Scriptures and Literature

Ethiopian Christian literature is often said to be essentially a literature of translation. It is true that a good part of this literature, particularly from the earlier centuries of Christianity in Ethiopia, is translated. Thus, aside from the Bible itself, which was translated in the first instance from the Greek over an extended period from the late fifth to the late seventh century, if the traditional completion date of 678 is accepted, other translations were made during the same period. For instance, the De recta fide (Haymanot Rata't in Ge'ez) of Cyril Alexandria, together with other writings by Cyril and a number of other patristic texts collectively known as the Qerallos, forms one of the primary theological source texts of the Ethiopian Church. Other Christian literature that was translated during Aksumite times includes the Rule of Pachomius, a number of hagiographical works such as the Life of St Paul of Thebes, known as the Gadla 'Azqir, and from secular works, the Physiologus or Fisalgos.

The Ethiopian text of the Old Testament was initially translated from the Greek Septuagint, but shows signs of later revision from a Syriac source, and the New Testament was translated from the Lucianic recension of the Greek Bible, which was prevalent in the See of Antioch. Both of these are strongly indicative of the Syrian influences on the early Ethiopian Church, and seem to confirm the tradition that the Nine Saints were involved in the first translations of the Bible into Ge'ez. Additionally, the whole text of the Ethiopian Bible underwent a further revision in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries on the basis of Coptic-Arabic versions, most prominently during the long episcopate (1348-88) of Abuna Salama the Translator, the cognomen of Fiqtor I. The Ethiopian Bible contains a number of books not found in the western canon, including the so-called deuterocanonical books, such as the Ascension of Isaiah and the Paralipomena of Baruch, as well as the Books of Noah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Maccabees, Moses and Tobit; in addition to these it also adds a couple of books unique to the Ethiopian canon: the Book of Enoch, the complete version of which now only exists in the Ge'ez translation, and the Book of Jubilees, also known as Deutero-Genesis or Kufale in Ge'ez. The Ethiopian New Testament contains 35 books, uniquely including The Shepherd of Hermas. It should also be borne in mind that, as with several other Eastern Churches, there is no definitive canonical text of the Ethiopian Bible.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, particularly the reigns of 'Amda S. ayon (1314-44) and Zar'a Ya'qob (1434-68), saw a resurgence of translation activity, this time from Coptic literature in Arabic: liturgical texts such as the Coptic Horologion, Mashafa Sa'atat, the Rites for the Dead, Mashafa Ganzat, the Lectionary for Holy Week, Gabra Hamamat, the Homilies of John Chrysostom and Jacob of Sarug, and the Praise of Mary, Waddase Maryam, and also a large number of hagiographies, of Coptic and other Eastern saints, martyrs and Church Fathers, and so on. From the same period indigenous hagiographies, gadlat, or 'struggles' in Ge'ez, also start to be written, such as those of Takla Haymanot, 'Iyasus Mo'a and Basalota Mika'el, to name but the most famous. The great Alexandrian Synaxarium or Sankasar was also translated by the end of 'Amda Sayon's reign and was soon greatly expanded by the addition of commemorative chapters on Ethiopian saints. Over the next century, other major texts such as the Didascalia, the Harp (or Organ) of the Virgin Mary, better known by its Ge'ez name 'Arganon, and the Miracles of Mary, Ta'ammara Maryam, were translated. The latter genre provided one of the most fertile grounds for Ethiopian literature: the original text of the Miracles of Mary contained 32 miracles, but the largest known Ethiopian collections to date comprise over 300. Collections of miracles, of Jesus Christ and other leading saints of the Ethiopian Church, such as St Michael the Archangel, are among the most popular types of religious literature even today. Another popular devotional genre, poetry or hymns known as malka' or 'likeness', particularly in praise of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, also originated in this period, as did the religious poetry known as qane which makes use of allusion and double meaning. Aside from hagiographies, original works of this period are such as the Book of Mysteries, Mashafa Mastir, the Book of the Nativity, Mashafa Ladat, and the magical work, The Disciples, or 'Arda't. Often ascribed to King Zar'a Ya'qob himself, or certainly composed under his direct influence, is the apologetic work known as the Book of Light, Mashafa Barhan. The great collection of apologetic and doctrinal writings of the Church Fathers known as the Faith of the Fathers, or Haymanota 'Abaw, was translated from Arabic at the end of the fifteenth century. It has also been suggested that the basic liturgical works, the Ma'raf and the Mawasa't were composed only at the very end of the thirteenth century, although they are ascribed to the sixth century St Yared, the traditional creator of Ethiopian sacred music and chant. From later literature, the anti-Islamic apologetic, the Gate of Faith or 'Anqasa 'Amin, written by the Yemeni convert 'Hnbaqom, who became the Abbot of the great monastery of Dabra Libanos, also deserves mention.

Lastly, an enormous body of biblical exegesis and theology of the Ethiopian Church is transmitted orally in the traditional system of andamta commentary, which takes its name from the Amharic andam 'and one [says]', which often introduces the Amharic paraphrase and discussion of each Ge'ez phrase from scripture analysed. Only a small part of this exegetical tradition has been written down and consequently become known to western scholars (Cowley 1988).

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