Ethiopic Bible Selections - Pages 2 and 3
Moses and the Book of Genesis
Copyright © The British Library Board
The manuscript begins with the first eight books of the Hebrew Old Testament, known as the Octateuch. This opening contains the title page of the first book, Genesis. Christianity developed out of Judaism, and is a religion firmly based in history. It has its origin in the Old Covenant that God made with the Israelites described in the Old Testament, and develops into the New Covenant with the birth of Jesus as the Son of God as related in the four Gospels. The Old Testament Law, like the Qu'ran, was a series of revelations made to the prophets, but the heart of Christianity is not the Bible as a book, but the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Aksumite kingdom of Ethiopia converted to Christianity in around 340 A.D.
The town of Aksum is in Tegray, and is called the Holy City by the Ethiopians
for its church of Maryam Seyon or Aksum Seyon, in which the Tablets of Moses
or the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Early chroniclers attribute the founding
of the kingdom to Menilek I, the legendary son of King Solomon and the Queen
of Sheba. Ezana, Aksum's fourth-century king, decreed Christianity as the state
religion. He built the huge stone stelae whose inscriptions give the history
of his reign. One of these stelae was taken to Rome by the Italians as booty
from their 1936 invasion. This stela was returned to Aksum in 2005. Traditionally,
the Christianisation of Ethiopia is attributed to Frumentius (later known as
Abuna Salama Kasate Berhan), who was ordained and consecrated as the first
bishop of Ethiopia by Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria. Frumentius served
as bishop from 328 to his death in 373.
The Bible was translated into Ge'ez, the classical language of the Ethiopian church, in the fifth century. The original translations of the Bible from the Greek were later revised on the basis of Arabic or Syro-Arabic texts to produce a spoken language version known as the "modern recension".
Facing the title page is an illustration of the Old Testament prophet Moses receiving the Tablet of Laws from God. Moses has a special place in the Ethiopian church. He is seen as a figure of primary importance in linking the two covenants, the Old and the New, and has special authority as the receiver of the Law.
At the top of the page is a particular type of illumination called a harag, which in Ge'ez means the tendril of a climbing plant. A harag is made of bands of coloured lines interlaced in a geometrical pattern and is used to frame a page in an Ethiopian manuscript. The characteristic feature of a harag is that each is noticeably different from any other, even within the same manuscript. These differences distinguish the characteristic features of different regions or periods. For example, one clear distinction between the harag of the 14th and 15th centuries can be made on the basis of whether black or red is used for the outline. The harag of the 14th century are richly coloured with yellows, red, greens, blues, and greys, the enclosed black outlines acting as background to enhance the chromatic effect. In the 15th century, only yellow, grey, and red are used, along with the neutral colour of the parchment as a background.
Listen to an extract
from the opening of Genesis.