Early Christianity in North Africa Part 1
Historical Background, Factors Which Influenced the Spread Of Christianity, and Christianity Reaches North Africa
Alexandria as an Early Center of Christianity
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 center 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.
It is recorded that in 180 CE Twelve Christians of African origin were martyred in Sicilli (Sicily) for refusing to perform a sacrifice to the Roman Emperor Commodus (aka Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus). The most significant record of Christian martyrdom, however, is that of March 203, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus (145--211 CE, ruled 193--211), when Perpetua, a 22 year old noble, and Felicity, her slave, were martyred in Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia). Historical records, which come partially from a narrative believed to have been written by Perpetua herself, describe in detail the ordeal leading up to their death in the arena -- wounded by beasts and put to the sword. Saints Felicity and Perpetua are celebrated by a feast day on 7 March.
Latin as the Language of Western Christianity.
Because north Africa was heavily under Roman rule, Christianity was spread through the region by the use of Latin rather than Greek. It was partially due to this that the Roman Empire eventually split into two, east and west. (There was also the problem of increasing ethnic and social tensions which helped fractured the empire into what would become the Byzantium and Holy Roman Empire of mediaeval times.)
It was during the reign of Emperor Commodos (161--192 CE, ruled from 180 to 192) that the first of three 'African' Popes was invested. Victor I, born in the Roman province of Africa (now Tunisia), was pope from 189 to 198 CE. Amongst the achievements of Victor I are his endorsement for the change of Easter to the Sunday following the 14th of Nisan (the first month of the Hebrew calendar) and the introduction of Latin as the official language of the Christian church (centered in Rome).
Titus Flavius Clemens (150--211/215 CE), aka Clement of Alexandria, was a Hellenistic theologian and the first president of the catechetical School of Alexandria. In his early years he traveled extensively around the Mediterranean and studied the Greek philosophers. He was an intellectual Christian who debated with those suspicious of scholarship and taught several notable ecclesiastical and theological leaders (such as Origen, and Alexander the Bishop of Jerusalem). His most important surviving work is the trilogy Protreptikos ('Exhortation'), Paidagogos ('The Instructor'), and the Stromateis ('Miscellanies') which considered and compared the role of myth and allegory in ancient Greece and contemporary Christianity. Clement attempted to mediate between the heretical Gnostics and the orthodox Christian church, and set the stage for the development of monasticism in Egypt later in the third century.
One of the most important Christian theologians and biblical scholars was Oregenes Adamantius, aka Origen (c.185--254 CE). Born in Alexandria, Origen is most widely known for his synopsis of six different versions of the old testament, the Hexapla. Some of his beliefs about the transmigration of souls and universal reconciliation (or apokatastasis, a belief that all men and women, and even Lucifer, would ultimately be saved), were declared heretical in 553 CE, and he was posthumously excommunicated by the Council of Constantinople in 453 CE. Origen was a prolific writer, had the ear of Roman royalty, and succeeded Clement of Alexandria as head of the School of Alexandria.
Tertullian (c.160--c.220 CE) was another prolific Christian. Born in Carthage, a cultural center much influenced by Roman authority, Tertullian is the first Christian author to write extensively in Latin, for which he in known as the 'Father of Western Theology'. He is said to have laid down the foundation on which Western Christian theology and expression is based. Curiously, Tertullian extolled martyrdom, but is recorded of dying naturally (often quoted as his 'three score and ten'); espoused celibacy, but was married; and wrote copiously, but criticized classical scholarship. Tertullian converted to Christianity in Rome during his twenties, but it was not until his return to Carthage that his strengths as a teacher and defender of Christian beliefs were recognized. The Biblical Scholar Jerome (347--420 CE) records that Tertullian was ordained as a priest, but this has been challenged by Catholic scholars. Tertullian became a member of the heretical and charismatic Montanistic order around 210 CE, given to fasting and the resultant experience of spiritual bliss and prophetic visitations. The Montanists were harsh moralists, but even they proved to lax for Tertillian in the end, and he founded his own sect a few years before 220 CE. The date of his death is unknown, but his last writings date to 220CE.
• '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.
Early Christianity in North Africa Part 3
Monasticism, North Africa and Christian Heresies, Influential Theologians