Church Unearthed in Ethiopia Rewrites the History of Christianity in Africa

While at IAS, Aaron Michael Butts, Member in the School of Historical Studies, is focused on the languages, literatures, and history of Christianity in the Near East, including especially Arabic, Ethiopic, and Syriac. The recent discovery of the oldest known Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa, a basilica in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, bears directly on his current book project, which investigates the so-called conversions of Ethiopia to Christianity.

Writing for Smithsonian Magazine, Andrew Lawler explains:

“According to Ethiopian tradition, Christianity first came to the Aksum Empire in the fourth century A.D. when a Greek-speaking missionary named Frumentius converted King Ezana. Butts, however, doubts the historical reliability of this account, and scholars have disagreed over when and how the new religion reached distant Ethiopia.

‘This is what makes the discovery of this basilica so important,’ [Butts] adds. ‘It is reliable evidence for a Christian presence slightly northeast of Aksum at a very early date.’”

Butts elaborates for CNN:

“The archaeological data combined with the radiocarbon dating suggest that the basilica stems from the fourth (or perhaps early fifth) century, making it certainly among the earliest known churches in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, given the reliability of the archaeological data combined with the radiocarbon dating, it seems to be the earliest securely datable church in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Read more at Smithsonian Magazine and CNN.