Before Vartan the Brave made his epic stand against the Persian forces in the Battle of Avarair, there was a clash between the clergy. Before the Armenian warriors took on the war elephants by the banks of the Dughmood River, there was a war raging over the souls of the people. It was a battle between Christianity and Zoroastrianism, a fight between priests and magi.

The year was 451 C.E., and the Sassanid Persian King Hazegerd II felt politically threatened by the Christian identity of the Armenians under his rule. He made a decree that they renounce their Christianity and accept Zoroastrianism. The Armenians refused. In the writings of Yeghisheh, who chronicles the events of Vartan, two letters are preserved. One is from the magi of Zoroastrianism, which indicates what the magi found wrong with Christianity and why they insisted Armenians relinquish their faith. The other letter is a response from the Armenian bishops, defending belief in Jesus Christ.

The first grievance the magi had against Christianity concerned its view on creation. An ancient religion, Zoroastrianism maintains that two forces were at work in the creation of the world. These forces—a deity of light and a deity of darkness—are said to be in continual battle with one another. The opposite sides call to mind a backgammon game—only the world happens to be their board.

The Armenian priests responded to the first complaint by saying that they believed in one God who made all things good. He who created the world ex nihilo – out of nothing – is Himself outside of space and time. “God has not received a beginning from anyone else, but He is eternal through himself. He is not bound by space, for He himself is space. He is not confined within any time, for all time has its existence from Him.” God is the Creator who is control of His creation, and that creation is affirmed as good.

The second criticism that the Persian magi had regarded the Armenian lifestyle. Their complaint reads: “Do not believe your clergy when they say it is very sinful to accumulate wealth; they respect misery and denounce success. They ridicule the name of fate and mock fame severely. They love plainness of apparel and respect the dishonorable more than the honorable.” The way of life the Persians mocked was the life of Christ. Jesus reveals to us that humility is a virtue, that we should take care of the poor, and that we should serve others rather than be served. 

Thirdly, the magi opposed belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They had difficulty accepting central tenets of the faith such as the Virgin Mary, the shameful death of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection. The Armenian clergy knew that Jesus was the risen Lord whether or not others believed it to be true. They had encountered the Holy Spirit; their only rebuttal was their willingness to be martyrs. Thus, they concluded their letter: “From this faith no one can shake us, neither angels nor men; neither sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any, nor all other horrid tortures. All our goods and possessions are in your hands, our bodies are before you; dispose of them as you will. If you leave us to our belief, we will, here on earth, choose no other master in your place, and in heaven choose no other God in place of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God. But should you require anything beyond this great testimony, here we are; our bodies are in your hands; do with them as you please. Tortures from you, submission from us; the swords is yours, the neck ours. We are no better than our forefathers, who, for the sake of this faith, surrendered their goods, their possessions, and their bodies. Were we even immortal, it would become us to die for the love of Christ; He himself is immortal and so loved us that He took death on Himself, that we, by His death, might be freed from eternal death.”

Let us be encouraged by the faith of our ancestors by living the same faith out today. Let us praise our Creator rather than the creation. Let us live like Christ rather than live for money, sex and/or power. Let us be empowered by the Holy Spirit to scorn any earthly shame that comes from believing the Gospel, for it is the power of life over death.