Ethiopian Biblical Canons and Apocrypha

[This is the third in a series of posts as I write and gear up for the publication of a new introduction to biblical apocrypha for general audiences. EDIT: Apocrypha for Beginners is on sale now! Check out all of the posts in this series here.]

One of the most significant aspects of studying biblical apocrypha is how much it reveals about the diversity of Judaism and Christianity. I’ve been fascinated by this notion for years, and it continues to impress me. It doesn’t take long to see this diversity when we explore how different views of the biblical canon emerged and what apocrypha are.

Diversity of belief related to the reception of the Bible and apocrypha is especially pronounced when we look at scriptures accepted by Beta Israel Jews and Orthodox Tewahedo Christians in Ethiopia.

Church of Saint George (Bete Giyorgis), Lalibela, Ethiopia

Ethiopian Judaism, Christianity, & Canons

The history of Judaism and Christianity in Ethiopia begins early–even if we can’t be sure exactly when. Ethiopian literature like the Kebra Nagast (“The Glory of Kings”) claims that Judaism was taken to Ethiopia by the Queen of Sheba (as in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9), who bore King Solomon’s son Menelek, from whom the Ethiopian kings descended. Both Beta Israel Jews and Tewahedo Christians adhere to this legend. Tewahedo Christians link their religious identity to the story in Acts 8:26-40, which relates the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch visiting Jerusalem for worship (implying that he is already Jewish), who then took Christianity back to his homeland. We know from various sources that widespread acceptance of Christianity began in the fourth century because of missionaries like the Syrian Greek named Frumentius.

Whatever the origins of Judaism and Christianity in Ethiopia, both were firmly established in the Middle Ages. Evidence about scriptures used in Ethiopian Judaism and Christianity challenge many expectations about the biblical canon and apocrypha that are often taken for granted.

There is ample evidence from the medieval period to the present of both Beta Israel Jews and Tewahedo Christians accepting more books within their canons than other communities. The biblical canons for Beta Israel and Tewahedo Christians include all of the Hebrew Bible as well as several other books considered deuterocanonical or apocryphal in other communities:

Annunciation of Mary in an Ethiopic Bible (London, British Library, Or 481, folio 100r)
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Baruch
  • Sirach
  • Jubilees
  • 1 Enoch
  • 4 Baruch
  • 4 Ezra
  • 1-3 Meqabyan

The last set of books, 1-3 Meqabyan, originated in Ethiopia and survive only in Geʽez (the Classical Ethiopic language). Tewahedo Christians also include in their bibles 4 Maccabees and another work titled Josippon (also known as “another book of the Maccabees”), which relates Jewish history from Adam to the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

The Kebra Nagast, as already mentioned, is also an important part of Ethiopian Judaism and Christianity. As an expansion of the story of Solomon in the Bible (1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9), it is a key apocryphal narrative for Ethiopian communities. While not included in the formal canons, the work is venerated as a foundational narrative of religious origin for both the Beta Israel and Tewahedo Christianity.

Preserving Apocrypha

In addition to including more works in their canons, Ethiopian Judaism and Christianity are responsible for preserving important versions of apocryphal works. Although Jubilees and 1 Enoch survive in a range of languages (like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), both survive in full forms only in Geʽez. In other words, the Ethiopic versions of these works are the most complete and best witnesses.

Both of these works present important cases for knowledge about apocrypha developing in the modern period. The story of knowledge about 1 Enoch is a good case to highlight. In 1773 the Scottish traveler James Bruce took to Europe three manuscripts of 1 Enoch that he had acquired in Ethiopia. Although excerpts of 1 Enoch had been known before–through quotations in early Christian works or Latin translations of some portions–these manuscripts represented the first knowledge of this apocryphon in full in Europe. Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy printed portions of the Ethiopian text in 1800; Richard Laurence published a translation in 1821 and the first full edition in 1838.

The story of Jubilees is similar. Excerpts of it were known before, but many believed that the book had been lost. Knowledge of Jubilees become widespread only in the nineteenth century, based on some fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Ethiopian manuscripts.

Fragments of both Jubilees and 1 Enoch were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century, which again shifted what scholars now think about the origins of these books. But the Geʽez translations remain key to understanding both works in their full forms.

The first page of a sixteenth-century Ethiopian manuscript containing Jubilees and 1 Enoch in Geʽez (London, British Library, Or 485, folio 1r)

Other apocrypha survive in full only in Geʽez because of their significance in Ethiopic Judaism and Christianity, including:

  • Ascension of Isaiah (survives in fragments in Greek, Coptic, Latin, and Church Slavic)
  • Letter of the Apostles (survives in fragments in Coptic and Latin)
  • Apocalypse of Peter (survives in fragments in Greek)
  • Kebra Nagast (as discussed)

As seen, Ethiopic Jewish and Christian communities preserved these works as major parts of their traditions, although they had been overlooked in other communities for centuries.

Adapting Apocrypha

Beyond works that survive in full because of their transmission in Ethiopian Judaism and Christianity, many other extra-canonical works were translated into Geʽez in the medieval period. For example, the Miracles of the Virgin Mary are pervasive and extremely important in Ethiopian Christianity. Many more examples could be listed (see Pierluigi Piovanelli’s article cited below), but the reception of the Apocalypse of Paul is particularly worth pursuing.

The Apocalypse of Paul presents a tour of heaven and hell concerned with the afterlife, the fate of souls after death, punishments for sinners, and rewards for believers. It was probably composed in Greek between about 250 and 300 CE, and Latin translations emerged between about 400 and 520 CE. From these versions are derived other translations in many languages, and the Apocalypse of Paul survives in around 300 witnesses from Europe, Africa, and the Near East. The relationships between them all are dizzyingly complex.

It’s clear that the Apocalypse of Paul was an important touchstone for many medieval Christian communities. Judging by the number of Geʽez versions, this was similarly true in Ethiopia. In fact, the text was important for not only Tewahedo Christians but also Beta Israel Jews.

Two works based on the Apocalypse of Paul were translated and used by Beta Israel Jews: the Book of the Angels and the Apocalypse of Gorgorios. Each of these is based on a different portion of the Apocalypse of Paul. Of course, knowledge of this apocalypse would have come from Christians, but Jewish scribes adapted the details for their own local needs. For example, the author of the Apocalypse of Gorgorios shifted the narrator from Paul to a venerated Jewish figure named Gorgorios, while the Book of the Angels omits a visionary narrator altogether. Both Jewish versions remove explicitly Christian elements from the tours of heaven and hell.

The Jewish Ethiopic texts based on the Apocalypse of Paul portray some of the hallmarks of apocrypha as useful vehicles to transmit ideas across cultural contexts. After all, one of the most substantial ways that apocrypha survived throughout the medieval period was through constant use, reuse, adaptation, and appropriation across cultures, languages, and media.

All of the Ethiopic traditions and texts I’ve discussed demonstrate the fluidity, elasticity, and general adaptability of apocrypha across different communities. As is clear, one person’s apocrypha is another person’s scripture, and vice versa. In some ways, Beta Israel Jews and Tewahedo Christians are not so different from other communities, since apocrypha have flourished in many contexts from the eras of early Judaism and early Christianity up to the present. But, in other ways, Beta Israel Jews and Tewahedo Christians are unique. Their peculiar attitudes toward biblical canonicity and apocrypha are worth highlighting along the way toward understanding the nuances of the diversity of Judaism and Christianity across cultures.

Further Reading

On Beta Israel, see Steven Kaplan, The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century (New York: New York University Press, 1992).

On Tewahedo Christianity, see Philip F. Esler, Ethiopian Christianity: History, Theology, Practice (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019).

For a discussion of the Orthodox Tewahedo Christian biblical canon, see Tedros Abraha, “The Biblical Canon of the Orthodoks Täwahədo Church of Ethiopia and Eritrea,” in Il canone biblico nelle chiese orientali: atti del simposio, Pontificio Istituto orientale, Roma 23 marzo 2010, edited by Edward G. Farrugia and Emidio Vergani (Rome: Pontificio Istituto orientale, 2017), 95-122.

For an overview of apocryphal literature in Geʽez, see Pierluigi Piovanelli, “Ethiopic,” A Guide to Early Jewish Texts and Traditions in Christian Transmission, ed. Alexander Kulik et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 35-47.

For more about the Miracles of the Virgin Mary, see the work of Wendy Laura Belcher, especially her forthcoming book Ladder of Heaven: The Miracles of the Virgin Mary in Ethiopian Literature and Art (under contract with Princeton University Press).

Translations of a selection of Geʽez texts revered by the Beta Israel Jews (including those based on the Apocalypse of Paul) may be found in Wolf Leslau, Falasha Anthology: Translated from Ethiopic Sources, Yale Judaica Series 6 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951). Leslau provides bibliography for editions of the Geʽez texts he bases his translations on.

For translations of Jubilees, 1 Enoch, and the Ascension of Isaiah, with introductions about the history and transmission of these texts, see James H. Charlesworth (editor), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 volumes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985).

On 1 Enoch among other texts about the figure Enoch, see especially John C. Reeves and Annette Yoshiko Reed, Enoch from Antiquity to the Middle Ages: Sources From Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Volume I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).


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