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I Understand
Volume 7.1 / Jewish Cultural Elements in the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahedo Church

Book Review


Jewish Cultural Elements in the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahedo Church

Book Author: Afework Hailu
Publisher: Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2020. pp. xvi + 354. $94.40, hardback.
Reviewed by T. J. Marinello

Hailu has produced a well written treatise which traces the Jewish cultural elements in the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaḥədo Church (EOTC) just as the title describes. That said, this is not merely the normal rehearsal of the sources of this purported influence in Ethiopia. Hailu has presented a fresh argument and proposed his own answer to the question of from where the Jewish cultural elements came, if indeed they are Jewish at all. In particular Hailu contends that the ‘Judaic’ cultural identity of the [EOTC] was established neither due to an influence of Jews and Judaism in Aksum prior to the fourth century nor as a result of a one-time event, but as a result of sociopolitical, cultural factors after the sixth century CE and spanning many centuries, shaped substantially by biblical and ecclesiastical narratives as well as Ethiopian indigenous cultural expressions that were developed through contextualisation and theologizing processes. (p. 11)

It is in both the actual writing of the EOTC history and the reasons in support of his thesis that this book becomes important for any who deal with the history of the Christian Church anywhere in Africa. First, he notes the ready acceptance by modern scholars of the appraisal of outsiders, and especially that of nineteenth century missionaries as they encountered the EOTC. Seeing what they saw, and noting the meeting of the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip in Acts 8, they determined that the EOTC must have had strong Jewish roots. In the ensuing decades up through the twenty-first century, this appraisal has been the basis for essentially all further studies. Hailu makes his case that this initial appraisal by outsiders was mistaken, even critiquing its acceptance by some of the foremost modern scholars of the EOTC such as Edward Ullendorf and, to a lesser extent, Conti Rossini. As Hailu relates this historical and linguistic record, he does not seem to discredit totally what has been the commonly accepted beliefs about the Jewish pre-history of Christianity in Ethiopia and the subsequent Judaic influences, but he does present equally plausible arguments for other explanations for these influences. Quite helpfully, his critique of the work of noted scholars is done in a collegial fashion. While an evaluation of Hailu’s own appraisal needs additional examination, and some critique will be presented below, he presents an important caution for researchers outside of the various African contexts who write on some aspect of African Christianity as well as those who build on the views of these outsiders. Further, this should be an encouragement to those from the particular modern African context under consideration to do the in-depth research of their country’s Christian roots using the eyes of an insider, so to speak, and not merely build in an unexamined fashion on what has been presented earlier.

So how does Hailu proceed? In three sections comprised of a total of six well-written chapters and followed by a summary chapter, Hailu lays out his case. Section one is entitled, “Studies on the ‘Judaic Heritage’ of the Ethiopian Church,’ a heritage he doubts. Section two is entitled, “‘Judaic’ Reverberations in the Ancient Ethiopian Church,” and section three, “‘Solomonic’ Identity and ‘Judaic’ Elements in the Ethiopian Church.”

The two chapters in the first section deal with what many have seen as Jewish and Judaic elements in the religious culture and practices of Ethiopia from the Middle Ages up through the twentieth century, and then the Judaic identity of Aksum as based variously upon hypotheses of immigration from assorted parts of the Middle East and north Africa as well as the presence of Hebrew loanwords in Ethiopic. Critically, Hailu notes that in the extant historical records, the “’Judaic’ customs” are not mentioned until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and these “dominated the impressions of European writers until the sixteenth century.” (p. 43) The primary source of these impressions by outsiders was through contact with Ethiopian pilgrims to Jerusalem, and their “‘Jewish’” elements were roundly condemned. (pp. 22–23) But from where could these seemingly Jewish elements have come? The common idea is that some sort of immigration from southern Arabia or Egypt is the source. Hailu, however, rightly demonstrates that this theory is based on thin evidence and cites recent studies which support his doubts of their credibility. He goes on to examine “Hebrew” loanwords, noting that just as likely many of these identified as Hebrew loanwords were the result of the Bible translations accomplished by Syriac or Egyptian missionaries. 

Chapters three and four begin by noting that academic hypotheses and Ethiopian tradition both support a Jewish, pre-Christian heritage. Indeed the Kebra Nagast tightly connects Aksum to Jerusalem through a purported physical offspring of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, no less the alleged move of the Ark of the Covenant from Israel to Aksum. Nonetheless, Hailu notes the absence of archeological and epigraphic evidence in support of this connection to underpin a Judaist Christianity in Ethiopia. He also notes that the earliest traditions of the EOTC did not include the coming of the Ark to Aksum. In contrast, the documented historical record to date outside of the Bible supports the presence of Christianity only in the early fourth century, especially with Athanasius’s consecration of Frumentius as bishop of Aksum (pp. 108–109). Further, Hailu makes the argument that the translation of the Ethiopic Bible with its eight-one books was very likely a heavy influence for the Jewish elements of the EOTC since many of the books contained extended instruction on Jewish worship and celebrations (pp. 117–18). What then of the biblical account of Acts 8 as the source of the coming of Christianity to Aksum? Hailu is less convincing in this portion of his argument. While he makes a credible argument for his position that the Ethiopian eunuch and Queen Candice were not a central part of the Aksumite kingdom, his explanatory footnotes present an equally plausible argument that they were a part in some fashion, undermining support for his own proposal. In this, Hailu is commended for academic integrity since he clearly shows the weakness of his own argument. The result, however, leaves his argument unconvincing and still facing the weight of the “argument from antiquity” via the Church Fathers.

The last two chapters present the formation of the Solomonic identity of the EOTC, and especially the central role of the Kebra Nagast in this. He posits the coopting of the story of the Kebra Nagast by later monarchs as they attempted to shore up their support in the face of dynastic struggles. Other Judaist influences seemingly came in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by both the translation into Ge’ez and the expansion of works such as Te'amire Maryam (Miracles of Mary) among others. These literary influences came in the midst of significant cultural-theological controversies within the EOTC. Hailu helpfully quotes at length from these literary sources, translating the originals into English, but providing the original Ethiopic texts as well.

With this and other material addressed, Hailu summaries his argument in a concluding chapter, ending where he began. He again emphasizes:

Historical and literary evidence suggests that ‘Hebrew-Jewish’ cultural influences emerged as a result of neither biblical nor rabbinic Judaism from before the fourth century CE; rather it evolved through a rich religious culture which developed in a process that is only understood in light of the spectrum of the long history of the Church, beginning from the sixth century CE (p. 299).

The concluding chapter which follows this quote is a particularly helpful summary in which he enumerates the components of his argument in an easily digested fashion. For all readers, and especially for the non-specialist, this summary is quite useful.

Hailu is applauded for approaching his topic with a fresh perspective, and yet the book has at least a few places where a different presentation would have helped. While Hailu helpfully translates the Ge’ez-Amharic passages throughout, he fails to do the same for an extended French quote at a critical part of his argument (p. 66). This failure here and in a shorter German passage also at a critical juncture leaves many readers unable to follow his argument (p. 74). This is a pity since Hailu has worked hard to present a credible argument for consideration. Why create a needless barrier for the non-specialist? Another oddity of the book is the appearance of blue-colored, underlined hyperlinks in the footnotes and bibliography. While perhaps helpful in an electronic copy of the text, why is this found in a print volume? This along with other irregularities from time to time in the footnotes makes the reader wish a bit more editing and proofing had been done before publication. Nonetheless, Hailu and the publishers are commended for using footnotes—many quite useful for explanation as noted above as well as sources— rather than making the studious reader endure the literary misery of endnotes.

Overall, Hailu’s contribution to the study of the EOTC should be placed in any theological school’s library which has a collection treating Christianity in east Africa, and particularly Christianity in Ethiopia. Whether or not Hailu has made his case convincingly, he has at least introduced a measure of doubt into the standard historical narrative by presenting an alternative view seemingly worth examining. Gorgias Press is commended for bringing this volume to print, and one hopes this volume will spur further research and subsequent publication on the history and character of the EOTC.

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