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Philip Jenkins

An Ethiopian Saint

The life of Walatta Petros.

I am contemplating writing a wild historical romance. Here is the premise. European travelers stumble into a lost valley where the world of the later Roman Empire survives intact, a thousand years out of its time. The kings bear such exquisitely Byzantine names as Sisinnios and Basilides, while the church still reads ancient Scriptures lost to the rest of the Christian world.

Far-fetched it may sound, but what I am describing, without exaggeration, is the kingdom of Ethiopia that Latin Catholics encountered during the 16th and 17th centuries. Across Africa and Asia, Western Christians in this era discovered many ancient Christian churches, which they tried to persuade or cajole into recognizing Papal supremacy and Catholic orthodoxy. In some cases, they succeeded at least in part—witness the Chaldean church of the Middle East, the Maronites of Lebanon, or elements of India's Thomas Christians. One immediate consequence of the new globalization was an intense warfare against manifestations of Christian diversity.

Nowhere, though, did these attempts to gather in the lost sheep of the new Israel encounter such ferocious resistance as they did in Ethiopia, where the historic church followed many practices that westerners found bizarre or upsetting. Most fundamentally, the church was Miaphysite, rejecting the Council of Chalcedon and aligning with the Egyptian Copts. (It remains today the Tewahedo, "Oneness," Church). Many church customs—the Saturday Sabbath and the prohibition of pork—retained the imprint of ancient close dealings with Jews and Judaism. Moreover, the Ethiopian Bible canon included such once-influential Jewish scriptures as 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees. It was rather like opening a time capsule and discovering the world of primitive Jewish Christianity, still fully functioning. Catholics dreamed of restoring the Ethiopians to the fold, before purging their church of all those unacceptable texts and habits, much as their ...

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