Contrary to a popular opinion held by historians that Christianity started from Armenia—a fact that has caused a stir in the historicity of Christianity—there are indications that Christianity—which stemmed from the Christ-like dispositions of the disciples of Jesus Christ at Antioch—might have started from the arid interiors of Ethiopia.
Some scholars have argued that the old Roman Empire was the first Christian nation. Others are of the opinion that the tradition of Christianity began in Armenia while Ethiopia is the verdict of quite a number of Christian historians. For those who favour the Roman Empire, the reality is that, of the three choices, the Roman Empire was the second to adopt Christianity as its official religion.
Theodosius I became Emperor of the Roman Empire in 379 AD, 47 years after Constantine’s death, and ruled until 395. He established The Church as the official state religion, but it took nearly his entire reign to make it stick. He ended pagan sacrifices and outlawed heresies. His actions were met with great resistance from the Roman Senate and from others, but Theodosius prevailed in the end.
Although, the claim for Rome being the first Christian nation seems like it harbours an iota of truth. Peter baptized the Roman Centurion, Cornelius—the first non-Jewish Christian—in Jerusalem (Acts 10), as shown in one of the five baptism scenes on a 12th century baptismal font in St. Bartholomew’s Church in Liege, Belgium.
For Armenians, Christianity was believed to have started in the country with the arrival of Bartholomew and Thaddeus—two of Jesus Christ’s disciples—who came into the country from Asorestan and Cappadocia. They baptized stately families and common people, and were regarded as “Illuminators of the Armenian world.”
Although this claim falls short of any concrete believability, however, it appears that some of the disciples of Jesus truly went to Armenia after the great commission in the book of Mark to “go into the entire world and preach to gospel to every creature.”
Another claim exists that supports the fact that Armenia might be the first Christian nation. This claim takes off from the celebrated fifth-century work of Agathangelos titled “The History of the Armenians.” In it, he says as an eyewitness that after the Armenian King Trdat III was baptized (c. 301/314 A.D.) by St. Gregory the Illuminator, he decreed Christianity as the state religion.
The problem with this standpoint is that, recent studies date “The History of the Armenians” to c. 450 A.D., making it impossible for Agathangelos to have been an eyewitness. If Armenia’s claim is based on nothing more than oral history, how can it hold any more credibility than Ethiopia’s own Christian legends?
For the Ethiopian argument, The Acts of the Apostles describes the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch shortly after the death of Christ. Eusebius of Caesaria, the first church historian, further tells of how the eunuch returned to his land to diffuse the Christian teachings. And the earliest Ethiopian monastic tradition is linked to the account of the Holy Family visiting Ethiopia, centuries before the Christian monastic movement emerged.
Before the Ethiopian king Ezana (whose kingdom was then called Aksum) embraced Christianity himself and decreed it for his kingdom (c. 330 A.D.), his nation had already constituted a large number of Christians.
King Ezana’s conversion became a public conversion for Aksum, and Christianity continued to serve as a point of reference for the nation. Unlike the case of Armenia, we have tangible proof of this conversion:
Historians have uncovered a public acknowledgement of the Christian faith from Ezana. Also, coins bearing Ezana’s image depict the cross after his conversion.
As the authors of “Abyssinian Christianity” conclude: “the promotion of the new faith developed into the single point of personal and public identification and unity for Abyssinians.” Christianity became the centralizing force behind the Ethiopian empire, which endured through 1974, despite religious and political threats from all sides.
Can a nation only become Christian if there is an official decree from its sovereign? If that were the case, then the Kingdom of Edessa would be the first Christian city-state (in modern terms) in c. 218. As we see with Abyssinia and Israel before it, a nation is not confined to political boundaries. Rather, it is defined by a group of people who share a common heritage.
For the Ethiopians, this shared heritage was Christianity.