West African Worship in the Tenth Century? image

West African Worship in the Tenth Century?

Vince Bantu raises a fascinating possibility in his new book A Multitude of All Peoples: that Nubian cave paintings may show tenth century West Africans worshiping Jesus. African Christianity, of course, goes back to the very beginning of the church, and gave us many of our greatest theologians (Origen, Tertullian, Cyril, Athanasius, Augustine and co). But in the first few centuries it was very much a northern (Carthage, Libya, Numidia) and eastern (Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia) phenomenon, and evidence of Christianity thriving in Western or Southern Africa before the colonial period is extremely scarce.

So the idea that we might have a picture (see above) of Central and West Africans worshipping Jesus, dated to the tenth century and beautifully preserved on the wall of a Nubian cave, is fairly exciting:

This nativity painting contained typical images including Mary and child, shepherds, and angels. However, to the right of Mary and the baby Jesus is a unique painting of Africans worshiping the birth of the Saviour wearing animal crest masks and loin cloths and holding percussive instruments. It is believed that these Africans may have belonged to the Bambara tribe which later occupied much of modern Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal. This painting represents early evangelisation efforts from the Nile Valley Christians of Nubia to cultures further south and west in the African continent. The gospel had already been spreading along the Nile River from Egypt to Nubia and then Ethiopia. This painting represents the continued spread of the gospel from Africans to neighbouring Africans.

For now, experts are not sure how to read the inscriptions in Old Nubian that you can see in the picture. Nor are they sure whether these are Bambara people (though it seems likely), nor whether they (and the gospel they believed) ended up in what is now Mali, Niger, Ghana or Senegal. But, as Bantu puts it, “this painting raises the intriguing potential of Western and Central African Christians before the advent of Western colonialism.”

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