Medieval Betä Ǝsra’el II: The “Gap” in the Sources

This is the second of a series of posts going back to a paper presented at the International Medieval Congress 2017. See here for the first post and an overview over the whole series.

Sources Relating to Betä Ǝsra’el Monasticism and the Chronological Gap of the Middle Ages

The vast majority of sources shedding light on Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism date to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These include accounts written by the above-mentioned Christian missionaries and representatives of World Jewry, as well as a number accounts written by scholars who encountered Betä Ǝsra’el monks (d’Abbadie 1851-52; Leslau 1949). A number of studies deal with Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism, and incorporate within them information from both written sources and the Betä Ǝsra’el oral tradition (Ben-Dor 1985; 1987; Kaplan 1992; Quirin 1992; Shelemay 1989).

Prior to the twentieth century, the Betä Ǝsra’el did not, as a rule, record their history in written form.[1] Their written literature was of a religious nature, and included scripture and liturgical texts.[2] History was transmitted orally, as was the case with numerous other groups in Ethiopia.[3] Therefore, Interviews conducted with members of the Betä Ǝsra’el community on topics related to Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism constitute an invaluable source of information on this monastic movement. A small number of twentieth and twenty-first century narrations of Betä Ǝsra’el history written by members of the Betä Ǝsra’el community shed further light on this community’s monastic movement (Asres Yayeh 1995; Gobäze Baroḵ 2007; Ḥädanä Täqoyä 2011). While both the interviews and the narrations often contain accounts of medieval events, they themselves were only committed to writing in the last few decades.

Medieval written sources which shed light on Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism include a number of Ethiopian Orthodox hagiographies.[4] In these texts, Ethiopian Orthodox monks are depicted as interacting with groups descried as “Jews”,[5] some of which can be identified with the forefathers of the Betä Ǝsra’el. The most famous of these sources is the Gädl (Acts) of the fourteenth-century Ethiopian saint Yafqərännä Ǝgzi’. This composition contains an account of a Christian monk by the name of Qozmos, who joined a group of Jews, wrote the Pentateuch for them and led them in battles against the Christians (Conti Rossini 1919-20: 567-577; Kaplan 2010). It is seen by scholars as indicative of a phenomenon of Christian monks joining groups which were the forefathers of the Betä Ǝsra’el, and playing a central role in revising their religious traditions (Kaplan 1992: 69-73; Quirin 1992: 66-68; Shelemay 1989: 78-86).

The Betä Ǝsra’el oral tradition identifies a monk by the name of Abba Sabra, a contemporary of the Ethiopian monarch Zär’a Ya’əqob (ruled 1434-1468), as the founder of Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism. Two versions of this tradition are recorded. According to one, Abba Sabra was a Christian who, impressed by the religious devotion of the Betä Ǝsra’el, decided to join their religion. According to the second, he was a member of the Betä Ǝsra’el community who, moved by the suffering of the community, decided to devote his life to prayer and intercede on its behalf to God (Ben Dor 1985: 41-45; Leslau 1974: 624-626). According to both traditions, he befriended Ṣagga Amlak, the son of the above-mentioned monarch, and together they fled and established the first Betä Ǝsra’el monastery on Mt. Huhwara in the province of Armač̣əho.

Both the Betä Ǝsra’el oral tradition and information contained in the above-mentioned hagiographies support a date circa the fifteenth century for the formulation of the Betä Ǝsra’el monastic movement. It is thus possible to divide the sources at our disposal regarding Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism into two groups in accordance with the time period they refer to:[6] sources which shed light on the formative stage of Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism, circa the fifteenth century, and sources which are indicative of Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This leaves a gap of circa three and a half centuries, constituting the majority of time in which the Betä Ǝsra’el monastic movement was active, and the time in which, as far as can be ascertained, it was most widespread and influential. This situation poses a major challenge in the attempt to understand the history and development of the Betä Ǝsra’el monastic movement – we know, so to speak, the beginning and the end of the story, but we are missing the majority of the plot.

Is it possible to “bridge the gap”? To shed light on the “forgotten years” of Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism? It will be argued here that two types of sources at our disposal can potentially enable such an endeavor – the Betä Ǝsra’el oral tradition and archaeological finds.


[1] There is one known exception to this rule – a short historiographic document written by a member of the Betä Ǝsra’el community, and dated to the reign of the Ethiopian monarch Menelik II (1889-1913, Leslau 1947).

[2] For an overview of Betä Ǝsra’el literature, see Kaplan 1990b. An additional form of text production practiced by members of this community was the manufacture of amulets (Shelemay 1992).

[3] See, for example, Amborn and Schubert 2006.

[4] For an overview of these texts, see Kaplan 1992: 56-56, 69-73.

[5] The term “Jew” was used in medieval Christian Ethiopian texts to refer not only to Jews, but also to individuals and groups considered heretical (Kaplan 1992: 54-65).

[6] An additional type of source relevant to the study of Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism is the liturgy of the Betä Ǝsra’el. Many of the Betä Ǝsra’el prayers were traditionally composed by monks. A discussion of these prayers and their contribution to the study of Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism is beyond the scope of this paper. For an in-depth study of Betä Ǝsra’el liturgy, see Shelemay 1989.

For full bibliography, see the last post in the series.

Cite this article as: barkribus, "Medieval Betä Ǝsra’el II: The “Gap” in the Sources," in Africana, 18/02/2018,

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