The Bible and the Early Church in AfricaWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
It has become fashionable in secular circles to describe Christianity as a white man’s religion, a product of Western culture that European colonizers foisted on the rest of the world. It’s an odd assertion, given that Christianity began in Roman Judea among brown-skinned Semitic Jews who had been transformed by the life, death and resurrection of a brown-skinned Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus had commissioned his followers to take the Good News about him into the whole world. Within a few years, the faith had spread around the Eastern Mediterranean and into Africa, well before it ever reached Europe or what we now call the West.
In Africa, the Gospel reached lands outside the Roman Empire for the first time. During the centuries that followed, Africans were instrumental in the development of doctrine and the growth of the Early Church. For those interested in church history, it’s crucial to learn about and acknowledge the contributions made by people of faith from Africa to the global mission of the church.
The Old Testament
People from Africa not only played pivotal roles in the Early Church, but also at key points in the Old Testament history of Israel.
Two thousand years before Christ, Abraham’s wife Sarah gave her Egyptian slave Hagar to her husband, to bear a son on her behalf. After Hagar became pregnant, she was mistreated and fled into the wilderness. God found her and promised that her son Ishmael would be the father of a large nation. In response, Hagar gave God a new name – El-roi, “the God who sees me” – becoming the first person in Scripture to do so (Genesis 16:1-16).
Five hundred years later, at the time of the Exodus, Moses married a Cushite woman, drawing criticism from his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam. Cush was a prominent African nation, also called Nubia and Ethiopia in ancient sources, located in present-day Sudan and with ties to Egypt, from whence Israel had just escaped slavery. The presence of the Cushite woman increased the tension in Moses’ family to the point where Aaron and Miriam questioned his leadership of Israel. This led to God rebuking the two older siblings and confirming Moses as his unique spokesman to the people (Number 12:1-16).
Another five centuries later, the young King Solomon married an Egyptian princess and wrote his passionate Song of Songs. In the poem, his youthful bride (possibly this same princess) describes herself as “black and beautiful” and asks the young women of Jerusalem not to stare at her because of the colour of her skin (Song of Songs 1:5-6).
A few years later, at the height of Solomon’s reign, the Queen of Sheba visited him, bringing a priceless treasury of gifts and testing his wisdom with difficult questions. The queen, named Bilquis according to ancient tradition, was wealthy, powerful and educated, able to discourse with Solomon about theology and nature. She was also Black, ruling a kingdom that straddled the Red Sea in what is now Yemen, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Her connection with Solomon is said to have brought a form of Judaism to East Africa that would persist until New Testament times and beyond (1 Kings 10:1-13).
The New Testament
By the time of the New Testament, the Mediterranean world had been united around Roman power and Greek culture. North Africa was vital to the Roman economy and the region’s chief cities were major centres of trade and education. One of these cities was Cyrene in eastern Libya, capital of the Roman province of Cyrenaica. Its citizens played crucial roles at various points in the Gospels and the book of Acts.
When Jesus was being led to his crucifixion, a Cyrenian named Simon was pressed into service to carry the cross up the hill to Golgotha. Simon was likely a proselyte or an African convert to Judaism who was in Jerusalem for the Passover. He and his sons Alexander and Rufus became prominent enough in the Early Church to be mentioned in the Gospels (Mark 15:21).
At Pentecost, Peter addressed a crowd of Hellenistic Jews who had assimilated Greek culture, as well as gentile proselytes to Judaism. Like Simon the Cyrenian, they had come to Jerusalem for the Passover and had stayed until Pentecost. They were from all over the Roman Empire, including Egypt and Libya around Cyrene (Acts 2:5-11).
Later, missionaries from Cyrene and Cyprus came to Antioch on the Turkish-Syrian border and were the first to share the Gospel with gentiles. These missionaries, Africans raised in a Hellenistic culture who’d converted to Judaism and then Christianity, were more open to sharing the faith with non-Jews. Large numbers of their gentile hearers in Antioch came to Christ and became the first followers of Jesus to be called Christians (Acts 11:19-26).
Antioch became the bridgehead for missionary activity to the gentile world. The church there was led by Barnabas and Paul along with three other elders, two of whom were African: Lucius of Cyrene and Simeon who was called Niger, which is Latin for “black.” It’s possible this Simeon was the same person as Simon of Cyrene, who had carried Jesus’ cross up to Golgotha years earlier (Acts 13:1-3).
Alexandria in Egypt was another major centre for commerce and learning in North Africa. The city’s famous library was the largest repository of knowledge in the ancient world. Two centuries before Jesus, Hellenistic Jewish scholars from Alexandria had translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. Known as the Septuagint, it was the favoured version quoted by the authors of the New Testament. Alexandria was the home of Apollos, an educated man and an eloquent teacher of the Scriptures. Once Priscilla and Aquila corrected his theology, Apollos became a powerful evangelist who could move and debate among the intellectual elite of the Greco-Roman world (Acts 18:24-28).
The best-known person from Africa in the book of Acts is the Ethiopian eunuch who encountered Philip on the desert road to Gath. The eunuch was a high-ranking official in the court of Candace, the Ethiopian queen. He was also a proselyte who’d gone to Jerusalem to worship and was wealthy or prominent enough to have bought or been given his own copy of the scroll of Isaiah. Philip joined him on his chariot ride home, explained Isaiah’s great messianic prophecy to him and led him to faith in Jesus, making him the earliest recorded African convert to Christianity. According to early church historians, the eunuch in turn led Candace to faith, and from there the Gospel spread throughout her kingdom and across east Africa and southern Arabia as well (Acts 8:26-40).
Ethiopia at the time was a rich trading empire centred in what is now Sudan. Also known as Cush or Nubia in ancient times, it flourished for over a millennium, from about 750 BC to 350 AD. For good stretches of that history, it was ruled by a succession of queens, almost unheard of in the ancient world. Candace (or kandake in Greek) wasn’t a personal name but a hereditary title, like Pharaoh or Caesar, meaning “royal woman” or “great woman.” Ethiopia remained independent of Rome, its culture owing more to Egyptian than Greek influences. And like the eunuch, a fair portion of its populace had embraced elements of Judaism, possibly via trade contact with the earlier Judean monarchy. This Afro-Egyptian matriarchy that blurred the line between Jew and gentile was an early stepping stone for the Christian faith as it began to reach the farthest and most culturally diverse corners of the wider world.
The Early Church
Within the first few centuries of the Early Church, Christianity was firmly established in Ethiopia and in Egypt. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Egyptian Coptic Church are two of the oldest faith communities in the world, established centuries before the Gospel reached Britain or Northern Europe. The Coptic Church claims the apostle Thomas and the evangelist Mark among its founders, and some of the world’s oldest church buildings are found in Ethiopia, like the one in the photo at the top of this article. There were Ethiopian and Coptic translations of the Bible long before the English language existed.
During this period, Alexandria and Carthage in present-day Tunisia were two of the greatest cultural and religious centres in the Mediterranean world. These two North African cities and their environs produced some of the most influential men and women of faith in the first five centuries of the church.
Clement of Alexandria was a Christian philosopher who established a school in Alexandria for teaching and discipling new converts to the faith. Like other early apologists he engaged with pagan intellectuals, defending the faith and seeking to win them to Christ.
Tertullian of Carthage was a pagan lawyer who converted to Christianity. An ethnic Amazigh, he was the first churchman to write in Latin, producing works on theology and the intersection of faith and culture. He also coined the word “Trinity” to describe the scriptural teaching of the triune God.
Perpetua and Felicitas of Carthage were two Christian women who were martyred in the Carthaginian arena. Perpetua, sometimes called “The Black Saint,” was a noblewoman nursing a baby and Felicitas was a pregnant slave. It’s possible that Perpetua volunteered for martyrdom to spare her brother the same fate. The two women supported and encouraged each other to the end. Perpetua left behind an account of her faith and sacrifice which became an inspiration for Christians facing persecution.
Origen of Alexandria was one of the most gifted and creative thinkers of his day. Like Clement, he directed a school in Alexandria for training new and potential converts to the faith. He wrote works on theology and biblical interpretation and produced the Hexapla, comparing six versions of the Scriptures.
Cyprian of Carthage, like Perpetua and Felicitas before him, died a martyr’s death in his hometown and like Tertullian was of Amazigh heritage. He wrote theological and pastoral works, fought heresy, and worked for unity in the body of Christ.
Athanasius of Alexandria, called “The Black Dwarf” by his opponents due to his short stature and dark skin, was a major theologian and one of the chief voices at the Council of Nicea. He was instrumental in defending trinitarian orthodoxy and the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy in the Early Church.
Monica of Hippo was from a town called Thagaste near the city of Hippo in what is now Algeria. She was an Amazigh woman whose name reflects her heritage. Monica prayed faithfully for her three children and her abusive pagan husband, who eventually converted on his deathbed. When her son Augustine embraced Manichaeism, she continued praying for him until her prayers were answered.
Augustine of Hippo, Monica’s son, was one of the towering intellects in church history. Born in his mother’s hometown of Thagaste, he was converted thanks to Monica’s prayers and devotion to biblical truth, eventually becoming the bishop of Hippo. Augustine’s writings have had a profound impact on the church right up to the present. He is considered the most influential figure in the development of theology and Western thought between the apostle Paul and the Protestant Reformation.
At present, Africa has 30 per cent of the world’s evangelicals, 20 per cent of the world’s Pentecostals and charismatics, and 15 per cent of the world’s Roman Catholics. In addition, Africa’s historical Orthodox churches in Egypt and Ethiopia continue to thrive.
That’s not to say there’s a straight line from the Early Church to the present. A lot has happened in the past 1,500 years, including the Muslim conquest of North Africa, European colonization, and the horrific legacy of African chattel slavery.
Nevertheless, the Early Church owes much of its growth and theological soundness during the first 500 years of its existence to men and women of faith in Africa. Despite the horrors and injustices of more recent centuries, people of colour have continued to embrace Jesus and experience his love and healing. Today, there are far more Christians in Africa than in the West, and African churches are the ones sending missionaries to Western countries.
Christianity is not a white man’s religion. As apologist Rebecca McLaughlin pointed out, the average Christian today, statistically speaking, is a Black woman, and when white Western secularists disparage Christians, their targets aren’t who they think they are.
The Western Christian tradition, through its art, has a woeful habit of whitewashing church history. Jesus is portrayed with Caucasian features. Augustine and Athanasius resemble old white men with pale skin and snowy beards.
In looking at church history, it’s essential to recognize the contributions – and the very existence – of our brown and Black sisters and brothers who’ve shaped so much of our church doctrines and traditions. Doing so will give us a more concrete image of Christ’s body, made up of members from every tribe, tongue and colour.
Sources and further reading
Africa Study Bible, “The history of Christianity in Africa,” The Gospel Coalition, November 13, 2019.
Thomas Hinson, “Fathers of The Reformation: Africans in the Early Church,” The Gospel Coalition, April 21, 2021.
Catherine Clark Kroeger, “Hidden Africans of the Bible and Early Church,” Priscilla Papers: The Academic Journal of CBE International, Volume 14 Number 1, Winter 2000.
Andrew Lawler, “Church unearthed in Ethiopia rewrites the history of Christianity in Africa,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 10, 2019.
Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, Crossway, 2019.
Jeff Oganga, “Christianity in Africa is not a colonizer religion,” Religion Unplugged, April 14, 2021.
Emma George Ross, “African Christianity in Ethiopia,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002.
Mons Gunnar Selstø and Frank-Ole Thoresen, “Lessons from North African church history: Embracing a theology of ‘unity in diversity’,” Lausanne Global Analysis, Volume 7 Issue 5, September 2018.
Elizabeth St. John, “Black History Month: What the early African Church can teach us about theology, faith and generosity,” Compassion, February 11, 2022.
Jennifer Woodruff Tait, managing editor, “Christianity in early Africa: Ancient traditions, profound impact,” Christian History Magazine, Issue 105, Christian History Institute, 2013.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox