Early Libyan Christianity: Uncovering a North African Tradition by Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011, 334 pp., softcover, $22.
Early Libyan Christianity is the third in a series on books on early African Christianity from Thomas Oden (PhD, Yale), professor emeritus of theology at Drew University. The series publication (all from Intervarsity Press) began in 2008 with the release of How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind followed by The African Memory of Mark in early 2011. In addition to serving as the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary of Scripture (ACCS), Oden has been a prolific author, particularly in the area of theology, for nearly a half century.
Oden's aim in the present work, continuing the thesis of How Africa Shaped, is to shed light on a neglected region and area of early Christian studies and to show the great influence African Christianity has had on the development of Western theology and practice. He writes, "Early Libyan Christianity provides the occasion for retelling of the whole story of early African Christianity from a particular vantage point--Libya, its leading Christian characters and characteristics, its intellectual history, its rise and fall." He adds, "Of the thousands of books on early Christianity, not once to my knowledge has the subject focused of a book-length treatment of Libya" (p. 19). Further, as an introductory work, Oden raises many questions that ought to be followed up by Patristics scholars, particularly those from the African continent.
In chapter 1, Oden issues the call for scholars to consider Libya's rich Christian history. In doing so, he relates some of his own journey toward African Christian history that first came through editing the ACCS and later led to opportunities to lecture on Libyan Christianity both at Dallas Theological Seminary and the Da'wa Islamic University in Libya. The present work is the fruit of both of those lecture series.
In a brief second chapter, the author surveys the accounts of ancient Libya in the Bible, while also discussing its Jewish Diaspora communities and Cyrene's importance as a center for philosophical inquiry. In chapter 3 and 4, Oden shows the significant link between Cyrene and Jerusalem in the rise of Christianity as well as the key roles that Cyrenian Christian leaders played in church leadership in the first century.
In chapter 5, Oden offers a summary of the contributions of some key pre-Nicene Libyan thinkers. Positively, this includes Bishop Victor (the first African bishop of Rome), Tertullian, Wasilla (Basiledes), and Julius Africanus . On the other hand, both Sabellius and Arius hailed from Libya, too. In chapter 6, by far the longest of the work, the author offers an in-depth biographical sketch of one of Libya's greatest bishops, Synesius of Cyrene (c. 365-413). Showing parallels to the spiritual journeys of both Ambrose and Augustine, Oden helpfully relates Synesius' background, culture, education, conversion, call to ministry, and his contribution as a Libyan bishop.
In chapters 7-9, drawing upon both textual and archaeological sources, the author summarizes further the Christian history of Libya in Cyrene, Eastern Libya, and Tripolitania through the mid-seventh century. Finally, in chapter 10 and a brief concluding chapter, Oden returns to his original call invite global Christians (especially Africans) to engage in the study of early Libyan Christianity.
Among the many strengths in this work, Oden has successfully made his case that Libyan Christian history has much to offer in understanding African and global Christian history. A thorough introductory survey, Oden's work offers a fresh invitation to scholars to engage this field of study. The author has accomplished this in part by telling the story of church leaders like Synesius with much color.
Second, as Oden has demonstrated through the writing of this work, discussing Libyan Christianity offers a basis for meaningful dialogue between Christians and Libyan (and African) Muslims. Though some Muslims would like to repress this pre-Islamic history and dismiss it as part of the djahilya ("time of ignorance"), my own experience of living in North Africa for seven years and researching its early Christianity has proven otherwise. In particular from 2002-2006, I carried out PhD research in Tunisia, which included presenting a half dozen lectures or papers on early African Christianity to the academy. My conclusion was:
Most North Africans are proud of their history and culture, even their Christian past. Strolling through the major universities, one will find classrooms and lecture halls named after Augustine and Tertullian. In ancient Carthage, the small road leading to the church where Cyprian is believed to have been buried is called “St. Cyprian Street.” While these names and places remain—including an abundance of Christian archaeological evidence— the average North African knows nothing about their Christian history. Hence, by probing into their past and “memory,” Christian history and thought—a diverging message from the majority religion to be sure—was perceived as less of a threat, and Christianity became viewed less as a “western” religion . . . a thoughtful reference to North Africa’s Christian history was largely well-received because it was part of them (Smither, "Remembering the Story," EMQ 2009:302).
What are the weaknesses of Early Libyan Christianity? First, Oden's claim that Tertullian was born in Leptis Magna is in need of much greater support. His initial suggestion that Tertullian "may have been born in Leptis Magna" (p. 87) becomes more of a conclusion based on the argument that Tertullian shared the same family name (Septimius) as a major family from Libya (pp. 106-107). While this may very well be true, I think more solid evidence from Tertullian's background--something that is generally lacking--is needed.
Second, I will restate a concern that I have had in How Africa Shaped and The African Memory of Mark. Oden's definition of Africa is a bit monolithic and does not adequately account for the great diversity on the continent. Related, while Coptic Christians of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have a Christian memory that goes back to earliest Christianity, Oden seems to assume that this memory would naturally be shared by all African Christians. Though all African Christians might be able to appreciate early North African church history, they should also celebrate their own Christian memory that might be traced for instance to 15th century Catholic missionaries or to 19th century Protestants.
Finally, two shortcomings are related to style. First, the work is quite limited in its footnotes and documentation--tools that would certainly aid students. Second, while Oden's arguments that African Christianity has influenced Western thought and that African scholars should emerge are helpfully made, they are so often repeated in this book that the effectiveness of these points may actually be diminished.
Critiques aside, I am happy to have read this book and, as a student of early African Christianity, I am inspired by it and want to probe deeper. As a professor, I could envision using all three of Oden's books in this series for a seminar on early African Christianity.