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Early Christianity in North Africa Part 1

Historical Background and Factors Which Influenced the Spread Of Christianity


Historical Background
Given the slow progress of Romanization of North Africa, it is perhaps surprising how quickly Christianity spread across the top of the continent. From the fall of Carthage in 146 BCE to the rule of Emperor Augustus (from 27 BCE), Africa (or, more strictly speaking, Africa Vetus, 'Old Africa'), as the Roman province was known, was under the command of a minor Roman official. But, like Egypt, Africa and its neighbors Numidia and Mauritania (which were under the rule of client kings), were recognized as potential 'bread baskets'.

Impetus for expansion and exploitation came with the transformation of the Roman Republic to a Roman Empire in 27 BCE. Romans were enticed by the availability of land for building estates and wealth, and during the first century CE, north Africa was heavily colonized by Rome.

The Emperor Augustus (63BCE--14CE) remarked that he added Egypt (Aegyptus) to the empire. Octavian (as he was then known, had defeated Mark Anthony and deposed Queen Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE to annex what had been the Ptolemaic Kingdom. By the time of Emperor Claudius (10BCE--45CE) canals had been refreshed and agriculture was booming from improved irrigation. The Nile Valley was feeding Rome.

Under Augustus, the two provinces of Africa, Africa Vetus ('Old Africa') and Africa Nova ('New Africa'), were merged to form Africa Proconsularis (named for it being governed by a Roman proconsul). Over the next three and a half centuries, Rome extended its control over the coastal regions of North Africa (including the coastal regions of modern day Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) and imposed a rigid administrative structure on Roman colonists and indigenous peoples (the Berber, Numidians, Libyans, and Egyptians).

By 212 CE, the Edict of Caracalla (aka Constitutio Antoniniana, 'Constitution of Antoninus') issued, as one might expect, by the Emperor Caracalla, declared that all free men in the Roman Empire were to be acknowledged as Roman Citizens (up till then, provincials, as they were known, did not have citizenship rights).

Factors Which Influenced the Spread Of Christianity
Roman life in North Africa was heavily concentrated around urban centers -- by the end of the second century, there was upwards of six million people living in Roman North African provinces, a third of those lived in the 500 or so cities and towns which had developed. Cities like Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia), Utica, Hadrumetum (now Sousse, Tunisia), Hippo Regius (now Annaba, Algeria) had as many as 50,000 inhabitants. Alexandria, considered the second city after Rome, had 150,000 inhabitants by the third century. Urbanization would prove to be a key factor in the development of north African Christianity.

Outside of the cities, life was less influenced by Roman culture. Traditional Gods were still worshipped, such as the Phonecian Ba'al Hammon (equivalent to Saturn) and Ba'al Tanit (a goddess of fertility) in Africa Proconsuaris and Ancient Egyptian beliefs of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. There were echoes of traditional religions to be found in Christianity which also proved key in the spread of the new religion.

The third key factor in the spread of Christianity through North Africa was the resentment of the population to Roman administration, particularly the imposition of taxes, and the demand that the Roman Emperor be worshiped akin to a God.

Christianity Reaches North Africa
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 traveled 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 neighbors, 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).

• 'The Christian period in Mediterranean Africa' by WHC Frend, in Cambridge History of Africa, Ed. JD Fage, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 1979.
• Chapter 1: 'Geographical and Historical Background' & Chapter 5: 'Cyprian, the "Pope" of Carthage', in Early Christianity in North Africa by François Decret, trans. by Edward Smither, James Clarke and Co., 2011.
General History of Africa Volume 2: Ancient Civilizations of Africa (Unesco General History of Africa) ed. G. Mokhtar, James Currey, 1990.

See Also:
Early Christianity in North Africa Part 2
Alexandria as an Early Center of Christianity, Early Martyrs, Latin as the Language of Western Christianity, Church Fathers
Early Christianity in North Africa Part 3
Monasticism, North Africa and Christian Heresies, Influential Theologians

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