Christ's African roots
April 22, 2000
By Selwin R Cudjoe
Today Christians all over the world celebrate the resurrection of Christ: the symbolic triumph of life over death. According to Christians, Christ was crucified on Good Friday, rose from the dead on Easter Sunday and ascended into heaven subsequently. Thus, the certitude that those who believe in Him will also have everlasting life in the company of God and His panoply of angels.
Few Christians know that this exciting story is taken from the Egyptian (read African) religion, the base upon which Judeo-Christianity and Islam is built. In fact, Christianity and Islam are nothing more than African religions adapted to fill the needs of a specific time and place.
Their theology represents the development of African theology. Ideas such as the one, eternal God; the creation of the world; the future life; and three persons in one God are taken directly from the Egyptian religion. The very cross, symbol of eternal life to which Christians cling, is taken from Egyptian religion. Otto Meinardus notes that "the ankh, originally the pharaonic symbol of life, was not employed in a specifically Christian context, that is, representing salvation through the vicarious death of Christ, before the fifth or sixth century, or one or two centuries after the Christianisation of the Nile Valley." (Two Thousand years of Coptic Religion.)
Three thousand years before Christianity, the Egyptians proclaimed the doctrine of eternal life and the resurrection of a spiritual body. The prayers, hymns and short litanies inscribed upon the walls of the tombs of the Egyptian kings referred to the presence of life after death. In his introduction to the Egyptian Book of the Dead (1500 BC), Wallis Budge notes that "The chief features of the Egyptian religion remained unchanged from the Vth and VI dynasties down to the period when the Egyptians embraced Christianity, after the preaching of St Mark, the Apostle in Alexandria, AD 69, so firmly had the early beliefs taken possession of the Egyptian mind."
The resurrection story is based upon the ancient story of the resurrection of Osiris. Like Christ, he was the victim of a cruel death and a horrible mutilation before he ascended into heaven. The Egyptians believed his brother Set, who dismembered his body to deny him a second life, killed Osiris. Through her magical powers, Isis, his wife, collected the various parts of his body. Three days later, she restored him to life in the underworld where he became judge of the dead, exercising functions similar to those attributed to God. Osiris was killed on a Friday and restored on a Sunday.
Plutarch rendered one version of the Osiris story. To him, "Osiris was the god through whose sufferings and death the Egyptian hoped that his body might rise again in some transformed or glorified shape. To him who had conquered death and had become the king of the other world, the Egyptian appealed in prayer for eternal life though his victory and power" (Egyptian Book of the Dead).
Every funeral inscription written between 31 BC in Egypt right down to the prayers on the coffins of the Roman period noted that "what is done for Osiris is done also for the deceased. The state and condition of Osiris are the state and condition of the deceased." Just as Christians identified with Christ and his resurrection, followers of Egypt's monotheistic religion identified with the life and resurrection of Osiris.
The Egyptians also celebrated Easter. In the month of Choiak, ceremonies connected with Osiris's sufferings, death and resurrection were very popular. Religious observances took place in the temples and in the country while ceremonies connected with the burial of the dead, the use of amulets, and certain aspects of funeral rituals also took place.
On this Easter Sunday, it is an African religion that offers us the possibility of redemption. When Paul introduced the concept of a Redeemer born into a wicked world "who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this evil world" (Galatians: 3-4), he elaborated a theology of the Cross. He was not speaking of the Roman cross of punishment but the Egyptian ankh (cross), a symbol of Christ's victory over death that early Christians adopted during the first three centuries of their existence. In the 5th century AD the Roman-Latin cross became the Christian symbol.
Until then, the Egyptian ankh represented the living Christ: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live: yet not I but the Christ within me." The latter was a Gnostic concept. Christianity's triumph over Egyptian monotheism occurred because it represented a more democratic tendency and was suited better to the aspirations of the everyday person.
Whereas Egyptian monotheism was designed so that only kings and rich persons could gain everlasting life, they alone could afford the expensive burial cost that assured the afterlife, Christianity offered the promise of eternal life to everyone. One only had to be baptized and believe in a risen Christ. As Christianity began to spread, Jesus and Osiris were presented as saviours to whom men and women could turn to be assured of immortality.
Although the Gnostics, one of the early branches of the Christian church, regarded the resurrection as a spiritual rather than a physical event, the physicality of Christ's death and resurrection captured the imagination of the common person. By the second century AD, orthodoxy and rigidity began to shape the early Christian Church. Irenaeus, a Christian writer of the second century, argued that there could only be one Church that must be orthodox (right-thinking), catholic (universal) and apostolic (Petrine). Outside that Church "there is no salvation." By 325 AD, the Council of Nicea asserted Christ's "divinity" and assured its members that He was "begotten of the Father;" the "true God of true God."
After Nicea, the Egyptian influence on the Christian Church diminished. By 2000 AD few of us are aware of the African contribution to this important salvific event. As we enter a new millennium, it must be remembered that blackness laid the foundation of modern theology, which offers salvation to so many people.
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