Agathangelos, History 3

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 3

[3.1] So Gregory taught the people about God and His desires for our salvation. Then he urged the people to build chapels for the martyrs, as a way of showing reverence for God and in order that the saints' intercessory prayers would enlighten them. He encouraged them to fast, study, and pray to become ready for baptism, and become worthy partakers in God's life and His eternal Kingdom. Having said all this, he sent them home to get a good night's rest before beginning the work of building the martyrs' sanctuaries.

[3.2] But king Tiridates and the nobles would not leave Gregory's side because they were still fearful and tormented. Day and night they fasted and sat on ashes, dressed in hair shirts. Gregory used the time ­ for they were like this for sixty-five days ­ to tell them the whole long history of God's salvation for mankind. Many other people also came to hear Gregory's tales of the saints and his explanations of the word of God. They were a huge crowd, attentive and filled with wonder at what they were hearing.

[3.3] On the morning of the sixty-sixth day, the king and nobles and the crowd with them approached Gregory and begged him to free them entirely from the torments which had beset them all this time. The king especially was eager for this, because his form was still more like a beast's than a man's. But it was God's will not yet to heal them completely, and to give them only enough understanding to comprehend Gregory's teaching. One way he taught them was by describing a wonderful vision which had come to him, concerning the chapels for the martyrs.

[3.4] Gregory said: "One night I heard a fearful thunderous sound like roaring sea waves. The firmament of heaven opened, and a man descended in the form of light. He called my name; I looked up and saw him and fell to the ground, struck by terror. But he commanded me to look up and see great wonders.

[3.5] "I did look up, and saw the firmament opened with the waters above it divided as is the firmament itself. The waters were like valleys and mountaintops, with infinite expanses that went far out of sight. Light flowed down to the earth, and the light was filled with shining two-winged creatures, human in appearance and with wings like fire. Their leader was a tall and fearful man who carried a golden hammer. He flew down near the ground in the middle of the city, and struck the earth. The rumbling sounded even in the depths of hell, and as far as the eye could see the earth was struck as level as a plain.

[3.6] "I saw him in the middle of the city, near the palace, a circular base of gold as big as a hill, with a column of fire on it. On top of the column was a capital of clouds, and above that a cross of light. There were three other bases at the sites where Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime were martyred, and one near the wine press where the nuns lived. These bases were blood-red, and they had columns of clouds and capitals of fire. From the columns, marvelous vaults fitted into one another and above this was a dome-shaped canopy of clouds. Under the canopy were thirty-seven holy martyrs in shining light ­ I cannot even describe them.

[3.7] "At the summit of all this was a wonderful throne of fire with the Lord's cross above it. Light spread out in every direction from it. And an abundant spring gushed forth, flowing over and filling the plains as far as one could see. They made a vast bluish sea, the color of heaven. There were numerous fiery altars shining like stars, with a column on each altar and a cross on each column.

[3.8] "There were herds of black goats, which when they passed through the water became sparkling white sheep. They gave birth to more sheep, filling the land. But some of these crossed to the other side of the water and became brown wolves which attacked the flocks. But the flocks grew wings and flew up to join the shining host, and a torrent of fire carried away the wolves.

[3.9] "I stood amazed at this sight. And the man who had earlier called my name and said: 'Why do you stand gaping? Pay attention to what is being revealed to you. The heavens have been opened! Here is what the vision means. The voice like thunder is the beginning of God's mercy raining down upon mankind. The gates of heaven are opened, and also the waters above them. There is nothing to keep us mortals from rising up, for those who were martyred here have made a path for others.

[3.10] "'The light filling the land is the preaching of the Gospel, and the fearsome man is the providence of God, who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke, as the psalm tells us. This fear of God has flattened and destroyed error on the earth.

[3.11] "'The golden base is God's true Church, gathering all His people, and the shining cross above it is Christ Himself. The three blood-red bases are the martyrs' torments. But the columns of cloud show how quickly they will rise to heaven at the universal resurrection. The capital is fiery because they will love in the fire of divine light. And the crosses show that they are fellow sufferers with their lord Christ.

[3.12] "'The vaults joining the columns show the unity of the Church, and the cloud canopy above shows the gathering place of all believers, the celestial city. The throne, above which the whole structure is held together, is almighty God, the head of the Church. The shining light around the throne is the Holy Spirit, who glorifies the Son. The spreading waters are the grace of the Spirit, which will save many through baptism and make earth like heaven (that is why the plains became the color of heaven.) The herds of goats are sinners, washed clean by God's mercy, and worthy of His Kingdom. The flocks of sheep give birth because many generations will hear the preaching of the Word; but the flocks that became wolves are like those who depart from the truth. They lead sheep astray with their falsehoods. But the sheep that endure will rise to Christ's Kingdom, and the wolves will be handed over to eternal fire.'"

[3.13] Gregory continued: "And when he had told me the vision's meaning, he said to be strong because I had a great task. I was to build a temple to God on the place where the gold base had been shown to me, and the martyrs' chapels in the places where they suffered and died. After he told me all this, there was an earthquake, and I could see him no more.

[3.14] "God showed me this vision of the future so that I could do His will among you. Let us go now and build the chapels, giving the martyrs rest."

[3.15] "So all the people took up tools, and gathered materials, and set to work. Gregory himself took the architect's measuring line and laid out the foundations. They built three chapels, and made a casket for each saint's body. After Gregory had sealed the caskets, the king and people brought sweet oils and incense and rich robes. But Gregory said: "I am glad to see you honor these saints. But do not offer gifts to the holy ones until you have been purified by baptism. One day, we shall use all these beautiful things to adorn God's altar. But until true worship is established in this land, let them remain in the royal treasury."

[3.16] The time had come for the king and all the people to be completely freed from their tormenting demons. Gregory knelt by the saints' caskets and prayed for Tiridates and all the rest. Then he turned to the king, and by Christ's grace cured his hands and feet enough so that he was able with his own hands to dig graves and bury the caskets in them. His wife Ashkhen and sister Chosroesdokht helped him to arrange the places. With his prodigious strength Tiridates carried stones from Mount Massis to make thresholds for the chapels.

[3.17] When the chapels were ready, the martyrs were laid to rest in them. Gregory placed a cross in front of each, and told the people that the proper place for worship was in front of that saving sign of Jesus Christ. Then he took them to build a high wall around the place where the golden base had been revealed, for that was to be the site of the Lord's house. There too, a cross was placed so that people could worship God truly.

[3.18] Gregory could see that the people were willing to heed his words, give up idol worship, and give themselves to study, fasting, and prayer. He gathered them to pray together for healing, and as they all prayed the king was fully restored to his human appearance, and the people were freed from their various afflictions. The news of this wonder spread through the land, inspiring people everywhere to come to Ayrarat and hear about Jesus Christ, and learn how to live as He calls us to do.

[3.19] Gregory then asked the king for permission to overthrow and detroy the pagan shrines and temples. Tiridates readily issued an edict entrusting Gregory with this task, and himself set out from the city to destroy shrines along the highways. Together the men worked feverishly, and they distributed the temple treasures among the poor. In all the cities he visited, Gregory marked sites for Christian churches, but because he did not hold the rank of priest he did not erect any altars. At each place he set a cross, and he also placed crosses along roads and at squares and intersections.

[3.20] Tiridates and his family members were then thoroughly instructed in the faith by Gregory. When they had all been convinced to worship the only true God, Gregory and Tiridates began traveling to other parts of the country to instruct the people and to destroy the altars of the false gods. In many of the provincial towns, demons in the form of armed soldiers fought against the evangelist's efforts. They were put to flight each time, and then Gregory would tell the people not to be afraid, but to drive out their own personal demons of false worship, and follow Christ. He performed miracles to show the people how loving and powerful God is. And the king gave testimony about his sinful acts, and the miracles and mercy of healing which God had shown him.

[3.21] So they traveled through the provinces and everywhere they spread the light of the Gospel and destroyed the dark pagan superstitions which had held the people captive.

[3.22] After they returned to Vagharshapat, Tiridates called together all his courtiers and the leaders from every corner of the land. The king wanted to make Gregory their pastor, so that everyone could be baptized and begin in earnest to live the new life in Christ. Gregory protested his unworthiness, but Tiridates had a wonderful vision from God urging him to carry out his plan, and the angelic vision also appeared to Gregory, telling him not to thwart it. So Gregory said: "Let God's will be done."

[3.23] Tiridates then chose some of the leading princes to take Gregory to Caesarea, in Cappadocia, with an edict for the bishop Leontius. The edict gave the whole history of Armenia's pagan worship, the suffering of the nuns, Gregory's witness and work among the people, and the king's own desire to have Gregory be the spiritual leader of Armenia.

[3.24] The group set off with Gregory in a royal carriage, taking along gifts for each of the churches they would pass. They were welcomed heartily in the land of the Greeks, who rejoiced to hear of God's miracles and the great conversion which had taken place. When the men reached Caesarea, Gregory was duly ordained, and the bishops laid their hands on him and prayed for him. He, too, was now consecrated as a bishop for God's church.

[3.25] With joyous and loving farewells, the nobles and Gregory set out for home, and as they stopped at various towns, Gregory persuaded some good Christian men to return with him and be ordained to serve the people. In all the towns, crowds of people gathered to see the new bishop pass, and to receive his blessing.