Origins of Ethiopian Civilization (Ephraim Isaac)

As I mentioned last time, I’m going to be providing more frequent updates here, followed by a summary/commentary on books/articles concerning either the Ethiopian Orthodox Church or veterinary medicine in Ethiopia. I’ll use headings so that readers can quickly skim the portions that interest them (if any). 🙂


We were notified this morning that we have a court date where E.’s adoption will be finalized! I’ll definitely be giving more details in my next post! The baby’s still due June 13. If the baby comes early enough, we’ll try to get into the summer session of MTI in Colorado Springs, but it seems unlikely that the baby will come early enough (although you never know) and that there will be an opening (these courses tend to fill up pretty far in advance).

Meanwhile, I’m spending a lot of time at DoubleShot Coffee, trying to write and keep up with the day to day recurring tasks associated with our work. I rarely spend a full day working on these things, though, as doctor’s appointments, E.’s counseling appointments, and Charlie’s pre-K schedule require lots of breaks most days. I try to take advantage of this time in our lives in which I’m able to spend this much time during the day with the boys, and with my mom. Honestly, though, my first reaction when I’m pulled away from my “work” is usually to be grumpy and resentful. Thank God that Kristen is patient and willing to put up with me.


Ancient stelae from the Axumite empire. 

Chapter 1: Origins of Ethiopian Civilization

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ll be working through Ephraim Isaac’s The Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahïdo Church, published in 2013 by Red Sea Press.

Front Matter

Before I summarize the first chapter, I’ll mention a couple of things about the front matter of the book. In the preface, Isaac states that the book is “a modest attempt to give a brief and purely objective description of the interesting history of the Ethiopian Church, its beliefs and practices.” Now, I’ve spent enough time studying hermeneutics to know that there’s no such thing as a purely objective description. It’s apparent in how Isaac approaches his topic that it’s driven by his interests and priorities. There’s no problem with this approach (in fact, it’s unavoidable), but it shouldn’t be called purely objective.

Isaac writes a personal note along with his acknowledgements that sheds light on his credentials in terms of writing about a church of which he is not a member. He discusses how, when growing up in Nedjio, Wallaga, Ethiopia, Orthodox clergy would often visit his father (a Jew from Yemen) and offer praise and admiration for his Jewish heritage. He goes on to say that as an adult, he was blessed with close relationships with a number of Ethiopian Orthodox clergy, many of whom he worked with in a professional capacity (as a Semitic language scholar), and that he even served as a mediator when a number of bishops disagreed about an administrative matter. He also emphasizes the doctrinal, liturgical, and historical unity of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, and indicates that nearly of what he writes applies to both.

Chapter One

Isaac’s goal in this initial chapter is to demonstrate that while Ethiopia and South Arabia share a “common cultural sphere” since prehistoric times, the assumption made by many Western scholars that Ethiopian civilization is the result of South Arabian influence is based on “erroneous historical, linguistic, and archeological assumptions.” He then goes one to address five areas in which these assumptions have been made.

First, he argues that it cannot be assumed that Semitic languages (the language family that includes Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, and several Ethiopian languages) originated in the Near East. There is an assumption that the Ethiopian Semitic languages were brought to Ethiopia from South Arabian conquerors. He states that some, including Russian Assyriologist Diakonoff, propose an African origin for Proto-Hamito-Semitic (from which Semitic languages hypothetically derive), and that it is therefore possible that some Semitic languages may be indigenous to Ethiopia.

Second, he claims historical difficulties in the suggestion of a South Arabian migration into Ethiopia – primarily that during the time period in which this is suggested to have happened, there is clear evidence that different languages were spoken on the eastern and western sides of the Red Sea. If there had been a mass migration, the language would have been the same.

He also discusses here an important term in Ethiopian (and Eritrean) culture and history: habasha. This term refers to Ethiopians and Eritreans who share a number of cultural features, including Semitic languages (today, primarily Amharic and Tigrinya), religion (the Orthodox Täwahïdo Church), and food (e.g., injera). Habasha is word that gave rise to the Western term Abyssinia. There is a popular hypothesis that the name “hbst,” which appears in some ancient Sabaean scripts, is the name of the South Arabian tribe that migrated to Ethiopia; Isaac argues that this hypothesis is purely speculative. Interestingly, I was told by a tour guide in northern Ethiopia that the term “habesha” actually means “the color of coffee when milk is added,” indicating that Habesha have a lighter skin color than surrounding peoples (which tends to be true).

Third, he addresses evidence gleaned from ancient inscriptions found in both Ethiopia and South Arabia. Essentially, he argues that while these inscriptions share “a common cultural heritage,” there is no evidence that this indicates a South Arabian origin for the inscriptions found in Ethiopia.

Fourth, Isaac addresses the nature of the Ethiopic script, which he says is “a cursive form of monumental Sabaean.” His key point for this argument is that while South Arabians did not adapt and adopt the Sabaean script, adopting instead the Arabic script after the rise of Islam, “the manner in which the Ethiopians used Sabaean, with freedom and originality, hardly betrays the behavior of borrowers.”

Finally, Isaac spends the second half of the chapter addressing ancient literary references to the Sabaeans, especially the Biblical story of the Queen of Sheba. I don’t have space to discuss the significance of the Queen of Sheba for Habesha culture; for those who aren’t familiar, take a look at this. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary states that the most plausible location for Sheba is the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula (present day Yemen). Isaac argues that this does not preclude the possibility that the Queen of Sheba was African. He provides arguments that show that Sheba may have been in the Horn of Africa from the book of Genesis. He points out that Yemen was “an Ethiopian domain over two thousand years ago,” noting that Homer’s Odyssey refers to Poseidon’s journey to “Ethiopia, divided in two” (i.e., by the Red Sea). He suggests that the mention of “all the kings of Arabia” in 1 Kings and Jeremiah suggest that there were no queens in Arabia at this time (one of my least favorite of his arguments). He points out that “Josephus, a number of the Church Fathers, and the Ethiopians themselves” claim that the Queen of Sheba was African.

He concludes: “serious methodological questions must be raised concerning theories that seek to reconstruct the origins of the Ethiopian civilization from South Arabia. . . . we would prefer to view, at least hypothetically, South Arabia as a common cultural sphere with Ethiopia from prehistoric times, and nothing more.”


Don’t Read This Post (Vol. I): An Exercise in Hubris

When I started this blog, my intention was that it be a place where we can 1) answer Frequently Asked Questions; and 2) provide more timely updates than are allowed for in our monthly prayer letter, which is written about three weeks before it is published.

I’ve come to learn, though, that once the FAQ’s have been written, and now that we are in waiting mode (i.e., waiting for E’s adoption to go through, and for the birth of Quartus), the need for updates beyond what’s included in the monthly prayer letter have been minimal, and do not really warrant a new blog post. I’ve found that I’m hesitant to write, in large part because I’m concerned that I’ll be wasting my friends’, family’s, and other likeminded folks’ time.

However, my desire to stay in contact with those of you who are interested in doing so, and to provide more frequent, smaller updates, has overcome my reluctance. My plan is to write more frequently, beginning with any updates followed by my summary, followed by commentary on books and articles addressing one of two topics: veterinary medicine in Ethiopia and/or the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Hopefully it’s interesting to some of you, and for those who aren’t particularly interested (I get it), you can read the updates without having to slog through my ramblings.


The most significant update is that my stepdad, R.E. Peterson (I called him Pete) passed away on April 14th. I’ve known Pete since I was six years old, when he and my mom started dating. They married when I was 12, and we moved in with him at that time. To say that my world changed is an absolute understatement. Whatever work ethic, self discipline, and commitment to family that I have, I owe to him. Words cannot express how grateful I am for his unconditional love for my mom, my sister, and me.


Mom, me, Pete, and Crystal, Christmas ~1993

His funeral was held on April 27th, when the Orthodox Church celebrated Holy Saturday this year. The vigil for Pascha (Easter) began at 11:30 pm that evening, and we got home just before 4 am Sunday morning. Holy Saturday celebrates Christ’s time in the tomb, whereby Hades was destroyed and he emerged victorious on Sunday morning. What a blessing that Pete’s funeral will forever be associated for me with the death and resurrection that gives such hope.

Pete’s death meant that we left Colorado Springs the day that we were supposed to begin our month-long training at Mission Training International, and that this (mandatory) training has therefore been postponed. It looks like Quartus will be too young for us to attend the summer session, and that we will therefore have to attend the fall session. This means that we will likely leave for Ethiopia in October at the earliest.

Meanwhile, we will stay busy with the adoption, the arrival of boy #4, the logistics of moving to Ethiopia (still working on the most cost-effective way to get my library over there), and curricula planning (Kristen with homeschool; me with infectious diseases and biblical languages), among other things.

The other item of note is the interview my friend Scott Elliott did with me on his blog, Resurrected Living:

Kristen says it’s probably worth watching; I can’t watch myself talk long enough to know if it is or not. Many thanks to Scott for his kind interest and consideration. His ministry is truly a blessing to me.

Intro to Isaac’s The Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahïdo Church


I’ve decided that for the next few posts, I’m going to alternate between some Ethiopian veterinary articles I’ve recently read, and Ephraim Isaac’s book, The Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahïdo Church. Here, I’ll introduce this book, and in subsequent posts, I’ll work through it one chapter at a time.

Ephraim Isaac is an extremely well-known (especially in his Ethiopian homeland) and erudite scholar of ancient Semitic (particularly Ethiopian) languages, culture, and religion. He holds a bachelor’s degree and a PhD from Harvard University, and was the first professor of the Harvard University Department of African and Afro-American Studies. His translation of the the Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) is found in Charlesworth’s edition of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, arguably the most popular edition used in graduate studies.

Isaac himself is the son of an Ethiopian mother and a Yemeni Jewish father; he is not a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahïdo Church (EOTC). The book reflects this in its emphasis on the uniquely Jewish character of the EOTC – something that certainly warrants elucidation and discussion, but is more thoroughly discussed by Isaac than in any other source I’ve encountered.

As a sort of preview, I give here the table of contents:

  1. Origins of Ethiopian Civilization
  2. Brief History of the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahïdo Church
  3. The Judaic Character of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church
  4. Teachings of the Ethiopian Church
  5. The Bible in Ethiopia
  6. The Role of Fasting in the Ethiopian Church
  7. The Ethiopian Liturgy and Calendar
  8. The Church and Education
  9. Ethiopian Church Music
  10. The Church and Its Institutions
  11. The Church and Writing
  12. Church and State
  13. Church and Society
  14. The Ethiopian Church and Other Religions
  15. Ethiopianism – Significance for Africans and Afro-Americans

I read this book several years ago, and I remember then encountering a number of things that I questioned, and a few that I was fairly sure were incorrect. Hopefully we can explore these items as we take our time moving through this book.