LEADER TIMES WEEKEND RELIGION ARTICLE FOR
May 25, 2013 by William H. Scarle, Jr.
Last week I mentioned some interesting facts about early Christianity in the year 100 AD, just sixty years after the crucifixion of Jesus and about forty years after the death of the Apostle Paul. About 28 percent of the world would have been evangelized. Six percent of the world’s population would have been Christian. Also, since 33 AD there would have been about 25,000 martyrs who had died for their faith. One final fact that I did not mention and which in light of the present day emerging church in the southern hemisphere is interesting. Seventy percent of this first century Church would have been non-white.
The reason for this was the great success of the Gospel proclamation in Africa, especially in Egypt and in Ethiopia. We know that Mark evangelized Egypt. The story of the Ethiopian government official who was encountered by Phillip on his way home from Jerusalem is recorded in Acts 8:26 – 40.
The North African coast was the home of the Roman Provence of Africa (modern Tunisia) and the home of some of the greatest early Christian leader including Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine.
The Ethiopian Church owes much to Syrian missionaries of the third and fourth centuries. By the time the first Anglo-Saxons were converted the Church in Ethiopia was in its tenth generation. The center of the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia was the ancient capital of Aksum where an episcopal see was established in about 340 AD. The Ethiopian Christians had a relationship with the Coptic Christians of Egypt, but no relationship with Western Christianity. It was an entirely African affair.
There is some speculation that the Ethiopians were first converted to Judaism and then to Christianity. Their church preserves many of the customs from the Torah including circumcision and a seventh day Sabbath. It is more probable that this African Christianity gave more attention to the Old Testament models than the Western churches.
The Ethiopian church and the Copts of Egypt have had more staying power that the church of Roman Africa which has entirely disappeared. In 1970, which was the last year of the old royal regime, the church in Ethiopia had 61,000 priests, 12,000 monks, 37,000 deacons, 31,000 “debteras,” or choir leaders, and 827 monasteries. Even today, after long conflicts with Muslims and recently with Marxist persecution, the church has some 25 million members.
It is true that today Christianity is growing at explosive rates in the southern continents, as it is losing its grip in the West, or in the Northern continents. It is common to think of this as a new phenomenon. We have a tendency to think of the Church as a Western reality, but Christianity was never Western. It became centered in Europe after 1300 AD when the Eastern churches were all but extinguished by the Ottoman Empire. Christianity was from the beginning global in its reach. In the early centuries it reached into Asia, Africa and Europe.
Perhaps Western culture will be brought back to faith by the presence of Asian and African missionaries who will come to us from Christian traditions that reach back to the Apostles.
(Bill Scarle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).