Abba (Father) Estifanos was a 15th century Ethiopian monk who had a Pauline understanding of the way of salvation. He attracted many followers in northern Ethiopia through his teaching. His zealous plans to evangelize within the Orthodox Church were thwarted by both the church clergy and by the reigning Ethiopian monarch, Zara Ya’iqob. Abba Estifanos died in prison around 1450 and his followers were severely persecuted.
Estifanos was born in 1380 in a village called Sebuha located inTigrai province in northwestern Ethiopia. His father’s name was Berhane Meskel, and his mother’s Sara. His father, a known warrior soldier, died before the child was born. At Estifanos’ birth, his relatives named him Hadege Anbesa which means “reminiscent of a lion.” He was expected to be a soldier too, like his father. But as the lad developed, following his religious inclination, he yearned to attend a liturgical school–a desire which went against the wishes of his mother and relatives. He eventually ran away from his uncle’s house where he was cared for and joined the school anyway.
While a student of the church he was consecrated as a deacon by Abuna Bartalomiwos at the age of eighteen. Then, after a short visit to his family, Estifanos continued his religious pilgrimage, earnestly desiring to find the salvation of his soul. This drove him to join the Qoyetsa monastery of Abba Samuel. In the monastery even though he religiously followed all the man-made practices assumed to bring salvation, he could not achieve what he so earnestly desired. He became a monk and his name was changed to from Hadege Anbesa to Abba Estifanos. He was ordained a priest at age thirty. He continued making pilgrimages from place to place, praying and fasting beyond what was expected of him. In spite of all his efforts, his soul was not satisfied nor did he find peace of mind.
Through various events Abba Estifanos discovered a renowned priest of the Orthodox Church called Abba Gebre Nazrawi, whose teachings began to have a positive influence on him. This man was teaching the basic biblical principles of salvation. For this reason Abba Gebre Nazrawi had been persecuted in Showa, in central Ethiopia, and had fled to Tigrai, where Abba Estifanos lived. After hearing this new teaching, Abba Estifanos began to meditate on the words of the Lord Jesus Christ about salvation for all mankind. While Abba Estifanos meditated on Jesus’ words, the Holy Spirit revealed the mystery to him and he understood the work that had been accomplished on the cross at Calvary. At that moment he felt convicted of his sins.
The Holy Spirit began to prompt Abba Estifanos to share what had been revealed to him to his brother monks in the Qoyetsa monastery. He began to teach the Scriptures and the mystery of salvation. Many were attracted to his teaching ministry. Others in the monastery observed that he was different as his lifestyle had begun to change. He no longer practiced the century old rituals and worship methods adopted by the monastery. He stopped drinking alcohol and offered himself as a holy sacrifice to the Lord. He then began to write some of his books and copy out the Scriptures which he distributed to others to alleviate the shortage of Bible manuscripts. The money he received he distributed to the poor. Even though his lifestyle attracted a certain number of followers some of the monks accused Abba Estifanos and his followers of heresy. They began to defame him and attempted to separate him from his followers. But however hard they tried, they only strengthened the relationship between Abba Estifanos and his followers.
As the abbot of the Qoyesta monastery envied Abba Estifanos because of his growing influence, he decided to expel Abukerezun, an influential disciple, and to imprison Abba Estifanos for three years. Abukerezun established a new reformed community in a different location. When Abba Estifanos was released he joined his former disciple, Abukerezun, and began to serve a growing group of disciples called the Stephanites after his name.
Abba Estifanos and his followers formed a plan to evangelize the whole country by setting up nine major and fifteen subordinate associations. In these associations he established a team under one leader in an area. The team members devoted themselves to studying the Holy Scriptures and to changing their lifestyles. Another team objective was to engage every healthy member in some kind of agricultural work and to help those unable to work.
As a result, many accusations were brought against Abba Estifanos and his followers for their departure from the traditional Orthodox faith and practices. People saw that the teachings and lifestyle of Abba Estifanos were different. These issues were the cause of his persecution and ultimately led to his martyrdom. For example, Abba Estifanos objected to the worldly authority of the monks. He denied the presence of the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia and conducted worship services without the presence of a Tabot (a replica of the Ark of the Covenant) which is mandatory in every Orthodox Church. He allowed heathens to enter the church building. He did not worship the images of the saints and angels and he did not humble himself in front of the Virgin Mary and the cross of her only son. He also did not bow down to the King and he rejected Atse (Emperor) Zara Ya’iqob’s claim that he was from Solomon’s dynasty.
Atse Zara Ya’iqob (1434-1468), who lived in Aksum, took the accusations personally and was offended by Abba Estifanos and his followers because they did not humble themselves before him. So, on several occasions, he issued a proclamation that they should be arrested and brought to court to be punished. There he repeatedly subjected them to severe beatings and imprisoned Abba Estifanos many times.
Abba Estifanos endured all the persecutions with his followers without ever flagging in his zeal. Whenever he was released from prison he continued training many people and finally established an administrative order in the monasteries of the Stephanites. When he first began to teach his theological principles, he created written teaching materials which he presented to Bishop Bertelomeos who approved them and sent him out with his blessing. Abba Estifanos continued teaching his followers how to attain maturity in their faith in the Triune God. He emphasized the authority of the Bible in all theological decisions. When confronted, he had straight biblical answers to all the questions and accusations that came up.
Some of his teachings were very close to those of the present day evangelical movement. For example, he taught that salvation was God’s gift of grace, the gift of God through Jesus Christ who was obedient unto death on the cross because of his love for mankind. For Abba Estifanos, the body of Christ, His church, was established by the blood of the Lord and built by his apostles. The Lord gave teachers and other ministers that always shined as stars in the church. Abba Estifanos taught his followers to grow in the gospel and to love one other in order to live with God for eternity. He opposed witchcraft and harmful traditional practices alleged to bring about healing. He taught that God heals those who live according to His will. He affirmed that no one lives for himself but, whether one lives or dies, one belongs to God. So, everyone must be ready to be disciplined by God as beloved children (Rom.14:7-8 and Heb.12: 5-11). He taught his followers to live in peace and unity, working diligently without hoarding money but giving it to those who needed it. In this way, he established a rule of life for his followers so that they could have faith in the trustworthy God.
Atse Zara Ya’iqob attempted repeatedly to make Abba Estifanos and his followers bow down to him but they refused to submit. They were beaten on several occasions. The skin of their hands was cut slowly with blades to inflict pain in order to change their beliefs, but they were determined never to change their stand despite all the pain. So Zara Ya’iqob’s soldiers exiled the Stephanites as far away as they could, while Abba Estifanos was chained hands and feet and put in solitary confinement in a dark prison hut guarded by soldiers.
After seven months in this lonely prison, the guards heard Abba Estifanos cry out the name of Christ three times in a loud voice. This was followed by silence. According to the guards, an earthquake then shook the place and the people were afraid to go and check on him. Finally, a Christian man–most likely a believer like Abba Estifanos–was sent to see what had occurred in the prison hut because Abba Estifanos had told the guards not to touch him when he died. The man found Abba Estifanos’ dead body lying on the floor with the chains thrown away from his hands and feet.
As the people had to wait for orders from the governor before they could bury Abba Estifanos, his body was kept for seven days. The soldiers had to obey orders and suffer the bad odor rather than bury the body and be punished severely by the governor. Finally, with the governor’s permission, the body was buried in a church near the prison in the village of Guatre.
As soon as his followers in distant monasteries received news of his death, they came and exhumed his body without permission because they wanted to bury him in Tigrai. But they were caught on the way to Tigrai and were taken to the governor. By order of the emperor they were flogged and imprisoned and then driven out of the country. The body of Abba Estifanos was buried again in a place called Gidim, eight months after his first burial.
Zara Ya’iqob then ordered his soldiers to bring all the Stephanites from Tigrai and other places to force them to submit by bowing down to him. But again they refused. This made the emperor angrier than ever at Abba Estifanos, even after after death, and he ordered his soldiers to dig up his body and burn it in a far away place beyond his territory. This they did in a place called Tsekara, two years and four months after Abba Estifanos had died.
Even after burning Abba Estifanos’ remains, the emperor persecuted the Stephanites in many ways. Many of them were martyred and their books were burnt. However, a Stephanite by the name of Abba Gebre Kristos, who survived the first martryrdom documented the life, teachings, and death of Abba Estifanos for the surviving Stephanites. Abba Gebre Kristos was also martyred by the emperor’s orders after being imprisoned for three years.
Mesfin Shuge, “Biography of ‘Hadege Anbesa’ (Abba Stephanos) of the Orthodox Church,” term paper, Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST), Addis Ababa (May 2001).
Memhir Womahiber Zegundagundo (this means “The association of teachers from Gundagundo” in Ge’ez), “The Saintly Life of Abuna Estifanos Zegundagundo,” manuscript from Debre Gerizan Gedam monastery, Ethiopia (2003).
Steven Kaplan, Monastic Holy Man and the Christianization of Early Solomonic Ethiopia (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1984), pp. 41-44.
This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Dr. Dirshaye Menberu, retired professor from Addis Ababa University and 2005-2006 Project Luke Fellow. She is a graduate of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST), a DACB Participating Institution.