INDIA & the SUDAN
I am writing to you from northern India, where I hope to trace the religious history of pre-Vedic or Proto-Indo-Aryan/Iranian civilizations (~3500 BC), in this instance, of India. The Proto-Indo-Iranian religions refer to the time prior to the earliest Hindu (Indian) and Zoroastrian (Iranian) scriptures. These earliest of theistic religions influenced Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Manichaeism (which influenced St Augustine himself).
After the 1800 BC split into the various Hinduisms and Mazdaisms (and subsequently Zoroastrianisms), some of the doctrines including archaic monotheism encountered the Mesopotamian and Canaanite religions and onto Egypt's 18th dynasty, when Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten worshipped Aten alone as god (1350 BC), from which early Yahwism emerged (1300 BC), and which subsequently became the Judaisms during the Babylonian-Persian periods (600s-300s BC), and whose magi were mentioned in the Gospels (1st century AD) as having visited Jesus.
Why bother with such immense investigations of humanity's religious inclinations?
Apart from the ubiquity of God-consciousness (no premodern society exists that does not include a narrative of a creator), in the NT, both Paul and Peter, in their epistles, proclaimed the scope of God's revelation beyond the boundaries of Israelite geohistory (time and space). The biblical claim is that God is not without witness everywhere that humans exist. Since evangelism and missions evolved over time and the earliest worshippers of Yahweh were not concerned with proclamation until the Church got their act together, it is evident that we cannot depend on missionaries (like me) alone for the spread of God's revelation.
All religious concepts of faith about God evolved over time as traders and militants encountered each other as they traversed the great land and sea routes of migrations.
Among the most important were the Roman Old Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Route of the Persians. Both the Venetian Marco Polo and the Tangerine Ibn Battuta epitomized the romantic portrayal of adventure for knowledge and treasure, but underlying everything that marks them as human, is the core belief in the existence of God and their descriptions of the divine. Today, we inherit a rich tapestry of God-consciousness that continues to adopt, adapt and reshape its self-understanding in tandem with fresh insights into the nature of the universe, the structure of life and the human mind itself. The Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes and other wisdom literature are deep meditations of past investigations and responses to the call of God.
Modern genetic studies have exposed the naïve fallacy that neat and tidy, black and white separations of race, culture and language have existed in the past and persist today. Rather war, intermarriage, migration and just plain lies have given the impression that pure Chinese, Jews, Japanese or Indians exist. Was Cleopatra Greek or Egyptian? Is Obama black or white or Indonesian or Kenyan? Was Halle Berry black or German? Are the gradations of Nepali religions Hindu or Buddhist? Closer to the grain, were James, Peter and Paul religiously Jews or Christians? A churchgoer who lived between 325 to 381 AD would have witnessed his faith change from monotheistic to bitheistic to Trinitarian. A black slave born either before or after emancipation (in whichever country) would have been either rejected or welcomed into the Church as a full member. Geohistory matters.
If our majestic view of our creator God as maker of heaven and earth (Nicene Creed) is to be taken seriously, then every ancient expression of the human quest for the divine from shamanism, voodoo and even animistic religions must be examined to account for a responsible Christian proclamation of the Gospel, one with conviction and integrity.
A brief on my 2014 Sudan expedition
In January 2014, I embarked on my first expeditionary survey of modern Sudan from the 2nd to the 6th cataract of the Nile, visiting closed and active archaeological excavations. My primary interests included learning about the age of the Black Pharaohs of biblical Cush (25th dynasty of Egypt, 760-664 BC) and the three Byzantine Christian kingdoms of Nubia that ruled for a thousand years (AD 500s-1500s). This geohistorical trace will help me piece the rich jigsaw puzzle of Christian thought, practice and evolution of its doctrines from Babylonian-Persian Jewish monotheism in the 6th century BC (modern Iran) to Greco-Roman Christian Trinitarianism in the 4th century AD in Cappadocia (modern Turkey).
It was a double privilege to meet Egyptologist Bob Brier, Nubian art historian Pat Remler and Timothy Kendall, director of the very excavation I was eager to see with my own eyes - Jebel Barkal. In Isaiah and 2 Kings, mention was made of a certain Taharqa as the king from Ethiopia who saved Hezekiah from Assyria by distracting Sennacherib as he marched northwards. For almost 2000 years, no one had any idea who this Ethiopian king was. Later translations of the Bible corrected the name and re-identified biblical Ethiopia as in fact, ancient Nubia - modern Sudan. In 2003, a Swiss archaeologist who labored from 1977-2003 in the desert of the Sudan at Kerma, discovered physical evidence of the Black Pharaohs, the greatest of whom was Taharqa, just as his team was packing up. Today, a museum of these black granite statues stand proudly at the Kerma Museum of Civilization.
Summary of relevance: Three historical periods of the Bible
The 13th century BC construction of the Cobra Temple of Amun by Ramesses II at Jebel Barkal (Holy Mountain) was contemporaneous with the biblical account of Moses. This mountain was sacred to the Egyptians for almost 1000 years because they believed that the spirit of Amun resided inside. Jebel Barkal was the capital of Nubia (Sudan) until it was moved to Meroe in 300 BC.
The 8th to 7th centuries BC rule of the Black Pharaohs showcased the Nubian dominance of the Egyptian empire as the 25th dynasty. This period in history included biblical Israel during the prophetic ministry of First Isaiah (who introduced the concept of the Messiah as the political savior of Israel, naming Cyrus the Great of Persia as Israel's MESSIAH, from the Persian word for the king, MA-SHAH), Amos and Micah.
The 6th to 15th centuries AD Christian kingdoms of Nubia revealed the Byzantine influence over this period. The three Christian civilizations of medieval Nubia (modern Sudan) were the kingdoms of Nobatia, Merkuria and Alwa.
On this Sudanese expedition, three standouts surprised me. I did not know they existed until I landed in the desert and learned from Dr. Mummy himself, Professor Bob Brier.
a) The fantastic remains of the Byzantine churches, the existence of the three Christian kingdoms of Nobatia, Merkuria and Alwa which lasted for 1000 years, the monasteries and the Coptic Church at Dongola. Both monophysite and dyophysite churches were represented, sent by competing missions by the dynamic duo husband and wife non-team of Emperor Justinian and the awesome Empress Theodora. Elizabeth Isichei's history of Christianity in Africa offers exactly one sentence of their existence and Adrian Hasting's World History of Christianity offers one page in his 600-page tome. The Polish archaeologists have been digging since the 1950s. Major Church historians missed out on the long unbroken history of Christian witness in one of the greatest and most widely attested empire on earth - Nubian EGYPT.
I was stunned to see the remains of medieval Christian monasteries, among the three separate Christian kingdoms of Nubia during the Byzantine period. During the late antiquity and medieval period Nubia was divided into three kingdoms, from North to South: Nobatia, which largely corresponds with the modern Lower Nubia, Makouria in the middle, and Alwa in the south. The most powerful state was Makouria with its capital in Old-Dongola. Five bishoprics are attested in Nubia: Kurte, Qasr Ibrim, Faras, Sais, and Old-Dongola.
How did Nubian/Sudanese Christianity come about? In the 6th century, the Byzantine Monophysite Empress Theodora sent missionaries to Nubia to take over an even earlier second century Coptic Christianity. When her husband, the Byzantine Orthodox Emperor Justinian I heard of this mission, he quickly dispatched his own missionaries from Thebes in Egypt to beat his wife's missionaries to the punch. But in AD 540, Theodora's missionaries converted the king of Nobatia to the Monophysite faith while Justinian failed to convince him that true Christianity was Trinitarian. Later, the kingdoms of Makouria and Alwa were also converted to Monophysite Christianity. Today, we think of Sudan as a Muslim country, but it had been a form of Christianity for almost 1000 years. The last of the Christian kingdoms survived the attacks of Islam until 1504.
b) It was a treat to meeting Timothy Kendall, the excavator at Jebel Barkal and discovering that Thutmoses III and Ramesses II, who built templespossibly over earlier pharaohs, even possible Queen Hatshepsut. Was Thutmoses related to the biblical Moses, who shares his Egyptian name or was Ramesses II the step-brother of Moses at Court or even the unnamed pharaoh in Exodus? The jury is still out and we await further investigations with great anticipation.
c) I documented the prehistoric rock art at Soba going back tens of thousands of years, contemporaneous to the Ice-Age Cave art of Indonesia, Spain and France for a future publication. Who are these humans in the light of salvation, God and religious cognitive apprehension? They clearly compose of the same quarks, atoms, elements and human cells as we do - what makes them different from us in terms of cognitive belief? Talk about Deep Time in human history. Yet, even these 40,000 year old human activity pales by comparison to the 100,000 old art of South African Homo sapiens, or the 3.18 million-year old fossil of Lucy in Ethiopia, or the 7 million-year old fossil of Chad in central Africa. Much food for thought for an interdisciplinary apologist like me.
Why take all this trouble to visit, learn and confirm facts of history and science? Isn't faith enough? The question is...faith in what exactly?
Christianity is not a monolithic set of beliefs. The long 3000-year history of Christianity that stretched back to King David and the temple of Jerusalem under Solomon is rife with historical gaps, and many have long made wrong guesses that led to big quarrels and splits within the church - it is now a motley collection of over 50,000 denominations! Each denomination claims to have the best collection of truths and disregards the claims of others without any attempt to 'get our story straight'. This has long been my personal goal and I am now ready to share it with you.
Why did the Church not do this level of research in its long history? The short answer is that it had to wait for the advances in philology and historiography as well as in the scientific discoveries, technical innovations and advances in medicine to make it possible to safely and swiftly embark on these missions with the necessary guides. The long answer is that turf wars and politics also got in the way.
ACT (www.actministry.org) is an academy to think through Christian beliefs about God in a safe space, where sincere doubts may be expressed without fear of being shouted down. It exists to check the facts when and where it is possible to do so. Our interdisciplinary approach into matters theological, religious and scientific means that we leave no stone unturned, in the spirit of Paul's approving nod to the Bereans, who even checked out the claims of Paul himself. Such was Paul's integrity that he welcomed scrutiny, affirmed what was from God and openly pointed out where his views were not from God but reflected his personal preferences.
How has the march of geohistory changed the Christian witness? Until Oxford and Cambridge invested heavily in the study of foreign languages to assist missionaries, it was very costly and difficult to learn foreign, ancient languages to decipher inscriptions. The fact that 9th century missionaries to the Slavs basically invented the Russian Cyrillic /script testifies to the importance of scholarship.
The 19th century German invention of history as a scientific enterprise (which coincided with the invention of the camera obscura and the steam engine by the Stephensons) resulted from the philosophical giants who questioned the verifiable truthfulness of chroniclers who were paid by kings and priests to write narratives. Indeed, both Ibn Battuta's and Marco Polo's accounts of their legendary travels cannot be verified historically because they were not writing modern scientific history but accounts of their travels. The capacity for photographic documentation and the rise of steam-driven transportation (train and ships) created a new world of knowledge by verification and falsification. Many ancient truth claims must now pass the tests that we take for granted today.
The scientific discoveries of optics, geology, longitude, cartography, etc made it possible for the inventions of aeronautics (to fly me to Sudan...and back), the internal combustion engine (for the Toyota Hi-Luxes to transport me to the various sites), desert tents and canned sardines (to help me survive), and medical advances gave me the confidence to eat local foods without too much fear, the ability to filter my water from the Nile, and a pharmacy of pills in case things go wrong.
How did archaeology begin? The discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's army during his Egyptian campaign sparked an interest in ancient languages that led to the beginnings of biblical archaeology at the end of the 19th century, which in turn led to the rise of modern scientific archaeology in the 1950s. The discovery of radioactivity by Marie and Pierre Curie enabled for the first time, a method to accurately and objectively date ancient artifacts. This made archaeology both an art and a science of reliable knowledge within the limits of human frailty.
Today, we have no excuse for not doing due diligence to our truth claims in instances where and when it is possible to distinguish fact from fiction, history from myth, and historical episodes from parable. As an interdisciplinary apologist in ministry, I am tasked to do my level best to verify and falsify all that I have ever been taught about God and creation. And I should not have the impudence to flatter myself that I am capable of 'protecting' God from heresy.
Thanks for reading.