African Christianity

Early African Christianity: Nubia

Multiethnic Roots of Christianity Part II

By: Dr. Vince Bantu

The sentiment that Christianity is the “white man’s religion” is a perception that does not find resonance in biblical or historical reality. Christianity is not “becoming” a global religion; it has always been a global religion. At every point, the Christian faith has found Afrocentric expression and it is God’s heart that the Gospel take firm root among every nation, tribe and tongue. The proclamation of the psalter that “Kush will soon stretch out her hands to God,” (Ps. 68:31) finds unique application in the reality that the descendants of the Kushites—the Nubians—not only embraced Christianity as the national religion as early as the fifth century CE, but fought off Arab Muslim invasion in order to maintain an indigenous, black Christian kingdom that would flourish for a thousand years. The late antique Kushite kingdom centered at Meroë fell away in the late fourth century. While there is not much evidence to suggest a significant Christian presence in the Sudan during its Meroitic Kushite period, it is noteworthy that the “Ethiopian” eunuch mentioned in Acts 8 was likely from Kush, rather than the southern Axumite kingdom of Ethiopia. The queens of Kush were commonly called Candace (or Kandake) and “Ethiopia” (or Greek Aithopia) was often used to refer to black inhabitants south of Egypt conflating both the Nubian kingdoms of the Sudan and the Axumite empire of Ethiopia. However, the earliest detailed account of the introduction of Christianity into Nubia came in the sixth century through the historical account of the Syrian bishop John of Ephesus. According to John, Byzantine Roman empress Theodora sent missionaries to Nubia through Egypt who led the Nubian royal court to Christ resulting in the Christianization of northern Nubia (Nobatia). A century before this Roman intervention, however, one of the earliest Nubian kings to consolidate the Nobatian Empire—king Silko—declared in a victory inscription belief in one God who granted him military victory in Nubia. This could indicate a gradual progression of monotheistic transformation in the previously polytheistic Nubian religious landscape. There is also fifth-century evidence of Nubian refugees taking shelter in the Coptic monasteries of Upper Egypt. Whenever Christianity entered Nubia, it is likely to have done so through contact with Egyptian Christians with whom the Nubians maintained close ecclesiastical affiliation throughout the entirety of their Christian history. In solidarity with the other major African churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, Nubian Christianity maintained an anti-Chalcedonian—or, Miaphysite—nature, indicating a belief in the essential unity of the human and divine natures of Christ. Not long after Christianity took firm root in Nubia, the Islamic Conquest presented new challenges for Christians in Africa. Egypt was swiftly conquered in the mid-seventh century and the Arab Muslims quickly turned their attention to the Nubians south of Egypt. The Arab Muslim attempt at conquering Nubia was historically significant in that the Nubians were one of the only people groups to successfully fight off Muslim invaders. Several Arab Muslim historians who recount the Nubian victory credit the Nubian warriors’ skill with the bow and arrow—a skill long associated with Nubians and ancient Kushites since Pharaonic times. The Christian Nubians and Arab Muslim rulers of Egypt created a peace treaty stipulating the exchange of goods and a mutual understanding that Egypt would remain under Muslim control and Nubia remain Christian. Almost everywhere the early Muslim armies went during the seventh century fell under Muslim control (Persia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Libya). Nubia was unique in its ability to fight off the Muslims and create an unprecedented peace treaty that would last for centuries. This historical background also significantly complicates the assumption among some African-descended people that Christianity is the white man’s religion and Islam is the black man’s religion. In the case of Nubia, we see an autonomous black Christian kingdom successfully fighting off would-be Arab Muslim invaders. While Christianity’s introduction into Africa during the first millennium was freely adopted and accepted as the state religion of many of the earliest African kingdoms, Islam’s first introduction into the continent was by force and was resisted by the indigenous African nations whose identity was synonymous with being followers of Christ. Although Christianity eventually died out in Nubia by the beginning of the sixteenth century due to increasing migrations of Islamic ethnic groups, the Christian autonomy initiated by the Nubian-Muslim peace treaty, or baqt, paved the way for a golden era of Nubian Christian culture from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. Nubian Christianity flourished during this period largely because the central kingdoms of the Sudan—Nobatia, Makouria and Alodia—were all predominately Christian and consolidated as one united kingdom no later than the early ninth century. Some examples of the many unique features of Nubian Christianity include a distinctive ecclesiastical and diplomatic leader known as the eparch, a distinguished form of church architecture including a specific passageway unique only to Nubian churches and indigenous religious vestments depicted in Nubian iconography. The language of medieval Sudan—Old Nubian—survives in a small collection of texts that are overwhelmingly religious (i.e. Christian) in nature. This fact further illustrates the degree to which the ancient African civilization of Nubia was intricately imbedded in and held together by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

ICYMI: Multiethnic Roots of Christianity Part I - Early African Christianity: Eygpt

Also, check out our interview with Dr. Vince Bantu below:


Dr. Vince L. Bantu joined Covenant Theological Seminary in 2016 as Visiting Professor of Missiology. He holds a PhD in Semitic and Egyptian languages from the Catholic University of America and serves as co-chair of the Theology Committee of the Christian Community Development Association. Dr. Bantu is an MDiv graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston, and served the Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a church-planting apprentice of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. He also served as a program coordinator for the Emmanuel Gospel Center.

Dr. Bantu also holds a ThM in church history from Princeton Seminary and a BA in theology from Wheaton College. His primary interests include racial reconciliation, non-Western Christianity, and theological education in under-resourced communities. He has served as an adjunct faculty member for several institutions, including Nyack College, New York Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Center for Early African Christianity, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. Bantu is happy to be back in his native St Louis, where he is a teaching pastor at Jubilee Community Church. Dr. Bantu, his wife, Diana, and their two daughters enjoy traveling, parks, games, and are huge movie fans.

Early African Christianity: Egypt

Multiethnic Roots of Christianity Part I

By: Dr. Vince Bantu

The sentiment among an increasing constituency of Africans and African-descended people across the globe that Christianity is a Western/European/white religion of oppression is, at a minimum, historically inaccurate. While Christianity has been perverted into a mechanism of tyranny by many Western nations, it is a lamentably under-emphasized reality that the Gospel took firm root in Africa, the Middle East and Asia long before even the idea of the West—let alone, Western Christianity. For the sake of the Gospel, it must be understood that Christianity is not the cultural property of any single racial or ethnic group but has always existed as a chosen nation comprised of every nation, tribe and tongue.  Because many non-Western people groups have been made to feel culturally alienated from the Gospel, it is imperative to explore the neglected history of non-Western Christianity. 

In the case of African Christianity, the story begins with Egypt. The Holy Family sojourned to Egypt as refugees in the first years of the life of our Lord Christ. The Coptic (or Egyptian) Church holds to the tradition that the Apostle Mark was sent to evangelize North Africa and came to Alexandria in Egypt by way of Libya. Many ancient church historians from the fourth century onward corroborate this story and attest to its oral transmission. Egypt’s Christian community likely grew originally among the Jewish community in Alexandria throughout the first two centuries. Countless early Christian artifacts, structures and documents—including the earliest extant biblical fragment—come from Egypt attesting to the immense importance of Egypt for Christian history. Egypt produced one of the earliest and most prominent schools of theological education—the Catechetical School of Alexandria—led by church fathers such as Clement and Origen of Alexandria.The first attested use of the term “pope” was made in reference to the Egyptian patriarch. The Egyptian church was unique in its elevated reverence for its pope as well as the tightly unified ecclesiastical structure. The foundation of the Apostle’s Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity were defended principally by the Egyptian popes Alexander and Athanasius.

Suffering for the cause of Christ and martyrdom is another prominent theme in Egyptian Christianity. This is evidenced by the fact that the Coptic liturgical calendar continues to use the Great Persecution under Roman Emperor Diocletian as its starting point. Like several of his predecessors, Athanasius experienced exile and suffering for his defense of orthodoxy solidifying this theme of persecution as an enduring theme of Coptic identity. The call to suffer for Christ found significant expression in the development of ascetic and monastic communities—another defining feature of Egyptian Christianity. Both the solitary (or eremitic) and the communal (or cenobitic) forms of monasticism were developed by Egyptian figures such as Anthony and Pachomius the Great. With Pachomius began much of orthodox Christian literature being composed in the indigenous Coptic language. Especially after the life and ministry of Shenoute of Atripe—the most significant Coptic author in history—Egyptian Christianity became expressed through and associated with the Coptic language. 

After the time of Shenoute, the Egyptian church was excommunicated by the dominant Roman church centered in Constantinople and Rome. The Council of Chalcedon defined the person of Christ as existing in “one person in two natures,” a theological innovation of the Roman pope which, for the Egyptian church, betrayed the essential unity of the humanity and divinity of Christ. The Roman church, supported by the empire, imposed their theology on Egypt for two hundred years by means of political, ecumenical and military coercion. During this time, the majority of Egyptian Christians became disenchanted with their Roman Christian rulers and their distinct theology became a significant marker of identity. After the Muslim Conquest in the seventh century, the Copts became double minorities; ostracized by their fellow Christians in Constantinople and dominated by Arab Muslims in their own land. Yet despite centuries of oppression, the Coptic Church has persevered and maintained an indigenous, African Christian faith that is synonymous with Egyptian identity and is rooted in the very origins of Christianity. 


Dr. Vince L. Bantu joined Covenant Theological Seminary in 2016 as Visiting Professor of Missiology. He holds a PhD in Semitic and Egyptian languages from the Catholic University of America and serves as co-chair of the Theology Committee of the Christian Community Development Association. Dr. Bantu is an MDiv graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston, and served the Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a church-planting apprentice of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. He also served as a program coordinator for the Emmanuel Gospel Center.

Dr. Bantu also holds a ThM in church history from Princeton Seminary and a BA in theology from Wheaton College. His primary interests include racial reconciliation, non-Western Christianity, and theological education in under-resourced communities. He has served as an adjunct faculty member for several institutions, including Nyack College, New York Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Center for Early African Christianity, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. Bantu is happy to be back in his native St Louis, where he is a teaching pastor at Jubilee Community Church. Dr. Bantu, his wife, Diana, and their two daughters enjoy traveling, parks, games, and are huge movie fans.