A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Yoseph Yisma Asrat
Philip F. Esler is Portland Chair in New Testament Studies in the School of Education and Humanities at the University of Gloucestershire. In his Ethiopian Christianity: History, Theology, Practice he tries to depict the history, theology, literature, art, architecture, and tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOC) including other forms of Christianity, Protestant, and Catholic churches.
The book is divided into five parts. It begins by locating Ethiopian Christianity in a historical and geographical setting. Part two discusses the history of the church up until the present day by dividing it into three periods. In the next part, the discussion focuses on discussing many features of the church. Part four discusses the two other forms of Christianity, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Finally, the book concludes by discussing Christianity’s future in Ethiopia.
Chapter one introduces Ethiopia, both geographically and historically. It introduces the setting where the country is found and its neighbours. It goes further and discusses the pre-Christian history, starting from its origin to Aksum’s rise. Here, it is very important to note the author’s discussion where he tries to bring clarity regarding the use of the word Kush and Ethiopia. He states that Greek’s representation of Aithiopes and the Bible’s representation of the Ethiopian eunuch is mostly about Nubia or Kush which is in modern-day Sudan. Moreover, it discusses the land’s religion in relation to the Arabian and Greek gods before the coming of Christianity using archaeological facts and evidence.
Chapter two covers the entrance of Christianity to Ethiopia and its expansion within the royal court. Frumentius and Edesius greatly influenced Christianity’s entrance into the royal court, especially Frumentius. The chapter also discusses the return of Frumentius as a bishop from Egypt and the expansion of Christianity in the kingdom for which he is known by the name Abba Salama Kasate Berhan (Father of Peace and Revealer of Light). The author has tried to pinpoint the timeframe of King Ezana’s conversion and to provide archaeological evidence that proves the conversion.
In chapter three, the discussion covers the period from the fifth to seventeenth centuries. Christianity during this time expanded from the royal court to society in an unprecedented manner because of the work of the Nine Saints who are credited for their evangelization, Bible translation, and planting monasteries. These periods begin with the influence of Ethiopia due to its prosperity and military power. However, Ethiopia declined after the loss of Yemen. The expansion of Islam because of slave trade since Byzantium merchants were replaced by Muslim merchants. Apart from Islam, the country has also seen a dynasty change from the Aksumite kingdom to the Zagwe Dynasty which led the country for more than a hundred years. Nevertheless, the Solomonic dynasty was restored by Yekunno Amlak. The author also discusses three influential kings of the Solomonic dynasty who influenced the religious, political, and socioeconomic dynamics of the country. The latter two periods were affected by the expansion of Islam, the Portuguese military support, and the Jesuit missionaries.
Mid seventeenth century to the present period which covers different major issues that shaped different contexts of the country is covered in chapter four. Emperor Susenyos’s son, Fasilidas, who came to power by the will of his father brought peace, unity, built a city in Gondar, and strengthened the Ethiopian Orthodox church, though this development is criticised for isolation and xenophobia. Later on, the country entered a period called the Era of Princes where the centralized monarch became weak to lead the country. This came to an end by Tewodros II who ended the Era of Princes and united the country. Yohannes IV and Menelik II agreed to lead the country on good terms after the death of Tewodros II. Both worked hard to strengthen the unity of the country and the Church. the last monarch of the country, Haile Selassie came to power and take a step in modernizing the nation. The Italian occupation, abolishment of slavery, and new religious agreement with the Coptic church were all highlights of Haile Selassie’s reign. The chapter closes by briefly discussing the reign of the Derg and EPRDF including the leadership of the current prime minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed.
The main emphasis in chapter five is on intellectual and literary traditions of the church in different periods. During the Aksumite period, there were ancient literary productions like that of the books of Garima but only a few survived different circumstances. From the Zagwe dynasty, it seems that there are no literary remains. Numerous works of literature were produced during the Solomonic period. Among many influential works of literature produced in the fourteenth century, The Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings) is the most influential one for its religious and political influence. The Solomonic dynasty used it to legitimize its power for centuries. Another great work of literature is Fetha Nagast (The laws of the kings) which served as a legal code accompanied by the Bible until the twentieth century. Finally, the chapter discusses the education system of the church and its classification. The education is classified into four schools; nebab bet (the school of reading), zema bet (the school of liturgical music), qene bet (the school of poetry), and tergum bet (the school of interpretation).
In chapter six the church’s unique art, architecture and music are discussed. Esler identifies eight periods in Ethiopian art. The division started from the fourth century, the Christian Aksumite Period, to the Late Solomonic Period. Each period has its own style and contribution to Ethiopian art. Foreign influence can be seen in some of these periods than the others. The art of the church is not only for the church like a mural, but rather it goes to every believers’ home. A good example to show this is the prayer scroll that contains text and drawings. The Ethiopian Orthodox churches follow different shapes at different times and places. One church might be rectangular while the other is circular. Whatever the shape, the church has three parts qene mahlet, qeddest, and qeddesta qeddusan. Each has its own role. A small building, known as beta lahum, to the east of the church, also exists for Eucharist preparation. Yared is briefly mentioned in the discussion of Ethiopian music as he invented a unique style of music, particularly three modes of melodies, and the teaching-learning system known as melekte.
The theology of the church is discussed in relation to the concept of sacredness. The author relates this concept with space, time, memory, and action. Believers think that their country and also the church is a sacred space or the Holy Land. This can be seen in the rules and regulations as to when and who can enter the church. The similarity is clear for the author also adapting the Mishnaic tractate for the Ethiopian church. Fast and feast days are the reflection of sacred time and memory where the church conducts fasting for short or long periods and end it with a feast. That is why many say, in Ethiopia, it is either a fasting or a feasting day. Attending the qeddase, circumcision, obeying the food laws, fasting, and observing sabbath and other holy days is an expression of sacred action which to some extent, shows whether you are an orthodox believer or not.
Chapters eight and nine talks about the Protestant churches. Protestant churches have shown great incremental growth before 2013. Nevertheless, this dramatic expansion has come to an end afterward. Missionaries like Peter Heyling, Samuel Gobat, and Christian Kugler show the coming of the protestant faith to revitalize the Orthodox church and contributed to Bible translation. During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, the condition seemed more favourable to involve in social works and also planting churches in the capital city and non-Christian parts of the country or the “open” areas. Though it seems to give hope at first, the communist regime also persecuted the protestant church. However, there was a significant numerical growth during the Derg. It was during the reign of EPRDF, freedom of religion was finally realized among evangelicals which have contributed a lot to the huge flow of people to the protestant churches.
The Catholic church, the topic of chapter nine, is the smallest among the total Christian community. Few Catholic missionaries who tried to do mission work were executed after the expulsion of Jesuits. Giustino de Jacobis was successful in inculturation and planting Catholic churches in Ethiopia. Guglielmo Massaia, a missionary for the Oromo, was also successful but he followed Western tradition, unlike de Jacobis who followed Eastern Christianity. This has led to the existence of both traditions within one Catholic church. though the church is very small compared to the protestants and Orthodox believers, it has its own identity and contribution to Ethiopian Christianity.
The book concludes by discussing major opportunities and challenges by discussing the context of the country; particularly the political context of the country after the coming of Dr. Abiy Ahmed. Esler suggests working on ecumenism and cultivating a peaceful relationship with Islam as a way forward for Ethiopian Christianity (Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic).
Esler meets his goal by doing in-depth research on the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church. The strength of the book is that the author was able to cover the history, theology, and practice of the church within one volume. In addition to that, he analysed the current status of Ethiopian Christianity by setting it within a context and suggesting a way forward in relation to the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants. Furthermore, the space he gives to discuss the art, music, and architecture shows that he really understands the emphasis the church gives for these things for everything in the EOTC has a spiritual meaning. Hence, giving due attention will help one understand the church better and dipper.
The first weakness of the book could be the use of resources. If the author would have used Stephen J. Strauss’s book on the Christological controversy, it would have helped him discuss one major theological issue, the Christological controversy, of the church that created three factions and took several hundred years to settle. At present, the Christological controversy within the EOC is resurfacing. Second, the Christology of the church is not fused Christology as Esler claims on page five. The EOC teaches that Christ is one person and he has one nature. However, this one nature is not the result of the two natures, human and divine, infusing the two into one. Rather, Christ has one nature in union. The two natures of Christ exist in the one nature, Tewahedo, inseparably, unchangeably, indivisibly, and without confusion.
Third, during Lent, believers do not only abstain from animal foods during the weekdays but also on weekends. However, on weekends, the fasting hour extends only up to the end of liturgy which will happen between 10:00 am – 11:00 am. Fourth, there are a few minor errors that I will try to correct. Tewodros’s natal name is Kassa, not Wassa. The Derg leader Mengistu is usually called Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, not Major. Abba Salama and Kesate Berhan is not two separate names given to Frumentius. Rather, it is one name given to Frumentius to express the greatness of his work.
I believe this book would be helpful for the Ethiopian Church History courses. Furthermore, I recommend it for seminary professors who teach church history and ecumenical relations.
Yoseph Yisma Asrat
Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology
 Strauss, Stephen J. “Perspectives on The Nature of Christ in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church: A Case Study in Contextualized Theology.” Trinity International University, 1997.
Buy the books
ETHIOPIAN CHRISTIANITY: HISTORY, THEOLOGY, PRACTICE, by Philip F. Esler