Reviewed Elsewhere: Thomas C. Oden with Curt Niccum, eds. The Songs of Africa: The Ethiopian Canticles.

Lars Fischer's picture

Thomas C. Oden with Curt Niccum, eds. The Songs of Africa: The Ethiopian Canticles. New Haven: ICCS Press, 2017. xiv + 214 pp. $89.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-62428-060-3.

Singing the Psalms is a beloved activity in all Christian worship—so much so that, in many traditions, the canonical one hundred fifty seem insufficient and have to be supplemented with other biblical texts, known as odes or canticles. Some canticles are taken straight from the Bible: the Song of Moses (Exodus 15) and the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) are especially popular. But some canticles have a more complex relationship to the canon ... Before printing was invented in the fifteenth century, it was common for handwritten copies of the Psalter to include an appendix of canticles. The number of canticles varies, however, in different manuscripts and in different liturgical traditions: from only four in the East Syrian rite to over seventy in the Mozarabic rite. Encyclopedic lists were published by James Mearns in The Canticles of the Christian Church (Cambridge University Press, 1914).

Ethiopian manuscripts, whether biblical or liturgical, typically have fifteen canticles. These are the canticles mentioned in the subtitle, and the putative subject of this book. ... It would be more accurate to say that this book is about the Ethiopian traditions associated with the Psalms, broadly considered ...

Most informative is chapter 2, written by Steve Delamarter: a detailed explanation of the codicology of Psalm manuscripts, with pictures, definitions, and explanations. Anyone interested in how historians study manuscripts could learn a lot here. ...

The weakest sections, unfortunately, are those written by the editor, the late Thomas C. Oden, to whom the book is dedicated. ...

No historian of Christian liturgy would write things like “Mark's Gospel became the parent liturgy from which the core of all other Egyptian and Ethiopian liturgies were derived” (192). Books like Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (Oxford University Press: 2002) show that there is such a thing as critical historical study of liturgy. Particularly misleading are Oden's attempts to equate Ethiopian music with “the African prehistory of jazz,” which he thinks has seen “little scholarly inquiry” (57). But jazz is not African music. Although it is now performed on every continent, jazz is American in origin—a twentieth-century synthesis of (West) African, European, Caribbean, Hispanic, and even Jewish elements. Relationships between African and African-American music have been heavily investigated since the 1960s, and—since Africa is as diverse a continent as Europe or Asia—it is unhelpful to simply equate “Ethiopian” with “African” with jazz.

On the whole, though, the book can serve as an interesting introduction to Ethiopian Christianity for both academics and casual readers.

Peter Jeffery. Church History 87, 4 (2018), 1184–1187.