Judaic features

One of the most notable features of Ethiopian Christianity that has impressed itself on travellers, including the Jesuits, is the presence of a number of practices that may be identified as 'judaic' or 'Jewish-like'. The observance of a Saturday Sabbath has already been mentioned. Others are the circumcision of infant males on the eighth day, dietary laws especially regarding the eating of pork and the proper slaughter of animals for food, and rules of ritual cleanliness, for instance in regard to entering a church and participating in the Eucharist. The performance of the church service with ritual dance by the dabtaras (see 'Priesthood and Hierarchy', below) has also been likened to King David dancing before the Ark. Some of these features may be practices inherited from the early Eastern Church, especially other Semitic churches such as the Syrian. Others are certainly due to internal developments within the Ethiopian Church, which venerates the Old Testament perhaps more than other Churches. This veneration has often led to a literal application of Old Testament laws and practices, and is further reflected in the position that Ethiopia has adopted at least since the early medieval period as the successor of ancient Israel. It is externalized both through the belief that Ethiopia possesses the Ark of the Covenant, said to be housed in a chapel close by the ancient cathedral of St Mary of Zion in Aksum, and in the traditions of the epic Kabra Nagast or 'Glory of the Kings', which traces the Ethiopian royal line back to the union of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Regard for the Old Testament is also seen in the use of such nomenclature as Daqiqa Ssra'el, 'Children of Israel' and Beta Ssra'el, 'House of Israel' (Ullendorff 1968: esp. 73-115).

Incidentally, this tendency of the Ethiopian Church to imitate the Old Testament probably lies behind the origin of the so-called Ethiopian Jews or Falashas. The Amharic term falasa and its Ge'ez antecedent falasi, literally 'wanderer', was used to refer to anyone outside the pale of the orthodox Christian kingdom, secular or religious, exile or wandering holy man or heretic. Similarly, the term ayhud, 'Jew', was also used to refer to political or religious dissenters. The Ethiopian Jews, who refer to themselves as Beta Ssra'el, can only be recognized as such from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries onwards, and seemingly owe all their major institutions, including monasticism and their scriptures, to the activity of renegade Christian monks or falasi. It has been suggested that the Ethiopian Jews are another example of an Ethiopian 'heresy', arising on the frontiers of the political and ecclesiastical state, which voluntarily judaized to the extent that it refuted the Messiah in Jesus (Kaplan 1992: 77-8).

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