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Early Christianity in North Africa

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 Alistair Boddy-Evans

After the crucifixion, the disciples spread out across the known world to take the word of God and the story of Jesus to the people. Mark arrived in Egypt around 42 CE, Philip travelled all the way to Carthage before heading east into Asia Minor, Matthew visited Ethiopia (by way of Persia), as did Bartholomew.

Christianity appealed to a disaffected Egyptian populous through its representations of resurrection, an afterlife, virgin birth, and the possibility that a god could be killed and brought back, all of which resonated with more ancient Egyptian religious practice. In Africa Proconsularis and its neighbours, there was a resonance to traditional Gods through the concept of a supreme being. Even the idea of holy trinity could be related to various godly triads which were taken to be three aspects of a single deity.

North Africa would, over the first few centuries CE, become a region for Christian innovation, looking at the nature of Christ, interpreting the gospels, and sneaking in elements from so-called pagan religions.

Amongst people subdued by Roman authority in North Africa (Aegyptus, Cyrenaica, Africa, Numidia, and Mauritania) Christianity quickly became a religion of protest – it was a reason for them to ignore the requirement to honor the Roman Emperor through sacrificial ceremonies. It was a direct statement against Roman rule.

This meant, of course, that the otherwise ‘open-minded’ Roman Empire could no longer take a nonchalant attitude to Christianity – persecution and repression of the religion soon followed, which in turn hardened the Christian converts to their cult. Christianity was well established in Alexandria by the end of the first century CE. By the end of the second century, Carthage had produced a pope (Victor I).

In the early years of the church, especially after the Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE), the Egyptian city of Alexandria became a significant (if not the most significant) center for the development of Christianity. A bishopric was established by the disciple and gospel writer Mark when he established the Church of Alexandria around 49 CE, and Mark is honored today as the person who brought Christianity to Africa.

Alexandria was also home to the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament which traditional has it was created on the orders of Ptolemy II for the use of the large population of Alexandrian Jews. Origen, head of the School of Alexandria in the early third century, is also noted for compiling a comparison of six translations of the Old Testament – the Hexapla.

The Catechetical School of Alexandria was founded in the late second century by Clement of Alexandria as a centre for study of the allegorical interpretation of the Bible. It had a mostly friendly rivalry with the School of Antioch which was based around a literal interpretation of the Bible.