Early African Christianity: Ethopia
Multiethnic Roots of Christianity Part III
By: Dr. Vince Bantu
One of the primary reasons that the majority of African-Americans and other African-descended people in the diaspora have rejected the Christian faith is not, as one might expect, theological contentions regarding the person and nature of Jesus Christ. New religious movements emerging from the African-American community during the past half-century address the majority of their anti-Christian invective not against Jesus but the implication of the Christian faith in state-wide expressions of white supremacy at the expense of black bodies. The missiological telos of the Kingdom of God being fully reflected among every people group implores us to celebrate the full story of the universal Church, especially as it developed in Mother Africa. Ethiopia has stood as a symbol of African pride—as the oldest independent African nation—and of African Christianity as the bearer of an ancient Christian tradition that is inextricable from Ethiopian identity itself. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tawähïdo Church maintains the tradition that the Queen of Sheba mentioned in 1 Kings 10, after her visit with King Solomon, had a son name Menelik who became the first monotheistic king of Ethiopia. Church tradition also holds that the eunuch of Candace mentioned in Acts 8 was Axumite and was the first to preach the Gospel in Ethiopia. While it is likely that Christianity first came into Ethiopia as early as the first century, the fourth century is the terminus ante quem for the introduction of the Gospel in Ethiopia as several notable historians and Church fathers attest to the presence of an established church hierarchy in Ethiopia during this time. The Egyptian Pope Athanasius as well as the fourth-century Roman historian Rufinus mention a Syrian slave named Frumentius who was raised in the imperial court of Ethiopia who evangelized the royal family. After being ordained the first official bishop of Ethiopia by Athanaius, Frumentius discipled the Ethiopian king Ezana who was the first king of Axum to introduce Christianity as the state religion of Ethiopia. Shortly after this time, Ethiopia received a group of missionaries called the Nine Saints who have been thought to have come from Syria and who further advanced the growth of Christianity especially in the northern rural provinces. The Nine Saints introduced monastic practices, opened monasteries that still survive today, and taught the Miaphysite doctrine of Christ existing in one person and one united nature—which was the reigning view in Egypt and Syria. The Ethiopian Church’s name Täwahïdo means “being made one” or “unified” and is based on this fundamental doctrine. One of the Nine Saints—Abba Garima—is thought to have been the translator of the Garima Gospels—translations of the Gospel accounts in the ancient Ethiopian language which is still used in liturgy called Ge’ez. Originally thought to have been translated in the twelfth century, recent radiocarbon analysis has firmly placed these manuscripts in the fifth century during the time of the Nine Saints. This makes the Garima Gospels not only the oldest surviving Ge’ez manuscripts, but the earliest biblical manuscripts from any country accompanied with decorated paintings. While the Byzantine Roman Empire frequently persecuted Miaphysite (“one-nature”) Christians in Syria, Egypt and Nubia, an alliance was formed with Ethiopia to rescue persecuted Christians in the Arabian Peninsula. A Yemeni Jewish leader of the Himyarite Kingdom of Southwestern Arabia named Yusuf ibn Sharhabeel began forcing conversions upon Christians on pain of death. This caused the Byzantine Roman emperor Justin to seek the help of Ethiopian king Kaleb to rescue the Arabian Christians. Despite the fact that both the Ethiopian and Arabian Christians maintained a Miaphysite confession—and that Roman emperor Justin severely persecuted Miaphysite Christians in Egypt and Syria—the Romans nonetheless aided Ethiopia. Kaleb’s victory over Yusuf consolidated Ethiopian control over southern Arabia, liberated the Christians from persecution and ended the Himyarite Empire which was founded in the second century BCE. During the reign of Kaleb’s son Gabra Masqal, tradition holds that the unique Ethiopian liturgical style was developed by Saint Yared. The unique system of liturgy emerging in Ethiopia is called Degwa and consists of three characteristic styles of chant: Ge’ez (unadorned and simple), ‘ezl (deep and solemn) and araray (lighter, more decorative). This uniquely African Christian style of worship has been a central feature of Ethiopian Christianity for centuries and is connected to the sixth-century figure Yared. Yared is said to have been transported to Paradise where he received a vision of three celestial birds which represented the Trinity and transmitted this musical gift for the Ethiopian Church. When the imperial capital moved from Axum to Lalibela at the ascension of the Zagwe Dynasty in the twelfth century, King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela commissioned the construction of nearly a dozen magnificent rock-hewn churches named after various sites in Jerusalem. The Ethiopian kingdom centered in Lalibela continued under the Solomonic Dynasty which witnessed the composition of the Kebra Negast (“Glory of the Kings”); a comprehensive history of Ethiopia connecting the imperial lineage to King Solomon. Ethiopian Christian literature flowered during this time with examples such as the Kebra Negast, Fetha Negast (“Law of the Kings”) and the writings of George of Gasetcha. George is one of the earliest writers in Ge’ez for which an identity can be firmly established. George was a prolific theologian, poet and homiletician and some of his central texts include the Book of the Mystery of Heaven and Earth and the Book of Hours. The writings of George of Gasetcha represent the inherently poetic nature of Ethiopian literature, theology and liturgy. Ethiopian Christianity experienced renewal when king Fasilides re-centered the imperial capital again to Gondar in the seventeenth century. After the failure of Fasilides’ father Suseynos’ attempt to form an alliance with Portuguese Jesuit missionaries and spread Catholicism in Ethiopia, Fasilides expelled the Portuguese from Ethiopia, established Gondar as the capital of Ethiopia and paved the way for a renewal of Ethiopian culture. One important example of this was the development of a uniquely Ethiopian system of philosophy by seventeenth-century scholars such as Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat. Yacob’s seminal work Hatata explains his construction of morality, reason and harmony and is a landmark in African philosophy. While these few examples provide us with a mere window into the rich history of the Ethiopian nation and the unique Christian tradition that has developed there for nearly two millennia, this short survey will hopefully equip the Body of Christ with a beginning knowledge of the Ethiopian Church—a church that has been the foundation of and the central influence in the oldest independent nation on the continent of Africa.
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.