Milpitas Christian Church

Ethiopian Christianity

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the largest of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Christianity south of Egypt in the kingdom of Aksum

The Kingdom of Aksum/Axum

  • The Kingdom of Aksum (c. AD 100-1100) became one of the most powerful trading powers in the region, especially in the 3rd-6th centuries

  • They remained powerful and influential until the rise of Arab Islamic kingdoms in the 7th and 8th centuries reduced their power

  • 12th-13th centuries – Ethiopian power shifted to a new dynasty that was no longer Aksumite, but they remained Christian

Christianity in Aksum

  • There’s a tradition that the apostles Matthew and Bartholomew evangelized Ethiopia, but no evidence of it. Of course Acts 8 records that Philip converted a high-ranking Ethiopian eunuch, but we don’t know if he was able to spread the gospel to his own people

  • Christianity spread south from Egypt along the Nile until it reached the kingdom of Aksum, which formed the core of latter-day Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Church was always connected to the Egyptian/Coptic Church

  • Founders are considered to be the brothers Saint Frumentius (pictured right) and Aedesius

    • They were Syrian Christians who were captured by the Ethiopians in AD 340

    • Worked as civil servants to the Aksumite king, whom they eventually converted to Christianity

    • When the king died, the queen appointed Frumentius as the royal administrator and as the young prince’s tutor

    • Frumentius was able to secure greater freedom for Christians and their evangelism

    • C. 347 – Frumentius visited Athanasius in Alexandria, who consecrated him as a bishop and commissioned him to adapt Christian texts and liturgy into language and symbols meaningful to the Aksumites

    • Frumentius founded a church in the Aksumite capital, baptized the king (whom he had previously tutored), and the Christianity of Alexandria became the official religion of the Kingdom of Aksum

    • Frumentius opposed Arianism and worked to keep it out of Aksum

    • Aedesiusis the one who related Frumentius’ accomplishments to a Christian historian, Rufinus

    • The Aksumites took to calling Frumentius abuna “Our Father,” which is still used for the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC)

  • C. end of the 5th century – Syrian monks bring monasticism to Ethiopia and begin translating the Bible into Ge’ez, one of the local languages which now exists only as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (like their version of Latin)

  • 451 – the EOC follows the lead of the Coptic Church of Alexandria in rejecting the Council of Chalcedon’s decision on the two equal natures of Jesus Christ. The EOC becomes miaphysite, asserting that the mystery of the Incarnation enables Jesus to have one nature in which the divine and human are equally present. They get labeled monophysites by Chalcedonian churches

    • This is why the EOC added the word tewahedo to their name (Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church), because it means “unity” and is meant to express their belief in Jesus’ singular nature that unites the divine with the human
  • 7th century – Muslim conquests in Arabia and northern Africa cut the Ethiopian Church off from most other Christian churches, although there was an Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem that was able to maintain some contact with the home country

    • The EOC did absorb syncretistic beliefs during this time
  • 12th century – long-running conflict developed in the EOC when the patriarch of Alexandria began appointing only Egyptian Coptic monks as the archbishop of Ethiopia. The strong Ethiopian monastic community, led by a native abbott general, opposed this practice and advocated for Ethiopian leadership of the EOC

  • Emperor Lalibela (1162-1221) constructed massive monolithic churches hewn from rock that remain to this day

  • The Ethiopian elite have always been nominally Christian up through the 20th century and viewed Islam with suspicion or hostility

Modern Ethiopian Church

  • Learn more here

  • It wasn’t until the 20th century that a compromise between the Ethiopian monastics and Alexandria was reached.

    • the Ethiopians regained ultimate control of their church, being recognized as an independent church with their own patriarch, although they agreed to give honorary primacy to the Coptic patriarch in Alexandria

  • In the mid-20th century the EOC became a state church of Ethiopia and supported Emperor Haile Selassie I

  • 1974 – the abolition of the monarchy and the institution of socialism also saw end of the EOC’s role as the state church, although it remained the country’s most influential religion

  • 1993-4 – Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia, and Eritrean Christians appealed to Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church to be recognized as an independent church, which he granted. The EOC recognized the Eritrean Orthodox Church in 1998

  • 20th century saw the Ethiopian Orthodox Church enter into fruitful talks with Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic leaders, where they were able to resolve many issues that had previously cut them off from each other

  • Until 1900, the EOC’s church schools were the only schools in Ethiopia

Unique features of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

  • Over 30 million members in Ethiopia alone

  • Liturgy is primarily in the ancient Ge’ez language, although it’s also translated into modern Amharic

  • Church services often feature dance in addition to song

  • Blending mythologies of angels and Christian saints with pagan ideas of spirits and imps

  • Heavy emphasis on the Old Testament

  • Their Bible includes apocryphal material such as the First Book of Enoch

  • Circumcision and rigorous fasting are widely practiced

  • A Saturday Sabbath

  • Monasticism still widespread

  • They still claim to have the original Ark of the Covenant in a church in the city of Aksum

  • As with the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, they teach that the word of God is contained equally in the Bible and in the apostolic traditions of the church

Pictured: Aksum Chapel of the Ark of the Covenant


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