Saint Nino and the Conversion of Georgia
Saint Nino and the Conversion of Georgia
from Tyrannius Rufinus,
The story of St. Nino, for all its fabulous embellishments, is built on a solid foundation of fact. History, archaeology and national tradition are unanimous in affirming that Iberia, as Eastern Georgia was then called, adopted Christianity as its state religion about A.D.330, in the time of Constantine the Great.
At this period, the Roman Empire exercised suzerainty over the neighbouring state of Armenia, where Christianity had lately triumphed as a result of the mission of St. Gregory the Illuminator. We Should also recall that by St. Nino's time Western Georgia, comprising the provinces of Colchis, Abkhazia and Lazica, had already been evangelized by missionaries active in the Greek colonies along the Black Sea coast. The Council of Nicaea in the year 325 was attended by bishops from Trebizond, the principal sea-port of Lazica, and from Bichvinta, the strategic port and Metropolitan See situated on the borders of Colchis and Abkhazia. It thus becomes clear that political conditions strongly favoured the Conversion of Eastern Georgia to Christianity, the new official creed of the Romans.
The biography of St. Nino as we have it today is made up of a number of elements of varying authenticity. The basis of our knowledge of the saint's personality and mission is contained in a chapter of the church history by Rufinus, Composed about the year A.D. 403. This chapter is based on oral information given to Rufinus by a Georgian prince named Bakur whom he met in Palestine about the year 395. This Bakur was a member of the royal house of Iberia, and was telling of events which had occurred little more than half a century earlier, during the lifetime of his own parents or at least his grandparents. When due allowance is made for the pious raptures of Rufinus and his informant, there is no reason to challenge the essential accuracy of their joint account.
This is more than can be said for the other legends which gathered round the saint in the course of ages. About the 8th-9th centuries, the Armenian writer known as the pseudo-Moses of Khorene combined the story of St. Nino according to Rufinus (as known to him through the Armenian version of the church history of Socrates of Constantinople) with the story of the conversion of Armenia by Ripsime and Gregory the Illuminator, as related by Agathangelos. This artificial fusion of the stories of St. Nino and of Ripsime defies chronology and represents, to use uncanonical language, a red herring trailed across the path of historical analysis.
Once the process of elaboration and embroidering had begun, there was no limit to the fantasy of Nino's later pious biographers. This saintly woman, originally described as a simple slave girl, is now transformed into a niece of the Patriarch Juvenal of Jerusalem (who lived a full century after Nino's time), or, in other variants, into a Roman princess. Incidents belonging to the reign of Diocletian are transposed into that of Constantine to permit of Nino being portrayed as one of the virgins accompanying Ripsime to Armenia; there Nino is supposed to have been miraculously preserved from the martyrdom which overtook her companions at the hands of King Tiridates. Special interest attaches to the references to the True Cross and to the Coat of our Savior, which was supposed to have been rescued by the Jews of Georgia and preserved there after the Crucifixion. It is possible that this legend has a basis in the ancient traditions of the Jewish community in Georgia, and that the Christian faith had its adepts within this colony even before Nino's mission.
In the pages which follow, the passage from Rufinus which forms the nucleus of all later accounts of St. Nino's mission is given first in its entirety. This is succeeded by episodes from the later Georgian biographies of St. Nino, which assumed their definitive shape in the 10th-11th centuries. For the complete cycle of lives of St.Nino, reference should be made to the classic work, "The Life of Saint Nino" by Marjory and Oliver Wardrop, which appeared in I900 as volume 5 of the Clarendon Press series Studia Biblica et Ecclesiastica
Book I, chapter 10: On the Conversion of the Iberian People, brought about by a captive woman.
At that time also the Iberian nation, who live in the clime of Pontus, accepted the laws of God's word and faith in the kingdom of heaven. This so excellent deed was brought about by a certain captive woman who had fallen among them, and who led a life of faith and complete sobriety and virtue, and throughout the days and nights unceasingly offered up prayers to God. The very novelty of this thing began to amaze the barbarians, and they diligently Inquired what it meant. She told them simply the truth of the matter, namely that she was wont thus to worship Christ her God. The strangeness of this name seemed to the barbarians the most astonishing feature of the whole business. As often happens, however, her very persistence aroused among the womenfolk a certain curiosity to see whether such devotion might not win some reward.
It is said to be a custom among them that if a child falls ill, it is carried round by its mother to each individual household, so that if anyone knows of some trustworthy remedy, he may administer it to the sufferer. Accordingly, when a certain Woman had carried her ailing child to everyone, as the custom was, but without finding any cure in all the homes she had visited, she came at last to the captive woman so that she too might declare anything she knew of. The captive woman affirmed that she knew of no human remedy, but assured the mother that her God Christ, whom she worshipped, could grant the child that deliverance of which men had lost hope. Placing the infant on her hair cloak and furthermore offering up a prayer to the Lord, the captive woman then gave back the child cured to its mother.
The report of this spread to many, and the renown of the marvellous deed reached the ears of the queen who, being afflicted by some very grave bodily complaint, was in the greatest desperation. She asked for the captive woman to be brought to her. The latter, however, declined to go, lest she should seem to diverge from the retiring way of life fitting to her sex. Then the queen commanded them to carry her to the captive's cell. After laying her likewise on her hair cloak and calling on Christ's name, the captive woman raised her up immediately after the prayer in good health and spirits. She taught the queen that Christ, Son of God Almighty, was the Deity who had bestowed this cure on her, and that she should invoke Him, whom she ought to acknowledge as the source of her life and health. For it is He who distributes kingdoms to kings, and life to mortal men. And the queen, returning joyfully homewards, in answer to her husband's enquiry revealed the source of her sudden restoration to health. But when in his joy at his wife's recovery, he ordered presents to be sent to the woman, the queen said, "O King, the captive woman prizes none of these things. She rejects gold, despises silver and nourishes herself by fasting as if by food. The only way in which we can reward her is by worshipping that God Christ who cured me according to her prayer."
At that time, the king paid no attention to this and put the matter off, although his wife often recalled it to his mind. At length one day while he was hunting in the forest with his retainers, the light of day was clouded over with dense murk and disappeared in the horror of pitch-black night, making it impossible to proceed. His companions dispersed in various directions and lost their way, and he remained alone enveloped in impenetrable gloom, without knowing what to do or Where to turn. Suddenly his spirit, tormented by despair of being rescued, was lit up by a thought: "If indeed that Christ whom the Captive had preached to his Wife was God, then let Him now deliver him from this darkness, that he too might forsake all other gods to worship Him." And forthwith, as soon as he had made this vow in thought alone, and before he had time to express it in words, the light of day was restored to the world, and led the king unharmed to the city.
Revealing immediately to the queen What had occurred, he summons the captive woman, bidding her to instruct him in the ritual of worship, and affirming that he would from now on venerate no other god but Christ. The captive woman appears, and preaches Christ the Lord, expounding the rites of prayer and the form of worship, in so far as these could properly he known to a woman. In addition, she tells them to build a church, and describes its shape.
The king accordingly Summoned together all the folk of his nation, and related the events which had happened to him and the queen. From the very beginning, He instructed them in the faith and, albeit himself not yet initiated into the sacraments, became the apostle of his own nation. The men believed thanks to the king, the women thanks to the queen, and with a single mind they set to work to build a church. The surrounding walls were quickly erected, and the time came to set up the columns. When the first and second pillars had been raised, and they proceeded to lift the third, they employed all forms of machinery and the strength of oxen and men, but when it had been elevated to a slanting angle, it proved impossible by any manner of effort to raise it the rest of the way. The redoubled and often repeated efforts of all the men failed to move it from its position, and everyone was reduced to exhaustion. The whole people was seized with astonishment, and the king's resolution began to fail him. Nobody knew what was to be done.
But when at nightfall everyone went away, and both the toilers and their toil fell into repose, the captive woman remained alone on the spot and passed the whole night in prayer. And behold, when the king and all his people arrived full of anxiety in the morning, he saw the column, which so many machines and so many men could not shift, standing upright and freely suspended above its pedestal, not set upon itch but hanging in the air about a foot above. As soon as the whole people witnessed this, they glorified God and began to declare this to be a proof of the truth of the king's faith and the religion of the captive woman. And behold, while they were all paralyzed with amazement, the pillar slowly descended on to its base before their eyes without anyone touching it, and settled in perfect balance. After this the rest of the columns were erected with such ease that the remainder were all set in place that same day.
After the church had been built with due magnificence, the people were zealously yearning for God's faith. So an embassy is sent on behalf of the entire nation to the Emperor Constantine, in accordance with the captive woman's advice. The foregoing events are related to him, and a petition submitted, requesting that priests be sent to complete the work which God had begun. Sending them on their way amidst rejoicing and ceremony, the Emperor was far more glad at this news than if he had annexed to the Roman Empire peoples and realms unknown.
These happenings were related to us by Bacurius, a most trustworthy man, himself king of that very nation, and commander of the Guards in our court (who was most scrupulous about religion and truth), at the time when he resided with us at Jerusalem on cordial terms, being then in command of the frontiers of Palestine.