‘The Influence of Syriac Tradition on Ethiopian Orthodox Monasticism’ by Fr. Dr Jossi Jacob

Fr. Dr Jossi Jacob

Fr. Dr Jossi Jacob

Fr. Dr Jossi Jacob – Chief of COS and Principal – STOTS, Nagpur – 6/9/2020

As an African indigenous form of Christianity, Ethiopian Orthodoxy retains more implicit forms of knowledge, embedded in ascetical and spiritual practices including monasticism, oral narratives, and the organization of everyday life. Monasticism constitutes the backbone of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity expressing its identity, internal strength, and organization. The Spirituality of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church contains the profound influence of ascetic monastic thoughts.

Monasticism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church: A Brief Introduction by Fr. Dr Jossi Jacob

Ethiopian monasticism throughout the course of its history has positively integrated into the life of the nation and always contributed to ongoing revivals of religious life among members of the Church. The monasteries used to be the centre of religious education and theological development in the Church of Ethiopia. Therefore, the whole life of the Church has been profoundly influenced by monasticism. The nature of ascetical spirituality, which is being practised even by the modern laity, is an indicator of the influence of monasticism in the Church as well as in the society of Ethiopia.

Ethiopian culture seriously expresses generally the Semitic traits, and specifically the Judaist traits. Despite the liturgical connections between Egyptian Christianity, Ethiopian Church expresses more Semitic characteristics in its way of life, theological literature, spiritual practices, organization of clergy, and monastic life.

Semitic Cultural and linguistic Traits in Ethiopian Society
Geographically northern Ethiopia was in a position to have easy access from Egypt and the Mediterranean region. “Ethiopia is close to the Arabian Peninsula and the Ethiopian port of Adulis, halfway down the Red Sea, remains an obligatory landing place for merchants travelling from the Mediterranean and Egypt towards India. Hence, many centuries before Christ, a considerable number of Sabena’s seeking a new market for their products, immigrated to Ethiopia.” It is broadly accorded that the inhabitants of Ethiopia belong to three distinct races, the African aborigines, the Hamites, and the Semites.

The Semites who came across the Red Sea eventually gained the upper hand in the country. In the course of time, the Semitic culture became the culture of the elites of the country and a feudalistic system developed based on the same. The exact era of this cultural transmission cannot be explicitly marked, but it is apparent that through trade connections and migration Semitic culture became prevalent in the northern part of Ethiopia, which later became the cradle for Ethiopian Christianity.

Judaic Influence on Ethiopian Christianity
Ethiopian Christianity, in General, displays certain Judaic traits and believes it to be a Judeo- Christian community. Presence of Judaism in Northern Ethiopia before the introduction of Christianity is accepted as a historical fact by many of the researchers. According to Kebra Negast (Glory of Kings), an Ethiopian traditional document, Judaism came to Ethiopia through Emperor Menelik – I of Axum, who was believed to be the son of Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. It is apparent that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, however, follows many Jewish practices. It could be because of the widespread of Judaism in the pre- Christianised Ethiopia. Met. Paulos Gregorios regards Ethiopian Church more as a Judeo- Christian community. He writes, “There are good reasons why the Ethiopia Orthodox Church comes more within the category of Jewish, rather than of Gentile Christianity. When the Syrians and Egyptians were still Gentiles, Ethiopia seems to have already assimilated, at least in spots, the faith of Israel.” The presence of a Jewish community in the northern parts of Ethiopia (even today) is regarded as a piece of ample evidence for the widespread of Judaism in the country. Another evidence is the observance of Sabbath and Jewish dietary regulations regarding clean and unclean food, which are even being practised by certain conservative groups in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Origin of Monasticism in Ethiopia
Ethiopian traditional accounts of monasticism consider it as part of an ancient ascetic Tradition stretching back to Old Testament times. Even though there is a little documentation available on Ethiopian monasticism before the 13th century, we can somehow trace its history back to the 5th century.

It was with the support of the Christian Kings of northern Ethiopia, that monasteries were founded all over the country. The first monastic communities are believed to have been founded by the “Nine Saints”, great missionary monks who came to the northern part of the country during the reign of King Ella Amida II (circa 480 CE). The notable evangelical activities of the Nine Saints were focused in and around Aksum, the capital of Northern Ethiopia during the time. It is traditionally believed that they were primarily from diverse areas of the Eastern Roman Empire (i.e. greater Syria) and they are said to have spent some years in Pachomian monasteries in the Egyptian desert prior to their arrival in Ethiopia. There are no specific reasons for reaching into such a conclusion, but it is generally accepted that the nine saints are the ones who propagated non-Chalcedonian doctrinal position in the Ethiopian Christianity. It is quite challenging to attribute the origin of Ethiopian monasticism to the influence of the Pachomian communities in Egypt solely based on such a traditional belief.

Syriac Influences in Ethiopian Monastic Way of Life
Modern scholarship on Ethiopian Monasticism doesn’t value the stereotype of Ethiopian Monasticism as a lesser form of Coptic monastic movement. Despite the absence of concrete historical evidence, there are various indications of the possibility of interaction between early Syrian and Ethiopian monasticism.

Joachim Persoon, who has made extensive researches on Ethiopian Monasticism holds the view that there were strong connections and continues interactions between Ethiopia and the ancient monastic traditions of East Asia, perhaps facilitated by some extreme ascetical movements of that time.

The present Ethos of Ethiopian monastic-spirituality strongly resembles the Syrian pattern, despite many years of Coptic administration, reflecting elements of Syrian proto-monasticism. Remarkably after so many centuries of Coptic leadership and literary influence, Ethiopian monasticism however retained traits more reminiscent of those described in Syrian hagiographies. Ethiopian monasticism in its different manifestations (coenobium and larva) retained fluidity and flexibility, which preserved Syrian prototypes rather than the highly regimented institutionalized and centralized customs of Egyptian communities.

He believes that ‘as trading and cultural links between Syria and Ethiopia existed even in the initial phase of the spread of Christianity and hence monasticism could have followed the same route’. Extreme ascetical practices prevalent in Syriac monastic Tradition were somehow followed in some of the Ethiopic Monastic communities as well.

Ethiopian Monastic Literature and Syriac Connections
The Book of Monks, which survives in Ge’ez language and its translations, is considered to be the most important spiritual guideline for the monks in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Authorship of this spiritual text is attributed to three early spiritual figures, Mar Filexeyus, Mar Isaac and Aregawi Menfasawi. Those three are identified as Philexenus of Mabugh, Isaac of Nineveh, and John Saba. Not long ago the authorship of Philexenus of Mabugh has been doubted, especially by scholar Robert A. Kitchen. For him primarily, the major corpus of Ethiopian the Book of Monks is constituted of the translations from the works of Dadisho.

Many other books for prayer including Wudase Mariam (praise of St. Mary), the recitation of which represent a daily obligation for every monk, is traditionally attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian. Commentaries on Biblical and Liturgical books developed in Ethiopian Orthodox Monasteries named Andimta, in addition, contain ample references from the Syriac sources. Direct translations of certain demonstrations of Aphrahat and certain other Syriac texts are currently identified. Fr. Dr Baby Varghese has identified striking connections between many words in Syriac and Ge’ez languages and in certain Anaphora and liturgical prayers and expressions. The Ethiopian Anaphora attributed to St. James appears to represent a translation of the Old Syriac Version of the same Anaphora. Similarly Institution narrative in the Ethiopian Anaphora attributed to Jacob of Serug also contains Syriac traits. As the liturgical texts of Ethiopian Tradition were mostly developed in monastic settings, all the aforesaid similarities are points to the influence of Syriac Tradition in Ethiopian monasticism.

It is a broadly acknowledged fact that Ethiopian Christianity retained its beginning and growth in a Semitic cultural milieu and it claims to be a Judeo-Christian community outside the Mediterranean region. Close interactions between the Ethiopian and Syriac Ecclesial traditions can be traced back to the fifth century. The cultural similarity might have established their communication easier and resulted in developing theological perspectives closer to each other. We could conclude that despite the intimate association between Egyptian and Ethiopian Churches for nearly 16 centuries (4th to 20th) Ethiopian Christianity and its Monastic Tradition express traits of Syriac theological perspectives and ascetical way of life.

There is immense scope for deep and extensive studies in this area to explore more details of the connections between Ethiopian and Syriac Christian Tradition and especially between the monastic ways of lives and theological perspectives.

Joachim Persoon, “The Planting of the Tabot on European Soil: The Trajectory of Ethiopian Orthodox Involvement with the European Continent,” SWC 16.3 (2010): 320–340.

Yolande Mara, The Church of Ethiopia: the National Church in Making (Asmara: IL Poligraphico, 1972), 2; Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia 1270 – 1527 (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 5.
Mara, The Church of Ethiopia, 2.

KebraNegast is an Ethiopian document containing historical facts as well as legends and folklore. The earliest form of it could be of the 6th century but underwent different editions and interpolations later. The glory of Solomonic dynasty is the major historiographic perspective of the whole document. KebraNegast. (trans. E.A. Wallis Budge; Ontario: Partheneses Publications, 2000), ii, iii.

Hable Selassie, “Ethiopian Church,” 1-6.

Paul Verghese, “Church and Gospel in Ethiopia: A Report on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” 1;

Hagar Salamon, the Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999) 4; Hable Selassie, “Ethiopian Church,” 1-6.

AymroWondgegnehu and Joachim Motovun, The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Addis Ababa: Ethiopian Orthodox Mission, 1970), 1.

Joachim G. Persoon, Spirituality, Power and Revolution: Contemporary Monasticism In Communist Ethiopia (Volos: Volos Academy for Theological Studies, 2014), 40.

SergewHable Selassie, “The Expansion and Consolidation of Christianity,” in The Church of Ethiopia: A Panorama of History and Spiritual Life (ed. SergewHable Selassie; Addis Ababa: The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 1997), 7,8.
Persoon, Spirituality, Power and Revolution, 44.

Proto-monasticism was a native form of monastic life being practised in Syria before the emergence of organized monastic systems in Egyptian dessert. Sebastian Brock, Luminous Eye: A Spiritual World Vision of Ephrem the Syrian (Michigan: Cistercian Publication, 1992), 18.

Persoon, Spirituality, Power and Revolution, 42.

Persoon, Spirituality, Power and Revolution, 43.

Thomas Kollamparampil, ‘Syriac Spiritual Ascetical and Mystical Legacy,’ Journal of Dharma 36, 1 (January-March 2011), 39-56.

The title Mar itself seems to be adopted into Ge’ez text from Syriac language.

The Literal meaning of the Ge’ezword AregawiMenfasawi is aged or elderly spiritual person.

Robert A. Kitchen, ‘The Book of Monks Ethiopian Monasticism via Beth Qatraye,’ in The Syriac Writers of Qatar in the Seventh Century. Edited by Kozah, Mario and Abu-Husayn, Abdulrahim and Al-Murikhi, SaifShaheen and Al Thani, Haya. Gorgias Eastern Christian Studies 38. (NJ: Gorgias Press, 2014), 231.

Kitchen, ‘The Book of Monks Ethiopian Monasticism,’ 232.

Baby Varghese, the Syriac Version of the Liturgy of St James: A Brief History for Students, Alcuin/GROW Joint Liturgical Studies-49, (Cambridge, 2001)

Baby Varghese, Liturgy as an Element of Communion and Communication between Churches. (This is an unpublished article to be published in the next issue of The Harp).

Fr Dr Jossi Jacob – COS

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