Ethiopia shall stretch forth
its hands to God.
Why does this Ethiopian come among us?
Ethiopian Moses, 3
References about Ethiopia and Ethiopians, like the ones above, are sprinkled throughout biblical and extra-biblical writings. Most of us are familiar with Luke’s story of the Ethiopian eunuch (a treasurer of a queen of MeroÃ«) who confessed his faith and was baptized after his encounter with the evangelist Philip (Acts 8:26-40). New Testament interpreters generally view this passage as a fulfillment of Acts 1:8, which declares Christianity is to extend to the ends of the world. Yet after the dramatic conversion experience of the Ethiopian, we hear nothing more from him, the Queen whom he represented, or the other people who may have witnessed this encounter. And though the biblical text says Christianity is to extend to the ends of the world, we who teach and research the New Testament have no readily available (or accessible) path to the world of the Ethiopians.
This is partly due to the fact that the Axumite Empire in northeast Africa (modern Tigray region of Ethiopia and Eritrea) has been one of the least studied and most widely misunderstood kingdoms of antiquity. Axum was considered one of the four great kingdoms of the ancient world alongside Persia, China, and Rome, and scholars are now acknowledging its religious, political, cultural, and economic significance. Given the vast array of ancient Christian sources written in ancient Ethiopic, my program of research includes the following objectives: 1) to identify, accumulate, and analyze the relevant primary sources that describe the development of Christianity in ancient Ethiopia; 2) to clarify the misconceptions, inaccuracies, and misuses of terms related to Ethiopia (e.g., Kush, Nubia, MeroÃ«, Axum, etc.) that are dispersed in various ancient sources and modern studies; 3) to enrich the biblical, theological, historical, and pedagogical scope of New Testament scholarship by broadening the interpretive possibilities for understanding Christian origins in light of ancient Ethiopic sources; 4) to discuss with colleagues in my discipline of New Testament studies and with colleagues across other related disciplines the need for an expanded view of antiquity that critically engages the influences of ancient Ethiopians; and 5) to share with laypersons and clergy leaders some of the rich and abundant resources about ancient Ethiopia and Ethiopians that inform the study, and responsible use, of the Bible.
My interest in this project stems from my research dealing with the symbolic representations of Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Blacks in early Christian literature (Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature; New York: Routledge, 2002). In this book, I documented both negative and positive depictions of Ethiopians and developed a theory about “ethno-political rhetoric” that explains how Christian authors utilized ethnic and color difference to symbolize certain theological, ideological, and even political intra-Christian controversies and challenges (p. 12-13).
After the publication of this book, the questions that emerged from the different audiences with whom I shared my research (M. Div. students, clergy colleagues, laypersons, and peers in the academy) challenged me to consider what may have been on the other side of the “symbolic” references to ethnic and color-coded language. To what degree does the ethno-political rhetoric actually offer any information about the historical realities of the ancient Ethiopians? How do the ancient Ethiopians describe themselves and their religious practices? What are the potential sources that might help answer these questions? Have you examined texts generated by the Ethiopians themselves? These questions forced me to admit the obvious: The Greek and Latin sources used in Symbolic Blackness reflect only one side of the story about the early Christians! Thus, I needed to gain access to a new set of sources that would help me get to the other side of the story; that is, retrieve and analyze sources that would help me recover the “forgotten” past of the ancient Ethiopians.
I began by first visiting the land of Ethiopia and touring several religious and cultural sites in the country including Axum, Lalibela, and Gondar. Axum, which still retains many of its ancient features, continues to serve as a center for pilgrimage and exploration for modern travelers because of the biblical and archaeological resources there, such as the remains of the Queen of Sheba palace, the stelae of the Ethiopian kings, and the church of St. Mary of Zion, the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. I also had an opportunity to visit the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in the capital city, Addis Ababa, which houses more than 2,000 manuscripts written in ancient Ethiopic.
After returning to the U.S., I traveled to the Howard University School of Divinity (HUSD) to review the André Tweed Collection of Ethiopian Sacred Artifacts and Manuscripts. André Reynolds Tweed (1914-1993) was a graduate of the Howard University College of Medicine in 1942, who later, in 1950, became the first board-certified African American psychiatrist in California. Dr. Tweed amassed one of the largest private collections of Ethiopian sacred artifacts in North America. The collection (comprising approximately 240 pieces) was donated to Howard shortly before his death in December 1993. It includes icons, crosses, and other religious artifacts and manuscripts (one hundred codices and fifty scrolls). The manuscripts include biblical texts, hymns, liturgical works, theological treatises, calendaric, homiletical, hagiographic, religio-magical works, medical texts, and poetry.
I was most interested in a 14th-15th century manuscript known as the Gadla Pawlos or Acts of Paul. This text, last translated in English in a 1901 collection known as The Contendings of the Apostles, demonstrates how the apostle Paul and his teachings were adapted to fit a theological, cultural, and socio-political world quite different from the Greco-Roman Empire. Paul is described as a wise teacher with “the tongue of sweet-smelling ointment which scented the Church, quite a contrast from the Paul who chastised the “foolish Galatians” (Gal. 3:1). The Ethiopic version also highlights Paul’s travels and encounters in cities such as Gahleya (ch. 13), Manfeket (ch. 14), and Warikon (ch. 15) and provides details about his ultimate martyrdom in Rome (ch. 17). There is much to be learned from this text, insights too numerous to discuss in this brief article.
My research, in some respects, is reminiscent of the experiences of the biblical researchers and twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson who, from 1892 to 1897, traveled to the Sinai Peninsula and St. Catherine’s monastery to recover manuscripts there that might shed light on the interpretation of the New Testament (Lewis & Gibson, In the Shadow of Sinai: Stories of Travel and Biblical Research; Portland: The Alpha Press, 1999, originally published in 1898). In 1892, they discovered a Syriac version of the four Gospels in a fourth-century palimpsest that was more complete than the Syriac version previously discovered in 1842. The sisters published their findings through both scholarly and ecclesial outlets (e.g., The Presbyterian Churchman) and created a legacy of scholarship that has inspired my exploration of Ethiopic sources. It is my hope that the Gadla Pawlos and the treasure trove of other ancient Ethiopic sources might become much more accessible to scholars, students, pastors, and all interpreters of the Bible so that we may consider the implications of this material for theological education and the life of the church today.
Gay L. Byron is professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y.