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St. Frumentius of Ethiopia, called Abba Salama

IV Century
During roughly the same centuries that the Roman Empire flourished by the Mediterranean, East Africa and South Arabia were under the cultural and sometimes political domination of Axum City in what is now Tigre Province, Ethiopia. The Axumite cultural sphere, which included the Biblical Sheba, had a large Jewish population including many local converts, and -- as the story of Queen Candace's eunuch (Acts 9:26-40) suggests -- Christianity was probably introduced at an early date by African and Arabian Jewish pilgrims returning from the Holy Land. The earliest Axumite churches seem to have been completely unconnected with those of the Hellenistic world; Ethiopian tradition remembers them as essentially "messianic Jewish" synagogues. That these communities began instead to worship "in the Roman manner" (as Theodoret puts it) came about in the IV Century through "Abba Salama", Frumentius of Tyre.

A young student from Hellenized Phoenicia, Frumentius was taken by his tutor, the philosopher Meropius, on an educational tour of countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Meropius died or was killed in Axumite territory, and young Frumentius ended up living at the royal court in the household of the pro-Christian Jewish priest Anbaram; eventually, he became a high government official. In this capacity, he encouraged merchants visiting from the Roman Empire to establish a "Roman-style" chapel; later, he went in person to Alexandria to study for the priesthood. Ethiopian sources claim that he witnessed the Council of Nicea as an assistant to Patriarch Alexander, although this is not mentioned by Rufinus or the Greeks. In any case, he was made not only a priest but Bishop of Axum by Athanasius the Great. Returning to Ethiopia, he baptized his step-father Anbaram, giving him the new name Hezbe Kades, and ordained him an Orthodox priest. Together, they set about canonically regularizing Axumite Christianity on the Egyptian model, travelling as far as Yemen and Nubia. Frumentius also baptized the brother-kings of Axum, Ezana and Sheazana, who were thereafter called often Abreha (Lightmaker) and Asbeha (Dawnbreaker) to the confusion of later historians. The kings in turn made Frumentius' variety of Orthodoxy the state religion; coins from the later years of Ezana's reign bear monotheistic inscriptions instead of the traditional pagan ones.

Because of Frumentius' association with Athanasius, Ethiopia was a stronghold of Nicene Orthodoxy despite well-financed Arian missionary activity funded by the Roman government. One suspects that a phenomenally arrogant and condescending letter of the Emperor Constantius II to Ezana and Sheazana demanding Frumentius' recall did little to advance the Arian cause. It may be found among the papers of Athanasius; other sources of importance for Frumentius include Rufinus, Socrates, Theodoret, the Contendings of Takla Haymanot, and the Fetha Negast.

In reading the primary sources below, one should bear in mind that the Axumite Empire was called "India" by Greek historians.

Norman Hugh Redington

2012 November 18

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