Early African Christianity: Nubia
Multiethnic Roots of Christianity Part II
By: Dr. Vince Bantu
The sentiment that Christianity is the “white man’s religion” is a perception that does not find resonance in biblical or historical reality. Christianity is not “becoming” a global religion; it has always been a global religion. At every point, the Christian faith has found Afrocentric expression and it is God’s heart that the Gospel take firm root among every nation, tribe and tongue. The proclamation of the psalter that “Kush will soon stretch out her hands to God,” (Ps. 68:31) finds unique application in the reality that the descendants of the Kushites—the Nubians—not only embraced Christianity as the national religion as early as the fifth century CE, but fought off Arab Muslim invasion in order to maintain an indigenous, black Christian kingdom that would flourish for a thousand years. The late antique Kushite kingdom centered at Meroë fell away in the late fourth century. While there is not much evidence to suggest a significant Christian presence in the Sudan during its Meroitic Kushite period, it is noteworthy that the “Ethiopian” eunuch mentioned in Acts 8 was likely from Kush, rather than the southern Axumite kingdom of Ethiopia. The queens of Kush were commonly called Candace (or Kandake) and “Ethiopia” (or Greek Aithopia) was often used to refer to black inhabitants south of Egypt conflating both the Nubian kingdoms of the Sudan and the Axumite empire of Ethiopia. However, the earliest detailed account of the introduction of Christianity into Nubia came in the sixth century through the historical account of the Syrian bishop John of Ephesus. According to John, Byzantine Roman empress Theodora sent missionaries to Nubia through Egypt who led the Nubian royal court to Christ resulting in the Christianization of northern Nubia (Nobatia). A century before this Roman intervention, however, one of the earliest Nubian kings to consolidate the Nobatian Empire—king Silko—declared in a victory inscription belief in one God who granted him military victory in Nubia. This could indicate a gradual progression of monotheistic transformation in the previously polytheistic Nubian religious landscape. There is also fifth-century evidence of Nubian refugees taking shelter in the Coptic monasteries of Upper Egypt. Whenever Christianity entered Nubia, it is likely to have done so through contact with Egyptian Christians with whom the Nubians maintained close ecclesiastical affiliation throughout the entirety of their Christian history. In solidarity with the other major African churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, Nubian Christianity maintained an anti-Chalcedonian—or, Miaphysite—nature, indicating a belief in the essential unity of the human and divine natures of Christ. Not long after Christianity took firm root in Nubia, the Islamic Conquest presented new challenges for Christians in Africa. Egypt was swiftly conquered in the mid-seventh century and the Arab Muslims quickly turned their attention to the Nubians south of Egypt. The Arab Muslim attempt at conquering Nubia was historically significant in that the Nubians were one of the only people groups to successfully fight off Muslim invaders. Several Arab Muslim historians who recount the Nubian victory credit the Nubian warriors’ skill with the bow and arrow—a skill long associated with Nubians and ancient Kushites since Pharaonic times. The Christian Nubians and Arab Muslim rulers of Egypt created a peace treaty stipulating the exchange of goods and a mutual understanding that Egypt would remain under Muslim control and Nubia remain Christian. Almost everywhere the early Muslim armies went during the seventh century fell under Muslim control (Persia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Libya). Nubia was unique in its ability to fight off the Muslims and create an unprecedented peace treaty that would last for centuries. This historical background also significantly complicates the assumption among some African-descended people that Christianity is the white man’s religion and Islam is the black man’s religion. In the case of Nubia, we see an autonomous black Christian kingdom successfully fighting off would-be Arab Muslim invaders. While Christianity’s introduction into Africa during the first millennium was freely adopted and accepted as the state religion of many of the earliest African kingdoms, Islam’s first introduction into the continent was by force and was resisted by the indigenous African nations whose identity was synonymous with being followers of Christ. Although Christianity eventually died out in Nubia by the beginning of the sixteenth century due to increasing migrations of Islamic ethnic groups, the Christian autonomy initiated by the Nubian-Muslim peace treaty, or baqt, paved the way for a golden era of Nubian Christian culture from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. Nubian Christianity flourished during this period largely because the central kingdoms of the Sudan—Nobatia, Makouria and Alodia—were all predominately Christian and consolidated as one united kingdom no later than the early ninth century. Some examples of the many unique features of Nubian Christianity include a distinctive ecclesiastical and diplomatic leader known as the eparch, a distinguished form of church architecture including a specific passageway unique only to Nubian churches and indigenous religious vestments depicted in Nubian iconography. The language of medieval Sudan—Old Nubian—survives in a small collection of texts that are overwhelmingly religious (i.e. Christian) in nature. This fact further illustrates the degree to which the ancient African civilization of Nubia was intricately imbedded in and held together by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Also, check out our interview with Dr. Vince Bantu below:
Dr. Vince L. Bantu joined Covenant Theological Seminary in 2016 as Visiting Professor of Missiology. He holds a PhD in Semitic and Egyptian languages from the Catholic University of America and serves as co-chair of the Theology Committee of the Christian Community Development Association. Dr. Bantu is an MDiv graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston, and served the Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a church-planting apprentice of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. He also served as a program coordinator for the Emmanuel Gospel Center.
Dr. Bantu also holds a ThM in church history from Princeton Seminary and a BA in theology from Wheaton College. His primary interests include racial reconciliation, non-Western Christianity, and theological education in under-resourced communities. He has served as an adjunct faculty member for several institutions, including Nyack College, New York Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Center for Early African Christianity, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. Bantu is happy to be back in his native St Louis, where he is a teaching pastor at Jubilee Community Church. Dr. Bantu, his wife, Diana, and their two daughters enjoy traveling, parks, games, and are huge movie fans.