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Abyssinian Christianity Book Cover

Ethiopian Christianity

by Joel Elowsky

When the Center for Early African Christianity formed during the last decade, it was decided that a consultation should be held on the continent of Africa. The question was where such a meeting should be held. It was decided that the logical place was to be Addis Ababa in Ethiopia because Ethiopia had not only one of the earliest Christian communities in sub-Saharan Africa, but also one of the most enduring. Abyssinian Christianity by Abba Abraham Buruk Woldegaber and Mario Alexis Portella (Pismo Beach, CA: BP Editing, 2012) chronicles, explores and analyzes much of that history of both Ethiopia and Eritrea. The authors provide us with two purposes of the book: (1) “to make a modest, yet comprehensive presentation of what has been gathered from vast and diverse publications” that will aid in the study of Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s history, without discounting what Eritreans and Ethiopians themselves say about this history as many modern historians do. This is an aim similar to Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind and the African Memory of Mark, both published by InterVarsity Press, which takes seriously the memory of Coptic Africans and others that has profoundly shaped their identity and identification with Christianity. The present authors, just like Oden, are willing to provide a venue and a voice to various historical accounts, legends, hagiagrapha, “folkoric narrations or fables” that have been passed down from generation to generation as expressions of a rich and varied understanding of Ethiopian and Eritrean history (xv). Why, they ask, for instance, would Ethiopian sovereigns identify themselves with the legend of the Queen of Sheba’s presence in Ethiopia all the way up until 1974? But this book is not just about retelling the tales of Ethiopian folklore. The authors go into great detail exploring the documented history and the factors which shaped that history. Rather than focusing on events and dates, this history looks at influences like the development of Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language of Ethiopia. The authors also factor in the important role that liturgy and its music play in shaping a culture and the seminal role of Christian monasticism in forming many of the patterns of thought and ideas that sculpted Ethiopian and Eritrean culture and society. Art and architecture also offer important clues to the values and priorities that received expression, and are chronicled in these pages.

(2) The second purpose the authors give for writing the present monograph is that, as with all relevant histories, they want to see what the wider world can learn from the developments in Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s history—more specifically, “how Christianity can guide a state and the individual” (xv). How should Christians regard the state? That question has been answered in different ways depending on the state’s disposition towards a religion and its adherents. In the Western church the discussion about the Christian individual’s relation to the state has often focused on the Constantinian empire of the fourth century and the profound influence Christianity’s relationship with the empire had on the faith and life of the Christian church, both for good and for ill. The present study offers an alternative to the Constantinian model and narrative for church/state relations when church and state often, but not always, shared many of the same goals, purposes and loyalties. It does not try to equate the significance of what happened in Abyssinia with what happened under Constantine with the Roman Empire. It does, however, portray the embrace of Christianity by Abyssinia as much more endemic to national identity because King Ezana made the Christian faith the state religion from “the very outset of his personal acceptance” of it (xvi).

In order to demonstrate the two purposes just rehearsed, the book is divided into the three main sections: (1) The first section explores the kingdom of Aksum and its roots in Antiquity, focusing on how it became “A Christian nation” with the conversion of King Ezana, but also tracing the events up to that point. The authors accept the account of the Ethiopian Eunuch’s preaching in Ethopia after his encounter with Philip in Acts 8 as the starting point for Ethiopian Christianity, even as they acquaint the reader with alternative understandings of the provenance of the Ethiopian Eunuch. After exploring the initial beginnings of Christianity in Aksum through the conversion of Ezana, the account continues with the introduction of monasticism to Ethiopia through the arrival of the Nine Syrian Saints who came from Rome to evangelize but also promote a different type of Monasticism from their Egyptian counterparts. They also made substantial contributions to the development of Ge’ez religious literature through their translation of Scripture and Ethiopian religious texts into the classical Ethiopian language (xvi). This first section which takes up the first half of the book, explores in much detail the prominent role monasticism played in Abyssinian society and cultural development from the earliest times through the Middle Ages. Included also are some of the fascinating legends of Ethiopia such as the Legend of the Queen of Sheba and that of Prester John.

The second part of the book is devoted to the history of Abyssinian Christianity from the Middle Ages up to the present day as it finds expression in both Ethiopia and Eritrea. This section is devoted largely to the role of the Catholic missionaries in advancing Catholicism in the country. It provides much in the way of primary sources, especially letters, which document the missionary endeavors of the different orders which came to Abyssinia. The relationship of Catholicism with the Orthodox Ethiopian Church was one of strife and, many times, martyrdom for the Catholic missionaries, due no doubt in no small part to the fact that Ethiopia saw no need for missionaries in a country that was already Christian. Nonetheless, there were many attempts made at “opening a constructive dialogue with the Ethiopian Church” (150) by various popes and their emissaries. This section includes the failures as well as some of the later successes which have opened up relations between the two churches.

The third part of the book places Abyssinian Christianity and its national identity into further historical context. This final section revisits the relationship of the state to the church, noting however that often it was the church which was influenced by the state, more than the church influencing the state. As the authors note, “the monarchy had always exercised a supreme control of the Church, which in turn was used as a political instrument. In this sense, the Church had always consented to the monarchy, for political motives” 316). The monarchy and the Church had formed the two pillars under which the imperial framework operated throughout Ethiopia’s history. This third section chronicles, in large part, however, the diminished role of the church in the civil and public sphere in modern times, especially after the abdication of Haile Sellasie “the last Christian emperor” in 1974. There were many factors which the authors chronicle that contributed to the diminished role of the church, including the difficult years under the Italian Fascist regime in the early 20th century, the increasing isolation of Ethiopia brought on by Muslim dominance of neighboring countries, and even natural factors such as drought, famine, and various economic factors that eroded confidence in the government. The factors are too complex to rehearse here. Suffice it to say, however, that the authors believe there is much to glean from Ethiopia’s past in order to chart a future that can unite the country in order to confront the problems it faces in the modern world and open a way perhaps to increased cooperation between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The historical detail and presentation of Abyssinia’s rich religious and cultural contributions to Christianity are alone enough to commend this book, albeit with a caveat I mention below. The authors do an admirable job of bringing together a number of disparate factors into a largely cohesive historical narrative as they seek to present what the larger church can learn from Abyssinian Christianity and how the Abyssinian Christian views his faith in the framework of his past in light of the socio-political and cultural-religious challenges he faces today. It is a vast history covering 2000 years whose complexity could challenge even the most seasoned historian. One of the factors largely (although not altogether) missing from the narrative is the role of Christian denominations outside of the Catholic tradition, most noticeably the Protestant presence in Ethiopia. Granted, the authors are Roman Catholic and much of the study towards the end was intended to be devoted to the Catholic presence in Ethiopia. The narrative, at times, also sometimes seemed disjointed, perhaps due to the plethora of material needing to be communicated from disparate sources. But it is the bringing together of these sources that also provides one of the strengths of the book. And yet, there were also a fair number of typographical and possible translation errors at least in the early sections and a number of places elsewhere that probably should be addressed and corrected in a future printing. At times they could get in the way of the important message this monograph seeks to communicate.

As interest in early African Christianity continues to grow, this reviewer commends Abyssinian Christianity to those who would like to get a firmer handle on understanding one of the more important and perduring iterations of Christianity on the continent: Ethiopian and Eritrean Christianity—albeit with the caveats in the previous paragraph. There is much we can learn from Abyssinian Christianity, much which can inform our understanding of the Christian’s relationship with the state as we become aware of the historical context which favored such a relationship in the past even as the authors point to the challenges that might preclude such a relationship in the present and future. As churches continue to explore their pasts, they also may identify hope for future convergence, a hope the present study holds out to both Catholic and Ethiopian Christians. The strongest ties are those found in the faith given once and for all to the saints (Jude 1:3).

Posted in Africa, Ethiopia

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