O handmaid of the Word of God, who in preaching equaled the first-called Apostle Andrew, and imitated the other Apostles, enlightener of Iberia and reed pipe of the Holy Spirit, holy Nina, equal to the Apostles, pray to Christ God to save our souls. - Troparion
The story of St. Nino [the Georgian form of Nina], Equal to the Apostles and Illuminator of the Georgians, has had an interesting history. St. Nino appears (although unnamed) in Greek and Latin ecclesiastical histories, beginning with Rufinus and later in Armenian and Georgian sources. The Armenian and Georgian sources are not easily dated, and theories about the dating are often much colored by nationalist perspectives.
The most elaborate telling of St. Nino's story is in Georgian and was fully developed by the tenth century. Some of the emphasis of her story is in reaction to the schism of the Georgian Church from the Armenians at the Third Council of Dwin in the early seventh century. Before that time, the Georgians and Armenians had been united in their rejection of the Council of Chalcedon. After this council the Georgians tended to promote a separate origin for their Christianity, one that largely bypassed the Armenians.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Nino cycle is that women play an especially important role throughout it. Nino is tutored by an Armenian woman named Sara the Hermit; she baptizes a group of women in Armenia who are about to be martyred (including the well-known Hripsime); she gathers a number of women disciples in Mcxeta (the former capital of Georgia); she baptizes the royal family (even after Greek priests were to have been sent by Helena and Constantine); and some parts of the story itself are attributed to women authors.
Unfortunately, the retelling of the Nino story, in Georgian as well as in Russian and English translations, often leaves out the parts in which Nino baptizes. It is perhaps too difficult for later translators and paraphrasers to deal with such "anomalous" activity on the part of a woman. It is my theory that this part of the story must be quite old, since it is unlikely that Georgian clerics in the eighth to tenth centuries would have constructed such an active role for a woman missionary.
The text of the Nino story is self-conscious about her role and the fact that she is a woman. On her journey to Mcxeta she received a scroll from an angel in a vision, and on this scroll were ten lines, mainly from the New Testament. The second line is from Galatians 3:28: "There is neither male nor female, but you all are one." The ninth is from John 20:17: "Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, 'Go, woman and tell my brothers.'" The seventh is the most curious: "The Lord loved Mary very much, because she listened to His true wisdom." With the exception of the tenth citation based on the Great Commission, this seventh line is the only one that does not appear to be a direct quote from the New Testament and is reminiscent of passages in some apocryphal writings, like the Gospel of Philip.
When Nino was ready to leave her tutor, Sara, in Jerusalem, Sara gave her the following "pep-talk": "I see your strength, my child, as the strength of the lioness, who roars louder than any other four-footed creature, or as the strength of the female eagle, who, rising to the heights of the atmosphere above the male, and perceiving the entire Earth before her as a small pearl, focuses on and sees her prey, cuts back her wings and swoops down upon it - so I see your life as led by the Holy Spirit." This extraordinary speech is also usually omitted in retellings and translations and has generally escaped the notice of commentators. This speech is in bold contrast to much early hagiography in which women must "become men" in order to attain spiritual virtue. In this passage, a certain superiority for women, based on nature, was assumed.
St. Nino's story merits more attention than it has been given by Church historians. The role of women must be considered for what it may say specifically about the early Georgian Church and more generally, about attitudes concerning the role of women in the Church in the fourth through eighth centuries.
1. Basic text (in Georgian) of the Nino cycle, eds. B. Gigineishvili and El. Giunashvili: The Shatberdi Collection of the Tenth Century, (Tbilisi: Mecniereba, 1979).
2. Most complete English translation: Margery Wardrop, trans. "The Life of St. Nino," in Studia Biblica et Ecclesiastica, vol. 5: 1-88 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903).
3. Abridged English version: The Life of St. Nina Equal to the Apostles and Englightener of Georgia (Jordanville, N.Y.: Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Monastery, 1977).
4. K. Kekelidze, Die Bekehrung Georgiens zum Christentum (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrich, 1928).
5. Recently completed Ph.D. diss. at the University of Michigan: Stephen H. Rapp, Jr. Imagining History at the Crossroads: Persia, Byzantium, and the Architects of the Written Georgian Past.
Paul Crego received his M.A. in the Soviet Union Program (Harvard), his M.Div. at Harvard Divinity School, and his Ph.D. at Boston College (BC). He began his study of Georgian in 1977 and studied in Tbilisi in summer 1990 at the First Summer School in Kartvelian Studies. He taught History of the Orthodox Churches at BC in 1990, 1991. Mr. Crego has worked as a cataloguer of Georgian and Armenian at Harvard's Widener Library and now works as a cataloguer of Armenian at the Library of Congress.