Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: King Tiridates III of Armenia
By John Janaro
Beyond the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in the beginning of the 4th century, the Kingdom of Armenia became the first nation to “officially” embrace Christianity, when King Tiridates III was baptized in the Euphrates River by Saint Gregory the Illuminator. The classic Armenian hagiographic sources make it clear that the king’s conversion was a remarkable, miraculous event, in which he turned from persecuting Christians to serving Christ.
Born sometime after the year 250, Tiridates grew up in exile in Rome while Persians and Armenian usurpers made war on his nation. With Roman imperial help, he finally won back his throne near the end of the century. Among the most trusted members of his conquering entourage was his secretary and friend Gregory. When victory finally came, Tiridates held a celebratory ritual at the shrine of the goddess Anahit (one of the deities then still worshiped in Armenia within the overall framework of a corrupted Zoroastrianism). The king was shocked, however, when Gregory refused to make an offering to the goddess. Instead, his friend declared that he was a Christian, and would only worship the One True God who created all things and redeemed the world through Jesus Christ.
Tiridates was furious with his secretary, and friendship turned to enmity. Gregory refused all efforts of persuasion and endured much torture. Finally, the king had him thrown into a snake pit. He then set about persecuting the small group of Christians in his realm, including those who had taken refuge there from the Diocletian persecution currently raging in the Roman Empire. Gregory endured over a decade of confinement in the pit, unbitten by the snakes and sustained by the secret aid of other Christians.
Among those who had fled Rome to seek safety in Armenia was a group of consecrated virgins that included an exceptionally beautiful young woman named Rhipsime. When they were discovered, however, Tiridates decided to make Rhipsime one of his wives. But she resisted his advances, and fought off (with miraculous strength) his attempts to rape her, all the while praying for his conversion. Finally, Rhipsime escaped and returned to her sisters, but they were soon found again and the whole group of thirty-seven virgins was put to death.
Then something very strange happened to the king, along with his courtiers and the residents of the capital city. Chaos descended among them—a kind of demonic madness, according to Agathangelos (the chief source for the story of Saint Gregory the Illuminator)—and the king was afflicted with some bestial deformity. Learning that his former comrade Gregory was still alive, the king summoned him in the hope that “Gregory’s god” might be able to cure him. Saint Gregory responded by preaching the Gospel to Tiridates and the people, insisting that the True God, the Creator and Lord of all things, had brought them all to this dire moment because he wanted to give them salvation through his Son Jesus Christ. He pointed to the witness of the martyrs who had died on the king’s order, who remained faithful to Christ and offered their own lives in union with Christ for the conversion of Armenia. Gregory himself had never ceased to pray for the king, his friend, and now he healed him in the name of the same Jesus Christ.
Thus experiencing Christ’s love, Tiridates embraced the faith. He built churches honoring the martyrs he had killed, and Saint Gregory the Illuminator was ordained bishop and became the evangelizer of the Armenian people.