The story behind the first Christian nation

In this week's series on the Armenian Church, Revd. Dr. Nersessian explores the history of the faith

The Only-begotten Son has descended [ Edj ( to descend) -miadsin ( Only begotten son) ]
And the light of glory was about him.
Voices resounded in the depths of Hades,
The patriarch Gregory saw the great light;
And joyfully declared the same to the believing king.
Come, let us build the holy sanctuary of the light, for in him did light shone forth unto us
in the land of Armenia.

In 2001 the Christian world marked the 1700th anniversary of Armenian Christianity,a notable milestone in the history of the Christian Church. To mark the occasion I organised for the British library an international exhibition of Armenian Christian art called : Treasures from the Ark: 1700 years of Armenian Christian Art (2001).

Beneath the cathedral in Holy Edjmiadsin ( Republic of Armenia), the mother church of Armenian Christians lie the remains of a small stone church, which may well date back to the earliest years of the church of Armenia when,according to tradition, St Gregory the Enlightener (c.240-332), following years of imprisonment and suffering, converted King Trdat in 301. Ever since, Armenia has claimed the privilege of being the first Christian nation. On the feast day of Holy Ejdmiadsin, the above hymn is sung in every Armenian church around the world. The hymn traces the conversion of the Armenian people to Christianity through the ministry of St Gregory. In a very short period Christian Armenia became, one of the most remarkable of all Christian communities, with a capacity for survival in the face of adversity only matched by that of Judaism.

The Armenian church recognises the doctrinal and canonical validity of the first three ecumenical councils, of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381) and Ephesus (431) as adequate for ‘ basis of life and guide to the path leading to God’. Bishop Aristakes who attended the Council of Nicaea representing the Armenian Church, returned to Armenia with the Nicaean Creed and St Gregory inspired by the synodal decree added to the creed this bold statement of approval "We glorify Him who was before all ages,adoring the Holy Trinity,and the one Godhead of the Father, the Son,and the Holy Ghost, now and ever through ages of ages. Amen". This bold and clear proclamation recited every Sunday in the liturgy, sums up the doctrinal and theological position of the Armenian church.

The church of Armenia embarked on a path of autonomy very early on. In its endeavour to strengthen its national character, it broke all jurisdictional ties with Caesarea in 389 following the partition of Armenia between Byzantium and Persia in 387. In an attempt to force Persian Armenia to revert to Mazdaeism in 449, the Armenian nobility and the people, led by Vardan Mamikonian waged a war against the Persian army in the plain of Avarayr,on 26 May 451. In spite of the defeat,the Persians were unable to reintroduce Mazdaeism into Armenia; they finally relented and in 484 the Sassanian ruler proclaimed the freedom of religious worship.

Armenians call the sacred writings of the Judaeo-Christian tradition that together comprise the Bible ' Astouadsashountch', which means 'the breath of God', based on the interpretation that St Paul gives to the Bible in his Epistle 2 Timothy III:16: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching". The evangelization of Armenia had been achieved through the use of the Greek and Syriac alphabets with the aid of appointed monks called T'argmanitch, i.e Translators,whose task was to translate the scriptures into the spoken Armenian language. But hearing the Gospel was not enough to make the 'message profitable'. It had to be read.

With the consent of the Armenian king Vramshapouh and the Catholicos Sahak ( 387- 436), the head of the Armenian church, the monk Mesrop Mashtots ( c.361-440) invented the Armenian alphabet in 406,that is still in use today. Between 407 and 412 the entire Bible was translated into Armenian beginning with the Book of Proverbs attributed to King Solomon. The first sentence written in the newly invented Armenian alphabet was 'To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding'. According to Mesrop's biographer Koriwn "at that time our blessed and desirable land of Armenia became truly worthy of admiration,where,by the hands of two colleagues, suddenly, in an instant, Moses, the law-giver,along with the order of the prophets,energetic Paul, with the order of the apostles, along with Christ's world-sustaining gospel, became Armenian speaking'.

The invention of the Armenian alphabet,the rejection of the decisions of the fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon 451, and the creation of an independent calendrical system in 506 united the nation with its Christian faith 'inseparably' and ever since the church has functioned as a conduit and safeguard for Armenian culture,and has played an important role in the formation and preservation of Armenian identity. Armenian history is full of testing times,and adherence to the Armenian Apostolic church has become beacon of awareness of one's being Armenian.

Revd. Dr. Nersessian is a priest in the Armenian Church. He is curator of the Christian Middle East collections in the British Library and has authored several books including The Bible in Armenian Tradition and Sacred Books of the Three Faiths: Judaism,Christianity, Islam.