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St. Nino and the beginnings of the Georgian church
By James Dannenberg, M.A. Theology,
York St John University, England
One major problem with many church histories is their tendency to be oriented mainly towards the West. Developments in the East are neglected. The Nestorians, for example, are often dismissed in a paragraph and even Eastern Orthodoxy is but scantily covered. Many British Christians have a fair idea how Christianity came to Britain, but fewer know how it spread in Europe and most have no idea at all how it spread outside Europe. It comes as a complete shock to most of us that there was probably a church in India before there was one in Britain and that a Nestorian missionary preached before a Chinese emperor about the same time as the Saxons were being converted. Only a very few know that the numerical strength of the Nestorian church at its height was greater than that of the whole Catholic-Orthodox world.
Some heroes of faith – those responsible for the conversion of a whole nation – are well known. Most British Christians know it was Patrick who brought Christianity to Ireland and Augustine who brought it to Kent. But how did the gospel spread in the East? Who were the heroes there? This essay examines how the gospel took root in Georgia and, in particular, the role of St. Nino in this. I have chosen her for two reasons: Firstly, my Bible translation work has taken me quite often to the Caucasus and I have naturally become interested in that area. Secondly, practically no one these days has heard of her, yet she converted a whole nation to Christianity and the Georgian church, which she founded, stands to this very day.
Historical background to and sources for the life of St. Nino
“Let us relate the story of our holy and blessed mother, the enlightener of all Georgia, Nino the apostle, as she herself told it on her death-bed…” . So begins the Georgian account of the life of St. Nino, an extraordinary woman who lived in the early fourth century. The words “enlightener” and “apostle” show the very high regard the Georgian Church had and still has for her . Although in the process of time her story was embellished with many fables, I believe it is possible to discern a solid foundation of fact. “History, archeology 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”.
Not long before the time of Nino’s ministry in Georgia, Armenia had accepted Christianity through the missionary efforts of St. Gregory the Illuminator (A.D. 240-332). Western Georgia (consisting of the provinces of Colchis, Abkhazia and Lazica) had been evangelised by missionaries working in the many Greek colonies which lined the Black Sea coast. Among those who attended the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) were bishops from Trebizond (the main sea-port of Lazica, now the Turkish city of Trabzon) and from Bichvinta (an important port, also called Pitiunt, on the borders of Colchis and Abkhazia). Since Christianity had now become the new official religion of the Roman empire, the political climate there favoured the conversion of Iberia (Eastern Georgia).
The earliest and most reliable source for the life of St. Nino is a chapter in a church history written in Latin by Tyrannius Rufinus of Aquileia about the year 403. Rufinus’ account is based on oral information given to him by a minor member of the Georgian royal family named Bakur (latinised as Bacurius), whom he met in Palestine about the year 395. Bakur was thus relating events which had occurred about 60 years earlier in his parents’ or grandparents’ time. Lang’s judgement is that “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” . Not everyone agrees. The French scholar Francoise Thelamon regards Rufinus’ account as a myth with little or no basis in reality and composed mainly in order to reflect Rufinus’ concept of the ideal Christian ruler.>>