Tracing the Bible’s Connections to Africa

The geographical roots of the Bible lie in Africa and Asia, and African cultural influences are seen in the theology, character, authors, and editors of the biblical text.

The Bible is and has been revered for centuries by many around the world. Though seldom recognized, it is fascinating to consider the diversity of the biblical text, whether one thinks in terms of geography, culture, characters, authors, editors, or theology.

In February, African-American History Month, it’s a good time to recall both the diversity of the biblical text as well as African contributions to it and to the Christian faith.

Geographical and Cultural Diversity: In their book, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us, Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine explain that the geography of the Bible covers “areas around the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile Rivers.”

In other words, the geographical roots of the Bible lie in Africa and Asia. Israel, then and now, is located on the trade route between the two continents. Power struggles that alternately put Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome in control over the area meant that neither the biblical text nor Christianity developed in a vacuum. Rather, cultural influences were varied and ever changing. Cultural influences include Africa, Asia, and Europe, the three continents that surround the Mediterranean Sea. Communal cultures, such as those found in many parts of Africa, more closely mirror ancient biblical culture than do Western individualistic cultures.

Characters, Authors, Editors: The characters (whether historical or fictional) whose stories grace the Biblical narrative as well as the authors and editors (whether named or unnamed) who contributed to the biblical text form a diverse group. For example, while Isaiah was connected to the elites of his day, Amos was a sheep herder who cared for sycamore trees. Peter was considered unlearned, but Paul, highly educated, was a theological genius. His writings enabled the life of Jesus to become the cornerstone of the Christian religion.

Texts such as How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western ChristianityAfrica and the Bibleas well as The Africans Who Wrote the Bibleremind us of Africa’s connection to Christianity and the biblical text. While the early church understood these African connections, knowledge of these connections were lost, often suppressed, in the annals of time.

Theology: While the overall message of the Bible is God’s love for humanity, depending on the times and circumstances for which they wrote, the writers/editors of the Bible did not share the same viewpoint on every matter. For example, Paul writes that since there is only One God, one did not have to avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols. The writer of Revelation felt that such meat should be avoided.

Today many of the basics of the Christian faith are considered “givens” (Trinity, humanity and divinity of Christ, and so on). However, in the early days of Christianity, many people were involved in developing the Church’s understanding of Jesus, his relationship to God, and what it means to be a Christian.

The theology that forms the Christian faith was developed in the period of the Church Fathers, 100-451 C.E. This was a period of tremendous cultural and theological diversity. Many of these Church Fathers hailed from or lived in Africa, including:

  • Lactantius of North Africa, who was deeply concerned with justice. A man ahead of his time, Lactantius believed that being created in the image of God creates a common identity and dignity. This common bond manifests itself in both human rights and responsibilities for all. He was convinced that knowledge of self is intricately connected and rooted in God.
  • Tertullian of Carthage, who argued for the unity of the Old and New Testaments. He maintained that scripture alone is sufficient for the formation of faith.
  • Origen of Alexandria, who recognized the divinity of the Son (though he thought of the Son as being second to the Father).
  • Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, who was committed to the unity of the church.
  • Augustine of Hippo, who gave us an understanding of grace and the Holy Trinity. Augustine believed that grace, and grace alone, is humanity’s connection to God, not philosophy.
  • Clement of Alexandria, who recognized that one can be Christian and intellectual. He deemed creation as the foundation for redemption. He understood that marriage and celibacy are simply life choices and that marriage is not inferior to celibacy. He considered life as a teetotaler or vegetarian to be matters of conscience, not faith. He thought that material gifts and possessions are not evil, but are given by the Creator and should be used with moderation for the good of all.
  • Athanasius of Alexandria, who thought of Jesus Christ, the Son, as eternal, human and divine. Athanasius provided the first listing of the 27 books of the New Testament.
  • St. Anthony of Egypt, who founded the monastic movement that attracted men and women to dedicate themselves to lives of faith, prayer, study, and service.

As the world is becoming more and more diverse, it’s worth acknowledging the diversity that has been integral to the fabric of the biblical text and of the Christian faith.

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