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.