2 Jul 2010

Africa, Scripture … and Christian History

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Africa, Bible, Black History, Books, Church History, Hebrew Bible, Race Relations
As a historian of the ancient world, I find that many New Testament scholars are confined by tunnel vision to the immediate text, with little awareness of its broader background” (Edwin Yamauchi, Africa and the Bible, p. 161)

Over the last month I have been reading and studying three books that converge on Scripture, Christian history, and Africa. A couple of reasons moved me in this direction for reading:

1) I have had a long interest in the historical setting of Scripture and early Christianity, and

2) because I have been so woefully ignorant of the matter. I have drawn attention to Ebed-Melech, the Ethiopian Eunuch, Moses’ wife, etc in years past but my recent reading has shown me how much I do not know.

But the shadow of Africa looms large and Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind; Keith Augustus Burton’s The Blessing of Africa; and Edwin Yamauchi’s Africa and the Bible have enriched and corrected my vision.

A number of points that these authors make we all already know but they are sort of hidden in plain view. Africa has played a pivotal role not only in biblical history but in the history of Christianity. Scenes from Scripture: the children of Abraham in Africa; Joseph in Africa; Moses in Africa; and Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Africa. According to tradition Mark in Africa, Perpetua in Africa, Tertullian in Africa, Clement in Africa, Athanasius in Africa, and Augustine in Africa.

Perhaps Oden’s work, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, arrested me the most. Oden, a repentant Bultmanian, has been editing the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture for many years. He writes that his views have changed not from some European historical genius (which he calls “European chauvinism” p.23, see pp. 140f) but by wading through the writings of the Church Fathers. His thesis is that Africa defined the Christian mind in the first 500 years or so. As he says, repeatedly, that the flow of thought went from South to North. From Africa to Europe and not the reverse. Just where do we see the legacy of Africa:

+ That the western university was formed in Africa (and Christian scholarship)

+ Christian exegesis was first nurtured in Africa

+ Africa was the setting for the shaping of early Christian dogma

+ that ecumenical decisions of the later church were first shaped in Africa

+ most of the Spiritual disciplines were first practiced in Africa especially through the rise of monasticism

+ neoplatonic philosophy moved from Africa to Europe

+ literary and rhetoric were refined in Africa

African Christians in Byzacena, Carthage, Numidia and Mauretania had been reaching agreement on on many important matters a century prior to the Council of Nicaea. One of these for all intents and purposes gave us our “canon” of the New Testament. Oden’s book deserves to be read and digested. Oden believes that contemporary North American and European views on Africa are radically different than those of Ancient Christians. He finds the root of the change in the scholarship of Adolf von Harnack and Walter Bauer.

Oden ends his book with a challenge to younger scholars (including African ones) to test his thesis. To learn the languages of Ancient Africa because so much is neglected and untranslated into modern tongues. It is important both to Europeans and Africans that Christianity is not “white” but is in fact a “traditional African religion” with a 2000 year history.

Keith Augustus Burton’s The Blessing of Africa: The Bible and African Christianity is broad in scope which is both its strength and weakness. Burton surveys how the “sons of Ham” are seen in Scripture (and he argues that son of Ham is not synonymous with “black”). He then surveys the growth Christianity in the “lands of Ham” which is much broader than simply modern Africa. One particularly rich section in this work is the Islam and Christianity wrestling in Africa.





Finally Edwin Yamauchi’s Africa and the Bible is justly deserving its 2005 Christianity Today Book Award. Yamauchi, a Japanese-American, is an amazing scholar and has earned a reputation since the 1960s as being a person who knows the ancient world better than most of us know our own neighborhood. The bibliography of this book is 45 pages long!! This is THE book on Africa and the Bible. Yamauchi writes as a historian and not simply a biblical scholar (though he is that). He lavishly integrates archeology, ancient sources of all kinds, biblical exegesis and contemporary scholarship. The book is richly illustrated too (a bonus for those that like pictures!). He examines the “Curse of Ham” in its ancient setting and how it became the seedbed of racism. Most interesting to me, because I knew nothing of it, is the chapter on “Rome and Meroe.” This is of course important for understanding Acts 8. This valuable work ends with a survey and critique of “Afrocentric Biblical Interpretation” to which Yamauchi sees vital contributions as well as serious flaws.

I am a better Bible student with a deeper awareness of “our” African roots for reading these books. But I think if I were going to spend money on these books again to give away I would begin with Oden and Yamauchi. In fact I believe that works like these can help us see vast new vistas … even where (and when!) we may disagree. Africa has indeed played a larger role in our heritage than I was ever aware of. Its like getting a new pair of glasses.

Tolle lege,
Bobby V

4 Responses to “Africa, Scripture … and Christian History”

  1. Josh J Says:


    Thanks for bringing three very interesting works to our attention. Most of my reading in ancient church history has treated North Africa more like a “Southern Europe” than a part of Africa itself, which I would assume is probably because its considered part of the Mediterranean region.
    I’ll have to put these books on my reading list.

    Hope you and your lovely new wife are doing well.

    Josh J.

  2. kingdomseeking Says:

    Thanks for the brief reviews. I added Thomas C Oden’s book to my Amazon “wish list.” Any ways, I love reading about Christian history and always appreciate it when someone else has read a book, so that I know I’m not buying a lemmon.

    Grace and peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  3. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    These look like interesting, important books. Wish I could immediately dive into them.

    If someone like me was going to read just one of the three, which one would you recommend and why?

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Frank that is a hard choice. If you are more inclined for biblical backgrounds then Yamauchi’s work is the way to go. With your interest in Church History I would equally recommend Oden. Neither are excessively long … text of both is about 200 pages. I think Oden’s work has the potential for a more significant paradigm shift for most western readers however.


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