If you say “Libya” to most Americans, certain ideas will come to mind: maybe Islam, the recent Benghazi attack, or Muammar Gaddafi. I think it’s relatively safe to say that most people would not think “one of the most important centers of Christianity in the early church.” According to Thomas Oden’s Early Libyan Christianity: Uncovering a North African Tradition (IVP, 2011), that’s a problem.
The first issue, of course, is that many Christians remain unaware of the vital role that African Christians played in the history of early Christianity. For them, Christianity didn’t show up in Africa until the colonial powers imposed it on the continent during the modern era.
And that’s tragic. Some of the oldest and most influential centers of Christianity were in North Africa, places like Alexandria and Carthage. And many of Christianity’s most influential leaders and theologians likewise came from and ministered in North Africa, people like Clement, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril, Cyprian, and Augustine. African Christians were shaping Christianity 1,500 years before the rise of the European colonial powers.
If you’d like to explore the significance of African Christianity further, I strongly recommend Thomas Oden’s excellent little book How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the Seedbed of Western Christianity.
But there’s a second problem. Even after studying church history and gaining an appreciation for how important Africa is, many of us still leave out an important part of the story: the huge section of North Africa between Alexandria (Egypt) and Carthage (Tunisia): the region known in the ancient world as Libya.
And that’s where Oden’s book comes in. Early Libyan Christianity seeks to recover the history of early Libyan Christianity and remind us of how vital that region was in the early church. Reading the book, I was startled to realize not only that I had neglected this part of Africa in my own studies, but that I never even noticed that I had done so. And I suspect that I’m not alone. As Oden says early on,
“Libya is the most neglected of all the historic Christian locations in the ancient world that experienced over five hundred years of Christianity.” (p. 21)
Oden wants to help remedy that neglect. And he does so with a compelling retrieval of Libyan Christianity and its importance for the Christian story.
Most people would be surprised to discover that the history of Libyan Christianity goes back to the New Testament itself. But that is precisely what Oden argues in the first few chapters. After a quick introductory chapter in which Oden discusses the long neglect of Libyan church history and the challenges of recovering that history so many centuries later, he addresses the evidence for an early Christian presence in Libya and argues that it could have been as early as the 30s AD, shortly after Pentecost. Oden acknowledges that his construction is largely speculative and that many scholars date the origin of Christianity in Libya to the 300s A.D., but he contends that their construal is just as speculative and that his account makes better sense of the relevant data.
Oden then spends several chapters looking at the important role that Libyan Christians played in the era before and after Nicea, focusing largely on cities like Cyrene, which he describes as “the chief multiethnic city of Africans between Alexandria and Carthage” (p. 56), and Leptis Magna, which blossomed into “the richest city on the Mediterranean” in the second century (p. 106).
“It is hard for modern people to imagine the startling power exerted by Libyans in the last decade of the second century — the 190s A.D. It is counter-intuitive to think of a Libyan pope, or a Libyan emperor of Rome or a major Christian theologian from Libya. Yet all this happened in the single decades of the 190s. All influenced the future of Christianity.” (p. 106)
Discussing people like Pope Victor, Tertullian, and Arius, Oden argues that many key figures of the early church have ties to Libya that need to be uncovered. And he devotes an entire chapter to Synesius of Cyrene, “the most important philosophical mind from early Christian times in Libya” (p. 153).
Finally, after having focused so much attention on early Christian presence in Cyrene and Leptis Magna, Oden devotes the last few chapters to the story of Christianity in other parts of Libya, arguing that Christianity was widespread and well-established throughout the region for more than five centuries.
Since I have already acknowledged my lack of expertise in the area of ancient Libyan Christianity, I can’t assess the details of Oden’s argument. The clear strengths of the book, though, lie in (1) Oden’s passion for the African church and its importance in early Christian history and (2) his ability to craft a compelling narrative of the region and its history. Drawing on a myriad of details, the book is clearly well researched, and Oden pulls all of that information together in a way that is accessible and interesting to the non-specialist.
The obvious weakness of the book is one that Oden himself acknowledges repeatedly. We simply do not have enough information. Throughout the book we find Oden suggesting, speculating, and and reconstructing on the basis of fairly limited data. Although he does an excellent job with what information he has, the reader is constantly left wondering whether there might be other, possibly even more compelling, ways of interpreting and presenting that same information.
And although I found the book to contain a wealth of information, the very breadth of data causes problems at times with the book’s flow. Several of the chapters come across as somewhat scattered as Oden leaps from one set of data to another. And even the logical flow among the various chapters was rather opaque in places.
Nonetheless, Early Libyan Christianity is a good resource for anyone wanting to understand more about the story of early Christianity and the important role played by African Christians.