How Christianity Came to Africa: Hebrew Preparation

As in the Levant, Christianity in Africa has roots in the Israelite/Jewish religion. The story of Noah’s descendants populating the earth has the descendants of Ham settling Egypt and points west and southward along the Nile River (Genesis 10:6~20). An ancient name for the Nile is Gihon, one of the four rivers mentioned in the creation story of Eden and that it circles all the land of Ethiopia (Genesis 2:10~14). Noah worshiped the one God, Yahweh or Jehovah, and it is likely that the first generations of his descendants did as well. Some Egyptians practiced monotheism serving the sun god, Aten, during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century before Christ.

Contact between Africans and Israelites was not uncommon. Joseph married Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest, who bore him two sons Manasseh, and Ephraim (Genesis 41:45~52). These two were the forerunners of two of the most important tribes of Israel. Moses led a mixed multitude along with the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38). Moses was married to and had two sons with Zipporah, and Ethiopian woman (Ex. 18:2-5). When Miriam and Aaron, the sister and brother of Moses spoke against their marriage, God cursed her with leprous, snow white skin until she was cast out from the community and was cleansed (Numbers 12:1~16).

An Assyrian soldier with Hebrew captives

Israel was at the crossroads of ancient civilizations, ideas and religion were also exchanged. The Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem and learn of King Solomon’s wisdom first hand (1 Kings 10:1-13, lxx 3 Kingdoms). In the Ethiopian book, The Glory of the Kings (Kerba Negast), the two royals had a child together, Menelik. The mother and son brought many Israelite priest back with them to her kingdom. This along with the connections through the sons of Joseph and Moses may have been reasons why some in the Jewish diaspora during the Assyrian invasion fled to Ethiopia. Later, we find an official from Ethiopia (or perhaps a Nubian kingdom) returning from Jerusalem and reading from the book of Isaiah being met by Philip in the Acts of the Apostles (8:26-39).

The Assyrian invasion led many Jews to establish exile colonies in other parts of North Africa which remained well into the Roman Empire. They not only maintained their ancient Hebrew faith, but made converts of the local population as well. Cyrenaica, an area of modern Libya, was the home of Simon who carried the cross for Jesus (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21). He and others from that Afro-Hebrew diaspora had some connection with the community in Antioch and would later establish the first Gentile Christian Church there with Jews and Greeks (Acts 11:19-26). Simon was also known as Simeon called Niger and was one of the first clergymen in the Antiochian Church (Acts 13:1).

The Ethiopian Eunuch, St. Djan Darada

Egypt as well had a presence of Hebrews that would have a major effect on early Christianity. Seventy Jewish scholars in Alexandria compiled the religious scriptures and translated them to the imperial language, Greek. The result was the Septuagint (lxx) and was used by diaspora communities who were not accustomed to speaking Hebrew. The apostles and early Christian churches used this translation of the Old Testament in preaching and teaching the Gospel. The Apostle John Mark was of a Jewish family from Cyrene and wrote one of the four Gospels in an Egyptian community called Babylon.

From this, we can take away a couple of points: (1) There were Africans who embraced monotheism long before Christianity (2) Some Africans were a part of Hebrew communities from the time of the Patriarchs (3) Hebrew/Jewish diaspora communities established themselves in various parts of Africa with some becoming early converts to Christianity. I will share about the influence of Egyptian religion in my next article.


The Orthodox Study Bible

Paisius Altschul, Wade in the River: The Story of the African Christian Faith, Crossbearers Publishing, Kansas City MO, 2001


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