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The History attributed to Agathangelos suggests that its author was a Roman of the fourth century, commissioned to write by king Trdat III.  Since the history has been known to scholarship, such biographical details have been rejected as fabulous.  Scholars once thought that the History was originally written in Greek and translated into Armenian much later.  This view persisted until the second half of the eighteenth century, when it began to be doubted by J. Stilting, who published a Latin translation of the Greek text in 1762.  It was not until 1877, however, that Alfred Gutschmid proved that the Armenian text was the original—an observation confirmed by Agathangelos’ use of Koriwn. Nevertheless, the Armenian alphabet did not exist when Agathangelos is said to have flourished, and the History appears in many languages and redactions.[1]  “Agathangelos” is probably an assumed name, and the presentation of the author as a contemporary of king Trdat is surely a literary device meant to make his story seem more credible.


Such considerations have led some scholars to believe that the History is a collection of materials compiled and redacted by an author of the fifth century.  It is not unreasonable to assume that various sources, perhaps both Greek and Armenian, were consulted by the author, but unity of style and language militates against this inference.  The History deals with an important period in the Armenian past—the third and fourth centuries, during which that nation was converted to Christianity.  The work was written amidst the great struggle to resist both political and religious oppression by Iran, and “persistent encroachments” by the Syrian and Greek clergy.[2]  Such resistance is the main theme of the History, and it was accomplished by surrounding the chief players, St. Gregory and king Trdat III, with a supernatural aura and a cloud of miracles.  St. Gregory the illuminator emerges as the national hero and vanquisher of paganism, and his life is embroidered with fable and legend.  Such embellishment, nevertheless, suggests a development from pure history to romance, and we should not be surprised to find that the History differs from the tradition that precedes it.




Agathangelos was not the first to write the life of St. Gregory.  His work is preceded by that of Faustos Buzandatsi, who wrote in the early fifth century.[3]  Faustos reflects actual history with little or no embellishment.  Agathangelos has reshaped history to suit the contemporary political and spiritual reality.  The first and most obvious difference between the two accounts involves the role of Syrian Christianity in the conversion of Armenia.  Faustos begins his account with the legend of Abgar and Addai, the founding myth of Syrian Christendom.  Addai, the apostle to the Aramaeans, is also the evangelist of Armenia, and St. Gregory is of secondary importance.  For Agathangelos, on the other hand, St. Gregory is the first and greatest evangelist of Armenia, and no mention is made of the Syrian fable.  Though the story of Abgar and Addai is surely a fiction, Faustos’ use of it implies a strong Syrian influence on the early Armenian Church—an influence which Agathangelos was at pains to downplay.  That there was such influence is certain, and in view of the connexion between the Mashtots Circle (of which St. Gregory was a member) and Edessa, Thompson is not surprised to find in the History traces of this Syrian legend.


We must ask, however, why Syrian influence was excised from the History.  It may be simply that Agathangelos wished to stress the independence and uniqueness of the Armenian church.  Another possibility, however, is suggested by Winkler.  This author has noticed in the History reminiscences of Syrian baptismal theology and doctrine of the femininity of the Holy Ghost.  Baptism is described as a birth (cnund), and the water is a womb (argand), and St. Gregory gives birth “by the womb of the Spirit” (i hogwoy yargande).[4]  These are, as Winkler assures us, well-known hallmarks of Syrian theology.  Winkler’s argument, however, is that these and probably other leitmotivs, as she calls them, may have been perceived as aberrant or heretical by the Armenians.[5]  Even if such ideas were not heretical, they would have clashed with the doctrines of the Greek Christianity, with which Agathangelos tried to associate the fledgling Armenian church.  That such an association was attempted is to be inferred from Gregory’s putative origin in Cappadocia.


The second most striking difference is that Faustos places the centre of the new religion in Ashtishat, where the first church was built, and were the patriarch dwelt.  Agathangelos, however, makes the religious capital Valashapat, the seat of the Armenian monarch.  We may infer, therefore, that by the time of the writing of Agathangelos’ History, Christianity had received full royal endorsement.


Some differences introduced by Agathangelos are not embellishments, but rather fundamentally new additions to the story.  Gregory’s upbringing, his marriage, his imprisonment and rescue, his vision, the burial of the martyrs, his preaching to the Georgians and Albanians, his visit to the emperor Constantine—all these were invented by Agathangelos and are not in Faustos.[6] Other Armenian authors mention even less about St. Gregory.  Lazar makes a lengthy précis of “The Book of Gregory,” but this tells us little.[7]  Koriwn, Elishe, and Yeznik make no mention of St. Gregory at all. 


Thompson has drawn attention to the titles by which St. Gregory is known.  Ecclesiastical correspondence shows that in the early sixth century Gregory was called “the first cause of God’s mercy to the Armenians,” but in the second half of that century, this appellation was superseded by the title “Successor to Addai.”[8]  This change I find hard to interpret.  Faustos tends to call the saint Nakhavastak, “the First Labourer,” though other epithets of a spiritual nature are used, chief amongst which are “catholicos,” and “patriarch.”[9]  Lazar’s titles are more specific: “apostle,” or “teacher of the Armenians.”  Khorenatsi, the so-called Armenian Herodotus, was the first to call St. Gregory “the Illuminator.”  This phrase, however, together with most of the other epithets mentioned do not occur in Agathangelos’ history.  Instead, Agathangelos’ appellations concern Gregory’s role as the first bishop of Armenia: “shepherd,” “teacher,” “overseer,” “highpriest,” “bishop,” and “archbishop.”  Rather curiously (as Thompson notes), Agathangelos avoids the terms “patriarch” and “catholicos,” a dignity reserved for Gregory’s son.[10]  This seeming aberration is an anachronism, representing conditions in Armenia of the fifth century.  The title “patriarch” would have been unsuitable for the first bishop or Artishat, whose fifth century successors were under the authority of the metropolitans of Caesarea.


Thompson concludes (I think quite rightly) that Agathangelos was not an eyewitness to the conversion of Trdat, and the History is “a tendentious compilation which has expanded and elaborated earlier traditions.”[11]  Based on the theological learning displayed in the History, or more specifically in the section known as the Teaching, influences from John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Proclus of Constantinople are detected.  Such influences point to one thing: the milieu in which Agathangelos composed this work was that of the first or second generation of the pupils of Mashtots and Sahak.[12]  The History can be dated, therefore, to about A.D. 460—in the wake of the Armenian Revolt, when Armenian self-assertion was a national emergency.


Resistance to Sasanid Iran was viewed by the Armenian clergy as “a religious crusade against the forces of impiety.”[13]  Accordingly, St. Gregory is held up as a model of the patriarchs who came to play the major role in this resistance.  Promoting Gregory to the exalted rank of “Hero of the Armenian Nation” greatly increased the prestige of the see of the patriarchs of the fifth century, and their authority was assured in both Roman and Persian Armenia.  In the same connexion, Agathangelos’ work emphasises the independence and international importance of the Armenian monarchy.  Gregory is therefore portrayed not only as the founder of the first church in Artishat, but also as the apostle to all Armenians on both sides of the Roman and Iranian frontier, and to the lands beyond.


Thompson and Winkler have noticed Greek, Syrian, and Armenian antecedents to the History of Agathangelos.  Garsoian, however, has noticed an Iranian “substratum,” the implications of which (if Garsoian is correct) must alter out understanding of the milieu in which the History was composed.  The so-called  “Punishment of Trdat” is singled out.  Though an allusion to Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment in Daniel[14] is intended, the disobedient king is transformed not into an ox (says Garsoian) but rather into a boar.  Garsoian notices (quite rightly and thoroughly) the importance of the bull in the Zoroastrian tradition.  Her argument, however, is that the ox—which as far as I know is not the same thing as a bull—was an inappropriate animal to associate with an impious Armenian king.  It would not have been understood. 


Much is made of this ox/bull image, and I want to address it now.  We must note first that the biblical text does not say that Nebuchadnezzar was transformed into an ox.  It does not even suggest any real animal:


The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers, and his nails like birds' claws (Daniel, 4:33).


The image is of an herbivorous animal, sprouting feathers, and possessed of avine claws.  Blake’s famous painting comes close, but omits the feathers.  Something like the Assyrian reliefs called Winged Spirits is probably implied,[15] though I must admit that Jewish tradition has sometimes pictured the transformed Nebuchadnezzar as having the upper body of an ox and the lower quarters of a lion—but this is still not an ox, much less a bull, the animal sacred to Zoroastrians.


In any case, what is significant is not that Trdat was not transformed into an ox or a bull or any other beast, but that the transformation involved a boar.  This animal, as Garsoian notices, was of immense significance to the Indo-European heritage in general, and to the Sasanids in particular.[16]  Garsoian connects the pagan Armenian god Vahagn with the Avestan Verethragna, and the Vedic Vrtahan.  These names are, furthermore, linked etymologically with varaz, barâz, and varâhah, in Armenian, Persian, and Sanscrit respectively—all mean “boar.”  That an impious king was degraded into such an obviously pagan animal, and a symbol of the Persian monarchy no less,[17] is an unambiguous attack on the Zoroastrian and pre-Christian Armenian heritage.


An interesting variant of this episode occurs in the so-called A-group of manuscripts.  The transformed king “takes shelter among the reeds.”[18]  Garsoian interprets this in the light of Sasanid rock reliefs, which (in her judgement) always depict the boar among reeds.  This seems to be supported by many parallels.  The “Glory of Faredún”[19] hides “in the root of a reed,” Indra Vrtahan kills Vrta and hides in the stalk of a yellow lotus, and Moses Khorenatsi describes Vahagn bursting from a reed in the sea. [20]  The mythological significance of this is not clear to me, but Garsoian is probably correct in adducing these parallels.  Similarly, the History is full of epithets that are strongly reminiscent of those in the Sháhnáma, the Iranian national epic, and all the customs that surround the royal hunt are unmistakably Iranian.[21]  In this connection a sceptic might well reply that most hunting rituals are similar everywhere, and epithets in heroic poetry probably also vary only a little.  Nevertheless, I think Garsoian’s point is sound.




The History of Agathangelos aims at the establishment of a distinct Armenian identity.  Syrian, Greek, and Persian influences are rejected in favour of a native tradition, and a close connection between the new religion and the monarchy is established.  Delivering this message necessitated a departure from received history and a reinterpretation of tradition.  This seems to have achieved the desired effect, as the significance of St. Gregory’s life has traditionally been interpreted according to Agathangelos’ work.  Finally something should be said about the implications of Garsoian’s thesis.  Casting much of the History in Iranian garb (for lack of a better term) can be misunderstood easily.  The so-called “Iranian Substratum” is not a foreign influence from Iran.  If it had been such Agathangelos surely would not have used it, as his audience would not have understood it.  The point seems to be that both Armenia and Iran have a common heritage, which (as far as Agathangelos is concerned) need not be discarded.  Agathangelos seems to advocate that this heritage be transformed, christened, and cherished in its uniquely Armenian form.



[1] The most lucid presentation of the various editions is in Winkler’s article The History of Agathangelos, pp. 128-135.

[2] The Heritage of Armenian Literature, p. 120.

[3] Thompson, p. lxxv.

[4] Winkler, p. 136.

[5] Winkler, p. 138.  Winkler’s argument is based on an observation of one Walter Bauer, who “has convincingly argued that in many regions of the Mediterranean the original manifestation of Christianity was not orthodoxy but heresy” (Ibid.).

[6] Thompson, p. lxxvi.

[7] Thompson, p. lxxvii.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thompson, p. lxxviii.

[10] Thompson, p. lxxix.

[11] Ibid.  Thompson proceeds to list many of the possible literary sources in the History.  This investigation, though interesting, is not immediately relevant to the present discussion.

[12] Thompson, p. lxxxvii.

[13] Thompson, p. xci

[14] Garsoian (p. 152) cites Daniel 4:12-13—not the correct passages!  She clearly implies Daniel 4:25, 32, and 33.  In all verses the same image appears: “The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers, and his nails like birds' claws” (Daniel 4:33).

[15] To see what I mean consult  I know not whether any scholar has looked into this tempting coincidence.

[16] Garsoian, p. 161.

[17] The appendix to Garsoian’s article contains eight examples of Sasanian art.  Five of these depict boars in close connection with the monarch.  Other examples of such juxtaposition, such as the reliefs at Naqsh-i Rustam and Kaabayi Zardusht, abound.

[18] Garsoian, p. 162.

[19] A mythical Iranian king.

[20] Garsoian, p. 163.

[21] Garsoian, p. 156.