A Libyan History Awaiting Discovery -- By: Thomas C. Oden

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 167:665 (Jan 2010)
Article: A Libyan History Awaiting Discovery
Author: Thomas C. Oden


A Libyan History Awaiting Discovery*

Thomas C. Oden

* This is the first article in a four-part series, “Early Libyan Christianity,” delivered as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectureship, February 3-6, 2009, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.

Thomas C. Oden is the Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology Emeritus, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey.

Of all the important locations in the world that have experienced five hundred or more years of Christianity, Libya is the most neglected. In Libya there is less archaeological excavation, less literary inquiry, less architectural analysis in the West than in Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian, Ethiopic, or even Sudanese Christianity. In Jerusalem, Istanbul, Antioch, or Cairo travelers will see abundant evidences of Christianity. But in Libyan sites like Cyrene or Leptis Magna Christian evidences are difficult to ascertain.

Christianity was once a prevailing presence in Libya—from about A.D. 325 to 643. Now less than one percent of Libyan citizens are Christian, and most of these are Catholics of Italian descent living in a Sunni Muslim culture.

A few historic sites in Libya are truly spectacular, chiefly Leptis Magna, Sabratha, and Cyrene. In each of these there are remnants of early Christian history that have been buried for centuries under the sands of Libya. Most have been only partially excavated intermittently in recent decades. They have lain silent in an almost pristine state without having layer after layer of urban sprawl built on top of them.

Christianity has, moreover, a very long and deep textual history of profound intellectual contributions of Christians in early Africa before the Arab conquest in 643. These Christian texts have been largely ignored by contemporary African Christian theology

with only a handful of exceptions. The rich wisdom of early African Christian writings affected European and world Christianity long before modern times and has continuing relevance for the problems of Africa today: economic justice, displaced persons, war, abuse of children, women, and the innocent, and many more.

Libya is more ignored than any country in the world that has experienced a half millennium of Christian history. This form of modern amnesia is widely seen in North America and North Africa generally, but nowhere more than in Libya.

Visitors who go to Libya with the desire to see spectacular Greco-Roman sites will come away with little or no awareness that Christianity ever existed in Libya. Even if conscientious, they will not find much usable information on great Christian sit...

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