Frumentius

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Frumentius and his brother Aedesius of Alexandria were Christians in the Coptic (early Egyptian) church who took the Gospel to the Axumite (Ethiopian) kingdom in spite of their status as slaves.


Early life

Frumentius was born at Tyre in the early 4th century, son of Syro-Phoenician Greek parents. He later moved to Alexandria, Egypt.

Enslaved

In 330 A.D., Frumentius and Aedesius were accompanying a relative, Meropius, to India. Meropius was a Syrian philosopher and a merchant from Tyre. The brothers had accompanied Meropius to India, and were returning to their home in Alexandria, Egypt by way of the Red Sea When they landed off the coast of Ethiopia, their ship was attacked by local inhabitants who were in the process of throwing off their allegiance to the Romans. Everyone on board was killed except the two brothers, who were enslaved and given as a prize to King Abreha.

A hundred years before, Origen, a prominent figure in the brother’s home town, had written, “The Gospel has not yet been preached to all nations, since it has not reached the Chinese or the Ethiopians beyond the river”.[1] Frumentius and his brother must have known of Origen’s writing, so well-known was he in Alexandria. They may have thought of Origen’s lament when they found themselves captive in one of the very lands of which Origen had written. They had little influence, but they used the opportunities they had to teach the Gospel there. The queen mother liked their teaching. Although she did not consider herself a Christian, she wanted her son to hear it.

Rejected Freedom to Proclaim Christ

When King Abreha was near death, he offered Frumentius and Aedesius their freedom. However, the queen begged them to stay and tutor the young prince, Erazanes, and also to advise her how to rule until Erazanes reached adulthood. The brothers recognized the opportunity and agreed to give up the offer of freedom so that they might influence the future king and thus the entire Axumite kingdom for Christ.

Ministry in Ethiopia

While teaching young Erazanes, the brothers also developed a ministry to Christian merchants who came to Axum for trading purposes. Frumentius became an unofficial pastor to these businessmen. They gathered Christian believers and built churches for them called “Houses of Prayer.” The brothers were not ordained pastors, so Frumentius made a trip to Alexandria to ask Bishop Athanasius to send a bishop to Ethiopia. Instead, Athanasius ordained Frumentius himself.

Conversion of King Ezana

When Eranzanes became King Ezana, he still had not become a Christian. but in 350 A.D., toward the end of his reign, he came to faith in Christ. He had been a worshiper of the god Michren, but after his conversion he destroyed the old pagan temples. Following the example of some Old Testament prophets, he ordered the pagan prophets and priests executed. After the conversion of King Ezana, Christianity rapidly became the official religion of the land. Archaeologists have confirmed that while early coins of the reign of Ezana bore images of the pagan symbols, later coins are inscribed with the Christian cross. The earlier inscriptions by Ezana consistently credited pagan deities for his successful conquests, but the inscriptions, too, changed after his conversion. In one he credited “the Lord of Heaven who has helped me.” [2]

In spite of these changes, July notes, Ezana’s conversion and declaration of Axum as a Christian state had little influence outside the royal court, for the majority of people still worshiped pagan deities. On the other hand, the royal approval of Christianity opened the door for other missionaries to come to Ethiopia, and soon after, work began on translating the Bible into the Ethiopic language. Frumentius is believed to have translated the first Ge’ez translation of the New Testament. To accomplish that task, he also developed the Ge’ez script from abjad (consonant only) to abugide (syllabic). Ezana built many Christian churches and became the first Abune, or head of the Ethiopian church. A long-lasting result was that Christianity remained strong in Ethiopia (Axum lay in what is now Eritrea, but its influence was widespread, so Ezana is now thought of as having been the king of Ethiopia).

Ethiopian Church Resists the Onslaught of Islam

During the time when Muslim Jihadists overtook North Africa from 639 A.D. on, Ethiopia withstood the onslaught, despite the fact that the culture and language of Axum were heavily southern Arabian in character. The similarity between Berber and Arabic cultures has sometimes been given as a reason why the attacks of Islam succeeded in other parts of North Africa, but the cultural factor was even more pronounced in Ethiopia, and the Christians there rejected Islam, standing firm for their faith. Several kingdoms were located in the area of Ethiopia. All of them resisted the early advances of Islam. In the twelfth century, the Saracens, representing an extremely fierce and militant form of Islam, invaded North Africa from Syria. In 1276 they took the northernmost kingdom of the area, called Nobatiae. A century later, they took the middle kingdom, Makuria. The southernmost kingdom, Alodia, did not fall until the fifteenth century. The Christian kingdom of Ethiopia never did fall to Islam.[3]

Commemorations Today

Today the Coptic Orthodox church recognizes the feast of St. Frumentius on Dec. 18. The Eastern Orthodox church celebrates it on Nov. 30, the Roman Catholic on Oct. 27, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church on August 1.[4]

References

  1. Barrett, Cosmos, Chaos and Gospel, New Hope
  2. July, A History of the African People, Scribner’s)
  3. Lorella Rouster, Slaves Helped Bring a Kingdom to Christ, GH.SST, Union Gospel Press, 2001, p. 72-73.
  4. Festivals of Commemoration: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg, 1989