Exploring the Ancient Gospels of Ethiopia
It’s not every day that scholars discover new Bible manuscripts from the ancient world. It’s even rarer to discover ones endowed with luxurious painted images. Yet this is precisely what has happened over the past decade thanks to groundbreaking research into three ancient codices from Ethiopia, the earliest surviving copies of the Gospels in Ethiopic.
The manuscripts, which were produced and are still housed at the Monastery of Abba Garima in Ethiopia’s northern highlands, were not completely unknown to experts before, having been published for the first time in the 1960s. But recent work by Judith McKenzie and Francis Watson—published in a spectacular new book—has led to a radical reassessment of their dates and significance. Through radio-carbon testing and fresh analysis of their iconography and texts, we now know that the three Abba Garima Gospels were copied not in the tenth or eleventh centuries, as once thought, but between the fifth and seventh centuries at the zenith of Ethiopia’s ancient Christian civilization. For anyone interested in the history of the Bible, late antiquity, or Ethiopia itself, this is very big news.
To put the discovery in perspective, the Abba Garima manuscripts are among the very oldest illustrated Gospels in the world. When it comes to firmly dated parallels, only the Syriac Rabbula Gospels, produced near Antioch in 586, is earlier. The Abba Garima Gospels are also older than several of the greatest monuments of Western manuscript illumination, including the Codex Amiatinus, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Book of Kells, all of which were copied in the British Isles between the eighth and ninth centuries. Then, as today, Ethiopia lay far, far away from Syria and Ireland. Despite this, the manuscripts show striking similarities to the art of other ancient Christian cultures outside of Africa. Indeed, they are a testament to the deep connections between Ethiopia and the wider late antique world.
To understand the history of the Abba Garima Gospels, we must first appreciate something of the civilization that produced them. In ancient times, long-distance trade was the umbilical cord linking Ethiopia and the outside world. Ethiopian merchants spread their wares far and wide, including incense, ivory, gold, and even live animals such as baboons. Its closest trading partners lay just across the Red Sea in southern Arabia, but Ethiopian traders also reached markets in far-away Egypt, India, and the Mediterranean. So numerous were the Ethiopian merchants of Alexandria, for example, that a fourth-century Roman law barred them from tarrying in the city for more than a year. These commercial contacts encouraged cultural exchange, such that Ethiopia’s art, architecture, and literature were constantly shaped by the practices of its distant neighbors.
Christianity first reached the Kingdom of Aksum—the state that ruled Ethiopia during late antiquity—in the fourth century. The advent of the new religion in Aksum is an event shrouded in myth, though it seems that the first Christians there were traders, possibly Egyptians from the north. King Ezana of Aksum officially converted by the 350s, though like his Roman counterpart Constantine, the nature of his conversion is heavily contested. For example, Ezana is known to have minted coins with both Christian and pagan symbols in the course of his life. A famous bilingual stele—erected before his conversion—invokes a pagan deity called “Mahrem,” a term related to the Quranic epithet for God, al-Rahman, or “the Merciful.” Despite these murky origins, what is clear is that by the early sixth century, Christianity had become the leading religion in Aksum, with a sophisticated network of bishops, churches, and monasteries scattered throughout the country.
Another feature of Ethiopia’s history in late antiquity was its occasionally aggressive foreign policy. An ally of the Byzantine Empire, ancient Aksum attempted to establish a sphere of influence stretching across East Africa and the Red Sea. Notably, at the start of the sixth century, Aksumite armies invaded and installed a puppet ruler in the Kingdom of Himyar in south Arabia, which had recently undergone its own conversion to Judaism and become an ally of Sasanian Iran. These high-stakes rivalries shaped the world of Muhammad and the first Muslims: indeed, the Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet was born in 570, the “Year of the Elephant,” when an Aksumite viceroy famously marched a fleet of war elephants into Mecca with the goal of destroying the Kaaba. In the decades to come, the early Muslims nurtured their own contacts in Ethiopia, notably during the “First Hijra” of 615, when Muhammad dispatched a small group of followers to Aksum to avoid persecution in Mecca. Not surprisingly, scholars note that many words in classical Arabic have connections in Ethiopic, also a Semitic language. Tellingly, one of these is mushaf, the term for codex.
Given this, ancient Ethiopia has emerged as a hot topic of research in recent years. Scholars have come to see Aksum not as an isolated and eccentric culture on the edge of the Christian world, but as a linchpin binding together many far-flung civilizations. In many ways, the Abba Garima Gospels embody this special role: they are a monument to the vitality of local Aksumite culture as well as its openness to outside influences.
The most striking characteristic of the three codices are their brilliant illustrations. These include portraits of the four evangelists, along with one of the fourth-century bishop and biblical scholar Eusebius (all found in Abba Garima III.) In most portraits, the saints stare at the viewer head-on with arresting intensity. St. Mark, however, is shown in profile, seated in a pose reminiscent of evangelist portraits in Greek, Syriac, and Arabic manuscripts as well as older Roman mosaics. The image of Mark even has connections to ancient Egyptian wall paintings, including the saint’s rigid, hieratic pose and the leopard-skin throne on which he sits. Mark also wears a white scarf known as an omophrion, befitting his status as a bishop and a founder of the Egyptian church. In addition, his V-shaped lectern calls to mind reading stands used in later periods for copies of the Quran and the Arabic Bible.
Aside from the saints’ portraits, another illustration depicts what McKenzie and Watson term the “Renewed Temple.” It is a curious building, with a trapezoidal roof, a course of bricks and columns, and a base with two doors, from which slender white deer poke their heads. In its specifics, the image is almost without precedent in the arts of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, though as McKenzie notes, it belongs to a wider genre of buildings with pitched roofs, porticoes, and hanging curtains known as “tholoi.” Watson also identifies similarities between this image and descriptions of the Temple in the text of the Bible. Their arguments are convincing, but the closest parallel may be an image not included in McKenzie and Watson’s book at all, namely, the scene of Christ’s Temptation from the Book of Kells, in which Jesus and Satan are depicted on the parapet of the Jerusalem Temple. The building in Kells shares the same distinctive structure as the one in Abba Garima III and is in fact much closer in form and iconography than the tholoi which McKenzie highlights. Eastern influences on the Book of Kells are well known, so it is not out of the question that it and Abba Garima III could share a common ancestor.
In general, the Abba Garima Gospels are relatively poor in what we might call traditional Christian iconography. There is not a single image of Jesus anywhere in the three codices. What they lack in explicitly Biblical imagery, however, they more than make up for in other elements, including canon tables, a distinctive feature of ancient Gospel manuscripts. Although completely missing from modern printed Bibles, no deluxe Gospel from the pre-modern world was complete without them. Designed by Eusebius of Caesraea—whose portrait graces the pages of Abba Garima III—canon tables responded to a basic problem that instantly strikes anyone who tries to read the Gospels together: despite significant overlaps, the four accounts of Jesus’ life convey different, sometimes conflicting, information. In response to this, Eusebius devised a system for cross-referencing parallel passages.. The first canon table, for example, mentions material found in all four Gospels, while subsequent tables mention material shared across three and two Gospels.
The canon tables had obvious practical applications. Over time, however, they acquired a primarily symbolic significance, transforming into icons that visually expressed the idea of harmony among the four stories of Jesus’ life. The Abba Garima manuscripts represent the final stage of this transformation from “tools” to “symbols.” Indeed, as an orderly system for cross-referencing the text of the New Testament, the tables in the Abba Garima Gospels often do not work. Yet the illuminators still invested great time and effort in painting page after page of tables, each with elaborate architectural frames recalling those from Pompeii or Baalbek and crowded with exotic fauna plucked from the East African landscape. Therefore, although Jesus himself is missing from the Abba Garima Gospels, the Incarnate Word is represented abundantly and implicitly in the tables themselves, symbols of a common revelation recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
One of the biggest problems facing research into the Abba Garima Gospels is the absence of historical comparanda in the form of contemporary manuscripts, wall paintings, or written sources from Ethiopia itself. Given this, it is unsurprising that earlier scholars sometimes argued that the illuminations may have been produced outside Ethiopia in places like Egypt or the Levant. McKenzie and Watson’s book definitively disproves this theory, which implicitly rests on an assumption that Ethiopia – geographically and culturally isolated from the “real” cultural hubs of the late antique world – was incapable of producing something as beautiful as the Abba Garima Gospels without foreign help.
Although the three manuscripts show abundant parallels to the arts of the wider late antique world, they also demonstrate in dazzling fashion the vitality of local culture in Ethiopia itself. In fact, their beauty and sophistication suggest that these were not the first fruits of a tradition about to bloom, but the mature efforts of a tradition that had already been flowering for generations. We owe McKenzie, Watson, and their team a great debt for making these codices accessible to the general public. Their fine volume will hopefully serve as a stimulus for further research on ancient Ethiopia more broadly, a great crossroads of culture whose significance to world history we are only just beginning to appreciate.
Christian C. Sahner is a Research Fellow in History at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford/Hurst, 2014) and Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World (Princeton, forthcoming).