Era of the Nine Saints Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Syrian monks, later known as the Nine Saints, preached Monophysite Christianity in the kingdom of Aksum and began the conversion of the rural population.

Summary of Event

Between 450 and 500 c.e., nine Syrian monks, later designated the Nine Saints, arrived in the kingdom of Aksum in present-day Ethiopia, bringing with them their Syrian Monophysite form of Christianity. The precise date of their arrival in Aksum and the dates of their deaths are not known. The Nine Saints revolutionized Ethiopian Christianity in a number of ways. Besides promulgating Monophysite theology, the Nine Saints helped shape the Ethiopian liturgy. They translated the Bible and other Christian books into Ethiopian (Ge’ez). They founded monasteries, establishing a Syrian type of monasticism that replaced an older Alexandrian form. The Nine Saints also helped put monasticism in the central place it continues to hold in Ethiopian society. Furthermore, the Nine Saints helped to Christianize Ethiopia more deeply, working as missionaries to spread Christianity into previously pagan portions of the Aksum kingdom. Aragawi Pantalewon Guba Yemata Alef Sahma Afse Garima Liqanos

When the Nine Saints arrived in Aksum in the later half of the fifth century c.e., they found a kingdom that was already Christianized. Indeed, Christianity had been introduced into Ethiopia fairly early. A passage in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-39) presents the story of Saint Philip’s baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch. Nonetheless, Church historians, starting with Rufinus, have traditionally traced the introduction of Christianity into Ethiopia in the first half of the fourth century c.e., through the work of two shipwrecked brothers from Roman Syria, Frumentius and Aedesius. Arriving as prisoners, they soon won the respect and trust of the royal family in Aksum. The brothers were eventually released from captivity. Aedesius returned to Tyre, where he was ordained a priest, and Frumentius, after converting the royal house of Aksum to Christianity, traveled to Alexandria in Egypt, where he was ordained by Saint Athanasius as the first bishop of the Ethiopian Church. Archaeological and numismatic evidence supports the contention that Christianity arrived in Ethiopia during the fourth century.

With the arrival of the Nine Saints later in the next century, Ethiopian Christianity traveled in a different direction. The nine Syrian monks who came to the Aksum kingdom were Monophysites. This meant that they rejected the Christological decree of the Fourth Ecumenical Council that had been held in Chalcedon in 451 c.e. The Monophysites rejected the Christological decision of Chalcedon that asserted that Christ is one person who exists “unconfusedly, unalterably, undividedly, inseparably” in two natures. The Chalcedonians tried to maintain both the full humanity as well as the full divinity of Jesus. The Monophysites also tried to maintain the full humanity and divinity of Jesus but saw themselves as being faithful to the teaching of Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria (whose basic teachings had been upheld as orthodox at the third ecumenical council in Ephesus in 431). Strictly speaking, the Monophysites held to the belief that Christ existed in “one incarnate nature.” To the Chalcedonians, Christ was one person “in” two natures, while to the Monophysites, Christ was one person “out of, or from” two natures.

In the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Monophysite Christians found refuge in areas such as Ethiopia, which were removed from the centers of ecclesiastical and political intrigue in the Byzantine world. Although Ethiopian tradition has called them the Nine Roman Saints, scholarly consensus holds that they came from Syria, which was a territory of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. The Monophysite movement was strong in Syria, and individuals such as the Nine Saints were able to find a welcome in the Aksum kingdom. Therefore, in the later half of the fifth century c.e., nine Syrian monks arrived in the Aksum kingdom: Aragawi (Za-Mikael), Pantalewon, Guba, Yemata (Mata), Alef, Sahma, Afse (Os), Garima (Isaak), and Liqanos.

The Nine Saints appear to have been led by Aragawi, and they are believed to have arrived in Ethiopia by way of Egypt. Like the Syrian Church, the Egyptian Coptic Church was also Monophysite in its theology. Since the time of Saint Frumentius (and up into the twentieth century), the bishop of the Ethiopian Church had been a Copt appointed by the patriarch of Alexandria, and thus there had always been a measure of Coptic influence on the Ethiopian Church. Although in their organization of Ethiopian monastic life, Aragawi and the other members of the Nine Saints developed a monastic rule based on the Egyptian Rule of Saint Pachomius, they modeled Ethiopian monastic life on the basis of the Syrian form.

A number of monasteries were established by the Nine Saints. At times, the work of establishing monasteries was closely connected with missionary work among Ethiopian pagan enclaves. This was the case at Debre Damo, where Aragawi is said to have eradicated pagan cultic practice and then to have founded the renowned monastery. Pantalewon and Afse are also said to have eliminated pagan practices and to have turned pagan temples into churches. This missionary work was carried out with royal support from Aksum.

These Syrian monks also helped shape Ethiopian culture in succeeding centuries by translating the Bible into Ge’ez, the native language of Ethiopia. Scholars generally hold that the Nine Saints brought a Syrian or Greek biblical text with them when they traveled to the Aksum kingdom and that they used this as the basis for their translation of the Bible into Ge’ez. Ethiopian tradition asserts that the task of translating the Bible began during the time of Frumentius and that the Nine Saints completed this translation task later in the fifth century c.e. Ethiopian tradition also holds that each of the nine monks translated a portion of the biblical text, thus explaining the differences in style and translation that exist in the Ethiopian renderings of the biblical books. It seems that this translation of the Bible introduced a number of new words into the Ethiopian language.

The Nine Saints also translated a number of other Christian books into Ge’ez, such as writings of the Church Fathers. Among the more significant of these translations were the works of Cyril of Alexandria, as well as Saint Athanasius of Alexandria’s Vita S. Antonii (c. 357 c.e.; The Life of Anthony, 1697). They greatly influenced the worship life of the Ethiopian Church as well. Their disciple Yared is credited with developing Ethiopian Church music. Finally, the personal piety of the Nine Saints deeply affected the people of the Aksum kingdom, and the Syrian monks were believed to have worked miracles. For example, Pantalewon was said to have both healed the sick and raised the dead.

Significance

The deep impression the Nine Saints left on the Ethiopian Church has remained to the present day. Christianity first spread in the kingdom of Aksum in the fourth century c.e. through the conversion of the royal household. In the fifth century, a more thorough Christianization of the kingdom was accomplished by the nine Monophysite Syrian monks. Their translations of the Scriptures and other Christian texts helped transform Ethiopia’s cultural and intellectual heritage, and their Monophysite theology and monastic ideals revolutionized church life among the Aksumite population.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frend, W. H. C. The Rise of the Monophysite Movement: Chapters in the History of the Church in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972. A thorough presentation of the Monophysite churches and their theology, including a discussion of the Nine Saints’ work in Ethiopia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haymanot, Ayala Takla. The Ethiopian Church and Its Christological Doctrine. Rev. ed. Addis Ababa: Graphic Printers, 1981. A detailed study of the development of Ethiopian Monophysitism, including an overview of the work of the Nine Saints.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Isaac, Ephraim. The Ethiopian Church. Boston: Henry N. Sawyer, 1968. A general study of the Ethiopian Church intended for the general reading public.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCullough, W. Stewart. A Short History of Syriac Christianity to the Rise of Islam. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982. A detailed study of the Syrian Church, offering insight into the ecclesiastical background of the Nine Saints.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Metzger, Bruce M. The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1977. Presents a comprehensive analysis of the development of Ethiopian versions of the Bible and treats the arrival of Christianity into that country together with the work of the Nine Saints.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Leary, De Lacy. The Ethiopian Church: Historical Notes on the Church of Abyssinia. London: SPCK, 1936. A basic history of the Ethiopian Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberson, Ronald G. The Eastern Christian Churches. Rome: Edizioni Orientalia Christiana, 1993. A presentation of the theological and historical development of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, including the Ethiopian Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Selassie, Sergew Hable, ed. The Church of Ethiopia: A Panorama of History and Spiritual Life. Addis Ababa: Haile Sellassie I University Press, 1971. An Ethiopian study of church life and history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallis Budge, E. A., ed. The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928. Reprint. New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1976. Volumes 1-4 describe the traditional Ethiopian hagiographic traditions associated with the Nine Saints.
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