Ethiopian Church

views updated


ETHIOPIAN CHURCH . The Ethiopian or Abyssinian church, on the Horn of Africa, is one of the five so-called monophysite Christian churches that reject the Council of Chalcedon (451) and its formula of faith. The church does not call itself monophysite but rather Tāwaedo (Unionite; also spelled Tewahedo), a word expressing the union in Christ of the human and divine natures, to distinguish itself from the Eastern Orthodox churches, which accept the formulas accepted at Chalcedon. For the Tāwaedo Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, both Nestorius and Eutyches are heretics. Although formally under the jurisdiction of the Coptic church of Alexandria until 1950, the Ethiopian Orthodox church has managed to retain its indigenous language, literature, art, and music. It expects its faithful to practice circumcision, observe the food prescriptions set forth in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), and honor Saturday as the Sabbath. The church has its own liturgy, including an horologion that contains the daily offices (initially for each of the twenty-four hours of the day), a missal of over fourteen anaphoras, the Deggwā (an antiphonary for each day of the year), doxologies (various collections of nagś hymns), and homiliaries in honor of the angels, saints, and martyrs. The most innovative aspect of this church is the provision in the Deggwā for the chanting of qenē (poetic hymns) in the liturgy. There are several types of qenē varying in number of lines from two to eleven, which one of the clergy usually improvises during the service in keeping with the spirit of Psalms 149:1, "Sing unto the Lord a new song."

Until the Ethiopian revolution of 1974, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (the population of which was at least sixteen million in the early twenty-first century, according to the World Council of Churches) had been a national church defended by the political leader of the country. The monarch's reign had to be legitimized by the church at a religious ceremony where the new king swore allegiance to the church and committed himself to defend the Christian kingdom.

Early History

Historians disagree in assigning a date to the introduction of Christianity into Ethiopia, depending upon which Ethiopian king they think first adopted the faith. The conversion of the monarch, however, is a poor indication of the date of that introduction because not only was he by no means among the country's first converts, but also because until about 960, the monarchy changed hands so frequently that the ruler was not as consistently Christian as were certain segments of the population. We should also be wary of using the local tradition that the Ethiopian eunuch Qināqis (Acts 8:2639) was martyred teaching Christianity in Ethiopia as evidence of the country's conversion. However, we do know that Adulis, the famous port of Ethiopia, and Aksum, the capital, were frequented by Christian traders from the Hellenistic world since the early history of Christianity. Some of these settled there, forming Christian communities and attracting to their religion those with whom they interacted daily.

Ethiopia officially joined the Christian world when Frumentius was consecrated its first bishop by Athanasius of Alexandria in about 347. The contemporary historian Rufinus (Ecclesiastical History 1.9) tells us how this came about. A certain ship was attacked while calling on one of the Ethiopian ports. Of the voyagers, only two Syrian boys from Tyre (modern-day south Lebanon), Frumentius and Aedesius, escaped death. The boys were taken to the palace, where the king made Frumentius his secretary and Aedesius his cupbearer. Frumentius used his influence in the palace to facilitate the building of an oratory by the Christians in the city. This center was also used as a school where children, even those from non-Christian families, came to receive religious instruction. As soon as the two foreigners received their freedom, Frumentius went to Alexandria to ask the archbishop there to consecrate a bishop for the Christians in Ethiopia. Athanasius thereupon chose Frumentius to be the bishop of Aksum. Rufinus says that he received this story "from the mouth of Aedesius himself," who became a priest in Tyre. Even though Rufinus, like some other historians, calls the country India, there is no doubt that the story deals with Ethiopia. A letter from the Arian emperor, Constantius II (r. 337361), to the rulers of Ethiopia, Ezana (ʿĒzānā) and Sazana, concerning Frumentius is extant in Athanasius's Apology to Constantine (Patrologia Graeca, ed. by J.-P. Migne, 25. 636637). From Ezana's rule to the middle of the twentieth century, the head of the Ethiopian church remained a Copt. It was only in the twentieth century that an Ethiopian, Bāsleyos (19511970), was consecrated patriarch. It must be noted, however, that the Coptic metropolitan was in charge primarily of spiritual and theological matters. The administration of other church affairs was the responsibility of a native official with the title of ʿaqqābē saʿāt and subsequently echagē.

Medieval Period

The Ethiopian church took many significant steps forward between the fourth and the seventh century. It vigorously translated a great deal of Christian literature from Greek. This included the Old Testament from the Septuagint and the New Testament from the Lucianic recension (the Greek Bible revised by Lucian of Antioch, d. 312) used in the Syrian church. The Ethiopian Bible of eighty-one books includes the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Enoch, two books that have been preserved in their entirety only in Ethiopic. The Synodicon (a collection of canon law), the Didascalia Apostolorum (a church order), the Testament of Our Lord, and the Qalēmenos (an apocalyptic writing ascribed to Clement of Rome) are also part of the Ethiopian canonical scriptures. The number of churches and monasteries also grew quickly. Traveling through Ethiopian territories in the sixth century, a Greek monk, Cosmas Indicopleustes, was impressed to see churches everywhere.

It has been suggested that the Rule of Pachomius and the theological writings of the Fathers in the Qērelos (including writings from Cyril of Alexandria, Epiphanius, et al.) were brought to Ethiopia by the so-called Nine Saints who came from the Hellenistic or Mediterranean world, including Egypt, in the sixth or seventh century. But any of the many travelers and anchorites (such as Abbā Yoannes Kamā) who came to Ethiopia much earlier than the Nine Saints might have brought them along with several other works. Our historical knowledge about the Nine Saints is not firmly based even though they are highly revered in the church as the founders of monasticism in Ethiopia.

Unfortunately for the faithful, the young church suffered encroachment and harassment by Islam, starting in the eighth century. Locally, too, a vassal queen of one of the provinces, Gudit, revolted and devastated the Christian civilization, paving the way for another dynasty, the Zāgwē (11371270).

The Zāgwē kings were more interested in religion than in politics. Many of them were priests as well as rulers, and the last four of the dynasty are, in fact, among the saints of the church. The building of the several rock-hewn churches in Lāstā (central Ethiopia) is ascribed to them. The so-called Solomonic dynasty, which was to overthrow them, would boast of its alleged descendance from Solomon of Israel, while the Zāgwē attempted to reproduce the holy places in their own land, calling their capital Roha (after Edessa), their river Yordanos (after Jordan), and so on.

In 1270 the clergy, led by Takla Hāymānot, the founder of the Monastery of Dabra Libanos (in Shewa), and Iyyasus Moʾa, the founder of the Monastery of ayq Esifānos (in Amhara), collaborated with Yekunno Amlāk to overthrow the Zāgwē and to found the Solomonic dynasty. Although the Solomonic kings did not always observe the church's teaching, it was nonetheless during this period that indigenous religious literature flourished, and Christianity spread into the south and west through the efforts of the monks of Dabra Libanos of Shewa, the twelve neburāna ed, chosen by the metropolitan according to the number of the apostles.

Religious Controversies

Late in the medieval period and afterward, religious controversies arose because of objections by some to the tradition of undue reverence for the Cross, icons of the Madonna and Child, and the king. We hear of these disputes during the reign of Yāqbeʾa eyon (r. 12851294), and they appear again in the days of Sayfa Arʿada (r. 13441372). The controversies became serious during the reign of Zarʾa Yāʿeqob (14341468), when an anchorite, Esifānos, succeeded in attracting to his teaching of rejection of the tradition many monks who, like him, refused to be shaken by the dreadful persecution that ensued. Another controversy, this time involving the Coptic church also, centered around the Sabbath observance of Saturday in addition to Sunday. Several monasteries, led by the monk Ēwosātēwos (d. 1369), successfully defied the decree of the king and the Coptic metropolitan that sought to abolish the practice of observing the first Sabbath (Saturday). But the most serious controversy dealt with the concept of the unity and trinity of God. The church taught that each being in the Trinity (three suns with one light) has a form or image, malkeʿ, which must look like that of a human because humans were created in God's image (Gen. 1:27). The heretics, followers of Zamikā'ēl, while admitting that God has an image, refused to define a form, quoting John 1:18"No one has seen God." They also maintained a different theology of the unity and trinity of God (one sun with three attributesdisc, light, and heat). Another dispute developed when some monasteries objected to the use of the Deggwā in the liturgy; this intricate collection of antiphonary hymns recommends dancing while chanting during service (Ps. 150:4). The number of canonical books and the inclusion of the pseudepigrapha and the pseudoapostolic writings in the canon were also challenged.

Religious Civil War of the Sixteenth Century

The chronic skirmishes between the Christians and the Muslims in Ethiopia took a different form in the sixteenth century when the latter, led by Imām Ahmad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Ghāzī (or Ahmad Grāñ), sought and received help from the Turks. By this time also the astounding wealth of the individual churches in solid gold, silver, and precious clothes had become an irresistible booty and the grāñ sacked the monasteries and burned the churches of the empire for about fifteen years (15271542). The Christians turned to Portugal for help. The army of the imām collapsed when he was killed in early 1543. But it was about this time that the Cushitic people the Galla, who call themselves Oromo, migrated into Ethiopia en masse, destroying a great part of the Christian heritage that had escaped the grāñ's devastation.

The Jesuits' Enterprise

The Portuguese came to help the church in its war against Islam with the assumption that the lost flock, the church of Ethiopia, would come back to the Roman Catholic Church. The Ethiopians, however, were never ready to abandon their faith. The pressure of the Jesuits, however, which started with missionaries sent by Pope Julius III (14871555), continued until the seventeenth century, when they succeeded in converting Emperor Suseneyos (r. 16071632) to Catholicism. In 1626 a Catholic patriarch, Alphonsus Mendez, came from Rome, and the emperor issued a decree that his subjects should follow his own example. However, the sweeping change that Mendez attempted to introduce into the age-old religious traditions of the nation met with stiff resistance. Led by the monastic leaders, tens of thousands of the faithful were martyred. The Catholic missionaries were finally asked to leave, and the emperor was assassinated, even though he had abdicated the throne to his son Fāsiladas (r. 16321667). Fāsiladas was magnanimous with the Jesuits despite the fact that they had attempted to overthrow him by courting one of his brothers.

Even though the Jesuits left, the controversy stemming from their theology of the two natures of Christ continues to the present, taking a local character and creating schism in the Ethiopian church. Overtly, this controversy is centered on the theological significance of qebʾat, unction (Acts 10:38), and bakwr, first-born (Rom. 8:29), when applied to Christ the Messiah, the only Son of God. But those who raised these questions were clearly attempting to show the monophysites the implication of a theology of one nature in Christ, by drawing their attention to the distinct presence of the human nature in him and its inferior position vis-à-vis his divinity. For one group, the Kārroch, or Tāwaedo (the Unionists of Tegrāy), whose position the church has held officially since 1878, unction means the union of divinity with humanity: Christ, who is the ointment and the anointed, became the natural Son of God in his humanity through this union. For the Qebatoch (unctionists of Gonder and Gojam), unction means that Christ in his humanity became the natural Son of God through the unction of the Holy Spirit: God the Father is the anointer, the Son the anointed, and the Holy Spirit the ointment. The third group, the aggoch (adoptionists of Shewa), who are accused of tending toward Catholicism, believe that Christ in his humanity became the Son of God by grace through the unction of the Holy Spirit either in Mary's womb at the Annunciation or at the baptism. They call the occasion when he became the Son of God by grace a third birth for Christ, in relation to the eternal birth from the Father and the temporal birth from Mary, hence the heresy of the three births condemned at the Council of Boru Meda in Welo (central Ethiopia) in 1878. The aggoch vehemently oppose the notion that Christ became the natural Son of God in his humanity. They are, however, in the minority.

The Church outside Africa

Designed to express its spiritual message and to perform the services in the local culture, the Ethiopian church is strictly local and national. In its history it has not engaged in any missionary activities beyond the frontiers that political leaders claimed to be territories of their ancestors. King Kālēb's expedition to Najrān (southern Arabia) in about 525, to rescue the Christians from the persecution of a Jewish ruler and to reorganize the Christian communities there, may not be considered sustained activity by the church outside Ethiopia. Even the Ethiopian churches in the Holy Land could not be exceptions to this historical fact, since they were built to serve Ethiopian nationals who visited the holy places in Palestine and Egypt. Ethiopian monastic communities have lived in Jerusalem since the Middle Ages, and they were Ethiopia's main window to the outside world. In modern times, there were also Ethiopian churches in the former British Somaliland, Kenya, and the Sudan, but they too were serving Ethiopian nationals, refugees who fled the 1936 to 1941 Italian occupation of Ethiopia.

In the 1950s the Ethiopian church was faced with a most unusual challenge. The local church was called upon to respond to the need for cultural and racial identity of the oppressed black people in Africa and the Americas. Churches with the term Abyssinian as part of their name started to emerge in these continents. Although the historical link between the Ethiopian church and these churches is lacking, and the Ethiopian church was not economically, educationally, and politically up to the challenge, delegates consisting of clergy were sent from Ethiopia to East Africa (still under British rule), the Caribbean region, and North America. The inevitable problems were how to attract the middle class to an African church and how to adapt the culturally alien church services to English-speaking communities in Africa and the Americas, not to mention the question of rebaptism. The compromise reached was to retain some parts of the liturgy in Geʿez and conduct the rest in English. This compromise was not only unsatisfactory to both the church authorities and congregations, but it also meant training the clergy, Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians alike, in Geʿez and English. In spite of several problems, the church is gaining strength, especially in the West Indies and the Caribbean (e.g., Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, and Tobago). The number of the faithful in the United States (New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles) grew because of the influx of Ethiopian refugees fleeing the military Marxist repression that started with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1974.

In 1987 Ethiopia officially became the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, but a rebel movement later overthrew the government and with it centuries of Amharic rule. Eritrea declared its independence from Ethiopia following a UN-sponsored referendum in 1993, and the Orthodox Church of Eritrea broke away from the Ethiopian Church. In 1991 the patriarch of Ethiopia, Abune Merkorios, accused of collaboration with the communist authorities, was removed by the Holy Synod. Merkorios was replaced by Abune Paulos in 1992. Paulos is recognized as the patriarch by the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tāwaedo Church inside Ethiopia. Merkorios went into exile in Kenya and is upheld as patriarch by the Holy Synod in Exile. Efforts continue to avert a permanent schism of the church.

See Also

Aksumite Religion.


For the history of both the church and the country, Jean Doresse's Ethiopia (London, 1959) is a good introduction even though it lacks annotation to the sources. Carlo Conti Rossini's Storia d'Etiopia, vol. 1, Dalle origini all' avvento della dinastia Salomonide (Bergamo, Italy, 1928), remains the standard reference for the early history. Unfortunately, however, this book too has neither adequate annotation to sources nor a bibliography. An index for it has been prepared by Edward Ullendorff in Rassegna di studi etiopici 18 (1962): 97141.

The only book that examines many aspects of the Ethiopian Bible is Edward Ullendorff's Ethiopia and the Bible (London, 1968). This book also contains an excellent bibliography. See also Roger W. Cowley's The Traditional Interpretation of the Apocalypse of St. John in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Cambridge, U.K., 1983). The introduction to this work offers more than the title suggests. The history of Geʿez (Ethiopic) literature has been ably surveyed in Enrico Cerulli's La letteratura etiopica, 3d ed. (Florence, Italy, 1968). Ernst Hammerschmidt's Studies in the Ethiopic Anaphoras (Berlin, 1961) summarizes the different studies of the anaphoras in one small volume. For an English version of the anaphoras themselves, see Marcos Daoud and Marsie Hazen's The Liturgy of the Ethiopian Church (Cairo, 1959). The most comprehensive study thus far on qenē hymns is Anton Schall's Zur äthiopischen Verskunst (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1961).

The period of the Zāgwē dynasty and the rock-hewn churches of Lāstā are well treated in Georg Gerster's Churches in Rock (London, 1970), with many large and impressive photographs and an adequate bibliography. The history of the church from the beginning of the Solomonic dynasty to the Islamic invasion of the sixteenth century has been uniquely treated in Taddesse Tamrat's Church and State in Ethiopia, 12701527 (Oxford, 1972). Francisco Alvarez's Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Abyssinia during the Years 15201527, translated by Lord Stanley of Alderley (London, 1881), is a rare description of church and secular life immediately before the war with the grāññ. The translation was revised by C. F. Beckingham and G. W. B. Huntingford and published under the title The Prester John of the Indies, 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K., 1961).

Some of the sources for the religious controversies of the late medieval period were edited and translated in Enrico Cerulli's Il libro etiopico dei miracoli di Maria e le sue fonti nelle letterature del medio evo latino (Rome, 1943) and Scritti teologici etiopici dei secoli XVIXVII, 2 vols., "Studi e testi," no. 198 (Rome, 1958).

The unique source for the destruction of the churches by the forces of the graññ in the sixteenth century is Futū al-abashah, composed by ʿArab Faqīh, the chronicler of the imām, edited and translated in René Basset's Histoire de la conquête de l'Abyssinie (seizième siècle) par Chihab ed-Din Amed ben ʿAbd el-Qâder surnommé Arab-Faqih, 2 vols. (Paris, 18981901). The Portuguese, too, have left invaluable though sometimes exaggerated and conflicting reports of the campaign. See The Portuguese Expedition to Abyssinia in 15411543, as Narrated by Castanhoso, with Some Letters, the Short Account of Bermudez, and Certain Extracts from Correa (London, 1902).

The best work on the religious controversies that started in the seventeenth century is Friedrich Heyer's Die Kirche Äthiopiens: Eine Bestandsaufnahme (Berlin and New York, 1971). The history of the religious controversy caused particularly by the Portuguese has been ably and succinctly presented in Germa eshah and Merid Wolde Aregay's The Question of the Union of the Churches in Luso-Ethiopian Relations (15001632) (Lisbon, 1964). See also Donald Crummey's Priests and Politicians: Protestant and Catholic Missions in Orthodox Ethiopia, 18301868 (Oxford, 1972). The book has an excellent bibliography with useful comments on some of the works.

Questions about the church that are of interest to Western Christians are answered in The Teaching of the Abyssinian Church as Set forth by the Doctors of the Same, translated from Amharic, the vernacular of Ethiopia, by A. F. Matthew (London, 1936). See also Harry Middleton Hyatt's The Church of Abyssinia (London, 1928). This work describes in detail the religious practices of the church.

Kirsten Pedersen's The History of the Ethiopian Community in the Holy Land from the Time of Emperor Tewodros II till 1974 (Jerusalem, 1983) is a result of several years of study of the original and secondary sources on the subject. The minor mistakes pertaining to modern history of Ethiopia do not in any way minimize the usefulness of this work. The major English sources on all aspects of the church are surveyed in Jon Bonk's An Annotated and Classified Bibliography of English Literature Pertaining to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Metuchen, N.J., 1984).

Getatchew Haile (1987)