The Curious Case of Ethiopian Orthodoxy
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the third largest Christian denomination in the world, but most Western Christians know very little about their ancient roots, their miraculous success against Islam, or their peculiar traditions. This article will focus on the formative events of the EOTC. Brief comments on their later history and customs are included with recommended readings for those who want to know more.
The EOTC traces its faith back to the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9. The “Kebra Nagast” gives her name as Queen Makada. Ethiopians identify Sheba as the city of Saba,1 from which Queen Makada ruled Eastern Africa and Southern Arabia.2 According to the “Kebra Nagast,” Israel’s King Solomon married and impregnated Queen Makada during her visit to Israel recorded in the Bible. The “Kebra Nagast” also details how Solomon’s son by Makada, traveled to Israel as an adult to meet his father and returned to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant.
Regardless of how one views the “Kebra Nagast,” Jewish migration to Ethiopia after the destruction of the first Jewish temple is well attested historically and genetically.3 In Acts 2:8-12, Luke listed visitors during Pentecost as coming from several African regions. He showed no surprise, much less a need for explanation, regarding the fact that Philip ministered to an Ethiopian near Jerusalem in Acts 8.
The EOTC proudly celebrates the eunuch of Acts 8, listing his name as Barosh and stating that he was an effective evangelist upon his return to Ethiopia. After Barosh, some Christian traditions say that the apostle Nathaniel (also called Bartholomew) preached in Ethiopia. Ancient historians including Eusebius of Caesarea and Socrates of Constantinople agree that the Apostle Matthew preached in Ethiopia and was martyred there.
Whatever success Barosh, Nathaniel, and Matthew may have had in evangelizing Ethiopia, we have little historical record of Ethiopian Christianity between the death of Matthew and the national politicizing of Christianity there in the fourth century. The EOTC views the intervening years between the apostles and national conversion as enjoying Christianity, but without the added benefits of ecclesiastical structure and liturgy.4
In the early 300’s, a Christian a youth from Lebanon named Frumentius was sold as a slave to the Ethiopian Empire, the third largest empire in the world at the time after Rome and Persia. Frumentius earned the trust of the emperor and was granted freedom prior to the emperor’s death. Frumentius worked for the spread of Christianity in Ethiopia. He then traveled to Egypt, asking Archbishop Athanasius of Alexandria to send priests to Ethiopia. Instead, Athanasius appointed Frumentius in AD 328 and sent him back as a bishop. In AD 330, Ethiopian Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity and declared Ethiopia to be a Christian empire.
After the Council of Nicea, the heretic Arius regained Roman Emperor Constantine’s approval, who then exiled Archbishop Athanasius, the same person who had appointed Frumentius. After Constantine’s death, his son Constantius appointed the Arian heretic Eusebius of Nicomedia as Archbishop of Constantinople. Constantius sent an Arian bishop to Ethiopia as well, asking for Frumentius to be removed from office. Ethiopia refused and was the sole orthodox Christian Empire at that time. Her loyalty to the Alexandrian archbishops continues to this day.
A century after Athanasius of Alexandria, the Council of Chalcedon deposed Archbishop Dioscorus of Alexandria just as the Council of Ephesus had done to Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople 20 years before. The council revolved around how to define the union of Jesus’ divine nature with His human nature, in order to defend it against the “monophysite” heresy of Eutyches. Dioscorus maintained that the two natures were united as one nature “without separation, without confusion, and without change.”5 His view is called “miaphysite,” reflecting the words of Cyril of Alexandria concerning the incarnation of Jesus as: “mia physis.” The prevailing view at Chalcedon held instead, that the two natures were united as two natures (diaphysite).
Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians remained loyal to Dioscorus, despite the Council of Chalcedon. Along with Armenian Christians and many believers in Syria and the Persian Empire, all those who rejected the new line of Alexandrian archbishops imposed by Roman emperors became known as Oriental Orthodox churches, rejected by Chalcedonian Christians as heretics. The most familiar form of Oriental Orthodoxy to Westerners are the Coptic Christians of Egypt, 21 of whom were famously martyred by ISIS in 2015 on a Libyan beach.
TRADITIONS OF THE EOTC
Long before Americans invented “Messianic Judaism,” Ethiopian Orthodoxy wove Jewish traditions into their faith far more intensively than any other branch of the Christians. They baptize infant boys at 40 days and girls at 80 days according the Jewish purification schedule in Leviticus 12:1-5 and Luke 2:22. They observe Jewish dietary laws, and they regard Saturday as a Sabbath day of rest in addition to Sunday as the Lord’s Day. The Ethiopian Liturgy revolves around the Ark of the Covenant. Every church contains a “tabot,” a replica of the Ark; and their liturgy strictly demands the presence of a tabot.
The official list of Holy Scriptures varies slightly among different Christian traditions, but the EOTC has the widest canon of all. Their 81 books include 45 in the Old Testament and 36 in the New.6 The EOTC is the only pre-Reformation branch of Christianity which does not recognize Maccabees I and II as Scripture. Instead, they have three unique books under the similar title of “Meqabyan.” The most famous books of their Old Testament are Enoch and Jubilees, both of which have been translated into English. Their 9 additional New Testament books mostly consist of Church rules and orders. Their most intriguing New Testament books to outsiders might be the letter written by Peter to Clement of Rome, simply titled “Clement,” and “The Book of the Covenant.” The latter primarily presents church orders, but ends with a discourse by Jesus after His resurrection. Neither one of these has been translated into English to date.
While a full list of EOTC traditions would fill several books, we should at least note here how successfully the EOTC has co-opted the customs and holidays of other religions for the twin purposes of introducing outsiders to the faith and enriching the understanding of current adherents. In some Protestant circles, it has become popular to criticize the Roman church for synthesizing pagan customs into Christmas and Easter. Yet the EOTC takes great pride in assimilating the practices of others and overlaying them with Christian themes for the building up of the faithful. For example Meskel, one of the most important Ethiopian holidays, celebrates Saint Helena’s discovery of the cross of Calvary in Jerusalem in AD 330. Ethiopians celebrate both Meskel and the previous evening, known as Demera, with bonfires, holiday foods, special attire, and singing from door to door. Originally celebrated in March, Meskel was moved to September, conveniently replacing ancient pagan celebrations of the changing seasons and the coming harvests.
THE CURIOUS CASE
Thanks in part to our bias against non-Chalcedonians, we in the West know tragically little about the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. When Islam overran nearly the entire continent, Ethiopia did not fall. When European colonization controlled almost all of Africa, Ethiopia alone defeated a European invader (Italy). When our modern maps of Christian persecution reflect Ethiopia as a haven between brutal Somalia and Sudan, Western Christians fail to ask why. The EOTC does not define Jesus’ incarnation with exactly the terminology that many of us prefer, but they have been Africa’s city on a hill (the Ethiopian plateau) since the fourth century AD. Or perhaps they have been so since the days of the Apostle Matthew and the eunuch of Acts chapter 8, Barosh. I found “An Ethiopian Orthodox Reading of the Bible” by Keon-Sang An to be the most helpful resource. In it, An focuses primarily on the hermeneutics of the EOTC but also offers much historical and cultural information. The ancient book, “Kebra Nagast,” will seem like fictitious legend to many Westerners, but many Ethiopians consider it a holy book and treasure it as their national saga. I personally enjoyed the book. Due to the importance of “Kebra Nagast” in Ethiopia, I recommend it to those who want to understand the cultural mindset of the EOTC.
I found “An Ethiopian Orthodox Reading of the Bible” by Keon-Sang An to be the most helpful resource. In it, An focuses primarily on the hermeneutics of the EOTC but also offers much historical and cultural information.
The ancient book, “Kebra Nagast,” will seem like fictitious legend to many Westerners, but many Ethiopians consider it a holy book and treasure it as their national saga. I personally enjoyed the book. Due to the importance of “Kebra Nagast” in Ethiopia, I recommend it to those who want to understand the cultural mindset of the EOTC.