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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: The Reader’s “Social Location,” by Craig S. Keener

In the New Testament, the first fully Gentile convert to Christianity was from Africa, a court official of the Kandake (“Candace,” in most of the translations, was a title for the queen mother). He came from a famous Nubian kingdom known as Meroe, which had existed since 750 BC and was known to the Romans and other peoples (Acts 8:26-40). This conversion was a southward example of the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), symbolizing a greater harvest to come in church history. Nubia was later converted to Christianity through Egyptian missionaries in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, and maintained its independence as a Christian empire until 1270, then regained it until the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, when internal weaknesses allowed it to be conquered by Arab invasions from the north. During the early Arab period in Egypt, when Arabs there thought of “Christians” they did not think of Europeans, with whom they had less contact, but of Africans.

English translations call the court official “Ethiopian,” but “Ethiopia” was a Greek term applied to all of Africa south of Egypt (what Hebrew called “Cush”). Here it applies to Nubia (where the Kandake ruled), not to what is called Ethiopia today. But modern Ethiopia as a whole converted to Christianity before Nubia as a whole did; Syrian missionaries Frumentius and Edesius preached the gospel there, and finally the Axumite emperor Ezanas was converted and led his empire to Christianity around AD 333, about the same time the Roman empire was converting to Christianity. Some Ethiopian Christians were already present as observers at the Council of Nicea (AD 325, along with six Arabian bishops). Later Ethiopia had to defend Egyptian Christians against Arab oppression in some periods of extremism.

The leaders in the church in Antioch, the first major missions-sending church, were multicultural (13:1). In addition to Paul (a Jew born in Turkey but raised in Jerusalem) and Barnabas (a Jew from Cyprus), and Manaen, “brought up” with Herod (possibly as a high-status family slave later freed), two leaders may have been from north Africa. One is Simeon called “Niger,” meaning “Black”; “Niger” was a common Latin name, but as a nickname (as it is here) it may indicate his dark complexion. The other is Lucius of Cyrene. We cannot be sure of his ethnic background, as Cyrene’s population was a mixture of Jews, Greeks, and native Cyrenians; but its location was certainly in north Africa.

For that matter, North Africa continued to play a major role in earliest Christianity. The Roman Empire was not so much a “European” one (in the modern sense) but a “Mediterranean” one, including southern Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. Over half of the most prominent early church fathers (Cyprian, Augustine, etc.) were from northern Africa; as a nineteenth-century German scholar opined, “It was through Africa that Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire.” Tertullian, a north African theologian, coined the term “Trinity” to describe the biblical doctrine and became known as the “father of Latin Christianity.” The leading defender of the Trinity was Athanasius of Egypt, whom his enemies called a “black dwarf,” suggesting that he was short and of exceptionally dark complexion. After the European invasions into north Africa, one north African bishop fled in a boat to Italy, and a portrait of him found there clearly indicates that he was black.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2006

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story.

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