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Out of Africa

Books | Christianity owes its early development to Dark Continent thinkers? Author Thomas C. Oden says scholars for too long have ignored a legacy

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

Thomas C. Oden, a leading expert on Christian writings from A.D. 100 to 500, is the author of many theological works and the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

Recently retired from Drew University's Theological School, he has returned to Oklahoma, the state of his birth, and written the just-published How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (Intervarsity, 2008). It's a short book that may jumpstart a re-examination of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine as African thinkers: They all came from the Maghreb, the area (now part of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) between the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. (Maghreb means "place of sunset" or "west" in Arabic.)

WORLD: You cite a "common misconception" about church brainpower during Christianity's first half millennium. What is that misconception?

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ODEN: The common misconception is that the flow of intellectual leadership in early Christianity moved from Europe to Africa, not vice versa. European intellectual history has developed as if the great Christian literary and textual traditions of the Nile Valley and the Maghreb did not even exist. Its vast effects on Europe have not been grasped.

WORLD: Have the scholars who know about that history appreciated it?

ODEN: No, much of its history has been dismissed as heretical, as argued by German scholars like Adolf von Harnack and Walter Bauer, based upon criteria that prevailed centuries later in Europe. These interpretations are now increasingly regarded as unpersuasive. Even today many African-born scholars trained in the West seem all too ready to play the role of advocates of modern European ideologies.

WORLD: What effect did that misperception have?

ODEN: It caused many European historians to fail to analyze adequately the close engagement of early African Christian teaching with indigenous, traditional, and primitive African religions in the north of Africa throughout the first millennium.

WORLD: Was that development just along the Mediterranean coast, or also inland?

ODEN: Inland African cultures were the main testing ground for early Christian dialectical models of the relation of Christianity and culture. These models were hammered out on the ground in Africa before they were transmitted into Sicily, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia, and finally inland Europe.

WORLD: So when those productive developments were ignored, the idea grew that Africans couldn't figure out problems themselves.

ODEN: The liberal bias wrongly assumed that Africa was inexperienced in understanding cultural conflict resolution and only needed larger doses of European enlightenment to solve its maladjustments. Many thus missed entirely the literary richness of the distinctive African Christian imprint on proto-Europe and the formation of the Christian mind. These misjudgments were passed on through graduate study programs.

WORLD: You contend that in Christian history "the flow of intellectual leadership demonstrably moved largely from Africa to Europe-south to north," with Christian thought "cradled and nurtured" in Africa.

ODEN: The Christians to the south of the Mediterranean were teaching the Christians to the north. Africans were informing and instructing and educating the very best of Syriac, Cappadocian, and Greco-Roman teachers. This flow of intellectual leadership in time matured into the ecumenical consensus on how to interpret sacred scripture, and hence into the core of Christian dogma.

WORLD: Why is learning that history important?

ODEN: Inattention to this south-to-north movement has been unhelpful (even hurtful) to the African sense of intellectual self-worth. It has seemed to leave Africa without a sense of distinguished literary and intellectual history. This is a history that Africa actually already has but that has remained buried and ignored.

WORLD: What was Augustine's background, and why is he rarely identified as an African?

ODEN: He is rarely identified as African because his influence was largely in Europe though he was born in Numidia [an ancient Berber kingdom in North Africa near today's Algeria]. It is likely that Augustine had a mother with Berber ethnicity, from a family that converted to Christianity at least a generation before his birth in 354. Monica would not have become any less ethnically African just because she married a Roman military officer.

WORLD: And Augustine's family wasn't just hugging the coast?

ODEN: Augustine was born and raised far from the sea in a remote inland Numidian town (Thagaste) with mixed racial stock. The rock carvings from Neolithic times in North Africa show occupations dating back 10,000 years. Among Augustine's known family and friends were people who had Berber, Punic, Numidian, Roman, and even Libyan names.

WORLD: So as far as ethnicity, the names may be misleading?

ODEN: Recent paleographic inquiry into funerary inscriptions and family names shows that there was a gradual transition of Berber, Libyan, and Punic family names into their Latin or Greek equivalents during the centuries prior to and also during the growth of Christianity. That did not affect their ethnicity or skin color, only their names. Thus it would not be unusual if a person with tribal and family ties reaching thousands of years back into indigenous African history might have a Latin-sounding name.


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