Black History Month: True and False Early Christian Leaders in North Africa

COGwriter

February is Black History Month, and I thought that this would be a good time to explain that there were true and false Christian leaders in North Africa in the third century (irrespective of race).

In the third century, once there were some few real Christians in northern Africa, Origen (who apparently was not black) noted that there were two groups that he considered to be “Ebionites”, one who believed in the virgin birth (and that would be those who this paper suggests were also known as the Nazarenes) and those who did not:

Let it be admitted, moreover, that there are some who accept Jesus, and who boast on that account of being Christians, and yet would regulate their lives, like the Jewish multitude, in accordance with the Jewish law,—and these are the twofold sect of Ebionites, who either acknowledge with us that Jesus was born of a virgin, or deny this, and maintain that He was begotten like other human beings…(Origen.  Contra Celsus, Book V, Chapter 61).

The true Christians in Africa were not those associated with Origen (please see what happened in Alexandria), nor those that denied the virgin birth. The true Christians were those professed Jesus and had practices similar to those of the Jews.

Origen of Alexandria, however, was not a true Christian. Origen even appeared to recognize several non-canonically writings as scripture and had been influenced by some Gnostic teachings. Sadly, Origen referred to The Epistle of Barnabas like he does actual parts of the Bible (Origen. Contra Celsus, Book I, Chapter 63), seems to also do so with the falsely titled Gospel of Peter (Origen.  Commentary on Matthew, Book X, Verse 17.  ANF), and even calls what I consider to be the “demonically-influenced” Shepherd of Hermas as “divinely inspired” (Cited in Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance).

Antioch (which is now in present day Syria) probably resisted much of this Gnostic influence until some time into the early third century.  And while Origen and some others recognized the falsely titled “Gospel of Peter” it was specifically condemned by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch.  Serapion went to see a group that he thought was Christian in the seaside port of Rhossus, which is located southwest of Alexandria.  When he got there he was disappointed to learn that they were reading this “Gospel of Peter” (Eusebius.  The History of the Church, Book VI, Chapter XII, verse 1, p. 125 ) and thus he realized that they were not all part of the “true faith”:

For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ; but we reject intelligently the writings falsely inscribed with them, knowing that such were not handed down to. When I visited you I supposed that all of you held the true faith…(Eusebius.  The History of the Church, Book VI, Chapter XII, verses 3-4, p. 125-126).

Thus while there were some true Christians in northern Africa in the early part of the third century, Serapion ran into false ones. And like the rest of the world, sadly the majority of people in Africa (and elsewhere) who profess the religion of Christ, are not practicing the religion of the Christ of the Bible as the true church was only expected to be a “little flock” (for more information, please see the article The History of Early Christianity).

It probably should also be mentioned that around the time of Serapion, at least one African leader stood up to allegorists like Origen. The Catholic Encyclopedia reported:

An Egyptian bishop, Nepos, taught the Chiliastic error that there would be a reign of Christ upon earth for a thousand years, a period of corporal delights; he founded this doctrine upon the Apocalypse in a book entitled “Refutation of the Allegorizers” (Chapman, John. “Dionysius of Alexandria.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 14 Aug. 2008 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05011a.htm>.).

A nineteenth century anti-millennial scholar named Giovanni Battista Pagani went as far as to write the following about Nepos and those who supported the millennium:

…all those  who teach a millennium framed according to Jewish ideas, saying that during the millennium, Mosaic law will be restored…These are called Judaical Millenarians, not as being Jews, but as having invented and upheld a millennium according to Jewish taste.  The principal authors of this error were Nepos, an African Bishop, against whom St. Dionysius wrote his two books on Promises; and Apollinaris, whom St. Epiphanius confound in his work against heresies (Pagani, Giovanni Battista. Published by Charles Dolman, 1855. Original from Oxford University. Digitized Aug 15, 2006, pp. 252-253).

It should be of interest to note that neither Nepos nor Apollinaris were Jews (Nepos may have been black), but were condemned for having a religion that had “Jewish” beliefs.  And since Apollinaris is a Catholic saint (see article Apollinaris of Hierapolis), it should be clear that the respected and non-Jewish Christian leaders in the early third century clearly did hold to ideas that were condemned by the allegorists.

The following from Dionysius clearly shows that Nepos was still respected after he died (Nepos died prior to Dionysius’ mid-third century writing of the following) and really did not refute him from a biblical perspective:

But as they produce a certain composition by Nepos, on which they insist very strongly, as if it demonstrated incontestably that there will be a (temporal) reign of Christ upon the earth, I have to say, that in many other respects I accept the opinion of Nepos, and love him at once for his faith, and his laboriousness, and his patient study in the Scriptures, as also for his great efforts in psalmody, by which even now many of the brethren are delighted. I hold the man, too, in deep respect still more, inasmuch as he has gone to his rest before us. Nevertheless the truth is to be prized and reverenced above all things else. And while it is indeed proper to praise and approve ungrudgingly anything that is said aright, it is no less proper to examine and correct anything which may appear to have been written unsoundly. If he had been present then himself, and had been stating his opinions orally, it would have been sufficient to discuss the question together without the use of writing, and to endeavour to convince the opponents, and carry them along by interrogation and reply. But the work is published, and is, as it seems to some, of a very persuasive character; and there are unquestionably some teachers, who hold that the law and the prophets are of no importance, and who decline to follow the Gospels, and who depreciate the epistles of the apostles, and who have also made large promises  regarding the doctrine of this composition, as though it were some great and hidden mystery, and who, at the same time, do not allow that our simpler brethren have any sublime and elevated conceptions either of our Lord’s appearing in His glory and His true divinity, or of our own resurrection from the dead, and of our being gathered together to Him, and assimilated to Him, but, on the contrary, endeavour to lead them to hope  for things which are trivial and corruptible, and only such as what we find at present in the kingdom of God. And since this is the case, it becomes necessary for us to discuss this subject with our brother Nepos just as if he were present (Dionysius of Alexandria. From the Two Books on the Promises. Copyright © 2008 by Kevin Knight. Viewed 8/14/08).

In other words, Nepos knew his Bible, but did not hold to the same position that allegorists like Dionysius of Alexandria held.  But those who held to Judaeo-Christian beliefs, while slightly chastised, simply were almost never condemned by the early allegorists. Mainly, because the early allegorists knew that the original Christians held to beliefs and practices that the allegorists considered to be Jewish–and at this stage, the allegorists simply did not have the ability to condemn the literalists because most who professed Christ at the time knew that the literalists had ties to the original apostolic church. (More information on faithful Christians in northern African locations can be found in the article Arabic Nazarenes May Have Kept Original Christian Practices.)

There were faithful early Christians in Northern Africa, of various races, in the third century who believed in the millennium and did not compromise with the allegorists.  There are also Christians like that today.

Articles of possibly related interest may include:

Africa: Its Biblical Past and Prophesied Future What does the Bible teach about Africa and its future? Did the early Church reach Africa? Will God call all the Africans?
The History of Early Christianity Are you aware that what most people believe is not what truly happened to the true Christian church? Do you know where the early church was based? Do you know what were the doctrines of the early church? Is your faith really based upon the truth or compromise?
What Do Roman Catholic Scholars Actually Teach About Early Church History? Although most believe that the Roman Catholic Church history teaches an unbroken line of succession of bishops beginning with Peter, with stories about most of them, Roman Catholic scholars know the truth of this matter. This eye-opening article is a must-read for any who really wants to know what Roman Catholic history actually admits about the early church.
Nazarene Christianity: Were the Original Christians Nazarenes? Should Christians be Nazarenes today? What were the practices of the Nazarenes.
Did The Early Church Teach Millenarianism? Was the millennium (sometimes called chiliasm) taught by early Christians? Who condemned it. Will Jesus literally reign for 1000 years on the earth? Is this time near?



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