Secondary Resources on Sacrifice

While doing research for an encyclopaedia article on sacrifice in African theology, I have also found many valuable secondary resources, some of which are freely accessible online. The following text is a draft of the section that introduces some of the best examples.

There are no articles or books that provide an overview of the theme of sacrifice across the entire field of African theology, but there are a number of key articles that offer useful points of entry into different areas of discussion. Sawyerr 1969 is a classic that provides historical background to the discussion, indicates key questions that the practice of ritual sacrifice raises for African theologians and suggests ways in which African notions of sacrifice can contribute to wider discussions. Awolalu 1973 and Ukpong 1983 are exemplary contributions to the study of ritual sacrifice in African traditional religions. Awolalu shows the importance of paying close attention to African sacrificial terminology and making detailed descriptions of a wide variety of sacrificial practices. Ukpong demonstrates the need to understand ritual sacrifice in relation to African systems of thought rather than foreign frames of reference. Ekem 2007, Kalengyo 2009 and Oduyoye 1986 exemplify the study of sacrifice in three major areas of African theology: biblical studies, liturgical theology and systematic theology. Ekem stresses the need for constructive dialogue between biblical notions of sacrifice and African concepts, practices and stories of sacrifice in a dynamic and open-ended encounter. Kalengyo shows that such an encounter has important implications for how the Eucharist should be celebrated. Oduyoye offers a carefully nuanced articulation of Christian sacrifice, drawing a crucial distinction between making a sacrifice and being sacrificed.

Awolalu, J. Ọmọṣade. “Yoruba Sacrificial Practice.” Journal of Religion in Africa 5, no. 2 (1973): 81–93.


Access: Free

A well-organised and systematic presentation, based on fieldwork, by a Nigerian Anglican scholar of religion and clergyman, that deals with the purposes, materials, and object of sacrifice. Awolalu writes that sacrifice among the Yorùbá has both a positive and a negative side, is referred to using the single term ẹbọ, contra Mbiti’s distinction between sacrifice and offering, and is indirectly offered to Olódùmarè, the Supreme Being. Free via subscription from JSTOR.

Ekem, John D. K. “A Dialogical Exegesis of Romans 3.25a.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30, no. 1 (2007): 75–93.


Access: Paid

A pioneering article in the field of mother-tongue biblical theology by a Ghanaian Methodist biblical scholar and translator. Ekem presents a novel exegetical method called ‘dialogical exegesis’ and illustrates it with a case study on the term hilastērion in Romans 3:25a. He examines various translations of the verse in European and African languages and then analyses both sacrificial concepts and popular legends among the Abura-Mfantse of Ghana in order to propose a better translation.

Kalengyo, Edison M. “The Sacrifice of Christ and Ganda Sacrifice: A Contextual Interpretation in Relation to the Eucharist.” In The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, edited by Richard J. Bauckham, 302–18. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.

Kalengyo, a Ugandan Anglican priest and theologian, presents a clear and insightful example of liturgical inculturation. He uses a tripolar interpretive process, which involves first examining the biblical text (Hebrews 9:1-10:18), then analysing the context (the concept and practice of sacrifice among the Ganda of Uganda), and then addressing the question of appropriation (an inculturated understanding of Eucharistic sacrifice). He finally explores the implications for how the Eucharist should be celebrated.

Oduyoye, Mercy A. “Church Women and the Church’s Mission.” In New Eyes for Reading: Biblical and Theological Reflections by Women from the Third World, edited by John S. Pobee and Bärbel von Wartenberg-Potter. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1986.


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An important contribution by a Ghanaian Methodist theologian and ecumenical leader. Oduyoye’s starting point is her experience of the sacrifice of women in the African. She explains her understanding of the close connection between mission and sacrifice, investigates ritual sacrifice and self-sacrifice in African social contexts, and calls on the whole church – both men and women – to follow the example of Christ in the scriptures and the sacrificial lives of African churchwomen. Free via subscription from Internet Archive.

Sawyerr, Harry. “Sacrifice.” In Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs, edited by Kwesi A. Dickson and Paul Ellingworth, 57–82. London: Lutterworth Press, 1969.

Sawyerr, a Sierra Leonean Anglican priest and theologian, famously describes sacrifice as “the open sesame of the heart of the African to Christian teaching” (p. 58). He gives examples of sacrifices offered in West Africa, discusses their structure and purpose, and relates his reflections to wider discussions about the origin of sacrifice, the use of blood and the debate about expiation and propitiation. This classic article placed sacrifice squarely on the African theological agenda.

Ukpong, Justin S. “The Problem of God and Sacrifice in African Traditional Religion.” Journal of Religion in Africa 14, no. 3 (1983): 187–203.


Access: Free A well-presented and sophisticated discussion, by a Nigerian Catholic priest and biblical scholar, that reassesses why some African peoples offer sacrifice to God only occasionally or not at all. He argues that both the Deus otiosus theory and the mediumistic theory are inadequate. Instead, he suggests that just as Ibibio etiquette demands that the king should not be approached often, so God is not given sacrifice frequently out of deference. Free via subscription from JSTOR.


African Public Theology

The following review will be published in an upcoming issue of Exchange: Journal of Contemporary Christianities in Context ( and is posted here with permission.

Sunday B. Agang, Dion A. Forster and H. Jurgens Hendriks (eds), African Public Theology (Carlisle: HippoBooks, 2020) xxvi + 422 pp. ISBN 978-1-78368-766-4 (paperback). Price: £ 19,99.

African Public Theology is a landmark in African Christian Theology. Edited by Sunday Agang, Dion Forster and Jurgens Hendriks, the volume is the result of a collaborative project organised by the Network for African Congregational Theology and generously funded by the Tyndale House Foundation. The book provides an introduction to African Public Theology in three parts: theoretical foundations (pp. 1-64), key themes (pp. 65-364), and the role of the church (pp. 365-400). It brings together contributions by thirty scholars, including thirteen Nigerians and six South Africans, as well as representatives from a variety of other countries. Intended as a handbook for academics, clergy and everyday Christians, each chapter contains questions for personal reflection and suggestions for further reading. The volume concludes with a brief appendix on the African Union’s “Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want” and a twenty-page bibliography. The book is published in hardback, paperback and as an ebook at very affordable prices.

The first part lays the theoretical foundations for the rest of the book. Sunday Agang presents a compelling case for public theology, arguing that a broader understanding of theology is needed to work towards the Africa that God wants. “Theology is not only the study of God; it also involves the study of how God interacts with his creation” (pp. 7-8). Such an understanding means that “Christian theology…is concerned with how all aspects of human knowledge, understanding, and faith in God can translate into a deep moral commitment to building a better society, one which is strong in faith, love, justice and wisdom” (p. 8). Dion Forster takes up this vision in his thorough treatment of the nature of public theology. After outlining three senses in which all theology is public theology, he argues that public theology is different from other theological disciplines in that it draws on both theological and other academic disciplines to address aspects of public life. He also discusses six important characteristics of public theology. The three remaining essays, dealing with the Bible, the Trinity and identity, are well-written, although Hassan Musa’s answer to the question of how the Bible should be used in public theology is rather vague. All hermeneutical approaches seem to be acceptable as long as they are ‘responsible’. On a more general level, two topics that merit more attention in this section are the history of African theological engagement in public life and the relationship between public theology and other forms of political theology.

The second part presents essays on a wide range of key themes. Interestingly, “Issues relating to the state are left until late in the section to avoid giving the impression that public theology is equivalent to political theology” (p. 65), but no further explanation of this distinction is given. Some of the essays are outstanding. For example, Ernst Conradie provides a sophisticated treatment of the relation between theology and economics, discussing Africa’s economic challenges and opportunities, Christian criteria for economic life, and the church and economic issues. Other noteworthy contributions include ‘rural community development’, ‘the environment’, ‘migration and human trafficking’, ‘land issues’, ‘leadership’ and ‘intergenerational issues’. Most of the essays in this section are well-written, but the quality of the contributions varies. Treatments of more political themes such as ‘democracy, citizenship and civil society’, ‘human rights’ and ‘the state’ leave something to be desired. The discussion of democracy offers little critique of Western notions of liberal democracy, the contribution on human rights fails to distinguish adequately between the human dignity and human rights traditions, and the essay on the state seems to subsume other forms of political theology in the category of public theology.

The third part focuses on the role of the church. Matthew Michael is given the gigantic task of assessing the state of the church in Africa, which would be difficult to do in a book, let alone a chapter. Given the impossibility of the task it is understandable that he can only make a series of sweeping generalisations about African Christianity. While these statements are interesting, they remain assertions with little evidence provided to support them. Alfred Sebahene gives a clear and well-written presentation of the church’s role in working towards “Agenda 2063,” emphasising the need to embrace the African Union’s vision but also to go beyond it if the church is to be faithful to God’s calling. Jurgens Hendricks concludes the section with a passionate call to African academics, clergy and everyday Christians to work towards the Africa that God wants. He emphasises the need for “tenderness of conscience” (p. 392) and calls for a Spirit-led movement that passes the three tests described by Andrew Walls: the church test, the kingdom test and the gospel test. On a more general level, this section seems very brief and would benefit greatly from concrete examples of how African Christians and churches have successfully engaged in public life. As a whole, the volume provides a valuable introduction to the subject at hand. Whether African public theology lives up to Forster’s characteristic of being “competent to provide political direction” (p. 21), remains to be seen.

Primary Resources on Sacrifice

While doing research for an encyclopaedia article on sacrifice in African theology, I have found lots of great primary resources online. The following text is a draft of the section that introduces some of the best examples.

There are a rich variety of primary resources available on the internet that are very relevant to the study of sacrifice in African theology. This section includes some examples from African religions and African Christianity. There is a good deal of material on African religions online, much of it collected by European ethnographers in the twentieth century. Evans-Pritchard 1935, Daneel 2004 and Cole 1973 are examples of photographs taken by ethnographers that bring out different aspects of sacrifice: the killing of a sheep, the butchering of an ox, and a building that has been created as a sacrifice to a deity. There is a wealth of material on African Christianity on the internet. Some of this material has been collected, but most of it has been added by African clergy and Christians. The earliest resources available are Ethiopian paintings of the crucifixion that depict Jesus as the Lamb of God (e.g., Double-Sided Gospel Leaf [first half 14th century]). Njau 1959 and Mveng second half 20th century are classic examples of modern African art that draw on African history and culture in their portrayals of Christ’s sacrifice. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century a vast amount of audio and video recordings have been put online. Eschatos Bride Choir 2016 is one of the most well-known African hymns that speaks about salvation through the blood of Jesus. This key notion has also been taken up in African liturgies, such as the Kenyan Eucharistic text that was used at the opening service of the 1998 Lambeth Conference and the closing service of the 2010 Cape Town Conference (Lausanne Movement 2011). Mbewe 2012 and Duncan-Williams 2016 are examples of an African Evangelical sermon on what it means to be a living sacrifice and an African Pentecostal sermon on having faith in the blood of Jesus.

Cole, Herbert M. Mbari Shrine House. 1973. Photograph of architecture and sculpture. Digital Collections of the University of Washington Libraries.


Access: Free

The front side of an mbari house built by Igbo artists in Owerri, Nigeria in the early 1960s. An mbari house is form of religious architecture containing painted sculptures that is created over several years as an elaborate sacrifice to the goddess Ala and other deities. For more photographs and an analysis of the process of building an mbari house, see Cole’s article, “Mbari Is a Dance,” which is freely available by subscription from JSTOR.

Daneel, Marthinus L. ATR High God Shrine Vembe – 45. 2004. Photograph. Old and New in Shona Religion, a project of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University.


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The butchering of an ox as part of a rain calling ceremony at the cave shrine of Vembe in the Matopo hills of Zimbabwe. Priestess Intombiyamazulu, “Virgin of the Rain Clouds,” mediated for the delegation. According to Daneel, “Often the animal is black, symbolizing black clouds that bring rain. Some portions are kept and consumed by the priestess and her family.”

“Double-Sided Gospel Leaf [first half 14th century].” Tempera on parchment. Tigray, Ethiopia, 7 February 2017. The Met.


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According to the Met, “The compelling images on this double-sided leaf are from a group of early fourteenth-century Gospels that feature a revival of motifs that reached Ethiopia from the eastern Mediterranean, probably in the seventh century.” The reverse side of the leaf depicts the crucifixion. Instead of portraying Jesus on the cross, the Lamb of God appears above the cross, a striking symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and victory.

Duncan-Williams, Nicholas. The Place of the Blood in a Believer’s Life. Sermon video, 1:05:22. Given at the Prayer Cathedral of Action Chapel International in Accra, Ghana. Posted 23 May, 2016.


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Duncan-Williams is the Archbishop and General Overseer of Action Chapel International, a Ghanaian Pentecostal megachurch with a worldwide network of churches. In this sermon (4:00-) he particularly draws on Rev. 13:8 and 12:11, to show that the blood of Jesus is the key to a believer’s identity and a life of victory. A believer must have faith in the blood, which means believing in and invoking it in daily life, as well as participating in sacrificial giving.

Eschatos Bride Choir. Tukutendereza Yesu. Hymn Audio, 43:42. Posted 23 December, 2016.


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A beautiful rendition of the legendary hymn of the East African Revival (0:00-4:00). The words of the chorus proclaim the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus: “Tukutendereza Yesu / Yesu Mwana gwendiga / Omusaigwo gunazi’za / Nkwebaza Mulokozi” (We praise you Jesus / Jesus Lamb of God / Your blood cleanses me / I praise you, Saviour). The hymn is also closely connected with stories of sacrificial martyrdom in East Africa.

Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. Nuer sheep sacrifice. 1935. Photograph. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.


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The killing of a sheep as a sacrifice to the lion-spirit for a girl who was possessed by the spirit and had a seizure. According to Evans-Pritchard, “Her family sacrificed a sheep to the spirit and dedicated a cow to it, for the seizure was thought to have been due to their failure to dedicate a cow to it earlier; and the girl was restored to her normal self.”

Lausanne Movement. The Holy Communion – Closing Ceremony – Cape Town 2010. Worship video, 21:10. Given at the Lausanne Movement’s Cape Town 2010 Congress on 24 October, 2010. Posted 8 October, 2011.


Access: Free

The text of the Eucharistic Prayer and Institution (5:40-7:20, 11:01-13:50) is taken from the Church of the Province of Kenya’s A Kenyan Service of Holy Communion (Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1989). The words explicitly draw on both biblical and African understandings of sacrifice. In particular, the phrase “We are brothers and sisters through his blood,” (12:18) uses the African notion of blood brotherhood to proclaim the new kinship that believers have through Christ’s sacrifice.

Mbewe, Conrad. True Repentance Makes a Living Sacrifice. Sermon audio, 47:41. Given at Kabwata Baptist Church, Lusaka, Zambia. Posted 16 September, 2012.


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Mbewe, the Pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church, has gained an international reputation as “the Spurgeon of Africa.” In this sermon he interprets Psalm 51:18-19 in light of Romans 12:1-2, to show that true repentance means giving everything to God (9:37-). In view of Christ’s self-offering, believers are to give themselves as living sacrifices (34:30-). The Ethiopian eunuch and the conversion of Ethiopia is an example of such a life of surrender and the fruit it can produce (40:15-).

Mveng, Engelbert. Ugandan Martyrs Altar. Second half 20th century. Photograph of a mural on the apse of the Chapel of Libermann College, in Douala, Cameroon. ArtWay.


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Mveng was a Cameroonian Jesuit priest, artist and historian. As he writes, “The Christ in majesty standing above the altar recapitulates the offering of the whole world and all of humanity in the sacrifice of the cross. At the foot of Christ crucified stand the martyrs of Uganda: they are the image of all those people in Africa who have united the sacrifice of their lives to that of Christ crucified.”

Njau, Elimo. Crucifixion. 1959. Photograph of a mural on the interior north wall of the Saint James and All Martyrs Memorial Cathedral in Murang’a, Kenya, 3.5m x 4.5m. Pinterest.


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Njau is a Tanzanian artist who studied at Makarere University in Kampala, Uganda. The painting is one of five murals depicting scenes from the life of Christ in a church that was built as a memorial to Christians who had died during the Mau Mau rebellion. Njau draws on Kikuyu culture and the local landscape in his portrayal of Christ’s sacrificial death. The blood of Jesus trickles down from the cross, cleansing the people and the land.

Biblical Hermeneutics

My encyclopaedia article, written together with Benno van den Toren and Elizabeth Mburu, entitled “Biblical Hermeneutics” has now been published in the Bibliographical Encyclopaedia of African Theology. 29 January 2021.


The Bible has been read in Africa since the time of the early church. Indeed, the history of Christianity in Africa could be written as the story of African readers understanding, translating, interpreting, explaining and applying its teachings. This article, however, limits itself to the most recent part of that story: the main developments that have taken place in the area of African biblical hermeneutics since the middle of the twentieth century.

Food for Thought from Ethiopia

The majority of Western evangelical Christians rarely, if ever, fast as a form of spiritual discipline. In our culture, fasting is more connected with dieting than worship, the other side of our deeply ambiguous fascination with food. Food is everywhere. We eat more than ever before, at greater speed, and spend increasing amounts of money on it. Yet we also spend billions dealing with the problems of overconsumption. Nevertheless, while dieting is common in our culture, fasting as an act of worship is something of a foreign concept.

When Western Christians reflect on Lenten practice, and liturgy in general, there are several important questions that we ask: is it something taught in the scriptures, is it something the church has traditionally done, and (for the disciples of Hooker out there) is it reasonable? As a result, our reflections are significantly shaped by our attention to time. We explore the cultural horizons of the first century, the various horizons of church history, and how they relate to our own culture in the twenty-first century. Consequently we often tend to look to the past – our past. The danger with this approach is that we don’t give enough attention to space. We often ignore the many and varied cultural horizons of the church in the present, not to mention the rich heritage to be found in some of these traditions.

As Andrew Walls has shown, Scripture teaches that the church has both temporal and spatial dimensions (Walls 2004, 72-81). The epistle to the Hebrews highlights the cross-generational nature of the church. The Old Testament heroes of faith “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40 ESV).

The book of Ephesians, addressing the remarkable growth of Christianity among the Gentiles in the ancient Mediterranean, emphasizes the cross-cultural nature of the church. The metaphor of building a temple in Ephesians 2 and the beautiful trinitarian expression that accompanies it imply the construction of a unity of human diversity in Christ, a house for God, through the work of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 4 the metaphor dramatically shifts to the building up of a body, which is to grow “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 ESV). The whole company of faith, spread out through time and space – terrible as an army with banners – is part of a single story awaiting its summation in Christ.

If the church has both temporal and spatial dimensions, we can’t only look to our own heritage. If we truly desire to grow in our knowledge of Christ and unity of faith, we need to engage with Christians from other cultures, both locally and around the globe. The incredible growth of Christianity in the global south is a rich blessing for the church of the twenty-first century. We need each other’s perspective to correct, teach, and train our own.

In the past there have been huge obstacles to cross-cultural Christian engagement, primarily vast expanses of land and sea. Today the world is smaller, but a number of barriers remain. Linguistic and cultural differences continue in the face of globalization. Unfortunately, ethnic divisions run deep. Although people from different parts of the globe are more connected than ever, the world seems to be more tribal rather than less.

Nevertheless, in spite of these obstacles there are a number of ways that Christians can engage with their brothers and sisters from around the globe. The internet is a great resource for information about Christians from other countries. Nowadays, for example, you don’t have to go to a university library to be able to learn about the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) – they have an official website (see here). Furthermore, movements of people from the global south to the north mean that there are often Christians from very different cultural backgrounds living in our neighbourhoods. These communities are easy to miss, but one way they become visible is through their food. An Ethiopian restaurant, for example, is a pretty good sign that there is a community of Ethiopians in the area (for a handy guide to Ethiopian Restaurants across the U.S., see here; for a good Ethiopian restaurant in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, see here).

Ethiopian Christians have a rich heritage when it comes to Lenten practice. Ethiopian Christianity has very ancient roots. The earliest account of an Ethiopian convert is, of course, the well-known story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. We have no way of knowing what happened to him or how his people received the good news that he brought back from his pilgrimage, but a seed was planted and began to grow.

In the early 300s, a new chapter began when Frumentius and his brother Aedesius, two young Syrian Christians, were shipwrecked off the coast of Eritrea. Their work led to the conversion of Ezana, the king of Aksum, and the introduction of Christianity as the state religion. From that point on, apart from a brief and tragic Roman Catholic interlude, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has continued to develop the distinctive liturgies that it has today.

The traditional teaching of the EOTC on fasting can be found in the Fetha Nagast, a legal code which was introduced in the fifteenth century and has been very influential in Ethiopian society and culture:

“Fasting is abstinence from food, and is observed by man at certain times determined by law, to attain forgiveness of sins and much reward, obeying thus the one who fixed the law. Fasting [also] serves to weaken the force of concupiscence so that [the body] may obey the rational soul. All the faithful are obliged to observe the fast of forty days as did Christ—may He be praised!—the fast which comes to an end on the Friday of Fesh, and after it [the fast of] the week of Crucifixion. These fasts shall be observed until the end of the day, and during that time no blooded animal nor what is produced by animals shall be eaten. And also on the fasts of Wednesday and Friday of every week [shall be observed], except during the fifty days, and during the feasts of Christmas and baptism, when these feasts fall on those days. On fast days one must fast until the ninth hour, as it is written” (Tzadua 1968, chap. 15).

According to the EOTC website, there are seven official periods of fasting, giving a total of about 250 days of fasting in a year. Nevertheless, two of these fasts – the fast of the apostles and the fast of the prophets – are only for clergy, leaving about 180 days of fasting for dedicated Christians (Sellassie and Mikael 1970).

So, what can we learn from Ethiopian Christians about Lenten practice? Here are three brief suggestions. First, fasting is abstinence from food, especially meat and animal products. That may seem rather obvious, but Western Christians have a tendency to spiritualize fasting. We don’t give up our daily bread; we give up very specific treats like chocolate, haribo, or coffee. Or we give up things like Facebook, gaming, or watching the news. While “fasting” from these things can certainly be good for us, we can miss out on the spiritual benefits of abstaining from food.

Second, fasting has a communal dimension. The Western focus on the individual often obscures this dimension. We may begin Lent together on Ash Wednesday, but we fast in ones and twos, and we seldom end Lent by breaking our fast with a feast. In the Ethiopian tradition, Christ’s life sets a pattern for the church to follow. If Christ fasted, then fasting is an important spiritual discipline as we seek to be conformed to His likeness. Furthermore, clergy are to take the lead when it comes to fasting, as is clear from the fast of the apostles and the fast of the prophets.

Third, fasting shapes culture. Apart from the lingering tradition of having pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, Lenten practice seems to have little impact on Western culture. We have the highest levels of meat consumption in the world and, if trends continue, that is set to rise dramatically in the coming years. What we eat also affects our stewardship of God’s creation. Apart from the accompanying health problems, overconsumption also impacts the environment. Whatever your position on global warming or climate change, large areas of land and vast amounts of resources are devoted to producing meat to fill our bellies.

In contrast, the observance of Lent has had a real impact on Ethiopian culture. Ethiopian food is Lenten cuisine. Centuries of Christian liturgy have created a rich variety of vegetarian fasting dishes that simply can’t be explained apart from Lenten practice. Fasting on a regular basis may seem a small step, but Ethiopian cuisine gives us a glimpse of where small steps can lead.

Sellassie, Sergew Hable and Belaynesh Mikael. 1970. “Worship in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Faith and Order, last modified 2003, accessed 10 March, 2016. Originally published in Sergew Hable Sellassie, ed. The Church of Ethiopia: A Panorama of History and Spiritual Life. Addis Ababa: The Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Tzadua, Paulos, trans. 1968. The Fetha Nagast: The Law of the Kings. Edited by Peter L. Strauss. Addis Ababa: The Faculty of Law, Haile Sellassie I University. Accessed 10 March, 2016.

Walls, Andrew F. 2004. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Originally published at the Theopolis website. Republished here with minor formatting alterations.

Stories of Sacrifice from Below

My article entitled “Stories of Sacrifice from Below: From Girard to Ekem, Kalengyo and Oduyoye” has now been published in Stellenbosch Theological Journal 6, no. 4 (2020): 183-212.


In the Global North, the notion of “sacrifice” is highly controversial in contemporary discussion. In recent years, the influential work of René Girard has succeeded in putting sacrifice back on the intellectual agenda, but his story of sacrifice has primarily emphasised the theme of violence. Today, many theologians consider sacrifice inherently problematic and some would like to do away with it altogether. In Africa, however, the notion is highly popular across a wide range of theological traditions. The work of three African theologians – John Ekem, a Ghanaian mother-tongue biblical scholar, Edison Kalengyo, a Ugandan inculturation theologian, and Mercy Oduyoye, a Ghanaian women’s theologian – challenge Girard’s theory in three important ways. First, they challenge his traditional typological approach with a dialogical typological one. Second, they challenge his focus on violence by highlighting multiple themes. Third, they challenge his lack of an ecclesial dimension with fresh ways of appropriating Jesus’ sacrifice today.

The Shepherds in Ethiopian Art

While doing research on Ethiopian Hermeneutics for an encyclopaedia article on African Biblical Hermeneutics, I came across a number of websites with valuable primary and secondary resources. Recent interest in the digital preservation of Ethiopian manuscripts has led to copies of paintings that were previously inaccessible being made publicly available for the first time. These depictions of the Nativity are part of an illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels that was created at Dabra Hayg Estifanos monastery in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. What is fascinating about the paintings is the way they draw on Byzantine models and transform them into an Ethiopian idiom. The portrayal of the shepherds is of particular interest in this regard.

The Annunciation to the Shepherd and the Christ Child’s First Bath
“Illuminated Gospel [late 14th–early 15th century],” The Met, accessed 31 January, 2021,
The Nativity
“Illuminated Gospel [late 14th–early 15th century],” The Met, accessed 31 January, 2021,

Fortunately, there are useful secondary resources available to help interpret these paintings. Issues of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies from 1963 to 2016 are now freely accessible by subscription from JSTOR. Prof. Stanislaw Chojnacki, who co-directed the journal from 1963 to 1975 and has published extensively on Ethiopian art, has also written an article on the subject of the Nativity. As he observes in his analysis of several Gospels, “the announcement to the shepherds by the angels, and their subsequent homage paid to the Child born in Bethlehem, have been represented either together or singly. In the post-iconoclastic Byzantine schema the announcement by the angels was generally shown, the angels appearing behind the top of the rock to the shepherds, who were placed below, on the right of the composition” (Chojnacki 1974, 19).

The illustrators of the Dabra Hayg Estifanos Gospels have chosen to represent the announcement to the shepherds and the shepherds’ journey to or arrival at Bethlehem separately. In the former, they follow the Byzantine model in terms of placement, but portray the shepherd quite realistically. He is well-wrapped, wearing a coat and a hat. His right hand is raised in surprise. His crossed legs and the pipe in his left hand suggest that the angel has just interrupted a musical reverie. In the latter, three shepherds are depicted, accompanied by three sheep. The shepherds are bare-headed and wear a kind of skirt. They are shown with their legs stretched wide, striding along at a fast pace. Each has his right hand raised in a greeting and holds a curved stick in his left hand.

As Chojnacki suggests, “In Ethiopia, largely composed of a pastoral society, the subject of the shepherds no doubt struck the imagination of the painters. This is possibly the reason why it occupies such a prominent place in the composition, the shepherds’ figures having the same size of main personages. Also the shepherds seem to be portrayed from life and wear local dress, while other figures seem rather to reflect foreign influence. In the Hayq Nativity the shepherds wear short decorative skirts, are barefoot and hold curved sticks. In the Zir-Ganela Nativity the very crude execution does not allow clear observation of particulars of the dress; nevertheless the shepherds have the same curved sticks as in the Hayq Nativity, and additionally perhaps an intriguing head-decoration. It is however possible that the “head-decoration” represents the way of drawing hair, as in Däbrä Mar Gospels in which several figures have their hair drawn in “Afro” style. The same realistic approach is obvious in the Faras Nativity: two shepherds stand with one of their legs crossed, supporting themselves on a long stick, a position of relaxation still used by Nilotic pastoralists” (Chojnacki 1974, 21).

Later paintings go even further, portraying the shepherds as playing “a kind of lawn hockey.” As Chojnacki explains, “Gänna is a popular game traditionally played in Ethiopia at Christmas-time and therefore called by the same word as Christmas, gänna.” (Chojnacki 1974, 40-41). How this folklore addition came to be taken up in Ethiopian depictions of the shepherds is unclear, but he suggests that “in the basically pastoral society, in which most young people were engaged in watching cattle, since practically every male was a shepherd in the early stages of his life, the narrative of the Gospels indicating that the shepherds were the first to be informed about the birth of the Saviour must have had a special appeal.” (Chojnacki 1974, 41). According to Chojnacki, “One of the justifications still repeated by traditional scholars is the belief that the shepherds were indeed playing gänna at the very moment when the angel appeared to them” (Chojnacki 1974, 41-42).

Chojnacki’s interpretation is compelling and offers an interesting perspective on the inculturation or contextualisation of the Gospel in Africa. Much discussion has focused on the portrayal of Jesus. (Is it justified to portray Jesus as an African? What aspects of the Gospel message better communicated by doing so? What aspects are less well-communicated?) But the people who hear about Jesus and come to him are also important because they represent us and our response. In Ethiopian portrayals of the Nativity, the shepherds run to see the saviour. Do we?

Chojnacki, Stanislaw. 1974. “The Nativity in Ethiopian Art.” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 12, no. 2 (July): 11-56.