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How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

Glossary

Agrippinus: The bishop of Carthage referred to twice by Cyprian as his predecessor. He and his fellow bishops of Africa and Numidia gathered for the first council of Africa (probably 215-217) to discuss the validity of the baptism of converts from heresy or break-off churches. The council decided that the baptism of those outside the church was not valid.   

Alcuin: (c. 735–May 19, 804) Alcuin was a scholar, ecclesiastic, poet and teacher from York, England. He was born around 735 close to York. He was a noble, related to Saint Willibrord, whose father founded the monastery of St. Andrew, which Alcuin would later inherit. He was the greatest scholar from Northumbrian, the Northern English school tradition which dates back to Bede. He was a trusted friend and advisor of Charlemagne. His work was foundational to the educational system initiated by Charlemagne.

Ammonius Saccas: (d. c.242) A teacher in Alexandria for fifty years. His career began during the reign of Commodus and continued to his death. He taught both the Christian theologian Origen and the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. The church historian, Eusebius (4th century) claimed that Ammonius remained a Christian all his life.  Most modern scholars believe that at some point Ammonius renounced his faith.

Arnobius: (fifth century). A partici­pant in the Christological controversies of the fifth century. He composed Conflictus cum Serapicme, an account of a debate with a Monophysite monk in which he attempts to demonstrate harmony be­tween Roman and Alexandrian theology. Some scholars attribute to him a few more works, such as Commentaries on Psalms.

Athanasius: see Major Figures

Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Augustine was of Berber descent and was born in 354 in Thagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria), a provincial Roman city in North Africa. At the age of 11, Augustine was sent to school. At age seventeen he went to Carthage to continue his education in rhetoric. His revered mother, Monica, was a Berber and a devout Catholic, and his father, Patricius, a pagan. Although raised as a Catholic, Augustine left the Church to follow the controversial Manichaean religion, much to the despair of his mother. As a youth Augustine lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time and, in Carthage, he developed a relationship with a young woman who would be his concubine for over fifteen years. During this period he had a son, with the young woman. His education and early career was in philosophy and rhetoric. Disturbed by the immature behavior of the students in Carthage, in 383 he moved to Rome, where he believed the best and brightest rhetoricians practiced. However, Augustine was disappointed with the Roman schools. Once the time came for his students to pay their fees they simply fled. Manichaean friends introduced him to the prefect of the City of Rome, Symmachus, who had been asked to provide a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan.

In the summer of 386, after having read an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert which greatly inspired him, Augustine underwent a profound personal crisis and decided to convert to Christianity, abandon his career in rhetoric, quit his teaching position in Milan, give up any ideas of marriage, and devote himself entirely to serving God and the practices of priesthood, which included celibacy. He would detail his spiritual journey in his famous Confessions, which became a classic of both Christian theology and literature. Ambrose baptized Augustine, on Easter Vigil in 387 in Milan, and soon thereafter in 388 he returned to Africa.

Augustine died on August 28, 430, at the age of 75, during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals. He is said to have encouraged its citizens to resist the attacks, primarily on the grounds that the Vandals adhered to the Arian heresy. It is also said that he died just as the Vandals were tearing down the city walls of Hippo.

Basilides: A Gnostic teacher who lived and taught in Alexandria during the reigns of Emperor Hadrian (117-138) and Antoninius Pius (138-161). It is said (by his opponents) that he believed souls migrate from body to body and that persons do not sin if they lie to protect the body from martyrdom.

Benedict of Nursia: (c. 480-547). Benedict is regarded by many as the most important figure in the history of Western monasticism. Benedict founded a number of monasteries, the most notable found at Montecassino (Italy), but his most lasting influence was his famous Rule popularly referred to as “The Rule of St. Benedict.” The Rule outlines the theological and inspirational foundation of the monastic ideal while also legislating the shape and organization of the cenobitic (community) life.

Edward Blyden (1832-1912) Blyden was an Americo-Liberian educator, writer, diplomat, and politician in Liberia and Sierra Leone. He was born in Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (then under Danish rule) to free parents on August 3, 1832. Blyden arrived in Liberia in 1850 and was soon deeply involved in its development. As a writer, Blyden is regarded widely as the Father of Pan-Africanism; his major work, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (1887), put forward the idea that Islam, a major religion in sub-Saharan Africa, has a much more unifying and fulfilling effect on sub-Saharan Africans, while Christianity, also a major religion in Africa which was mostly introduced by its European colonizers, had a demoralizing effect. This idea would play a major role in the 20th-century revival of Islam among African-Americans, which ran parallel to the rejection of Christianity as a white man's religion.

Cassiodorus (c. 485-c. 580). Founder of the monastery of Vivarium, Calabria (southern Italy), where monks transcribed classic sacred and secular texts, Greek and Latin, preserving them for the Western tradition.

Caesarius of Arles: (c. 470-543). Bishop of Arles renowned for his attention to his pastoral duties. Among his surviving works the most important is a collection of some 238 sermons that display an ability to preach Christian doctrine to a variety of audiences.

Charlemagne meaning Charles the Great (742/747 – 28 January 814) King of the Franks from 768 to his death. During his reign he expanded the kingdom into a Frankish Empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. On 25 December 800, he was crowned Imperator Augustus by Pope Leo III, in an attempted revival of the Roman Empire in the West. Charlemagne, through his internal reforms and military conquests, would help define Western Europe and the Middle Ages.

Clement of Alexandria: See Major Figures

Constantine: (c. 272-337) He was the son of Constantius Chlorus and Helena, and raised in the court of Diocletian. In 306, after his father’s death he was proclaimed emperor of the West by the local troops. Constantine fought to unify his leadership against the “usurper” Maxentius, who he finally defeated at the Milvian Bridge near Rome. From 312 onwards, Constantine openly trusted the God the Christians. He enacted laws that favored the Christians, and in 313 he issued the “edict of Milan” with Licinius, the emperor of the East, which declared Christianity a legal religion. In 324, he defeated Licinius and became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. In 330, he moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, and renamed the city Constantinople. He was baptized right before his death.

Cyprian: The bishop of Carthage. Most likely born at the beginning of the 3rd century and served as bishop from 248/49 until he was put to death by sword on September 14, 258. Cyprian was born into one the leading families of Carthage. He was wealthy and well educated. Under the influence of the presbyter Caecilian, he converted to Christianity in his early to mid-forties. After his baptism, he gave away a large part of his wealth, and soon after was elected bishop of Carthage.  A year later the Decian persecution broke out. Cyprian escaped the persecution and hid in the countryside. He remained in contact with the community through extensive correspondence. Upon his return he was caught up in an embittered conflict brought about by the problem with how to deal with those Christians who had denied their faith during the persecution and later sought readmission to the church (lapsi). 

Cyril of Alexandria: see Major Figures

Demetrius of Alexandria: The bishop of Alexandria from 189 to 232. After the persecution of Septimius Severus, he appointed the young Origen to teach the basics of the Christian faith to those wishing to become members of the Christian church. For a variety of reasons Origen and Demetrius had a falling out. Demetrius angered by Origen’s ordination in Palestine, called a gathering of bishops and priests to condemn Origen. This necessitated Origen’s departure from Egypt.

Didymus the Blind: see Major Figures

Diocletian (Roman Emperor):  A soldier from Illyricum (Dalmatia). In 284, he gained power over the Roman Empire with the support of the army.  He initiated much needed reforms.  He massively reorganized the empire on a military basis and split provinces to prevent governors from becoming too powerful. He enhanced his own powers, reducing those of aristocratic senators, and produced a large volume of edicts to establish law and order. He divided the government of the Roman Empire between East and West, taking the East for himself. Not all his reforms were successful he attempted to control inflation by fixing prices by edict and thereby driving goods off the market. For the first nineteen years of his reign persecution of the church was not his policy, and the church prospered in numbers. But the infiltration of Christianity in high places, mainly through gov­ernors' wives, and in the high command of the army caused alarm. As a result he instituted one of the most vicious persecutions directed towards Christians. His persecution severely affected the East and North Africa. Disagreements in the church about the point at which one could not compromise left a legacy of schisms in the Nile valley and in North Africa, where the rancor of the Donatist schism persisted until the Muslim invasions.

Evagrius of Pontus: (c. 345-399) Disciple and teacher of the ascetic life who astutely absorbed and creatively transmitted the spirituality of Egyptian and Palestinian monasticism of the late fourth century. Although Origenist elements of his writings were formally condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II, 553 A.D.), his literary corpus continued to influence the tradition of the church. He was born at Ibora, a town located on the shores of the Black Sea. He received his early formation from the church fathers known as the Cappadocians. Basil of Caesarea ordained him as a reader and he accompanied Gregory of Nazianzus to Constantinople. In 382, he had to leave Constantinople because of a love affair. He fled to Jerusalem and stayed with Melania the Elder and Rufinus. About 383 he withdrew to Egypt and settled in Nitrian desert (Egypt). Two years later he moved to Callae, where he lived until his death in 399.   

Fulgentius of Ruspe: (c. 467-532). The bishop of Ruspe and author of many orthodox sermons and tracts, which reveal the influence of Augustine.

Edward Gibbon: (1737–1794) An English historian and Member of Parliament. His most important work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. The History is known principally for the quality of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open scorn of organized religion.

Gregory the Great: (c. 540-604). Pope from 590-604. He was the fourth and last of the Latin "Doctors of the Church." He was a prolific author and a powerful unifying force within the Latin Church, initiating the liturgical reform that brought about the Grego­rian Sacramentary and Gregorian chant.

Adolf von Harnack: (May 7, 1851–June 10, 1930) A German theologian and prominent church historian. He produced a number of religious publications from 1873-1912. Harnack traced the influence of Hellenistic philosophy on early Christian writing and called on Christians to question the authenticity of doctrines that arose in the early Christian church. He rejected the gospel of John in favor of the synoptic gospels, criticized the Apostles' Creed, and promoted the social gospel.

Honorius: (d. 648) The 5th bishop of Canterbury. A monk in the monastery of St. Andrew in Rome was asked by Pope Gregory the Great to becomee a missionary to England.

John Cassian: (360-432). Author of the Institutes and the Conferences, works purporting to relay the teachings of Egyptian monastic fathers on the nature of the spiritual life.  These works were highly in­fluential in the development of Western monasticism.

John of Damascus: (c. 650-750). An Arab monastic and theologian whose writings enjoyed great in­fluence in both the Eastern and Western Churches. His most influential writing was the Orthodox Faith.

Leo the Great: (regn. 440-461). Bishop of Rome whose Tome to Flavian helped to strike a balance between Nestorian and Cyrilline positions at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Lactintius: (c. 260-c. 330). Christian apologist removed from his post as teacher of rhetoric at Nicomedia upon his conversion to Christianity. He was tutor to the son of Constantine and au­thor of The Divine Institutes.

Marius Victorinus: (b. c. 280/285; fl. c. 355-363) Grammarian of African origin who taught rhetoric in Rome and translated works of Platonists. In 354, he was honored with a statue in the Forum of Trajan.  His conversion to the Christian faith (c. 355), made a deep impression on Augustine. After his conversion, he wrote against the Arians and composed commentaries on Paul’s letters.

Minucius Feleix: (second or third century). Chris­tian apologist who was an advocate for Christian beliefs in Rome. His Octavius agrees at numerous points with the Apologeticum of Tertullian. His birthplace is believed to be in Africa..

Monica: The mother of Augustine. Born in 331 to a devoutly Catholic family of Berber descent in a remote inland Numidian town (Thagaste.) Married Patricius, a pagan and member of the town council. She was 23 when her first son Augustine was born.

Optatus of Milevis: A 4th century Bishop of Milevis in Numidia. He was African by birth and most likely became a Christian as an adult. We do not know many other details concerning his life. We do know, through Jerome, that sometime between 364-and 367 he wrote six books against Parmenian, a Donatist bishop in Carthage. This work has value both historically and theologically. First, he gathered a large number of documents that are useful in reconstructing the events surrounding the Donatist dispute. Second, his distinction between heresy and schism in terms of a theology of the church would become helpful for future theologians addressing these issues. Finally, his thinking on the unity of the church and the value of the sacraments in relation to those who administer them, anticipates arguments later put forward by Augustine.

Origen: Origen was born in Alexandria in 185 or 186.  He was thoroughly educated in the Christian scriptures from an early age and received a standard classical education.  Origen’s father, Leonides, was imprisoned and beheaded during Emperor Septimius Severus persecution against the church.  Afterwards, Origen, as the eldest son, supported himself and his family by teaching as a grammaticus.  Sometime in his early twenties, he sold his father’s library and supported himself by the proceeds. This allowed him to focus his efforts wholly on the study and teaching of scripture. 

Origen’s career as a Christian writer can be divided into three periods: Alexandrian, Palestinian Caesarea and his time in Palestinian Caesarea after the persecution of Maximinus.  Origen began his writing career in Alexandria at the request of Ambrose, a convert from Valentinianism.  Ambrose supplied Origen with stenographers, who recorded his Alexandrian lectures, and later, his sermons in Caesarea.  It was during this period that he composed his Commentary on Lamentations, On First Principles and the first five books of his Commentary on John. Though we are unsure when he began
writing in Alexandria we do know his Alexandrian period ended in 231, or as Eusebius  records, upon his departure for Caesarea in the tenth year of the reign of Alexander Severus.

Shortly after his move to Caesarea in Palestine, Origen took refuge in Caesarea in Cappadocia during the persecution of Maximinus.  Before his departure, he resumed his work on books 6-10 of his Commentary on John, and composed both On Prayer and Exhortation to Martyrdom.  Following the death of Maximinus, Origen returned to Caesarea and established a Christian schola.  It was during this period that he finished his Commentary on John, probably by 241 or 242.  During a long stay in Athens, he composed five books on The Song of Songs, finishing another five upon his return to Caesarea.  Commentaries on Romans and Matthew were finished towards the end of his life, along with his final work, the eight volume Against Celsus.

During the period in Caesarea, Origen preached a number of homilies that were recorded by scribes.  It is believed that he originally preached almost 600 sermons during this period, though only 279 homilies survived in written form. Only a few survived in Greek: twenty homilies on Jeremiah, one on 1 Samuel, Homily on the Witch of Endor, and fragments of his homilies on Luke and Matthew.  Rufinus’ Latin translations exist for Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Joshua.  Latin translations made by Jerome are also available.

Orosius: (b. c. 380). Mentored by Augustine, he was an outspoken critic of Pelagius.  His Seven Books of History Against the Pagans was perhaps the first history of Christianity.

Pachomius: (C. 292-347). Popularly referred to as founder of cenobitic (community) monasticism, he was born in Upper Egypt, south of Thebes, to pagan parents. At the age of twenty (312), he was drafted into the Roman army. At the beginning of his military service, Pachomius and the other recruits were locked up in prison.  Tired, hungry, and frightened they were visited by local Christians, who provided them food and drink. Pachomius was genuinely touched by their kindness, and the experience would later shape his view of Christianity and monasticism. In 313 he was baptized, three years later he became a monk and apprenticed under Palamon the hermit. After seven years, he settled in the abandoned village of Tabennesi (Upper Egypt), where others joined him. At his death in 347 over five thousand monks lived in the nine monasteries he had founded.

Pantaenus: Formerly a Stoic philosopher, he directed a school in Alexandria. He had a profound influence on Clement of Alexandria. It is believed that he died around 200.

Patrick: (b. ca. 389) Patrick was born in Roman Britain. He was captured by pirates at age sixteen and taken to Ireland. According to tradition after his return to Britian, he decided to enter into ministry. After a period of training, he returned, as a bishop, to Ireland in 432. It was at this point that he accomplished his most important work the evangelization of the remaining pagan parts of Ireland.

Perpetua and Felicitas: Martyred March 7, 203 in Carthage. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas is one of most important texts concerning the acts of the martyrs. An anonymous author incorporated the autobiographical prison notes of Vibia Perpetua, a local noble woman, and Saturus. The Passion comes down in two texts, one Greek and the other Latin, the original version.

Philo: A very influential Jewish philosopher that lived during the time of Jesus. He was raised in a very wealthy Alexandrian business family and received an excellent Greek education.  Though he was an ascetic and committed to live the contemplative life, he seems to have performed the work of a rabbi. Most of his works were on biblical interpretation and were widely read by Christian writers such as: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose. His integration of Greek philosophical thought and Jewish theological convictions had a profound influence on the biblical interpretation, theology, and spirituality of the early African Christian writers.

Plotinus: (204/205 – 270) an influential philosopher of the third century, usually credited with being the founder of Neo-Platonism. In 232/33, he became a student of Ammonias Saccas, an important teacher of philosophy in Alexandria, and the teacher of Origen. After Ammonias death in 243, Plotinus joined Emperor Gordian III’s Persian expedition to gain a better understanding of Persian religion. After the failure of the campaign against the Persians, Plotinus traveled to Antioch and then to Rome where he settled and began his teaching career. For the first ten years of his teaching career, he only lectured and did not produce any treatises. In the first year of the emperor Gallienus he began to write and by the end of his life he composed forty-five treatises.

Primasius: (fl. 550-560). Bishop of Hadrumetum in North Africa (modern Tunisia) and one of the few Africans to support the condemnation of the Three Chapters. Drawing on Augustine and Tyconius, he wrote a commentary on the Apocalypse, which in allegorizing fashion views the biblical book as referring to the history of the church.

Prosper of Aquitaine: (c. 390-c. 463) Most likely a lay monk, who supported the theology of Augus­tine on grace and predestination. He collaborated closely with Pope Leo I in his doctrinal statements.

Septimius Severus: (146-211) Born in Leptis Magnus (Libya) and died in York. He served as emperor from 193-211. For most of his reign he exercised tolerance towards Christians. At the beginning of the third century, his policy towards Christians changed. In 202, an imperial decree made it illegal for Jews and Christians to proselytize. The church in Africa was particularly targeted. Origen’s father, Leonides was martyred during Septimius Severus’ reign. It was also during this period, confirmed by Tertullian, that the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas was recorded.

Shenute of Atripe: (c. 350-466). Abbot of Athribis in Egypt. His large monastic community was known for its very strict rules. He accompanied Cyril of Alexandria to the Council of Ephesus in 431, where he played an important role in de­posing Nestorius. He knew Greek but wrote in Coptic, and his literary activity includes homi­lies, catecheses on monastic subjects, letters, and a couple of theological treatises.

Synesius of Cyrene: (ca.370- ca.413) Elected bishop of Ptolemais in 410 despite his reservations. He was born in Cyrene (Libya) to a prominent pagan family. Well educated, he studied with the famed Neoplatonic philosopher Hypatia in Alexandria. He was sent to Constantinople in 399 to seek a reduction in taxes from the emperor for the region of Pentapolis. Succeeding in his mission he returned to Cyrene in 402. Though we do not know when he was baptized we do know he entered into Christian marriage in Alexandria before 404. During his tenure, he faced a number of difficulties—the deaths of his children, loss of friendships, and persistent and bloody invasions by raiding nomadic tribes. 

Tertullian (c.155-c.225) Brilliant theologian and apologist who laid the foundations of Christology and Trinitarian orthodoxy in the West. Much of what we know about the life of Tertullian is gleaned from his writings and those of Jerome. He was born at Carthage into a pagan family.  He received a comprehensive education in which included the study law and rhetoric. He converted sometime before 197, possibly attracted by the exemplary lives of the martyrs. Between 197 and 214 Tertullian composed a number of works on various aspects of the Christian life and works on defending the Christian faith. Thirty-one works survive from the period. His rigorous tendencies led him in about 207 to take up Montanism, a charismatic movement that claimed to be initiating the age of the Spirit. He later founded a church of his own, on the fringe of Montanism. 

Tyconius: (c. 330-390) Little biographical information is available on Tyconius. He was from North Africa. Originally a Donatist, he was ousted from the Donatist church (c. 380) at the Council of Carthage because he argued that the one true church was not limited to Africa. His most important work was Liber Regularum. Composed in ca 380, it was the first manual of scriptural interpretation produced in the Latin West.

Valentinus: (100-161AD) The leading Gnostic theologian of his day. Valentinus was born in Phrebonis in the Nile delta and educated in Alexandria. There he may have heard the Christian philosopher Basilides and certainly became familiar with Hellenistic Middle Platonic philosophy. Valentinus taught first in Alexandria and then in Rome. He arrive in Rome before 140 AD and taught there for at least fifteen years. Tertullian claims that Valentinus departed from the rule of faith when, contrary to his expectations, was not elected to the office of bishop. According to a later tradition, he withdrew to Cyprus, where he continued to teach and draw adherents. He most likely died about 160 or 161 AD.

Verecundus: (d. 552). An African Christian writer, who took an active part in the Christological controversies of the sixth century, especially in the debate on the Three Chapters. He also wrote alle­gorical commentaries on the nine liturgical church canticles.

Victor I: The bishop of Rome from approximately 189-198. A native of Africa his date of birth is unknown. He intervened in theological disputes outside the community of Rome. He argued against Polycartes, the bishop of Ephesus, for the celebration of Easter on Sunday rather than on the 14th of Nisan, as traditionally practiced in Asia.

Victor of Vita: The bishop of an unknown city in Byzacena from 480/1-484. He is the author of a very important treatise on the history of the Vandal persecution in Africa.

Scilli martyrs: (Died July 17, 180 AD) refers to twelve martyrs who came from Scilli, an unidentified place in Africa Proconsularis. Their names were recorded as Aquilinus, Cittinus, Donata, Felix, Generosa, Januaria,  Laetantius, Nartzalus,  Speratus, Secunda, Vestia, and Veturius. Relics of the martyrs were safeguarded at Dermech, near Carthage, and Kherbet Oum el Ahdam.  A basilica was built in their honor near the monastery of Biguas in Africa. In the time of Charlemagne, their bones were placed in St. John’s basilica at Lyons, France. The “Acts of the martyrs of Scilli” is the earliest Christian work in Latin.