January 20, 2016

Howard Divinity School returns sacred Ethiopian manuscript to Orthodox monastery

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Howard University School of Divinity representatives, left to right, Blain Zerihun, Alice Ogden Bellis, Alton B. Pollard, III, Gay Byron, and Lawrence Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Justin D. Knight/Howard University

Howard University School of Divinity representatives, left to right, Blain Zerihun, Alice Ogden Bellis, Alton B. Pollard, III, Gay Byron, and Lawrence Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Justin D. Knight/Howard University

(RNS) A delegation from Howard University Divinity School has returned an ancient manuscript to an Ethiopian monastery after scholars discovered its place of origin.

The manuscript contains two texts, the Acts of Paul and the Acts of Serabamon, and is part of one of the largest collections of Ethiopian sacred artifacts in the U.S. The manuscript was owned by the late Dr. Andre Tweed, a prominent psychiatrist and Howard alumnus who donated it in 1993.

Alton B. Pollard III, the school’s dean, said the manuscript was returned on Jan. 11 to the Debre Libanos monastery, which is about two hours away from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. A crowd of several thousand was on hand as dignitaries formally received the manuscript, which will be housed in a glass case and be available for the public to touch once a year on Jan. 11, the date of its return, he said.

Pollard said the centuries-old books are sacred to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and are distinct from the Book of Acts in the New Testament. They describe the work and life of the Apostle Paul and the lesser-known story of Serabamon, a martyred bishop in the early church who was named a saint.

The manuscript dates to the 15th century. It formed part of a larger collection housed at Howard’s divinity school, and intended to connect “peoples of African descent the world over with Christianity as a religion of African peoples well prior to the trauma caused by the mass enslavement and colonization of Africa’s people,” Pollard said.

Gay Byron, a New Testament and early Christianity expert at the divinity school, was one of the first to recognize that the document should be returned, but it took years to pinpoint its exact place of origin. The discovery was made in the cataloging process after the manuscript was digitized.

George Fox Evangelical Seminary professor Steve Delamarter, another researcher involved in the process of returning the manuscript, said it is one of the oldest surviving Ethiopian manuscripts and especially meaningful for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

“Their artifacts are for them enormously significant and there’s been a few such cases where institutions outside of Ethiopia have returned things to them and they’ve been enormously grateful for that,” said Delamarter, director of the Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project, who joined the Howard scholars in Ethiopia last week.

He said the just-returned Tweed manuscript was ordered by the 15th-century abbot of the monastery, who was the indigenous leader of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church at the time.

“They’re very, very rare works,” he said. “I don’t know of any other manuscripts that contain these two apocryphal Acts of Paul and Serabamon.”

Howard delegation members hope their visit to Ethiopia will encourage others to return sacred documents to their original sites.

“With all due institutional integrity, we wanted to set an example for other schools, museums and institutions around this country and even throughout the world for what it means to have rare manuscripts actually in their rightful home of origin,” said Byron.

In recent years, Delamarter has helped turn over a psalter that was once owned by an Ethiopian emperor to a museum in the East African country and a book of the four Christian Gospels once used by an Ethiopian empress to the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

(Adelle M. Banks is production editor and a national reporter for RNS)

  • Thank you for this very interesting article. I understand that the HUDS has a collection of ETH manuscripts. My question is, why did you select these two books, and not others, to be returned? And, when and how did you acquire the colllection?
    I am a PhD reseracher forcussing on the future of cultural and historical objects, acquired in the European colonial era )http://www.ghhpw.com/jos-van-beurden.php) . I am also an Ethiopia specialist (e.g. http://www.ethiopia-book.com)

  • Teshale Mengesha

    Thank you, you are a true mvp. Today we are celebrating a Ethiopian themcit so thank you. One question, how did you keep this book with out damaging or no stains or anything. Thank you and have a nice day

  • Thank you for this article….I found it particularly interesting as the “Acts of St.Paul” is mentioned in my novel, The Secret Love Letters of Saint Paul.
    There’s much more depth to early Christian writing than is easily available or even widely know.