4th Century Christianity in Aksum and Constantinopleby Rit Nosotro
In the 4th century, Christianity was declared to be the state religion by King Ezana of Aksum (Ethiopia) and by Constantine of Constantinople. Explain why this happened and what became of it?
A nation can change from paganism to Christianity through the lives of two shipwrecked youth, the sickness of one man, the vision of one man, or the victory of a single battle.
The shift made by Constantine from Rome to Constantinople. It brought Christianity out of hiding and in to the wealthy parts of town. Constantine rewarded Christians and gave them high positions. Christianity was brought to Ethiopia around the first century AD, when Phillip taught an “Ethiopian of great importance” about Jesus Christ.
Entering into the fourth century, many Christians wondered when and if the persecution would end. Yet through the torturing, killing, and imprisonment of thousands, Christians kept their faith in Christ. We see the power and mystery of God in both Ethiopia and the Roman Empire, in that, through the lives of two shipwrecked youth, the sickness of one man, the vision of another, or the victory of a single battle; a nation could change from paganism to Christianity.
The first three centuries of Christianity were years of persecution for many Christians. Roman emperors from Nero to Diocletian imprisoned, tortured, and killed many Christians that would not renounce their faith. They ordered all sacred writings burned and all churches demolished. Yet, “…In the spring of 311, fate took an unexpected turn. Galerius developed a painful malady. He began to fear that he had angered the God of the Christians. At his wife’s urging, he issued in April 311 an edict of toleration. It granted ‘henceforth that Christian should exist and restore their assemblies, provide they do nothing against good order.’” (Visalli 207) He dies a week after issuing the edict, putting the Roman Empire on the verge of a civil war. “Constantine was in the north warring against the Franks. Maxentius…took control of Italy, while Maximinus Daia raced to the prize territory, Asia Minor…thus ousting Licinius, who subsequently teamed up with Constantine…Four men were now fighting to rule the empire. To better their individual chances, Maximinus Daia and Maxentius conspired against Constantine and Licinius.” (Visalli 208) Heavily outnumbered, Constantine was said to have had a dream, or possibly a vision, where “…he saw an unusual sign from the heavens and heard the Greek words En toutoi nika (in this [sign], conquer). The sign incorporated the first two letters of the name Christ in Greek.” (Visalli 209) Routing Maxentius’ armies, Constantine forced them to retreat across the Milvian Bridge and into Rome. Thousands drowned, including Maxentius, in the Tiber River. This victory changed the course of history for Christianity. However, Constantine, even though he did acknowledge God’s help in the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he had no exclusive commitments to Christianity. He tended to mix Christianity with the worship of other gods, such as the sun god, Sol Invicuts. “Why did Constantine champion Christianity? The vision he claimed to have had before the battle at the Milvian Bridge possibly made an impression that deepened with the telling. Perhaps his mother, Helena, a Christian convert, had influenced him. Constantine most likely perceived that the Church’s extensive network could prove an invaluable aid to unifying, and subsequently ruling, a far-flung empire.” (Visalli 212)
In the years of Constantine’s reign, he went even further than the Edict of Toleration by “…favoring Christians in the filling of the chief offices, exempting Christian ministers from taxes and military service, and making Christianity the de facto religion of the court. Thus began the migration from the rags of the caves and catacombs to the silks of the Imperial Court.” (Missler) However, it was not until Constantine’s second successor, Theodosius II (378-398 A.D.) that Christianity would become the state religion of the empire. One cannot overlook the monumental event that occurred during Constantine’s rule, the moving of the capital from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople). Constantine’s decision to move the capital was based on a variety of reasons. “First, Rome itself was no longer the administrative capital of the empire; administration moved with the emperor. Nicomedia, for example, had served as headquarters for Diocletian, Galerius, and Licinius… Furthermore, Rome’s role as the economic hub of the empire was being usurped by such Eastern cities as Sirmium, Aquileia, Nicomedia, and Thessalonica, which had prospered from bustling trade routes. Religion also influenced his decision.” (Visalli 227) Constantine was disgusted with the pagan sacrifices that Romans had made at his 20th-anniversary celebration in 326. By building a new imperial city, he could create a predominantly Christian capital, something pagan Rome would seemingly never become.”
We see the presence of the God of Israel in Ethiopia as far back as the 10th century B.C. In I Kings 10:1-13, the Bible tells of the Queen of Sheba’s (Ethiopia is located in what was Sheba) visit to Jerusalem, “Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with a hard question.” (New King James Version, I Kings 10:1) Solomon, wishing for the Queen to be the mother of one of his children, coerced her into sleeping with him and upon her return to Ethiopia, the Queen had a son, Menelik I. This marks the beginning of Judaism and the belief in one God in Ethiopia. Many years later, in the book of Acts, Philip finds an Ethiopian “…of great importance” (New King James Version, Acts 8:27) seeking to understand the Bible. “Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go near and overtake this chariot.’ So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.” (New King James Version, Acts 8:27b-31) Considering the fact that this Ethiopian came to Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, Judaism must have been common in Ethiopia. However, Ethiopians had no knowledge of Jesus Christ. Most believe it is through this Ethiopian that Christianity began to spread throughout Ethiopia. Irenaeus, an Apostolic Father is attributed to saying, “The eunuch became a missionary to the Ethiopians.”
So we see that Christianity came to Ethiopia sometime during the first century, but it is through the witness of two shipwrecked youth, about three hundred years later, that the King of Ethiopia coverts to Christianity. “Imbued with Syrian Coptic Christianity, they remained in the country as favorites of the Emperor and upon his death, at the request of the Queen, they stayed to help govern and teach Ezana, who had not reached his maturity.” (Lipsky 102) Being strongly influenced by two followers of Christ, upon Ezana’s ascension to the throne, he made Christianity the official state religion of the Kingdom of Axum. The two men left Ethiopia, but one of them, Frumentius went to St. Athanasius, Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria to report his work. “The Patriarch consecrated him bishop of the newly converted kingdom and sent him back to Ethiopia with a number of priests, thereby establishing the tradition of an Alexandrian-appointed non-Ethiopian to head the Ethiopian Church. The Ethiopian Church followed the lead of the parent church in the division of Christendom at the general Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Egyptian (Alexandrian), Syrian, and Armenian Churches shared the Monophysite doctrine that the two natures of Christ-divine and human were fused into one. The Roman and Greek Churches held that the two natures were united but not fused. The council ended with the two groups excommunicating each other.”(Lipsky 102) Defending themselves militarily from the Byzantine Empire’s desire of dominance, the Alexandrian Church won in 642 A.D., but only by submitting to Muslim rule, which isolated them from the developing Greek and Latin Churches for almost 1,300 years. The Alexandrian Church, “…according to a Canon of the Church of England, ‘remained as static as anything on earth can remain.’”(Lipsky 102)
“Today, about half of Ethiopia’s twenty five million people are Christians with an estimated eighteen thousand churches and two hundred and fifty thousand clergymen.” (Perl)
Starting in Acts 8, when Phillip told the powerful Ethiopian about Jesus Christ, the gosple began to impact Africa. The choice of Constantine to make the Roman Empire a Christian empire permanently changed the course of history for the Christian. Without the persecution of Christianity, it began to spread throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and through the entire world, a process that to this day is not completed.
1. Who did Constantine route in the Battle of Milvian Bridge?
e. None of the above
2. What was Constantinople called before it became Constantine’s capital?
3. Who declared Christianity as the state religion of Constantinople?
a. King Ezana
c. Theodosius II
d. St. Athanasius
e. None of the above
4. As far as the Bible tells us, who told the first Ethiopian about Jesus Christ?
a. The Apostle Paul
e. St Athanasius
Missler, Chuck. “The Capital of the World.” <http://www.khouse.org/articles/biblestudy/19980302-154.html>. Originally published in March of 1998 in “Personal Update NewsJournal”.
Perl, Lila. “Ethiopia: Land of the Lion.” New York City: Morrow and Co., 1972
The Holy Bible. New King James Version. I Kings 10:1-13
The Holy Bible. New King James Version. Acts 8:27:26-39
Visalli, Gayla. Ed. “After Jesus: The Triumph of Christianity.” Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1992
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