CHRISTIANITY: CHRISTIANITY IN NORTH AFRICA
Although we lack written sources, archaeological evidence suggests an early origin for the North African churches. However, we must distinguish between two obvious centers in the first century of the preaching of Christianity on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. One center was in Cyrenaica, within reach of the influence of Alexandria. The other was in Carthage, undoubtedly influenced from neighboring Rome across the sea.
Tradition associates the emergence of Christianity in Cyrenaica with the evangelization of Egypt by the apostle Mark. The existence of a considerable Jewish community in that area even before the birth of Christ surely established continuous communications with Jerusalem during the first century. Participation of Libyans and people from Cyrene in the religious controversies at Jerusalem is confirmed by the Acts of the Apostles (2:10, 6:8–9). Moreover, archaeological work has revealed the existence of catacombs in Cyrene that substantiate the development of an organized church with ties to Alexandrian Christianity prior to the third century.
The first mention of the church in Carthage came in the year 180, when Tertullian declared that his native Carthage was directly related to Roman apostolic authority. The church that, during the second century, produced so great a giant in the field of Christian theology as Tertullian must have had deep roots in the first century. Carthaginian Christianity was so strong and foundational that it had great influence on the theological controversies of the next several centuries within Western and Eastern Christendom.
Cyrenaica (the easternmost part of Libya) was known as the Pentapolis, or the five towns: Cyrene (modern-day Shaḥḥāt), Apollonia (Marsa Gona), Ptolemaïs (Tolmeta), Berenice (Benghazi), and Barce (Barka). Geographical location and the patterns of caravan trade tied these five towns more closely to Egypt than to Carthage and the rest of the western states of North Africa.
According to tradition, the evangelist Mark was a native Jew of Cyrene, who came to Alexandria by way of the Pentapolis and, after laying the foundations of the new church in Egypt, returned to Cyrene to evangelize. The First Council of Nicaea (325) decreed that Cyrenaica should be considered an obedientiary of the see of Alexandria. To this day the Coptic patriarch carries the five western towns in his title as a province of the see of Mark. We must assume that there was a continuous flow of ecclesiastical and missionary personnel between the two regions, much like the interaction between Carthage and Rome. The overwhelming Greek element in both Cyrene and Alexandria also facilitated communication between them.
Most clerics of Cyrenaica received their education in Alexandria, formerly in the Museion and later in the catechetical school. Alexandrian culture, both philosophically and theologically, had its representative in the Pentapolis in the person of Synesius of Cyrene (c. 370–413), bishop of Ptolemaïs, whose name has come down in history as one of the fathers of the Eastern church.
Synesius was born of wealthy pagan parents in Cyrene around the year 370. After obtaining all the education available in his country he went to Alexandria, where he attended the classes of Hypatia (c. 370–415), the best of the pagan Neoplatonist professors in the Museion. Synesius was captivated by the spell of her teaching and became one of her Neoplatonist disciples. From Alexandria, Synesius went to Athens but was disappointed by the lack of educational opportunities there. On return, his fellow citizens commissioned him to go to Constantinople to plead with the Byzantine emperor for relief from heavy taxation. The success of his mission increased his popularity and paved the way for his leadership of the Libyan people.
At this point Synesius went back to Alexandria, where he was married by Patriarch Theophilus (385–411). This is sufficient proof that he had become a Christian, though there is no evidence of baptism until 410. At that point, in appreciation for his success in Byzantium and for his organization of military defense against the Berbers, his people unanimously elected him to the episcopate. But Synesius was a married man and a staunch Neoplatonist, and he was unwilling to give up either his marriage or his philosophy for the proffered privilege of elevation to bishop. Finally, both the clergy and the people of Ptolemaïs made a strong appeal to the patriarch to consecrate him as their bishop, and their appeal was granted, an exception to Coptic Church tradition holding celibacy a requirement for the episcopate.
In the latter decades of his life, Synesius built fortified churches to which his people resorted for prayer and for defensive purposes when harassed by Berber marauders from the south. Remains of these buildings are still standing in the area of the Green Mountains in Cyrenaica. He also composed religious hymns and homilies that inspired his congregations. Yet he retained his sense of humor and found time to write a treatise in praise of baldness. In the realm of literature, however, he is better known for a set of 156 letters, addressed to many people, including Hypatia and the patriarch Theophilus, which he wrote between the years 399 and 413. These letters, which have been translated into English, are a rich source of information about the social life of the period, geography, and the economy of the world he knew. They show elements of syncretism in their considerations of Neoplatonist philosophy and Christian theology. Synesius may have been the greatest personality in the history of the Pentapolis.
On the whole, the Pentapolis followed Alexandria in all phases of its development during the Christian period. It was subjected to the same wave of persecutions under Roman rule. Even in heresy, there arose the same divisions in Cyrenaica as in Alexandria. During the Arian controversy, there were followers of Athanasius and supporters of Arius, including two bishops, Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemaïs. The third-century heresy of Sabellianism, or subordinationism, which made a distinction between the Son and the Father, the Logos and the Creator of the Logos, arose from a discussion by Sabellius, bishop of Ptolemaïs, and was opposed by two other bishops from the Pentapolis, Amon and Euphranor.
Cyrenaican Christianity appears to have been concentrated almost entirely among the Greek population, who fought the Berber natives along the southern frontier of the Sahara. The Berbers were considered a race of marauders whom the Greeks wanted to push into the desert. Thus the Berbers lived as foreigners beyond the border of their homeland. Outside the pale of the church, they retained their old practices. Arab conquest forced Greek emigration, and there was greater rapport between Berbers and Arabs than between Berbers and Greeks. This accounts in part for the sudden disappearance of Christianity from the Pentapolis and the spread of Islam after the advent of the Arabs.
Carthage was founded in the eighth century bce by the Phoenicians, accompanied by Jewish traders. After the Roman conquest and the fall of the city in 140 bce, other European settlers came to stay, but the Berber natives remained on the periphery of the agricultural territories. Archaeological work has revealed the extent of Roman culture in North Africa from Leptis Magna (near present-day Tripoli) in the east to Caesarea (northern Algeria) on the Mediterranean shore. The Romans established series of forts along the southern frontier, and these were strengthened by the Byzantines and in particular by the emperor Justinian for defensive purposes. North African agricultural land supplemented Egypt as the granary of the Roman Empire. The natives spoke what may be described as Libyan Punic, though the Romanized inhabitants and the Roman settlers conversed in Latin, which came to be the official language of the country and the church, in contrast to Greek in Cyrenaica.
Pagan religions of varied character from the Phoenician worship of Baal and Astarte to the animistic beliefs of the natives, later joined by the gods of the Roman pantheon, were in use at the coming of the Christian preachers of the gospel. It is difficult to fix precise dates for the introduction of Christianity into the western section of North Africa, though we may assume that the preaching of the gospel initially came from Rome. This is confirmed by the later demonstrations of close relationship with the see of Rome. The first concrete record of Roman registers revealing the existence of an organized and well-developed church surfaced suddenly just a couple of decades before the end of the second century. Christianity was largely concentrated in Carthage and its adjacent territories. From east to west, these included Tripolitania, Africa Proconsularis, Numidia, Mauretania Caesariensis, and Mauretania Tingitana, covering roughly modern-day Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria, and northern Morocco. The spread of Christianity must have taken place rapidly among the Carthaginian population, but it never took root among the Berbers, who remained outside the fold of Roman civilization and were systematically besieged by the church. The position of the church reached a high degree of efflorescence in the following few centuries, thanks to a number of people whose contributions to Christian thought and culture remained a standing monument for Carthaginian Christianity in spite of its sudden disappearance after about five centuries of existence.
In its early days, the church at Carthage was subjected, with the rest of the Roman Empire, to persecutions and contributed its full share in martyrdom. Namphamo of Numidia claimed to be the first martyr for his faith, and he could have been of Punic origin. However, the majority of the martyrs of Carthage were either Romanized natives or Roman settlers. Despite persecution, the church grew. At the death of Tertullian around 225, Carthage already had more than seventy bishoprics. In the year 250, during Cyprian’s episcopate, the number increased to about 150. When the Edict of Milan was issued in 313, the number rose to 250 bishops. The country teemed with new churches. Cyprian mentions eighty-eight in his works, and twenty-nine more were added before the year 325.
In spite of its significant progress, the church began to suffer from internal division with the appearance of the Donatist movement. Though the source of the division was theological, Donatism began to assume the shape of nationalism, which was concentrated in Numidia against Carthage. The controversy dragged on until the coming of the Vandals in 429. The Vandals were of Arian confession and would have nothing to do with either catholics or Donatists, who were stifled under Vandal rule until the recovery of the country by the Byzantines in 533 on behalf of Emperor Justinian. In keeping with his imperialist policy, Justinian aimed at a unified church and state and discouraged all schismatic tendencies in his provinces, including North African Donatism. Donatism was weakened, but it flickered until the destruction of the church by the Arabs in the seventh and eighth centuries.
Shapers of Christian Thought
The sudden extinction of Carthaginian Christianity could not minimize the glories of the North African church in the first centuries. Foremost among those who gave that church great stature in the annals of Christian civilization are Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine of Hippo.
Tertullian (160?–225?) lived in the age of Roman persecutions, and this is reflected in his writings. He was born a pagan in Carthage, but became a Christian in 193. The first Church Father to write in Latin, Tertullian fought idolatry and heresy in all its forms, whether Gnostic, Manichaean, or Marcionite. A prolific theologian, he used his gift of eloquence to defend Christian martyrs. To him we owe the first use of the word trinity, a creation of his lucid logic in the definition of the unity of God. He drew the main basic lines of Western theology, parallel to Origen’s efforts in the East at the catechetical school of Alexandria. Subsequent generations of theologians continued to build on Tertullian’s illuminating trinitarianism and Christology after his death.
Born a pagan and educated in rhetoric, Cyprian (c. 205–258) ultimately became a Christian some decades after the death of Tertullian, whose work he knew. Like Tertullian, Cyprian became an ascetic. He was elected bishop of Carthage shortly after his conversion (c. 248). Cyprian wrote numerous letters, which are among the best sources of the history of the church in the third century, as well as short treatises dealing with practical theological matters, such as the enforcement of rebaptism on heretics. His real strength lay in his pastoral genius as a man of action and a superb organizer. He led a stormy life within the church as well as without, and he was continuously beset with danger. In the year 258, a new wave of persecutions swept the empire by the order of Emperor Valerian, whose agents pursued the bishop. Cyprian did not flee, and he was martyred in 258.
Approximately a century after Cyprian’s martyrdom, the genius of the North African church reached its peak in Augustine of Hippo (354–430), whose life and work became one of the greatest landmarks in the development of Christian theology. A native of North Africa and born of a pagan father and a Christian mother, Augustine was bishop of Hippo from 396 until his death in 430. He wrote against many heresies, including Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. The two principal works that made Augustine the foremost writer of his age are his spiritual autobiography, the Confessions, and the City of God, a work seminal for medieval Christian thought. In the City of God, Augustine labors to vindicate Christianity against the attribution that the calamitous fall of Rome to the hordes of Alaric in 410 was due to the advent of the new religion. According to Augustine, the kingdom of God, the celestial Jerusalem, was the eternal kingdom that no earthly ravages or philosophical intellectualism could impair, and its only visible form on earth was the catholic church. In this way Augustine was able to substantiate all the elements of patristic thought in the service of catholic Christianity more effectively than any of his predecessors.
If the North African church had produced no creative writers beyond Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, it would have more than justified its major importance in Christian antiquity. But North Africa contributed even more in a smaller way through the works of other minor authors. Of these may be cited Arnobius of Sicca (253–327), well-known rhetorician and teacher who was a Christian convert from paganism. Another was Lactantius, also a professor of rhetoric, who lived during the reign of Diocletian (284–304). After Christianity had been declared the state religion, the emperor Constantine in 317 appointed Lactantius to be tutor of his own son Crispus. Lactantius was already advanced in years and died about 320.
Advent of Islam
After the conquest of Egypt in 640–642, a further thrust westward into the Pentapolis and the rest of North Africa by the Arabs became inevitable, initially to safeguard the fairest of their acquisitions, the Nile Valley. Cyrenaica surrendered to the Arab conquerors without difficulty and Carthage fell into their hands in 698. As the Arabs came in, the Greek and Roman populations went out, emigrating en masse to Byzantium, Sicily, Italy, and Spain. With their exit, the churches of North Africa vanished with surprising rapidity.
First among the factors that precipitated the disappearance of Christian foundations in North Africa, despite their remarkable development and past glories, was that the church had remained embedded in urban districts. Its congregations never really cared to undertake missionary work amid the Berber tribes. In contrast, the Arabs, who were nomads like the Berbers, offered the Berbers Islam with equality and full brotherhood. The Berbers accepted the offer and even participated with the Arab armies in further conquests. Second, waves of emigration from Arabia to North Africa came to fill the vacuum created by Christian departure from these regions. Instances of the advent of whole tribes settling in North Africa include the accounts of Banū Hilāl and Banū Sālim, whose adventures in these provinces are still the subject of Arabic folklore. A third factor was that most of the heterodox parties among the Arabs took off to the distant west, where they could pursue their doctrines undisturbed and even launch missionary work for their beliefs. The Khariji faction inaugurated the movement, and the Shīʿī followed suit; the latter were eventually able to establish their own caliphate and build an empire of their own. Fourth, the economy of the romanized provinces of North Africa was essentially founded on slavery and slave trade, while Islam offered full enfranchisement to all slaves willing to convert. Finally, there was the burden of Byzantine taxation, which was continually on the ascendance. Though it would be a mistake to contend that total relief accompanied the advent of the Arabs, the Berbers were assured of Arab leniency, and, at any rate, had nothing to lose by the change of masters.
It is therefore no wonder that the Berber population found it more to their advantage to accept the new situation readily and even participate with the conquerors in the extermination of all remaining pockets of Roman settlers, and with them the vestiges of a church that they regarded as the symbol of their past humiliation. These factors account for the precipitous downfall of Carthaginian Christianity and the almost total disappearance of churches from North Africa by the twentieth century.
Even though the door was left ajar for the reappearance of Christian elements from the West during the modern period of European colonization, these do not appear to have had any real impact on the prevalent status of Islam. Although stray Christians mainly of Coptic origin remain, in the present day, all the countries of North Africa, from Libya to Morocco, must be regarded as totally Muslim and without any surviving Christian element.
Altaner, Berthold. Patrology. Translated from the fifth German edition. New York, 1960.
Atiya, A. S. A History of Eastern Christianity. Rev. ed. Millwood, N.Y., 1980.
Bardenhewer, Otto. Patrology: The Lives and Works of the Fathers of the Church. Saint Louis, 1908.
Buonaiuti, Ernesto. Il Christianesimo nell’Africa Romana. Bari, 1928.
Groves, C. P. The Planting of Christianity in Africa (1948–1958). 4 vols. Reprint, London, 1964.
Julien, Charles-André. Histoire de l’Afrique du nord. 2 vols. Paris, 1956. Translated by John Petrie as History of North Africa, 2 vols. (London, 1970).
Leclercq, Henri. L’Afrique chrétienne. 2d ed. 2 vols. Paris, 1904.
Quasten, Johannes. Patrology. 3 vols. Utrecht and Westminster, Md., 1950–1960.
Synesius. Letters and Hymns. Edited by Dionysius Petavius. Paris, 1612. Available also in Patrologia Graeca, edited by J.-P. Migne, vol. 66 (Paris, 1859). See also by Synesius: Hymni, 2 vols., edited by Nicolas Terzaghi (Rome, 1939–1954), translated by Augustine Fitzgerald as The Essays and Hymns of Synesius of Cyrene, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1930); and his letters, in Rudolf Hercher’s Epistolographi Graeci (Paris, 1873), translated by Augustine Fitzgerald as The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene (Oxford, 1926).
Azize Suryal Atiya (1987)Encyclopedia of Religion
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