Bibliography by Jon Abbink

Christianity in Ethiopia

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Wednesday 4 March 2009, by Icon Network

Bibliography on Christianity in Ethiopia, by J. Abbink

This bibliography intends to meet the need of researchers and students of Christianity in Ethiopia and Africa to have a survey of the most important published materials on the subject in recent years. It covers various fields such as philology, religious studies, anthropology and the history of Christianity in Ethiopia and roughly covers the last forty years. The bibliography centers mainly on the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), including references to the Eritrean Orthodox Church, which became autonomous after Eritrea’s independence in 1993, although in its origins, doctrine and general character it is basically the same as the Ethiopian Church. Also items on missionary churches and movements as well as on some diaspora communities are included. The theme of Christianity in Ethiopia is broadly conceived, so that also titles on Ethiopian philosophy and world views are included.

- Index of the bibliography
- Introduction
- Download the full PDF

African Studies Center — Leiden, the Netherlands

Table of contents

  • Introduction 1
  • Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Missionary Churches: Historical, Political, Religious, and Socio-cultural Aspects 8
    • History 8
    • History of individual churches and monasteries 17
    • Aspects of doctrine and liturgy 18
    • Ethiopian Christian theology and philosophy 24
    • Monasteries and monastic life 27
    • Church, state and politics 29
    • Pilgrimage 31
    • Religious and liturgical music 32
    • Social, cultural and educational aspects 33
    • Missions and missionary churches 37
    • Ecumenical relations 43
    • Christianity and indigenous (traditional) religions 44
    • Biographical studies 46
    • Ethiopian diaspora communities 47
  • Christian Texts, Manuscripts, Hagiographies 49
    • Sources, bibliographies, catalogues 49
    • General and comparative studies on Ethiopian religious literature 51
    • On saints 53
    • Hagiographies and related texts 55
    • Ethiopian editions and translations of the Bible 57
    • Editions and analyses of other religious texts 59
    • Ethiopian religious commentaries and exegeses 72
  • Ethiopian Christian Art and Architecture 74
    • General issues 74
    • Manuscript illumination 77
    • Paintings and icons 80
    • Religious material culture: crosses, textiles, carvings, jewelry 87
    • Church architecture and design 89
    • Biographical studies of painters and artists 94
  • Index to Authors 97


- Christianity emerged in Ethiopia in the mid-4th century, possibly earlier, and gained an important role in Ethiopian life that was maintained until today. The Ethiopian Orthodox Täwah? do Church, as it is officially called (and not ‘Monophysite’) is a unique African church, deeply rooted in Ethiopian history, social life and ethics. It preceded the formation and development of Christianity in the West with several hundreds of years. While the Ethiopian Church was closely connected to the Coptic Church of Egypt, which was the first on the African continent, it developed its own liturgy, educational system for clergy and laymen, monastic tradition, religious music, and an extensive tradition of commentary and exegesis of the Bible. These elements contributed to the formation of a distinct domain of Ethiopian Christian religious identity, which was, however, not developed in isolation from the rest of (Eastern) Christianity. Apart from producing its own works, the EOC from the Middle Ages onwards furthered translations and elaborations of religious works written elsewhere. The development of its own religious tradition indeed gave the EOC its distinct and self-conscious character. The Coptic Church in Egypt on the other hand, as professor Taddesse Tamrat has rightly emphasized [1] has adapted itself to the Muslim environment in Egypt and ‘toned down’ many of its public ceremonies and other expressions of the faith. The Ethiopian Christian religious tradition thus can be said to have become de facto independent well before the official detachment from the Alexandrine Coptic Patriarchate in the mid-20th century.

- Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, although it was never the faith of all Ethiopians, has long been the dominant faith of highland Ethiopia partly due to its close links with the imperial rulers. Indeed, it played a significant role in state formation in the Ethiopian highlands. It also has a very interesting history of missionizing and expansion following the widening of the state’s borders. From its inception, it has, however, contended with other faiths: not only with indigenous religions and cults but also with Islam since the 7th century and with Western forms of Christianity. Important was the meeting with Roman Catholicism brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century in the wake of the Portuguese army contingent led by Cristovão da Gama, sent by the Portuguese king to help a fellow Christian monarch in trouble against the violent expansion under the Islamist avant-la-lettre Ahmed ibn Ibrahim ‘Gragn’ of Adal. In the 19th century, missionary Protestantism became an important movement, followed by Catholicism and a Swedish Lutheran mission in Italian Eritrea since the late 1890s. Today’s picture is even more complex since the advent of other Western missionary churches, including Evangelical Christianity (e.g., Pentecostalism) which made a comeback after 1991 and expanded significantly especially in the last 15 years, in line with its general upsurge in Africa. While at least 50% of all Ethiopians are estimated to be Ethiopian Orthodox - on the basis of the last Ethiopian Census of 1994 [2], the religious scene in the country is much more marked by denominational competition than in the past, especially among non-Christian and non-Islamic people in the south and west of the country. Also the two post- imperial regimes, the Derg and the post-1991 government, have done their best to, respectively, delegitimize and undermine the EOC and to substantially marginalize and decenter it from Ethiopian national life, perhaps in the mistaken fear that it may attain political force [3]. This, however, is an outdated view and would be to misinterpret the deep existential meaning that people attach to the religious world view and values, especially in conditions of persistent poverty, insecurity and destitution that mark daily life for too many Ethiopians. Although it can have clear politial messages and is, at least in the case of Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia, connected to expressing historical ideals about the national polity, religion in its essence upholds a moral not a political order, despite the fact that the problems of the political order make it increasingly difficult for people to uphold that moral order.

- No doubt the Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity will remain the faith of a very large proportion of Ethiopians and is likely to retain its wider social and spiritual impact. It has also made a unique contribution to Christianity as a global phenomenon. Its spirituality and depth is remarkable compared to Western Christianity, visible in the dynamics, vividness and broad mass following of the EOC in Ethiopia (The same could perhaps be said on many churches elsewhere in Africa). Regarding it relations with other faiths in the country, it could be argued that Ethiopian Christianity historically sought dominance in the country on the basis of its doctrine (as almost any religion does) and was sometimes called upon to expand forcefully, e.g., after certain mediaeval campaigns of conquest in frontier areas, or under Emperor Yohannis IV after the Boru Meda religious council of 1878. But it also was de facto tolerant or - to avoid this modern concept - accommodating towards existing cultural and religious differences. It did not condone ‘idolatry and superstitious beliefs’ such as sorcery, divination, possession cults, sacrificial cults, casting curses and spells, or magical practices. But the clergy usually did not force all matters of disagreement in the open and did not demand total personal ‘conversion’ if people showed ‘allegiance’ instead, and if others did not challenge the EOC’s legitimate position they left them be. Thus many ‘syncretic’ or mixed forms of Christianity emerged, retaining elements of traditional cultures and blurring the boundaries even of Christianity and Islam [4]. From Ethiopian history many wars and battle are known, but very few if any were explicitly religious persecutions or battles for religion. Only in the context of national defence and state expansion the fa ith was spread and blessings were given to the emperors and their armies [5]. In practice, the EOC usually left other religious beliefs and their adherents alone as long as they did not open contest, attack or undermine the EOC. A notable exception were the wars against the Beta Esrael or ‘Falasha’ in the 14th-16th centuries, because here the political element was as strong if not stronger than the religious element [6]. However, the above-mentioned more competitive environment today, enhanced significantly by the ‘transnational’ religious challenges, i.e., the externally supported missionary educational institutions and local churches connected to them, as well as Islamic movements and groups financed from outside (e.g., with massive funds from Saudi Arabian and other sources for the education of an Ethiopian Muslim elite and for mosque-building and conversion in Ethiopia since the late 1980s) will have quite a number of consequences. It will tend to make the EOC lose much of its historical attitude of condoning of and laissez-faire toward other forms of religious expression because it will be forced to much more assert itself. In general, local religious identities and expressions – especially in the context of contested ethnofederal nation-building in Ethiopia - will change in the light of such transnational connections. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has traditionally attracted the attention of historians, theologians, students of religion and philologists because of its long and complex history, its being a natural case for comparison with Western Christianity, and its long written tradition, as evident not only in royal chronicles, theological works, poetry (q? né), and hagiographies of saints and holy men, but also in its rich and highly interesting corpus of religious exegeses and commentaries (e.g., and? mta). Despite the major contributions made to the study of this complex tradition during the last twenty years, it is still to a large extent understudied. These commentaries are often found in manuscript form in private and church or monastery collections, and many were never written down. Much work remains to be done to make these often remarkably original and profound religious works more widely known and to study their meaning, the characteristics of their genre and their interpretive traditions. The same goes for the religious orature (‘oral literature’) and poetry, which have yielded unique and complex forms of cultural expression.

- Also the rich art and architecture of Christian Ethiopia are worthy of note and have been the subject of many studies already, as evident from the references below to works of religious paintings, icons, wood carvings, crosses, textiles, manuscript illuminations and religious building styles. The field study and inventarisation (and protection) of these works is more necessary than ever in view of the constant preying upon these works of religious art and identity by local and international traders and tourists whereby criminal means are not shunned.

- A relatively new field of study is the sociology and anthropology of Christianity, where questions like the following are asked: how do communities live with and ‘reproduce’ Christianity as a socio-cultural system, what are the socio-economic practices associated with it, what are patterns of conversion or allegiance formation, how are gender conceptions and roles identified and expressed, and how do new situations of religious competition affect people’s identifications, social networks and community relations. While research on the role and meaning of Christian beliefs and values among northern Ethiopian communities have been done in the context of more encompassing ethnographical or sociological studies, there is still comparatively little in the way of systematic understanding of Ethiopian Christianity as a living social practice. As was noted by Cressida Marcus in a recent special issue on ‘Gender and Christianity’ of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies [7]: “The general study of Ethiopian Christianity is a field of enquiry still in its intellectual formation…” Such a field of study also needs to address the often quite conservative social and cultural impact that the EOC has had on Ethiopian society. There is a great challenge both for the EOC and for students of Christianity in Ethiopia to deal with and explain processes of rapid socio-political change in Ethiopia.

- While most references in this bibliography deal with Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, it also lists works on modern missionary and evangelical Christianity as well as Catholicism, as the oldest Western form of Christianity in Ethiopia. One of the most important challenges for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church today is perhaps how to deal with ‘globalization’ in the religious sphere, among them the expansion of the foreign religious organizations with wider transnational connections. Being a church and a tradition closely linked to the history and cultures of one country, Ethiopia, it is imperative for the EOC to relate to world Christianity in a creative way and steer a middle course between adaptation and innovation on the one hand, and continuity and maintenance of its own tradition and the values and practices related to it, on the other. There are also major efforts needed to come to more inter-faith communication, exchange, and understanding, both within Christianity and with Islam and other beliefs, so that news forms of tolerance and cooperation can be developed in the face of staggering problems.

- A subject on which there is a quite limited number of studies is that of the Ethiopian community in the Holy Land. After E. Cerulli’s major work [8], only a few authors devoted any serious attention to it (e.g., Beckingham 1962, Meinardus 1965, and Pedersen 2002). The history of this community since the late 19th century up to the present, however, needs renewed attention, not least because of the persistent problems of the community. For instance, there has been steady and sometimes illegal encroachment on Ethiopian Christian property in Jerusalem by other Christian groups, notably the Copts.

- The compiler of this bibliography has faced the common problems of classification, and of the choice what to include and leave out. There is a limited inclusion of works in Ethiopian languages; this bibliography is focused on foreign-language studies on the subject and has not aimed to be complete. References to Christianity in Ethiopia in general works on the history of Christianity in Africa were not included. It is hoped nevertheless that this work will spur scholars and other people interested to further take up the exploration and study of Christianity in Ethiopia, as one of the most fascinating and challenging subjects in the field of Ethiopian Studies [9]. In the near future, a fuller bibliography on religion in Ethiopia in general – with references on Islam, the Beta Esrael, traditional religions, possession cults, etc. – is also needed to complete the limited picture given in this bibliography. I am grateful to Dr. Claire Bosc-Tiessé and Cressida Marcus for comments on an earlier version of the present work. Additions to this working bibliography are welcome. Please send suggestions to the following e- mail address:


Attached documents


[1] See: Taddesse Tamrat, 1998, ‘Evangelizing the evangelised: the root problem between missions and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’, in: Getatchew Haile, A. Lande & S. Rubenson (eds.), The Missionary Factor in Ethiopia , p. 17 (Frankfurt/M.: Peter Lang).

[2] According to the Ethiopian Central Statistical Authority (The 1994 Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia. Results at the National Level, volume I, Statistical Report, Addis Ababa, CSA, 1998, p. 129), of the 53.130.782 Ethiopians in 1994, 26.877.660 were Orthodox, i.e. 50.6 %. Other Christians were 5.864.656, while Muslims counted 17.412.432 (or 33%). ‘Others’ counted 478225, while ‘traditional’ believers were listed as 2.455.053.

[3] A similar attitude toward Islam, is however, not taken, despite the indications of foreign funding and institutional support for a more political Islam in the country.

[4] Within the EOC tradition, the work of debteras touched upon folk practices, ‘magic’ and ritual activities that had no clear doctrinal approval but often mediated effectively between the official faith and the intractable problems faced by people in daily life.

[5] While there was political rivalry involved as well, the only religious battle in the full sense of the word was perhaps the 16th-century war between Ahmed Gragn’s forces and the imperial army under emperor Lebna Dingil. The well-known Futuh al Habasha, the mid-16th century chronicle written by Chihab ed-Din, a camp follower of Ahmed ibn Ibrahim, on this destructive episode certainly depicted it as an intense war to materially and spiritually destroy Christianity in Ethiopia.

[6] See: S. Kaplan, 1992, A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia: from the Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century (New York: New York University Press), and J.A. Quirin, 1992, The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews. A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920 (Pittsburgh: University of Pennsylvania Press). In the present bibliography, references on the Beta Esrael/Falasha/Ethiopian Jews are few. They were only included when they closely dealt with the historical and religious interactions of this group with Ethiopian Christianity.

[7] Cressida Marcus, 2002, ‘Preface’, in: C. Marcus, guest editor, Special issue on Gender and Christianity, Journal of Ethiopian Studies 35(1): 2-8.

[8] E. Cerulli, 1943-47, Etiopi in Palestina (Roma: Libreria dello Stato), 2 volumes.

[9] For literature of older date as well as in Ethiopian languages on the subject of religion in9Ethiopia, I refer to Paulos Milkias, 1989, Ethiopia: A Comprehensive Bibliography (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co.), pp. 596-642. There are a few specific bibliographies on the subject of Christianity in Ethiopia, e.g., E. Hammerschmidt (1956), ‘Zur Bibliographie äthiopischer Anaphoren’, Ostkirchliche Studien 5: 285-290, and: J.J. Bonk (1984), An Annotated and Classified Bibliography of English Literature pertaining to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Metuchen: American Theological Library Association and Scarecrow Press, 116 p.).