Legend and early history

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one the oldest officially adopted and still flourishing national churches in the world. Like most of the other ancient churches it seeks to place its origins in apostolic times, a wish that finds ready support in the confusion of the exact meaning of the name Ethiopia where it occurs in the Greek Bible. There the term is either a general label for Africa south of Egypt, or more specifically refers to ancient Nubia, the Kush of the Hebrew text. Thus it is a teaching of the Church today that Christianity was brought to the country by the so-called Ethiopian eunuch, the servant of the Meroitic (i.e., Nubian) Queen Candace, whose meeting with the Apostle Philip is recounted in Acts 8: 26-40. The reported evangelization and subsequent martyrdom of the Apostle Matthew in Ethiopia in the apocryphal Gabra Hawaryat (Ethiopian Acts of the Apostles), a tradition substantiated by the Roman Martyrology, also seeks to place the evangelization of the country in the earliest times. It is indeed not unlikely that small Christian communities existed in the early centuries of the Christian era, especially in the Aksumite capital and in Adulis, the principal sea port on the Red Sea coast, as Aksum's power and prosperity arose from its importance as a trading centre located on the crossroads of both African and Indian Ocean routes heading up the Red Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean. To date, however, no archaeological or other evidence of such probably very small and constantly changing communities has come to light.

It is only in the fourth century that we can be sure of the presence of the Christian Church in Ethiopia, with the official adoption of Christianity as the religion of the royal court, mostly probably in 333 during the patriarchate of Athanasius of Alexandria. The story of the conversion of the country is recounted first by Rufinus of Tyre (c.345-410), who had the story from Aedesius, one of the protagonists. Frumentius and his brother Aedesius, both native Christians from Tyre, were shipwrecked on the Red Sea coast. The two boys were taken as slaves to the royal court, and Frumentius became tutor to the king's son and Aedesius his cup-bearer. As members of the royal household and close companions to the royal family they were in an excellent position to teach the Christian faith, and a small community soon developed. Rufinus also mentions that 'Roman merchants who were Christians' were given increasing influence under Fru-mentius' tutelage. Upon the succession of their erstwhile student and companion, Aedesius returned to Tyre, but Frumentius went to Alexandria to seek a bishop for the growing Ethiopian community. Athanasius made him Bishop of Ethiopia and he returned to be the first in a long line of bishops appointed by the See of Alexandria. (See Munro-Hay 1997: 59-60 for the full account.) Versions of this story are repeated by other early writers, such as Theodoret of Cyrrhus and John of Nikiu, and it is also recounted in the Ethiopian Sankasar (Synaxarium). Archaeological support for the story is to be found in a most graphic way in the change of design on Aksumite coins from the pagan sun and crescent moon symbol to the cross, and the use in royal inscriptions of dedicatory phrases to the 'Lord of Heaven and Earth', replacing the old pagan dedications to the triad of gods, Mahram, Baher and Madr. The choice of the term 'Lord of Heaven and Earth', and the absence of any overt mention of Christ, is probably not without significance.

The conversion of Ethiopia at this time was essentially a 'top-down' process, and the evidence is that the majority of the ordinary population retained their traditional religious beliefs and practices. It has been suggested that there might have been a political element in the conversion; Aksum was keen to preserve cordial relations with Constantinople, and it may have seemed expedient on an international front to show support so soon after Constantine's decision to make Christianity the official religion of the empire. At the same time, the ambiguous term in the inscriptions would not be too antagonistic to the home audience, since the names of the old pagan gods Baher and Madr can be translated as 'land' and 'earth', respectively. Indeed, the former is still retained in one of the Ethiopian names of God, gziabaher, literally 'lord of the land (or world)'.

It appears, then, that at first Christianity was essentially confined to the circle of the royal court, and the scriptures remained in Greek, a language certainly familiar at the time to the educated elite. It was not until the very end of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth century that the process of translating the scriptures into Ge'ez was begun. This event is associated with the arrival in Ethiopia of a group of holy men from 'Rome', i.e., various cities in the Eastern Mediterranean, remembered in Ethiopian tradition as the 'Nine Saints' or SSadaqan. These missionaries probably fled to Ethiopia to escape anti-Miaphysite persecution and seem to have come from various places in the Eastern Mediterranean: Constantinople, Syria, Cilicia, Caesarea. Several of their names reflect variously Greek- and Syriac-speaking origins: Pantalewon, Liqanos, 'Afse, 'Alef, Sahma, Guba, Yam'ata, Garima or Yashaq, and Za-Mika'el 'Aragawi (Sergew Hable Sellassie 19 70: 115ff.). To them, and to other missionaries who are likely to have accompanied them, are attributed not only the translation of the Bible and other important texts, such as the Rule of Pachomius and probably the De recta fide of Cyril of Alexandria, but also the foundation of monasteries and the spreading of Christianity to the country areas away from the capital and the court. They came to occupy a cherished position in later hagiographical tradition, which surely testifies to their success in propagating the faith amongst ordinary Ethiopians. By the middle of the sixth century Aksum had become a major Christian power, such that Kaleb and his son Gabra Masqal, two of the successors of the king who adopted Christianity, were able to mount military campaigns into Yemen at the request of Constantinople in defense of the Christians of Najran and San'a. The events of those campaigns are recalled in the Qur'an in the story of 'Abraha and the Year of the Elephant.

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