Ethiopia: The First Christian Nation? Opinion

International Business Times
March 4 2013

Ethiopia: The First Christian Nation? Opinion

By Brendan Pringle | March 04 2013 10:19 AM

For centuries, historians have widely accepted the argument that
Armenia was the first Christian nation. This important claim has
become a source of national pride for Armenians and has remained
virtually undisputed for centuries — until now.

According to Ethiopian legend, King Lalibela received help from
angels building the church to create a New Jerusalem. Created out of
rock, this structure dates back to the 11th century and measures over
37 feet high.

Armenians will likely be up at arms when they learn that a new book —
`Abyssinian Christianity: The First Christian Nation?’ — is
challenging their claim, presenting the possibility that Abyssinia
(modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea) was the first Christian nation.

To be sure, the book doesn’t conclusively assert that Ethiopia was the
first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion. However, it
will surely challenge the confidence of modern Church historians with
groundbreaking evidence.

The Weakness of Armenia’s Claim

Armenia’s claim on this meaningful title is primarily based upon the
celebrated fifth century work of Agathangelos titled `The History of
the Armenians.’ In it, he says as an eyewitness that after the
Armenian King Trdat III was baptized (c. 301/314 A.D.) by St. Gregory
the Illuminator, he decreed Christianity was the state religion.

The truth is that we have no solid proof to support this account. We
are forced to rely solely on the authenticity of Agathangelos and his
contemporaries. These historians try to liken the conversion of Trdat
III to that of Constantine’s, even though the baptism of Constantine
is questionable, as was his own personal `conversion.’

Michael Richard Jackson Bonner, a linguist at Oxford University,
contends that Agathangelos had a clear agenda. He `wished to stress
the independence and uniqueness of the Armenian church … [and The
History] is a tendentious compilation, which has expanded and
elaborated earlier traditions … and greatly increased the prestige
of the See of the patriarchs of the fifth century.’

In addition, recent studies date `The History of the Armenians’ to c.
450 A.D., making it impossible for Agathangelos to have been an
eyewitness. If Armenia’s claim is based on nothing more than oral
history, how can it hold any more credibility than Ethiopia’s own
Christian legends?

As for the spread of Christianity in Armenia, historian Peter Brown
argued that `Armenia became a nominally Christian kingdom’ after the
king’s baptism. The Armenian people in fact `did not receive
Christianity with understanding … and under duress.”

Where Ethiopia Differs

The Acts of the Apostles describe the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch
shortly after the death of Christ. Eusebius of Caesaria, the first
church historian, in his “Ecclesiastical History,” further tells of
how the eunuch returned to diffuse the Christian teachings in his
native land shortly after the Resurrection and prior to the arrival of
the Apostle Matthew.

Before the Ethiopian king Ezana, (whose kingdom was then called Aksum)
embraced Christianity for himself and decreed it for his kingdom (c.
330 A.D.), his nation had already constituted a large number of

During the persecutions of Diocletian (284-305 A.D.), commerce ports
like Adulis, along the Red Sea, served as a sanctuary for Christians
in exile and the Christian faith began to grow rapidly in these areas.
Pagans still comprised the religious majority at this time, but as
historian Kevin O’Mahoney argued, the Christian faith first took root
in `the upper social classes and gradually spread downwards to become
the religion of the people.’

Such was the religious climate that St. Frumentius faced when his ship
was pillaged by the native Ethiopians at the start of the fourth
century A.D. The Ethiopian king spared his life, and Frumentius
received a place of honor at the royal court. In this position, he
nourished the Christian faith by locating Christians and helping them
find places of worship. He also educated the king’s heir, Ezana, and
converted him to Christianity.

For this people, Ezana’s conversion became a public conversion for
Aksum, and Christianity continued to serve as a point of reference for
the nation. Unlike the case of Armenia, we have tangible proof of this

Historians have uncovered a public acknowledgement of the Christian
faith from Ezana. Also, coins bearing Ezana’s image depict the cross
after his conversion.

As the authors of “Abyssinian Christianity” conclude, `the promotion
of the new faith developed into the single point of personal and
public identification and unity for Abyssinians.’ Christianity became
the centralizing force behind the Ethiopian empire, which endured
through 1974, despite religious and political threats from all sides.

Can a nation only become Christian if there is an official decree from
its sovereign? If that were the case, then the Kingdom of Edessa would
be the first Christian city-state (in modern terms) in c. 218. As we
see with Abyssinia, and Israel before it, a nation isn’t confined to
political boundaries. Rather, it is defined by a group of people who
share a common heritage.

For the Ethiopians, this shared heritage was Christianity.

Brendan Pringle is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and
the editor of “Abyssinian Christianity: The First Christian Nation?”
For more details about the book, visit

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