Ethiopian Church History - 4th to 6th Century

Ethiopian Church History (4th - 6th Century) #

The Expansion and Consolitation of Orthodox Christianity #

According to the chronological list of the Bishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, St. Frumentius was succeeded as the Orthodox Bishop of Ethiopia by Bishop Minas, who was appointed by the Patriarchate of Alexandria, which afterward held jurisdiction over the Ethiopian Church; this jurisdiction lasted for sixteen hundred years. Bishop Minas left certain literary works that have come down to us through history concerning his missionary activities. However the major contribution in the missionary field in Ethiopia was that of Missionaries who are known in Ethiopian Tradition as “The Nine Saints.”

These men, “the Nine Saints,” came to the ancient Capital City of Axum about 480 A.D., and were well received by the Emperor Ella Amida and by the inhabitants of the City. The most outstanding figures among the Nine Saints were the Priest’s Za-Mikael Aregawi, Pantalewon, Afse, and Garima or Isaac (Yeshaq). As their names indicate, they came from different parts of the Eastern Roman Empire, such as Constantinople and Syria. These Priest’s were all adherents of the same Orthodox Faith; however it seems that they left the countries of their origin because of the persecution by the Christian Roman Emperor, who was an ardent supporter of what Oriental Orthodox Christians consider the Greek - Roman Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 A.D. The gathering at Chalcedon rejected the ancient Orthodox Doctrine concerning the Nature of Christ and adopted the “two natures” notion of Pope Leo of Rome.

From Church History we are told that these Priests’s (The Nine Saints) went first to Egypt, and lived some years at the Monastery founded by St. Pachomius, before proceeding to Ethiopia. In the Capital City of Axum they studied the language of Ethiopia at that time (which was Ge’ez) and became familiar with the people and customs. After this preparation they set out in different directions throughout Ethiopia to bring the Christian Good News of Salvation in Christ Jesus and to introduce Monastic institutions. Only two of them, Abba Libanos and Abba Pantalewon, remained near Axum itself; the others went further east of the Capital and founded hermitages in the old pagan centers of the country. Abba Za-Mikael went to Debra Damo where the worship of the serpent had long flourished. He succeeded in eradicating the cult, and founded a Monastery there. Abba Pantalewon transformed a pagan temple into a Church. Abba Afse went to Yeha, the renowned Sabaean center, and likewise transformed the famous temple there into a Church. The efforts of the Nine Saints to wipe out paganism did not result in their persecution, as had happened in the Roman Empire, since in Axum they had the protection and support of the Monarch.

The Nine Saints also contributed greatly to the development of the Ge’ez Liturgy and literature. They introduced terms and vocabulary into Ge’ez, such as Haymanote, Religion, qasis, priest, and ta’ot, idols. Their major contribution was undoubtedly the great work of translating the Sacred Scriptures into Ge’ez. The work of translating the Scriptures had begun the time of St. Frumentius; at that time only a few of the basic Books for worship, such as passages of the Psalms, had been translated as revealed in contemporary inscriptions. The Nine Saints undertook the massive task of translating the whole Bible. Since they were familiar with both Syriac and Greek, they used most likely a Syrio-Greek text for this purpose. Most probably each of the Nine Saints translated one portion of the Bible. This is why the Ethiopic version reveals considerable differences in style from one Book to another. The Ethiopic version is one of the earliest Biblical translations, and as such it is great importance in textual criticism and in establishing the original text.

Along with the translation of the Sacred Scriptures in the common language of the period, the Nine Saint’s translated a number of basic religious works into Ge’ez. These are of both doctrinal and literary content. Under the title of Qerllos (Cyril) were translated dogmatical treatises and homilies of the Church Fathers, in particular the work known as de Recta Fide by St. Cyril, Pope - Patriarch of Alexandria. On this book which was translated from the Greek text, is based the teaching of the Ethiopian Church. Other works translated at this period include The Ascetic Rules of Pachomius, which still today regulate the monastic life of Ethiopia, and the Life of Saint Anthony by St. Athanasius, which is still widely read in Ethiopian Church circles.

Music and Art #

The coming of the Nine Saints inaugurated a new era in the Liturgical life of the Ethiopian Church and in cultural development in general. Music and the Arts Flourished. To St. Yared, an Aksumite scholar of the time, is attributed the creation of Ethiopian Churches Liturgical music. He was a disciple of the Nine Saints, probably of Abba Aregawi, and composed music in three modes, which is still used in the Ethiopian Church. The hymnal attributed to him is rich in inspiration and expression: perhaps it is one of the best of its kind in the Orient. The influence of the Nine Saints extended also to Art and Architecture. The ruins of Basilicas found in the ancient cities of Axum, Adulis and Hawlti may show a resemblance to Syriac Churches. Of Aregawi at Debra Damo is the oldest existing example of Christian architecture in Ethiopia, and traces of this influence can be seen at this Monastery Church.

During the early half of the sixth century the Christians of Ethiopia made various Missionary and Military expeditions to South Arabia, present day Yemen, to assist and support their fellow Christians who were subjected to persecution by their King named Dhu Nowas (Nunaa). Dhu Nowas had adopted Judaism and was endeavoring to spread the same by force among his subjects. Reports of this persecution reached the ears of Emperor Caleb (also known as Elesbaan, who came to the throne of Axum before 528). Caleb sent Representative to King Dhu Nowas to protest his forceful persecution of the Orthodox Christians in his kingdom. After much diplomatic endeavor which bore no fruit, Emperor Caleb determined to assist his fellow Christians and with his Army crossed the straits of Bab-el Mandeb and in battle defeated the tyrant, King Dhu Nowas, even to the point of driving him from his own lands. Emperor Caleb having completed the task of coming to the aid of the persecuted Christians of South Arabia, he returned to Ethiopia and left a Governor to watch over the people. All was peaceful for a period of a few years until the Governor died and upon hearing this the exiled King Dhu Nowas left his place of exile, gathered an army together and attached Nejran which was the Capital of the Ethiopian Governor Generals power in Yemen. After a battle based on treachery, Dhu Nowas entered the City and massacred all the inhabitants who refused to abjure their Orthodox Christian faith. Some Christians escaping the massacre spread through out the east the news and the Pope - Patriarch of Alexandria upon hearing the news urged Emperor Caleb to once again take up arms against King Dhu Nowas and rescue the Christians. Emperor Caleb being a faithful son of Holy Church gathered his forces and once again invaded South Arabia - Yemen and defeated King Dhu Nowas, who was slain in battle. After his victories, the Emperor abdicated and retired into seclusion as a hermit. As a side note Emperor Caleb has been declared (canonized) Saint not only by the Ethiopian Church but also by the Church of Rome, were his Feast is celebrated on October 27th.