For Deborah

Nino of Georgia: A Woman Evangelist "Equal to the The Sovereign State of Georgia in Eastern Europe has a long Christian history that can be traced back to the 300s. Georgia, or Iberia as it was then known,[1] was one of the very first countries to accept Christianity and make it their state religion. And it was a woman evangelist named Nino (also known as Nina) who was the primary instrument in bringing Christianity to this country.

Both the Eastern Orthodox Church (EOC) and the Roman Catholic Church acknowledge Nino as a Saint, but their respective versions of her life, and the traditions surrounding her ministry, vary greatly.[2] Many legends have embellished Nino’s story but more reliable details about her life and ministry have been chronicled in the records of the Georgian Royal annals, and in a chapter of the Church History written by Roman historian Tyrannius Rufinus (c. 345–410).[3]

Nino’s parentage is obscure. It seems that she was born in the late 200s in the Roman province of Cappadocia, but was later taken as a slave to Georgia.[4] The EOC have a different version of her early life. According to their tradition, Nino had esteemed, noble parents, and she received an excellent education and training in the Christian faith from the best teachers.

The EOC also have a legend in which Nino went to Iberia in response to a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the vision, Mary gives Nino a crucifix made out of grapevines and says:

“Go to Iberia and tell there the Good Tidings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and you will find favour before the Lord; and I will be for you a shield against all visible and invisible enemies. By the strength of this cross, you will erect in that land the saving banner of faith in my beloved Son and Lord.”

Nino awoke from the vision to find the grapevine cross in her hand. She tied the cross in her hair and began her missionary journey. The grapevine cross continues to be an important symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Another legend, about another vision,[5] relates that when Nino was exhausted and discouraged from her missionary travels, an angel handed her a scroll of New Testament quotations. Several of the quotations are about gender equality in the Christian faith and in ministry.[6] Encouraged by the Scripture verses, Nino continued on her journey.

Nino of Georgia: A Woman Evangelist "Equal to the Apostles"According to the EOC tradition, Nino converted many villages to Christianity while travelling enroute to Iberia. However in 301 AD, Nino and 35 nuns (who had been baptised by Nino) encountered severe persecution in Armenia. Nino alone escaped death. (This story is recorded by Moses of Khoran in The History of the Armenians, written approximately 440.)

The EOC believe that Nino arrived in Iberia around 320 and, setting up a cross, immediately began proclaiming the Gospel.

Tyrannius Rufinus has a different account concerning the beginning of Nino’s ministry in Iberia. Rufinus, who continually refers to Nino as a “captive” in his narrative, states that it was Nino’s virtuous character and persistence in prayer and piety that attracted the Iberians to the Gospel. When the Iberians asked Nino about her way of life she told them that it was because she worshipped Jesus Christ.

Nino also became known for her gift of healing. Nino had prayed for a sick infant who then miraculously recovered. The word about this miraculous healing spread. The Queen of Iberia, who was desperately ill, heard about Nino and asked Nino to pray for her. The Queen was healed and became a Christian believer. Nino always attributed healings to Jesus Christ.

The King of Iberia, Mirian III, however, was unwilling to let go of his pagan beliefs. The story goes that one day while hunting he was blinded by some sort of darkness. Helpless, he prayed to “Nino’s God” and was then able to see.[7] Arriving back at his house, he requested an audience with Nino who explained the Christian faith and Christian worship to him. King Mirian instantly converted to Christianity. The year was 334. Mirian was one of the first monarchs to accept Christianity and he declared Christianity as Iberia’s state religion in 337.

Very soon after his conversion, Mirian commissioned the construction of a church building. It was built (supposedly) using instructions given by Nino before her death in 335, and was completed in 379. The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mstkheta currently stands on the site of the first church building.

Nino continued her evangelistic ministry among the Georgians until her death in 335. She has become one of the most venerated saints of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and her tomb can still be seen at the Bodbe Monastery in Kakheti, Eastern Georgia.

Putting the legends and fanciful embellishments aside, there is no doubt that Nino was a woman whom God used to introduce the Christian faith into a pagan and militant country. God used Nino’s faith, prayers, and character, as well as her spoken testimony, to further the progress of the Gospel.

Due to her pioneering, evangelistic work, the EOC equates Nino with the Apostle Andrew, and have given her the appellation “Equal to the Apostles”.  The following is a hymn (troparian) which the Orthodox Church sing about Nino.

O handmaid of the Word of God
Who in preaching equaled the first-called Apostle Andrew
And emulated the other Apostles
Enlightener of Iberia and reed-pipe of the Holy Spirit
Holy Nina, pray to Christ our God to save our souls.[9]


Endnotes

[1] Georgia is named after St George who the Georgians adopted as their patron saint, They fought under his banner during the Crusades.

[2] I have almost no personal experience with either the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church. If any of my Orthodox readers see something that I have misconstrued or misrepresented, please let me know.

[3] Tyrannius Rufinus (c. 345–410) translated Eusebius’ Church History into Latin, and added new information. His history was the standard historical text during the medieval period.

The chapter about Nino “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.” (Besiki Sisauri)

[4] There are some slight parallels here with the slave girl of Naaman’s wife (2 Kings 5).

[5] There are several other legends about Nino. For instance: At the beginning of her ministry in Iberia, an idol and its temple were smashed and swept away by a storm in answer to Nino’s fervent and anguished prayers against idolatry. In another story, after Nino had prayed alone all night, a pillar lifted miraculously into place (before a crowd of witnesses) during the construction of the first church building. There is also a strange story about Christ’s robe which had been taken to Iberia and buried.

[6] The following are the verses said to have been written on Nino’s scroll:

There is no male or female, but you are all one (Gal. 3:28).
Go and teach all the nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19).
The light will shine over the nations to glorify your people Israel (Luke 2:32).
Wherever this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached, there too this will be spoken of in the whole world (Matt. 26:13).
Whoever shall hear you and receive you, has received me; and whoever shall receive me, will receive the one who sent me (cf. Matt. 10:40; John 13:20).
For the Lord greatly loved Mary, because she continuously heard His true word (cf. John 11).
Do not fear those who destroy your bodies but are not able to destroy your soul (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:4).
Jesus said to Mary Magdalene: “Go, woman, and announce to my sisters and brothers” (cf. Matt. 28:10; Mark 16:9-10; Luke 24:10; John 20:17).
Wherever you preach, let it be in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt. 28:19).
Quoted from the Georgian Chronicles, Translation by Paul Crego

[7] There are a few accounts in the Bible where a person was supernaturally blinded, or somehow prevented from seeing, and then had their vision restored: the apostle Paul (Acts 9); Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:8-11); the two disciples travelling to Emmaus (Luke 24). The wicked men in Sodom were also struck blind (Gen. 19:11).

[8] Writing about Nino’s ministry, Paul Crego points out that:

In the Georgian traditions surrounding Nino, women feature prominently. Nino herself is tutored by an Armenian woman named Sara the Hermit; Nino baptises the 35 nuns who were about to be martyred in Armenia (including the well-known Hripsime); Nino gathers a number of women disciples in Mcxeta (the former capital of Georgia); Nino baptises the royal family (even after Greek priests were to have been sent by Helena and Constantine); and some parts of her story itself are attributed to women authors.

[9] N.B. I personally do not advocate praying to anyone other than God the Father, in the name of Jesus, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

Image credits

(1) Icon of Nino of Georgia showing the grapevine cross, the scroll, a stylised bramble bush which sheltered her small hut in Iberia, and a stylised church which she is thought to have helped design. © Giorgi777 (Wikimedia Commons)
(2) Depiction of Nino of Georgia on the Svetiskhoveli Bell, Mtskheta, Georgia. (Wikimedia Commons)


Bibliography

Crego, Paul, “St Nino and the Evangelisation of Georgia”, in the St. Nina Quarterly, Volume 3, No. 1. http://www.stnina.org/st-nina/her-life/st-nino-and-role-women-evangelization-georgians

Keck, Mary Rae, The Life of St Nina, in the St. Nina Quarterly, Volume 1, No. 1. http://www.stnina.org/st-nina/life-st-nina-karen-rae-keck

Sisauri, Besiki, St Nino and the Conversion of Georgia http://www.georgianweb.com/religion/stnino.html

Further Reading about Nino (St Nina):  http://www.stnina.org/st-nina

© 14th of January 2011, Margaret Mowczko

The Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates St Nino of Georgia on the 14th of January, so I thought I would too, by posting this article on this date.


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