sent portrait painters out into the kingdom to find lovely women and bring back portraits of them, so that from these pictures he could choose a beautiful wife for himself.

[2.4] The painters found, in the city, a group of nuns living a monastic life of constant prayer and ascetic fasting. Their abbess was named Gayane, and one of them, Hripsime, was very beautiful. The painters were quite taken with her, and rushed to complete her portrait to show to the king. He was so smitten that he immediately wanted to arrange a grand wedding. His arrogance and vanity led him to persecute the Christian churches in order to show his power over them.

[2.5] This was all terribly upsetting to the nuns. They were saddened by the persecution of their fellow Christians, and worried by the king's unseemly interest in Hripsime. They prayed fervently to God that he would enable them, like the virgins in the parable, to keep their lamps filled with oil and that worldly cares would not distract them from His service. They asked for His protection against the pagan powers assailing them.

[2.6] The women decided to flee, and that was how they came to be in Vagharshapat, the residence of the Armenian kings. They lived by selling the glass pearls which one of them made. But in the very same city, king Tiridates received an emissary from Diocletian. He brought a royal edict which said: "Let my brother Tiridates know of the evils that constantly beset us because of this error-ridden sect, the Christians. For they worship a dead man, adore a cross because he was crucified, and consider their own death on his behalf to be glory and honor. They teach dishonor for kings and hold as nothing the power of the sun and moon and stars. Everywhere among our people they discourage the worship of the gods, and our threats and punishments against hem are to no avail.

[2.7] "I happened to see among them a lovely young girl, and wanted to have her as my wife. But she and her companions have insulted my majesty by fleeing to the regions of your kingdom.

[2.8] "So, my brother, find them for me and take vengeance. Send her back to me ­ unless you wish to keep her for yourself. And may you be well by the worship of the gods."

[2.9] Tiridates immediately ordered a search, and the nuns were soon found. For it was ordained by God that their light should not be hidden under a bushel, but shine out over the world. And since word of the emperor's edict had spread across the land, there were soon crowds of people straining to catch a glimpse of Hripsime's now-famous beauty. The nuns, whose only wish was to have a holy and solitary life, offered up constant prayers and lamentations to God.

[2.10] Tiridates, having heard from those who saw her that she was indeed a great beauty, sent a golden litter with attendants and filled with magnificent robes so that Hripsime could adorn herself and come to meet him in the palace. Seeing all this, the abbess Gayane told the younger woman: "Remember, my child, that you have abandoned your father's throne (for Hripsime was of royal lineage) and longed instead for the never-ending life of the Kingdom of Christ. Do not give up your choice now, and rish your holy virtue with these infidels."

[2.11] Inspired by her abbess' words, Hripsime prayed intently, asking God to protect her as He had protected all the Old Testament people who faced danger. Her sisters prayed with her, and soon they heard a voice like thunder, assuring them of God's love and care. The thunderous sound caused panic among the throngs of people looking on ­ they trampled each other in their confusion. But when king Tiridates was told what had happened, he was not at all frightened. He was furious that Hripsime would not come to him, and ordered that she be brought to the palace by force. So she was dragged along, with a great crowd following, and as she went she prayed that like Daniel and Susanna, she would be saved from her tormentors.

[2.12] Tiridates, seeing her at last, was enthralled by her beauty and tried with all his great strength to seduce her. But Hripsime, delicate as she was, struggled against him so hard that he could not overcome her. Exhausted by his efforts, he ordered the abbess Gayane to intercede with the young nun and tell her to accede. But Gayane took the opportunity instead to strengthen Hripsime in her resistance to the king. Tiridates's attendants beat and threatened her, but she persisted in encouraging the younger woman to stand firm and trust in God.

[2.13] Hripsime did so for many hours, and then finally escaped from the palace. She ran through the city to the nuns' dwelling place to tell them what had happened. Then she went out from the city to a high, sandy point near the main road to Artaxata. There she thanked God for keeping her safe. She prayed that soon she might be allowed to leave the temptations of the world behind and enter, by His mercy, the heavenly realm. She thanked Him for the certainty that if torments were to come, He would be there with her. Hripsime ended her prayer with these words: "Let the light of the Lord God be over us."

[2.14] That very night, Tiridates's men came and tortured Hripsime to death. Other followers of Christ were also killed, and so were many of those who came to wrap and bury their bodies. But all of them prayed to God and thanked Him for making them worthy of martyrdom. The king's men dragged their bodies out and threw them as food for the prowling dogs.

[2.15] Tiridates was unashamed of what he had done. Indeed his heart was more inflamed against the Christians and especially against Gayane, who had counseled his wonderful Hripsime not to yield to him. He commanded that the abbess should be killed, and so she was taken to the place used for criminals' executions. But like her companions, Gayane was unafraid, and expressed her wish to join her sisters speedily. She died as they had, with a prayer on her lips.

[2.16] King Tiridates was not an introspective man, and after a week of grieving over Hripsime's death, he had to have some strenuous activity. He arranged to go hunting, and when the hounds and nets and traps and beaters were all ready, he climbed into his chariot to leave the city for the plain where he loved to hunt.

[2.17] Suddenly, Tiridates fell from the chariot, as if struck down by a demon. He began to rave and grunt, like an animal. As their king was crazed, so all the people suddenly seemed to be, and there was chaos and ruin throughout the city and from the highest to the lowest of the king's household.

[2.18] But one person had a solution. The king's sister, Chosroesidokht, had a heavenly vision which told her that only the prisoner in the pit, Gregory, could end the terrible nightmare. At first people said she too was mad; Gregory must be dead after so many years in the awful place. But the vision came to her again and again, and each time it disturbed her more. So it was finally decided to send one of the young princes to Artaxata. When he arrived, the prince convinced some people there to lower long ropes into the pit, and he called out: "Gregory, if you are down there, let us know!" They felt a tug on the rope, and pulled it up out of the pit. There was Gregory, his body blackened by dirt to the color of coal. The people helped him get clean, and brought clean clothing for him, and he was taken to Vagharshapat with joy and high hopes that he could remedy the situation there.

[2.19] A pitiful sight greeted him in the great city: the people, raving and foaming at the mouth, rushed toward him like wild dogs. He knelt and prayed, and at once the people regained at least enough of their senses to listen to him. The king knelt before him and begged forgiveness. But Gregory pulled Tiridates to his feet and said: "I am just a man like you. The One who has had mercy on you is your creator, the Lord and Creator of all things."

[2.20] Gregory gathered up the remains of those who had been martyred - no dog had touched the bodies, and they were not decomposed ­- and he enshrouded them and took them to the nuns' former dwelling place. He spent that night praying for the salvation and repentance of the Armenian populace.

[2.21] The next morning, Tiridates and a great crowd of people came to see Gregory, and asked him: "Intercede with your God to save us, and not let us perish for all the crimes we have committed against you." For they realized that whenever he left them for a moment, the demons assailed them again.

[2.22] Gregory answered: "You say 'your God,' but the One you speak of created all things and is your creator. Recognize Him, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and you will have everlasting life with Him. Do not be like those who, even though they are His creatures, fail to recognize Him.

[2.23] "You see how much He loves those who believe in Him. He kept firm the maiden Hripsime so that she could fulfill her vow of chastity. Even to such an unworthy one as myself He gave the great privilege of suffering for His sake, and He granted me the endurance to survive.

[2.24] "Now recognize Him, and throw off the yoke of evil. What you did to Hripsime and the others you did in ignorance. Ask them to pray to God for His mercy on you. Know God; put away your idols. He is long-suffering, pardoning, and nourishing in His mercy, and He cares for you all.

[2.25] "God calls you; that is why He sent the martyrs to shine their light among you. They were witnesses to the majesty of the Trinity, and sealed their faith with martyrs' deaths. Recognize what they were showing you ­ that the Son of God humbled Himself in death so that we might be exalted. You tortured me, but my sufferings did not kill me; they exalted me instead. I endured so that, by His will, I could offer you spiritual healing. Now will you hear the teachings of the Lord?"

[2.26] All the people fell down, and tore their clothes, and said that they did want to hear God's word so that they might live and be pardoned for the things they had done to Gregory. He began to teach them.

[2.27] "You have seen the power of God. For who but the One who made all things could change their character as He wishes to? Yet God changed the poisonous snakes in the pit into harmless creatures for your sake ­ so that I, his unworthy servant, would be saved and you would see the power of His miracles. And you saw a young girl defeat a powerful giant of a man, your king. She was martyred so that you might be healed. These are God's mighty works, done for your sake.

[2.28] "And if you will turn to Him, then I shall gladly tell you how He made the world and showed Himself in it. For even though we cannot know Him, being only creatures, still He sent men called prophets to tell of eternal and divine life. They were men of the pious race of Hebrews, the seed of Abraham who is called the father of all races. Among these luminous men who spread God's words was one called Moses. He handed down true knowledge through the generations. So by the grace of the Spirit will I also try to teach you, trusting that He will place the proper words in my mouth. Let us begin."