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The 1548 Ethiopic Gospel in Print

(The following is a post by Fentahun Tiruneh, Area Specialist for Ethiopia and Eritrea, African & Middle Eastern Division.) 

Woodcut title: Device of Arms of Pope Paul III. Opening page of the New Testament and other books. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

The Ethiopian collection at the Library of Congress has recently acquired a rare Gospel book printed in Rome in 1548. This book is the first printed edition of the New Testament in the Ge’ez language, ግዕዝ (Ethiopic), the ancient liturgical language of Ethiopia. It was edited by three Ethiopian monks who traveled from the Debre Libanos monastery in Ethiopia to the Vatican, passing through Jerusalem on the way. Located northwest of Addis Ababa in the far reaches of the Oromia region, the Debre Libanos monastery was built in the 13th century by the Ethiopian saint, Tekle Haymanot. Debre Libanos suffered great destruction during the rise of Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim Al-Ghazi, popularly known as Ahmad Gragn, and an Imam and general from the Muslim sultanate of Adal in the Horn of Africa, who fought against the Ethiopian empire. One of his followers set fire to the monastery on July 21st, 1531.

Debre Libanos Monastery, Ethiopia. Photography by Owen Barder.

It was during this destruction that the three Ethiopian monks, namely, Tesfa-Sion, Tensea Wold and Zeselase, who assumed the Latin names Petrus, Paulus and Bernardus respectively, fled their country carrying sacred manuscripts, one of which was the Ethiopic Gospel. They may have been sent to the Vatican by Gelawdewos, King of Ethiopia, out of fear of further devastation and the loss of sacred books. Be this as it may, the three monks found hospitality at the Monastery of St. Stefano in Rome, and in 1548-9, the Ethiopic New Testament was published in Rome under the auspices of both the Pope and the Emperor of Ethiopia.

The senior monk, Tesfa-Sion, also known as “Petrus Aethiops,” or even “Pietro Indiano” by his European counterparts, was the driving force behind this printing of the first Ethiopic Gospel. According to various sources, Tesfa-Sion appears to have been a learned man who enjoyed a considerable reputation in Europe. He assisted in creating the Ethiopic alphabet table with the Ge’ez numeral system, and edited the works of his two associates, the brothers Valerius and Ludovicus Doricus, neither of whom knew the Ethiopic language. Tesfa-Sion wrote an introductory remark in the preamble of the Ethiopic Gospel stating that the book was a product of two blind men “since those who composed it could not read Ethiopic, and we who read Ethiopic knew not how to compose.” Tesfa-Sion and his associates may – as he remarks – have been like “the blind leading the blind,” but together they effected the first printed Ethiopic Gospel. Tesfa-Sion labored day and night for three years to complete the making of the New Testament book. Most importantly, “T.S. was able to finance in full his publication of the N.T.” [A. Bausi & G. Ficcadori, Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, 526.].

The school dedicated to Ethiopian pilgrims in Vatican City, Rome. At first the pilgrims were welcomed at San Stefano degli Abyssini. Later on it became a school assuming the name Collegio Etiopico. Ethiopian Collection. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

The Gospel of Matthew in Ethiopic. Ethiopic Gospel, 1548. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

Folio 177 of the 1548 New Testament showing the first page of Romans on the right, and bottom left, the note where Tesfa-Sion acknowledges Pope Paul III for his support.

God the Father creating the universe. Ethiopic Gospel, 1548. Folio 133. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

The 1548 Gospel is composed of two volumes in one, Part One consisting of the New Testament (fols. 1-176); and Part Two containing the Pauline Epistles together with the baptism service and additional prayers at the end (fols. 177-266). There are 18 woodcuts in the text, seven of them half-page depictions of biblical scenes. This first Ge’ez edition gained authority in the European milieu and formed the basis of all subsequent studies of the Ethiopic Gospels.