The first preachers of Christianity in Armenia
Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew were two of the original disciples of Jesus Christ. When they came to the land of our ancestors to spread the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection, they were not just offering an abstract philosophy. They told about their own first hand experience of the life and mystery of Jesus, stories they knew from having lived side by side with him.
Because of Thaddeus and Bartholomew, Armenians are part of an unbroken tradition stretching all the way back to the original apostles, and through them, to the historic figure of Jesus Christ himself. And to this day, our church renews and refreshes that personal union between Christ and each of us.
St Thaddeus, inspired by the Holy Spirit soon after Jesus’ death, spread the good news of Jesus Christ’s teaching and resurrection in Syria, Iraq and Armenia.
In Armenia, Thaddeus met with the Armenian King Abgar, who reigned in the city of Edessa from 1 B.C. to A.D. 37. King Abgar had contracted a grave illness during his travels to the East. Hearing of the miracles of healing by Jesus of Nazareth, he wrote a letter to Jerusalem inviting Christ to Edessa. A delegation headed by the king’s emissary Anan delivered the letter to Jerusalem, where it was received by the Apostle Thomas. The delegation may have been among the pagans the Apostle John wrote about in his account of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem “and there were certain pagans who had come to Jerusalem to worship him” (John 12:20).
King Abgar’s letter received its response after the Resurrection and Pentecost, with the mission of Thaddeus to go to Armenia.
According to tradition, St. Thaddeus brought to Armenia the spear (geghard) with which the centurion Lucian pierced Christ’s side on the cross. It was kept at Ayrivank (Cave Monastery), now known as Geghard Monastery in Armenia. This sacred relic is used once every seven years in the consecration of Holy Chrism (Muron), which is used for baptismal, ordination and other rites by Armenian churches around the world.
Thaddeus was a bold missionary, bringing the word into the royal palace of Armenia’s King Sanatruk, baptising the king’s daughter, Sandoukht. The established government and religious leaders bitterly opposed the threatening new sect called Christianity, going so far as to imprison the king’s daughter. In prison, Sandoukht refused to renounce Christianity, instead converting the other prisoners. Sandoukht became the first Armenian martyr. When her father forced her to choose between the church and the crown, Sandoukht chose the church, knowing it would mean her death.
St. Bartholomew, also named Nathaniel, was a disciple whom Jesus especially liked from the first time they met. Although at first doubting whether Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, Bartholomew responded to Jesus’ invitation to “come and see,” showing his openness to discover the truth without being naive. Seeing this, Jesus turned to the other followers and proclaimed, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile (John 1:47).
Bartholomew followed Thaddeus’ mission to Armenia around the time of Santoukht’s imprisonment and martyrdom. He converted King Sanatruk’s sister Volouhi. The king in anger ordered the execution of both his sister and Bartholomew.