Christianity in Ethiopia
Today I’d like for us to talk about a form of Christianity that’s completely unfamiliar to most Christians in the United States, something called Coptic Christianity. I think the best way to do that is to talk about it in the context of somewhere it’s very popular, and that’s in Ethiopia. The account of Christianity in Ethiopia is fascinating, and as we talk about it, we’ll gain some understanding of what Coptic Christianity is.
Ethiopia is a country in the horn of Africa. It’s over 1500 miles from Jerusalem, yet it plays a role in the Bible and is home to an ancient form of Christianity.
In Acts chapter 8, a Christian named Philip is traveling in the desert outside of Jerusalem. He sees a man sitting in a chariot reading from the book of Isaiah, a passage Christians interpret as referring to Jesus. Philip goes up to the man and asks if he understands what he is reading. The man says no; he needs someone to explain it. Philip tells him about Jesus. The man believes in Jesus and requests to be baptized. There is water nearby, so Philip baptizes him, and the man goes on his way.
Acts tells us this man was a high official for the queen of Ethiopia, and that he had come to Jerusalem to worship.
Why would an Ethiopian be in Jerusalem to worship? We usually think of ancient Judaism as an ethnic religion, certainly not a religion that had followers deep in Africa. To give an idea of how far this man had travel to get to Jerusalem, I did some research on ancient travel. Using a horse, an average travel distance per day would have been somewhere around 25 miles, which means that at a hard rate of traveling, all day every day, seven days per week, it would have taken him at least 2 months to get to Jerusalem. Two months bouncing around in a chariot all day every day, or riding on horseback, seven days a week. And then later, it would have taken another two months of hard travel for him to get back home.
Why would someone from Ethiopia be in Jerusalem to worship? There had to have been some connection at some time in the past between Jerusalem and Ethiopia, but what was it?
Ethiopia in the Old Testament
There are several interesting ideas about that. The Old Testament talks about something it calls “the land of Cush.” Biblical scholars disagree about exactly what Cush refers to. Some believe Cush was the area of modern-day Yemen, which is in the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Others believe Cush refers to a place in Africa, the area of modern-day Ethiopia. There’s no way to be sure where what the Bible calls “the land of Cush” was located.
Ethiopia and King Solomon
But there’s something else in the Bible that may refer to Ethiopia. In First Kings chapter 10, a woman called the Queen of Sheba came to King Solomon. It says the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon and “asked him many hard questions.” Solomon answered all of her questions, apparently to her satisfaction. It says she brought him loads of gifts, large quantities of spices, gold, and precious stones. She had heard of Solomon’s reputation for being wise, and after meeting him, she was convinced he was as wise as she had heard. It goes on to say that Solomon gave her whatever she wanted, including treasures out of his royal treasury. Then she went back home.
No one knows exactly who this Queen of Sheba was. Again, there is disagreement among biblical scholars. Some believe it was the Queen of Ethiopia. That is supported by what the Ethiopians themselves say. The Ethiopians say it was in fact their queen, and they relate the following account of the relationship between their queen and Solomon.
It all happened in the early 900’s B. C. The queen of Ethiopia had heard of Solomon’s reputation for wisdom and greatness, and she went to visit him. They had a love affair, from which a son resulted. The son was named Menelik. Before the Queen of Sheba left to go back home, Solomon is said to have given her a ring. When Menelik grew up, his mother told him who his father was, and he made a trip to Jerusalem. He took the ring, which Solomon had given his mother, with him. He showed the ring to Solomon, and based on the ring, Solomon acknowledged Menelik as his son. He called in the high priest in Jerusalem and had the high priest anoint his son Menelik as ruler of Ethiopia.
Then Solomon gathered together the noblemen of his kingdom and told them that his first-born son, Menelik, was going back to rule in Ethiopia. Solomon requested all the noblemen to send their first-born sons to Ethiopia with Menelik. They did.
Menelik went back to Ethiopia, accompanied by the first-born sons of the noblemen of the Hebrews. He became the ruler of Ethiopia, and all succeeding rulers of Ethiopia were said to be his descendants. This then, according to the Ethiopians, is the connection between the people of Ethiopia and the Old Testament Hebrews, and it would explain why, in the book of Acts, this high official of the Ethiopian government was near Jerusalem.
Keep in mind that this about the Queen of Ethiopia having a son with Solomon is not in the Bible; it comes from the Ethiopians. But of course, the Bible doesn’t say Solomon did not have a son with the Queen of Ethiopia. It just doesn’t mention it. However, the Bible does say that Solomon had love affairs with foreign women. First Kings chapter 11 talks about how Solomon loved many foreign women and took wives from many different countries.
It’s an interesting idea. Historians tell us that there were a number of Hebrew Ethiopians in ancient times, and there are still Jewish Ethiopians there today. A genetic study done in 2012 indicated that Ethiopian Jews have genetic markers that come from the Levant, which is where Jerusalem is, that date back over 2000 years ago. This does lend some support to what the Ethiopians say, that some Hebrews migrated to Ethiopia over 2000 years ago. That coincides with the time frame of the Solomon’s son account.
Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?
Interestingly, the largest Christian denomination in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, or the Abyssinian Orthodox Church, claims to posses the Ark of the Covenant. Remember the Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament. God commanded it to be built during the time of Moses. It was covered in gold, and inside it were the Ten Commandments, among other things. It went with the Hebrews as they wandered around the wilderness; it is reported to have been instrumental in giving them victory in battle as they entered the Promised Land; it was believed to possess the very power of God. Later, after they built the temple, it was the holiest and most sacred object in the temple. It was the most holy object in the ancient Hebrew religion.
But, suddenly, it drops out of the picture in the Old Testament and is no longer mentioned. No hint is given as to why the Old Testament stops talking about it, and people of course wonder what happened to it. There are various theories, but no one knows.
The Ethiopians say that when Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’s son Menelik came back from his visit to Jerusalem, he brought the Ark of the Covenant back with him. Solomon wanted him to have it and gave it to him. According to one account, Solomon had a fake made for the temple in Jerusalem so no one would know he gave his son the real one. In another account, there’s no mention of Solomon having a fake made. This account says the Ark was discovered missing, and in embarrassment at having lost it, it was never mentioned in the Bible again.
At any rate, there is a church in the northern part of Ethiopia called the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. The Ark of the Covenant is said to be hidden in a chapel on the grounds of that church. There’s a man who serves as the guardian to the Ark. He is the only one who can ever enter the chapel where it is. He’s the caretaker of the chapel and its grounds, which is separated by a fence from the rest of the church property. The caretaker remains there for life and never leaves the property. Upon his death, another man becomes the guardian of the Ark and lives out the rest of his life taking care of the chapel and grounds and guarding the chapel with the Ark inside. This is so important in Ethiopian Christianity that practically all churches in Ethiopia contain a replica of the Ark.
There is no independent verification that the ark is actually in that chapel in Ethiopia, but whether it’s there or not, we do know of ancient Christianity in Ethiopia. According to Ethiopian Christians, the man Philip baptized in the book of Acts went back to Ethiopia and took Christianity with him. Early Christian writings after the time of the New Testament indicate Christianity was in fact in Ethiopia, but we don’t know how widespread it was.
Why Ethiopian Christianity is Different
The surviving historical record indicates that two Christians from Syria went to Ethiopia in the early 300’s. The emperor of Ethiopia converted to Christianity and made Christianity the official religion of Ethiopia.
But then something happened. In the early 600’s, Muhammad founded what would become known as Islam. Islam more or less started in Mecca, in modern-day Saudi Arabia. But Muhammad’s first followers were persecuted in Saudi Arabia, and they looked for new places to live. Some went to Africa, into Ethiopia and surrounding areas. There they flourished, and most of the area around Ethiopia became Muslim land. Ethiopia remained more or less Christian, but the neighboring areas became Muslim.
Ethiopia was more or less landlocked by Muslim lands. As a result, Ethiopian Christianity was cut off and isolated from the rest of Christianity. The result of that was that much of what happened in Christianity after the 600’s, and that included many drastic changes in Christianity, never affected Ethiopian Christianity. Ethiopian Christians were basically isolated from the rest of Christianity.
Because of that, Christianity in Ethiopia had a completely different line of development than the rest of Christianity. All the squabbles and changes that affected the rest of Christianity, big things like the West reinterpreting the work of Jesus and the resulting split between Western and Eastern Christianity shortly after the year 1000, things like the Protestant Reformation, never affected Ethiopian Christianity.
For that reason, some say Ethiopian Christianity is a purer form of Christianity. It never underwent the changes the rest of Christianity experienced. Of course, Ethiopian Christianity underwent its own changes over the years, but they were different than what the rest of Christianity experienced.
Did Jesus Have One or Two Natures?
But there’s another reason Ethiopian Christianity is so different from Christianity as we know it, and this reason is concerned with basic beliefs.
We all know Christians today are always arguing about something. Early Christians argued, too, but unlike today, when Christians argue over just about everything, back then they mainly argued about one thing—exactly how Jesus was a divine being.
Back then, there was general agreement that Jesus was some sort of divine being, but there was disagreement over what kind of divine being He was and exactly how such a divine being could become a human being. In the year 451, there was a meeting of Christian leaders called the Council of Chalcedon. This Council of Chalcedon came up with an official position about what kind of divine being Jesus was and how He became a human being. What they decided became official in institutional Christianity.
They decided Jesus was a person with two different natures, a human nature and a divine nature. There was a human part to Jesus, and there was a divine part to Jesus. That became the official position of the official church as established by the Roman emperor.
But some Christians did not accept that. Christians from Egypt, Syria, Armenia, and Ethiopia rejected that idea. They insisted Jesus had only one nature, a unique, single nature which was a combination of divine and human. They refused to accept what this Council of Chalcedon decided and separated themselves from the rest of Christianity. They eventually became known, collectively, as Oriental Orthodox. That included Ethiopian Christians, Syrian Christians, Armenian Christians, and Egyptian Christians. They are sometimes known as Coptic. Coptic technically refers to Egyptian Christians, but in general usage, it can refer to all Christians who rejected the idea of the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451.
To us today, this issue might seem like splitting hairs. What’s the difference between saying Jesus had two separate natures inside one person or saying Jesus had one nature that was a unique combination of human and divine? It might seem like they’re both the same, but they’re not. They may appear the same at first glance, but when you go further down the line and develop them out, they lead down very different paths.
How? Well, let’s think about what nature means. Used in this context, nature is the inherent, basic characteristic of something, what constitutes something. The disagreement was over the most basic constitution of Jesus, what Jesus was made up of.
You can think of it like this. Think of “person” as being a container, maybe a plastic container. That’s a human being. Now think of us. We’re just human beings, with only one nature, human nature, and so our plastic container has just human nature in it, and that’s all.
But now think of Jesus as a human being. Since Jesus was more than just a human being, inside His plastic container was more than just human nature. Jesus’ plastic container had both human and divine nature inside it. But how? That was the big question.
Think of a plastic container again. Imagine you get some rice and pour in there, and you also pour some macaroni in there. You look in that plastic container and see rice and macaroni. They’re all mixed in there together, but they’re still separate. You see grains of rice, and you see pieces of macaroni.
Now think of those grains of rice and pieces of macaroni as Jesus’ two natures, human and divine. They’re two separate things in there. That’s how The Church decided was the correct way to look at Jesus’ human and divine natures, a bunch of separate pieces all mixed in together.
But some said, “Wait a minute! There aren’t two different things poured in there; there’s just one thing poured in there.” These Christians said what is in Jesus is one thing, a new substance created just for this one special instance of Jesus. There are not two separate things mixed in together in Jesus; there’s just one thing. It’s like at the factory, they created a new food product that’s made out of rice and macaroni, and what’s in the container is this new product. When you look in the container, you don’t see grains of rice and pieces of macaroni; you see this one thing.
Why does that make a difference? Well, for a number of reasons.
The View of Jesus in Western Christianity
First, think of the Garden of Gethsemane. That’s where Jesus went to pray right before He was arrested. The standard interpretation of that, for those Christians who think of Jesus as having two separate natures, is that Jesus knew He was going to be crucified. The human part of Him was afraid and wanted to avoid it, but the divine part of Him knew He had to endure it. So there was a struggle going on inside Jesus between the human part and the divine part. The two parts warred against each other. The divine part won out, and Jesus submitted Himself to crucifixion.
If you ever saw the movie “The Passion of the Christ,” you saw this dramatically portrayed. The movie opens with an extended scene of Jesus in Gethsemane. His divine nature and human nature are struggling against each other to the point where His body is in spasms.
This way of looking at Jesus pictures Jesus as a person with a war always going on inside between the human part and the divine part. That’s a popular way in Western Christianity to look at Jesus. He had human desires and urges that would just love to have come to the surface and pop out, but the divine part of Him always suppressed them. It pictures Jesus as a tortured individual. It’s sort of like a person with multiple personality disorder, two different people inside the same body. It sees Jesus as always being pulled in different directions by His different parts.
The View of Jesus in Orthodox Christianity
But looking at Jesus as a person with only one nature avoids that. You don’t see a war always going on inside Jesus between the human part and the divine part. He didn’t have two parts always at odds with each other. Jesus was not tormented by having normal human desires and urges just like we do, only to have them continually repressed and beaten down by the divine part.
The Coptics, or Oriental Orthodox, do not believe Jesus should be understood as a conflicted individual with two different parts inside Him always in conflict with each other.
Christians as Separate from the World
But they also had another objection, and this one is even more far-reaching. To understand it, we first have to remember that many places in the New Testament say Christians are to be separate from the world. The New Testament tells us that we are not of the world; we are told not to love the world or the things in the world; we are told not to be conformed to the world; we are told we are just passing through here; we are told our real citizenship is in heaven; we are told we are called out of the world; we are told the world is under the control of Satan. It goes on and on. This is a major theme that runs throughout the New Testament.
But even though it’s all over the New Testament, most Christians don’t take it seriously. Obviously Christians do love the world and the things of the world. Christians strive for money and material things and status and praise and acclamation from the world just as much as non-Christians do. Why is that so if the New Testament tells us not to?
It goes back to seeing Jesus as having two natures. If you see Jesus as having two separate natures, human and divine, you see two different parts inside Jesus, and one of those, the human part, is a worldly part. If you follow that to its logical conclusion, you get to something like, “Human nature is part of the world, and if part of Jesus was a worldly part, then the world can’t be all that bad.” After all, how could you say something that was a part of Jesus is bad? How could the world be bad if Jesus had a part of the world inside Him?
Now you’re in a position where you can take the things the Bible says about separation from the world with a grain of salt. And that’s what Western Christianity has done. Western Christianity developed the idea that since Jesus had a worldly part inside Him, the world is now somehow “sanctified.”
Sanctify means to make something holy, to purify something.
Since you’ve developed the idea that the world was somehow “purified” when Jesus became a human being, it’s easy to skip over or explain away what the Bible says about separation from the world. Why would you need to separate yourself from something that’s been made holy and purified? You wouldn’t, but you would need to find some way to interpret those passages about separation from the world so that they don’t really mean that.
That’s exactly what has happened in much of Christianity. The interpretation many Christians have come up with is something like, “Yes, the Bible says to separate from the world, but it doesn’t really mean to ‘separate’ from the world, it just means not to become too attached to the world or the things of the world.”
However, if you believe Jesus had only one nature, you don’t weave that complicated line of thought that allows you to ignore a major theme of the Bible about separation from the world, and you do not have a basis to rationalize immersing yourself in the things of the world.
The belief that Jesus had only one nature leads to taking seriously the biblical theme of separation from the world, and you do find the idea of separation from the world taken more seriously in Coptic forms of Christianity than in Western Christianity.
“My Kingdom Is Not of This World”
It also leads to taking seriously another belief expressed in the New Testament: the sharp division between the earthly realm and the heavenly realm.
The Gospel of John and the book of First John, especially, present things in either/or terms. There are only two categories: of God, or of the world. There is nothing in between, no middle ground. You are either of God, or you are of the world. It’s one or the other.
Jesus Himself expressed this idea not only in John’s Gospel but also in the other Gospels. For example, in Mark chapter 9, the disciples see someone casting out demons in the name of Jesus, but he is not one of them. They report this to Jesus, but Jesus tells them not to worry about it because “he that is not against us is for us.” This is an expression of the idea that there is no middle ground, no partial. It’s either of God or of the world.
Seeing Jesus as having a human part and a divine part, though, makes that idea hard to accept. If Jesus Himself had both, then maybe everything can have both. And so, just like with the passages that tell us to separate from the world, it’s easy to skip over or explain away passages that tell us it’s either/or, that you’re either of God or of the world. We think we can be of God and of the world at the same time.
When we first started talking about this idea of two natures or one, it seemed to be nitpicky, like it doesn’t really matter, but when we follow it down the line, we see how it indeed does matter.
That’s why the Oriental Orthodox Christians, the Ethiopians, Armenians, Syrians, and Egyptian Copts, have tended to remain more separate from the world, more separate from earthly matters, more separate from social matters, and more separate from politics than the major branches of Western Christianity. Western Christianity today is all about social matters, political matters, economic matters, and the like.
But the Oriental Orthodox have remained more distant from those things, and the reason is that seeing only one nature in Jesus leads to seeing a clear dividing line between the things of the world and the things of God. That leads to a Christianity that is concerned with the things of God instead of the things of the world.
Seeing Jesus as having one nature makes it much easier to see that there are two separate worlds: the world on earth, and the divine world. This makes it easier to see Christianity as being about things in the divine world, and not about things on earth.
Just as importantly, it leads to the realization that the earthly world and the divine world are based on completely different principles.
The focus of Oriental Orthodox Christianity is on the life beyond our life on earth, because that is what’s going to last forever. Oriental Orthodoxy sees Christianity more as a personal thing about your own personal drawing near to God, about your own transcendence of the world and drawing near to the heavenly.
Oriental Orthodox Christianity is more about the spiritual. It doesn’t concentrate on our few short years on earth; it concentrates on eternity. It’s not about this world, which is passing away; it’s about another world, a world that will never pass away.